This blog is about my own journey to sustainability—getting outside of the box and being more authentically human. It’s about not viewing 'wealth' as money, but as something much more holistic and broad. The ideas presented here come from my newest book, The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Heart of the Home

The kitchen is the heart of my home. It’s the hub of the domestic wheel. Since it’s where the woodstove is, this time of year, it’s where everyone gathers. And, everything of any importance takes place there: meals get prepared, recipes shared, bills paid, horse grains mixed, tinctures made, messages exchanged; kombucha brewed, coffee sipped and books read.


Sometimes I take for granted that the kitchen is the living heart of my home. That is, until someone reminds me. And, invariably, that reminder comes in the form of them telling me how “old fashioned” or “cozy” it is.

I’ve got generations of memories of the kitchen being the command post of the home. My grandmother’s kitchen was alive with conversation, cookie baking and ironing. We did our homework in the kitchen while she stirred the soup kettle over the woodstove. There were knitting projects by the rocking chair in the corner and grandpa read his book at the kitchen table while dunking cookies in coffee.

It’s not much different at my place. And, I forget that this is “old fashioned” or “cozy.” To me, it’s normal.

Every now or then, a well intentioned friend tries to bring me up to speed by reminding me that most modern homes center around the TV or home entertainment center. Folks in these households gathers around the television to eat (if you can call the consumption of processed junk-foods eating), nap, and veg out. This sounds de-vitalizing to me. I get an impression of people who are eviscerated and socially alienated.

My kitchen is vitalizing. People are animated and active. And, they are socially engaged with one another through lively conversation and shared projects. Things get done and company gets kept. Quality time isn’t scheduled — it just happens naturally.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics LS American Time Use Survey (A.C. Nielsen Co.), American households spent 5 hours and eleven minutes per day watching TV. Compare that to the 0.55 minutes that, according to the same survey, people spend in their kitchens per day. That’s right. Americans spend less than one hour a day in the heart of their home: the place where food — the nutritional foundation of human fuel — is prepared.

Americans spend more time engaged in passive distraction than active self-nourishment.

My kitchen is where we cook and eat; stack firewood; hang culinary herbs to dry; make floral elixirs; grind flour; dry wool socks and mittens; grow sprouts; and visit. It’s the first place people head when they come in the house. And, it’s a commercial-and-propaganda-free-zone: nobody is extolling the virtues of sugary breakfast cereals, weight loss programs, or celebrity trivialities.

I cleaned a horse bridle by the kitchen woodstove today. And, when I got it done, I hung it from the lamp so that everyone could look it over. I did yoga in the kitchen today—early in the morning before the press of activity took over. I read for a while in the kitchen this afternoon—after I had meditated by the woodstove while re-kindling a dwindling late-day fire.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a TV. Or, maybe it’s because my kitchen opens into all of the surrounding rooms. Or, maybe it’s because my kitchen is huge — like a healthy, fit heart that pumps vitality into the whole rest of the body.

Whatever the reason, I want it stay this way. I want the kitchen to remain the living nerve-center of my life. I want it to remain the domestic command post, the hub of the household wheel. It feels right that the really important things in life — good food, good friends and good times — all take place there.

I don’t want to come up to speed and be “modern.” I don’t want to lay on the couch and watch TV. I want to stir a soup kettle and make real, living memories.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Stuffing the Stockings with Less Stuff

It is easy to get caught up in holiday consumerism. It's not unusual for people to find themselves spending money on decorations, or rushing through thrift-stores searching for something, anything!, to get for friends and family. We like holidays because they offer us ritual, connection with people, and something to celebrate. But, even when the ritual involves buying unnecessary, excessive presents, we can find ourselves participating in that ritual—and it may not necessarily be a ritual we would have consciously chosen.


So how does one celebrate the holidays without breaking the bank, or giving in to the rituals of consumerism? Simple. Develop new rituals. This year, you don’t have to rack up credit card debt or get swept up in the season’s commercialism. Instead, consider creating holidays that instill more meaning into the season and encourage more sharing, laughter, creativity, and personal renewal.

According to the National Retail Federation, shoppers spent a total of $441.97 billion during the 2008 holiday season. 40% of Americans start their holiday shopping before Halloween. According to the Nilson Report, Americans’ credit card debt, by the end of 2008, reached $972.73 billion, up 1.12% from 2007, with the average credit card debt per household totaling $8,329. These numbers point to the urgency of our revisioning consumer habits. What if—instead of buying “stuff” for holiday gifts—we gave gifts of time, gifts of experience and gifts of charity?

Gifts of time include things like babysitting, car washing, a month of taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, shoveling the snow, cleaning the cat box, dog walking or pet sitting, or a hiking trip. When I was a young mother, my best friend always gave me one day of child-care a week. Oh, how I looked forward to that day each week when I could have “my own” time!—a respite from the demands of parenting two active toddlers.

Gifts of experience include things like an offer to teach a skill such as canning, ballroom dancing, knitting, or swimming. I often give my horsy friends a gift certificate for a dressage lesson. Or, I gift them with an afternoon of hiking and wildcrafting in the backcountry.

Gifts of charity might include a donation to a cause in the name of a family member. Some families make gifts to charities and then present family members with a coupon or card indicating the gift was made in their name. Or, you could support a homeless shelter or protect an acre of rainforest. You could designate an amount of money to donate to charity and let your children pick which causes will receive it. Older children can research organizations that match your family’s values.

And, of course, there is the option of homemade gifts. Homemade salsa, jam and baked goods all taste much better than their commercial counter-parts. Include, of course, the recipe. Or, you can mix tins of dried, wildcrafted teas such as lavender, mint or rose hips. Include a mesh tea strainer. One of my favorites is a mix of lavender, rose petals and clover.

Being creative and keeping your mind focused on the real meaning of gift-giving will help you keep the culture's "buy more" influence at bay. Keep in mind, too, that the efforts you make to curb your holiday spending now will free up more cash for the coming year. And that's the best holiday gift you can give yourself and your family.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Taking Action

I don't meet all that many people these days who still think that "things are fine" with the US economy - or that "recovery is right around the corner". The light-bulbs are coming on for people and they are beginning to realize that the current state of affairs is, as David Wann says, the New Normal. The Emperor really has no clothes. We've consumed our way past the Peak and the descent has begun.

On the other hand, I don't meet many people who do much more about this than merely talk! I hear a lot of "oh, ain't it awful" sagas without much accompanying action. And, frankly, the only thing that's really going to move us into a more secure future is action.

The time for talking is over. We need to take action while we still have some choices left.

We can decide to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to our current lifestyles and wait for the inevitable entropic free-fall. What we need to know to get by in a disintegrating industrial society is radically different from what we have needed to know to shop in malls, eat out, outsource our child-care, buy pre-packed food and work out in a gym.

Additionally, many of the requirements of an age of decline come with prolonged learning curves and a high price for failure. Starting right away to re-skill to navigate a de-industrializing society offers the best hope of getting through the difficult years ahead with some degree of dignity and grace.

Action is simple enough: figure out how you will be able to live after the next wave of crisis hits, and to the extent that you can, start living that way now:

· Figure out how you will get by if your job goes away or down-sizes, and you have to make do on much less money; downsize

· Get out of debt - all of it. Make paying off student loans, car loans, mortgages, and credit card balances a #1 priority

· Re-skill. Learn to do all of the things that your Grandparents did as a matter of course:

** Learn to grind wheat-berries into flour and bake bread

** Learn to cook and bake from scratch

** Use your clothesline instead of a dryer

** Learn to can vegetables and fruits

** Begin sun-drying herbs for teas and tinctures

** Learn jelly-making

** Learn how to care for livestock

** Consolidate errands to reduce transportation needs

** Get to know your neighbors and begin to help one another. Form support networks

· Develop barter and trade networks. Utilize the area Time Bank

· Spend less money. Stop buying stuff!

· Plant a garden and learn to care for it

· Start a compost bin and utilize your kitchen scraps and other waste

· Get fit so that you can bicycle or walk to local destinations.

· Get some laying hens

· Learn to do home repairs and have supplies and tools on hand

It's not sufficient to read and talk about this stuff. Experience is the ultimate teacher. We learn from our mistakes and it is a whole lot smarter to make those mistakes when the stakes aren't quite as high as they will be when the free-fall begins. If your garden fails now, you can still go to the market. That option might not be as readily available in post-industrialism. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words!

Back to Nature

Nietzsche said that we were all Hyperboreans. I'd say that if our culture were any more alienated from Nature, he'd have been better advised to call us all Extraterrestrials. We are, frankly, so removed from Nature that it's hard to take seriously our claim to be a vital part of the planet. More worrisome is the fact that most people don't even recognize the alienation. If asked, they tell you that they love Nature - evidenced by some weekend camping trips and occasional walks around the lake. That "love of Nature" goes sour pretty quick, though, if an insect joins the picnic or an unexpected thundershower comes up!

Frankly, we don't even know what we don't know. It's been part of the Great Forgetting. And, we've forgotten quickly - in about two generations. Our grandparents were nestled into Nature, like hand in glove. Our parents were less so. And, then there's us - who have spun out into differentiation so far that any real memory of being part of Nature is pretty shadowy. Vague. Dim.

Most people today wake up to the buzz of an alarm clock instead of the morning rustle of their livestock - or the crowing of a roster. Breakfast is wrapped in plastic or poured from a box instead of farm-fresh eggs and something from the garden. And, work is somewhere else rather than right on their land or property. Neither is their job a simple bike ride or walk away. It's somewhere that they have to get to - fast! - by petro-fueled vehicles, moving at about 60 mph. Rule out any chance of sniffing a neighbor's roses as a part of the commute. Once they are there, it's fluorescent lights, air conditioning and bottled water. Sans sunlight, fresh air or water. Lunch is prized for its long shelf life. And, at the end of the day, the whole process is reversed (with, perhaps, a quick stop at the gym, en route) and repeated. Daily life is an exercise in immersion in man-made culture. Even people's clothing is made from petrochemicals and flame retardants.

Such has been the high cost of civilization.

My children would tell you that I never really got civilized. My son, in fact, good-naturedly tells people that he was raised on "sticks and twigs" - meaning wild-crafted herbs and greens. He was. And, he was also raised to wake up with the morning rustle of the livestock. And, you can be sure that he never needed a gym membership. None of us did, because we were all sufficiently exercised, as a matter of course, by the end of the day.

I don't own an alarm clock. I still get up when the chickens and horses start to move around. When the sun comes up, a new day begins. Since going solar, I've gained a deeper appreciation for the sun. It's fair to say that, like millions of other people, I had taken the sun for granted. Since going solar-powered, I see it differently. I notice when it comes up and when it sets. I notice how quickly it cools off when the sun ducks behind a cloud. I notice that my garden grows better, and my chickens lay more eggs, when the sun is shining. I notice that my line-hung laundry dries in no time when Ole' Sol is out.

I also have a real appreciation for exactly how many kilowatts every one of my household appliances uses---which has prompted me to replace most of them with retrograde, non-electrical models. One of my best friends - who thinks I'm pretty quirky, but puts up with it - has developed a zeal for scouring the area thrift stores for non-electrical kitchen appliances. He's gifted me with rotary egg-beaters, hand-cranked blenders and cordless flat irons. I use an old-fashioned crank radio for catching the weather and news on NPR and, if I'm so inclined, a bit of classical music.

I also use a solar oven to cook. Pies, breads, casseroles and stews all turn out perfect. But, this means that I've learned exactly what times of the day the sun is the strongest. I can get my home-built solar oven up to 350 degrees F. if I utilize the morning rays, which are much stronger than afternoon sun. This is the same observation I use in planning where to plant vegetables and fruits. All sun-rays are not equal: morning sun gives me twice the bang for my buck as afternoon sun. That, of course, works inversely when dehydrating. When I put herbs and vegetables in my solar dehydrators, I don't want to cook them - just dry them. So, I choose afternoon hours, when the rays are less potent, for getting those outside. Afternoon is also the best time to move the horses over to the sunny paddock. Those old gray mares don't need the intensity of the morning sun.

Then, of course, there is the solar shower. Those big black bags take about five hours of direct morning sunlight to get sizzling hot. But, they cool off about twice as fast as they heat up! This means that showers are, ideally, early afternoon. It's an odd time to shower, by mainstream American standards, but it's perfectly aligned with the rhythms of the sun.

All of this saves the kilowatts that I sun-generate for the bigger jobs like powering lights, the well-pump, computer, and so forth. Taking this a step further - if I run those machines at peak sun hours, I utilize my off-grid component way better than if I run them when "it's convenient". Solar noon-- the moment when the Sun transits the celestial meridian - roughly the time when it highest above the horizon on that day - differs seasonally. That's when my system is cranking out the most juice for me - and when I should use electrical needs. This means that I am on the sun's schedule instead of "my" schedule. What happens, of course, is that after a while, the sun's schedule becomes "my" schedule.

And, almost magically, that little, insipid sense of self dissipates into the grander scheme of Nature.

Friday, January 27, 2012

What is That Thing in Your Yard?

After months of wrestling with the County Building Department about permits and codes, excruciating financial gymnastics and down and dirty back-breaking spadework, we finally got our solar installation up. It’s a massive 3 kw (stc) photovoltaic pole mount.

We feel like we created the best of two worlds, too, since we live way back in the woods while, at the same time, are generating a lot of electricity. We inscribed a Sun Mantra, OM Suryaya Namaha, around the base of the installation, honoring the Sun as the principal of light, life and love. In Vedic Philosophy, the Sun represents the soul—the causal body or reincarnating entity, as well as the mind of clarity and illumination.

As Charles Eisenstein, in Sacred Economics, points out, he is "not surprised that ancient people worshiped the sun, the only thing we know that gives without expectation or even possibility of return. The sun is generosity manifest." He goes on, a bit later, to say that "solar energy is the light of earthly love reflected back at us".

So, it goes without saying that we think our solar array is beautiful. It’s a piece of architectural artwork; it’s practical spirituality; it’s earthly love reflected back at us!

We have learned that this, however, is not a popularly held viewpoint. Comments have ranged from "what is that monstrosity in your back yard?" to "I wouldn’t put something like that on my property!". Oh, there was also the woman who asked if we were "expecting an alien landing". Good grief.

These comments, mind you, all came from people who wouldn’t think twice if there were a couple of junk cars sitting out there, or maybe even a garish TV satellite receiver. If we had stashed an old washer or dryer on the back porch or had a couple of broken-down snowmobiles in the shed, they’d walk right by them, too, and never bat an eyelash. But, some solar panels? No way!

Take, for example, the town of Warwick, in southern Orange County. They were the first community in the US to install solar panels on their Town Hall, install an electric car charging station near their farmers' market and attract an LEED-certified supermarket. While this all sounds good to me, the town is now contending with the complaints of people who do not like the idea of solar panels on downtown village homes. John Hicks, the town attorney and former Orange County Republican chairman whose wife sent in a letter of complaint regarding the solar installations, said he and his wife support energy efficiency but oppose the installation of solar panels on historic downtown homes "because basically solar panels are pretty ugly."

And, Warwick isn’t the only place where solar panels are under assault. Residents and politicians in Ridgewood, Wyckoff, and several other posh suburban towns just outside New York City are attacking local utility company PSE&G for putting up solar panels. Specifically, in an attempt to double the Garden State’s solar capacity, the company has been installing 3-foot-by-5-foot solar modules on utility poles. And the reactions are less than positive: “It’s just horrible,” said Ridgewood’s Deputy Mayor Tom Riche, according to an article in The Record, of Bergen County, N.J.
Aren’t we really addressing an age-old philosophical question about what constitutes beauty? Or fashion?

For example, no self-respecting chic woman of the 21st century would be caught dead in a fitted bodice with gathers and padded shoulders. But, if this were 1942, she’d be sizzling.

And, I’ll bet nobody thought that all of those electric lines that got hung in the early 1900’s were ugly. Probably not: they were too excited about exchanging their oil lamps for light bulbs. If we’re really talking about aesthetics, a nicely trimmed oil lamp is way prettier than a light switch. But, electric lights were a step forward. They lessened the chance of a house fire, didn’t emit fumes and put off way more light. So, nobody complained.

Well, it’s kind of the same with solar panels. They are a step forward. Solar power is renewable and non-polluting. And, after the initial investment, all of the electricity produced is free. As a culture, we’re just not used to looking at them yet. But, give us a decade or so, and they’ll be like those electric wires that are strung all over the place—we will hardly even notice them. And, when we do, we’ll recognize that they are beautiful. They’re beautiful because they are renewable and non-polluting. And, because they are a step forward. Their beauty is grounded in their contribution to sustainable futures. They are an icon to something that we are giving to—instead of taking away from—subsequent generations. They are not a fashion statement: they’re an evolutionary statement. They are monuments to the awakening of our species.

OM Suryaya Namaha.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sticking it to The Man

Glen W. Bowersock hit the nail on the head when he observed that:

"From the eighteenth century onward, we have been obsessed with the fall (of the Roman Empire): it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears."

I agree.

The parallels between the collapsing US Empire and Ancient Rome are staggering. The Roman Empire was brought to its knees through a confluence of factors, notably a decline in moral values, environmental degradation and associated health problems, political corruption, unemployment, inflation and military spending.

Not much has changed in a couple of thousand years.

The Romans lived in one of the most stratified societies in history. Around 1% of the population controlled the government, military and economy. The remaining 99% – commoners, slaves and others – were largely silent.

We’ve been silent, too, until recently. The Occupy Movement is the voice of today’s 99%.

George Monbiot likens our contemporary eco-social denial to Faustus’ pact with the devil, selling his soul for twenty-four more years of living “in all voluptuousness.”

He feels that self-initiated change can’t be sufficiently effective. “What is the point”, he says, “of cycling into town when the rest of the world is thundering past in monster trucks?”

Monbiot is an advocate of a top-down solution.

I disagree. The top–the 1%–don’t really care if the planet burns up. There’s probably money to be made on the biggest fire sale on Earth. The 1% doesn’t really care about sustainable futures. Their game is about profit. If change is going to come, it’s going to be from the bottom-up.

The bottom–the 99%–is beginning to draw a line in the sand.

In his 2006 book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen reminds us that if we don’t put a halt to it, mainstream culture–The Man–will continue to eviscerate the vast majority of us and to degrade the planet until it collapses.

Jensen’s not a lone wolf. There are plenty of people saying this. And, it’s not even a particularly recent theme.

Herbert Marcuse, for example, sang the same song in the late 1960′s in An Essay on Liberation when he argued that traditional conceptions of human freedom have been rendered obsolete by the development of advanced industrial society–the elite Corporatocracy.

It’s time for us all to draw a line in the sand. It’s time to realize that there really isn’t any fixing the corporate whore that we call the government.

As Marcuse wrote, “The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms.”

One form is the Occupy Movement.

Another form is something I call unplugging from The Man. Scott Nearing put it succinctly when he wrote that he:

"must reduce wants and even needs to a minimum; wherever possible, serve myself, raise and prepare my own food, wash my own clothing, do my own building and repairing, maintain the best of health to avoid the heavy costs involved in sickness, keep down such fixed costs as rent, interest and taxes; never borrow and take on interest slavery, but always pay cash; build up a capital reserve sufficient to cover a full year of unemployment, and be prepared for emergencies."

There are dozens of ways to pull the proverbial plug. We can all do it differently and still make a collective impact. We can even do it incrementally and progressively as we get more comfortable with new lifestyle behaviors.

There’s no point in expecting The Man to change. It’s not going to happen. The corrupt system works for him. He’s getting richer and fatter. So, we have to find a way to wave goodbye to The Man who’s never paid more than lip service to any of our attempts to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” anyway.

The more we unplug, the more we’ll find ourselves, in the words of Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life.

I’ve done a lot of unplugging and I don’t feel as if I’ve given anything up. I feel, conversely, as if I’m liberated from things that I never really needed in the first place. I feel as if I’m coming back to life.

Martin Heidegger’s big idea was that most people get so lost in das Man (The Man) that they never really examine their lives and, consequently, they don’t know themselves. Totally exteriorized, they’re easy to enculturate, to condition, and to propagandize. It’s easy for The Man to keep people subdued in the golden handcuffs of convenience, comfort and consumer goods.

But, one day the handcuffs start to feel tight. They might even chafe the wrists. A bubble-priced home is suddenly under-water. The warranty wears off the new SUV while paychecks can’t keep pace with rising food and fuel prices. Workers get furloughed and their kids can’t afford college. Many start to wonder, Is this the American dream?

A few realize that they’ve been lied to while The Man has laughed all the way to the bank. That’s when they might decide to draw a line in the sand—to Unplug from the Man—and march to the beat of a different drummer. This is the threshold of Transition.

In order to unplug we need to change our thinking. This is huge: much bigger than most people realize. Most people, in fact, have no real idea what they’re thinking. They’re on remote control, auto-pilot, creatures of habituated behavior that hasn’t been examined in decades. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they’re fully conditioned robots.

Unplugging begins in the head. We have to mentally unplug before we can physically unplug. I’m talking about making conscious decisions to change deeply entrenched patterns of behavior. Let’s look at a couple of examples: 


Every time people run out of an item, they automatically assume that they need another one. The same is true of things that get broken, lost or worn-out. The meme is that everything has to be replaced: always, forever.

This is simply not true. We already have enough stuff in our garages, attics, cellars and storage sheds to patch-in for anything that really needs to be replaced. The first question, though, is, “Do we really even need this item?” Chances are, we don’t. Chances are, we already own a dozen other items that can do the same task. Next step: use one of those.

If, however, the answer is that we really do need the item, the question becomes, “Do we have anything with which to ‘make do’ in place of this item?”

My Grandmother was a master of making-do. I thought of her the other day when I needed a small embroidery hoop. Mine had gone missing and I wasn’t about to buy another one. How could I make do? What would Grandma have done? After a bit of thrashing around, I seized upon the idea of using the ring from a lid of a wide-mouth canning jar and a rubber band. Worked just fine!

But to pull this off, we have to stop the automatic impulse to go get it and, instead, cultivate an impulse to create it. We have to replace buying with making. After a person switches to this type of thinking, it’s not only liberating–it’s downright fun! We’re the artists of our own lives–lives that truly belong to us, not to The Man.

While we’re talking about changing our minds, we need to look at how we view people.

Do we fire our snow-shoveler (even though he’s given us 20 years of loyal service) because a new guy will do it cheaper? Or, do we let our experienced teachers get laid off and be replaced by rookies because they’ll work for no benefits? Do we evict our tenant with whom we have an informal rent-control agreement in order to raise the rent on a newbie?

This happen every day of the week. But people aren’t objects. Let me say that again: people aren’t objects.

There’s more to our business relationships than business. There is humanness. We’re human beings first; landlords, tax payers, and property owners second.

Do you remember where your grandfather worked? Everybody in the shop knew each other back then–and each other’s children. They cared about each other’s families. They were community. If someone fell into hard times, everyone passed the hat. If a neighbor couldn’t pay the rent, solutions were found by which he could remain in his home and work it out.

They guy who plowed the snow was part of the family–he got a big box of cookies for the holidays and a rag-doll for his child. Sure, people watched their pennies. But, that wasn’t all that they watched. They knew they needed each other and that their community was only as strong as the weakest member.

This is going to require a big shift in the head. Contemporary Americans feel justified in getting the cheapest–no matter the hidden cost of the so-called bargain. We have to start looking at the big picture again. Enlightened self-interest needs to replace simple self-interest.

Marcuse called it choosing not to participate in one-dimensional society. I’m calling it unplugging from The Man. No difference.

It’s about becoming truly free. Seeking liberation from a system that’s choking the life-blood out of our humanness.

Once we’ve made up our minds to unplug, we need to map out a blueprint for doing it. There’s a lot to do and we can only do a bit at a time. So, jump in wherever works best for you–but keep at it. Keep unplugging one step at a time until you start to feel free. Fewer bills, less rushing around, better health and more happiness!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Making Friends with Vishnu

The concept of sustainability has always been there—right from the beginning. Every Wisdom Tradition has its own ways of reminding us to honor the Earth, to Love each other and to value the lives that we are given. Nonetheless, we, too often, have a “better idea” and rush headlong into unconscious, entrenched, egoistic patterns. Let’s take time out for a minute and see what one of the oldest Wisdom Traditions in the World has to say about sustainability. More specifically, let’s see what Vishnu brings to the discussion.

Brahma is the first member of the Hindu Trinity, Vishnu being the second and Shiva, the third. Brahma is the god of creation. Shiva is the god of destruction. Destruction and creation go hand in hand. They are like two sides of a coin. For example, the destruction of morning is the creation of noon and the destruction of noon is the creation of night. This chain of continuous destruction and construction maintains the day. Similarly, the destruction of childhood is the creation of youth and the destruction of youth, the creation of old age. In this process of birth and death the individual is maintained. Vishnu is the god of maintenance.

The gods representing creation, maintenance and destruction, are essentially one and the same. They, however, appear quite differently. We love to dance with Shiva. We are seduced by creation. We are excited by starting projects--feeling the surge of juicy creativity. We’ll work for a week to plant a garden and, later, fail to weed it.

We feel just as powerful when we are destructive. Destroying something gives us a sense of closure—of power. We’ll till that same garden, weeds and all, under in late Fall. We might even mumble something about “taking better care of it next year”.

So, we begin. And, we end. And, we begin. And, we end. It’s a cycle that is highly unsustainable. But, it’s also a pattern that is indigenous to our species. Our egos thrive on the excitement of beginning and ending. Maintenance is a whole different matter. It’s boring. No adrenaline. No bells and whistles. So, poor Vishnu—the god who holds everything together--gets forgotten.

All of our creation and destruction is wreaking havoc with the Earth. We are filling landfills with our destruction, depleting resources with our creation. We buy too much and we throw too much away. We are too industrial and too wasteful. It’s time for us to make friends with Vishnu, god of maintenance, to create a cycle of sustainability.

How sustainable is it to spend a lot of money on expensive seeds and bedding plants to build a garden and then let it be taken over by weeds—only to be tilled under in the Fall? Vishnu wants us out there weeding, mulching, watering, and tending. He wants the plants to be cared for so that they can grow into food.

Vishnu wants us to maintain everything. He wants us to maintain our lives: everything from our gardens to our interpersonal relationships. It’s time to make friends with Vishnu. He is the god at the very heart of a sustainable lifestyle! There are so many places, daily, that Vishnu’s presence would abet deeper sustainability. Let’s look at just a few:

· Mending: Nobody mends anymore. When we hear the word, it conjures up ideas of our grandmother, sitting in her rocking chair, darning socks. Grandma would be pretty shocked at today’s response to a worn sock—that is, to just throw it away and go buy new ones. Sewing on buttons, fixing small tears, and reinforcing frayed seams all extend the life of clothing exponentially. I know, I know. The argument against mending is that you don’t have time. A family of four spends an average of $2,850 a year on apparel and apparel services, according to the federal government's Consumer Expenditure Survey. Too many times people chuck a piece of clothing because of minor damage that can easily be corrected with a needle and thread. It behooves one to learn how to sew, as this simple skill can save you lots of money, even without owning a sewing machine. If learning isn't an option, even paying a seamstress to mend your clothes will save you money, as repairing clothes is cheaper than buying new. And, there is the issue of not supporting sweatshops—where so much clothing is currently manufactured.

· Garden Care: Here is some really basic gardening advice: don’t plant more than you can reasonably weed, water, harvest and tend. Garden plants are not knick-knacks. They are living entities that depend upon their caregivers for continued life. Well done, a garden is a work of art—a thing that is beautiful to behold. Badly done, it is tragic. Weed-infested beds, pest-destroyed leaves, dry and withered stems break Vishnu’s heart. There is a lot of hype out there right now about “growing your own food”. I do it. And, it means that I spend a lot of time with Vishnu. I weed. I water, I harvest. I tend. A garden is a great lesson in, literally, reaping what you sow!

· Menu Planning: This is an area that can save a family big money. And, a lot of time, as well. The simple act of sitting down and figuring out a week’s worth of cook-at-home dinners, where ingredients can be shared over the course of several menus is really economical. And, not running to the store daily to “pick up” needed ingredients for meals is a time, money and gas saver. Most people find that by planning, and shopping for, menus on a weekly basis reduces their grocery bill exponentially. Sure, it’s a little more time spent with Vishnu, but it reaps rewards on many levels. Grocery shopping with a plan limits pricey impulse purchases and return trips to the store for forgotten items. Planning ahead also helps avoid the 5 o’clock “what’s for dinner?” question that too easily leads to the answer, “let’s go out to eat.” You can also plan for inexpensive foods that take a little longer but save money, like dry beans that need to be soaked overnight.

· Consolidating Errands: Speaking of trying to eliminate those return trips to the store for forgotten items…! Vishnu wants us to consolidate our errands. He is a whole lot happier when we are not running back and forth to town to “pick up” this and that. Even if you bicycle to town and back like I do, it’s still not time efficient to run back and forth constantly. I try to advance plan my trips to town so that appointments, errands, shopping needs and so forth are all consolidated. A trip to the dentist gets combined with Farmer’s Market, mailing out my package at the Post Office, returning a Library book and picking up some green tea at the spice shop. This takes some forethought and some list building: the stuff that Vishnu thrives on! I’ve learned to rely on a little notebook that I keep shoved in my pocket to jot down “to dos” that can be consolidated later in the week. This also slows the pace of life. Not everything is an emergency! Things happen more organically and naturally—and, I often find that they happen exactly at the “right time” in the bigger picture.

· Day Planning: I have found that by sitting down in the morning with a piece of paper and pencil can save me a lot of time throughout the rest of the day. First, I make a master list of what I would like to accomplish that day (no attachment to the outcome, though!). Then, I move the items around into clusters that naturally go together. Can I combine a couple of “to dos” into a melded activity whereby both are getting done at roughly the same time through careful planning? Am I, for example, able to tele-conference with my editor at the same time I water some new transplants in the garden? Or, how about listening to an important podcast while filling the food dehydrator? The other day I experimented with seeing how many yoga asanas I could incorporate into my posture while weeding the garden. It was really neat! I cross things off my day list as they get done. Sometimes everything gets crossed off. Not that often, though. But, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I stay focused throughout the day, allowing more to get done with less hustle. With some practice and Vishnu’s guidance, anyone can become a master of time!

· Home Repairs: This point speaks for itself. Doing home repairs saves money, time and eventual deterioration. This is the easiest place to see Vishnu in action. Plugged drains, loose shingles, sagging porch rails, peeling paint are all calling out to Vishnu. Without his intervention, they will soon be in rot and ruin. There is so much information these days, too, about “how to” do the various repairs. There is a Wiki on everything—many complete with video instruction! There is something incredibly liberating about fixing your own faucet. And, many times, it’s not that hard! Sure, it takes a little time. But, if you do the math, it actually saves you time. A plumber, for example, would easily cost you $150. to fix a leaky faucet. If you earn $15./hour, that means that you have to work ten hours to pay him/her. Did fixing it yourself take ten hours?

These are some simple, elementary ways to start making friends with Vishnu. You will find that the better friends the two of you become, the more Flow you access in your life. Things get easier. Time opens up. Money is saved. Resources are not wasted. Energy needs are reduced. Living well is spirituality in action. It is an integration of the spiritual principles of simplicity, integrity and mindfulness with day-to-day lifestyle practices. The bridging of Heaven and Earth!

Sherry L. Ackerman, Ph.D. is the author of The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle. The book springs off from her 22 years of living on a back-to-the-earth commune in Central Vermont and offers practical ideas for not only surviving--but flourishing--in today's challenging conditions.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Philosophical Musings on the Juxtaposition of the Words "Commercial" and "Food"


So, how did it happen? How did we all get complacent enough to accept the phrase "commercially produced food" without even blinking an eye? How did Uncle Sam go from advising the US public "to garden" to later telling the US public "to shop". And, not just to shop, but to shop for food.

Food is the hub of the wheel. It's the one thing that we all have in common: we all have to eat. And, we are what we eat. Recent statistics regarding the number of people with early onset cancer, degenerative disease, diabetes and dementia all point to a decline in the quality of our food. "Commercial" anything is about profit, not quality. So, when food becomes a profit motive, a lot goes out the door.

Some of the things that fly out the door are health, money (yours, not theirs), environment and energy. Big Agriculture is unconcerned about the environmental carnage left behind by pesticides, GMO crops, soil depletion or erosion.Big Agriculture is unconcerned about how much fuel it takes to run those mega-machines to produce, harvest and transport crops. And, Big Agriculture doesn't care how much food costs you and your family. They care about directing profits to already rich corporate interests.

Most of the food in your supermarket travels thousands of miles in trucks or planes to get from the farm to the shelves. Think about how much fuel us used to transport those items. What kind of impact does that have on the environment? When you purchase food at the store, you’re also paying for the cost of shipping, packaging and storing that food. What kind of impact does that have on your wallet?

While organic foods have grown in popularity, many commercially available foods are still sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and preservative formulas to prevent disease and spoilage. The USDA currently allows "57 trace pesticides" in foods labeled organic. Are you scared (or angry) yet? Not only can these chemicals pose health risks to you, they also impact the environment through air and water pollution.

The concept of "commercial food" really gets at the heart of the differential identified by Scott Nearing. Nearing made a clear distinction between "use production" and "market production". Use production is when you produce something (in this case, food) for your own household's use. Market production, obviously, is producing for sale on the open market. Nearing argued, and I agree, the "use production" was, in the Big Picture, the most efficient and effective economic model.

By growing and preserving your own food, for example, you’ll save money. Food grown from seed costs a lot less than store-bought. By preserving your harvest you can reduce the amount of food you throw away due to spoilage. There is no packaging. There are no middle managers. In addition, you can save the seeds from the fruits of your plants and replant them next year. By following these practices you could feed yourself indefinitely.

Food that you grow yourself just tastes better. Food in markets, even health food stores, is often in cold storage for up to a month before being sold. Fresh food is more nutritious and has better flavor than the stuff that comes from the store.

I grow my own food. I "get my groceries off the ground". When I walk through my garden and cut fresh greens for salad--and eat them no more than an hour later--the benefits of Nearing's "use economy" are evident. Nothing, absolutely nothing, that I can buy at a market (even a Farmer's Market) comes close to the level of quality that I can produce right outside my window.

It's my vision that more and more people will wave goodbye to "commercial food" and replace it with a "use economy" model. If Uncle Sam won't tell us to GARDEN anymore, we'll just do it ourselves!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Unplugging from The Man, Part 5


As we get deeper into Unplugging from the Man, we invariably come face-to-face with our addiction to petroleum. Sure, we like to sit around and do the "ain't it awful" with our peers, but we keep using gasoline. Classic addiction: I'll stop tomorrow. And, tomorrow never comes.

So, what's the solution? Stop pumping!! It's that simple.

The average American household spends $385./month on gasoline. That is almost $100./week. Even with the recent surge in gas prices, consumption has only reduced by 0.7%. We all know that we are past peak oil. We all know that our three wars are contingent upon our lust for oil. Yet, our societal behavioral changes seem to lag behind our knowledge. We are suffering from cultural cognitive dissonance.

Let's look at some practical things that we could do, easily, to stop pumping and start Unplugging:

(1) Bicycle: Get a bicycle, equip it with a basket for carrying groceries. You'll be getting heart-healthy at the same time you stop stressing about escalating gas prices. You'll slow down. You'll notice more things along your route. And, you will no longer be held captive by the oil barons. Bicycling is good for the Planet, good for your health and good for saving money.

We all think that we don't have time to bicycle places. It's just a head trip. Recently, my partner needed a large bunch of mint to put in his recipe for the evening meal. So, I hopped on my bicycle and went a couple of miles down the road to a large pond, where both peppermint and spearmint grow abundantly along the south shores. Within a few minutes, I had filled my bike basket and was peddling back home, enjoying the fragrance of fresh cut mints. My more conventional neighbors asked me, “How do you find the time to do these things?” Let’s take a look at this, though, for a minute. I can bicycle eight miles per hour even on a bad day. That puts my transportation time at roughly fifteen minutes. The actual wildcrafting takes about ten minutes, including the time spent watching some ducklings learning to bob for fish, bringing my total time investment to about twenty-five minutes. This is roughly ten minutes less than it would be to drive into town and go to the market. There are no hidden time costs such as parking, waiting in a checkout line, or having to go to a second store because the first one didn’t have it. My mints were super fresh, didn’t require any packaging or gasoline use, and didn’t create any auto emissions. So, we do have time to bicycle places!

(2) Ride Share: How hard would it be to share rides with others? Sure, it involves some planning, but that's about it. Planning means that you will be talking with your neighbors and colleagues. And, what's so bad about that? Wouldn't that be community? Have you ever gone to your son or dauther's sporting event and noticed that all of your neighbors are there, too--and that you all fired up your own, individual gas guzzling machines to drive down there?

Commuting just 15 miles each way to work can cost as much as $ 2,264 per year at current gas prices. Sharing the ride with just one other person can cut your commuting costs in half. Think of all of the more interesting things that you could do with that extra thousand dollars!

(3) Consolidate Errands: Again, a little planning can go a long ways. Instead of firing up your rig to run into town and back every day of the week, designate one day as "errand day". Train yourself to get sufficiently organized to do everything that you need to do in a single trip to town: groceries, errands, meetings and appointments. Make lists. Work around already existing commitments. If, for example, you have a weekly Wednesday afternoon appointment or meeting, go into town a little earlier on Wednesdays and also do your shopping and errands.

We are so incredibly used to instant gratification that this will make us uneasy for awhile. We are used to running into town to pick up a single lag bolt, right? Or, a bottle of olive oil? Once, though, the savings start to show up in the household budget, we'll be really excited about the whole list-making and planning process! There is real money (and time) to be saved here.

(4) Walk, Ski, Snowshoe: You will be surprised how fit you will get in a very short time by making this lifestyle change. When you feel like a trip to town just to "get a java" at the local coffee shop, ski in. Walk. Snowshoe. Or, bike. It makes the outing even more fun than it would have originally have been. Maybe you could invite a friend to share the foot-transport with you.

Of course, we keep pumping because we think, erroneously, that we "don't have time" for alternative forms of transportation. But, why are people in the most technologically advanced civilization in the world starved for time? One of the hooks that keep people locked into the consumer culture is the lure of convenience. We are told that convenience frees up time. This looks good on paper, but when inspected more closely, it doesn’t quite ring true.

Convenience does, superficially, create more time. But those conveniences are expensive and, in the long run, require people to work more hours to make more income to pay for them. In other words, people end up working more hours—thereby having less available time—to make enough money to pay for convenience. The final product of convenience is time famine. There’s something wrong with this picture.

Harvard economist Juliet Schor, in The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, argues from statistics what I have figured out from experience. According to Schor, American’s work increases by one day each year. Averaging only sixteen hours of leisure a week after jobs and associated travel and communication responsibilities, working hours are longer than they were forty years ago. This, in large part, traces back to our addiction to gasoline. It strikes me that by dealing with our gasoline addiction--which is really a "convenience addiction"--we will be freed up to enjoy more leisure. And, that's a pretty nice perk for Unplugging from the Man.

Author’s Note: This blogpost was the fifth in a series of articles about Unplugging from the Man. Stay tuned for more suggestions and ideas about achieving personal freedom.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Unplugging from The Man, Part 4

So, we've made up our minds to Unplug from The Man. We want to loosen the noose and pursue personal freedom. Our wrists are chafed from the golden handcuffs and it's time to shake them off. We are in Transition and we need to continue to hammer out our blueprint for liberation. In Part 3 of this series, I put forward some good preliminary ideas for starting to Unplug. But now, in this Part, let's go deeper:

* Get rid of your TV. It has to go. It's that simple. The TV keeps you shackled to the Establishment. It programs you as to what to buy, what to think and what to say. It's subtle, but it's there: the hidden agenda. TV watchers stop thinking for themselves. A slow, incremental exteriorization happens. The advertisements get to even the most vigilant. It is subliminal and insidious. Don't tell me, either, that "there are a lot of good programs on TV". For every "good one", there are a dozen "bad ones". You are just rationalizing. Take a deep breath and pull the plug.

* Park your car. Get a bicycle, equip it with a basket for carrying groceries and you've got your Transition transportation. You'll be getting heart-healthy at the same time you stop stressing about escalating gas prices. You'll slow down. You'll notice more things along your route. And, you will no longer be held captive by the oil barons. Bicycling is good for the Planet, good for your health and good for saving money. Freedom!

* Say goodbye to your phone. You read that right. Get rid of your landline. Nobody needs one anymore. And, nobody really needs a smart phone, either. Sure, they're fun, but they're also expensive (not to mention that they track your whereabout and, starting in 2012, will issue daily "terror alerts" from the White House. Seriously.) Try Google Phone for a pleasant--free!--surprise! You can get your own number. It has voicemail, caller ID and call forwarding. And, all calls within the US are free.

* Support alternative news. The US is currently among the most propagandized nations in the world. The commercial, corporate news sites don't really report "news" anymore. It's, instead, a steady stream of ideology funded by vested special interests. The independent, alternative news sites are the only operative venues of real, uncensored information. Support them! Let's not let them die from malnutrition. Without them, we will be proverbial sheep.

Unplugging from The Man is an essential component of our own personal versions of Power Shift 2011. It's going to mean adjusting to some changes, but the sweet taste of freedom is worth it!

Author’s Note: This blogpost was the fourth in a series of articles about Unplugging from the Man. Stay tuned for more suggestions and ideas about achieving personal freedom.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Revolution is not a Photo Opportunity

One of my young philosophy mentees contacted me yesterday. She was, understandably, upset about the socio-political apathy in her generation. She had recently attended a non-violent demonstration in Portland, OR, with some seemingly politically oriented peers--only to discover that they were, for the most part, more interested in taking pictures of one another "demonstrating" (to post on Facebook) than they were in the actual socio-political issues.

She reported that she overheard comments like "stand closer together so that I can get you all in the picture" and "turn the sign this way so that it shows up in the photo" repeatedly. It was a party, an event, a gala--not a real show of dissent. It was a photo opportunity--which they had confused with a revolution.

Revolution requires the willingness to assume risk--of arrest, of uncomfortability, of anonymity and, of course, of being misunderstood. The real revolutionary, even when part of a group, is alone. Painfully alone. Existentially isolated. The real revolutionary's commitment runs so deep that s/he is rarely understood. Those who do share his/her vision are few. They are real friends. Comrades. Not people to tag in a Facebook picture.

Real revolutionaries don't carry their cameras to a rally. Nor do they carry their tracking-deviced cell phones. They would be just as happy if nobody even knew that they were there. But there are there. Very much so. They are there because they can't not be there. And, they can't not be there because they care so much about the issue. It's not about them, it's about the issue. They care--from deep down inside themselves--about all of the Bradley Mannings, the environment, the economy, The People.

That's the defining line: a real revolutionary doesn't want his/her photo on Facebook. S/he just wants to speak, to be heard, to make a difference. It isn't about him/her. It's about all of us!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unplugging from The Man, Part 3

Marcuse called it choosing not to participate in one-dimensional society. I'm calling it Unplugging from the Man. No difference. It's getting free. Seeking liberation from a system that is choking the life-blood out of our humanness. Once we've made up our minds to Unplug, we need to map out a blueprint for doing it. There's a lot to do and we can only do a bit at a time. So, jump in wherever works best for you--but keep at it. Keep Unplugging one step at a time until you start to feel free. Fewer bills, less rushing around, better health and more happiness!

Let's turn our attention to some super easy places to Unplug that will give you a lot of bang for your buck. Let's look at doing things at home (wave goodbye to commercial culture) and by hand (wave goodbye to industrial culture):

(1) Cooking. Marcuse, in his Essay on Liberation, says that if our lives were more aligned with The Beautiful (and I would say, therefore, Good Lives!), that art would recapture some of its more primitive "technical" connations such as the "art of preparing food". Cooking at home turns an otherwise sterile kitchen into the living heart of a home. The smell of a fresh pie, the sound of a stirfry, the sight of a quiche fresh from the oven all spell connectedness. It is the sensory experience of community. Stories are told, news is shared, gossip is swapped. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Homecooked food is more nutritional, more cost-effective, creates less waste and builds community. Dinner anyone?

(2) Cultivating. And, so much the better if the food that you are preparing was grown right outside your kitchen window. Take out your lawn and put in a vegetable garden! I have just returned from a tiny town in rural Portugal where there wasn't a lawn in sight. Instead, every single yard was full of lemon trees, orange trees, vegetable gardens and potato patches. The edible yards were really beautiful--alive with color and interesting layouts. Families were outside tending their gardens together to the tune of laughter.

(3) Crafting. Why don't you start with making some of your own clothes. You can go uber-creative and make "wearable art". Or, you can mix old and new school by knitting/crocheting some really unique, one-of-a-kind gladrags. This winter I cranked out a new pair of wool socks, a silk hat, an alpaca sweater and I'm halfway through a long crochetted cape. Good looking stuff, handmade by the fire with friends and family doing their thing nearby. And, once you're handy with a needle and thread, you can mend your existing clothing really quickly, also extending its useful life.

(4) Power Down. Have you tried turning off the lights for a night? Fabulous! How about designating one or two nights a week as no-lights nights, using only candles and/or olive oil lamps. It's romantic. It's beautiful. And, you'll find yourself shifting into a much more relaxed evening protocol. I often play my harpsichord with blazing candles on both sides of my sheet music. Baroque music, played with the feel of the baroque period! Once you get used to going without lights every now and then, you'll find yourself discovering other electrical appliances and/or devices that you, frankly, just don't really need. Things that you previously considered "necessities" will seem extraneous.

(4) Freecycle. So, then you can give them away! My area has an online forum of "stuff" that people want to give away. No strings attached--just given freely to others. I list "stuff" on there periodically and have made some really great connections with people here in my area. It makes me feel really good to watch someone get something - for free! - that they really needed and weren't in a good position to buy.

(5) Live! Finally, find more ways to actually inhabit your home. You own it. Live there! Some people own their houses, but are hardly ever home. Find ways to spend more and more time in your own castle. Enjoy it. Invite people over. Cook together. Cultivate together. Craft together. Power Down together (it's fun to have people over on no-lights night! How about a cozy little candlelight dinner party?). And, swap "stuff". Become co-heirs in freedom: the rawest form of succession. Liberated. Unplugged.

Author’s Note: This blogpost was the third in a series of articles about Unplugging from the Man. Stay tuned for more suggestions and ideas about achieving personal freedom.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Unplugging from The Man, Part 2

One of the things that we need to do in order to Unplug is change our thinking. This is huge: much bigger than most people realize. Most people, in fact, have no real idea what they are thinking. They are on remote control, auto-pilot, creatures of habituated behavior that hasn't been examined in decades. Like Pavlov's dogs, they are fully conditioned robots.

Unplugging begins in the head. We have to mentally Unplug before we can physically Unplug. I'm talking about making conscious decisions to change deeply entrenched patterns of behavior. Let's look at a couple of examples:

Every time that people run out of an item, they automatically assume that "they need another one" and put it on the shopping list. The same is true of things that get broken, lost or worn-out. The meme is that everything has to be replaced: always, forever. This is simply not true. We already have enough "stuff" in our garages, attics, cellars and storage sheds to patch-in for anything that really needs to be replaced. The first question, though, is: "do we really even need this item?" Chances are, we don't. Chances are, we already own a dozen other items that can do the same task. Next step: use one of those.

If, however, the answer is that we really do need the item, the next question becomes, "do we have anything with which to 'make do' in place of this item?" My Grandmother, a feisty Vermonter, was the Master of Making-Do. I thought of her the other day when I needed a small embroidery hoop. Mine had gone missing and was nowhere to be found--and I certainly wasn't about to buy another one. How could I 'make do'? What would my Grandmother have done? After a bit of thrashing around, I seized upon the idea of using the ring from a lid of a wide-mouth canning jar and a rubber band. 'Worked just fine!

But to pull this off, we have to stop the automatic impulse to "go get it" and, instead, cultivate an impulse to "create it". We have to replace buying with making. After a person switches to this type of thinking, it is not only liberating--it is downright fun! We are the artists of our own lives--lives that truly belong to us, not to The Man. Freedom! The most raw and potent form of secession.

While we are talking about changing our minds, we should look at how we view people. Do we discontinue using our snow-plow guy (even though he's given us 20 years of good, loyal service?) because some new guy will do it "cheaper"? Or, do we let our experienced teachers get laid off and be replaced by inexperienced rookies, because they are "cheaper"? And, do we evict our tenant with whom we have an informal rent-control agreement in order to get a new tenant who can "pay more"? These kinds of things happen every day of the week. People are not widgets! Let me say that again: people are not widgets! There is more to our "business" relationships than business. There is humanness. We are human beings first; landlords, tax payers and property owners second.

Do you remember where your Grandfather worked? Everybody in the shop knew each other--and each other's children. They cared about each other's families. They were community. If someone fell into hard times, they passed the hat. If a neighbor couldn't pay the rent, solutions were found by which s/he could remain in their home and work it out. They guy who plowed the snow was part of the family--he got a big box of cookies for the Holidays and a rag-doll for his child. Sure, people watched their pennies. But, that wasn't all that they watched. They knew that they needed each other and that their community was only as strong as their weakest member.

This is going to require a big shift in the head. Contemporary Americans feel justified in getting "the cheapest"--no matter what the actual cost of the so-called "bargain" is. We have to start looking at the big picture again. Enlightened self-interest needs to replace simply self-interest.

The Man isn't going to help us change our minds. He's doing just fine by keeping us Plugged In. We're going to have to do this on our own. It's going to require some mindfulness training. Noble Simplicity!

Author’s Note: This blogpost was the second in a series of articles about Unplugging from the Man. Stay tuned for more suggestions and ideas about achieving personal freedom.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Scholar in a Republic

On June 30, 1881, Wendell Phillips delivered an address to Harvard University entitled The Scholar in a Republic. He said: "I urge on college-bred men, that, as a class, they fail in republican duty when they allow others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions, which stir and educate the age."

One hundred and thirty years later, I think we still need to be reminded of the same advise. Take, for example, Glenn Beck's pronouncement this week of 350.org as a "communist conspiracy". In reality, of course. 350.org has done some of the best organizing and educating around climate change on the planet. Far from a global conspiracy, it is providing ways for everyday people to plug into the green energy movement and become inspired. And, it's spearheaded by a true scholar, Bill McKibben.

Back in the late 1960's, when I was hammering out my graduate degree, Herbert Marcuse awakened me to the reality that I could be both an academic and an activist. In the wake of the McCarthy era, that wasn't popular sentiment. But, Marcuse raised the bar and set the example.

Later, I learned about Scott Nearing: another academic-activist. He was exactly the type of scholar that Wendell Phillips was talking about. He got called a "communist", too (as did Marcuse) but he just kept teaching, writing and speaking. They refused to sit idly back and allow "others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions, which stir and educate the age."

Well, that's a good description of McKibben. He's doing something--a whole lot, actually-- for the world. And the "something" that he is doing is deeply informed by scholarship. He is not sitting back and allowing "others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions." He is performing what Wendell Phillips would have called his republican duty.

We are living in a period when there is a whole lot of "agitation of the great social issues" going on. There are droves of people tendering public comment on things about which they know nothing. Opinion abounds. Intellectual engagement gets pushed to the back burner and emotional appeals sell papers.

It's hard for a citizenry to remain informed when special interest propaganda is cloaked as "information". Most Americans are uni-lingual and are, ipso facto, confined to reading news that is printed in English. For those who are multi-lingual, a quick tour through some major European newspapers provides a very different view of America's "agitation of the great social questions".

I, for one, would like to think that the US will value it's academic-activists as we navigate these next few, turbulent years. I would like to think that we will recognize their commitment to informing their activism by scholarship. And, I would like to think that, as a society, we can return to a rational, measured dialectic instead of ill informed emotional rants.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Unplugging from The Man, Part 1

In the words of T.S. Elliot, “so how should I presume” to draw a line in the sand? There are, actually, as many ways as there are grains of sand, but the way that seems most accessible to me is Unplugging from The Man. Scott Nearing put it succinctly when he wrote that he “must reduce wants and even needs to a minimum; wherever possible, serve myself, raise and prepare my own food, wash my own clothing, do my own building and repairing, maintain the best of health to avoid the heavy costs involved in sickness, keep down such fixed costs as rent, interest and taxes; never borrow and take on interest slavery, but always pay cash; build up a capital reserve sufficient to cover a full year of unemployment, and be prepared for emergencies.” (The Making of a Radical, p. 44) Nearing was a strong advocate of Unplugging from The Man, which he referred to as The Establishment.

People can unplug, or not, according to their individual comfort levels. There are dozens of ways to pull the plug. We can all do it differently and still make a collective impact. And, we can do it incrementally and progressively as we get more comfortable with new lifestyle behaviors. There's no point in expecting The Man to change. It's not going to happen. The corrupt system works for him. He's getting richer and fatter. So, we have to find a way to wave goodbye to The Man who has never paid more than lip service to any one of our attempts to "pursue life, liberty and happiness." This is secession in its rawest, most potent form.

This blogpost is the first in a series (hence, the Pt. 1 notation) about Unplugging from the Man. Throughout the series, I am going to write both theoretically and practically--very, very practically--about how to systematically Unplug from The Man. I began unplugging in 1974 and am still discovering deeper, more wide-spectrum ways to pull the plug. The more I unplug, the more I find myself, in the words of Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life. I don’t feel as if I have given anything up. I feel, conversely, as if I am liberated from things that I really never needed in the first place.

Let's start with some of the theoretical considerations. Heidegger’s big idea was that most people get so lost in das Man (The Man) that they never engage in real discourse, being content, instead, with idle chatter—groundless, buzzing pop-talk that focuses on reaching a superficial consensus instead of exploring anything new. They never really examine their lives and, consequently, they don't know themselves. Totally exteriorized, they are easy to enculturate, to condition and to propagandize. It's easy for The Man to keep them subdued in the golden handcuffs of convenience, comfort and consumer goods.

But, one day the handcuffs start to feel tight. They might even chafe their wrists. Their bubble-priced home is suddenly under-water, the warranty wears off their new SUV, their paycheck can't keep pace with rising food and fuel prices, they get furloughed and their kids can't afford college. Most wonder if this is The American Dream? A few realize that they've been lied to while The Man has laughed all the way to the bank.

Jean Gebser’s seminal work, Ever-Present Origin, posits a map of psycho-history in theorizing that we are currently in a period that Gebser calls the Mental-Rational Period. It is a period that represents the culmination of the development of the human ego. Gebser further theorizes that, used in its negative sense (ie, acquisition, superficiality and separateness), the ego will lead to complete collapse of civilization. The only way that humanity, in his view, can move forward from Empire to Earth Community (to borrow David Korten’s words) is through reaching back into earlier structures of consciousness-- which Gebser calls the Magical and Mythic--and reintegrating their practices and lifestyle patterns. I agree. Because those very practices and lifestyle patterns offer us a tried and true blueprint for Unplugging from The Man! Let's get started!

The people of the Magical period were nomadic. They ‘got their groceries off the ground’ through gathering. We can reintegrate this practice through WILDCRAFTING. One of the most disturbing and extraordinary aspects of life in the US is the persistence of hunger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that food insecurity was accelerating even prior to the recession: the number of people reported in 2008 was more than double the number in 2000.

As the recession has deepened, there are too many families surviving predominantly on refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, and macaroni because these products are less expensive, as a result of being subsidized by the government. In 2005, the government spent $17 billion subsidizing grain farmers. Rather than focusing on the production of fruits and vegetables, more than half of US subsidies go to grain farmers.

And yet we know that fruits and vegetables—especially leafy greens—are nutritional powerhouses. Dark green leafy vegetables are, calorie for calorie, perhaps the most concentrated source of nutrition of any food. It was common for our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors to eat up to six pounds of leaves per day. Imagine them walking along from one place to another, just picking and eating greens as they went—a veritable bonanza of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

Contemporary wildcrafting offers us the same opportunity. Wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting edible plants from their natural, or "wild" habitats. It means, literally, discovering that the woods and fields are a table always spread. It’s seeing the world as a garden. I will be wildcrafting by mid-April and, as the days grow longer and warmer, I will be able to harvest up to 15 types of wild green edibles each afternoon in my own backyard. While waiting for the cultivated greens in my garden to mature, I will already have been making huge, dark green salads from my wildcrafted veggies.

America’s hunger problem could be reduced if people were taught the ancient art of wildcrafting. Families could find food—and lots of it--right in their backyards! Further, if municipalities were encouraged to stop using chemically toxic sprays on parks and roadsides, wild foods could also be harvested there. And, we could pull the plug on The Man. We wouldn’t need to buy commercially produced (often by huge multi-national corporations) leafy greens that have been transported thousands of miles.

It is anomalous. We are in the midst of one of the worst recessions in American history. Literally millions of people don’t have access to secure food supplies. State and local governments are reeling in debt. Yet, instead of encouraging wildcrafting, we continue to spend millions of tax dollars spraying toxic chemicals on precious wild edibles.

Dandelion, for example, has diuretic properties, which means that it can help the body eliminate extra water. Along with these properties, dandelion is very good at supporting the liver by increasing bile production. I juice the leaves, use them in salads and make a lip-smacking-good dandelion jelly out of the blossoms.

Humans have been eating chickweed and using it medicinally throughout history. Chickweed is very nutritious and can be eaten raw or cooked. The younger leaves are great in salads and older parts of the plant can be cooked like spinach (without the risk of e coli infections from CAFO run-offs).

During Fall foliage season, wild fruits abound, as do berries and nuts. There is really nothing finer than cracking wild walnuts by a cozy Autumn woodfire, while feasting on a wild apple pie—unless, of course, it’s a bowl of wild plums! Unplugging from The Man does not result in austerity. It results in simple prosperity. It is personal freedom. To become unplugged is to become free. Each thing that we can do to cut ties with The Man and its established order creates more freedom. This really is secession in its rawest and most potent form.

Note: This blogpost is the first in a series about Unplugging from the Man. Stay tuned for subsequent posts which will offer more suggestions and practical ideas about achieving personal freedom through Unplugging.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Drawing a Line in the Sand

Where do we draw the line in the sand? Where do we say, "enough is enough"? At what point do we stop simply signing petitions and, instead, start fighting back against a culture that is killing us all? Egypt has set an example. Wisconsin has, too.

In his 2006 book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen reminds us that if we are "propping up industrialized civilization", we are ipso facto promoting violence. He further reminds us that "Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to eviscerate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses."

Jensen's not a lone wolf. There are plenty of people saying this. And, it's not even a particularly recent theme. Herbert Marcuse, for example, sang the same song in the late 1960's in An Essay on Liberation when he argued that traditional conceptions of human freedom have been rendered obsolete by the development of advanced industrial society. Marcuse closes the essay by saying that "the construction of a free society would create new incentives for work." He clarifies that "in exploitive societies, the so-called work instinct is mainly the introjected necessity to perform productively in order to earn a living." The One Dimensional Man.

The wheels are coming off of the wagon. Trying to keep putting them back on is like sticking our fingers in a hole in the dike: an unsustainable, "little picture" attempt to "solve" the problem. It's time to draw a line in the sand. It's time to realize that there really isn't any "fixing" the corporate whore that we call "the government". As Marcuse wrote, "The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

State of the Union

The state of the Union is on our minds. But, in all fairness, it has been for the past few years. It’s painfully too easy to wonder if we are turning into a hostile, bellicose society. The good old days of sitting on Grandpa’s porch and idly churning ice cream seem a long ways from the Arizona shootings, 2 super-sized wars in the Middle East, teenage sex slavery and ponzi schemes. Gun sales are at a record high. After a half-hour or so of reading the news, I catch myself wondering if Konrad Lorenz was right when he theorized that human beings are hardwired to fight over resources--even against members of their own species. But, then I remember that Lorenz never claimed that aggressive behaviors were in any way more powerful, prevalent, or intense than peaceful, loving behaviors. Sigh of relief.

So, we are hardwired both ways. We have the biological switches for aggression and we have the biological switches for love. We choose which switch gets turned on. But, sometimes we forget that. And when we do, we blame external circumstances for our aggression. We are yelling at the neighbor because his barking dog kept us up all night, right? Not exactly. We’re yelling at the neighbor because we chose, at some level, to yell at the neighbor. Let’s face it: there were other options that we could have chosen for dealing with the situation.

The big gestalt for me was the day that I realized that there was no nebulous “other” out there to blame—that I was the one who had to change. If every age has its character, as Eric Fromm suggested, then moving toward a less aggressive way of life is a struggle of character. I had to take responsibility for my own choices. And, I had to move out of my little, self-contained “me” and into a broader, more inclusive “we”. It also meant swimming against a tide of culturally entrenched patterns that have held aggression in place for centuries: ruthless competition, conspicuous consumption and power politics.

We’ve all heard the slogan, “be the change you want to see.” Of course. But, in the process of becoming that change we find ourselves face-to-face with some societal memes that are so deeply buried we don’t even know they exist. The truth is that we have some revisioning to in order to flip the biological switches that create more compassionate communities. When it feels like the ship is sinking, we need to choose to build lifeboats instead of throwing people overboard. No blaming the captain. No survival of the fittest. As Bill McKibben is keen to point out, “The technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair.” In short, it’s time to stop doing things “the way that they’ve always been done.”

Lifeboat building isn’t top-down. It starts at the bottom, at the grass-roots level and works its way upward. Lifeboats are built as local citizens recognize themselves as fictive kin and move from transaction to trust, from consumption to contribution and from isolation to community. Blessed unrest. As lifeboat models facilitate a shift from old concepts of rugged individualism to more inclusive collectivist concepts, different interpretations of freedom become available. We will, as Bill Kauth cites, become more capable of giving and receiving—we will orient toward what we can give to a situation, while still remaining open to receiving. This is radically different than an aggressive, “what’s in it for me” approach. It’s a different flip of the biological switch.

So, where do we start? What do we do first? Let’s go back to our neighbor’s barking dog. OK, the dog kept us up all night. This is not acceptable. But just yelling at the dog’s owner isn’t going to accomplish anything sustainable either. We need to take a deep breath, count slowly to five, and flip the biological switch for interdependence. What if we plugged in some of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication skills? And, what if we moved past mere acquaintance networks into perceived fictive kinship? Mutual social capital—the cement of strong local community--would be increased. We could begin taking down fences and putting up lifeboat masts.

The state of the Union is up to us. It’s a composite of the choices we make about how to relate to one another. Ultimately, the task is to find a way, rather than looking merely inward, to look outward in the same direction. We’re not all going to see things the same. That’s not the point. But, we could all have a place on the deck, with telescopes pointing toward the same horizon, looking intently for a world that would work for everyone.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Comments from a Reader

I found The Good Life, by Sherry Ackerman, an absolute must read, absorbing, and thought provoking. She sheds a ray of hope, through her grounded experience, into a world that is anything but stable. This is a book for those of us who live to work, racing to buy the `stuff,' that is sure to bring us lasting happiness, security, and prestige; only to find, once acquired, the magic is gone because these things were only fleeting desires, not sustainable necessities. Ackerman encourages us to question our values, and take a closer look at how we spend our time and energies. Must we rape the earth of all its resources to satisfy our selfish lusts to gain more stuff, stuff that has buried us in empty promises of pleasure, and left us with huge debts, foreclosed homes, lost jobs, and not enough time to know our loved ones? Wouldn't it be better to slow down and become at peace with the nature surrounding us, to share earth's bounty with all of its inhabitants, and be a responsible part of a restored balance that was intended all along? Yes, it's possible, with you and me, together, one step at a time. This book starts us down a path where each of us can lay down our own stepping stones, which together can pave a way to a new sustainable good life where we have everything we need and the time to enjoy it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review of The Good Life by Wanda Shapiro

This is a great book and it's an important book. By defining so succinctly The Good Life, Sherry Ackerman blazes a trail through a very dense forest. She weaves history, philosophy, and her own life story into a narrative that feels effortless despite the gravity of the subject matter. Every chapter is packed with both inspiration and education and at the end of each chapter Ackerman provides a list of practical suggestions which ground the reader in the reality of their own choices. Without malice or arrogance, she characterizes the status quo, explains how we got here, and posits a future well within any individual's grasp.

Rich with references that both educate and illuminate, The Good Life includes a bibliography that will keep curious readers busy for years and from an academic perspective this work is a masterpiece. You would think Ackerman would need more than 190 pages to explain how to create a sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle but she manages that and so much more.

Thankfully for all of us there are people like Sherry Ackerman who have always been ahead of their time. And considering the dire state of affairs at hand, we should all thank her for sharing her Good Life.