Tag Archives: Energy

Toward A Living Economy: Managed Boundaries

This is a continuation of a series exploring some ideas about what a living economy based on the rules of nature might look like. David Korten points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the third.

The third rule is “Managed Boundaries”which recognizes the exchanges at work in the interdependence of a healthy ecosystem.

Because of the way life manages energy, each living entity must maintain an active flow of energy within itself and in continuous exchange with its neighbors. Life requires permeable managed membranes at every level of organization—the cell, the organ, the multi-celled organism, and the multi-species ecosystem—to manage these flows and as a defense against parasitic predators. If the membrane of the cell or organism is breached, the continuously flowing embodied energy that sustains its living internal structures dissipates into the surrounding environment, and it dies. It also dies, however, if the membrane becomes impermeable, thus isolating the entity and cutting off its needed energy exchange with its neighbors. Managed boundaries are not only essential to life’s good health; they are essential to its very existence.

This is exactly what the current economic system cannot account for, energy flows. We can’t see what resources are flowing out of our bioregion and into others and likewise we don’t see the flows from other bioregions into our own in the form of food, products, labor, etc. The current system masks these flows with layers of trade, corporate entities, regulation, nation-states and various governing authorities. You can look at most products and find a “Made in…” label, but how much does that really tell you?

Reorganizing our human economies to function as locally self-reliant subsystems of our local ecosystems will require segmenting the borderless global economy into a planetary system of interlinked self-reliant regional economies. This does not mean shutting out the world. Vital living economies exchange their surplus goods for the surplus goods of their neighbors and freely share ideas, technology, and culture in a spirit of mutual respect for the needs and values of all players.

When I mentioned in the last post that this might sound like a scary form of tribalism to some, this point is what I had in mind. It’s as if our imaginations are held captive to two possibilities, which ultimately keeps us captive to one possibility for organizing the world, either some form of strong central control (which includes both capitalism, marxism, socialism, communism, etc.) or isolationist groups fighting with each other in a neo-tribalism or balkanization of the world. It seems to me that the problems we face are usually created in some part by our lack of ability to get outside of the status quo and paradigm that shapes our picture of the world and how it works. This exercise in imagining a living economy is an attempt to imagine an alternative beyond the two possibilities mentioned above, strong central control or tribalism.

Korten helpfully points out that the living economy he imagines is not local and regional tribes that isolate themselves from each other (Has this ever really been the case entirely?). He isn’t ranting about dismantling the global economy. Instead he seems to envision a global economy that more closely mirrors the global ecology. There are global exchanges that take place but not the kind of top-down centrally managed enterprise that currently exists with asymmetrical power relationships between nations, peoples and sectors within economies of nations and regions.

Ecological health does not depend on global institutions to regulate it. There is no IMF that lends some energy, trees, animals or pollinators to an ecosystem to maintain its health. If a species goes extinct (whether naturally or because of human intervention), there is no way to take out a loan with structural adjustments from a hypothetical institution of ecological resources that will somehow correct the health of the ecosystem. A greater degree of autonomy for local and regional economies would be necessary to mimic the health of ecosystems.

It also means that local and regional economies would have to be primarily based on their bioregions and then negotiate the management of the boundaries of that bioregion in terms of exchange with other localities. This seems to imply that the global system which makes it normal to have high-need and short season crops, like asparagus, and crops with a very small growing region, like quinoa, out of season in regions far from the point of production may no longer be feasible. Producing non-agriculture products in overseas factories may likewise also be less desirable with a shift in focus toward regional sufficiency and dependency on the local bioregion.

Each of the elements of Korten’s suggestions for a living economy shift the primary economic focus from a system abstracted from the natural resources on which it depends to one that begins with the soil that sustains us and only gradually, and in a limited way, expands from there. The question that looms over the act of imagining such a system is how in the world we could ever get there from here. I hope to explore some thoughts about that question in the final post in this series.

The Ultimate Showdown: Mother Earth vs Globalization

Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,

Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2

Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama
(The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1

Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”

In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,

“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2

There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.

Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says

“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3

The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.

The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.

The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.

“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1

You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.

How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.

This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.

In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.

Articles cited:
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth

Isn’t It Ironic…Don’t You Think?

Unlike the Alanis Morisette hit, “Ironic”, which was in fact not at all ironic, I have come across some ironies in my work that strike me as worth mentioning and perhaps exploring more in depth. The world we live in seems full of these strange paradoxes, but they come in to stark relief in development work where all of my “developed” cultural assumptions, privileges and background come into contact with those of the “developing” world.

Compost vs. Flush Toilet
The first one relates to the beautiful wicker throne of which I am so proud. I’m very happy to no longer be flushing and instead turning my own excrement into an agricultural resource. It takes hands-on management to empty buckets and manage the compost pile, but for me the trade off is well worth it in my mind. When I built this system, my co-worker had to laugh when he imagined what the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) would say if they ever saw my toilet. “We left that way of life back in Russia. What are you thinking?” People in Guarani villages like Caipepe have not had flushing toilets in their homes or villages. Their vision of development, similar to the LGMs, is one that brings many of the modern infrastructure to their homes. Why would I choose to go backward by pooping in a bucket and piling it up in the backyard? (For the answer you can read Humanure: Waste or Resource?)

Off vs. On the Grid
We have friends back home who have lived or aspire to live “off the grid”, meaning not connected to the electricity infrastructure. For some this might mean using renewable forms of energy instead, but continuing to consume electricity. For others this means getting rid of the need to use electricity as much as possible. For most it’s a combination of the two. We also aspire to this kind of lifestyle and have started a Sabbath practice with no electricity Sundays, which is easier there is only one breaker for the entire house.
In contrast our friends in Caipepe just got electricity in their village within the last year. Their experience of the world has been one without electricity in their home for most of their lives. What would they say to my friends, or me, about wanting to live without electricity or at least “off the grid”?

Sustainable vs. Industrial Agriculture
The irony I find most disturbing is that I, the white, North American, male development worker am the one advocating sustainable agriculture to indigenous people (LGMs are another story). The Guarani lived on the land as hunter-gatherers and perhaps farmers long before the chemical and seed companies that now dominate the market and dictate the type of agriculture practiced. They have a long history of knowledge of local flora and fauna. There are still lots of people that know about what plants are edible or useful for medicinal purposes, but this kind of knowledge and intimacy with the landscape has been marginalized in favor of the cash crop system of industrial agriculture. So, the farmers we talk to use chemicals to manage weeds, insects and fertility. They lack the knowledge of the ancestors about better ways to live on the land, which may be because they were hunter-gatherers who were forced to settle in to sedentary villages.
Other people, like the Quechua and Aymaras, who practiced agriculture before even the Incan Empire have probably retained more of their traditional knowledge than those who remained hunter-gatherers right up to the colonization by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century.

These are the ironies of development work, particularly with an emphasis on sustainability. It’s important to remember that the North American obsession with a “green” lifestyle is a privileged position. Some of it may be the right thing to do, but any attempt to simply import it to “developing” countries and/or indigenous peoples would simply be another form of colonization. Part of the reason those of us in the privileged “developed” world are able to choose lifestyles that contradict and challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture, consumerism and the growth economy is because our lives have been so saturated by these realities. Those in the “developing” world have experienced these realities from a completely different perspective and advertising continues to sell them a dream that is beyond their reach. So, once again we must find a way to bring these worlds together and find better solutions over a guampa of yerba maté.

When The Lights Go Out

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts lately on issues of collapse, peak oil, post-civilization, anti-civilization, etc. lately. I am convinced that the history of civilizations and empires tells us pretty clearly that collapse is inevitable. The collapse of a global civilization based on oil is unprecedented and the implications for our lifestyles can be pretty overwhelming. I have primitivist friends who try to learn skills like tanning, making clothes, moving quietly in a forest, foraging edible plants, etc. that will help them when all the oil is gone and we need to eat, clothe ourselves and find shelter. They also attempt to live in community and share possessions which is currently lacking and will certainly be a much needed skill. But they live in a house that uses electricity, plumbing, flushing toilets and drive cars (though one has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil). My aim is not to point fingers. I, too, fall short of some ideal lifestyle that may not be possible at the moment and may not exist at all.

I have tried to imagine what a post-collapse world will actually be like and what kind of things will help and what things won’t. Derrick Jensen talks about taking out dams, the electricity grid and other infrastructure that he believes is ultimately destructive to ourselves and the earth. What things

I wrote a while back about our first experience of a few days without running water in Bolivia. It was an eye-opening experience, something felt in the body more than the head. The other night I had a similar experience. It is winter down here in the Southern hemisphere. Though it might not get as cold as it does back home in Texas, there is no central heating here. So, the few weeks of really cold winter weather you are cold all the time. We try to use the oven as much as possible because it warms up our kitchen nicely. We also have two small space heaters that work pretty well. However, since all of our doors lead outside, our bathroom is not attached to our house and much of life here is lived outside, the cold is impossible to escape. We also live pretty far out in the country.

The other night as we were putting the kids to bed, the lights went out. Everything was pitch black, the heater was not on and I thought, “I’m not ready for collapse!” Even with all the electricity on I can see more stars here than I have ever seen and the Milky Way is often very clearly visible in the night sky. It was close to the new moon as well. So, when the lights went out it was about as dark as I have ever experienced. My heart jumped. I was not at all prepared. I felt caught completely off guard. We scrambled for flashlights and headlamps as I tried to figure out if it was just us or everybody.

Our town is working on completing a water tower to supply the town with water more consistently. This particular night they were working, I think, on the building to house the pump, when somehow they knocked out the power. It was only off for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was one of those moments that shocks you awake. It made me realize how much I was still connected, attached and perhaps addicted to these things (as I write this on my laptop which is dependent on the same system) that depended on the grid. Questions flashed in my mind. How will we find our way around when the batteries run out? How will we stay warm tonight in this cold? What will we do tomorrow if it’s still not on?

In a profound way I felt a sense of loss and grief at the theoretical passing of this huge chunk of my identity which is bound up in this system that sustains me. I think that is a healthy response to the idea, the possibility or the inevitability of collapse. One of the villages I work with got electricity for the first time within the last year. I thought that was an interesting fact, but now I try to imagine my friends living with the darkness that I experienced the other night for their entire lives. Their identity is not wrapped up in this grid and all that it brings. If the grid collapsed tomorrow their experience would be vastly different from mine. It would have very little effect on them, but I would be scrambling to reconfigure my whole existence around this new reality.

P.S. As I was writing this post the lights went out again (this time at 4pm). This time it was the electric company shutting us off for not paying for the last two months… oops. The only gas station in the area has not had gasoline for the last week which has hampered my plans to go pay our account since our truck is out of fuel. How nice would it be to have one less bill to pay and thing to worry about. There is a lot of freedom in untangling ourselves from the system. What I have realized is that it is a long journey in which we slowly uncover how entangled we really are.

May the truth of Christ and the liberating presence of the Spirit continue to lead us into true freedom.