Book 2019-04-20T21:08:56+00:00

Chapter Extracts

… The apocalyptic view is couched in the language of danger and collapse. Industrial civilization has started to crash, say the ‘doomers’. For them, our best course of action is to head for the hills with a truckload of guns and peanut butter. At the other extreme, optimistic technology buffs are confident that man-made solutions will soon allow us to carry on as usual. And what about the rest of us? Most people I know are anxious about what’s happening around them, but silently so; they think less about the collapse of civilizations than with finding work, or feeding their kids. But they – we – feel less and less secure. It doesn’t help that the media are filled with fatuous advice about what we should do: drive a Tesla? Change a light bulb? Give us
a break.
This book is that break. It tells of a third social movement – much bigger than the rifle-packing doomers and the green-tech dreamers – that’s emerging as the global crisis unfolds. This movement is below the radar of mainstream media, but it contains a million active groups – and rising. Quietly, for the most part, communities the world over are growing a replacement economy from the ground up. As you will read in the pages that follow, their number includes energy angels, wind wizards, and watershed managers. There are bio-regional planners, ecological historians, and citizen foresters. Alongside dam removers, river restorers, and rain harvesters, there are urban farmers, seed bankers, and master conservers. You’ll meet building dismantlers, office-block refurbishers, and barn raisers. There are natural painters, and green plumbers. There are trailer-park renewers, and land-share brokers. The movement involves computer recyclers, hardware re-mixers, and textile upcyclers. It extends to local currency designers. There are community doctors. And elder carers. And ecological teachers… (continued)
… What will it take to heal the soil? On its own, soil formation is an extremely slow process – sometimes taking thousands of years – but a growing band of visionaries have discovered that the process can be speeded up dramatically if the right approach is followed. One such pioneer, Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones, has demonstrated that new topsoil will form rapidly, and naturally, with the right combination of biomass and turnover of plant roots. In what she calls her ‘Rules of the Kitchen’, Jones lists six essential ingredients for soil formation: minerals; air; water; living things in the soil – such as plants and animals, and their by-products; living things on the soil, ditto; and what she describes as ‘intermittent and patchy disturbance regimes’. ‘In order for new soil to form, it must be living,’ Jones explains; ‘life in the soil provides the structure for more life, and the formation of more soil. That’s why healthy ground cover, high root biomass, and high levels of associated microbial activity, are fundamental to building new topsoil.’ When the process is helped along like this, evidence of new topsoil formation can be seen within twelve months; quite dramatic effects are often observed within three years…
 … By putting the health of the land, and the people who live on it, at the centre of the story, a bioregion frames the next economy, not the dying one we have now. Because its core value is stewardship, not perpetual growth, a bioregion turns the global system on its head. Rather than drive the land endlessly to yield more food or fibre per acre, production is determined by the health and carrying capacity of the land, through time – a factor which is constantly monitored. Decisions are made by the people who work the land, and know it best. Prices are based on yields the land can bear, and on revenues that assure security to the farmer. ‘Growth’ is measured in terms of land, soil, and water getting healthier, and communities more resilient… (continued)
… It sounds like a huge change – but a profound transition from strictly engineered systems is fast gathering pace. The new paradigm in water management – so-called Water Sensitive Urban Design – features a return to the hydrology of a city as it was before the concrete conveyor system was built. The focus has shifted from high-entropy engineered solutions, such as reservoirs and sewer networks, to softer ecological systems that give priority to water where it falls; this small and local approach conserves water, improves water quality, reduces flooding and erosion, and promotes re-vegetation. At street level, Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) involve the re-design of roofs, pavements, streets and parking spaces. In their place come rain gardens, surface wetlands, restored ponds, and streams, reed beds, and worm colonies. Some new equipment is needed to make cities ‘water-wise’, of course: rainwater tanks; large bladder storage systems; greywater plumbing; settling tanks, physical filters; smart sensors for systems monitoring; new systems for maintenance. But equipment is a relatively small part of the solution; water-harvesting practices are for the most part simple, low-tech activities. Physical work, and grassroots 
social organization, are the most important ingredients. With budgets at local and national level under extreme pressure, a growing number of communities are taking hands-on measures to restore urban watersheds house by house, street by street. In Tucson, Arizona, which has only twelve inches of rainfall per year, residents are becoming active participants in water conservation and water-harvesting together with non-profit organizations and local businesses… (continued)
Re-wilding cities is not much about the creation of wide open spaces; 
it’s more about patchworks, mosaics, and archipelagos. 
When parks were built in past centuries they were called the ‘green 
lungs’ of towns. Decades of oil-fuelled over-development has put an end to those expansive days – but a new generation of ‘greening designers’ are developing new tactics. They have abundant man-made assets to work with. There are parks, cemeteries, watercourses, avenues, gardens, and yards to adapt. There are roadside verges, green roofs, and facades to plant. Sports fields, vacant lots, abandoned sites, and landfills can be repurposed. There are large and growing numbers of abandoned buildings and ruins, empty malls, and disused airports to modify – not to mention the abandoned aircraft that, before too long, will be parked there. In Vienna, a design 
irm called Biotope City develops ‘micro green spaces’ to transform 
neighbourhoods. In the densely developed Haslingergasse district, 
for example, the group covered the walls, balconies, and ledges of 150 social housing blocks with greenery. Thanks to the participation 
of local schoolchildren, nesting boxes for birds and insects were also added. A similar patchwork approach is emerging in the Jaeren region of Norway whose landscape has been battered by the footprint of the oil economy. Undeterred, the architect Knut Erik Dahl teaches young designers to look for and appreciate the tiniest examples of biological life in among the people, goods, and buildings: solitary plants, rare lichen, rare insects. Students make largescale maps of each location on paper, by hand. It’s low-cost, hands-on work. They call it ‘dirty sustainability’. This new approach is all about nurturing patches, some of them tiny, and linking them together. (continued)
… Undaunted by this nutty situation, the Food Commons team is taking small steps on an ambitious journey of change. Community-owned grocery stores are in the pipeline. Community Supported Agriculture schemes, such as The Farmer’s Daughter, are making headway. There are small but viable farmers’ markets. Community gardens and urban farming are propagating across the city. There are projects to connect schools with local farmers. Top down too, at a policy level, chinks of light are visible at the end of the BigAg tunnel: in 2014, for example, the US Department of Agriculture announced a $78 million investment in local and regional food systems including food hubs, farmers’ markets, aggregation and processing facilities, distribution services, and other local food business enterprises.18 Cooperatives, non-profit organizations, Native American groupss, and individuals are eligible. Now $78 million is of course a tiny amount compared to the tens of billions that continue to be lavished on production agriculture – but it’s a start.
Knowing the list of ingredients – and laying them all out on a table – is not the same thing as making a cake. The myriad social innovations in Fresno, as in hundreds of other cities, are cheering, and exciting – but something extra is needed if we are to transform agriculture systems as a whole. This is where The Food Commons comes in. Their approach marks a radical shift from a narrow focus on the production of food on its own, towards a whole-system approach in which the interests of farm communities and local people the land, watersheds, and biodiversity are all considered together. The Food Commons is conceived as a kind of connective tissue that links together food-producing land, ideally held in common by community trusts; support infrastructure – such as distribution and retail centres; and support services, whether legal, financial, communications, or organizational. Its co-founder, Larry Yee, describes The Food Commons as ‘a whole new cloth’… (continued)
… The new approach is to seek to influence the fashion system at its edges, using cultural interventions as a tool. At the London College of Fashion in London, at an event called Craft of Use, two hundred professionals explored the question: what kind of system would improve the quality of our fashion experience without increasing the quantity we consume? For thousands of years before the oil age, textiles were carefully looked after and the repair, alteration, and maintenance of clothes was a normal part of daily life; can we not combine the beauty of that culture with peer-to-peer production? The main input to our discussions was a remarkable archive of 500 stories, collected by designers and artists around the world, in which a sustained attention to wearing, tending and caring for clothes was a source of satisfaction and meaning.
In her project Grasslands, for example, Emma Lynas connects garments to the earth literally, by extracting colour from her agricultural grassland in Victoria, Australia. She collects eucalyptus leaves, wild thyme, cedar berries, and Aleppo pine needles – and simmers them with strips of hemp. The result is a range of summer hues: straw, gold and bronze. In another example, Sasha Duerr forages for materials in her neighbourhood. She uses plants directly, rather than extracts. She uses contextual knowledge about the lifecycles of plants, their seasonal availability, and their colour potential to plan commissions much as an organic chef plans menus around locally and seasonally available food. (For her wedding, Duerr hand-dyed all of her bridesmaids’ dresses using fennel that she gathered from around her neighbourhood… (continued)
The big Audi that collected us from Istanbul airport contained nearly as many electronic control units (ECUs) as the new Airbus A380. The Audi, and similar high-end cars, will soon run on 200 million lines or more of software code.
As a comparison, the avionics and onboard support systems of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner run on fewer than seven million lines. That makes modern cars highly intelligent, right? Well maybe, and maybe not. Suppose the owner of such a two-ton vehicle drives a mile down the road to collect a 300 g (10 1/2 oz.) pizza for a small child’s dinner: is that a smart thing to do? And if it’s not, whose judgement is at fault: the car’s, or the driver’s? And if locusts that fly in swarms of millions don’t bump into each other, how come today’s cars ‘need’ so much computing?
… The proposition that mobility is a fundamental human need sounds uncontroversial, but think of it this way: one could also say that locusts have a universal need for lunch. Which they do. But when locusts fulfil all their needs, the land is stripped bare – and the locusts, having eaten their last lunch, expire. The consensus in archaeology and anthropology is that mobility, far from being an innate feature of human behaviour, is determined by the needs of communities at a particular place and time…
… If, as seems probable, a ‘peak car’ tipping point has arrived, we can move on from the futile ‘car or no car?’ debate that has bedeviled discussions of sustainable mobility for a generation. Since any mode of transportation means pushing through air or water over vast distances that will not shrink, a more interesting question arises: at a time of energy transition, what priorities should inform the investments we can afford to make? (continued…)
… My argument throughout this book is that we need to grow social support systems – including healthcare ones – that can flourish using five per cent of the resource costs per person that we have now. I know this sounds like a fantasy, but consider this: in Cuba, where food, petrol, and oil have been scarce for sixty years as a consequence of economic blockades, its citizens achieve the same level of health for only five per cent of the healthcare expenditure of Americans. Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, is also well known for impressive improvements in a range of indicators, particularly child mortality. These achievements have taken place despite relatively low levels of spending on health, but with substantial innovations in community-based service delivery including health extension worker programs, traditional birth attendants, and programmes to improve treatment of diarrhoea. In northern countries, too, five per cent health care already exists where workers with less training than doctors operate in communities, and away from big hospitals. So-called nurse practitioners, or physician assistants, can perform about 85 per cent of the work of a qualified family doctor. And we, the patients, are perfectly happy with the service received: when different nurse practitioner schemes around the world were reviewed by the British Medical Journal, patients treated by nurses were found to be more satisfied, and no less healthy, than those treated by doctors.13 I heard about an especially striking example at the Mayo conference. In New Mexico, Community Health Workers are paid $10 an hour to work on the front line of a highly effective campaign against common diseases such as hepatitis, asthma, and substance misuse. In some of the state’s prisons, inmates, after a ten-week training course, are also proving highly effective health educators to their peers – and they are paid nothing. ‘Doctors’, said one professional at the Mayo Clinic, ‘are grossly over-emphasized.’
… The manager of a small guesthouse in Kerala, in southern India, opened my eyes even further. During a discussion about our parents, his jaw dropped when I complained about the cost of care homes in England. He literally could not believe that we, the children, would even consider putting our parents in a care home rather than in our own homes. Although the guy was dirt poor by rich-world standards, he took the supportive relationships that surrounded him totally for granted; he was looking after his mother in his home at the time, and fully expected his own children to do the same for him. Konpe` Filo, one of Haiti’s most popular journalists, reassured me that I was not fantasizing in a memorable interview. When he was asked, after the disastrous earthquake, whether Haiti was actually poor, Filo replied, ‘It depends on how you define poverty and wealth – and who does the defining. I would actually say that Haiti is a rich country. We have solidarity and community. We’re raised in compounds with common courtyards, and we know that what you have, you have to share with your neighbours. You stand in front of your neighbour’s house and you ask, “Did you drink coffee already today?” You know that your success and your family’s success depend on the community’s wellbeing. That’s the model we have.‘
 … The South has much smarter cities than we do, too. They are not filled with Big Data and ICT consultants, it’s true, but the streets of poor cities are sites of intense social and business creativity. Every time I go to India, for example, I am amazed by the prowess of the pavement-based engineers and fixers who look after the gadgets and equipment of a gadget-filled city: engines, television tubes, compressors, and other devices. (continued)

Scientists at Harvard have reported, with great fanfare, that the human mind runs on less energy than a household lightbulb. Given its 86 billion neurones, and phenomenal computing power, this is an impressive technical performance. The only shame is that our brain has not proved itself to be as wise as it is energy efficient. In fact, the opposite is the case. Our cool-running brains perceive it as normal to consume non-renewable resources, at an accelerating rate, in a finite world. Even when informed of the grave environmental and social costs of this behaviour, our brains remain unperturbed. In the absence of direct experience to the contrary, they habitually believe that things will turn out for the best. It’s not that our brains lack processing capacity – more that they’re processing incomplete data. As I explained in Chapter 1, our whole society has been rendered cognitively blind by a metabolic rift between man and the earth. Paved surfaces and pervasive media shield us from direct experience of the damage we’re inflicting on soils, oceans, and forests….
In this final chapter I discuss three issues, which I believe are related. First, I’ll explore the notion that we are living in a ‘desert of the real’, and what this has meant for environmental campaigns. Second, I will explore alternative ways of knowing about the world – and how these might help us move beyond our present impasse. Finally, and to conclude the book, I turn to the new story that’s now emerging about our place in the world – and how this story will bring the change we all yearn for. (continued…)
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Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Publication: 7 September 2015
Extent: 192pp
Size: 23.4 x 15.6cm
Binding: Hardback
Price: £18.95

ISBN 978 0 500 518083