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The Real Green Heretics
Alex Steffen, 28 May 08

Wired's latest issue, with its cover story Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green is now online, and with it, my counter-point piece arguing against carbon blindness and silver-bullet thinking:

To have any hope of staving off collapse, we need to move forward with measures that address many interrelated problems at once. We're not going to persuade people in the developing world to go without, but neither can we afford a planet on which everyone lives like an American. Billions more people living in suburbs and driving SUVs to shopping malls is a recipe for planetary suicide. We can't even afford to continue that way of life ourselves.

We don't need a War on Carbon. We need a new prosperity that can be shared by all while still respecting a multitude of real ecological limits — not just atmospheric gas concentrations, but topsoil depth, water supplies, toxic chemical concentrations, and the health of ecosystems, including the diversity of life they depend upon.

We can build a future in which technology, design, smart incentives, and wise policies make it possible to deliver a high quality of life at lower ecological cost. But that brighter, greener future is attainable only if we embrace the problems we face in all their complexity. To do otherwise is tantamount to clear-cutting the very future we're trying to secure.

The Wired package is kicking up a lot of dust. There are the normal crackpot climate-change-is-a-hoax types, of course. A few paleo-greens have managed to rise to the bait as well, banging the table about anthropocentrism and techno-fixations. But most of the debate so far has actually been pretty nuanced and intelligent.

Hank Green, for instance, takes the time to go through Wired's list of "heresies" one-by-one and critique each.

David Roberts goes a little more meta, poking fun at the conceit that the Wired section is on the heretical cutting edge:

Guess what? Environmentalists are just going to have to accept that dense, vibrant cities are the best way for people to live together sustainably! (2001, can I put you on hold? The late '70s are calling about their controversy.)

...It's clear at this point that the cultural energy that once infused Wired, and the techno-go-go culture it represented, has now moved on. You want creativity, entrepreneurial energy, and innovative thinking? Look to the bright green movement, which is, judging by this issue, about 10 steps ahead of Wired on this stuff.

I think, though, that there's an even bigger problem with this sort of package (since I shared my thoughts with Chris Anderson, Wired's editor, when he first asked me to write the rebuttal for the package, I don't feel I'm being unfair here), which is that the really freaky, soon-to-be controversial ideas all revolve around scale, scope and speed.

The magnitude of the crises we face, the speed with which they are unfolding (as we're just beginning to understand) and their interconnectedness and interpenetration into every aspect of human society mean that the solutions we need to embrace are not going to be the same sort of solutions we're used to thinking of now.

The discussions we see today -- whether we're talking energy sources, farming practices or fashion choices -- are not even the right kind of debate. Unable to mentally grapple with the idea that we need to be aiming for total sustainability right now, we talk to death the same series of inadequate baby steps. Faced with the need to reinvent the material basis of our civilization, we argue paper or plastic.

If you want truly dangerous bright green ideas, go way out beyond what the conventional wisdom thinks is possible. The conventional wisdom's sense of the possible is irrelevant to reality; it's being melted by climate change and planetary crisis faster than an Alpine glacier. Think, instead, of the implications of ideas like zero energy, zero emissions, zero waste, closed loops, true-cost accounting for the value of ecological services, product-service systems, visible flows, totally transparent backstories, open innovation, green infrastructure, etc. These concepts are really weird, full of new insights and critical uncertainties -- and they, or ideas like them, are very quickly going to become the operating principles of our entire society. If we want to avoid a catastrophic collision with ecological reality, we need to change our thinking.

Our ideas of what's normal, or even what's possible, will not outlast the next decade. Unfortunately, Wired's list of heresies is a list of normal, contemporary approaches (nukes, tree plantations, factory farming, living in the Sunbelt suburbs) and current environmental commonplaces (cities are good, China can be green, carbon trading needs reform) packaged in a way designed to shock and titillate.

What would have been far, far more heretical is to do for planetary sustainability issues what the first issues of Wired tried to do for information technologies: explain why the whole current debate was stale and out-of-touch, and attempt to illuminate a new way of thinking that to the folks back home seemed unfathomable, often crazy, but which turned out to be more right than wrong -- to predict the present in a way that changes our understanding of the world in which we live. There is an emerging culture of real, bright green hand-waving brilliant heretics out there, and the reading public deserves to know what they think.

That, unfortunately, is an opportunity Wired missed.

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Bravo, Alex. You have laid out a line of thinking that honors the best of our antecedents: Dana Meadows, Gerry Barney (look him up!), Gary Snyder, even David Brower.

We don't need a War on Anything at this point. The whole thought process is warped. We have the best, most unique opportunities since the generation at the end of the Pleistocene guessed that Ice Age herds might not last forever and it was time to plant the riverbanks. We have work to do.

The problems are complex. The solutions are diverse. "Our ideas of what's normal, or even what's possible, will not outlast the next decade." Well said.

Posted by: Ted on 28 May 08

Alex, unbelievably well-said. Right on the head, right tone, right analysis. You sound like a freaking genius here today. I'm so sorry Wired.

Posted by: Steve Davis on 28 May 08

It's also interesting to compare the comment string in response to Alex's "counterpoint" essay in Wired (at the link) and the comments on just about any Worldchanging post (pick your favorite!). If the quality of conversation is any indication, I'll stay here, thanks.

Posted by: Ted on 29 May 08

A rather silly blunder, really, especially the 8 pages of bold, iconoclastic statements each with its own photo spread (I got a free subby for doing a charity bike ride, OK?). Reminds me of an old Life in Hell strip called "How to be a Feisty Rock Critic".

I mean, the photo spread devoted to the "screw organic" meme showed a conventional beef feedlot. Shunning organic beef is not radical. Foregoing beef altogether, and eating lots of tilapia, however, may just be. Monbiot (
himself says so, so I know it's legit. And tilapia is a FARMED FISH, so how freegking iconoclastic is that?

I agree with most of Alex's rejoinder, save his dismissal of nuclear. At there is a pair of dogged writers, who have made it past my kook detector, who argue passionately on behalf of an underdog nuclear design called the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Feature list is claimed to definitively address just about every valid criticism of other nuclear reactors. They also argue that the nuclear industry isn't interested in it because it won't be as profitable for them, and that the Pentagon didn't want it because it was almost useless for making weapons materials. That puts this design in grave danger of forever slipping through the cracks. It's an incredible story, and I encourage everyone to take a looksey and form their own opinion. Just think of it as the sincerest way to flatter the earth at its core.

Posted by: Jonathon Severdia on 29 May 08

Yes, we need to bumpily move to another level of thinking and to do this we must let the thinking of the mental era we are in think itself all the way through so that we can see how it moves us. And meet the burden of how it moves us.

There is only one person I know of who has gone with the disease we are in so carefully and with the clarity that it deserves in Technology and the Soul: From the Nuclear Bomb to the WWW.

Beware. It is not anthropocentric. It is not egocentric. It does take us out of the drivers seat.

We can neither go back or forward at this point. Wired got caught because it cannot allow this kind of thought to emerge. I do not think that many people can get beyond the egotism that this reading demands. I certainly cannot. But maybe we will try to put ourselves aside and have a just moment of mind changing awe, glimpses of a very wide and long scope.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 29 May 08

As Ted posted above, socioecological prophets like Donella Meadows, Wendell Berry and others foretold the nature of our current systems with eerie accuracy.

To understand how school shootings are related to ecological issues, one only needs to read Wendell Berry's "Unsettling of America". To understand why "mainstream green" efforts like the USGBC's LEED rating systems only destroy the world a little more slowly, we only have to "quiet our cleverness" and follow "Nature as Mentor, Model and Measure", or read Donella Meadow's observation that most leverage points are counterintuitive. And that most systems theorists make recommendations only to be dismissed by prevailing paradigms of thought.

There seems, however, to be a genuine disagreement even among the heretic community. About the propriety and effectiveness of incremental bridges to a truly sustainable future, i.e., offsets, environmental rating systems, and how to most effectively convince the masses to move to sustainable living.

Posted by: JoshS on 29 May 08

I think the problem is plagiarism people are so unused to seeing a new idea that those ideas have NO credibility. Much safer to join the herd.

We are testing an ocean based system to increase rain in arid lands.
Large areas of ocean that are hot enough to evaporate very fast do not because of a boundary layer near the ocean surface that prevents the air from moving.
We are developing a system that can cause huge areas to begin mixing causing fast evaporation.
What we do is to simply accelerate the natural process of storm development.
Increasing biomass is the fastest and cheapest way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Desert plants respond more quickly to water than any other biosphere.

Posted by: mike fallwell on 29 May 08

First time poster here.

Totally agree that what we need is essentially a new approach to civilisation, and preferably right now.

So. . . how do we start on that immense task? We need a movement, right? A *real* movement, large and visible (or just visible, for starters), and international, and really active. . . a movement that people who are concerned about where we're heading can flock to. All these blogs and websites and books are nice, and are certainly helping to educate people like me, but ultimately (and very soon) we need an approach that will actually reach the so-called masses, don't we?

How do we do that? I mean, the entire green internet is essentially just talking to itself, isn't it - preaching to the choir? How do we *really* reach out? How do we start the kind of. . . revolution that we need, in the very short time that we have?

(Also. . . any suggestions what environmental organisation/group/project I might join in Germany? It seems to me that most of the really interesting thinking and activity is happening in the United States nowadays. Most of the German 'green internet' seems stuck in 1995 or so. Do you happen to know of any promising projects or groups in Germany who are a bit more up to date? I suppose you network internationally?)

Posted by: Hmpf on 29 May 08

I stumbled on the Wired article while flipping through magazines at my mom's house over Memorial Day Weekend. Within five minutes I found myself literally yelling at the magazine. It is not a good sign when you are having a one-sided argument with glossy tree pulp.

I am an environmentalist. I consider it a family legacy. Neither my grandparents nor my parents had all the answers, but at least they were asking the right questions and exploring solutions. Their movement, which is now my movement, has continued to learn, and today we are exploring the boundaries of a whole new way of living on this planet (as Alex so eloquently said). I am an engineer working on energy efficiency, green chemistry, and net-zero buildings. My environmentalism has come a long way from my grandparents herding goats.

Which is why the Wired article made me so hopping mad. The "environmentalist" beliefs they claim to refute are things that we left behind years ago, if not decades! Dense green cities are good? No kidding! Current carbon trading legislation doesn't cut it? Gee, I thought we had that one all sewed up. China has to be part of the solution? Um, YEAH. It took a lot of work to develop the bright green movement, and they're booting us right back to 1992 (or perhaps 1972). Grr.

Beyond my personal anger, the potential fallout from the article is alarming. Wired has just reinforced many unfortunate stereotypes about the green movement, putting another road block in the way of bright green change. Wired could have been just as contrarian by debunking old ideas about environmentalism and highlighting the cutting edge thinking happening at places like Worldchanging. But no. Opportunity lost.

So Alex, and all the Worldchanging staff, thank you for being a bright green beacon, and thank you for being a counterpoint voice in the Wired issue. As Hmpf asked above, how do we bring the Worldchanging vision to more people, who might not be the bright green geeks we are? (Obviously not via Wired.) Also, how can we as bright greens say thank you to the old guard who first starting asking the questions and raising the issues that got us this far?

Posted by: Molly on 30 May 08's a question. The "new" environmentalism (aiming for a "bright green" future) is definitely different than our grandparents, but is it better, qualitatively and quantitatively?

Posted by: JoshS on 30 May 08

"is it better, qualitatively and quantitatively?"

Why is it not?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 May 08

You are correct in saying that the way we think about the world is going to change radically over the next decade. Interestingly i think a large proportion of people are ready and willing to make that change.
What threatens to thwart this is the monolith that is the corporate political nexus and we need to change its direction by co-option and not co-operation with its tenets. We have to create the realities we wish to and the rest will follow, as night follows day.
However it behoves those of us who consider these changes and their implications with any degree of clarity to continue to push the boundaries of where we can go - we can take a cue towards integrated living by creating the same plans and intentions as Arthur Clarke did in his earlier days, by pushing the frontiers of science while similtaneously creating public awareness of the possiiblities and practical applications of his innovative thinking by writing great books about his ideas.
So its not just a matter of proposing the ideas and concepts that will take us to and beyond zero waste/ energy/ etc but by demonstrating that these are practical and efficent steps that lead to human statisfaction, wealth and sustainability of the biome all at the same time.
The trick is juggling the many aspects of it but the green movement has shown itself able to deal with this through its diversity.
Communication between bright greens, as you call them and the rest of the greens is important - but never forget we have to bring the whole world onboard for the ride as well!

Posted by: ekogaia on 30 May 08

Okay, so how about this? (Let's pretend we have money, for a moment.)

Find a group of "green-minded" people in your town. Buy a reasonably big house together. Refurbish for as-near-as-possible CO2-neutral living etc. Create living spaces and public spaces in it; make it an emphatically *open* house. A space for cultural activities, a space for education, a space for finding help and support.

Live there together (though perhaps not *too* closely, speaking as a longtime shared flat inhabitant *g* - everybody needs their personal space); live a one-planet lifestyle. Support each other, educate each other, and support and educate everyone who comes there, too. And always, always keep reaching out.

Paint the house or its doors bright green, maybe. ;-) Paint green arrows leading to its doors in all adjacent streets.

Do that in every town; have several such places in bigger cities. Encourage people to start their own.

This would accomplish several things at once: it would demonstrate the possibility and desirability of a different way of living in a fairly irrefutable way; it would be a 'ground base' for reach-out efforts; it would make people feel less lonely and more powerful due to shared purpose and greater numbers... and it could provide cristallisation nuclei for a mass movement to grow around.

Problem: we don't have money (and we may not even have people; not in sufficient numbers, anyway).

Well, or I don't have money, anyway - and most of the people I could imagine might join me in such a project don't either.

Posted by: Hmpf on 30 May 08

ekogaia's reference to Clarke + references to the need to reach out to the wider populace = need for some seriously compelling fiction (book, TV, movie). World Made by Hand is one example of this, but there is plenty of scope for more. Ecotopia 2 anyone?

Posted by: William Betz on 31 May 08

Alex, you ask, "Why is it not?" Here are some hasty thoughts, as a fast response.

A few reasons, I think.

First, the quantifiable.

Humans have become a geologic force. We are entering the Anthropocene, whose key attributes include:

The death of birth, as EO Wilson writes. Humans have caused the sixth great Extinction in the Earth's history. This itself is a failure of the environmental movement, borne by each of us in very specific, personal and direct ways. We are destroying the biophysical core that supports life on Earth. 8 of 15 (if I remember right) ecosystem types are in severe decline, according to the 2005 Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. A species disappears, by some estimates, once every 20 minutes. And collectively we can't provide any estimate of the sort or substance of what we actually are destroying. Our best guesses put the number of species between 1.8 million and 30 million, of which we have decent information on maybe 100,000.

This immense uncertainty, you'd think, might humble us. Instead, some inner quality of us calls for global-scale geoengineering. We form commissions, working groups, fund studies, make presentations, raise money, participate politically...and our collective efforts are failing miserably. Consider the most recent Farm, Energy and related bills floating through Washington. Who's winning that battle? Environmentalists or the multi-national corporations, the leaders of our current machine-based, industrial-technological Flat World? Some in the environmental community have conflated technology with environmentalism, thereby eviscerating certain ecological design principles, for example, “Respect what is already there.” In the built environment this takes the form of

The “Great Forgetting”, coined either by Jane Jacobs or Wade Davis (I can't remember which). A unique culture fades forever, effectively, every two weeks.

Chemicals in our bodies? Hundreds if not thousands, depending on the individual of industrially-produced synergistic chemicals, proven carcinogenic, endocrine disruptive, bioaccumulative. Rachel Carson nailed it, the ecology of the world in our bodies, most proven to produce potentially mighty, unintended and harmful consequences. Yet our legal and regulatory systems still focus on the fiction of a “body burden” and “acceptable” levels of bioaccumulation, measuring the effects of each chemical in isolation (typically on other species)...purposefully disregarding evidence that shows that these chemicals interact synergistically to create even greater potential for harm. Yet we still manufacture and generate millions of pounds and gallons of these substances, discharging them into our food webs, MORE THAN EVER. And we have a reasonably good sense of the consequences.

The leading edge of climate change is killing people. Now.

The equivalent of a 747 of children crash each hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year...due to the lack of clean drinking water. And in cultural ways, Wendell Berry, and David Orr echoing him, have described the ways in which society's decisions create children that kill piers in schools. Culture and nature are connected, by a unity of social and natural systems. Yet most if not all of our systems divide and treat cultural ills in isolation. We do the same for ecological problems, through strategies of “maximum” or “optimal” sustained yields. We turn humans into “resources” or “units of labor”, the loss of jobs as “restructuring”, etc.

Some in our community, as you very powerfully point out, have acquiesed and conceded the conversation by pushing for ___ miles to the gallon rather than challenging the need for cars. FSC certified lumber, recycled glass and concrete countertops, and cork floors are of the same character...because most are to “replace the outdated counter, floor or because the owner has 'outgrown' the space.” Home has has at least doubled since 1950. An outdated countertop is only outdated culturally, not functionally. In the design of our current system, it is a life cycle given that keeping the old countertop (absent other issues like chemical harms or mold) is always less destructive than replacing it with some “green” alternative. Yet the emerging definition of sustainability in the built environment, LEED, incentivizes certain dubious decisions rather than telling it as it is, scientifically.

Qualitatively, always more fuzzy, but still clear enough:

We have destroyed Wilderness itself (think here about our shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, which Paul Crutzen and others actively are petitioning to recognize). The idea is that, whatever self-aware, intelligent species that might exist five, fifteen or fifty million years from now, that time will bear out that humans altered the biophysical processes of the Earth. Ocean Acidification. Climate Change. Alterations in the abundance, distribution and diversity of species. Changes to other global cycles such as nitrogen. Most of the soil under foot—under everyone's feet—ended up there by our actions.

Wendell Berry argues, convincingly, that wilderness is the essential connection between human and natural systems, that its presence provides multidimensional benefits culturally and ethically. And we have destroyed its existence. Soon I would bet, 50/50, that we lose even the memory of Wilderness. To future generations, the concept of wilderness might have no greater context or meaningfulness than the cave paintings of our ancestors do to us. Culture is subject to natural mortality, just as are biological populations and individuals.

It is the illusion of regulation and reclamation versus living withing the Earth's limits and boundaries. As Wendell Berry put it, modern society has more regulation and reclamation of activities such as mining, forestry, construction, than ever before. But reclamation is never of the same quality as that of the socioecological community's preexisting attributes. Most times it is in contempt of all that follow, as with Appalachian mountaintop mining, most industrial chemistry, and even how we construct our built environment. Yet the environmental community has staked, arguably, its future on litigation, regulation and reclamation. More now than ever, because of earlier decisions coinciding with NEPA, the ESA and other landmark legislation regarding the environment. But the Corporate always moves faster and more nimbly than the Sovereign. And thus socioecological destruction has been fueled by the illusion of these laws.

While the environmental community has identified isolated elements of a sustainable future, the community struggles to define it objectively, nevermind actually building it. The essential paradox is that sustainability surrounds us; we have more than 1.8 to 30 million mentors, all of them consummate engineers, designers, builders and community planners. Yet we say this product is “more environmentally friendly”, or “easier on the environment”, or at best, we allow an uninformed media to make those claims for us. Those are inane statements. Something that destroys elements of natural systems is not “more environmentally friendly” than something else that destroys just a bit more. Nobody calls out these claims, products or systems for what they are...some as McDonough have said they destroy a little less fast. That's a good thing. But nobody as far as I can tell, is telling the public that THEY WILL EVENTUALLY DESTROY COMPLETELY, because they are destructive by nature. So nevermind the intermediate step of a IceStone countertop or whatever. Keep your existing and take the inevitable comments and maybe hazing about the 1970's interiors....

The fact that the environmental community cannot agree on an objective definition and template of sustainability might be the death of us. Defining sustainability is not about standardization, homogeneity, or simplification, for practitioners, the public or the politicians. In Nature, nothing is “half-pregnant”. Yet if you add cork floors or pay to offset your guilt, you become “more sustainable”. That fiction of the human heart and mind will the death of bio-cultural life as we have evolved within it.

As you might guess, I am not optimist, as that requires a belief that we can prevent certain of anticipated destruction. But we are already destroying, in patterns larger and beyond our ability to control. Our linear way of life has polluted, first in smaller patterns, such as the burning rivers of the 1970's, or the innumerable towns whose residents found industrial chemistry did not stay on the safe side of the periodic table, the consequences of those mass experiments being cancer, endocrine disruption, asthma, etc. But as a geologic force, we've destroyed the concept of “Away”; plastic probably will be a thin line and key indicator to future archaeologists of our species' dominion on Earth. We can't escape the consequences of our living anywhere. So while I am not optimistic, I am hopeful. Mostly because Resilience Theory describes an adaptive cycle, of which key elements are a backloop, where reorganization and renewal occur by virtue of the socioecological echos of genetic and cultural diversity. I'm not optimistic because, as Jane Jacobs put it, and Resilience Theory confirms, to preserve the community's identity (functions, key attributes, structures), the critical force is the capacity to Remember. This is the seed bank buried deep, that emerges after a fire. The cultural story or narrative that preserves kindness or a belief in the power of a shared community. But we are destroying the two essential stores of diversity, heritage and sustainability...the species, narratives and beliefs that might be the points of inflection and leverage between a sustainable (including ethically) society, and alternate states of man-altered nature that are against any definition of a “good” life.

Posted by: JoshS on 2 Jun 08

So last thought...the modern environmental movement is failing, objectively, because:

The Death of Birth. Humans are destroying the biosphere, the basis of human and all other life, at the rate of a species every 20 minutes (according to one estimate).

The Great Forgetting. Humans are destroying the Ethnosphere (the sum total of human imagination, values, beliefs, etc.) at a rate of one unique culture or group every two weeks. All humans alive constitute approximately 6% of all that have ever lived.

These two "spheres" constitute forms of response diversity in socioecological systems. Response diversity is essential to the socioecological community's resilience, in times of "revolt" and "remember" in the Panarchy.

To preserve our socioecological identity (function, structures, feedbacks and key attributes of our culture and natural environment), we must develop and preserve resilience, the capacity to manage disturbance and preserve identity (this a short definition). Disturbances can be cultural or ecological, or a hybrid of each.

Climate change embodies a diversity of growing disturbances, in frequency, scale and magnitude.

But we are destroying our adaptive response to these emergent disturbances, and in so doing, becoming more fragile and brittle to the inevitable changes and disturbances already emergent.

For those not familiar with Resilience Science (definitely covered at WorldChanging before!), check out:

Posted by: JoshS on 2 Jun 08

hi hmpf,

i really enjoyed both of your posts.

re: preaching to the choir, i think it's important to reach out to people who we may not think of as "environmental." a HUGE part of the problem is the fact that so many environmentalists identify as liberals and therefore hate conservatives and anyone else who disagrees with any part of their own ideology.

we need to lay down our arms in the culture war, and allow ourselves to see PEOPLE rather than ideologies. traditional/conservative types care about the earth, humanity, and the survival of life, too, even if for different reasons and in different terms. they can be reached.

we're talking about this here. the comments include a fascinating discussion between myself and a conservative woman where we actually get beyond the labels and communicate.

re: the shared green house/urban permaculture/open-arms community

i'm in. smaller cities will be easier -- places like pittsburgh and baltimore where you can actually buy a house for a decent price. we have this idea that going off-grid and experimenting with new ways of life means having a big chunk of money and a big piece of land somewhere and shutting ourselves off from the world but it really doesn't have to. just look at what the dervaes family has done in pasadena.

as alex says in his post, it starts with unraveling the incorrect thoughts we have in our heads -- thoughts like "being controversial for its own sake is good" (aka the wired article), or thoughts like "the world is filled with people who don't care" or "we are doomed."

these are simply inaccurate lenses for reality. it's our job to find better ones, and fast.


Posted by: Megan Dietz on 2 Jun 08

Hey Megan...I agree completely but maybe for a different reason.

Those are simply inaccurate lenses for reality, but not because they are incorrect thoughts unraveled, but because they are inaccurately simplistic.

It no different than adding agrarianism back into ecological and "green" design and finding one opposes this because "we can't go back" or "live like we did 100 years ago [or this culture]".

Posted by: JoshS on 3 Jun 08

I love wired but they screwed up on this one. Thank God Chris Anderson asked Alex to write a counter.

I'm sure it will help sell the magazine, but the arguments were poor.

Posted by: ben on 3 Jun 08

Gather enough people who believe strongly enough in full-out sustainable living to join together in doing it massively. Form a community, set an example, live it the way it needs to be lived and speak from a position of power. We tried this at The Farm in 1970 and we made some mistakes, but we did follow the mission of "Don't replace the government; replace what the government does." Put your actions where your mouth is.

Posted by: Cliff Figallo on 4 Jun 08

I appreciated both your essay and the attempt by Wired to stir up the broth. They wrote a lot of stuff that made my blood boil, but also made me go and read up on why I thought they were wrong, or, discover in some cases they were right.

But they did have some howlers, in my opinion. The bit about how buying a used car somehow is better environmentally was a real stretch. Cars typically run until they are totally destroyed. They go from one part of the economy to another, are stripped for parts, and ultimately disassembled and melted down. Their component parts are too recoverable and valuable in the economy.

So buying a used car doesn't miraculously eliminate the creation of another new car, nor does the used car have marvelous properties. The previous owner paid the carbon tax? Not really. Older cars, even well maintained, spew more crud into the atmosphere than newer ones. How often have you replaced your catalytic converter, for instance? And by taking that used car out of the marketplace, that creates a whole for someone who might have bought it, and just like electrons finding holes in orbits around atoms, all the car buyers in your ecosystem will find what they need, and one will likely buy a new (or newer) car where you bought a used one.

Wired made it sound like the car ecosystem was a closed one in which a finite number exist.

For heaven's sake, our used T-shirts make their way to Africa where they're worn to pieces.

Posted by: Glenn Fleishman on 4 Jun 08

re: getting beyond the green internet/choir, reaching more people, DOING what needs to be done in time, one simple key point and a few proposals that flow from it:

Key Point: The Way the Brain ACTS
1. Neuroscience informs us that the brain is configured to turn concern about an issue into ACTING on that issue only if the issue is presented as "the individual human case." We can become intellectually aflame and emotionally aroused by ideas, numbers, statistics, theories, concepts, but to turn our understanding and our concern into ACTION, the brain requires all the abstractions to be given to us in concrete, human terms.

This is why all Wired or anyone else has to do is say "hippie" or "treehugger" and green gets thrown back 30 years. NOthing has yet replaced these human individual icons (except Transhumans, which scares the hell out of most people). Virtually the whole discussion is about the science and massive numbers of humans, and not the individual human case/example/icon.

Hence, we debate the ideas endlessly, no idea as much as how to turn our ideas into action. Or, when we do turn to action, it becomes incredibly boring -- how many incandescent flourescents does it take to turn off a mad world?

Related and reinforcing the brain's need for information to come in the form of the individual human case is the discovery of mirror neurons -- a lot of them. Mirror neurons are continuously "mimicking" the actions around us,; we are in a continuous state of mental rehearsal. This activity goes mostly undetected by consciousness, and we would probably have a mental breakdown if we had to make it all conscious. If a centipede, for example, had to THINK about every single movement of all his 100 legs to make one step forward, he would be paralyzed at the thought of moving.

Sustainability IS so complex, interconnected and all encompassing that having to think about it ALL turns us into paralyzed centipedes.

1) Turn the Theories into Stories
Given the brain's need for the individual human case, we need more storytelling, more illustrative human examples, more "a day in the life" versions of how it IS to LIVE in the changed world.

Worldchanging sponsoring a new section, here, of "life in the changed world: stories of how it already is and must be, or, That's reality? Who knew..." Would help move the green internet out of fascinating dialoguing about ideas and feeding readers with the kind of information one needs to see one's self DOING all these critically necessary things.

A fun way to do this would be to rotate writers, poets, playwrights through, giving them "challenges" from readers (or internally at Worldchanging) to take any idea and turn it into a story/poem/scene/video clip. This suggestion is modeled on the type of theatre that I have done for years and is done all over the world, "playback," in which people share their experiences and specially trained actors play them back, on the spot, with the aim of giving meaning and dignifying individual human emotional truth. What I am suggesting is that this same process be adapted to IDEAS and PROBLEMS, with the "playback" being a Story -- an individual human case, a scenario -- in which the theory is translated into life experience and the problem is "solved."

As an example, here on worldchanging a fantastic policy proposal was put forth, that all rebuilding in the wake of a natural disaster must, by federal law, be sustainable. The living example of this is the aptly named "Greensburg," Kansas. A writer, playwright, screenwriter, actors, etc. could add on to this by giving us a 'day in the life' of the New Greensburg, so that we can feel and see OURSELVES 'doing' the policy. (feed the mirror neurons!)

Spread this same playback process out into the general blogosphere. The educated and informed start posting HUMAN EXAMPLES of how it is to live sanely -- how it feels (which is MUCH BETTER than how living in an unsustainable world feels). These can be actual examples or possible examples of how much more fun, how much healthier, how much more beautiful, sane, salutary, etc., life is in a changed-world. Think of it as "flash fiction green blogging," to help people SEE THEMSELVES LIVING in the changedworld.
Again, feed the mirror neurons.

Emphasize in these stories the increased well-being and happiness of living in the changed world. Everyone wants their life to be a comedy; sustainability is the way to it (as in really the way to it. I am currently writing a book, The Tragedy and Comedy of Climate Change. )

Why the suggestion of a "green living house" in every neighborhood is so terrific is that it also feeds the mirror neurons. Why WIRED is so annoying is that it uses the old image, the hippie.

3) Start a Movement with a Cartoon
We need a new HUMAN ICON for worldchanging to replace the paleo-green treehugging hippie that remains, for the majority, the image and, because of the way the brain is configured, trumps the abstract ideas and statistics every time.

Audacious goal, wild idea: Create a cartoon character who represents the new way of thinking, being, acting -- the new individual "human" who possesses the attributes and ways of thinking that Alex and others on worldchanging and throughout the green internet have so brilliantly articulated.

Create either one nemesis or many who make this sane, wonderful, smart character's life very difficult. Make lots of funny cartoons about their encounters, a la Wiley E and Road Runner, that are PURE imagery, NO words (as Coyote and Road Runner are). Base these encounters on the complex, marvelous, prescient, insightful theories that inform worldchanging.

Distribute the cartoons all over the internet and at movie theatres all over the world. (No words, everyone will understand them.)

For each cartoon, post the books, sources, complicated theories that informed it.

This idea is wild, but it has a precedent in one of the greatest pieces of environmental writing ever, Gary Snyder's manifesto on Smokey the Bear.

Worldchanging/sustainability essentially needs its version of Smokey the Bear and Road Runner (who NEVER speaks and ALWAYS "quiets coyote's technological cleverness."

If this is done right -- with humor, intelligence, wit, responsibility and abundant imagination -- the world will change.

Mimi K

Posted by: MimiK on 4 Jun 08


if you are in Germany, this might be a group you contribute with

Posted by: stiven on 5 Jun 08

All I can say about "Wired" is they are masters of twisting facts to present a distorted vision. Did you read the article on how ancient forests are causing global warming? Wow, they say that most climate friendly policy is to log all old forests, replant them, and then log every 55 years. It sounds like the timber industry owns this magazine. I'm a student at Portland State University, and we wrote about "old growth" forests in our University blog, if you care to read more it is at:

Posted by: David Best on 5 Jun 08

Right on Alex. I like how you don't beat around the bush like a lot of environmentalists who try to do-si-do with big business on issues of "sustainability." The truth is we need to get impatient with big business and demand/create an entirely new model of socio-economic infrastructure. These inadequate baby steps you speak of are the products of our current mode of consciousness. To create a new paradigm of coexistence with the planet and each other we must do it from a new paradigm of thought.

Waste was a foreign concept to the Gaea system until humans came along. If we can glean insight from models in nature--such as the prosperous ecosystems of coral reefs, estuaries, or even the cooperative productivity that occurs inside our own bodies--I see no limit to the potential success that we can manifest out of these tumultuous times.

Posted by: Rowan North on 9 Jun 08



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