Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meditations on an Ancient Baby

I just can’t believe it. Are we really where I think we are? Or rather more accurately, where and when we are. I’m just sitting here with our Methuselah seedling, gift from the Champion Tree International Project, courtesy the US Forest Service three years ago.

This baby tree and I share a small apartment and home office in Oakland California with two others. The Methuselah Baby is only about five inches high. It was only two inches when we got it ceremonially at our World Environment Day ecocity conference in Oakland, 2005. Only twenty were sprouted, they said. Then the Forest Service had second thoughts and closed the project with Champion Tree. I don’t know about the nineteen others, but our friend is perky if small. I look out the east window over the planter box with the small bristlecone exuding such energy little specks of sap pop out randomly here and there on a scattering of needles, glistening like diamonds, smelling like mythological forests, the Black Forest, Green Mansions, Roraima, Papua New Guinea the Tiaga under cold stars filling your lungs with the north wind. It’s this intense saturation of pitch that helps make its parent, the Methuselah Tree in the White Mountains of California, almost invulnerable to rot and the oldest know living citizen of this here planet.

So this evening I sit watching the moon rise behind pink clouds and over the solar hot water panels next door, over the nine tall palm trees a block away. In the foreground there’s a potpourri of window box plants from flaming geraniums and blue flax to yellow wild mustard and oddball grasses. We have a pot for weeds that arrive by bird dropping. Then there is the Methuselah Baby watching the moon rise with me. What if it lives as long as its parent up at 11,000 feet in the White Mountains? That would be 4,770 plus years, says the Forest Service. We’ll definitely need to think hard to transplant it permanently in the right spot, given climate change.

So this is what I just can’t believe: The world is changing fast, burning out its fuses as humanity furiously burns up its fossil fuels. I’m a witness and so are you if you care to notice. Check out this month’s National Geographic. Russia’s gone materialistically gluttonous with oil and gas wealth, burning rubles along with oil like maybe they’d all exist forever. In Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island the locals are getting rich on oil money and literally eating up the rare expensive-to-catch monkeys they’ve shared the island with for hundreds of years. Hey! their taste for monkey meat is a cultural tradition and now they can afford it! And the cover article is about Iran and guess what it is they have that the world wants so much, which when the Methuselah Seeding is only 1/24th of its way through its life will be gone from this planet forever along with all the economically available gas and coal. Could it really be that we are going to flare out the biological/climate system fuse in one two-century jolt? Just last year everyone was about to do something about climate change and now everyone is scrambling to get to the last of the oil, pipe it in through Georgia or Russia, whoever wins that battle, and down from the Arctic Ocean and burn it up faster than ever.

We see countries like South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, New Zealand, the Philippines, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Mexico and others with electric power black outs (“load shedding” it’s called in many countries) or transportation fuel shortages or both – I follow these on In South Africa local papers have made a joke of it: romantic candle light dinners most nights of the week – because you have no choice. There, power outages are scheduled in the papers so people can plan around them – including the burglars who read the papers and wait for the electric security systems to go down before jumping back yard walls. In Botswana you call the police and they ask you if you can pay to fill their squad car’s gas tank. If not, they’ll have to wait for then next call.

Many countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Venezuela and some of the just mentioned are also running up immense debts or nearing national bankruptcy – include Iran in this list – for buying fuel at high prices and selling to their ungrateful people at wildly reduced prices. Clamoring for democracy and cheap energy all at the same time, the poor and middle class alike are taking part in strikes and riots for fuel and food because high fuel prices drive up food prices too. These disruptive activities are multiplying around the world steadily, not quiet like a run away “critical mass reaction” yet, but accelerating nonetheless. National governments around the world are succumbing to the pressure of their self-acknowledged addicted peoples by promising new coal-fired and nuclear power plants to make up the difference and the US is, as always, deploying soldiers, advisors or US based oil company paramilitary “contractors” along pipelines to gain more control everywhere from Nigeria and Columbia to Pakistan and Georgia – and preparing its citizens to drill in the Arctic and continental shelf, ASAP, even though what’s estimated to be there is a small fraction of what humanity has burned to date and what is estimated to be underground and under water in the Middle East, Russia and some former Soviet republics.

In my sunset meditations with the Methuselah Baby I notice also that not only have most of the countries of the world long ago passed peak oil production, some knowledgeable analysts like Matthew Simmons, who has spent a lifetime in the oil industry and is now one of the most prominent energy investment bankers in the world, say that the world peak production of light sweet crude, which is called that because it actually tastes slightly sweet, occurred in the summer of 2005 at about 76 million barrels a day. Production hit slightly less than that in 2006 and slightly less than that in 2007 and now or soon it is down slope forever while demand in China, India and almost all the rest of the world escalates - along with expectations, or addiction, to use the word of our current oil industry US President. Some remind us there are always tar sands and shale oil – but with far less energy return on energy invested in search and production, and much greater environmental damage.

So noticing these things, with the spunky little tree so full of life in babyhood, I also think about its youth, say 500 years into its 4,700 plus years – like a person about nine years old. Will most of the metals be gone too or unavailability expensive to obtain and process into useful and happy things by then? I call this “the rust factor,” and refer you to Allan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” which pushes his entertaining construct – what would happen if humanity just suddenly disappeared? – into unexpected and delightfully perverse and educational corners. One of those lines of inquiry leads us to the fact that iron, though plentiful, in fact without assiduous protection, rusts away into unavailability. Recycling will one day – in 500 years? – have to be near perfect to avoid the fate of small bits of wire and old bottle caps, pipes, appliances and so on, in addition to rusting, yielding to permanent dispersion, leaking through the billions of hands of people into ocean depths, beaches, desert sands and landfills until we won’t have enough energy to process it back into the economy again since the metals therein won’t be concentrated enough to be gathered and shaped into our stuff. Copper, aluminum, tin, chromium... along with iron will be ever more expensive to mine from ever deeper mines and ores of ever lower quality. When does it all hit the wall? Will the Methuselah Seedling see the dawning of the Second Stone Age something less than one quarter of the way through its life, in 1000 years, with scraps of metal becoming ever smaller and harder to obtain? Eskimos and the Greenland Norse, Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, scoured over thousands of square miles of ice and desolation to find the smallest fragments of iron from fallen meteors, these to be tools – that wore out eventually too.

Can we prepare for actually designing a world that maintains some serious material diversity in the long-term face of this? Could we start to design and build it now? Certainly, though diffuse and not as easily tapped as oil, solar and wind energy could provide an enormous source to keep some system going. But the systems themselves, and most predominantly of all, cities, would have to change in very basic ways, reducing demand for energy and materials radically. Recycling could approach 100% if we designed for exactly that. In Ecocity Builders we have always claimed that the foundation of the system, at least physically speaking – and that’s a lot – would be the cities, towns and villages designed consciously to be ecologically healthy from the get-go.

Once upon a long time ago I didn’t watch sunsets and moonrises with the Methusela Baby – Methuselah Senior was only 4,730 years old then, 800 miles to the west. I’d sit on the rooftop of my family’s hobby ranch house south of Santa Fe, New Mexico with my guitar and howl at the sunset, moon, stars, whatever, like a coyote, like any other self-respecting teenager. I’d obsess on humanity’s suicidal tendencies and ever imminent nuclear war while watching the western horizon – where Los Alamos sparkled in the night – where they were designing America’s nuclear arsenal. This will sound either embarrassingly naive or megalomaniacal, but I’d say to myself: I’m going to try to find “the keys to the secrets of the universe.” Stop those wars. Build a beautiful universe with all those principles and tools waiting to be discovered and invented. Those were the words I would use to myself but dared not utter to others... “keys to the secretes of the universe." Too extreme. But let’s face it, ecocities are one of those keys to the future, maybe even to the “secrets of the universe.” Get that right and much else will follow.

I hope you’re getting something out of this, little seedling. Well, at least it helps me dedicate some real effort to figuring out where to plant you for your long haul into the future of this planet. Anyone out there have ideas – you know... – home for this global warming orphan in a time of biosphere burnout? I’m hoping you’ll join us in building ecocities, but in addition, where to plant the Methuselah Baby?


Margaret Green said...

I am one person, but perhaps my in my story there is an experience shared by many others. We have watched and we have done what planning we could. My story took me from the wealthy suburb of Chicago where I was raised all the way to a small town in the hills of Tennessee to live in a small off the grid cabin where I raised my child for eight years, after my divorce. I grew up with a maid cleaning the house and learned to drive in a Cadillac, but chose to live a simple country life in the hopes that it would promise a more stable future for my child. From my point of view, the cities have failed. The planners have failed. My daughter's first memories are of quiet evenings watching the fire through glass doors of our wood stove. Clothes were dried on a clothes line on the porch, where she played among the damp hangings, sometimes running full speed into a large shirt and emerging on the other side with a face full of grinning joy. Our water came from a spring, our power was micro hydro, the light in the evening was kerosene lamps, and candles were used as night lights, in the bathroom and bedroom. We cooked with propane on an antique cook stove I was lucky to find. The water was pumped to the house's holding tank by a ram pump, without electricity, heated by a flash heater with propane and supplied us with hot water that never ran out. We watched a Blue Heron, our closest neighbor, fly over head from our front porch often. My daughter's favorite story is when a deer came chasing our cat, and almost followed it all the way to the front porch – even with us standing right there! We are certain the feline had gotten too close to her baby somehow.

We made city-people attempts at gardening and raising livestock for profit. We lost money and the local people were amused, but liked us better after our failure. Now we understand the hardships they have faced for generations.

But after eight years, my daughter wants neighborhood kids to play with, not planned trips to friends houses with a drive to get there. I have to admit that the isolation was hard on me too. The opportunities for work are very limited and I decided to start a business working from home, but I needed high speed Internet and decided to rent an apartment in a nearby town. Now my business is doing well and we have neighborhood kids for my daughter to play with. We are getting the cabin ready to sell.

So, I reflect, what did I learn from all this? It was all a grand adventure, but what next? I have to admit, now that we have central air, I love it. I still dry my clothes on a line, cook an occasional meal in our solar oven, but we have adapted well to moving back to civilization. I have to say now, going off to a cabin in the woods was not the answer. It was a step, but it is unreasonable to live in isolation just because I am forward thinking. I need community.

So, now I spend about ten hours a week researching to find a place to go next. I read about intentional communities, alternative schools, towns and cities where we might be happy. I just hadn't found “it” yet.

So, today I came across a web page describing a bicycle city. Ah, perhaps that would be perfect! I live in a place somewhere between what is and what could be, I cannot return to the cities as they are, because I have seen too much to be able to ignore their shortcomings. I cannot continue in isolation in the country, because I yearn for a more thriving community to be a part of. So, for now I just lie in a rented apartment, I run my home based business, home school my child, and hope to find some direction for our next move. I don't want to stay here, I don't want to go back. So, I can only go forward.

I do own a car, but I don't use it much at this point. I home school my daughter and I work at home. We only use it for grocery store trips or doctor visits. We could live quite happily in a bicycle city. We just need a place for the clothes line, a high speed Internet connection and room for our feline pets. I already have a bicycle and even a little pull-behind carrier for my daughter and groceries to ride in.

So, I read with great interest, your blog. Surely there are countless other like me, who have led a reclusive existence, who will come out of hiding if there were only some place to go TO. While a Methuselah may thrive in the forest, humans seem to thrive best in community. Most communities, as they exist now are too toxic, poorly planned, and full of people that don't appear to think. It would seem to me, that all we would have to do is get one successful bicycle city, and then there would be no stopping the movement. Just one. Anywhere. All I can say is count me in!

Amy Jo said...

Hi, Richard! (It's Amy from Ohio.) I feel as though I am able to leave this world, briefly, when I immerse my Self in your writings. Thank you.

Ms. Green's comments remind me of my work with the book I'm a part of - introduction to cultural diversity.

"Nature and culture are just as interrelated as society and culture. Humans rely on culture to establish, define, and sustain social interactions. But perhaps something more important, and sometimes overlooked, is our interdependent relationship with the natural world to provide sustenance for our existence. As humans began relying on culture instead of instincts to meet basic survival needs, this modernity brought with it the ability to adopt the natural world to fit those needs and provide SOME of us with our desires. We have created a culture of convenience that is at the expense of the natural world and its life-sustaining properties. Our fundamental ties to the natural world are being overlooked and exploited for the “advancement” of the human race. Increased lifespans and living conditions have come from this advancement, but only for some and at the expense of others – including non-human life forms."

I am working on a blog for class, and I hope you don't mind if I mention your work and Ecocity Builders. You know that my mission is to write my Self into your life eventually. When I have an assignment, I must help "plant the ecocity seed!" Legend and I thank you for your light.

With peace and hope...