Archive for February, 2010

Localization: The Alternative to the Alternatives

Friday, February 12th, 2010

The following is an excerpt from Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World by Michael C. Ruppert. It has been adapted for the Web.

The end of the Age of Oil will also be the end of globalization1, long-distance commutes, and long-distance transportation of goods and services—period. Oil is the only transportation fuel we have today, and it will be for some time. As president, you grasp that there is not going to be a last-minute reprieve from some new magical solution, a secret weapon that is going to win the “war” at the last minute. You look around and realize that localities are bearing the brunt of the hardship and you ask yourself what your role—what the role of the federal government—should be.

Since most Americans live in or near large cities, it might be best to hear what the cities are saying themselves. For almost every city in America oil is the single largest budget item, and in 2005 Denver’s oil costs surged by $1.9 billion. In 2005 and 2006 From the Wilderness attended conferences of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, USA (ASPO-USA) in Denver and Boston. In Denver, Mayor John Hickenlooper made it clear that cities were bearing the heaviest burden because it was cities that delivered the services that mattered most to people.

Ad hoc networking had begun between many cities around the country to share ideas on efficiency, conservation and alternatives. Denver was sharing information with Portland and Chicago. Emergency energy task forces were sprouting up everywhere. Peak Oil was not speculation for these folks but a given at the local level, and there was serious frustration with the federal government, which was perceived as being “out of touch” as unfunded mandates on climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions strained municipal treasuries. Costs were being pushed down from Washington.

By 2008 the gap between what cities needed and the federal government was doing had worsened. I made several contacts with lobbying groups dealing with municipal issues in Washington. All sources spoke on a not-for-attribution basis but were very clear in their positions. “The federal government just doesn’t get it,” was said by more than one source. The general consensus was that by imposing unfunded mandates on climate issues and by continuing to build new roads through cities or major interstates, even as traffic flows were shrinking, the federal government had become a “huge drag on cities’ ability to respond to rising fuel costs and what that does to other services in municipal budgets.” The cities are now crying for what they call “reverse mandates” where cities can tell the federal government what is needed in the way of block grants that could be applied by local governments.

Some of the language was strong. “We’re getting creamed in every direction. The costs of capital improvements are like double-digit inflation. The federal government uses its resources in the most reckless and inappropriate ways.”

As president, your first awareness is that the federal government cannot and will not take on the role of solving problems in cities and townships. That would be inefficient and inappropriate on every conceivable level. Only the people in each locality know and can decide what they need most. Each location has different needs.

Your second awareness is that if localities fail at the bottom, the nation will fail at the top. Tax revenues are shrinking at every level of government. Federal employees all over the country are already having trouble getting to work because of economic challenges. That problem is going to worsen. America’s “all-volunteer” military will shrink because sons and daughters will have to stay at home to help support increasingly distressed families.

Decline is a fact that is not going to go away even if a million wells are drilled. Drilling holes does not mean that oil will be there. We might have better luck in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, although it’s pretty clear that these cities have short life expectancies. As oil supply tightens, the ability of the nation and of each community in it to respond effectively to problems, or to simply function at all, will be dictated by its degree of self-sufficiency and the degree to which it has liberated itself from dependence on anything from outside, whether the outside is 150 miles away or across an ocean. Food is the first concern here. Somehow America must start producing food where it is eaten, the way it did in the 19th century.

Awareness of this truth and some preparations for it have been underway for several years, slowly at first, but now at an accelerating pace—always at the local level, frequently at the individual household level. Yet many long-term activists, organizers and planners in the field complain that such preparations are far behind where they need to be.

As president, you might sit down one morning at your desk and receive the following briefing.

  • The Montana State Highway Patrol is cutting back on law enforcement patrols because it cannot afford the cost of gasoline.2 In fact almost every state highway patrol has been reducing services which has increased response times to emergency situations. Local police departments are faring no better. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Department in Colorado has ended car patrols within its 2,000-square-mile jurisdiction. One Ohio sheriff is putting his deputies into golf carts. Stillwater, Okla., has stopped mowing the grass on nearly half of its parkland.3 That seems like a small problem but it isn’t when untended parks provide havens for criminals and homeless. The Attorney General and the FBI are advising you in confidential briefings that crime rates in rural areas are rising rapidly as a result of unemployment and a growing awareness that police patrols have been cut back.
  • School districts around the nation have begun cutting back to 4-day school weeks because they can no longer afford the fuel for school buses.4 This is also causing an increase in juvenile crime and resulting in less-capable graduates entering an already overloaded work force.
  • Asphalt prices for road maintenance have risen so high that roads are starting to disintegrate, causing damage to private vehicles that fewer venues can afford to repair. A new report from Maryland indicates that asphalt prices have made it impossible to repair a road to a local church. A report from a local newspaper reports a discovery that every city and county in America is making, “To put it another way, a 20-foot wide, mile-long road with 2 inches of blacktop cost the county about $51,000 in 2004. That same road now costs $98,213.”5
  • In fact, 90% of U.S. cities are cutting back services because of fuel costs, everything from police and fire to trash pickup has been hit. “Several mayors—as they gripped-and-grinned at a downtown hotel—said the cost of fuel had become their obsession.”6 If trash isn’t picked up then disease becomes a risk, and public health becomes an issue. Larger cities have not been forced to cut back on emergency services yet, opting instead to cut back on lower priority social services and discretionary programs as rising energy costs sap their budgets. That can only last for so long.
  • All over the country, shelves at local food banks are empty, as food and transportation costs have collided headlong with a collapsing economy.
  • Displaced populations suffering from home foreclosures and unemployment are colliding with a new exodus moving into inner cities where those able to afford it have decided to move to cut commuting costs.

The list seems endless and is growing longer every day. All of these conditions are only magnified by the current depression.

Advisers have suggested to you that the federal government might start issuing mandates on energy use and setting standards for continued receipt of federal aid. As to the second point, you have decided that some standards might be necessary, but you have ruled out ones that require cities, counties, and states to spend money they no longer have. California’s 2008–9 budget crisis has made it clear that unfunded mandates might only accelerate the breakdown instead of slowing it.

One bright spot is that many thousands of individuals and families have, on their own, moved to make themselves less dependent upon fossil fuels and outside goods and services. A problem here is that there is no data base to track these efforts or what has been learned that may be exportable to other areas. There is no clearing house for data on individual initiatives producing a solution in Wyoming that could be applied to Massachusetts or Georgia.

The Perfect Laboratories

You look around to see if any place else has had to cope with sudden and severe oil shortages. Fortunately there are two clear and unequivocal examples. One shows what works and the other reveals what doesn’t. They are Cuba and North Korea, both of which experienced a sudden and dramatic absence of oil and natural gas products after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Neither country had any significant domestic energy sources although North Korea does have some coal. Both were totally reliant on oil and fertilizer (made from natural gas) exports from the Soviet Union. Agriculture in both countries had become dependent upon petrochemicals as we saw in Chapter Eight. But rather than a serious decline in the availability of oil and gas, for both of these nations it was almost an instant cold-turkey withdrawal.

One nation, following a rigid Soviet-style, top-down management system starved and ultimately nearly failed. Its populace suffered horribly as a complex civilization collapsed on all fronts. Trains didn’t run. There were massive blackouts. Frequently there was no water pressure. There was no fertilizer. That nation was North Korea.

The other nation turned almost immediately to local entrepreneurial capitalism and private ownership. It not only survived but ultimately became much healthier after a serious period of hardship. Its government made land ownership available to anyone who would farm it, even taking fallow land away from landowners who were not using it. It mandated local food production because not only was there no gasoline to drive food around the country there was almost none to power tractors and harvesters. There was no electricity to power irrigation pumps. It lifted all government interference and let the free markets operate in a way that would have made Adam Smith proud. The nation that survived was Cuba.

Cuba’s transition was by no means easy. Its soil had been harmed by decades of dependence on ammonia-based (natural gas) fertilizers and monocropping. So the first and immediate task was soil restoration. During that time only a few crops were grown. But, as time passed, the Cuban diet expanded from basic subsistence to become healthier and more diverse than ever before. Not only that, rooftops and vacant lots, almost every available square inch of land in Havana became local farms and markets within easy walking distance. Barter replaced cash. All food production became organic. Large state-owned farms were broken up, much as large American “agribiz” farming operations will eventually be broken up, out of necessity. Entropy makes everything break down into smaller components.

Notwithstanding the much better climate in Cuba and a series of natural disasters that hurt North Korea’s agricultural base, North Korea did everything wrong. The national government took strict control of almost every aspect of food cultivation. Cuba liberated it. After a few years of hardship Cuba’s population became healthier, the diet diversified and food choices increased dramatically. American film makers travelled to Cuba and documented this inspiring transition, showing that it is possible to survive and eat well after a loss of oil and gas.7 What proved essential was not for the national government to take control, but rather to get itself out of the way. Hunger drove the population to change its thinking or starve.

In 2003, my newsletter From The Wilderness published a two-part series by the brilliant Dale Allen Pfeiffer who had written our earlier story “Eating Fossil Fuels.” Titled “Drawing Lessons From Experience” the series contrasted the experience from both countries. Near the end of Part II Pfeiffer wrote:

The World Bank has reported that Cuba is leading nearly every other developing nation in human development performance. Because Cuba’s agricultural model goes against the grain of orthodox economic thought, the World Bank has called Cuba the “anti-model.” Senior World Bank officials have even suggested that other developing countries should take a closer look at Cuba. This despite that fact that the Cuban model flies in the face of the neoliberal reforms prescribed by both the World Bank and the IMF.8

Megan Quinn-Bachman is the Outreach Director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions of Yellow Springs, Ohio—one of the most active relocalization organizations in the world. She is also the co-producer of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, the 2005 award-winning documentary demonstrating that relocalization is the most effective way to deal with energy limitations. She has travelled to many countries and lectured all over the U.S. and Canada on the subject. In her late twenties, well-educated and an engaging speaker, she promises to be an important future leader for the generations that will have to deal with the worst parts of the energy/food crisis. I contacted her and asked her what information she had on relocalization efforts around the country and how such efforts were progressing. Her answer was less encouraging than I had hoped.

“Well . . . there are some localities taking steps. The municipalities showcase some bits and pieces of a good strategy (peak oil resolutions, planning & zoning that preserves land and resources, energy conservation for municipal energy use, etc.) but no place has put it all together and no place will survive the crisis without major challenges. Five years ago it was lip service, now its tokenism and a piecemeal approach. No community I know of has made community-wide (not just municipal buildings, fleets, etc.) energy reduction mandates, nor has any fully embraced a transition towards import substituting businesses and local living/security. None that I know of are storing emergency liquid fuel supplies and setting up emergency warm spaces and food preservation and storage facilities. None are figuring out how to prevent resources and money from leaving the community via banking and purchasing into local business incubators for entrepreneurs to set up local, low-energy businesses and infrastructure improvements (retrofitting homes, sustainable wastewater management, etc.).

Much of the best work is happening outside of municipalities, via community groups, neighborhoods, businesses, and pioneering individuals. CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], food co-ops, local currencies & trading systems, are a few.

Relocalization groups, Transition Towns (, etc. are all good starts, but they haven’t gone much beyond community education. They could be a great structure to use for disseminating viable options and models, but that’s currently not their use.”

Perhaps the one municipality in the United States with the biggest head start on relocalization is Willits, California.

A simple truth is all too apparent. There is no hope for any of us outside of a community. We must learn to work with our neighbors in developing sustainable lifestyles based upon reduced consumption and sharing of resources. This is difficult for Americans brought up on rugged individualism and competition and who have been taught to measure success in terms of consumer goods possessed and energy expended. But this is how our ancestors, the first settlers of this country, were able to survive and thrive. It is also how the Native Americans before them survived in a sustainable balance with the land and nature. Are we so deluded as to believe there can be no joy in life without rampant consumption?

A wise man once said that success was not having what you wanted but wanting what you had. Perhaps through relocalization, if it is embraced before it becomes an imperative, we will rediscover a quality of life that we have been missing and fill the void that we have been attempting to fill with consumption.

Either way, relocalization is going to happen. We can go there by choice, or we can resist and let our children suffer for our lack of vision. Some of the great champions of Peak Oil and sustainability like Jason Bradford and Matt Savinar live there. The web site is—as far as I can tell—a cutting edge of relocalization planning and experience.


  1. Larry Rohter, “Shipping Costs Start to Crimp Globalization,” New York Times, Aug 3, 2008.
  2. Associated Press, July 24, 2008.
  3. Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2008
  4. Reuters, July 24 2008.
  5. The Daily Times, June 16, 2006
  6. New York Times, June 21, 2008
  7. I strongly recommend the amazing documentary film The Power of Community from
  8. Dale Allen Pfeiffer, “Drawing Lessons From Experience,” Parts I & II, From The Wilderness,

How a Foodie Got Duped and Seduced By Mass-Market Produced Fast Food

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

I’ll be honest. I love the taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s really tasty—I ain’t gonna front, as the kids say (do the kids still say that? Crap, when did I turn 32?) But, probably like many of you, I haven’t eaten there in many years. I just don’t trust them to source their chickens responsibly, sustainably, or humanely. I’ve seen Food, Inc. Those poultry factory farms will break your heart.

Self-described foodie Deirdre Heekin had to wrestle with her own conscience recently when a friend pulled the old “it’s a family recipe psych I got it at KFC” gag on her. She writes about the difficulty of trying to source fast-food chicken (or anything else, for that matter) in this article for AlterNet:

On a snowy, yet moon-driven New Year’s Eve, we drove south along two streams to our friends’ house for a late buffet supper and holiday celebration. The house was warm with a fire roaring in the grate, guests mingling casually between several rooms, and glass after glass of champagne to ring in the new decade. A few of the guests had gotten together to provide the dinner for all of us. There was a cave-aged Gruyere fondue, pate, deviled eggs and baked ham. There was a green salad, beets. There was fried chicken. There were fluffer-nutters, little elegant tea sandwiches with peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. This was a down-home buffet, a cozy and rather self-satisfied scene.

All the dishes were delicious, but it was the fried chicken that had everyone buzzing. “This is the best fried chicken I’ve ever had!” could be heard through the halls and bouncing off the corners of rooms. And it was true. It was the best fried chicken any of us had ever had. Spicy with plenty of black pepper and salt, maybe a dash of white pepper, it was juicy and crisp at the same time without being heavy. I grew up in a part of the country where fried chicken is served as part of the local cuisine. This was better than the chicken at the Hornet’s Nest, or Horsketters Tavern, or the Darmstadt Inn. It had umami, that elusive element that somehow makes flavor three-dimensional.

Our culinary hostess smiled, a bit wickedly and deliciously I might add. “It’s an old Kentucky recipe,” she said. Earnest questions and exclamations followed. “Are you from Kentucky?” ”Is your grandmother from Kentucky?” “This is delicious!” “You outdid yourself!” “Where did you learn to do this?”

“Oh, it’s just a little old thing I picked up,” she said. “It’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, Original Recipe.”

Sometimes it’s worth doing something for the shock value, to wake people up, to get them to think and respond. This revelation had a good-natured shock value among all the guests. While some were truly dumbfounded, others, myself included, laughed, and said, “I can’t wait to get my next bucket!”

But this clever party trick has caused some personal angst and questioning. I’m a restaurateur with a fierce devotion to local provisioning. We even grow a goodly amount of our own produce. I’m a sommelier of sorts with a fairly proficient nose and palate. How could I be duped, and then seduced by mass-market produced fast food? It’s enough to lose sleep over. Could it be that KFC is a fast-food anomaly and sources responsible, even sustainably? Could the food revolution really be infiltrating our fast-food nation?

Read the whole article here.


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WATCH: Animal Antibiotic Overuse Leading to Drug-Resistant Bacteria

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

There’s no question that animal antibiotics are being overused in factory farms, leading to drug-resistant bacteria that go on to attack humans. Antibiotics are administered to animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to make them bigger and fatter faster and to keep diseases from spreading like wildfire in their cramped, often unsanitary conditions. It’s not about keeping the animals healthy: it’s about preserving large-scale livestock farmers’ bottom line.

CBS News had this report:

Watch Now

(CBS) “It’s scary, I mean, you just can’t describe it really,” said Bill Reeves.

Two years ago, 46-year-old Bill Reeves, who worked at a poultry processing plant in Batesville, Arkansas, developed a lump under his right eye.

“It went from about the size of a mosquito bite to about the size of a grapefruit,” he said.

CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports doctors tried several drugs that usually work on this potentially deadly infection: methicillin resistant staph or MRSA – before one saved his life.


“You go from a just regular day to knowing you may die in a couple of hours,” Reeves said.

He wasn’t the only worker from this farming community to get sick. Joyce Long worked at the hatchery, handling eggs and chicks. She got MRSA at least a dozen times, and had to try several drugs as well.

“It was real painful. Shots don’t help, because it’s so infected, it don’t help much,” she said.

Within weeks, 37 people at the hatchery got sick. They’ve filed personal injury claims against the company, Pilgrims Pride, which has no comment.

This is not an isolated incident and chickens aren’t the only concern. A University of Iowa study last year, found a new strain of MRSA — in nearly three-quarters of hogs (70 percent), and nearly two-thirds of the workers (64 percent) — on several farms in Iowa and Western Illinois. All of them use antibiotics, routinely. On antibiotic-free farms no MRSA was found.

Health officials are concerned if workers who handle animals are getting sick – what about the rest of us? Drug resistant infections have sky-rocketed over the past two decades, killing an estimated 70,000 Americans last year alone. It’s an emerging health crisis that scientists say is caused not only by the overuse of antibiotics in humans, but in livestock as well. Antibiotics fed to healthy animals to promote growth and prevent disease.

“My fear is that one of these days we are going to have an organism that’s resistant to everything that we know, and we’ll be left powerless,” said Thomas Cummins, Batesville’s chief medical officer.

Read the whole article here.


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LISTEN: Raw Milk Revolution Author David Gumpert on The Power Hour

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Author/journalist David E. Gumpert (The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights) appeared on The Power Hour with Joyce Riley last month to discuss the raw milk debate—raw milk: health food or health hazard? Is it a food safety issue, or a citizens’ rights issue? Have the FDA’s enforcement tactics been too heavy-handed? Are small farmers being unfairly targeted? And what does it all mean for you?

Here’s a partial transcript:

David Gumpert: I’m a writer, I’m a professional journalist. I have spent many years writing about small business and entrepreneurship. I’ve written a number of books about how to start your own business, and how to run a business, how to raise money for a business. I’ve been a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, I’ve been an editor with the Harvard Business Review. So I’ve had a writing career, I guess you could say, a journalistic career, and in terms of what got me to write the book—

What got me to write the book was some of the things you’ve just talked about earlier, in regard to the, some of the things that have been happening to small farmers. I saw things like undercover investigations of small farmers, I saw sting operations, I saw questionable lab testing. I saw a number of things going on being directed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I saw this happening in late 2005, early 2006, and I said, you know, there’s something wrong here.

I should say that at that time I didn’t even know that people still drank unpasteurized milk. That part was a revelation to me. The more I learned, the more I investigated, the more convinced I became that these farmers were being done, dealt an injustice, and, uh, in many cases. And I also learned that, I met many people who told me about their experiences, having improved their health by drinking raw milk. Now, having said that, I should say there aren’t a real lot of studies to that effect, but as far as I’m concerned, people are having certain experiences, you have to respect that. And I respect those experiences, and I respect their right to have access to consume raw milk.

Watch Part 1 now:

Watch all four parts here.



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“Commencement”: An Excerpt from DIY U

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz. It has been adapted for the Web.

I have visited the university of the future.

Its classroom is a van bumping over dirt roads in Baja California, Mexico. The curriculum includes technology, economic and social development, anthropology, sociology, pedagogical techniques, and leadership and teamwork skills. Noah, a nineteen-year-old Princeton sophomore, is on his laptop in the front seat doing some last-minute debugging of an interactive storytelling software program—giving a new meaning to “mobile development,” he joked—while Ricardo, a master’s student at Stanford, is translating the program’s directions into Spanish.

We spend the next two days meeting with indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec children at migrant farm workers’ camps with haphazard access to doctors and schools. I watch kids as young as six pick up palmtop devices and tiny netbook computers made in China and programmed in India and Argentina, and within a few minutes, helping each other, with almost no directions, they’re playing games that teach math skills, and writing and illustrating their own original stories.

Paul Kim, the chief technology officer of Stanford University’s School of Education, has user-tested this “Pocket School” idea in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and India over the past three years. His passion is to connect people around the world, from all backgrounds and circumstances, and empower them to teach themselves using appropriate technology that is designed and redesigned by an informal network of students and volunteers to be responsive to their needs. “Why does education need to be so structured? What are we so afraid of?” he asks, his penetrating questions always softened with a warm smile. “The more you expect from a kid, the smarter they’re going to get.”

Over the course of a few days, I witness him applying this approach not only to the children in the campos but to the students in the van. Noah, a self-taught programmer who plans to major in politics, is learning on an as-needed basis, with immediate feedback from his users (the children) and collaborating with students from other institutions. His “personal learning network” includes the world at large—when he has a question about a finer point of Flash or ActionScript 3, he simply Googles the key words, he says, “to see how someone else solved it before me.” The BA he earns at Princeton will be valuable, but equally important to the course of his life will be the experiences he takes with him, not to mention the portfolio of socially engaged educational software programs and games he is creating.

Everyone explores, virtually and actually. Everyone contributes something unique. Everyone learns. This is the essence of the DIY U idea. It takes us back to the basics—the universitas (guild) and the collegium (community). People everywhere will have a greater ability to create their own learning communities and experiences within and outside institutions. This is happening now and will inevitably happen even more in the future. But how transformative will it be? Can the growth of these technologies and practices truly address the major challenges of cost, quality, and access? And if so, which of them are most valuable and most worth celebrating, supporting, and expanding?

Here’s what I know for sure:

  1. The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore. These changes are inevitable. They are happening now. Innovative private colleges like Southern New Hampshire and for-profits like Grand Canyon, upstarts like BYU–Idaho and Western Governor’s University, and community colleges like Foothill-De Anza represent the future.
  2. However, these changes will not automatically become pervasive. Many existing institutions, especially those with the greatest reserves of wealth and reputation, will manage to remain outwardly, physically the same for decades, and to charge ever-higher tuition, even as enrollment shifts more and more toward the for-profits and community colleges and other places that adopt these changes.
  3. In order to short-circuit the cost spiral, and provide access to appropriate education and training for people of all backgrounds, there is much hard work to be done in the way schools are funded and accreditation and transfer policies are set. College leaders need to have the will to change, as Chancellor Kirwan did at the University of Maryland, recognizing the central importance of efficiencies and changing the relationship between universities and their funders. Political leaders need to legislate change, as Senator Dick Durbin is by calling for open textbooks, and Bob Shireman by proposing to link funding for student loans to a college’s proportion of Pell-eligible students. Above all, learners and their families need to recognize that alternatives to the status quo exist and demand change.
  4. The one thing that can change dramatically and relatively swiftly is the public perception of where the true value and quality of higher education lies. It’s no longer about the automatic four-year degree for all. Institutions can’t rely any more on history, reputation, exclusivity, and cost; we now have the ability to peer inside the classroom as professors are lecturing and see students’ assignments published to the world. So we have both the ability and the obligation to look at demonstrated results.

Both learners and providers need to get comfortable with identifying meaningful objectives—and meeting them. For individuals, the true value of education has to be intrinsic, not extrinsic. It can’t be just about gaming the system, gaining the imprimatur of some exclusive external organization. The point of those one year, two years, four years, or ten years after high school is to help you figure out what you want to do, and to give you the ideas, skills, and connections you need both to do it, and to prove that you can do it. Period. For institutions, likewise, being allergic to talk of productivity and efficiency won’t do anymore. Parents and families are going to vote with their dollars, and better options are only a click away.


The Reformation didn’t destroy the Catholic Church, and the DIY educational revolution won’t eradicate verdant hillside colonial colleges, nor strip-mall trade schools. DIY U examples will multiply, though. Most likely, in bits and pieces, fits and starts, traditional universities and colleges will be influenced by them to be more open and democratic, to better serve their communities and students. Along the way, we’ll encounter rough spots, growing pains, unintended and unforeseen consequences—but the alternative is to be satisfied with mediocrity, and insufficient supplies of it at that.

Certainly, when only one-fifth of the relevant population worldwide is enrolled in existing higher-education institutions, there is a whole lot of greenfield space to cultivate variations. “We have what I call a law of thirds in this country,” Peter Smith, who has spent a distinguished career in higher education and now works for the forprofit Kaplan University, told me.

About one-third don’t graduate high school in ten years. The second third—actually more like 40 percent of the total—get a little college. And the third third gets an associate’s degree or more. This has been pretty flat for the past thirty years. When you juxtapose that against the workforce needs of the country, we’re several million down now and we’ll be 7 to 8 million down within a few years. And in this global economy, we’ve got—let’s take China as an obvious example. As soon as they become as productive as we are they will swamp the economy with qualified workers. We have to do better than “sort of ” educating one-third plus a few to an associates’ degree level. We don’t need incrementalism— we need new models.

Brian Lamb, an educational technologist at the University of British Columbia, sketches out for me one potential vision: “For universities, here’s the nightmare scenario. Imagine Google enters a partnership with the two or three top educational publishers, builds on the existing open-educational resources already released, uses the reach of Google to coordinate discussion and peer-based networks and develops a series of tests that they also certify. What then?”

Judy Baker at Foothill-De Anza both has an idea of what a new model will look like, and is in a position to help it happen.

The way I see it, higher education, ten, twenty years from now is going to look very different. It won’t be the brick and mortar and the semester and a course in this and a course in that. It’s going to be more outcomes based and skill based, project based. You don’t have to take these sixty courses or whatever it is to be a journalist. Someone will identify your gaps and then you address the gaps, in whatever way is possible. And that may mean taking an online course from New Zealand, being in a discussion forum with people in Canada, an internship in Mexico with Habitat for Humanity. You just need to get the knowledge and skills whatever way you can and then test out or present a portfolio. And when you add it all up, a few years later, you actually are ready to be a good journalist.

The science of evolution teaches us that new dominant species emerge when environments shift, and that small changes can have greatly amplified effects over time. Even more fascinating than predicting which of these higher-education models might ascend within ten or twenty years, and which are the dinosaurs, is the potential of DIY U practices to release great stores of what Paul Kim calls the world’s last renewable resource: human creativity.

The whole project of formal education has been based on the idea of society transmitting its ideas, values, and technologies from one generation to the next, and from dominant civilizations and cultures to “backward” or “primitive” ones. In the modern era we added the task of making and incorporating new discoveries into the curriculum year after year. As our society got more complex, we developed bigger and bigger institutions to teach more and more people more and more things.

Well, now the world is changing too fast, and the need is growing too much, for institutions to keep up. Scientists say we have less than ten years to reinvent how we get energy, how we get around, and how we make things if we don’t want our civilization to collapse from the effects of global warming. And to do that, we as a species also have to find better ways of communicating, making decisions, and understanding and weighing each others’ needs.

No one person knows how to do this; it requires a new synthesis of the wisdom of the ancients and cutting-edge discoveries. Our best hope is to get better at empowering individuals to find answers for themselves. In other words, forget about giving the guy a fish, or teaching him how to fish, either. Teach him how to teach himself, and he’ll always be able to acquire the skills he needs to find food, skills you haven’t even thought of yet for things you didn’t know you could eat. Fishing itself, it happens, is a great example of this. Today, 90 percent of fish species are overexploited. Fish farming is people’s fastest-growing source of food and will probably remain so through 2025, says James S. Diana of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The world needs people who can figure out new ways to repair the oceans and to find or grow renewable sources of food.

The lucky thing is that we humans are hard-wired to learn and discover. Jaak Panskepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University, studies emotional systems in mammals. In the sniffing and outstretched neck of a rat combing a maze for food, he sees a universal mammalian urge, as basic as rage or fear. Writes Emily Yoffe in Slate:

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” . . . For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

This ongoing search—the heartbeat of DIY U—is crucial to our evolution and our survival.


Climate Change Deniers, Step Up and Answer Some Questions

Monday, February 8th, 2010

By Keith Farnish, author of Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis

Here’s a situation you might be familiar with: you are doing something at work that you are particularly good at, having gained those skills through study, experience, and learning from your mistakes. Along comes a person who you know of by reputation to be a bit of a seen-it-all, done-it-all, bought the t-shirt type; they always insist they can do everyone’s job better than the specialist can. Most of the time the specialists politely decline his “help”, after which he insists that he could have still done it better and brays whenever the specialist makes a mistake.

This person rudely interrupts you while you are in the middle of a particularly difficult piece of work and, true to form, tells you to let him have a go – he is bound to make a better fist of it than you can. Instead of politely declining you tell him to go ahead – take on the whole job – but on one condition: if they make a mistake then they have to take the blame; all of it.

What do you think they would do?

What would Viscount Monckton of Brenchley do? What about Timothy Ball, Ian Plimer or Fred Singer? How would Patrick Michaels or Stephen McIntyre deal with this situation?

If you recognise some of these names, then you will also know that they are currently some of the most vocal, yet also most ill-informed people involved in whatever climate debate remains, and they all revel in their playing the climate change denial circuit. So come on guys, put yourselves on the line and tell us what you will do as the climate keeps changing?

Hang on a minute! What do I mean the climate is still changing? It’s been a cold, cold winter where I live, and 2009 wasn’t the global heatwave some meteorological organisations were warning against – surely the warming has stopped. Now, this is where it gets complicated, because among the list of people above, and quite a few more besides, there is a mixture of those who say the climate is not changing, those that agree that the climate is changing but humanity is not responsible, and those that agree the climate is changing and humanity is responsible for a very small bit of it. Ignoring that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows civilized human activity to be responsible for at least 90% of the observed change, you have to wonder what motivates the deniers across such a range of opinions: is it money, fame, notoriety, ideology or perhaps just a bloody-minded desire to hang onto traditional views? Actually, it’s all of these and more; but again, this isn’t what really matters as far as this article is concerned.

What will they do?

Let’s accept that the climate is changing: there is even more certainty of this than the link with human activity, through the observations of a vast network of atmospheric physicists, meteorologists, botanists, marine chemists, naturalists and even people like you and me who notice the small but subtle and progressive changes taking place in our gardens, parks and countryside. This certainty is, to all intents and purposes, unequivocal – you would have to be an extremely deluded person to deny it is happening at all. Quite how much it will change and what effects it will have are still open to debate, which is why climate science lies at a critical point in guiding future policy and, more importantly, human behaviour in general. But it’s changing, and it’s fair to assume it will keep changing: the first decade of the twenty-first century was the warmest decade since empirical measurements began in the mid nineteenth century; 2009 was, surprisingly for many, the joint second warmest year in recorded history, and 2010 may be hotter than even 1998.

As the climate changes, then the natural biological and chemical processes that regulate all life on Earth will undergo changes, some of them will be damped by negative feedback, but a significant number – particularly those affected by rainfall, ground cover and ice – will be drawn into positive feedback loops, such as those I described in a recent article. These types of changes rarely settle down until a significant, new plateau has been reached: it might be no rainforest in the Amazon, no ice in the Arctic, or it might be a sixth great extinction of life. We honestly don’t know.

But the climate change deniers seem to have it sorted. They keep telling those that are prepared to listen that it’s not our fault, and we don’t have to do anything that might damage the economy, our consumer culture or their reputations. Keep denying and everything will be ok. Meanwhile, the climate is still changing, we remain in thrall of their comforting message and…

Sorry to be so bleak, but you can deny as much as you like that something is your fault; you can walk into the road, safe in the knowledge that when the car hits you it will not have been your fault; you can be carried to your grave, replete with the inscription, “It wasn’t your fault!”

But it still happened.

So come on Christopher, Tim, Ian, Fred, Phil and Steve; you think you know best. What are you going to do!

Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis”, which is published by Chelsea Green in the USA, and Green Books in the UK. He is also the founder of The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He lives in Essex, UK, with his wife, two children and a much-loved garden.

Italian Critics Trash McDonald’s Nationalist Food Bid

Monday, February 8th, 2010

In an attempt to improve their image in Italy and foster better relations with that country’s government—and also, perhaps, placate the vocal Slow Food movement—fast-food restauarant chain McDonald’s is adding an item to their menu there: a burger with a nationalist twist.

The imaginatively-named </sarcasm> McItaly gives natives and tourists exactly what I assume corporate executives think they want in home-grown Italian cuisine: a meal sporting the colors of the Italian flag—red, white, and green. Not surprisingly, the multinational corporation is getting some push-back from Italy’s Slow Food movement—most notably from Carlo Petrini, author of the upcoming Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities.

From Reuters:

ROME (Reuters) – Fast food chain McDonald’s has teamed up with the Italian government to cook up a hamburger with a national twist, but the unusual initiative is giving some food lovers cultural indigestion.

The “McItaly,” hawked with the slogan “McDonald’s speaks Italian,” is made entirely of Italian DOP products (Protected Designation of Origin) and the meal’s ingredients make up the colours of the Italian flag — red, white and green.

“We’re out to defend our identity and the ‘Made in Italy’ trademark,” Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia said in a statement, adding that the venture was designed to “promote the taste of Italy,” particularly to young people.

“We want to give an imprint of Italian flavours to our youngsters,” he said.

But the flag-flying burger, which comes with a choice of artichoke spread and Asiago cheese or onion, lettuce and smoked pancetta, has come under heavy criticism by food critics both in Italy and abroad.

Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement that promotes quality food, genuine ingredients and local produce, accused the government of undermining Italian cuisine.

“Globalising a taste does not promote it but rather standardises and homogenises it,” he said in an open letter in an Italian newspaper.

“This isn’t about supporting Italian farmers and products, it’s about making money by working with a multinational that actively takes power away from local producers,” Petrini, who in 1985 failed to stop McDonald’s from opening its first restaurant in Italy, told Reuters.

But Zaia, the agriculture minister, defended McItaly as a healthy option which would use 1,000 tonnes of Italian agricultural products a month, giving a “huge boost to farmers.”

Read the whole article here.

Why Small Organic Farming Is Indeed Radical (and Beautiful)

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

At the 2010 Eco Farm Conference, Chelsea Green’s own Makenna Goodman got to witness firsthand one of the most well-attended and inspiring talks: organic farmer Eliot Coleman on the subversive power of the small farmer.

Coleman adapted his address for AlterNet. Here’s a snippet:

An observer today cannot help noticing the continuation of a trend that started at the beginning of the industrial revolution, a trend away from autonomy and independence for human beings and towards manipulation, consolidation, and control by large corporate entities.  The early destruction of small farms in the 18th century drove the dispossessed peasants into the cities and a bleak existence in the “dark, satanic mills” as William Blake so aptly termed them.  The propaganda in favor of becoming larger, more industrial and more centralized is so subtly pervasive and so effective that the majority of people have little idea of what has been regimented into their lives.  Massive industrial conglomerates that look upon people as anonymous passive serfs, obedient cogs in a mechanistic world, now control far too many aspects of human existence.  Circuses and bread, bread and circuses are presented as diversions for the masses today as they were for the masses of Rome.  But it is worth noting that according to the historians, it was the Roman consolidation of land into ever-larger farms that ended up destroying Roman agriculture, and resulted in the lack of bread that led to Rome’s eventual demise.

So I’d like to suggest a foe of Rome’s power as the perfect figurehead for the small family farmer holding out indomitably against the economic forces trying to subjugate the whole planet.  Our hero’s name is ASTERIX, and he is an immensely popular French comic book character.  In France there is a natural connection between the persona of Asterix and the fight against all things corporate.

Asterix and his buddy Obelix live with other members of their self-reliant community in a fictional Gallic village in northwest Brittany.  Asterix and Obelix hunt wild boar together and Obelix makes “menhirs”, those prehistoric stone monuments that are scattered all over Brittany.  The year is 50 BC.  Rome has conquered all of Gaul.  Well, not quite all because this one little village of indomitable individuals is still resisting – still holding out against all the soldiers that an ever more frustrated Caesar sends against them in a vain attempt to complete his conquest.  The village cannot be defeated because of the super-human strength the villagers get from a magic herbal potion produced by the resident village druid.

Read the whole article here.


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Hugely Successful Signature Gathering Means Legalized Pot Measure Almost Certainly Headed for Ballot

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

A signature drive by the group Tax Cannabis 2010 was easily able to gather 700,000 signatures—far more than necessary—to ensure the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010″ will show up on the ballot in California this November. The law would make it legal for private citizens 21 years and older to own up to an ounce of pot and to grow a limited amount for personal use. It would, of course, still be illegal under federal statutes.

From the San Francisco Chronicle at

Proponents of a state initiative to legalize marijuana said Thursday they have turned in about 700,000 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot, significantly more than required.

If enough signatures are verified and the measure approved by voters, it would become legal for people 21 and older to grow and possess up to an ounce of marijuana under state law. Local jurisdictions could tax and regulate it. Marijuana would continue to be banned outright by federal law.

“This is a historic first step toward ending the cannabis prohibition,” said Richard Lee, owner of Oaksterdam University in Oakland and a major backer of the initiative. Lee said he spent about $1 million on the signature gathering effort, and said proponents are planning to raise and spend $10 million for the campaign.

Supporters turned in signatures to county clerks in all 58 counties in the state and, depending on the number of signatures verified through a random sample, the measure could qualify for the ballot in about seven weeks. The initiative needs 433,971 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Multiple initiatives to legalize marijuana are circulating in the state, but this is the first submitted for a signature count. A proposal in the Legislature to legalize marijuana passed through a critical committee, but the legislative clock ran out on the bill and it cannot advance further for now.

Leading the campaign effort are Lee and retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray. Gray, who describes himself as conservative, said he has never tried marijuana and only would if a doctor specifically recommended it for him.

“It is really clear that what we’re doing with marijuana in our state and country simply is not working,” said Gray, who added he is confident the measure would pass in November. An April Field Poll found that 56 percent of state voters supported the idea.

Read the whole article here.


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WATCH: On Salatin’s Livestock Farm, Grass Is King

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Ask Joel Salatin what he does for a living and chances are he’ll tell you he’s a grass farmer. If that brings to mind images of burritos stuffed with sauteed Kentucky blue, or biofuel cars that run on lawn clippings, you’ve probably never seen Food, Inc. or read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Called “the high priest of the pasture” by the New York Times, Salatin has developed a system of pasture rotation that produces nutrient-rich grass and maximizes the composting of animal waste. Each species on the farm is dependent on another. That makes for happy cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits.

This video report from Discovery News has more.

So you just pull [the chicken tractor] and the chickens walk, and they have a new section of pasture. They have new bugs, grasshoppers, grass, clover, and all the things that the pasture wants. And of course the beauty is they moved away from their manure. Their manure then fertilizes the pasture right on the grass, makes the grass grow better for the cows, and the birds get a fresh salad bar.

Watch it now.

Read the whole article here.


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