Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Difference Between a Teacher and a Head-copper

This is a transcript of a portion of my conversation with Stephen Gaskin recorded in the living room of the Ecovillage Training Center on July 29th, 2010:

KMO: I've been talking to a lot of people since I arrived here in February about the relationship between the Farm and the Ecovillage Training Center, and it seems that the Ecovillage Training Center embodies a lot of ideas that were not really in circulation in the 1970s and which don't receive universal acceptance here on the Farm.

Stephen Gaskin: The certain values that the Farm was founded on were the synthesis of what was said by a thousand people at a time over a period of years. We read all of the religious books that we could get ahold of. Religious teachers were coming from all over the world. Suzuki Roshi came to sit with Allen Ginsberg.  We had put that together. I presided over meetings where we argued these questions out. Like one particular hard night of arguing about the question that we had was the day the students were shot at Kent State.

We're having a discussion about that, and we've got about a hundred guys in the back row who were very militant and wanted to get guns and stuff. And some little girl gives me some candy, and she looked at me so funny when I ate it that I wondered a little bit. Bigger than shit, her daddy was a dealer, and I'd been hit with a LOT of acid. And so I said, “I'm dosed here. Do you mind if I go out and handle that?” And they said, “No, you've got to finish the argument.”

KMO: [Chuckles]

Stephen: So, we went on into a place, and I said, “Well, I come in here and I say, 'Peace and love,' and you guys say, 'Yeah, yeah.' And I say, 'Peace and love,' and you guys say, 'Yeah, yeah.'” And I said, “Peace and love,” and the whole audience said, “Yeah! Yeah!”

I said, “Thank you. Can I go out to the beach with my acid now?” And they said, “Yeah.”

[Laughter from KMO and Stephen.]

Stephen: And we argued out all the questions. We had a meeting about heroin when heroin came (to San Francisco). We had meetings about various religions, and we read the books of the various religions. And interestingly enough, there's a thing in Catholocism called the Credo which works as good for my god as their god. Catholicism says that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient... [coughs] I think there's five of them. I can only remember a few of them right now, but those are the ones. And if you make any effort to take a look at those things and say, “Well, what are they?” The only thing that has all knowledge is every thinking thing in the universe in its totality. The only thing that has all power includes all the stars as far as you can see and farther. The only thing that includes all that kind of stuff is the actual physical living totality of the universe, and that would be a name of God for me. Or I might even settle for the definition of God to be, “The Parts of the universe we don't understand very well yet.”

KMO: It sort of sounded like you were talking about pantheism there, but I know you don't want to be any sort of theist, even a pantheist.

Stephen: Yeah. You gotta watch that stuff, you know. Hitler had a religious thing he wanted to do, for sure, and it was Neo-paganism. And that was where he'd give people lots of toys to play with and no responsibility, pretty much.

People come in here from all kinds of different religions... I haven't been doing religious ceremonies in quite a while. I think I'm about to start. I've been getting requests to start up again.

KMO: Here on the Farm? Or elsewhere?

Stephen: Here on the Farm.

We knew we were different, coming here, and we tried to make it so we had as much in common with the neighbors as we possibly could. And then I had this thing of trying to manage this thing, and among other things that I've never been is an executive. I had some ideas about how to handle things, and I would find that those ideas may not have been original. I may have heard about them or something, because they involved things that... like, have you ever heard of an 'event manager? Well, I invented that phrase for me. I don't know who else invented it somewhere else, but for me it's when somebody needs something done... When I would see something –a new thing emerging, I would look around for who was the closest reliable guy I could find and ask him if he'd dig that, be the event manager, and keep track of it for us until we understand it. And so that was a way where I could have a smart desktop without having to carry it around with me.

We tried to learn everything that we could. The results, woefully, are... uh...

One of the neighbor ladies that I would talk to sometimes, and we were out on the road talking. I opened my car door so we wouldn't have to have anything between us, and a car came by, and she leaned into my car and pulled the door closed behind her. And while she was leaned in close to me she said, “I love ya.”

She was one of the ladies on the lane that said, as far as she knows, I'm the honestest man on Drake's Lane. [Chuckles] Which is not too hard to do considering about half the neighbors are moonshiners. [Laughs]

KMO: What would you say the role of pyschedlics was in forming the synthesis that was the formalized Farm...

Stephen: Psychedelics didn't form the synthesis. Psychedelics destroyed the previous synthesis, and we built the synthesis ourselves, knowingly, smartly.

KMO: So psychedelics cleared the space for some new thinking?

Stephen: Yeah.

KMO: But you don't think it played any role in bringing together the various ideas and traditions that you were drawing upon?

Stephen: One Monday night I remember in particular, a guy comes running in waving this book and says, “I found this place here where this old monk in the 13th century had exactly the same trip I had last Saturday night!” [Laughs] So we were checking everything out.

We had Shlomo Carlebach and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan come visit us two weeks apart. It would have been fun to get the Jews and the Muslims at the same time, but two weeks was awfully close. I'm friends with Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. I'm friends with Shlomo Carlebach. (Swami) Satchidananda and I were pretty good friends. 

I didn't like Yogi Bhajan. I thought he was a bully. It's kinda funny. I met Aldous Huxley's younger brother, Julian, who is this upper class English dude, and he had known Indira Ghandi. He asked Indira Ghandi what she thought of Yogi Bhajan, and she said, “That bastard!” (pronounced “BAH-stawd”) [Chuckles]

Before Yogi Bhajan was Yogi Bhajan, he was head of airport security at Delhi Airport. He was a Sikh, and Sikhs do that. They'd be bank guards, and... that was part of their culture. They'd be “clean muscle.”

But, Yogi B, I never liked him. I did one of his meditations one time, and we were all lying down in the grass and closing our minds, and we're all laid out like that, and he runs a little commercial against pot. I thought, “You don't put commercials in anybody's mind about any subjects. You just don't do that. That's forbidden. It's a wrong thing to do.”

That's the difference between a teacher and a “head-copper.”

KMO: A teacher and a what?

Stephen: A head-copper; someone who cops your mind. My mother said, after understanding what I was doing for a while, “Well, Stephen, the hippies copped your mind.”

And I thought not only was she right but she used the usage exactly correctly. [KMO and Stephen both laugh]

KMO: Can you live without your mind being copped by somebody or something?

Stephen: My mind's a free will enterprise. That's something I believe in --free will. Free will and a fair shake; that's all you can ask for.

So, when I won the Right Livelihood Award, on the first anniversary, I was invited back. They were very interested in the Farm and things like that. So, the next time it was time for somebody to go, we sent Albert. And so all these little things go back to that meeting.

That's very funny to us, because people in Europe think the Farm is an ecovillage. And we say, “No, you go down this road about a half a mile, down this road about a quarter mile, and turn down into this little valley, and THAT's the ecovillage."

KMO: Except that Albert is quite clear that it's not the ecovillage. It's the Ecovillage Training Center, and no villagers are needed or wanted.

Stephen: I've heard that their most recent nickname is “the Ecovillians.”

KMO: Yes. The people who work here are sometimes called Ecovillians, and I can't really tell if it's in good fun or if there is a bit of animosity behind that.

Stephen: Well, it just used to mean the guys in the village. But, I'm glad Albert's doing this, and Albert's doing his thing his way.

To fully understand the implications of Stephen's comments it is helpful to know that Albert K. Bates started the Ecovillage Training Center on the Farm in 1994 and also that Stephen won the first Right Livelihood Award in 1980. One of the winners the second year was Permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison. The implication being that Albert's introduction to permaculture flowed directly from the philosophical synthesis that emerged from Stephen's Monday Night Class which eventually lead to the formation of the Farm and to Albert's being sent to the Right Livelihood Award gathering where he was exposed to the permaculture memeplex.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

ETC Voices Podcast 012

Paul interviews Mario, an ETC "eco-soaker" about his week on the Farm, and KMO talks with Gregory Landua about permaculture and about the philosophical that guide the ETC and how they differ from the guiding ethic of the larger Farm community.

You can learn more about the Gaia University Financial Permaculture course here:

Photo (left to right): Mario, KMO, Paul

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Super Mega-Doom

The day before yesterday, an on-line article caught my attention. It claimed that BP had set in motion a process by which an enormous methane bubble would erupt from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico sometime in the next six months and reprise the Permian extinction. The author of the piece spun a scenario in which the Earth's atmosphere, saturated with explosive concentrations of methane, catches fire and exterminates 95% of life on Earth nearly instantaneously. BP and the US government, goes the article, have imposed a total news blackout enforced with draconian punishments in order to hide the extent of the damage and the danger from the public.

I posted a link to the article before I'd even finished reading it. For my blog post, I paired an image of the Futurama character Proffessor Hubert J. Farnsworth with the title, “Good News, Everyone.”  (The character of Professor Farnsworth owns an interplanetary delivery service, and he frequently introduces an episode's MacGuffin by walking into the Planet Express conference room and announcing some disastrous news to his assembled employees. He always prefaces the bad news with, “Good news, everyone!”)

I later read the entire article aloud to a group of Ecovillians (the affectionate nickname that Farmies use to refer to denizens of the Ecovillage Training Center) in the ETC kitchen. Paul, a C-Realm listener turned ETC permaculture apprentice, asked me how serious a worry I thought this was. Even before I read a thorough-going debunking of the article, I told Paul that I wasn't the least bit worried about this scenario. The situation that Cormac MaCarthy envisions in "The Road," wherein civilization collapses and a dwindling population of humans struggle to prolong their miserable existence by consuming the remnants of industrial society and by consuming each other, is deeply troubling. A scenario in which a single nearly instantaneous event poisons the atmosphere and sets it alight so that everyone is dead by day's end doesn't trouble me at all. That seems like a pretty easy way out. The only Doomsday scenario that I find less frightening is one in which some experiment in high-energy physics tears the fabric of reality and destroys the universe in an instant.

The notion of near instantaneous annihilation gives me comfort, as I know that I'll never have to live under a brutal local warlord. I'll never have to endure delousing at a FEMA camp. I'll never have to see my children victimized, starving, or suffering from diseases that only affect people who lack access to clean drinking water; diseases which were easily treated in the late Petroleum Age but which have become a leading cause of childhood mortality.  Instantaneous annihilation means that I'll never suffer discomfort, indignity, or even inconvenience.

Minutes after I posted a link to the BP methane doomsday article, someone posted a comment that included a link to a convincing refutation of this particular set of wild-eyed claims of impending doom. The whole premise of methane super-mega doom hung on the claim that earlier mass extinction events mentioned resulted from a single methane escape event. Far from being scientific consensus, this isn't even a minority view in the scientific community. Annalee Newitz , the author of the debunking article puts it like this:

Another fishy fact in the methane bubble doomsday story is Aym's description of how methane bubbles are what caused the End Permian mass extinction event 250 million years ago. Many scientists do believe that atmospheric changes and ocean anoxia (de-oxygenization) were to blame for that extinction - but even Gregory Ryskin, the scientist whose highly speculative work is cited in the article, doesn't try to claim this as the sole cause, nor does he believe that one bubble of methane could bring down the biosphere instantly. The End Permian extinction took millennia to happen. 

Newitz goes on to point out that methane leaks may very well lead to cumulative misfortune over time, but, “who wants to hear difficult, complicated pieces of information, when we could just be screaming about doomsday?” Really. If it takes decades for the harm to become apparent, how is that any different from the rise in prevalence of asthma, diabetes, and forms of cancer which used to be rare but which have become more common? How is that any different from climate change or abstruse claims about the long-term non-viability of petro-chemical agriculture or fractional reserve banking? If climate catastrophe doesn't play out in a matter of hours as in "The Day After Tomorrow," or if haphazardly disposed of chemical weapons don't spawn a hoard of flesh eating zombies, then who cares? If it happens slowly, then any harm to human health or the biosphere will simply be the new normal.

Newitz's article appears on the site io9 which seems to be devoted to topics that obsess Comic-Con attendees. The comments section consists almost entirely of self-satisfied derision of anyone who would be gullible enough to be concerned that a rapid change in the composition of the atmosphere might be a matter of grave importance. None of the comments addressed the fact that the supposed “BP/Obama Administration news blackout” escaped Ms. Newitz's debunking.

Oil industry financier and analyst, Matt Simmons, claims that the oil leak that BP recently managed to cap and which has been the star attraction in the carefully orchestrated disaster response puppet show playing out on TV and computer screens the world over is just one of three Gulf of Mexico oil leaks that BP has been struggling to bring under control for months, and that the one that BP has managed to cap was never the most serious of the three. A friend of the C-Realm posted a link to an interview with an investigative journalist who claims that the Deepwater Horizon rig which blew in April and has since starred in the big puppet show was actually a relief well for another blowout that occurred earlier in the year but which BP managed to keep from the public eye.

Is that true? I don't know. I don't even know how I would find out or how I might choose between the various disaster porn, PR sleight of hand, and conspiracy narratives which will remain on offer for as long as I have any interest in this story.  What seems particularly telling, for me, is that when it comes to debunking, the claim that BP and and the Obama administration are selectively releasing information and imagery in order to manage the public's perception of the spill doesn't seem particularly important. That is to say, the claim that we're being lied to isn't controversial enough to warrant debunking.

As Charles Eisenstein details in his book, The Ascent of Humanity, we live in a matrix of lies. Every advertisement, every utterance by a public official, every name assigned to businesses, buildings, and neighborhoods by marketing professionals constitutes a lie, and the knowledge that we are being lied to provokes no particular emotional response from us. We know we're being lied to, and we are beyond caring. The abuse of language (and all other forms of symbolic communication – especially images) has continued for so long and has saturated public discourse so thoroughly that our ability feel outrage or indignation at being lied to is simply spent.

Eisenstein writes:

Why do we as a society seemingly accept our leaders' gross dishonesty as a matter of course? Why does the repeated exposure of their lies seem to arouse barely a ripple of indignation among the general public? Where is the protest, the outrage, the sense of betrayal?

The answer to these questions lies deeper than the machinations of one or another faction of the power elite. It lies deeper than the subversion and control of the media. Our society's apathy arises from a subtle and profound disempowerment: the depotentiation of the language itself, along with all other forms of symbolic culture. Words are losing their power to create and to transform. The result is a tyranny that can never be overthrown, but will only proceed toward totality until it collapses under the weight of the multiple crises it inevitably generates.

So here we are, back to collapse; inevitable collapse. And again, to echo Dmitry Orlov, collapse is the optimistic scenario. Without collapse, we have the perpetual matrix of lies and the continued degradation of our ability to feel much of anything other than a fleeting sensation of titillation when we see images of boobs or butts for the first time in a few hours, or a short-lived fascination with images of Mega-Disaster on TV.

Unfortunately, one power that words still retain is their ability to stoke rage. Pundits for one or another faction of the power elite seem as capable as ever or using words to invoke anger at the avatars of the opposing faction. Wildfire memes like the BP Methane Mega-Disaster stoke rage against corporations. Stories about pimps using government-funded aid agencies to help them house illegal immigrants working as prostitutes focus the rage of working stiffs on the only people in society who wield less influence and have less control over their own destinies than they do. But nothing constructive springs from this kind of factional animosity, and if the ubiquitous abuse of language and symbolic communication has left us unresponsive to everything except the pricking of our neurological rage circuits, then once again, the eventual, inevitable collapse looms ever larger.

But maybe that's just sour grapes on my part. I was pretty optimistic about our collective destiny when I lived in a big house and drove a Lexus SUV. Maybe this focus on lies and cynical manipulation is just my own expression of the Doomer's Curse. That, if all goes according to plan, will be the subject matter of the 216th episode of the C-Realm Podcast. I hope you'll join me.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

ETC Voices Podcast 011

I've been out of town, and in my absence, Paul, an apprentice here at the ETC, and Merry, our innkeeper, produced this installment of the podcast. I haven't heard it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure they would appreciate any constructive feedback you might provide.

Friday, July 9, 2010

ETC Voices Podcast 010

This week's show provides a glimpse of the annual Farm homecoming celebration, Ragweed. First we get an account of the genesis of the festival from Old Farmie, Peter Schweitzer, and later Molly, a recent graduate of the Farm school, shares her thoughts and concerns about what the Ragweed gathering says about the evolution of the Farm community. Music by Night Train.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Surge Capacity

Just now, the Farm is closed to outside visitors. This is the week of the Farm's annual family reunion, called Ragweed. Over the nearly 40 years of the Farm's history, thousands of people have lived here at one time or another, and now most of the people who have some history and affiliation with the Farm live elsewhere. In the first week of July, many of them come back for a week of shared meals, live music, and other activities that keep the bonds of the Farm's far-flung community vital.

Merry, the ETC innkeeper, and I made up a number of extra beds in the ETC dormatories with the expectation that we would be getting a lot of drop-in guests for Ragweed. That didn't happen. We have just one family of four, a couple with two young children, staying at the Inn. Fewer people than expected showed up for Ragweed, but even so, the population of the Farm at the moment is about twice what it was last week. The additional people are not staying at the Inn, so where are they? One Farmie told me that most people are staying with friends or family members on the Farm.

Many buildings on the Farm that once housed 30 or more people now house only a couple or even a solitary individual. When members of the Farm's Changeover diaspora re-converge on the Farm for Ragweed, those now mostly empty dwellings can easily accommodate a temporary surge in population without having to draw upon the capacity of the Inn.

Many visitors to the Farm notice the front gate, the low population density and the fact that the average Farmie is considerably older than the average USAnian, and they come to the conclusion that the Farm is “a retirement community for aging Hippies.” I too have entertained this characterization of the Farm, but when I realized that the Farm could double its population without even having to call upon the housing capacity of the Inn, I saw the community in a new light and was reminded of my recent conversation with Jeff Vail. In particular, the influx of temporary Ragweed population called to mind the notion of surge capacity, which Jeff describes as follows:

Jeff Vail: I think that everything from the way I see legal practice management work in my immediate profession to the reason that Chaco Canyon and the Chacoan civilization collapsed can be related back to surge capacity. 
I should also back up and say that Kevin Carson has written a fascinating book called The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto that focuses on the importance of overhead costs. If you have high overhead costs then you tend to have to create enough revenue to always be meeting that overhead, and so you try to maintain a consistent maximal output from all of your assets. And when you do that, you don't have the ability to either accept a dramatically lower output for a short while or to really surge when there's some new demand that requires that you rise to the challenge and dramatically increase output for a while. 
So, in law practice that might be if you expect your attorneys to work 70 hours per week, and then a huge new case comes in. Well, you've already been working 70 hours a week. What are you going to do? You can work more, and the performance dramatically drops off, or you can squeeze the work into the time available. Either way is not a good option. 
The same thing [holds true] with Chaco Canyon. Chaco was a central site that would redistribute food production from communities in the North and South which were usually only one at a time subject to a drought. So, as long as communities in the North produced in most years twice as much food as they needed, and the same with communities in the South, then when there was a severe drought on one side, Chaco Canyon could administer the re-distribution of food to make sure that everyone got fed.
But gradually, because this re-distribution was fairly efficient, and because they had several good years of weather in a row, populations would rise in both the North and the South to where their food production equaled their local requirements. Then when there was a drought in either the North or the South, there was not enough food to re-distribute. So that lead to increasingly totalitarian government structures. That lead to more extreme farming methods that depleted the soils, etc. Eventually when there were combined droughts, that lead to the collapse of the civilization. 
So, I think those are two very different attempts to explain surge capacity. I think that in general terms if you have the ability to get by on a fraction of what you are capable of, you're in a lot better situation; whether that's food production, water, money, you name it. Because then, when there's a unique demand, you have the ability to rise to meet that challenge.  
KMO: Well, another long-running theme on the C-Realm Podcast is my effort to build awareness of the notion that efficiency is, in many respects, the opposite of resilience and that the more you streamline, the more you put to use excess capacity, the more you eliminate duplication and redundancy, the less surge capacity you're going to have; the less resilient you're going to be when unexpected conditions arise. And I think a really good illustration of this is the single-income family, say, of the 1950s, where you had a bread-winner and a home-maker. 
If something should happen to the bread-winner, the home-maker could go to work and bring in some income. And if you don't have much debt; if your house is paid off and whatnot, and something really bad happens and you need money, you can get a mortgage, or you can go into some debt and have some expectation of coming out of it again. But if you've got both husband and wife already working 50 hours a week, and you've already got your credit cards maxed out, and you've already got a second mortgage, and something happens to one of those bread-winners, then you don't really have any surge capacity. You're screwed.
Jeff: I think that if you were going to try to envision the ideal, resilient, high surge capacity, domestic economy, you'd have husband and wife (or partner and partner) maybe both working in the “traditional economy” 10 hours a week each, and then working maybe in a much more community-focused organization or production capacity 10 hours a week each, and then maybe working  in domestic production, e.g. gardening or some other form of domestic production, ten hours a week each. That shows a pushing for localized self-sufficiency. It's not a very efficient system, but I think it has a lot of surge capacity. Probably either one of those people working 10 hours a week maintains enough proficiency or expertise in whatever their traditional state economy area of specialty is that they could surge if they had to. 
I think that's really the direction... maybe just one visualization of a direction in which we could be pushing. But that's certainly not compatible with the goals of the state economy.

One can look at the Farm's fallow fields and low population density, it's skewed age demographic and the barriers to entry for young people and describe the situation as a group of aging Baby Boomers who kept the long hair and the beards but abandoned the communitarian values of the Old Farm. I've heard many visitors to the ETC level this exact charge. I'm not saying that this is a completely inaccurate characterization or that the Farm doesn't need to take a hard look at the implications of admission standards that screen out young people who have a lot of passion and energy but little portable income. At the same time I can hold a view of the Farm in its current state as maintaining a much needed surge capacity that might well prove invaluable should unexpected conditions arise and the former Farmies living out in the general population find themselves in need of a familiar and welcoming refuge in rural Tennessee.