Saturday, April 05, 2014

Chemists Without Borders

For the last few weeks I have been blogging for Chemists Without Borders. See the "Essays and Articles" menu to the right for links to my posts.

-- JK

Monday, January 13, 2014

For Future Famers and Camel-Riders

One of the positive externalities of episodic insomnia is that occasionally I get to chip away at the backlog of reading and writing that I have been meaning to do.

I just read the article, "Solutions for a cultivated planet" by JA Foley et al., in Nature Vol. 478 (2011).

Now, granted, us scientists have a saying that, “Just because it was published in Nature doesn’t make it wrong…” Nonetheless it did stir my thinking of what's perpetually missing from our conversations in academia, the media – and everywhere, basically – about "sustainability" and the future.

The authors posit projected growth in population and thus increasing food demands heading towards 2050. They rightly indicate that current agricultural practices compound manifold forms of environmental pollution, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and contribute to climate change – all while failing to meet the nutritional needs of a large segment of the human population. (Doh!) They suggest that “intensification,” and “closing the yield gap” can substantially increase food production and thus meet growing future demands. But nowhere do they acknowledge the utter dependence of contemporary agriculture on a steadily increasing supply of cheap and abundant fossil fuels.

Acknowledgement and consideration of the absolutely central role of our ability to increase the supply of cheap fossil fuels is what is missing from so many academic analyses and journal articles, University classroom discussions, national media attention, Presidential debates, NPR programs, etc., etc., etc.

Affordable and accessible fossil fuels underpin our entire contemporary economy. Being able to continually increase our access to cheap fossil fuels is what has enabled continued economic growth over the past several decades. The rules of our economic "operating system" have been developed and deployed under these circumstances; so we have become "growth-dependent."

Now, as cheap accessible fossil fuels (primarily oil) peak and begin to decline, in lieu of increased access to cheap high-net-energy sources we have resorted to attempts to substitute, for example:
  •  The inflation of credit bubbles ensnaring, among others, home buyers (often poor/working class minorities targeted by predatory lenders) and hordes of hapless Millennial generation university students
  • Engaging in extreme financialization of the economy and creation of wildly, preternaturally abstruse instruments such as “collateralized debt obligations,” “credit default swaps,” and sub-prime “mortgage backed securities” (Warren Buffet famously labeled derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction…)
  • The societal countenance of – and bi-partisan government support of and subservience to – swindle at the highest levels, and the enshrinement of fraud on Wall Street (“Everything’s fucked up, and nobody goes to jail…”)
  • The feckless pursuit of “ZIRP” and umpteen rounds of QE "money printing" by the Fed
  • Tragically overweening hyperbole about “fracking” and shale gas/oil making the US energy independent and representing some great (cheap) energy bonanza; and…so on….

…all in order to make it appear that we still have a growing economy, and will be able to have a growing economy indefinitely.

So how does this relate to things like Foley et al.'s Nature article, and in general to themes of sustainable development and the future? 

Without being able to increase our access to high-net energy, cheap, accessible and abundant fossil fuels we cannot have continued economic growth. Without continual economic growth, under the current political economy we cannot form and deploy financial capital for socially productive purposes (this is the proper role of the finance sector). If we cannot deploy increasing sums of capital towards agricultural intensification we cannot increase food production, according to Foley et al.'s model which is reflective of most all mainstream ag “development” intentions.

In fact, if fossil fuel scarcity increases and energy becomes more expensive and lower net-energy – as inevitably it shall – then any "solutions" to our food production dilemma that require vast expenditures of capital and energy will be nonviable. This applies to anything that is colloquially considered to be "high-tech," as well as anything organized on a massive scale.

And this applies not only to “solutions” to our food production problem, but to all critical sectors of human and community life: transportation, energy, water and sanitation, consumer goods, health care, the built environment, even entertainment and recreation. Anything organized on a vast scale and dependent upon long and intricate supply chains – thus anything that is expensive, energy intensive, and technologically complex – is therefore vulnerable and fragile. (Uh-oh.)

So here’s the punchline:

Any meaningful discussion of strategies for meeting development goals – in any sector – henceforth has to take into account increasing scarcity and therefore costliness and lower net-return on basic energy inputs, and the impairment of capital formation and deployment implied therein.

It sounds common-sense, but turns out nobody is doing it. Not even in the pages of Nature.

*          *          *

I’d like to believe that we’ll transform our economy to one that’s sustainable because we recognize the severe moral failing of permitting the catastrophic loss of biodiversity that’s already well underway. We won’t.

I’d like to believe that we’ll transform our economy to one that’s sustainable because we’re hard-nosed utilitarians, fully and rationally abreast of the true value of the “ecosystem services” we’re currently destroying. We aren’t.

I’d like to believe that we’ll transform our economy to one that’s sustainable because we are prudent conservatives and thus adherents of the precautionary principle and therefore adamant to avert the unknown and mostly unknowable deleterious effects of the climate destabilization we’re causing. We aren’t.

The Vietnam War ended not because it was morally wrong to begin with, not because of compassion for the suffering of millions of innocent villagers in SE Asia, not even because it became intensely unpopular among the middle-class constituents of the US Congress. It ended because it was too expensive.

We are going to transition to a sustainable economy because our ability to sustain the unsustainable is rapidly eroding to zero. If we “got our shit together” along the lines of the above aspirational conjectures, we could do the transition with substantially less collateral damage (in terms of other species, human lives, climate stability, etc.). But all you need to abolish any hopes of that happening, however, is to watch about five minutes of television. (Any channel, any time of the day will do.)

Those of us contemplating what “sustainability” really means (i.e. that our present condition is characterized by extreme unsustainability and super-fragility) cannot afford to wait for society (i.e. government, the economic elite, and the culture in general) to “do the right things for the right reasons.” Ain’t gonna happen. We have to start working now to develop and spread the local, bioregional, “low-tech” modes of existence that are going to increasingly predominate in the decades to come.

To wit:

Recognizing the finitude of oil and the transience of oil-derived affluence, the former Emir of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum (1912-1990) remarked, “My grandfather rode a camel. My father rode a camel. I drive a Rolls Royce. My son flies a jet plane. His son will drive a Mercedes. But his son will ride a camel.” 

Perhaps some Millennial generation American will observe, "My great-grandfather worked on a farm. My grandfather worked in a factory. My father worked in a cubicle. I am unemployed (with $xxx,xxx in student loan debt). My son will work on a farm..."

An ending note: this is perhaps getting to sound a little apocalyptic, but it isn’t at all. I’d need another essay to explain fully why this is so, but for now here’s a short illustration:

A lower-tech, poorer (less affluent), more local life that involves manual labor doesn’t necessarily make you worse off. Presently, we work far, far too many hours fastened to a computer terminal (see, you can tell something is wrong right there in the name “terminal”…). This we do in order to make money. A sedentary life spent under the constant hypnosis of screens – work station, laptop, iPhone, GPS, iPad, flat screen TV, etc. – makes us pallid, flabby, unfit, and unattractive (non-sexy). So we need to pay a big portion of the money we make doing all this terminal nonsense to specialists and corporations who compel us to exercise (e.g. perform aerobics, spin classes, lifting weights, yoga, etc.).

What your personal trainer or yoga instructor is doing is leading you through a series of motions approximating farm labor – bending and stooping, crouching, lunging, twisting and stretching, fetching weight over your head, and so on. These elaborate gyrations are designed to get your pulse up, burn fat, tone your muscles, and improve sex-appeal.

The good news is, when the corporation employing you to inhabit that cubicle goes belly-up in the collapsing economy and you have to go get a manual labor job on a farm, you will actually be coming out way ahead. You’ll be getting paid (a little bit) to become tan, fitter, and more attractive. Now, that’s not so apocalyptic, is it?

After all, Mephistopheles - that old truth-telling devil - did point out:

There is a natural way to make you young...Go out in a field 
And start right in to work: dig, hoe, 
Keep your thoughts and yourself in that field,
Eat the food you raise...
Be willing to manure the field you harvest.
And that’s the best way - take it from me! - 
To go on being young at eighty.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

I have been thinking about starting up the blog again. This came to me today after sitting in on a university class dealing with the general topic of "sustainable development." 


Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet

I continue to be troubled by what I hear in the media, at conferences, in university lecture halls, etc. with respect to what basically amounts to the promotion of "sustainable growth."

You can't have economic growth forever on a finite planet, resource substitution and other measures of technological development notwithstanding.

We in the developed world got used to continual growth as "normal" over several generations' time since the advent of fossil fuels, primarily oil. In the past, always being able to expand our access to cheap, accessible high net-energy (high EROEI, Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested) oil allowed us to grow our economy and vastly increase in societal and infrastructure complexity. 

Subtract cheap high EROEI oil and growth stalls and reverses into contraction, and society rapidly decomplexifies. (Some use the term, "collapse.")

By now we've run out of cheap, easily accessible, high quality oil, and have begun to exploit more dispersed, environmentally risky, geo-politically contentious, low quality, and therefore more expensive, low EROEI resources (e.g. fracked shale oil, tar sands, super deepwater offshore deposits). 

The question is, what minimum EROEI is required to run a highly globalized and integrated, sub-/peri-/urbanized, industrialized, hyper-complex society, and where are we now with respect to that minimum?

In the first decades of oil drilling in PA and TX, the EROEI was 100:1 or more. Currently, conventional oil clocks in at around 25:1. Average for US oil today is about 10:1. Tar sands run from 3:1 to 5:1, biodiesel from soybeans at 1.7:1, and corn ethanol at a mere 1.3:1. (Solar, wind, and hydro fare better, but are good for electricity production, not transport, and still require a platform of cheap fossil fuels in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale.)

The fracking "boom" does not represent a real boom in new resources, or old resources opened up by technological breakthroughs in horizontal drilling. It is a combination of high ($100+/barrel) oil prices, and Wall Street financial bubble shenanigans. (The shale oil bubble – give it a year or so and this will be a household term – is the current in a series of US economy bubbles dating back at least to the S&L scandal of the 80's, the Enron scandal and the tech bubble of the 90's / early 2000's, and the housing bubble and financial crash of the mid-2000s).

The trouble with high oil prices is that they reliably send the economy into a recession. (Because energy is the “master resource” that effects the production, and prices, of all other goods and services in the economy.) This destroys demand; but if oil prices drop, then it is no longer economical for energy companies to exploit expensive new “tight oil” plays. These upper and lower oil price bounds have characterized the bumpy plateau of oil production that we have been on since 2005, and go along way explaining our protracted economic non-recovery from the crash of 2008. Some analysts think that this indicates we’ve hit peak oil. Some analysts think this also signals the end of the era of economic growth – that we are not in a "recession" per se (because "recession" implies a defined trough ending with an uptrend back to "normal"), but are experiencing the first symptoms of economic stall and contraction.

We talk incessantly about sustainability when we should be talking about un-sustainability. 

Economic growth is unsustainable, by definition, since it implies increasing demands for energy, resources, and waste assimilation capacity. Substitution, technological innovation, and gains in efficiency can help, but not beyond the limits specified by the laws of thermodynamics. Often, efficiency gains end up backfiring as increased consumption outstrip them. Technological innovation often creates more problems than it solves through unintended consequences and diminishing returns. And as ecological economists have demonstrated, human capital is complimentary to natural capital, not a substitute for it as assumed by mainstream economists. This limits the extent to which resource substitution is effective or possible (contrary to cornucopian Julian Simon's winning bet with biologist Paul Ehrlich regarding the prices of a few metals over a few years' time).

The current global trend in urbanization is unsustainable. A lot of fact-based arguments can be made to demonstrate this, but it is a lot easier if you've simply visited a third-world peri-urban slum to realize these arrangements are not sustainable. For example, when it comes to providing adequate water, sanitation and hygiene in such circumstances, the problem is intractable, overwhelming. That's why no one has been able to do it – not for lack of money, or political will, or economic incentive. 

For all biological organisms, there is a positive correlation between food supply and population growth. With industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution, we have spent the past 100 years turning cheap oil into people. Now the cheap oil has run out and there are too many people to sustain at a highly energy-and-resource-intensive way of life. Yet UN (and other agencies) projections of population growth, economic growth, food production, etc., all show current upward trends continuing to 2050 and beyond – why?

Is it because it is unpleasant and politically untenable to publicly consider the more likely course of economic contraction and population decline?

In our culture, it is common to assume that humans are not like other biological organisms. On the contrary we assume that "people are our greatest resource," and that fabulously innovative human brains grant us exceptional status in the biological world. We are staking a lot on these hopes, which amount more to tenants of a modern religious faith in "progress" and human exceptionalism than on factual, scientific contemplation of material reality.

It deeply troubles me that we talk incessantly of "sustainability" without acknowledging our unsustainable reality. 

Implied in the profligate use of the word "sustainable" is that current major trends in economics, population dynamics, food production, energy acquisition and use, infrastructure development and maintenance, transportation, biodiversity, pollution, climate and biogeochemical disturbance are unsustainable. Anything that cannot continue indefinitely, sooner or later, won't – the question is not, "if?" but, "when?"

So, "when?"


No one can put an exact date for when these unsustainable trends really start to bite. In many instances, especially among the worlds’ poor, they have already substantially begun to bite. But when they begin to bite us too, in the (over-)developed West, it will undoubtedly feel too soon.

Optimists in the mainstream may tentatively acknowledge our un-sustainability, but put any attendant economic or resource crunch several decades into the future.

I believe the crunch is coming in our lifetime. I believe the crunch is coming in the course of our careers. I believe that the next 10, 20, and 30 years are going to look vastly different than the last 10, 20, 30 years, and nothing at all like a linear extrapolation upwards based on previous decades' trends.

I believe this has consequences for how we enact our careers and how we live our lives now. We ought to be in a mode of preparation for a very different future than what we've been led to expect based on the influence of social institutions (education, the media, culture, etc.).

In short, we need to prepare for an energy-constrained existence, and one that involves a high degree of local production of necessities (e.g. food, basic household goods, beer – especially beer) for local consumption. Subtract cheap oil or a stable global economy and international relations and huge transport distances for food and other critical goods manufactured wherever in the world labor costs are lowest and/or environmental regulations the most lax become prohibitive.

I'm not trying to be morbid, predicting the doom of human civilization, etc. I use stark language because I believe the converging problem of energy, economic, and environmental unsustainability is something we need to begin addressing immediately – and yet we are not even talking about it earnestly.

As someone involved with university education, I feel we have an obligation to do our utmost to prepare students for a career "in the real world," and in this case, "the real world" means a world of economic contraction and re-localization, declining living standards, energy constraints, degraded environments/ecosystems, and climate irregularities.

As someone involved in "engineering for developing communities" and the "international WASH sustainable development" establishment, I feel we have the obligation to recognize that the (over-)developed world is going to look increasingly like the developing world in the years to come, rather than the typical assumption of the reverse. We have a lot to learn from poor people in the developing world about how to cooperatively solve problems, meet needs, and conduct convivial and purposeful lives under conditions of economic constraint and relative scarcity. (And to this purpose we would do well to step aside from conventional "professional development" and careerism activities to undertake long-term participatory, experiential studies within so-called developing communities.)

Yet as educators and professionals concerned with environmentally sustainable human development we are not adequately taking up these tasks in our classroom curricula or conference agendas.

To begin to do so means first an acknowledgement that indefinite growth in anything – GDP/economy, population, food production, efficiency – is an impossibility theorem and therefore invalid as a programmatic objective. And second, it means acknowledging that biophysical limits to growth are currently making themselves felt and will increasingly do so over the course of our careers and lifetimes (and not at some vague far-off point many decades in the future). 

With this renewed and corrected vision of the near- and medium-term future, we can more responsibly and accurately prepare students, as well as the communities we serve through our professional activities and even our own communities and households, to adapt to coming changes and the tough times ahead.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Dam in Kachin State, Burma to displace thousands

Article + photography on Global Post by my friend Ryan on a massive dam project in Kachin State, northern Burma.

The dam will flood an area the size of NY city and displace thousands of Kachin villagers in order to supply China with cheap electricity.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Authentic development" and the Pun Pun model

A while back I was assigned to write an essay for my "sustainable community development class" on the following theme:

As a program officer for the Gates Foundation, your assignment is to allocate $100,000 for a development project for a rural community (pop. 5,000) in the developing world. As identified by your [participatory research] assessment team, the key issues are mounting population pressures on arable land, food insecurity, deforestation, high morbidity/mortality of [children under age 5] from infectious (especially diarrheal) disease, and a contaminated primary water source (river is contaminated with agricultural runoff-pesticides and fertilizers, grazing livestock fecal matter, and local laundry and bathing).

How will you allocate your funding? Why? Explain in detail how your project's output will extend a positive effect on other problem areas...Just to clarify, this grant is for one primary project output.

In class the profs further clarified that the assignment was to identify one major objective to address (i.e. not addressing all the challenges listed, just one, presumably in a piecemeal fashion), considering the $100k as "seed money" to pilot some project to then use to go after more money down the road.

Anyway, I wanted to take the assignment as an opportunity to evince a different approach and a different philosophy than these "development professionals" typically deal with. So I wrote some background about my views of conventional "development" and what I call "authentic development," and I used Pun Pun Farm as a case study in an alternate philosophy/approach and as an experience that has been formative for me.

So here's what I wrote...

* * *

Let me start by saying something about my fundamental beliefs regarding what constitutes authentic development.

I consider that individuals and communities can be happiest and healthiest, enjoy a strong degree of livelihood security, and minimize harmful ecological impacts by meeting the lion’s share of their basic needs (e.g. water/sanitation, energy, food, shelter, goods, medicine and heath care) through their own efforts and skills, according to local indigenous traditions, and though sustainable management and use of local resources. (cf. Hind Swaraj, or village home rule, by MK Gandhi.)

I believe this logic applies not only to “developing communities” or communities in lesser-industrialized regions, but equally to industrialized, developed, and over-developed regions like the US.

The logic of economic globalization and conventional “development” has been to create dependence: countries of the North such as the US have become dependent upon imports, and the countries of the South have become dependent upon selling their exports (e.g. agricultural commodities) on the so-called “free” market. Native production in the US has dwindled as industries move overseas leaving devastated communities and economic depression in the wake – my home region of Appalachia, the steel towns of western Pennsylvania, the abandoned farming communities of the mid-west, and the manufacturing areas in and around Detroit are examples that attest to this damage. Meanwhile farmers throughout the global South have been forcibly converted to capital- and chemical- intensive forms of agriculture and production for export; many others have been extirpated from their land and crowded into peri-urban slums as a consequence of big “development” projects and must compete against the growing hordes for scarce, underpaid, and often dangerous jobs. Their livelihoods are thus vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy as their capacity for local self-reliance has been eroded.

The globalization of our food system, to take an example, has reached absurd proportions with devastating ecological consequences. I once went into a Safeway in Washington State and found that the apples grown locally cost nearly twice as much as apples imported 7,000 miles from New Zealand. A 2006 report (1) by the New Economics Foundation documented numerous examples of such “ecologically wasteful” trade. For example, “in 2004 the UK imported 17.2 million kilos of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers and exported 17.6 million kilos; [the UK] imported 10.2 million kilos of milk and cream from France and exported 9.9 million. The figures for the same trade with Germany were 15.5 million kilos and 17.2 million. Germany sent us 1.5 million kilos of potatoes and we sent them, yes, 1.5 million kilos of potatoes….”

One imagines jumbo-jets full of milk and potatoes passing each other in the night as they traverse the English Channel – an absurdity wrought by the “logic” of economic globalization and so-called “free trade.”

So my fundamental belief is that re-creating local economies and engendering local self-reliance among communities worldwide is integral to authentic development everywhere. Attaining this means re-building within communities the capacity for subsistence and livelihood security based primarily upon the stewardship of local resources for local consumption. It means developing knowledge of place and intimate understanding of local ecosystems. It means embracing the type of life a particular place makes possible through its natural attributes rather than forcibly refashioning everyplace into a homogeneous corporate wasteland.

Since these are my fundamental beliefs, I advocate a holistic approach to development that augments a community’s native resources – human and ecological – with an integral vision to promote local self-reliance across the multiple dimensions of basic needs. Why is a holistic approach superior to a narrow, piecemeal approach? Because cross-connections are fundamental to nature: surface water quality is strongly influenced by forestation – clear-cutting forests increases erosion and impacts water bodies. Concerns for sanitation cannot be divorced from concerns over agricultural soil productivity as nutrients must be recycled to sustain crop yields. Using the organic manures from animals and humans obviates the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers that lead to runoff and drinking water pollution. Sustainable management of forests provides sources of food, fiber, herbs and medicinals, building materials, and energy, as well as wildlife habitats, biodiversity conservation, and micro-climate stability – in perpetuity. And so on…

Local and indigenous knowledge forms, rapidly being lost because of economic globalization, “development”, “modernization,” “education,” urbanization, etc., can help us to see these linkages and explore our own interdependence with ecosystems.

The effects of economic globalization have led to overmuch specialization among individuals and communities. University education in the US, for example, is geared to produce narrowly specialized technicians. Livelihood “security” for such individuals almost always involves selling one’s labor as a specialist to a giant corporation in return for a wage that is used to purchase products to meet life’s needs manufactured and sold by other specialists at corporations. This system is inherently insecure as we become increasingly dependent upon multinational corporations to employ us and sell us all our needs for life.

In the global South, farmers are increasingly pressured to become specialized growers of cash crops in monoculture for export – a farming style that is particularly vulnerable to pest outbreaks and thus necessitates the use of dangerous chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to guarantee the single-crop yields upon which the farmers’ livelihoods are now dependent. Again this system is inherently insecure and damaging to individuals and communities. The rash of farmers’ suicides in India (2) when faced with mounting, multi-generational debt attests to the damage and insecurity industrial farming has wrought.

The solution is not to abandon specialization completely but to move in the direction of a balanced generalism. In other words, as a society we need to recapture the homesteading skills that my grandmother’s generation relied upon to live in relative abundance even during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The small farming communities of Appalachia were “poor” by monetary standards but rich in tradition, skill, and knowledge of how to make a living from the forests and fertile bottomlands of our home region. Regaining these waning skills is my prescription for communities in both the “developed” and “developing” worlds alike.

To illustrate how this transition can happen, I’ll take the case study of the Pun Pun farming community in northern Thailand. (3)

This community was built from scratch by a nearly penniless couple with a vision to create an agro-biodiversity conservation farm and sustainable living-learning center. Six years ago, Coloradoan Peggy Reents and her partner, Thai farmer Jon Jandai, bought a dilapidated hill farm on the outskirts of a remote village in mountainous northern Thailand. The land had been deforested, cropped in corn for several years until the soil was exhausted, and then abandoned to the rocks and weeds. The land was nearly worthless, so Peggy and Jo could just afford to buy about five acres. Through three seasons of mulching and composting and growing a few banana trees, Peggy and Jo slowly rehabilitated the wasted soil. They began to plant trees of the native hardwood species and fruit orchards for future agro-forestry development.

They had so little money they had to learn to make a life in ways that didn’t require money – in my mind this is the best kind of research for developing appropriate technologies and sustainable living practices that can be accessed, emulated, adapted, and improved upon by the poor (by definition, people who do not have money). They built their home from mud bricks made from the local earth and beautifully painted with local clays and pigments mixed with tapioca starch. They made their own soap and toothpaste out of local natural plants and substances. The brewed their own rice wine for celebrations. As their soils improved they were able to grow a greater portion of their own food and depend less upon the gifts of sustenance from visiting friends.

Industrial agriculture spread through Thailand while Jo was growing up in a small farming village in the eastern part of the country not far from the border with Laos. With it came hybrid seeds that would not grow without the chemical pesticides and fertilizers sold by the same agribusiness companies. The seeds were not viable after the first planting so it was no use for farmers to practice their tradition of seed saving. The local varieties of vegetables began to disappear and were replaced by a very few hybrid varieties of inferior taste and nutrition, and that were more vulnerable to pests, floods and droughts. As Jo watched the erosion of the traditional vegetable biodiversity, he decided the most important thing he could do was to save seeds and try to perpetuate the local varieties.

With their knowledge of natural earthen building and practical self-reliance born of direct experience and some hardship, Peggy and Jo began to build their vision of a seed center and sustainable living-learning center. Local Thai and hill tribe people, as well as like-minded Westerns who heard about their work, began to arrive at Pun Pun (Thai for “thousand varieties”) farm in this remote corner of SE Asia to live, work, learn and be a part of the creative effort.

The farm has developed curricula for workshops in local self-reliance and sustainability in meeting basic needs for food, shelter, natural and indigenous approaches to medicine and health, and homespun goods. My colleagues and I have endeavored to add a component of appropriate technologies in water resources to the farm’s educational curriculum. Others have supplemented with decentralized energy technologies. A cooking school showcasing traditional Thai recipes using the local farm produce has been established. Local village women teach and perform traditional therapeutic Thai massage, and the farm has hosted a number of yoga and meditation retreats.

Now, hundreds of people from all over Thailand, south/southeast Asia, and around the world visit Pun Pun each year for workshops and programs. Peggy and Jo have started an alliance of organic farmers that is spreading through the northern and northeastern parts of the country, as well as a network of seed savers. They have conducted countless workshops training villagers and groups of Buddhist monks in the techniques of natural and earthen building. Thai, hill tribe, and Western families have moved to the farm community and they are creating a home-farm-school for the children – kids from the neighboring villages will thus have an alternative to the distant English-style Thai government schools.

They have opened a successful restaurant in Chiang Mai supplied by local organic farmers that was recently written up in the New York times travel/food section. (4) They have established and helped to supply numerous market stalls for organic produce throughout the region, and are helping many farmers in their village and nearby to make the transition from chemical farming to organic and to get out of debt to the seed and chemical companies. And this year they are hosting a giant seed saving fair complete with rock bands and carnival activities and sponsored by, of all companies, the Red Bull corporation.

Peggy and Jo, along with the team of like minded folk that have assembled around them, have had an incalculably powerful transformative effect on the lives of so many. They have helped local Thai and hill tribe farmers out of penury and debt. They have helped local villagers and many visiting Westerners along the road to more sustainable, natural, simple, and enjoyable ways of living.

A recent grant of about $25,000 has allowed Pun Pun to enhance their seed saving operations. With this money they have acquired a few additional acres of land to expand seed gardens, increase their water supply and install irrigation equipment. They purchased a hand tractor and wagon to assist with planting and harvesting of rice and materials hauling. They’ve hired local villagers to help with the additional labor, and to train for the management and oversight of the seed bank and distribution system. They’ve hosted large groups of trainees in agroecology workshops. They’ve spawned another organic cafĂ© in Chiang Mai, expanding the market for local farmers’ produce and generating income for the farm. They’ve facilitated school gardening programs in Chiang Mai coupled with education about the importance of saving seeds. And Jo has given many interviews to the popular television and print media in Thailand describing Pun Pun’s philosophy and practices. He’s recently completed a book on organic agriculture and seed saving written in a style and language accessible to “common” farmers and villagers (most Thai books are written in scholarly style and are read only by university people).

In short, Pun Pun has exemplified the maxim of doing a lot with a little. They’re able to accomplish this because of personal integrity and commitment to the principles of simple, natural, ecological living. Rather than employing typical life strategies that depend upon money, they’ve endeavored to minimize dependence upon money wherever possible and substitute ingenuity and creativity, and to emphasize money expenditures that truly maximize well-being and not just keeping up with fads. This philosophy provides the basis for their educational programs – what Jo calls his “brainwashing.”

What they are creating is so obviously attractive they do not need much if any conventional marketing or “PR.” So any money that comes in through grants they can make go a very long way to do a lot of good for many people.

So what would I do with $100,000 to serve the community in question? I would use it to extend the Pun Pun model of development, addressing sustainability and self-reliance through agroecology and seed saving, natural building using the local materials, decentralized appropriate technologies in energy and water resources, homespun goods and handicrafts, traditional knowledge of medicine and health practices, farm-school education for the children, and development of local businesses and cooperative cottage industries in connection with neighboring communities.

Rather than consider the $100k “seed money” to start some project to use to go after more money later, I would use it to build social infrastructure and local resources to avoid the need to get more money in the future. The aim would be to make the community self-sufficient, and to build in the capacity for the community in question to help neighboring communities on the road to local self-sufficiency and ecological sustainability.


1. Simms A, Moran D, Cordon C. UK Dependence Report. New Economics Foundation, 2006.
2. See for example: 1,500 farmers commit suicide in India. The Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, April 15, 2009.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rambling polemic #2

For a class in "sustainable community development" I was recently asked to reflect on the statement by Albert Einstein that “the significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” and come up with three areas where major shifts in level-of-thought are required for human society to approach sustainability, well-being, etc....

So here's what I wrote.

* * * * *

What Einstein was alluding to could be called metanoia – a term which originally denoted a change in outlook after spiritual repentance but lately has been interpreted more liberally as reaching beyond existing or conventional thought structures to a deeper understanding. (Although an element of spiritual repentance is still particularly a propos in our modern circumstances.) In this essay I will identify three areas of conventional thinking that require metanoic transformation in order for human communities and society in general to approach authentic development.

Myth #1: (more) growth will save us.

A principle “sacred cow” of Western developmentality is the dictum for economic growth as a panacea to cure all ills, social and environmental. “Sustainable growth” is the primary policy goal of all Western governments and by extension the governments of lesser-developed countries living out the legacy of colonialism and its modern analog “development.” However, “sustainable growth” is what ecological economist Herman Daly has called an impossibility theorem. (3)

Indefinite growth of the human economy is impossible on a finite planet and its pursuit attempts to flout the laws of thermodynamics and ecology. More than ample evidence exists demonstrating that for some decades running the human economy has exceeded the biophysical limitations of nature to provide energy and resources and assimilate wastes emitted by the expanding human economy. (3, 4, 7) And yet, what discussion exists in mainstream media sources regarding our extant conditions of ecological overshoot – a concept that a ten-year-old of average intelligence could easily comprehend? What politician could be elected to public office on a campaign platform of “economic shrinkage”? Is this imaginable at present?

Furthermore ample evidence exists that economic growth has not alleviated poverty as was allegedly intended at the outset of the post-war period. A 2006 report by the New Economics Foundation (8) indicated that over the past several decades, out of every $100 of growth in the global economy, a mere $0.60 on average has gone to the people at the “bottom of the pyramid.” It is intuitive that rich individuals, corporations, and countries stand to gain the most from economic growth as they are in the best position to capture the benefits – “it takes money to make money” is a familiar nostrum. So it is not surprising that the rich of the world have pursued economic growth with the specious justification that growth will promote “the rising tide that lifts all boats,” despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.

This program has led to the conflating of “development” with “growth.” So a first step in the metanoic transformation away from an economics of “development” based upon export-led growth is making a clear rhetorical distinction between the concepts of “growth” and “development.” Put simply, growth signifies quantitative increase of the material and energy throughput of the human economy; development means qualitative increase in human well-being. (3)

At this point, growth should be opposed and in fact the process of growth reversed to a steady-state level that can be physically and ecologically sustained by the bioshpere. There is no theoretical limit to development as defined as increase in well-being. However, in our current state of global ecological overshoot, policies aimed at further increasing growth directly impact well-being in a negative way by eroding the planet’s ecological life support systems. Correcting widespread misconceptions pertaining to “growth” and “development” is a first step in the metanoic shift towards implementing an economics of authentic development.

Myth #2: Urbanization is good, natural, and here to stay.

The second “sacred cow” that I would expose as a sham is the notion that the current trend in urbanization of the human population is somehow “natural,” “inevitable,” and “beneficial.”

Anyone who has spent any time in a rapidly urbanizing mega-city in Asia, Africa, or Latin America is immediately confronted with a sense of massive unfolding disaster. In Asia, where the urbanization trend is currently the strongest, inadequate infrastructure fails completely to deal with the influx tide of human bodies and the side-effects and wastes of our production and consumption. Untreated sewage flows into rivers, lakes and streams. Municipal wastes litter the landscape and leach toxic chemicals into the environment. Pollution from motor vehicles chokes the air. Over one million new people arrive in the slums and shanty-towns of urban/peri-urban areas each weak, driving up unemployment and driving down wages, increasing competition for the scarce resources of life, exacerbating overcrowding, escalating crime and violence, and generally intensifying the already hellish conditions of existence.

This process is in no way sustainable, nor is it “natural,” “inevitable,” or desirable. The vast majority of the one million people flocking to city slums each week are not choosing to do so because they long to be “modern,” or out of the “desire for a better life” as is commonly supposed by those locked into the mindset of developmentality (except perhaps as understood in the most narrow and reductionistic sense). Recent urban migrants have largely been displaced, often by force and violence, from stable rural existence by the effects of “development,” for example massive hydroelectric dam projects and gas pipelines, and by the spread of industrial (i.e. capital-, energy-, and chemical-intensive) agriculture.

But the ideas that cities are where “culture” resides, and that the “modern” effete urbanite lifestyle is natural and what ought to be emulated, are deeply entrenched in the Western developmentalist mindset. That people could be happy living rural agrarian communities with lifestyles based primarily on local production and consumption of resources is uniformly dismissed by elites – “subsistence” agriculture is everywhere denigrated; “import substitution” (i.e. local self-reliance) is a dirty word in orthodox development economics.

However, as in all cases where nothing short of a metanoic transformation will suffice to produce positive change, evidence contrary to established conventional norms is lacking or is simply ignored because it doesn’t “fit the model.” But even in the US, one of the longest and most heavily urbanized populations in the world, “the fact that most Americans live in metro areas does not mean it is because they want to live there…a recent Gallup poll asking Americans where they would prefer to live found that 24 percent wanted to live on a farm or in a rural area, with 36 percent preferring small-town life…these preferences have changed little in the last 60 years…As a result, over one-third of Americans are living in metropolitan areas even though they would prefer to live in less populated settings. The fact that the location of jobs does not match the locational preferences of people explains why more Americans don’t move to smaller cities and towns.” (1)

If people in developing countries are flocking to cities in droves, it is not because they are enthused about the “opportunities” for employment and modern enculturation that are available there. It is because their former agrarian lifestyles have been made impossible by “development.”

Lester Brown has indicated: “It is widely assumed that urbanization will continue. But this is not necessarily so. The growing scarcity of water and the high cost of the energy invested in transporting water over long distances may itself begin to constrain urban growth. For example, some 400 cities in China are already facing a chronic shortage of water.” (2)

In October of 2007, for the first time in the history of the planet, more human beings lived in cities than in rural settings. This trend of urbanization is unsustainable and has led to disaster as city life has become drastically less desirable while becoming increasingly resource-intensive. Resettlement of rural areas and re-establishment of predominantly “subsistence” lifestyles based on sustainable use of primarily local resources is the ineluctable course towards authentic development and human well-being from our present out-of-balance state. Understanding this basic fact, however, will require an Einsteinian metanoic shift, in particular among Western educated elites who have the hardest time comprehending ideas that run counter to professional training and urbane social conditioning.

Myth #3: We need more education.

Lastly I would challenge the common orthodoxy regarding the unalloyed benefits of “education.”

[The sustainable community development class professor's] current email tagline quotes Mark Twain: “Never let school interfere with your education.” This quote affirms a basic feeling that most of us “educated” folk have that school sucks. In other words, this expresses an irony that even the highly lettered often viscerally feel that school is mainly an impediment to real learning. Why then do we so unhesitatingly affirm the provision of “education” and the building of schools as noble goals in development projects?

Funding educational programs, building schools, and in particular getting more girls and young women into the classroom currently has tremendous cachet among WWLs (wealthy white liberals), and subsequently has a “sexiness” that has not gone unrecognized by the courtiers of philanthropy. However, while there is much talk about the need for increased provision of education, there is precious little discussion of substance regarding the quality of that education, or just precisely what we are advocating be taught in these schools for developing communities.

A documentary critiquing “development” in Ladakh (5) depicts children reading Wordsworth and Shakespeare in an English-style boarding school classroom. When the filmmakers visited the home village of some of the children and were invited to dinner with their families, they became ill after eating a poison weed that the schoolchildren inadvertently picked when asked by their mothers to gather vegetables for the meal.

A generation ago this never would have happened, since all Ladakhi children, having grown up on the family farm, would easily distinguish and avoid poisonous varieties of the local vegetation. Attending far-from-home Western-style boarding schools has had the effect of supplanting Ladakhi young people’s traditional knowledge – knowledge relevant to the local social and ecological context – with forms of knowledge valued by Western institutions. This is one of the more insidious effects of developmentality – an unconscious derogation and dismissal, and thus destruction, of local and indigenous knowledge forms. And yet, the fact that most Ladakhi children now attend such boarding schools is widely touted as a success by the statisticians of “development” as they tabulate increased enrollments.

Following Aldo Leopold, we are led to ask, “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?”

David Orr has pointed out that “it is a matter of no small consequence that the only people who have lived sustainably on the planet for any length of time could not read.” Orr notes that the destructive effects of globalization and development upon the climate, ecosystems, and traditional cultures, “is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” (6)

This is a clear indictment of Western globalist educational institutions, which are predicated upon the myth that our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement – what Orr identifies as “a cultural arrogance of the worst sort, [representing] a gross misreading of history and anthropology.”

So the metanoic shift called for in education must begin with a re-envisioning of what education is for. It’s conventionally held that the purpose of education is that of giving students the means for upward mobility and “success.” Thomas Merton identified this as “the mass production of people literally unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and completely artificial charade.” (Merton went on to admonish his students to “be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing – success.”)

TS Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" Much of contemporary education is comprised by a protracted cramming of all manner of disembodied facts, techniques and information (“data”) into students’ heads. Presumably this is to equip them to more effectively compete with one another and society at large in a race to accumulate status and wealth. Extension of this pedagogy to developing communities thus represents the broad-scale ensnarement even greater numbers of children and young adults into the squirrel cage as they, like us, strive for “professional success,” and to “be competitive in the global economy.” It is a likely eventuality, then, that they also will come to the conclusion that school sucks.

The metanoic shift in education thus represents a turn towards pedagogy for the development of ecological conscience and appreciation for local and indigenous knowledge systems. Education must come to be seen as a tool for students to use in the forging of their personhood, in their processes of discovery of themselves and the world, and in their understanding of their place in the greater biotic community. My experiences among the “uneducated” farming folk of South Asia suggests that they have much more to teach us than we them when it comes to redefining our educational systems around students’ development of ecological conscience, a storehouse of local knowledge, practical competence and labor skills, native intuition, and wisdom.


1.) Atkinson RD. Reversing rural America’s economic decline: The case for a national balanced growth strategy. Progressive Policy Institute, 2004. (

2.) Brown LR. The Ecology of Cities. The Globalist, 2006. (

3.) Daly, HE. Economics in a Full World. Scientific American magazine, 2005. (

4.) Global Footprint Network. September 25 is Overshoot Day 2009. (

5.) International Society for Ecology and Culture. Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh (film). (

6.) Orr, D. What is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them. The Learning Revolution, 1991. (

7.) Rockstrom et al. Special Feature: A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, p. 472-475, 24 September 1990. (

8.) Woodward D and Simms A. Growth Isn’t Working. New Economics Foundation, 2006. (