Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Still Walking Away From Empire

It's beyond the point where a few doomer voices says our way of life is rotten, that industrial civilization is driving straight toward catastrophe. Most of us can see the signs ourselves.

But we are addicted to fossil power, sliding back daily into the easy life. Why can't we change, or at least walk away?

Dr. Guy McPherson did just that. He left his position as a Professor of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. Guy is now a focal point for people searching for survival, transition, and a reality-based way of life.


Before we get into this program, here are some helpful links:

Guy McPherson’s blog “Nature Bats Last”.

For the movie "Somewhere in New Mexico, Before the End of Time" on You tube, or Indiegogo.

Mike and Karen Sliwa were inspired by Guy McPherson, but decided to take a different route, touring the world working on organic farms. These labor exchange stays are called "WWOOFing" (World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Mike and Karen talk about their encounter with Guy in this You tube video. Follow "Chasing A Different Carrot' for the WWOOFing adventures of Mike and Karen Sliwa. Mike Sliwa says he doesn't agree with McPherson about how soon the industrial system will fall, but knows an alternative society must begin to grow right away.

Guy tours around the U.S. giving lectures, mainly for college audiences. He is after all a well-known and respected Professor. For example, watch Guy McPherson lecture on the "Myth of Sustainability" at Muskegon Community College, Feb 15, 2012 here. (1 hour 23 min)

There are lots more Guy McPherson videos and audio interviews on the Net.

For years I've been a fan of McPherson's blog "Nature Bats Last". I almost made it to his experimental acres in the New Mexico hills. I hoped to interview him at home, as one of his tourists, but we ran out of time and gas money on the northern edge of Arizona. It was over 100 degrees there, 38 degrees Celsius in the shade, in early June. There was a huge coal plant nearby. My first question for Guy: can Arizona survive without air conditioning?


McPherson says Arizona will do just fine, but he has doubts that most Arizonans could make it without artificial cooling. Of course people could design homes to protect them from extreme heat, which includes things like lots of insulation, proper window placement and covering, fans and "swamp coolers" running on solar power, and the old standard: cool basements.

Forget about Arizona. With places like Chicago and Toronto hitting 35 degrees C. (95 F.) on the first day of summer, with super-high humidity and awful pollution - pretty well all Earthlings will have to learn the basics of staying cool in a heated world. Even the Arctic can get too hot for comfort during the summer.

Maintaining an operable body temperature is one of "the four basics" that Guy McPherson says we need. The others are clean water, safe and nutritious food, and a supportive human community.

I think the question of "body temperature" is one of the biggies in our fossil fuel dependency. In the South people need to keep cool enough. In the North it's a matter of getting through the winter. As far as I know it's not really possible to heat millions of homes in Chicago or Toronto with solar or wind power.

I have to wonder, can we really keep hundreds of millions of North Americans, Russians, or Northern Europeans alive without fossil fuels? I doubt it, and so does McPherson. Our cities are unsustainable when we factor in dwindling fossil fuels (appearing as higher and higher prices, with more and more environmental risk in production.


There are signs we are already past peak oil. For example we are forced into greater and greater environmental risks... like the Tar Sands, Gulf of Mexico spill from deep water rigs, Arctic drilling, gas fracking, and mountain top removal coal mining. If we had plenty of easy oil left in the big reserves, or were discovering major new fields, none of those risky and expensive energy plays would be happening.

Guy McPherson learned about Peak Oil in the early 2000's, when he was still a Professor teaching at the University of Arizona. But when he began to tell is students about the huge social risks of Peak Oil and climate change - he was asked to stop teaching.


Listen to the interview to hear a classic story of how truth-telling is silenced in American Universities. Professors have freedom of speech - as long as they don't use it to tell an anti-corporate narrative, or warn students about the big challenges coming.

The University started paying McPherson to stay home, without teaching - that is, to shut up. His own department banned him from teaching.

When McPherson became "Emeritus" (a former Professor), and moved to small acreage in New Mexico to experiment with "agrarian anarchism" - a strange rumor surfaced at other universities that Guy McPherson suffered from a mysterious brain disease. That disease was never named, nor was the rumor backed up by anything.

Guy says anyone leaving "normal" life is labeled crazy. But what happens when "normal" is crazy? When our daily actions contribute to a system that is driving a couple of hundred species into extinction every single day? That is melting the Arctic ice, wierding out weather beyond crop limits, killing off the bees, introducing more plastic than plankton into the oceans, and endangering entire nations with blown up nuclear reactors?

If we leave that dangerous "normal" behind - that makes us officially "crazy"? It all sounds like old Stalinist times to me. We know who the real crazy people are - the billions who pollute the Earth, driving mass extinction.

More than a decade ago, Guy McPherson began to suspect the trends and risks of extinction are so great that humans likely will not survive for many more generations.


The only practical solution, McPherson says, is a wide-spread collapse of the global industrial system. Only a giant economic Depression, where trade stops and banks close, could possible cut emissions fast enough to save us. Only an end to the consumer society could save enough of the natural world to continue supporting large mammals like ourselves.

Keep in mind that McPherson is a published scientist with specialties in biology, the environment, and evolution. Find his blog "Nature Bats Last" at guymcpherson.com.

With his knowledge, to be able to "look at myself in the mirror", Guy left one of the most protected and financially rewarding jobs: being a tenured university Professor. For the last four years, he had to learn a whole new skill set.


You may not be surprised to learn that a lifetime in academia teaches a person nothing about erecting small buildings, growing food, or caring for animals. Life many back-to-the-landers, Guy had to learn all that from scratch, with some help from neighbors who knew.

That is one reason I encourage listeners and readers to start learning those skills now. It takes time, and some mistakes, to learn how to provide off-grid shelter, to feed yourself and family, and to build community. Start now, as much as you can, where ever you are, even in the city. Grow in pots on your balcony. Become part of a community garden. Take those building supply company free courses, and volunteer where you can, building your repertoire of real survival skills. Given the instability of the financial world, starting in Europe, but maybe going global, now is the time to start.

You can learn a lot by just reading through Guy McPherson's blog. Go back through the years, looking the photos and videos, reading how he prepared gardens against pests, the outbuildings, the water sprinklers, the solar powered wells. Lots to learn there.


McPherson captured some his life journey in his latest (2011) book, "Walking Away from Empire: A Personal Journey".

The word "empire" is not accidental. In the interview Guy says his former city of Tucson is "at the apex of empire". Why? All the city's water comes in by canals through the desert hundreds of miles long. All the food is trucked in. The energy comes down long power lines. Without the whole industrial complex, Tucson cannot survive.

The energy supplies, and all the consumer products, depend ultimately on the vast network of military bases built up by America, now dedicated to protecting its corporations and their harvesting of both resources and cheap labor from around the world. That empire, now copied by many other nations, including Europe, Brazil, Russia, and China among many others - it a pattern of living that presupposes killing off the natural world as a consequence.

Personally, I don't see this as just an American empire. Canada has its own imperial activities. For example we direct major mining companies all over the world. Of course most of the European countries still have not just the history, but the corporate activities of empire as well. It's kind of an industrial mega structure, where half the world's people live in endless poverty, while we take their resources or even their working lives. What is the future of the industrial empire?

McPherson says there are other ways to live, and our needs are far less than what the average Western person demands. His experiment in living, along with his neighbors, is an attempt to live in a sustainable way.

The use of "clean" energy like solar power is just a bridge to true sustainability, says McPherson. When we add in the energy needed to make solar panels, and the toxic batteries, they are not a viable long-term solutions.


McPherson has become an inspiration to hundreds if not thousands of people. One visitor in 2011, Mike Sosebee, was inspired to make a film about Guy and his neighbors. The film "Somewhere in New Mexico, Before The End of Time" is due out this fall. I've played several clips from the movie in this Radio Ecoshock show.

One important clip is with Mary Burton Reisly. Several decades ago she purchased 18 acres of New Mexico highlands - with an all-important right to 2 acres of water - for about $68,000. You couldn't hope to buy it for that price now! Mary Burton allowed and participated in the development of a series of communal buildings and self-built homes on the property. It was developed as a land-trust as an ideal, until recently Mary Burton formed the land trust for real.

This communal experiment has really flourished. There was some debate about putting in electric power, but that was rejected, making everyone too dependent on a dangerous industrial system. You'll find out more about this in Mike Sosebee's film, but I do run one clip in the Radio Ecoshock show with Guy McPherson.


Guy turns us toward the work of one of our previous Radio Ecoshock guests, Dr. Timothy Garrett from the University of Utah. Garrett has done studies and calculations showing only a complete collapse of our industrial economy can save us from a climate catastrophe.

We did two interviews with Tim. The first interview in 2010 is here. Or watch a You tube video version of one Garrett interview here (prepared by Khalid Hassan of Outfield Productions in Pakistan). In the second, he told us about doing more study, and writing a second paper, because he couldn't really answer a question I had asked him before. Even a humble radio interview can stimulate new science. Find that second Garrett paper here. That second Garrett interview is embedded in this Radio Ecoshock show titled "An Atmosphere of Crisis".

Here is an easy to understand lay summary of Garrett's theory in an article "Is Global Warming Unstoppable?" McPherson admits it is hard to call for the pain and suffering of what amounts to a Great Depression, and almost unimaginable social dislocation - as a good thing! But our current suffering, and the suffering of all the other species, is worse - and getting worser, if you'll pardon that abuse of English.


Now I'm going to ask a hard question. It is based on my own experience as a back-to-the-lander and self-sufficiency guy. In the late 1970's, I thought the whole thing would collapse or blow itself up with nuclear war. I had ten great years growing our own food and heat, without electricity. But the system carried on, killing off even more of the planet. What happens if industrial civilization surprises you too, if it keeps going another hundred years, while you are waiting out in the hills?

There is a lot of flexibility and wealth built into the Western-style industrial culture. Industrial society might last much too long, right until the horrible eco-crash. The other reason people leave rural self-sustainability is because they become old and need medical care. How will people in these off-grid communities handle that? Do survivalists, catastrophists, or self-styled "doomers" really count on the hospital system to somehow be there? These questions are hot button issues in many off-grid and experimental communities.

We don't have answers yet, other than to hope that better food, a lower stress life with regular exercise will mean less need for the old medical system. Many believe in alternative holistic medicine anyway. And we know hospitals themselves are dangerous places to be these days, with people catching diseases they didn't come in with.


Guy McPherson also talks about Sherry Ackerman being in the film, along with others leaving "normal" lives. Sherry and Guy write for Transition Voice at transitionvoice.com.

Find Guy's regular columns at Transition Voice here.

His post for June 11, 2012 "The Age of Consequences" might serve as a good summary for the basis of this Radio Ecoshock interview. It begins:

"As we continue into the centuries-old, but only recently acknowledged era of destruction and extinction, it’s apparent the current model is not working. Largely too fearful of individual retribution to disrupt the industrial culture that's making us sick, making us crazy, and killing us, we hang tightly to the only system we’ve ever known. Pathetically reluctant to consider what lies beyond the omnicidal industrial machine, we cling to a system that has failed to nurture the living …"


Total communes are very rare in America. Most of the rural communities I've visited seem to be composed of self-contained homesteaders who meet up to exchange skills and produce. In our interview, Guy advocates and explains "agrarian anarchy". The agrarian part is pretty easy, but most Americans have been terribly propagandized against "anarchy".

Anarchy doesn't have to mean masked people breaking windows in some urban protest. Agrarian anarchy has a long history in practice, and in literature, in Europe, South America, and North America. Some agrarian anarchist names you may know are Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, and the alternative historian Howard Zinn. Read Guy McPherson's defense of this way of life here.


Part of my unpleasant job, as an alleged truth seeker on Radio Ecoshock, is to ask questions at the back of people's minds. Here is one. If the biosphere is crashing, along with the climate, as you say: why not just live the good life as long as we can? If it's so hopeless, why not party, or at least live comfortably, until we can't?

Guy says lots of people ask that question, and it's not easy to answer. We have to dig deep inside to decide what kind of people we are. Can we really live without a conscience toward the rest of the creatures, the Earth, and all future generations?

Anyway, McPherson points out, Americans are already leading pretty selfish "Hedonistic" lives. Most of us do whatever we want, no matter what the long term consequences may be. It's already the big party, the bonfire of the vanities, so maybe we need to try another option, like living sanely, alongside others trying to do the same?

It seems to me, part of the function of what Guy is doing, and his local community is doing, is to seed a lot of necessary ideas into the rest of the hive. People come, and they go, but they go with experience of living off the grid, with ways to grow our own healthy food, to make do if the corporations don't provide a pre-packaged life. Is your community a kind of transition nursery?


One of the things I really like about Guy: he doesn’t stop communicating. There is a whole school of survivalists who sneak off to some secret bunker, while writing off all the blind ants living Wal-Mart lives. Guy has not given up on reaching the people still stuck in the dying paradigm. And he says he's not interested in the "Mad Max" fantasy of the future.

People suspect they are part of the killer system, maybe even keeping it going with their jobs. If they want to walk away, how do they start? We talk a bit about that.

In this feature length interview, we share time with a person I consider a kind of soul-mate, even though we have never met in person. Dr. Guy McPherson is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, now living in rural New Mexico, experimenting to find a truly sustainable life.

Despite our shared pessimism about the industrial system, this turned out to be a positive encounter. There are alternatives, and Guy McPherson wants to do more than find them - he wants to live them, passing on what he discovers.

I'm Alex Smith, for Radio Ecoshock.

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