| A Miracle Grows in Kenya
By Mac Lawrence
I could hear the word, Swahili for “white person,” repeated again and again in the tiny, high, bell-like voices of the African children who were converging around me to stare and be amazed. As they ran up to surround me they came to a sudden halt, turning excruciatingly shy and timid as they dared to come close.
I might have been “the mzungu from outer space”—it would not have made me any more foreign to these children who had never seen a white person before. One of the smallest, a boy about four years old, seemed unaware that daring was called for. Taking advantage of this, one of the older boys whispered to him and gently shoved him forward. Tentatively, he put out his hand, and I touched his fingers. He jumped back, turned, and looked questioningly at his older but more cautious compatriots, who gave out an audible “Oooooh!”—partly in awe, and partly in respect for the little warrior’s bravery.
My small, new friend smiled proudly. By the time we left their village, most of the children had succumbed to the social pressure to demonstrate their courage, and I had managed to shake hands with all but the most wary among them.
So began an article in issue #3 of Timeline, in May of 1992, by Sandra Mardigian, who has been on our Timeline editorial staff from the start. Her article described a remarkable endeavor, the Kilili Self Help Project, which Sandra had started in 1989. The program has grown exponentially since those early years, and Kilili has helped thousands of rural farmers in Africa learn how to grow food organically and biointensively, rebuild and conserve their soil, generate a little income, and break free from dependence on dangerous and expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The Kilili Project is not only a tribute to what one dedicated person can do, but a model to the world as a way to agricultural sustainability.
Eight key elements of the Grow Biointensive method
Double-digging The gardener digs twelve inches down and then loosens the soil to a depth of 24 inches. The loosened soil allows roots to penetrate easily, allows more air into the soil, retains moisture without waterlogging, simplifies weeding, and minimizes erosion.
Intensive planting Plants are arranged in close, hexagonal spacing so that each plant is equidistant from others. When the plants mature, the leaves form a canopied “mini-climate,” which retains moisture and retards weed growth.
Composting All plant matter from within the farm is recycled so that the farm becomes a closed-system of constant regeneration. Compost crops are part of the garden.
Companion planting Some plants repel harmful pests; others attract beneficial insects. Many plants have a healthy effect on the soil.
Carbon farming Dual-purpose seed and grain crops which produce a large amount of carbonaceous material are used both for food and for compost.
Calorie farming Potatoes, sweet potatoes, salsify, burdock, garlic, and parsnips produce a large amount of calories per unit of area.
Open-pollinated seeds High yields can be obtained with open-pollinated seeds which have been selected over centuries because of their advantage. This also preserves the world’s genetic diversity.
A Whole Gardening Method The Grow Biointensive method is a whole system, and all of the components used together produce the optimum result. If all of the components are not used together, the soil can be depleted instead of enriched because of the method’s close planting.
For information about Ecology Action, go to www.growbiointensive.org.
In her 1992 article, Sandra had just returned from a 2000-mile journey over the back roads of Kenya to visit the first seven groups of rural villagers who had participated in trainings in the farming technique called the Grow Biointensive Method. Since then, tens of thousands of farmers have participated in training programs and adopted the techniques of Grow Biointensive.
“In many places like Kenya,” Sandra said in a recent Timeline interview, “traditional farming practices were productive over thousands of years because they were intuitively ecology-based. But the influence of the West—from the colonial period up through the present era of globalization— has all but erased the legacy of that experience-based knowledge. Western practices such as mono-cropping (maize), growing export crops (coffee, tea, etc.), and reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides all deplete soil fertility. As a result, the productivity on family farms declines with each growing season, causing health and nutrition problems and increasing poverty. It is a formula for misery.
“I traveled to Kenya frequently in the 1980s, and became acutely aware of these problems during time spent in a rural village in Machakos. In researching solutions, I discovered Manor House Agricultural Centre (MHAC), newly founded by Polly Noyce, an American woman who had married a Kenyan man and lived near Kitale. With manual help from local farmers, Polly had refurbished the campus of an abandoned British colonial boys school. Then she designed a curriculum to create expert farmer-trainers based on the scientific research and Biointensive methods developed by an associate and mentor, John Jeavons, and his organization, Ecology Action, in California.
“My idea was to raise funds to help these trainers teach farmers in rural villages where the need was great. Trainers must complete an intensive two-year course at MHAC in a set of simple techniques (see box at the right of this article); in the biological science underlying the method; and in practical experience working with communities and training farmers in the field. Though Kilili provides several scholarships at Manor House Agricultural Centre each year, our chief purpose is to support the work of the trainers after they graduate, since there are almost no paying jobs for them.”
In the past twelve months, for example, Kilili has helped fund 85 trainers, working in teams, who in turn trained more than 4,000 farmers. Trainings take place at the farmers’ own fields and cost less than $10 per farmer for the entire six-day training period (which includes the traditional two tea breaks a day!). And the effects continue to ripple out further: A study of 90 community groups trained showed that, on average, each farmer trains four more.
Over the years, Sandra notes, friends and acquaintances have contributed financially to the Kilili Project, and she has received several outside grants. At the moment, a small guest room she uses as an office at her home in California’s Mill Valley is filled with the materials, files, and paper work it takes to run Kilili’s programs. “Thank goodness for e-mail,” Sandra says with a grateful sigh. “In the past, we had to communicate by mail. It took weeks for letters to get to Kenya and for information to get back. Now most correspondence is streamlined through e-mail.
“The Kilili Project is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Farmers tell us that the restored and maintained soil fertility on their farms affects every facet of their lives. The impact of water scarcity is minimized, even during extended drought, as shown by the photos they send us showing green Biointensive gardens thriving in desert-like settings. Hunger and malnutrition are no longer spectres. Their families are healthier, stronger, and have succumbed to fewer illnesses. Healthy children attend school and learn more effectively. There is money in their pockets because of excess crops that can be sold at market, and no outlay for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“Increased food supply is stabilizing to families and to the community as a whole. Trainings are community-based, and ties are strengthened as farmers come together for training and subsequently to share their experience and ideas. And as their neighbors see the results and are attracted to join in, the Biointensive circle widens to include more and more members of the community. We’ve incorporated a session on HIV/AIDS awareness in the farmer-trainings, and have several specific projects, such as one that is training 90 AIDS orphans and their guardians, and another that is training AIDS widows.
“Many of the trainers call this Biointensive training their religion, and their devotion seems boundless. In spite of the fact that much of their work is done with no compensation, they always want to do more. The most rewarding aspect of this program for me is the opportunity to work with such people. They are, like Wangari Maathai, some of the planet’s most selfless and inspiring human beings. They are transforming family agriculture in Kenya.”
Kilili Self Help Project, 260 Marion Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941. Phone: 415-380-0687; Fax 415-380-0688; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Trees for Democracy
Nobel Peace Prize Address by WANGARI MAATHAI
December 10, 2004
When I was growing up in Nyeri in central Kenya, there was no word for desert in my mother tongue, Kikuyu. Our land was fertile and forested. But today in Nyeri, as in much of Africa and the developing world, water sources have dried up, the soil is parched and unsuitable for growing food, and conflicts over land are common. So it should come as no surprise that I was inspired to plant trees to help meet the basic needs of rural women. As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya in the early 1970s, I listened as women related what they wanted but did not have enough of: energy, clean drinking water, and nutritious food.
My response was to begin planting trees with them, to help heal the land and break the cycle of poverty. Trees stop soil erosion, leading to water conservation and increased rainfall. Trees provide fuel, material for building and fencing, fruits, fodder, shade, and beauty. As household managers in rural and urban areas of the developing world, women are the first to encounter the effects of ecological stress. It forces them to walk farther to get wood for cooking and heating, to search for clean water, and to find new sources of food as old ones disappear.
My idea evolved into the Green Belt Movement, made up of thousands of groups, primarily of women, who have planted 30 million trees across Kenya. The women are paid a small amount for each seedling they grow, giving them an income as well as improving their environment. The movement has spread to countries in East and Central Africa.
Through this work, I came to see that environmental degradation by poor communities was both a source of their problems and a symptom. Growing crops on steep mountain slopes leads to loss of topsoil and land deterioration. Similarly, deforestation causes rivers to dry up and rainfall patterns to shift, which, in turn, result in much lower crop yields and less land for grazing.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, as I was encouraging farmers to plant trees on their land, I also discovered that corrupt government agents were responsible for much of the deforestation by illegally selling off land and trees to well-connected developers. In the early 1990s, the livelihoods, the rights and even the lives of many Kenyans in the Rift Valley were lost when elements of President Daniel arap Moi’s government encouraged ethnic communities to attack one another over land. Supporters of the ruling party got the land, while those in the pro-democracy movement were displaced. This was one of the government’s ways of retaining power; if communities were kept busy fighting over land, they would have less opportunity to demand democracy.
Land issues in Kenya are complex and easily exploited by politicians. Communities needed to understand and be sensitized about the history of land ownership and distribution in Kenya and Africa. We held seminars on human rights, governing, and reducing conflict.
In time, the Green Belt Movement became a leading advocate of reintroducing multiparty democracy and free and fair elections in Kenya. Through public education, political advocacy, and protests, we also sought to protect open spaces and forests from unscrupulous developers, who were often working hand in hand with politicians. Mr. Moi’s government strongly opposed advocates for democracy and environmental rights; harassment, beatings, death threats, and jail time followed, for me and for many others.
Fortunately, in 2002, Kenyans realized their dream and elected a democratic government. What we’ve learned in Kenya—the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable management of natural resources and democratic governance—is also relevant globally.
Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy, and democratic space are denied.
I believe the Nobel Committee recognized the links between the environment, democracy, and peace, and sought to bring them to worldwide attention with the Peace Prize that I am accepting today. The committee, I believe, is seeking to encourage community efforts to restore the earth at a time when we face the ecological crises of deforestation, water scarcity, desertification, and a lack of biological diversity.
Unless we properly manage resources like forests, water, land, minerals, and oil, we will not win the fight against poverty. And there will not be peace. Old conflicts will rage on and new resource wars will erupt unless we change the path we are on.
To celebrate this award, and the work it recognizes of those around the world, let me recall the words of Gandhi: “My life is my message.” Also, plant a tree.
Wangari Maathai, the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is Kenya’s assistant minister for environment and natural resources and the founder of the Green Belt Movement.
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Terra Madre: Worldwide Gathering of Food Communities
By Richard Rathbun
I’ve always had an interest in agriculture, and I had spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching Western agricultural methods in a little village in Nepal. So I was delighted to accept an invitation by an old friend, Mike Dimock, to attend an event called Terra Madre, held last October in Turin, Italy. Mike, as Chairman of the Board of Slow Food of America, was one of the organizers. The Terra Madre meeting was a small part of a much larger event, the Salon de Gusto, put on by the Slow Food movement and attended by 100,000 people.
Terra Madre was billed as the world meeting of food communities and drew some 5,000 people from 130 countries. These were people who work the land, not manage it—an amazing cultural array which included some who had never been out of their villages before.
Terra Madre participants enjoyed great hospitality. As invitees arrived, they were met at the airport, assigned a place to stay—usually a farm or a home—transported there, and registered. All meals were provided for the entire time. Everybody was treated the same; there was no differentiation between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. I understand that those in need even had their airplane fares paid for. The sponsors, including the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the City of Turin, which is in an agricultural area of Italy, must have spent many millions of dollars.
The power of the event was in juxtaposition to what we ordinarily think of as globalization. Globalization typically brings images of the World Trade Organization, protests, multinationals getting together with their economic power for their own interests and manipulating globalization to accumulate greater wealth and focus the wealth on fewer people.
But I had the impression that like the Parliament of the World’s Religions, another recent conference I had attended, this was a bottom-up look at globalization. The Terra Madre event was created in order to focus on issues like the sustaining of biodiversity on the planet, in contrast to the corporate monoculturization of agriculture. Terra Madre was focused on traditional, local systems, and it reminded me of my time in Nepal (see next article).
The Terra Madre event offered a series of seminars about sustainable agriculture put on by different food communities. There were various plenary sessions by people like Alice Waters, who owns the Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Vandana Shiva, of India. England’s Prince Charles gave a beautiful closing talk about the tragedy of people leaving the land and flocking to the cities to find employment. Agricultural production shouldn’t be based on the ability of fewer individuals to produce more food. It should be based, he said, on the ability of many people to derive a living from producing quality food on quality, sustainable land. He spoke against genetically modified organisms, and against the industrial agriculture that this planet is increasingly adopting—a system in which crops are grown in almost sterile soil. Healthy crops are grown in healthy soil, so if the soil isn’t healthy, industrial farmers give it medicine—phosphorus,
potassium, nitrogen, just three elements. This doesn’t provide the richness of elements that a biologically healthy soil has, and that one’s body needs. Moreover, such produce often doesn’t have many flavors. Conventional agriculture is threatening us with a monoculture system in which only a few industrializable seed varieties are used.
Among the several thousand Slow Food exhibits in the Salon de Gusto, which is purported to be the largest food event in the world, Terra Madre had a number of exhibitors who were showing their home-grown and hand-crafted products, which normally are unknown beyond their local markets. It cost 20 Euros to enter the Salon de Gusto, and the place was packed with connoisseurs of food from all over the world who come to sample the world’s finest food products. The variety and amounts of food were staggering. For instance, there were two whole rows of olive oil producers. You get to look at olive oil like you would look at wine—from some fresh batches that have a very hot chilipepper flavor, all the way to balsamics that are aged for as long as 40 years in casks of oak and cherry wood. I saw one little bottle that cost 120 Euros.
I found the whole experience delightful and hopeful. We do need to slow down and appreciate the miracle of the food we eat, how it comes to us, who grows it. Food should be about our connection to the earth, about pleasure and joy, about gusto, about connecting with other people, about building community.
Some Comments on Terra Madre
“Terra Madre, sponsored by Slow Foods International, was a forum for those who seek to grow, raise, catch, create, distribute, and promote food in ways that respect the environment, defend human dignity, and protect the health of consumers. An alternative to the current industrial food production system exists: One where food quality and variety are valued, rural regions thrive, and links between producers and consumers are strong.” - Robert Waldrop, President, Oklahoma Food Cooperative
“At Terra Madre, small producers had gathered not just to curse the darkness of corporate globalization but also to keep alive or light the lamp of small decentralized biodiversity production that does not put a burden on the earth to provide the food needs of human communities. The vibrant energy of Terra Madre came from the resilience of producers who had continued to save and share their diverse seeds, live their diverse cultures, speak their diverse languages, and celebrate their diverse food traditions.” - Vandana Shiva
“What is original and truly revolutionary about Terra Madre is that by selecting the food communities least susceptible to industrial process, hence distinctive for the authenticity and quality of their produce, it attempts to place small-scale food producers at center stage.” - Granny Almanac, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Italy
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Lessons from Laxminiah
Reflections by Richard Rathbun
My passion for growing food goes back to my childhood, when my mother helped me plant a crop of radishes in our back yard. I also treasured the fruit produced by our backyard cherry tree, loved the sweet plums that I could pick from our ancient plum tree, and the pears, which had to be individually wrapped in newspaper at the end of the growing season and set aside in the woodshed to ripen.
It was, however, pure coincidence that I ended up years later working in agriculture as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. I simply accepted my Peace Corps assignment; it sounded like interesting work in an interesting place.
My training for the assignment was at the University of California, Davis. We were taught how to raise and butcher chickens, how to grow vegetables, how to grow wheat and corn, but our primary mission was to help Nepal produce more rice. The theory, promoted in Nepal by advisors from the United States, was that in order to develop, a nation had to have a source of income and foreign exchange. Nepal had only two primary potential sources of such income: One was its mountains and culture, which Nepal could exploit as tourist destinations; the other was to produce an agricultural surplus to sell outside the country, primarily in India, for foreign currency which Nepal could then use to develop. That all sounded good in the late 1960s, and my assignment was to grow more rice.
So off I went to Nepal at the ripe age of 27, posted to a tiny remote village, with the job of transforming their agricultural system of production. We were agricultural “extension agents,” modeled after the American system which consists of Land Grant Colleges where new agricultural practices are developed and extension agents extend successful practices out to the farmers. The system had worked miracles in the United States, allowing for tremendous leaps in productivity.
Years later, I am saddened by what I did back then out of an innocent belief that such development was both positive and inevitable.
I found in my village of Laxminiah an ancient system that had been flourishing for thousands of years. There was no garbage dump, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no herbicides, no chemical pollution. The only industrial products found in that countryside were the occasional bicycle, and the assortment of aluminum cooking pots that almost every family had. Everything else was either from the bronze age (handmade brass eating plates and lotas for holding water), or made from local materials. Rope and twine were made from hemp grown for that purpose. Houses were built from timbers harvested from the nearby jungle. Roofs were thatched or covered with tiles made right there from clay soils and baked hard with the fire of wood and straw.
Walls were woven from bamboo and plastered with mud, straw, and dung. Water was drawn from wells dug by hand and lined with bricks made in the same way as the roof tiles.
Scratch plows were made from hard, knotty wood from the toughest trees. Bullock carts were made also from trees harvested from the jungle and allowed to season in the village. While seasoning, the logs were used as benches—places to sit and talk or to watch the world pass slowly by. Those bullock carts are almost identical to the ones unearthed by archaeologists in the Indus River Valley from cultures that existed more than four thousand years ago. What light there was on evenings when the moon was not up came from small clay pots with a wisp of cotton as a wick and fueled by oil crushed from the local mustard seed.
Much to my surprise, subsistence farming, which I had pictured as a system where people just barely got by, was a wonderful form of existence. People did not spend a great proportion of their time farming. They farmed with the seasons, and if they had sufficient land, they could grow all they needed to feed their families.
The diet, therefore, was derived from local sources, and consisted mainly of rice and dahl, a lentil. This diet was supplemented with yogurt from the village cows or goats or buffalo; ghee, a clarified butter from the same sources; fish from the streams; tiny crabs from the flooded rice fields; seasonal snails; some local vegetables; chapaties made from winter wheat; pickle made from mango or lemon, spices and oil; and other plants and animals foraged from the countryside according to the season. Everything was local, from the place itself, with the exception of some cloth, salt, and an occasional bar of soap. Even the tobacco for the homemade “bidis” was locally grown, wrapped and tied in leaves to make a tiny, pungent smoke that is a cross between a cigar and a cigarette. The tea that people sipped in Laxminiah came from outside the village, but still from tea estates within Nepal, but the sugar for the tea was squeezed
from the village’s own sugar cane.
As I grew to understand the system, I realized that each farmer grew his crops from his own seed, and saved his seed for eating or for next year’s planting on his land. Due to this, the varieties adapted elegantly over time to the local conditions, and the final product was constantly evaluated in terms of productivity, disease resistance, and taste. World renowned for its flavor, and available in many markets in the United States, Basmati rice is one product of this process. In Laxminiah, many varieties of Basmati rice were grown, each with its own unique properties and subtle flavor.
No fossil fuels were used, no waste products were generated, no chemicals were applied. The soil fertility was well maintained through traditional methods, and had been for generations. And these methods produced prolific crops—admittedly at the expense of fairly intensive labor during cultivation.
Life in Laxminiah was not perfect. Diseases and their causes were not understood, and the life experience of villagers was limited to the immediate area of the village. Normal conversation often dealt with simplicities my Western mind found rather boring. But I frequently imagined that with the addition of education and sanitation, this would indeed be a quality of life to be sought after. People here had plenty of time—time to talk, to relate, and to carry on the important and meaningful daily activities of life.
So, attending Terra Madre, an event celebrating this kind of local, sustainable, biodiverse food production, was like a flashback in time. Many of the farmers in attendance were simply doing what they always have done. Terra Madre is an attempt to allow them to continue.
With the perspective I now have, if I were to do it again, I would go to Laxminiah with a video camera to document their lives. I would go to learn from the villagers about how to live lightly on the earth, with quality and dignity and joy.
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By Sandra Mardigian
A recent issue of the Nation’s Cities Weekly (www.nic.org) published some startling data about buildings in the U.S., highlighting the fact that buildings are a major source of unsustainable environmental practices.
Buildings in the U.S. account for two fifths of total national energy use. They are major contributors to acid rain and smog problems. Buildings generate a third of our carbon dioxide emissions, half of our sulfur dioxide emissions, and a quarter of our nitrous oxide emissions.
The U.S. has 5 million commercial and 76 million residential structures, and we are building new ones at an unprecedented rate. Studies show that 38 million new buildings will be constructed by the end of this decade.
“If we ever hope to have less energy dependence in America, buildings must be a part of the deal,” asserted Neal Pierce, a Washington Post writer who authored the article “The Environmental Stakes Are Huge.”
Why, then, do we not see more demand for green building? Are green buildings too expensive to appeal to builders? The widespread assumption is yes, but Pierce says this is no longer true. According to LPA, Inc., an architectural firm that has designed dozens of green buildings in California, “Whether new buildings or renovations, projects can be sustainable and constructed on standard, cost-effective budgets.”
The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating system has awarded silver or gold ratings to a growing number of buildings. One example, built by LPA, Inc., is the Toyota Motor Sales campus near Los Angeles, which received a gold LEED rating. A 624,000-square foot facility, the Toyota project was built on a budget competitive with other office parks in the area, yet solar power supplies 20 percent of the building’s energy needs; building materials are 50 percent recycled; nearly all employees work under natural daylight; and landscaping is low maintenance, including drought-tolerant native plants irrigated with recycled water.
The California State Consumer Services Agency studied 33 green buildings and found that construction costs had been slightly more expensive than conventional structures. But when they factored in the reduced costs for water, energy, waste disposal, and enhanced employee health and productivity, the study estimated $50 to $75 per square foot savings over 20-years—more than ten times the 2 percent extra cost for construction.
Pierce concluded, “The reason only a tiny percentage of new American buildings and retrofits are green isn’t cost. It’s lack of ingenuity or knowledge of new construction techniques. The fault lies with national leaders unwilling to tell us in clear terms that a nation secure economically and environmentally, and against foreign threats, means energy saving across the board—efficient and sustainable buildings included.”
However, he says, “An array of governors and mayors are preaching the new green gospel.” In addition, “This may be an issue on which corporate America turns into an instructive leader. Not just Toyota, but other firms, including IBM, Steelcase, and Herman Miller, have commissioned green buildings.” Ford Motor Company has commissioned William McDonough, the world-renowned environmental architect, to redesign its historic 600-acre Rouge complex at Dearborn, Michigan, a site contaminated over decades of intense manufacturing. The centerpiece of the project is a new 750,000-square-foot assembly plant atop a rehabilitated brownfield. Its “living roof,” the size of eight football fields, is planted with drought-resistant sedum plants and can absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, give off oxygen, and keep the factory cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
The National Association of Realtors has come on board with a new headquarters constructed with special glass that minimizes temperature extremes and maximizes fresh air circulation. It is the first LEED-certified building built from scratch in downtown Washington, D.C. Will the realtors’ example spur the too-slowly-awakening awareness in their industry?
As conspicuous projects like these proliferate, perhaps pressure to revolutionize building construction will grow. Yet, in Pierce’s words, “All the good individual examples are just reminders of the massive changes in attitudes and priorities in building construction, in transportation—all across the board—that we’ll need for a truly green U.S.A.”
Every Detail Counts in the Construction of Donald Bren Hall:
A LEED award winning building at University of California, Santa Barbara
Demolition Waste: Bren Hall was built on a parking lot. 100% of demolition waste was recycled. Concrete curbing was reused as base, asphalt was crushed and reused on site or elsewhere on campus. Small plants were mulched for use on campus. All native soil was retained and reused as part of the landscape plan.
Local Material: To save on transportation emissions, great effort was made in specifying materials that could be obtained within a 350-mile radius.
Bathrooms: The men’s bathrooms have waterless urinals. Each of the first floor bathrooms uses reclaimed water in the toilets.
Window Mechanical Interlock: The operable office windows have a small sensor in the frame so that upon opening, the heaters in the offices are automatically turned off.
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A Challenge to Environmental Journalists
The following is a speech delivered by George Monbiot at the Enviromedia Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa, last October. Monbiot is a professor, author, playwright and columnist for the British newspaper the Guardian. His latest book, The Age of Consent: a Manifesto for a New World Order, is now published in paperback. He spent seven years as an investigative journalist in Indonesia, Brazil, and East Africa, where he was shot at, beaten up by military police, and shipwrecked, while earning a reputation for his curiosity, his analysis, and his investigations into how things run.
Let me mention some of the founding myths of industrial society. These myths are dominant in both capitalist and communist thought.
The first one is that there is no limit to human potential. We can be anything we want to be, we can do anything we want to do. Our potential awaits only further economic and technological development. One day everyone will be able to run a four-minute mile. One day everyone will live to be 200. One day, if we choose, we could all abandon the planet we live on and move to another one. As economies and technologies develop, we can expect to see the welfare of everyone on earth improve: what the neoliberal economists call the rising tide which lifts all boats.
This leads to the second myth: the confusion of progress with progressivity. In other words, the assumption that industrial and post-industrial development will automatically distribute wealth, rather than concentrating it.
Both these myths are entirely dependent on a third one: that the resources required to bring this utopia about are infinite. The world can keep providing for its people, however many there are, and however much they want to consume. In the capitalist mythology, the market will magically cause new resources to materialize when the old ones run out. In the communist mythology, the free development of each, leading to free development of all, will mystically discharge the same function. They are both variants of a far older belief: we might have messed up our chances of survival, but the Lord, or the gods, or the spirits will nevertheless provide. Today we say that technology will provide, the market will provide. We place our faith in them just as we once placed our faith in God. The industrial worldview, in either of its dominant forms, is entirely incapable of engaging with the problem of finity.
All these beliefs are plainly irrational, and bear no relation to what is actually happening on earth. They overlook some basic facts of material existence. Let me list a few.
Basic Fact Number One:
At any rate of use, nonrenewable resources are, by definition, depleted. They will not come back. As soon as you begin to use one, the clock starts ticking towards the day on which it becomes exhausted. This applies even to the nonrenewable resource on which the entire modern economy is built: namely petroleum. Global oil production will soon reach its peak and then decline, at which point the Age of Growth will give way to the Age of Entropy.
Not immediately, of course, but unless another source of energy, just as cheap, with just as high a ratio of “energy return on energy invested,” is discovered or developed, there will be a gradual decline in our ability to generate the growth required to keep the debt-based financial system from collapsing.
Those of us who are alive today have been lucky enough to have been brought up in an age of energy surplus. This is a remarkable historical and biological anomaly. A supply of oil that exceeds demand has permitted us to do what all species strive to do—expand the ecological space we occupy—but without encountering direct competition for the limiting resource. The surplus has led us to believe in the possibility of universal peace and universal comfort, for a global population of 6 billion, or 9 or 10. If kindness and comfort are, as I suspect, the results of an energy surplus, then, as the supply contracts, we could be expected to start fighting once again like cats in a sack. In the presence of entropy, virtue might be impossible.
Basic Fact Number Two:
Beyond a certain rate of use, renewable resources are depleted. There is no clearer example of the limits of human action than the paradoxical fact that the global resources which are running out first are not the nonrenewable ones, but the renewable ones: fisheries, forests, fresh water, soil. Their decline is our momento mori, our reminder of the limits of finity, of the fact that we and the resources on which we depend are mortal: a fact which all of us would prefer to ignore.
Basic Fact Number Three:
Beyond a certain rate of exploitation, renewable resources become nonrenewable resources. If you hit them too hard, you destroy the ecosystem which permits them to regenerate. This we have seen already in certain fisheries and forests and hydrological systems.
Basic Fact Number Four:
The earth’s capacity to absorb pollution is limited. This applies to the atmosphere as much as it does to our rivers. Beyond a certain level of carbon dioxide emissions, human life becomes impossible. The upper limit for temperature rises this century predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is 6 degrees Centigrade. The last time there was a global temperature rise of 6 degrees was at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago. The result was an almost complete collapse of biological productivity: the total mass of biological matter. Around 90 percent of the Earth’s species were wiped out. No animal bigger than a medium-sized pig survived.
But already several eminent climatologists are challenging the Intergovernmental Panel’s figures, on the grounds that they are too low. Some are predicting an upper range of 7 or 10 or 12 degrees of climate change this century.
Basic Fact Number Five:
The system which governs our economic lives, which we call capitalism, is itself a limited resource. Capitalism is a pyramid scheme. Let me try to explain this.
It is built on a system called fractional reserve banking. Almost the entire money supply—generally, depending on where you live, between 90 and 95 percent of it—is issued not by the state, but the commercial banks. It is issued not in the form of notes and coins, but in the form of loans. Between 90 and 95 percent of the money supply, in other words, is debt.
To pay off the debt that is issued today, the banks must issue more debt tomorrow, and so on and so forth. In a world which is not based on material realities—the world which might exist, for an example, in a computer model—it could expand forever. But in the real world, the supply of money is linked to material realities called collateral: the real wealth which gives the loans meaning, and without which the whole scheme would be exposed as a fraud. Eventually the amount of lending must inevitably exceed the availability of meaningful collateral, for the simple reason that the material world is finite, while the possible issue of credit is not. That is the point at which the whole structure comes tumbling down.
Basic Fact Number Six:
The people who get hit first and hit hardest by any one of these realities are not the rich but the poor. The depletion of resources is inherently regressive: it might enrich the wealthy, but it makes the lives of those who are already poor still harder.
These are the realities, but the three great myths of the industrial era still prevail. Almost everyone on earth, to one degree or another, accepts them. Despite everything I know to be true, sometimes I catch myself believing them.
And this, I believe, is the result of an even deeper problem, an inherent human characteristic which long predates the industrial era.
It is as follows. We do not live in a world of reason. We live in a dreamworld. With a small, rational part of the brain, we recognize that our existence is governed by material realities. We recognize that as those realities change, so will our lives. But underlying this awareness is a deep semi-consciousness. This absorbs the moment in which we live, then generalizes it, projecting our future lives as repeated instances of the present. This, not the superficial world of our reason, is our true reality.
So the task of the environmental journalist is not just to highlight damage to the environment. It is not just to challenge some of humankind’s most fundamental perceptions. It is to challenge humanity itself. I hope I am not putting you off.
And you will not be congratulated for doing so. Having spent nearly 20 years banging my head against the wall, I have developed a maxim which I am immodest enough to call Monbiot’s first law of journalism. It is this. Tell people something they know already, and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new, and they will hate you for it.
If you write something which corresponds to the prejudices and preconceptions of your readers, you will be inundated with messages of congratulation. People will tell you that you are insightful, brilliant, courageous, when all they are really saying is that you believe the same thing as they do. But if you write something which challenges the prejudices and preconceptions of your readers, and especially something of this nature which is based on hard fact, you will either be ignored altogether, or you will be inundated with messages of abuse. You will be called dumb, out of touch, even, paradoxically, cowardly. You will learn words you never knew existed.
So here we are, as environmental journalists, responsible for conveying to the public that its most fundamental beliefs are wrong, and for doing this in a working environment and a social environment which are, by and large, deeply hostile to that message. How on earth is this possible? This is the question I would like all of you to address in the course of this conference. I believe that there are ways of navigating the circumstances in which we must work. There is the potential to find chinks in the corporate wall, and there is huge potential, as some South Africans have been discovering, for the development of alternative media outlets which are not governed by the demands of multimillionaires. What I want to hear from you over the next three days is how we can best discover this potential, and how we can best make use of it once we have found it.
But for now I would like to leave you with this thought: What all of us are engaged in is not just a career. It is not just a means of bringing home the rent. We are engaging with reality here, with deeper realities than almost any other profession has to face. And this means that there are no excuses. It is not sufficient to say, when doing the will of a multimillionaire, “I was only obeying orders.” In choosing to become an environmental journalist, you have taken on a vast responsibility: the responsibility to persuade people that we cannot continue to live as we do without appalling consequences. I know that if you did not take that responsibility seriously, you would not be here. So I thank you for what you are doing, and I ask you never to forget the responsibilities you have taken on, and the size of the challenge you must confront.
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No Throwaway Society Here
By Alex Marashian
Cubans value their objects. No matter how old or new you are—no matter how big or small, dull or shiny, sleek or clunky—there’s sure to be someone who wants you. Who needs you. Who maybe can’t do without you. As an object in Cuba, you are essential. Nondisposable. Indispensable.
If you were an object—a steering wheel for example or a cafeteria tray— where would you want to live? Me, I’d choose Cuba.
I know it’s not a rich country. I realize I could never be an expensive object there, let alone a luxury good. Probably I’d end up as just another basic commodity— in a word, cheap.
But what’s wrong with that? I mean, do I really need to be a status symbol to feel good about myself? Am I any less of an object because my cousins in Florida cost more than I do? I think not.
There are other values in this world besides retail value. And there’s more to being an object than simply costing lots of money.
Like what, you ask?
Well, like being useful, for example. Getting the job done. Making a difference. And, hey, let’s not forget quality of life. The economy may be in tatters, but Cuban objects enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.
How is this possible?
It’s simple, really. Cubans value their objects. No matter how old or new you are—no matter how big or small, dull or shiny, sleek or clunky—there’s sure to be someone who wants you. Who needs you. Who maybe can’t do without you. As an object in Cuba, you are essential. Nondisposable. Indispensable.
As a result, you’re sure to be well looked after. If you have moving parts, they’ll be lovingly lubricated. If you’re bent out of shape, someone will soon straighten you out. And if, for any reason, you happened to break down, fall apart, or otherwise go to pieces, rest assured: Every effort will be made to rehabilitate you.
But no matter how damaged you are, this much is certain: You’ll never meet the tragic fate of so many objects in wealthier lands. You’ll never be stuffed in a closet or drawer and simply forgotten. You’ll never be cast off as “junk” or tossed out as “trash.” You’ll never—let’s not mince words here—go to waste.
In the end this may be the most appealing thing of all about being an object in Cuba: Though your life has come to an end, you never really die there.
So what does happen to you? Usually one (or more) of the following: You’re recycled. Say you’re made of precious metal (and hey, isn’t all metal precious?). Odds are you’ll be melted down to your essence and returned to the supply chain, destined to become some new and shiny thing.
You’re redistributed. Say you’re beyond repair, but your parts are still in working order. Most likely, you’ll become a donor, your various bits and bobs doled out as replacements to save the lives of others like you.
You’re reincarnated. Say that, by a stroke of luck, you catch the eye of a Cuban with some need to fill (or just some time to kill). He or she discerns some special quality in you—some hidden purpose, secret potential, deeper meaning—and brings you back to life as something else.
Before you know it, you’ve been transformed, reinvented, given a whole new lease on life. Where once you were a cafeteria tray, now you’re a TV antenna. Where once you were a beer can, now you’re a mousetrap. Where once you were a telephone, now you’re a doorbell.
The Cuban genius for creating new things is endless. If you’re lucky, you could be reincarnated many times. If you’re really lucky, one of the chosen few, you could even become immortal, pictured forever on the pages of this newspaper.
Alex Marashian is editor-at-large of ANOTHER Magazine (www.anothermag.com) and creative director of the in-house think tank of Dropping Knowledge (www.droppingknowledge.org), a Berlin-based NGO.
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TIMELINE (ISSN 1061-2734) is published bimonthly by the Foundation for Global Community 222 High Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301-1097
Managing Editors: Kay Hays, Mac Lawrence
Editorial Board: : Jim Burch, Don Burns, Diane Gordon, Walter Hays,Sandra Mardigian, Jackie Mathes, Susan Stansbury.
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Electronic Edition: Timeline Team
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