Water and Reversable Climate Change


Water Retention Landscape in Tamera

Reversing Desertification: The Water Retention Landscape in Tamera, Portugal


Hardly a week can pass now without at least one dire warning about water. Much that would have been apocalyptic science fiction a few decades ago is now too boring to be considered news. We hear from NASA, for example, that what we call drought around the world may be the the new normal, and that California has only one year of water left in its reservoirs. The latest is the complete and unprecedented absence of snowpack in the Sierras, which had been imagined as a worst-case scenario… until it happened. In the place of California, one could substitute many other regions in crisis which are not as well mediatized.


Climate change is associated almost exclusively with global warming and the greenhouse effect of carbon emissions. But many changes in weather patterns, floods, droughts, famine, landslides, and desertification, have a completely different cause. And that cause is bad water management.


The good news is that when it comes to water management, local and regional changes can have a local and regional impact. No one needs to wait for the great powers to act; we can act now, where we are.


By “bad water management,” I also mean bad soil management, or rather the whole combination of deforestation, overgrazing, erosion and loss of topsoil, paving and over-development, depletion of aquifers, industrial agriculture, engineering of rivers and other waterways, and other human activities that disrupt natural hydrological cycles. The result is that when rain falls, it finds little opportunity to enter into the earth; nor can it enter into the biomass of topsoil, plants, trees, and other living things. Rainwater now runs directly into rivers and back to the sea, causing destruction along the way. These “floods” are not typically the result of harder rain than occurred historically, but rather are due to the lack of topsoil, vegetation, and natural waterways that can hold and slowly re-release the water over days, months, or even (in the case of underground aquifers) years.


Because all the rainwater rushes away, there is less fresh water available in the environment: Water tables drop; springs, rivers, and other surface waters dry up; meanwhile, evaporation from topsoil and plant respiration declines, lowering atmospheric humidity and reducing the likelihood of further precipitation. Millán Millán of the Mediterranean Center for Environmental Studies (CEAM) has extensively studied how deforestation and overdevelopment on the Mediterranean coast leads to both sustained drought and—ironically—catastrophically intense storms far into Europe.


Desertification in most parts of the world, for example here in Iberia, is blamed on global warming. But nearly everywhere on earth, there is enough water for agriculture, reforestation, and regeneration of the natural environment. It just needs to be allowed to enter into the earth and into a living biomass. Truly, most human-made deserts are not marked by a lack of water, but by a lack of forests and soil to hold the water.


On World Water Day this spring, Rajendra Singh of India received the Stockholm Water Prize for working on just that: making it possible for rainwater to be retained within a region, restoring the aquifers, rivers, and the environment. We do similar work here in Tamera, developing a water retention landscape that has radically transformed our local environment, benefiting us and our neighbors. Water retention basins are built; along with swales, check dams, and other earthworks to slow and hold water. Trees are planted, soil is built up again. The biomass is increased.


Life returns, the water table rises, dried creeks and springs begin to flow. Agriculture becomes possible again. Wild birds and other animals quickly reestablish themselves.


This knowledge and these techniques are well-grounded in science, but are still perceived as “alternative,” mostly applied by fairly small scale, radical ecological projects. These undertakings are too often seen as the organic food co-ops of ecological restoration: No one would disapprove, but they’re not widely understood as relevant, much less of critical and revolutionary importance. Most journalists prefer to focus on climate summits, disasters, failed treaties, alarming numbers, and forebodings of the end-times. But no one needs to wait for international organizations, transnational corporations, or governments to act. Desertification, and much else that is called “global climate change” and its consequences, can be stopped and reversed on any scale, from the backyard to the local watershed, depending on the will of the people who want to change it.


Understanding water, and dealing with water differently, is an achievable goal, and one of the keys to a sustainable future.

“Life with the Solar Kitchen,” from Communities Magazine

“My goal as a technologist is therefore not to extract energy or exploit resources, but rather to intelligently and gently participate in the natural flows of energies, to serve life and my community. We canand do talk about the kilowatts per square meter of sunshine, the UV resistance of fluoropolymers, how to get the hydrogen sulfide out of the biogas, and so on, but these discussions can only lead to real, sustainable solutions if we get the human and spiritual basics right. “



Whose side am I on?

Note that in this theory of humor, the humorist is neither well-intentioned nor intelligent.
Note that in this theory of humor, the humorist is neither well-intentioned nor intelligent. 

I have been following the news from Paris closely: My oldest friends in Paris were big fans of Charlie Hebdo with some slight social connections to the cartoonists. Since my initial shock–and seeing the world take sides in new and original ways–I find it impossible to find a voice in the discussion that I can really say I share. I would like to see at least one item in my Facebook news-feed that I can ‘like’ without feeling compromised and queasy. So, I’ll write one myself!

It is good and necessary for a peaceworker to try to understanding the political context and personal history behind an act of violence. However, this has to be done without validating any of the identities and narratives used to justify the violence. Nearly all the commentary I’ve seen, as well as the commentary about the commentary,  has included an attempt to assign various people to different categories, in the service of the writer’s agenda. For example: The attackers were not real representatives of Islam. Or the cartoonists were racists, or moderate Muslims have failed to speak out against violence, or defenders of Charlie Hebdo are complicit in colonialism and white privilege, or political correctness is complicit in the Islamification of the Europe, etc. Within the world-views they represent, some of these statements may have some truth in them. But they all serve division and war, to the extent we fall into the trap of believing in the labels and categories. The acts of people within identity-groups are the symptoms; the belief in identity is the disease.

Here are some things that happened: A group of human beings put on uniforms in Langley, Virginia, and then assassinated a family in Yemen by remote control, with a missile fired from a drone. Later, another group of human beings who identified themselves as part of an oppressed minority, assassinated some other human beings who publish a newspaper in Paris.

The sense that there are different sides, and that the victims in Yemen and killers in Paris are on one side; while the drone pilots and journalists are on the other, is a form of insanity. It is the insanity of belief in identities and sides. Those suffering from this insanity may perceive a moral and logical connection between the murders in Yemen and the murders in Paris. And there is a connection. But it’s not a logical connection. It’s an insane connection. It’s insane if you’re on one of the perceived sides. It’s insane if you’re on the other side. It’s insane even if you’re “neutral.” It’s entirely insane, even if you’re an official UN peace negotiator… to the extent you believe in the identities, labels, and narratives.

These acts of violence will probably spread the insanity. People will stop seeing other human beings, and start seeing jihadis, or Zionists, or martyrs for free speech… or racists, oppressed minorities, privileged majorities, Islamofascists, liberals, colonialists, Jews, Americans, Muslims, soldiers, peace activists, secularists. When people allow these labels to be applied to themselves, even if they have good intentions, they give energy to a world-view based on heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators. They make themselves small, governable, and subject to manipulation.

The bullets, the drones, the uniforms are real. The historical events really happened, but the narratives are all social fictions. It’s all insane: the rage, the fear, the collective guilt, the racism. Everyone involved is a human being, but insane. And part of the solution is to try to understand it, but never, never to believe that the stories are real.

If the Mayan Apocalypse Had Happened, Times Square Would Have Been One of the Signs.

"We don't care! And we know you don't care either! We don't care that you don't care, and we know that you don't care that you don't care that we know that you don't care!"

“We don’t care! And we know you don’t care either! We don’t care that you don’t care, and we know that you don’t care that you don’t care that we know that you don’t care!”


“Look, Honey! The M&M store!”

“Wow, Sweety, that’s amazing! Waddle over there and I’ll take a picture! I’d like to buy one of those sweat-shop-made T-shirts at great expense, and thus turn my vast, swollen body into a free billboard for a mass-produced candy product!”

“Great! We came all this way to New York, basically because coming here is just a thing people do. But now I feel validated by an imposing edifice, which despite its phenomenal rent is familiar and unchallenging!”

“That’s it, Sweety! Times Square was once an epicenter of culture and danger, art and seediness, enterprise and poverty; but fortunately that’s all gone. What makes me feel good now is seeing something as ridiculous as a gargantuan temple to M&Ms! By analogy this inflates the whole tawdry little microcosm of our lives into something that might be big and important!”

“I love M&Ms, Honey!”

“Me too, Sweety! And I loved them before they had a superstore or anything!”

“And now we have a photograph of ourselves with their focus-group designed mascot, and a glossy shopping bag covered with their images!”

“Don’t forget the T-Shirt! It goes well with our other vacation clothes: athletic-team branded caps, knee-length shorts, over-designed puffy sneakers, and outdoorsy adventure accessories — like this water-bottle holder with a shoulder strap! We look like obese 10-year-old sports fans on a safari!”

“You know, there’s probably some kid in that yellow M&M suit, judging us. He wants to be an actor and thinks he’s all above it and ironic. But I’m ironic and judgmental too! I mean, he’s a giant M&M!”

“Yes Honey, we’re all here ironically! In the popular, modern usage of the word, irony means intentional alienation from important ideas and empathy… to ostentatiously not care about truth, or beauty. The choice to remain unconscious!”

“Unconscious? Ideas? Do you mean… Is there anything happening in the world that we, as privileged Americans, should know about or take responsibility for?”

“Not that I am really aware of, Sweety!”

“Great! And look where we are now! I’m sure not feeling ironic about the Hard Rock Café! It’s connected in my mind to celebrity: the highest form of authenticity and reality! The teams of psychologists that designed this restaurant chain did their job well!”

“They sure did! Yet its very materiality — the fact that it exists architecturally as a thing — makes it seem less real somehow. Look! There are human handprints on the glass, and ordinary-looking fat people inside eating chicken wings and wiping their fingers on napkins.”

“I know, Sweety. It’s like the kid in the M&M costume, whose individual biological and emotional life, inside the costume, begins to stir feelings of both compassion and contempt in me. It makes me uncomfortable.”

“It’s better on TV!”

“Exactly! Our alienation from the natural world is nearly complete. Just look at our bodies!”

“I’m going to change the subject now!”


“So, what show should we see? I mean, we are here on Broadway, Honey! It’s nothing we would ever choose to do on our own, but we have to see a real show!”

“Yes! We have to! It’s part of the tourist narrative, and we always follow the narrative, because we are very obedient in that way!”

“Very! We Obey! And we spew sentiment, avarice, piety, outrage, patriotism, enthusiasm, and fear, on demand, like some kind of television-operated vending machines!”

“Don’t forget irony! We also spew prefabricated irony!”

“I almost forgot that one, Honey!”

“But Sweety! What if these shows are art? What if they trouble us without letting us know exactly what we are supposed to think and feel?”

“Gosh they wouldn’t do that… would they? Let’s see: There’s one show here based on an 80s pop band. It’s a musical! And there’s one musical, based on a 1970s TV show. That’s so ironic! I feel like I’m in on the joke, which will help me embrace its essential mediocrity! And then there’s that one based on that very popular movie franchise! There are multiple musicals based on Disney movies, too!”

“Wow! Those aren’t threatening at all! Is there anything about M&Ms?”

“No, Honey, but that’s a great idea! Hey, there are three different Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals!”

“Perfect! I don’t even know the names of the shows, but I already know what I’m going to feel!

“I love New York!”


“Green Consumer” May Be an Oxymoron.

It has become clear to most observers that organic certification, Fair Trade branding, and other labels, do not guarantee the social justice or ecological sustainability of food production. Yet in the media, this insight remains a constant source of surprise and disappointment. (Or at least a constant source of story pitches.) Today it is an article in the Guardian, a first-person account of a shopper’s distress at the difficulty of shopping ethically in a large chain supermarket.

First of all, let’s avoid all temptations to be righteous and superior: It’s step in the right direction, when suburban professionals want to shop with even a little fairness and sustainability in mind. It’s a good thing when a capitalist mega-orchard uses less chemicals in order to win the premium “organic” title. It’s important that a London-based writer shares her questions about whether it helps more to buy local on the one hand, or to buy imported organic on the other; and so on.

It’s also urgent to spread the word that these labels and certification processes have been largely hijacked by large producers, and not only as a marketing tactic: Like much regulatory and intellectual-property law, the “organic” certification process has been purposely turned into an expensive and burdensome obstacle, which favors large industrial producers; and which small, truly sustainable growers cannot overcome.

What is unspoken but implicit in the discussion is the evidence of how alienated people—including otherwise socially- and ecologically-aware people—are from the origins of what they eat. The discussion of ethical shopping often comes down to the dilemma, frequently stated quite plainly, of a concerned person at the market. They stand there, looking at different labels and promises, and wondering, “How can I really know where my food is coming from?” The answer is so obvious, that it should be striking: The key to knowing where your food comes from is, to know where your food comes from. The way to know what chemicals were sprayed on your vegetables is, to know what chemicals were sprayed on your vegetables, in the same way that you know what chemicals have been sprayed in your kitchen.

Not everyone can grow all their own food, or even live close enough to a large enough variety of appropriate producers to fulfill all their needs. But this is the choice we have made as a culture; other choices are possible. All the little failures of label and certification are only symptoms of something larger. Most urban shoppers can’t easily have a personal relationship with a farmer, of course… but most people don’t even know their shopkeepers, much less the small army of buyers, distributors, other middlemen, regulators, and inspectors, who make up the profit-driven labyrinth between the tomato plants and the produce section. The truth is so simple, in a way, that its hard not to spew yet more tautologies: In a system of buying and selling in which only price and profit matter, only price and profit matter.

A less-centralized system of food production is not only possible; as fuel and transport prices rise, it’s inevitable. Maybe it will be a radical re-ruralization; maybe it will be a gentle shift in urban shopping habits, favoring the local and seasonal. The real change will be when consumers make choices based on human relationships and trust, and not based on brand-recognition and price. There is nothing preventing anyone from looking for a shopkeeper, whom they trust to care about human ethics and the environment. But not enough people are doing so now to make many such business viable. Notice that I am talking about a trusting relationship with a shopkeeper, and not with a chain, or a brand, or a label. I am talking about a person, a specific human being, an equal, a compañero who happens to sell produce.

Democracy and the free market live up to their advertising, in that they are both quite responsive to their publics. If voters and shoppers want to feel like they’re doing something green and socially responsible, while not changing anything about the way they live; be assured that corporations and governments are ready to echo this lazy hypocrisy with empty words and symbolic gestures. If you want to feel like you care, drive your Prius to Whole Foods*. If you actually care, find other people that actually care, and help create a solution.

*If you have to drive and shop at a big supermarket, by all means drive a Prius and shop at Whole Foods, and accept my gratitude that you are doing what you can.

What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?


The Solar Fire P32

I was recently re-reading an entry on solar-powered industry from the fascinating website, LowTechMagazine. It contains photos and a description of the “Solar Fire P32,” a 15 kW solar collector capable of achieving focal-spot temperatures of over 700C. This can melt virtually all the materials from which the collector is made, and the author points out that, “This means that you could use a Solar Fire P32 to make another Solar Fire P32.This blew my mind a little bit.

I was surprised to realize, in retrospect, how careless and limited my definitions of sustainability and autonomy had been. None of the “green” energy technology I had ever worked with was anywhere close to being truly sustainable, because all of it put together would be incapable of driving the manufacturing processes from which any of it emerged.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels and parabolic trough collectors are not bad things, but they cannot realistically reproduce themselves. I realized that we need a more precise vocabulary to describe and discuss different kinds and levels of autonomy and sustainability: A community powered by PV systems represents, at best, only a kind of faux-sustainability, because it relies on technology that cannot be replaced when it breaks or wears out. On the other hand, a system based on solar thermal might be able to recreate itself, if conceived with this intention. We need a language that can reflect this distinction between 1) an excellent but limited energy technology that can last decades but which cannot be repaired or replaced by an industry powered by itself, and 2) a truly autonomous holistic system, which can maintain and regenerate itself essentially forever.

Ironically, I will use the terms “autonomy” and “sustainability” somewhat carelessly and interchangeably here. I thus show my prejudice for decentralized systems: For the purposes of this discussion, I assume that without sustainability there can be no long-term autonomy; and without regional autonomy, there can be no certainty of sustainability. The distinction between these terms (sustainability, autonomy) may also deserve a precise treatment, but that must wait for another time.

So here is a first attempt to create a nomenclature for the different flavors of sustainability and autonomy. Note that in the first three cases, the word “autonomy” is a misnomer, or at least used very loosely.

The Categories:

Disaster Autonomy, or Survivalism. Included for completeness, and to describe a certain mentality, Disaster- or Survival Autonomy promises no more than temporary independence from accustomed supply-lines and infrastructure. The implicit assumption is that normality will return or that something else will establish itself before too long. Simple examples of this might be anything from some energy bars and bottled water, to a well-stocked fallout shelter with a diesel generator, or other supplies for surviving natural disasters, nuclear war, failure of the monetary system, or the zombie apocalypse.

Complicit Autonomy may be a conscious choice or the result of incomplete thinking about autonomy. It creates the illusion of a longer-term solution than survivalism, but Complicit Autonomy is still based on commercially available energy products, materials, and designs that emerge from the industries of our current economic system.

A Western European consumer, when dreaming of a “green” or off-grid home, will typically imagine Complicit Autonomy: Prefabricated compost toilets; store-bought wood-burning stove; PV panels and battery-powered tools, water pumps, vehicles; polar fleece textiles; and so on. It protects a privileged group, temporarily and locally, from the failure of the current economic system… by putting the crisis off for a while. To the extent that the consumer products are needed, the autonomy of the privileged group comes at the expense of other exploited human beings and ecosystems.

The line between Survivalism and Complicit Autonomy is not sharp, but rather depends on matters of degree, and on intention and consciousness. Likewise, it is intention and consciousness that distinguish Complicit Autonomy from the next entry: Transitional Autonomy.

Transitional Autonomy is a conscious compromise between where we want to go and where we are now. For the time being, true and complete autonomy probably exists only among indigenous groups; we can learn from them, but for non-Luddites they are not a model to romanticize or replicate. Some older religious communities—the Mennonites of the Americas for example—perhaps also come close. Among more recent projects, even ecovillages of high atavism and integrity, e.g. Tinker’s Bubble, rely on industrial products that they cannot produce themselves.

Many individuals and groups in the ecovillage movement are interested in recovering the skills and infrastructure to, for example, grow their own fiber and make their own textiles. But to actually be self-reliant in these ways would fully occupy an entire community’s efforts. Without exception, they either do not have the commitment to renounce products of global capitalism, or they do not feel that they can currently effect the greatest global change by investing their time and labor in achieving complete autonomy.

A community might, for example, install PV or wind energy, knowing that this is only to power their work until the social and technological structures can be developed for true independence from the current system of exploitation and destruction. Whether this is rationalization, laziness, and hypocrisy, or a sound set of priorities, I will not debate here. For these definitions, I accept that the intention—to move towards a sustainable culture in this way—is both sound and sincere.

Sovereignty, or Sovereign Autonomy, is probably the highest level currently practiced outside of a few surviving pre-agricultural indigenous groups, and maybe some Old Believers in Siberia. There may be products, conveniences, and technologies in the sovereign community that can not be sourced or created regionally, but the basic functioning of the community does not depend on them. A sovereign group cannot be pressured or manipulated by outside forces because of dependence on unsustainable conveniences, even if—for as long as they are easily accessible—they remain present in the life of the community.

Sovereignty would be an ambitious and appropriate goal for a contemporary ecovillage. If the knowledge and skills, technological and human, are present, for true, absolute autonomy; then it’s not clear what would be served by giving up coffee, 4G phones, or ibuprofen. It might be a perfectly good choice to renounce these things; but such a choice might come from ego, ideology, or a Protestant need to suffer and feel holy. A community that is capable and ready to make the complete transition out of the global economy, by choice or necessity, has accomplished something valuable and indeed extraordinary. They would represent such an important role-model and information resource, that it would probably be best that they keep their smartphones, continue to update their web sites, and even get in airplanes occasionally.

Absolute Autonomy–for communities manifesting what we would recognize as civilization–can probably only be achieved at a regional level. While studying how and why to be absolutely autonomous is worthwhile, it is not clear what it would actually serve to live this way.

Absolute Autonomy simply means that every material and human resource present in the community (or regional network of communities) arises from materials, human skills, and labor, from within the community or region. Any needed infrastructure should also be entirely created and maintained regionally and sustainably.


These definitions are not based on hardware, but on the human and material processes behind the hardware. For example, photovoltaics can be part of Absolute Autonomy… if the needed materials, manufacturing infrastructure, and technical education are all sustainably available within the community or region. Many new technologies perceived as “green” would also need to be thought about in this way: Electric cars, wind power turbines, lithium batteries, polymers, and high-tech materials generally require techniques, infrastructure, and materials which are localized, and currently available only through systems of exploitation and privilege.

Nevertheless, less regional pictures may also be possible, in which concentrated solar power in sunny areas drives the production of (for example) PV panels or wind turbines, for communities living with more diffuse sunlight, all in a sustainable global system. Autonomy becomes harder to define in such a case.

The point is not to think small, but to really see the interconnections between choices: Where does a mirror come from? Who makes it, out of what, and with what kinds of tools? And where do the tools come from? Where is the needed training, to make the mirror, or to make the tools? Who has access to the training, and why?

When we use the word sustainable, we need to know what were saying: That nothing needs to move in or out of the region in question, for the human communities of the region to function indefinitely. The resources, knowledge, skills, materials, and technology need to sustain, maintain, and reproduce themselves into the future. It may be fine if these conditions are not fulfilled, at least in the short term. But unless we use the word sustainable with some care and integrity, we risk failing to create solutions that deserve the name.



A review of, “When Prophecy Fails.”



When Prophecy Fails, is a work of sociology written for a general audience, about the kind of kooky, magical thinkers that form into groups around religious and esoteric apocalypticism. More specifically, it’s about how such groups react when the dates of predicted events pass without anything happening. The book was written in the middle of the last century, but re-released in 2011, in the time leading up to the end of the “long count” Mayan calender. It is not a rigorously scientific work, nor especially brilliant or well-written; its moderate renown is due to the detailed undercover observation of a small UFO-doomsday cult, whose doomsday comes and goes uneventfully.

The book’s most frustrating shortcoming is the ease with which its theses can be contained, confined to its ridiculous subjects. Everything about the studied group is idiotic, uncharismatic, and for all their weirdness they seem a rather dull group of Midwestern provincials; it’s easy to picture the men in hats, the women in aprons and perms, all the action taking place in black and white on the set of My Three Sons. Instead of banging on about golf, lawn care, or church groups, this lot has chosen the hobby of channeling cosmic beings. The received wisdom is an unimaginative, incoherent pastiche of flying saucers, Sunday-school theology, The Rapture, Scientology, E.S.P., and… well, it doesn’t matter. It’s just stupid.

And here is the central thesis of the book: When a group builds a collective ego-identity on a belief, irrefutable evidence that the belief is factually incorrect may reinforce the disproved belief. The individuals in the book’s doomsday group expect vindication… an apocalypse on a specific date. When material vindication fails to arrive, the need for social reinforcement of their individual ego-identities leads to strong group cohesion and an evangelical impulse to persuade others.

Because of the social and ideological separateness of the group–the isolating weirdness of their beliefs–they make a good test subject, a laboratory for a study of something universal and human. But the otherness of the cultists allows the authors maintain an ironic distance. The book does not really surprise or challenge the readers, but instead comforts and flatters them: “Look at these weirdos!” the authors say. “They’re so blinded by group-think and credulity!” In this picture, the UFO fans manifest a pathology of schizotypal personalities, perhaps latent in people generally, but active only in culty collectives. As long as we don’t join any religious splinter groups, we can feel safe and superior. Now we better understand what’s wrong with them.

The authors avoid any indication that this clinging to discredited faith might apply to any reader’s own cherished beliefs. A reader may see examples of cultiness in religion… but not when it his or her own religion, of course. A secularist may realize more generally, that stupid beliefs are better group-building tools than sensible ones, exactly because no one would believe patently dumb things (the world is 5000 years old, Obama is from Kenya, etc) except out of visceral need for a collective identity.

But what passes without even a veiled hint is how universal this cult-think tendency is, not as an un-triggered potential, but as a ubiquitous daily reality throughout human society. Today, it’s easy to see how much of 1950s culture was every bit as baseless, and much more dangerous, than expecting the arrival of extraterrestrials: Racism, McCarthyism, homophobia, DDT, the nuclear arms race, circumcision to prevent masturbation, smoking in every seat of an airplane… what people accepted as normal and evidence-based behavior was clearly foolish, unethical, and socially corrosive. Readers of the 1955 edition of When Prophecy Fails were chortling at the nutjobs and their séances, while truly believing that interracial marriage was a danger to civilization that had to be forbidden and punished.

It only takes a little imagination and humility to realize how little has changed. We can identify some kinds of past collective madness, which we have at least partly overcome, but so much remains. Modern life for normal people is still motivated largely by metaphysical beliefs, and promises of fulfillment–prophesies–for which there is only counter-evidence.

How much of American foreign policy is an insane doubling down of the Manichean militarism, which has only made things worse for generations? How many peoples’ lives are sacrificed to the prophecy that happiness will arrive with professional achievement, with material security, with the right relationship, with enough sex, with power over others, with a new car, a new spouse? During every political campaign, we manage to persuade ourselves and one another that this election will really change things, really, finally, this time.

The mythology of Happily Ever After―of the suburban nuclear family as the natural way to raise happy, well-adjusted children―is so strong exactly because so many people know first hand that it is a global disaster; challenges to this narrative, if made in earnest, are taboo, because such challenges touch a deep and secret wound. Sure, you can make fun of the suburbs… but suggest that people stop living in couples and families and you will encounter real shock and resistance.

Do the biggest bridezilla weddings arise from families with a history of marital fulfillment? Or from cultures with admirable equality and partnership in marriage? Do the most syrupy 10th anniversary Facebook status-updates come from couples whose shared lives we admire or envy? Do the most ostentatious displays of wealth, social status, or power come from people who seem happy in any meaningful way? Does anyone really think nightmarish prisons turn criminals into citizens? What promises has the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror, or any other war, made good on? Public education is being de-funded in the United States, so that the country can use the money to “invest in its future.” Will the future benefit? Can this reasoning stand up to even a moment of reflection?

Also on the smallest, most personal and intimate scale of gesture and emotion, we engage with the world through patterns of behavior that we began picking up as toddlers. The prediction that sulking and complaining will make one popular and socially appreciated is widely held. It universally fails. And yet for those who practice it, it can persist for a lifetime.

I could go on, of course. The point is that our lives are mostly built on a trust in prophesies that we have never seen fulfilled, for ourselves or for anyone around us.

As a scholarly text, When Prophecy Fails may be an effective bulwark against the dangers of dopey UFO cults from suburban Illinois. But whitebread flying-saucer clubs are not really such a global problem. The revolutionary and subversive potential of this book remain unexplored, even by the authors. If individual human beings were able to ask themselves, “On what prophesies am I basing my life?” and admit to themselves and to others the extent of their disappointments and unfulfilled longings, the world would be transformed.

It would be nice if evangelical cultists stopped dragging one another down into dogma with their mutual, synergistic need for tribal security. But cultists are just not important to public life, and there’s no reason to think they’re worse off than the rest of us. Imagine instead if normal people stopped pretending that they found happiness and meaning in their suburban commuter careerism… if friends, colleagues and neighbors stopped reinforcing conformity in one another, and could themselves stop conforming to belief in promises that have been broken from the start. What would happen if everyone admitted, to themselves and to one another, “No, these foretellings of peace and happiness have never been fulfilled for me either.”?

Something at least as important as a UFO landing, the second coming, or the Mayan apocalypse would happen. I don’t know if I think that it will happen, but I’m sure it would be a good thing. Indeed, it would be a miracle… a miracle I try, sometimes, to believe in.

The Solar Dryer, Part 5: Conclusion and Follow-Up

This is one of the only pieces of wood that we bought new.

This is one of the only pieces of wood that we bought new.

 Students and internationals alike, we were all were very busy with the many different activities of the Global Campus. Our time working together on the Solar Dryer was full, and focused on practical matters of getting the materials and putting them together. Nevertheless, the students clearly understood the deeper intentions of the project. Supporting autonomy and resilience in their Palestinian community touched them most deeply. They were good students and idealistic young people, so of course the general questions of peace and sustainability were appreciated, but in a somewhat more abstract way.

Hooking up the solar-powered fans.

Hooking up the solar-powered fans.

This is natural of course, and the real-world examples that they live with every day are powerful starting points for thinking more generally about how a “mentality of scarcity” of resources leads to exploitation, mismanagement, and conflict. For instance the political and economic consequences of the water question in Israel-Palestine are clear; the solutions, too, are clear, and seeing them reveals the human-made nature of the scarcity. For those young people disposed to think more deeply about these questions, the Global campus has already been a big step. I am curious and impatient to see how these thoughts develop—about community, sustainability, and peace—in the individuals and in the group, over the coming months.

This was the smallest solar panel we could find in Tulkarm.

This was the smallest solar panel we could find in Tulkarm.

 One opportunity we had to see how the students were processing the more conceptual material, was during their presentations about their projects. During an “Open Day” at the farm, and a day at their local university, we had a chance to witness their enthusiasm and pride, their practical understanding of the techniques and technology and their ability to recreate it independently, and their appreciation for the deeper implications of regional autonomy and resilience. There were very satisfying moments for the leading team.

more wiring

more wiring

 Although I have not been back yet, part of the team returned after a few weeks to Tulkarm. The Solar Dryer is in use, and Muna is experimenting with different arrangements of the trays and placements of the vegetables to be dried. It is hard to believe that, with the interior so white, it won’t need some darkening of the floor, but so far it seems to hold a nearly ideal temperature as it is. I may not know more until I return to Tulkarm in April.

First use of the Solar Dryer!

First use of the Solar Dryer!

The unique value of this project is that it can do more than provide immediate and practical benefit to people living under very difficult circumstances. It can be useful right away, but does not do this by placing a band-aid over an intolerable situation. Nor does it arm one side of a struggle, to strengthen them for future conflicts. It provides something now, but in a way that reveals the conflict to be unnecessary, that shows the conflict to be a consequence of illusions of scarcity, and of fear. It does not break holes in the wall, but reveals the wall to be a strange and ridiculous thing… a symptom of fear and short-sightedness.

May it serve peace.