Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is human extinction possible in the near future?

Dear Friends and Family,

 I can’t imagine a harder entry to write, even if I were writing to tell you that Jack or I were about to die, which we’re not. I feel like the woman in the image above. I read its title only after selecting it, and it fits my mood exactly – ‘When the sabino tree dies, we all die.’ That’s it, exactly. It seems almost impossible to start on what I want to convey. I think I can only plunge in deep, rather than make a gradual approach. I think there is good reason to believe that human extinction is possible in this century. That is, at a time my grandchildren will experience the awful process, and perhaps my children, perhaps us.

 This idea is almost impossible to get my mind around, and I’ve been watching data leading that way for years. I can hardly expect you to assimilate it as you read the words. You may be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone mad. You perhaps want to read no further.

 The nagging of this terrible thought has been getting worse for years, as datum after datum comes at me, usually spaced at intervals of weeks or more – Arctic methane escaping more and more, Arctic, Greenland, Antarctic, glacier ice melting more and more, coral reefs dying, and man-made emissions going up and up and up. Then a US academic, Guy McPherson, puts the bundle together, and there it is – human extinction is possible this century. I can’t bear it. I turn away to bake bread, water the garden, chat to friends. And there it is again. I have a sense of unreality chatting to people when I have this…this black lump in my mind. It felt like such a relief to share this horrible foreboding with one of the old friends I was visiting in Sydney a few days ago. She, brilliant woman of 79 with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had it too. I can share it with Jack, with some of my Atamai friends, and with all of my friends in The Renewables, my climate change group.

 Before seeing this video, which reached me only last week, The Renewables spent a whole meeting dealing with our feelings of despair as we processed the data bit by bit as it came in. “We’re fucked,’ said my friend, Katerina, a few months ago as we discussed one of the reports mentioned in the video. You need to watch the video. It’s just Guy McPherson talking, using mainly text powerpoint slides, summarising scientific data and the projections into the future from that data. That’s it. It’s devastating. It’s on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ina16XSJQvM&list=PLDC802B967659A416

 Guy McPherson toured New Zealand a few months ago, and even came to Atamai and had lunch at our place. I was in Wellington at the time and missed him. He briefly looked at how in Atamai www.atamaivillage.com we are trying to live with much lower carbon emissions, and even sequestering some carbon in biochar added to the soil and in reafforestation. In the video he gives few answers to what is one to do when face to face with the possibility of species extinction. And the ones he gave seemed quite inadequate, except for one – to focus on community. I strongly support this, and feel engaged in acting on it in the village and in the town I live in. But I’d want to expand on that. To focus on the good of all. Life under extreme stress could easily divide people into identity groups of one kind or another. I think you can see it in the anti-immigrant politics of many developed countries now, under conditions of financial stress and unemployment. It seems important to resolve to speak out against this divisiveness, which can only make difficulties even uglier.

 But this obviously isn’t enough. If we are to have a chance of beating the extinction odds, it will have to be by rapidly halting the processes that are increasing the odds. We’ll have to cut carbon emissions very rapidly, stop fossil fuel mining, dramatically reduce agricultural emissions and work out how to sequester carbon, by reafforestation and perhaps as biochar. Only action at national and international levels would seem to have any hope of causing effects fast enough. I think we in our village are doing the right thing by exploring and trying to show a way of life that is less harmful to the Earth. But this process will take decades to play out at best. We don’t have decades. No one can know for sure, but when I look at the projections Guy McPherson has put together, and the data that reach me day by day, it seems to me that we have, at most, one decade to act, starting now.

There is abundant reason to adopt the position of Transition Towns and other organisations which says ‘Politicians have failed us repeatedly on climate change and other ecological issues. We’ll have to proceed without them.’ I’ve been part of this position. It’s no longer acceptable to me. I can see no way of acting at a large enough scale and fast enough without political involvement. The multiple dangerous feedback mechanisms listed by McPherson show us that we have reached the danger threshold NOW. It seems to me an emergency, and the stakes are ultimate. It’s not that the human species will last forever; no species does, and the Earth won’t last forever. But we’re not ready to go yet, not this century, not with my grandchildren and yours as part of the extinction.

 There’s some research that shows that people will cooperate to avoid a dangerous threshold, even if there’s uncertainly about the impact of the threshold. But if there’s uncertainty about just where the threshold is, or when you’ve reached it, the cooperation falls apart. I think the activation of the dangerous feedback mechanisms tells us that we’re there; we have to cooperate in order to go no further in the unthinkable direction of human extinction.

 Form a group of friends. If you’re in Canada, work to stop the appalling Alberta tar sands project and its associated pipelines. If you’re in Aotearoa, work with a group to stop coal mining and oil and gas drilling. If you’re in Australia, coal is a big one. In all countries, work on getting a proper pricing of carbon emissions, not the feeble pretend efforts we have now, at least in Aotearoa. Everywhere, reafforestation with native species is a high priority to store carbon out of the atmosphere. Getting biochar into the soil looks like a promising measure, but will have to be done at a large scale.

 Most of you reading this are not activists, don’t aspire to be activists and may feel put off by the very suggestion. You need either to refute the material you’ve seen here, to show that the risk of human extinction is negligible, or justify not acting in the face of a known extreme risk.

 Dear friends and family, I feel a bit like the woman in the image, carrying that burden of knowledge. It’s knowledge that has to be shared, but sharing it necessarily will cause you suffering, unless you’re confident of refuting it. So I’m sorry for the anxiety or even despair this may cause you. May your anxiety join mine and make enough of a change fast enough to halt the burning of the future of the young.


After watching the video, my husband, Jack, wrote to Richard Heinberg seeking his view of the quite dire projections of McPherson.. Here is his reply:

Dear Jack,

Yes, I had seen this, and have followed discussion about it on various sites. I respect Mcpherson a great deal and have followed most of the research he discusses. He may well be right. One of the biggest determining factors would seem to be feedbacks, and of those perhaps the most worrisome is methane. If all the methane in tundra and undersea clathrates were to be released quickly, it would be game over. I've asked a couple of climate scientists about that and to my surprise they were less concerned than I was. Because methane "metabolizes" so quickly in the atmosphere (roughly 10 years), the release would have to be very rapid and massive to have a truly cataclysmic effect. That's certainly not impossible, but it's also not the most likely scenario in their view. I know that's not a very big peg to hang our hopes on, but it's something.

Frankly, I'm looking toward rapid economic contraction as a highly likely wild card that could result in both population reduction and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The human impact would be dreary at best, horrible at worst, but it could give future generations a chance at existence. A lot depends on how the contraction is managed. In the worst case, we get resource wars and people burning the last remaining forests for heating and cooking fuel. In the best case, we get an enlightened agrarianism. That's why I'm plugging away at writing and related work. It may make little or no difference in the end, but there's at least a chance that our efforts could help steer societies toward the best-case scenario. Even if it proves to be futile, I find the effort at least allows me to look in the mirror in the morning.

Best wishes always,

Monday, October 22, 2012

Clearing gorse is fun...really!

Atamai Village (www.atamai.org.nz )is revving up its working bee schedule. We have a large area of Commons - land we can all use and for which we're all responsible. Some of the land is covered in gorse. Gorse was imported in the 19th century by Scottish immigrants and has now overrun the country. At this time of year, any land not in use is covered with brilliant yellow flowers. To tourists it looks pretty, but kiwis tend to snarl at comments about its beauty. Many of them have had to clear it from land at some time or other in their lives. Gorse is dense and has long sharp thorns. When a gorse-clearing working bee was set for Saturday morning, I went to a second hand shop and bought my first pair ever of denim jeans and a thick shirt. Leather gloves and gum boots completed the ensemble for me and the other 10 people in the group. We were equipped with saws and loppers (long-handled secateurs) and divided into those who would saw and lop and those who would drag and stack. We were working on very steep terrain. What I expected would be an all-day job took the team two hours. With the gorse gone, a hillside of beautiful native grasses and trees was revealed. We then gathered around the picnic table in the communal garden area and shared good food and cups of tea. What I still take delight in is that for most of us, I reckon, this added up to a really good time'. The work was difficult, we all got pricked; we were proud of what we'd done in a short time, and we delighted in working together. All that was missing was a gorse-clearing song - a gap we must fill soon. The Commons is a concept we'll grow into. Once part of every village, in Europe Commons were gradually enclosed for use by wealthy landowners. To a degree it's what binds us together as a village - the need to maintain and make productive this land.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Food at Atamai

A few days ago, Tracey Ambrose, one of the villagers and mother of three-year-old William, sent the following happy e-mail: William and I just sat down to lunch, - we baked the bread - we had pesto from Carla and Patsy - feta from Katie - carrots from farmer Bob - and honey from Lynda Ahh, it's just so hard being here with you lot ;) Atamai is moving forward in its relative food self-sufficiency. A fair bit of what we eat comes from the Te Mara gardens and chook compound under the energetic management of Bob Dawber and his family. Te Mara has a surplus which Bob puts in a dear little roadside stall. The community garden on the Atamai side of the ridge has produced some good veges, and the terraced orchards had a lovely autumn crop of apples, pears and plums, even though the trees are very young. Jack and I have also eaten a good deal from our own garden. In mid-winter it’s still producing fine greens, carrots, beets, daikon. Food preserving. Many of us bottle some of the harvest. Our ‘food cave’ is designed to keep pumpkins, root veges in sand trays and fruit cool for winter and spring meals. Some of us are more adventurous in preserving, with crocks of sauerkraut, preserved lemons and so on. Food processing. Tracey and Katie get together to make cheese, and have an appreciative following hoping for surpluses of feta and panir. I make yoghurt, quark and soy milk. There’s a fair bit of exchange of pestos, jams, jellies and chutneys. Food sharing. We continue our practice of having a communal potluck after every Council meeting and at seasonal feasts. We begin with a circle blessing. Tracey has begun a stew circle. Four families make stew for the whole circle, each cooking every four weeks. We collect our portion and eat it at home. It’s pleasant having someone else cook the meal one night a week, and always delicious. Buying food we don’t produce. Tracey and Craig manage to do this without using a supermarket by getting their food from a local, partly organic shop, Toad Hall. Yesterday I made my first visit to a new co-op venture, The Food Club. Membership enables one to buy bulk organic food, and food processed by local folk. I took six dozen free-range eggs there for sale and bought a fine-looking aubergine compote. It’s situated at Riverside, an old community near here. I plan to get my grains and pulses there. Some things can be bought and sold using TALENTS, the local currency. Several families get their milk from the ‘farmgate’ at Riverside dairy. Why aim for self-sufficiency? We live in a rich food-producing area. All of us in Atamai share a perception that there is a considerable probability of financial unravelling intertwined with energy scarcity and the impacts of climate change on agriculture, among other things. New Zealand imports 50% of its food, surprisingly. If the present food system dwindled or ceased, one could perhaps live on fruit and lamb (and wine) for a while. But there would be some gaps in the diet. We think it’s prudent to be able to sustain ourselves as much as possible. In addition, there is the considerable benefit of eating food straight from the garden and knowing no nasty substances have been used on it. Even further, food grown or made by friends just tastes better, as Tracey’s e-mail implies! Bon app├ętit!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Should we strive for more equality in our societies?

Dear Friends,
The first image has nothing to do with the topic of this blog, unless the phenomenon of a guy making chutney connects with equality. We had a glut of zucchini, so several of us made a large amount of excellent chutney a few days ago. These are fellow Atamai villagers, Craig and Lynda. Took us all day.

OK, back to work. I read this book because other things I was reading referred to it. I thought it was very good; it has me thinking seriously about the issue. A young Green party friend says that all the politicians are reading it.
See what you think yourself.

Book Review of Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, New York, Berlin, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2010

The merits of societies more equal in income and wealth have been discussed for centuries. In the late 19th century, Edward Bellamy published two novels in the US – Looking Backward and its sequel, Equality. The plot of both involves a young man, Julian West, who goes to sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find that the US has undergone an economic revolution. All persons, male and female, are now economic equals. The two novels are an extended elaboration on the implications of this change and moral arguments for economic equality. Looking Backward became the third best-seller in the US at the time and gave rise to ‘Bellamy Clubs’, to several attempts at communities founded on these principles, and to a spate of books written in response to Bellamy’s ideas.

In the real world, inequality within countries has increased, at least over the 50 years for which we have adequate data . The increase is attributed substantially to increased wealth of the uppermost 20% of each country’s population. Does this matter, in that, in almost every country, per capita income has increased over this period?

Wilkinson and Pickett, UK public health scholars, bring a great deal of evidence to support their assertion that income inequality is a crucial variable in a great range of dimensions of human well-being. Their data apply only to high income countries, those on the plateau of the curve of happiness or life expectancy plotted against income, where more income does not mean more happiness or years of life. In those countries, it seems, more equality does mean more happiness. More equality correlates with more child well-being, more trust in other people, higher status of women, more of the national income spent on foreign aid, less mental illness, less drug use, greater life expectancy, lower infant mortality, fewer obese adults and overweight children, higher maths and literacy scores, fewer teenage pregnancies, fewer homicides, less bullying in children, fewer people in prison and more social mobility. These trends are derived from data of the 20 richest countries and also data on inequality levels for all US states. What is enormously interesting is that people at all income levels, not just the poor, do worse in unequal societies. And at any given income level, a person will be better off in a more equal society. Interestingly, the relationship does not apply for inequalities in small local areas.

What is it about living in an unequal society, both at a country level and a US state level that could contribute to such a wide range of physical and social ills? Social relationships, as measured by social cohesion, trust, involvement in community life, are better in more equal societies, and are known to be important correlates of health and well-being. Conversely, social hierarchies appear to be bad for health and well-being. People experience social evaluative situations, where they see themselves being compared with others in some way, as particularly highly stressful. Assigned social status, or in more rigid societies, caste, is a cognitive organiser of social evaluation. Income and its visible markers of house, car, clothes and possessions are prominent markers of social status. People lower on the hierarchy are stressed by their position relative to others, and strive to attain markers of higher status.

Herve Kampf, in the forthrightly titled How the Rich are Destroying the Earth cites research showing that the greater the gap between where a person regards themselves as situated on a social scale and the reference group for their aspirations, the more hours they will be prepared to work. People in more unequal societies work many more hours per year.

It is this behaviour, ‘conspicuous consumption’, that is a major driver of carbon emissions, other pollution and habitat reduction. So inequality, say the authors, is a significant contributor to climate change and the many other survival -threatening aspects of the degradation of Nature.

What is to be done? Wilkinson and Pickett argue strongly for the adoption of means towards a more equal society. They point out that a more equal distribution of income can be achieved at the point of salary received or taxes paid. There can be both ceilings and floors on allowable salaries. There can be agreed ratios in corporations between highest and lowest earners. A few corporations have already adopted such a measure. Their most favoured measure is the conversion of hierarchical corporations into workers’ cooperatives, where decision-making power, responsibility and salaries are shared equally. Interestingly, this happened inadvertently during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The rich fled the region, and workers took over the factories and corporations – successfully, it seems. Equality was a strong value in these organisations. Mondragon, the world's largest workers' cooperative, in the Spanish Basque region, has recently made an agreement with United Steel Workers to set up cooperative structures in Canada and the US. This is an extremely interesting development. Mondragon's salasry ratio is never more than 5:1. (This compares with 400: 1 in some corporations.)

The findings put together so masterfully by Wilkinson and Pickett have major public health significance generally. In New Zealand, the Green Party has explicit measures to achieve a more equal society in this highly unequal one. There are implications for our village. There are wealth differences in the beginning population of the village. The social structures of the village equalise this, but beyond this settlement’s enthusiastic beginnings, will that prevail? Or will wealth and income differences create a social hierarchy with its very many attendant ills? We must try to avoid this.

Markus Jantti and Susanna Sandstrom. Trends in Income Inequality: A critical study of the evidence in WIID2. 2005. http://www.rrojasdatabank.info/widerconf/JanttyStr.pdf Accessed 2010 Jan7.
Herve Kampf. How the Rich are Destroying the Earth. Vermont, USA: Chelsea Green Publishing company, 2007.
Ted Trainer. Inspiration for Local Economies Today: The Success of the Spanish Collectives. Pacific Ecologist 19, Winter/Spirng 2010, pp43-47.

Biochar book review

Dear Friends,
The first photo is a pile of biochar. Also in view are our new solar panels and barrels of cow manure collected by Jack and Jeff for compost. (This stuff us as gold around here. I considered an armed guard but it seems inconsistent with the hope of building trust in our village!)
Below is a book review. There's reason to be modestly hopeful about the potential of the use of biochar in farming and gardening to have a useful impact on sequestering carbon.
This is particularly interesting to me, as we use it here regularly when we plant anything, even little seedlings. Atamai has a biochar-based soil amendment. The formula was put together some years ago by village founder Jurgen Heissner and colleagues. It includes rock dust, effective micro-organisms and much more. We are in general very pleased with its effects, but very much need to do systematic trials.
Update on us:
Healthy, active, enjoying the addition of our youngest son, Jeff to the family. The guys are outdoors a fair bit. Right now, Jack is mowing grass with a crawler and Jeff is assisting the masons who are laying blocks in our new house.
The new house is progressing, but some months off moving-in time.
Atamai Village: There has been a surge of new interest in the village, with two couples having committed themselves over last weekend and a third looking likely. They are from Australia, the US and New Zealand. All of them share our worried projections for the future of the mainstream economy, and see strong reasons to aim for self-reliance in basic needs.
Transition Town Motueka: A low level of activity specifically organised under this aegis, but considerable activity on the things that matter. Riverside continues to run workshops on relevant skills. this weekend's is on how to build yourself a solar shower. The Motueka Community Garden is developing. I continue with my radio show. The upcoming session will be an interview with a fascinating man who keeps a team of Clydesdales, has the remnants of a bullock team, and has a full range of horse-drawn agricultural implements. He sees these as of historic and tourist interest. I see them as valuable potential assets for the future. Lester Rowntree, the man with the horses and bullocks, has been ploughing the community garden with them, a very picturesque sight.

The review has been written for Peace Magazine, published in Canada, which I recommend to you.

The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates.
Gabriola Island, BC Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010.
We are in big trouble, as readers of this magazine know, from our violent
relationship with the Earth. We risk runaway climate change, and even the aware
among us shrink from imagining what that would be like for our children
and grandkids.
Biochar to the rescue? Of course not. Sorry. We know perfectly well there is no
one solution, nothing that will absolve us from the strenuous task of working out
how to live with less and then no fossil fuel. That is and will remain our first
duty to the Earth and our offspring. I get irritated by writing that includes the
word 'offset', as if we can keep polluting the atmosphere as long as we offset our
sins by planting more trees or some such activity.
But biochar may play a modest but significant role in bringing carbon back down
to safe enough levels for human civilization to continue. Albert Bates's book does a
splendid job of telling us how this could be done, and giving a global coverage of
who is doing what in this arena. Bates has impressive credentials for exploring
alternatives to our current suicidal patterns. He shared the 1980 Right Livelihood
Award for work to preserve the cultures of indigenous people and is co-founder of the
Global Ecovillage Network, which he represents at the UN climate change talks. He is
a practical man who has made and used biochar himself. And he is a good story-
His book is full of fascinating stories - of the discovery of Amazonian biochar,
and of the many people who have followed up on this, in one way or another. The book
is fun to read. In addition, Bates does a good job of explaining the science behind
charcoal, the nature of soil, climate change and so on.
Here's the plot. About 10,000 years ago, agriculture began in the Fertile
Crescent. The technology of ploughing and irrigating the soil were steadily refined.
These were wrong turns for humanity. The ploughing depleted the soil web of life and the
irrigation salinated the soil. Over time, the Crescent became a desert, and the
civilizations that once flourished there disappeared. This story has repeated itself
on most but not all continents. Australia's Murray River basin tragedy is the latest
episode. In two places agriculture took a different turn. In China, extensive
composting returned to the soil what was taken out, even to the extent of routinely
taking the humanure from cities back to the fields. Forty centuries later, the soil
continued to be fertile (1). In Amazonian South America, a pattern of composting
incorporating charred biomass developed. Bates believes it was sytematic, done to a
recipe. The soil remains highly fertile, much more so than the surrounding rain
forest soil, to this day, and even 'grows', apparently drawing nutrients in to the
soil life from the surrounding area. When rediscovered last century, it came to be
known as 'terra preta' , black earth. . Bates cites recent archaeological evidence of the remarkable
population density of pre-Columbian Amazon civilization, supported by this soil. When it fell
suddenly after Spanish contact, their agricultural methods and the adapted cultivars they had used
perished too, along with the formula for terra preta
Other early agricultural and pastoral practices began to increase atmospheric
carbon dioxide long before the fossil fuel age. Flooded rice paddies produced
methane, as did increasing flocks of domesticated animals. Burning forest areas to
clear land produced carbon dioxide and decreased the carbon dioxide 'sink' capacity
of the disappearing forest. By 1000CE, most of England's trees were cut down. By taking off crop after
crop and dispersing the biomass, soil carbon decreased by 30-50% in most places, thus increasing carbon in atmosphere and ocean. In our reasonable focus on the role of fossil fuel in climate change, we tend to ignore the contribution of land use and change in land use, such as deforestation, in sending carbon into the atmosphere. It is substantial, perhaps responsible for a third of the excess greenhouse gases.
After 6000 years of ploughing we are relearning how to grow food while maintaining the health of the soil, including its crucial carbon content. We need to change our patterns of land use and agriculture urgently in ways that sequester carbon in stab le form. It can be expected to remain sequestered in this form for centuries or millennia, and this is a vital parameter in the dynamics of the carbon cycle. In fact, the potential of massive programmes of soil and biomass carbon sequestration could make a difference to atmospheric carbon in the next two decades – a time scale much faster than the probability of effective action from technologies now being invested with questionable hope, such as new fuels and carbon capture at source.
So-called carbon farming involves no tillage of the soil, organic growing methods, using crop residue as mulch (thus returning its carbon and other nutrients to the soil), using cover crops between the food or fibre crops, rotational grazing of pasture animals, turning from annual crops to perennial polycultures, employing the great range of Permaculture strategies, agroforestry, leaving wild plant strips, keyline water management and subsoil ploughing. And incorporating biochar mixtures in recreated terra preta-type soil amendments. These methods also have the potential to eliminate the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers – an important source of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
The programme needs to involve massive global tree-planting, stopping deforestation, carbon farming and biochar sequestration. Bates suggests that carbon farming could sequester 1 Gigatonne of carbon a year in both labile (short-term) and stable (long-term) carbon. Biochar use could sequester another Gigatonne a year in stable carbon. . Reforestation on a massive scale could sequester 4.5 Gigatonnes a year. There are about 800 Gigatonnes of carbon in the atmosphere, so we could slowly reverse the current disastrous accumulation of carbon.
Bates tells us how biochar is made and why it works so well. There is a fascinating chapter on stoves, especially low-cost stoves to replace the smoky cooking methods responsible for a fair slice of low-income country mortality and morbidity. Some of these inventions also produce biochar which can increase garden fertility for the owners.
Bates doesn’t deal with the limits to biochar sequestration in soils with high carbon levels, or with the issue of loss of nutrients other than carbon in forming charcoal rather than letting biomass rot back into the Earth.
This book sent me into action – joining the International Biochar Initiative, and going to inspect our ‘terra preta’-enhanced tree plantings which experts say are doing remarkably well. I like to think of the biochar around their roots, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries.
Joanna Santa Barbara is working to develop Atamai, a New Zealand ecovillage trying to respond to peak oil and climate change issues. She and her colleagues use a biochar mix in all their plantings.

1. FH King. Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan.Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004. (First published in 1911.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Transmitting knowledge

Dear Family and Friends,
I recently read the book shown in the photo.
My friend, Metta, has been working towards it almost as long as I've known her. As I've said in my review, below, it made me think a good deal about the importance of cross-national, cross-cultural transmission of knowledge.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy by Metta Spencer.
Lanham, USA: Lexington Books, 2010.
Joanna Santa Barbara
In 1982 I was in Moscow with Metta Spencer, the author of a remarkable book on the transmission of ideas, in this case, ideas about peace. We and several other Canadian peace activists were on our way to participate in an international peace conference in Vienna. Metta had a telephone number of a dissident peace organisation in Moscow. We found our way to a small apartment and met with members of the Trustbuilders Group. This group aimed to counter Cold War mentality on both sides of the Iron Curtain by fostering people-to-people relationships and joint projects. The members were being persecuted, for example by being fired from their jobs, because they stood as independent thinkers outside the government system. Metta established relationships with the people in this group that have lasted to this day, and began pursuing a 28 year-long trail led by her curiosity about the impact of western peace researchers and activists on the tortuous development of Russian peace and democracy.
The Trustbuilders exemplified what Metta called ‘barking dogs’, those who spoke up outside the system, the critics. These people suffered, often seriously, from their courageous expressions. Her typology of actors includes ‘termites’, those within the system who were quietly critical and actively searching for new ideas. When Mikhail Gorbachev, a termite who had assimilated the most important concepts peace research had to offer, assumed power, history took several dramatic turns. The typology is completed with ‘sheep’, the large majority of citizens who accepted life as it was, and largely accepted the framing of reality presented by the state.
We learn how the ideas of the great 20th century peace researchers, such as Anatol Rapaport, Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer reached the inner circle of Soviet policy-makers around Gorbachev, and how, much earlier, President Kennedy, influenced by Charles Osgood’s ideas on Graduated Reciprocation of Tension Reduction (GRIT) made several unilateral disarmament moves. Each was immediately reciprocated by Khrushchev in a series abruptly ended by Kennedy’s murder. GRIT, the ideas of common security, non-offensive defence, reasonable sufficiency in weaponry (rather than ruinous arms races), confidence-building measures, non-intervention in other states, the necessity for nuclear abolition were assimilated by Gorbachev and became part of his ‘New Political thinking’. Lithuania, after becoming an independent state, even adopted the idea from peace research of civilian-based defence.
While peace theory took root, a highly creative process of citizen diplomacy occurred through the 1980s. Brilliant solo players such a Norman Cousins, Jeremy Stone, Bernard Lown and Ernst van Eeghen played their parts, backed by organisations such as the Dartmouth Conferences, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Pugwash, and Parliamentarians for Global Action.
These processes seeded new ideas in receptive Soviet minds, worked out implementation processes together and formed relationships of trust. Many readers of this review will have played some role in this chapter of history. Metta reviews the outcome to the present – the transformation of Eastern Europe without violence, the end of proxy wars, avoidance of nuclear war and progress in nuclear disarmament. She examines the sad question of why Russians are willing to tolerate authoritarian government, reversing the moves towards democracy that Gorbachev began. She focuses on the low levels of social trust in Russia, between people and between citizens and their government. It is worth considering what community-building processes might remedy this.
Metta has an engaging style of writing, very like a personal conversation. The book is deeply interesting for its theoretical content, and fascinating for the cameos of extraordinary people who appear in the pages. Metta has created a website with photos of these people, and the full texts of the hundreds of interviews that provided the substance of this work. (http://russianpeaceanddemocracy.com )
I found myself pondering after I finished reading. When the cross-national transmission of ideas can yield such important results, what are the responsibilities of intellectuals and activists? Are these processes relevant to the other daunting task many of us face – how to end the destruction of Nature through human economic activity and population growth, most acutely in climate change and biodiversity loss? It is extraordinary to consider that, whereas in the historic episode Metta documents, it was the impact of ideas on Soviet minds that was the focus, now it is US and Chinese minds, as well as those in our own societies that might be thought crucial. Might cross-fertilising conversations with two-way learning get us over the present terrifying stalemate?

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Working together

Dear Friends and Family and other readers of this blog,
We recently had a rather marvellous day working on building a huge compost heap and preparing stuff to stimulate micro-organism growth in the soil.

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I discovered through last week's communal garden building for the Motueka Community Garden, and this week's Biodynamic Day at Atamai (more explanation
later) how much pleasure I can get out of a community working effort.
I have for decades enjoyed the pleasures of working with others towards important goals in peace, and latterly ecological issues. Sharing intellectual capacity, creative ideas, working hard together, sharing laughs has for a very long time been one of the good things in my life. But, amazingly, there's even more of a 'high' for me in joint physical work towards a shared goal. Two weeks ago it was the creation of a community garden for the township of Motueka, a large project that will require more work. I personally won't benefit from this, but people who want to grow things but have little or no land on which to do it will benefit. It was a great feeling to be on a wheelbarrow or wield a shovel alongside others, strangers getting to know each other while we worked alongside each other, and seeing the garden grow while we worked.

This last weekend, Atamai was the host for the regional biodynamic group. This group, followers of Rudolf Steiner's ideas about agriculture, meets once a month on someone's property to see what they're doing and work together according to biodynamic principles. I have an ambivalent intellectual relationship with these ideas, some of which seem quite mystical to me.
However, I'm challenged by data that suggest that biodynamic horticulture really is more productive, stores more carbon in the soil, and so on. And I'm entirely unambivalent about the people involved, who comprise many of my good friends. So the group, ranging between a dozen and 30 at various times of the day, consisted of about half Atamai people and half outsider biodynamicists who came to put in a day's work. Adrienne, a committed biodynamic gardener (and nurse) works most days at Atamai taking care of the orchards, and was the host for this day. (Her orchard work is sweat equity towards the acquisition of a lot at Atamai. She has done a lovely job on the orchards, which are looking beautiful.) Adrienne began working towards this day months ago. The cow manure, necessary for both compost building and biodynamic preparations (something like fertility stimulants) had to undergo special processes before it was ready for use. She had worked for months removing gorse from gullies in the orchards, and had made big cylindrical piles of rotting gorse for use on the compost pile. She had cut large bags of nettles grown (deliberately) on her own property. As she passed through Picton a month ago on her way back from a retreat for anthroposophical nurses (this is Steiner's philsophy on health), she had bought a load of seaweed, and it came in a large winebarrel.

The biodynamic way of making hot compost involves using hay or grass with the dew still on it. Adrienne started on the land by torchlight on Saturday morning, about 5.30am. When I got up at 6.30, I could hear her mowing over on the hillsides. The time for gathering for raking the grass was 7am. I got there at ten past, and there were already four people (outsiders) raking. We raked for a few hours and Adrienne, seemingly out of nowhere, began cooking buckwheat pancakes, which were eaten with damson jelly of her own making. I provided the tea in big thermoses. Coffee was made over a clever device in which a double metal cylinder holding water between its two walls is placed over a little fire. The inner cylinder acts as a chimney for the fire which draws well and heats the water. We sat around eating this feast for a while, then got back on the rakes, wheelbarrows, forks and shovels. By that time we were also forking gorse and shovelling manure in layers on to the compost pile. This pile began with a 9 1/2 x 3 metre base. There were a few layers of nettles, which to my astonishment, people handled with their bare hands, while I went to look for gloves. 'Doesn't it hurt?' I asked. 'Only a bit,'
was the answer. At various stages layers of seaweed (very smelly), ground dolomite, and rock dust were added. Every layer got a sprinkle with the hose. The manure, after its long treatment, wasn't at all smelly. Adrienne compared the process to baking a cake. After about 4 hours of work, the pile was two metres high. You couldn't see people working on the other side.

Adrienne climbed on top, used a crowbar to make eight deep holes through the layers, and dropped little clods of special biodynamic preparations down each hole.
Everyone cheered and rejoiced and then went home.

At 4pm people reconvened for the next phase, coming to a higher terrace on the orchard for the process of making and spreading biodynamic preparations. This was the more mystical side of biodynamics, but the quietly sceptical also joined in. You can see me stirring the mixture (first clockwise, making a vortex, then reversing) and Jack sprinkling the mixture on to the soil.

Finally we had a wonderful picnic on the still sunny terrace, with the many little kids rolling themselves down the grassy slopes and laughing.

This was the first large occasion of communal work at Atamai, although our tree planting last year involved 8-10 people at some stages. We plan in the future to build an implement shed, and a picnic shelter in this way. There are many other possible projects.

Warmest wishes,