Monday, July 12, 2010

Seeking the Gaianomicon

The archetype I proposed as a model for an appropriate-technology revival in the age of peak oil – the archetype of the green wizard – comes with certain standard features in folklore and fantasy. One of them happens to be a full-blown archetype in its own right: the book of ancient and forgotten lore. Those of my readers who plan on becoming green wizards will need to provide themselves with the grimoires, literally “grammars,” of that art, and in this post I propose to explain how to do just that. Yes, it involves a quest; the details will follow in a bit.

The archetype is more important than it might seem at first glance. Our time, as the media never tires of telling us, is the information age, a time when each of us can count on being besieged and bombarded by more information in an average day than most premodern people encountered in their entire lives. Now it’s important to remember that this is true only when the term “information” is assumed to mean the sort of information that comes prepackaged and preprocessed in symbolic form; the average hunter-gatherer moving through a tropical rain forest picks up more information about the world of nature through his or her senses in the course of an average day than the average resident in an industrial city receives through that channel in the course of their lives.

Still, the information the hunter-gatherer receives is the sort that our nervous systems, and those of our ancestors back down the winding corridors of deep time, evolved to handle. The contemporary glut of symbolic information — words and images detached from their organic settings and used as convenient labels for mental abstractions — is quite another matter. There are certain advantages to the torrent of abstract information available to people in the industrial world these days, to be sure, but there’s also a downside, and one major part of that is a habit of shallow thinking that governs most of our interactions with the information around us.

A hundred years ago, by contrast, a student pursuing a scientific or engineering degree might need half a dozen textbooks for the entire course of his studies. Every chapter, and indeed every paragraph, in each of those books would be unpacked in lectures, explored in lab work, brought up in tests and term papers, so that by the time the student graduated he had mastered everything those textbooks had to teach. That depth of study is almost unheard of nowadays, when students shoulder half a dozen huge textbooks a term, and have so little time to process any of the contents of any of them that the bleak routine of memorize, regurgitate, and forget all too often becomes the only option.

Combine that with the transformation of much of American higher education into a predatory industry fueled by aggressively marketed student loans, and every bit as focused on quarterly income as any Fortune 500 corporation, and you have the collapse of our educational system sketched out in a recent and harrowing blog post by former professor Carolyn Baker. The resulting ghastly mess is problematic in just about any sense you care to contemplate, but it has a special challenge for potential green wizards, because very few people these days actually know how to study information the way that a project of this nature demands.

Treat the material I’ll be covering in the weeks and months to come as a formality or a collection of hoops to jump through on the way to some nonexistent degree in green wizardry, in other words, and the result will be abject failure. If you plan on studying this material, dear reader, you need to pursue it with the same total intensity your average twelve-year-old Twilight fan lavishes on sparkly vampires. You need to obsess about the way an old-fashioned computer geek obsesses about obscure programming languages. You need to drench yourself in it it until it shows up in your dreams and seeps into your bones.

You need to do these things because the ideas central to the old appropriate technology contradict the conventional wisdom of today’s industrial cultures at literally every point. All the things that we learnt about the world by osmosis, growing up in a society powered by cheap abundant fossil fuels and geared toward a future of perpetual progress, have to be unlearnt in order to understand and use appropriate tech. The fact that they also have to be unlearnt to make sense of the world in the wake of peak oil is also relevant, of course; it’s precisely because many of us, even in the peak oil scene, haven’t yet unlearnt them that you see so many grand plans for dealing with peak oil that assume, usually without noticing the assumption, that all the products of cheap abundant energy will be readily and continuously available in a world without cheap abundant energy.

The old archetypal image of the book of ancient and forgotten lore is among the very few cultural images we’ve got of information that doesn’t belong to the read-and-forget category. Consider the Necronomicon , the imaginary tome of occult wisdom from half an hour before the dawn of time that plays so large a role in the horror-fantasy stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s characters don’t page casually through the Necronomicon and then go on to the current issue of People magazine; they search the world and risk their lives to get mere fragments of the text to study, even though they usually end up being dragged offstage by an unearthly tentacle because the fragment they got doesn’t contain the Voorish Sign or some other bit of protective lore.

Now I trust none of my readers will be dragged offstage by an unearthly tentacle, or even an earthly one, as a result of the studies I propose to offer them, but then a book “concerning the laws of death” (which is what nekronomikon means in Greek) is not going to be particularly useful for a student of appropriate technology. What’s needed instead is a Gaianomicon, a book “concerning the laws of Gaia” – if you will, a manual of the theory and practice of applied human ecology. Like Lovecraft’s tome, the Gaianomicon exists only in fragments, and your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to gather enough of those fragments to make a start on your education as a green wizard.

I’ve made the first part of your quest easy. Back in the early 1980s, when I worked my way through the Master Conserver program in Seattle, I collected the instructional handouts from the program and stashed them in a binder for future reference. I’ve still got them all, and have scanned them into a PDF document, which you can download from this page on the Cultural Conservers Foundation website. Those of my readers with slow internet connections should be aware that this file is 190 pages long and comes to nearly 8 MB. The handouts cover one part of the curriculum we’ll be discussing, the part dealing with energy conservation and renewables, which will be given a more evocative name a little later in this process.

I’d like to ask everyone who downloads the file, by the way, to do two favors for me. The first is to print out a copy of the whole thing on paper, and put it away somewhere tolerably safe; the second is to make sure that at least one other person who doesn’t read this blog gets a copy of the file, either electronic or printed. I don’t actually know for a fact that this is the only set of these handouts in existence, but I have yet to meet or even hear of anyone else who kept their copies, and it would be useful if this material were to get handed on to the future. Think of it as a bit of cultural conservation, of the sort I’ve mentioned several times already in these essays.

That’s the first part of the quest. The second is going to be a little more challenging, though only a little. You don’t have to go hunting for the lost city of Roong in the mountains of Zarazoola on an improbable third hemisphere of this already overexplored world. Instead, you need to go to a local used book store. It needn’t be the biggest and best in your area, if your area has more than one – in fact, in my experience, you’ll be more likely to get good results by going to one of those out of the way hole-in-the-wall places where the stock doesn’t turn over too quickly and some of the books have been there for a good long time.

You’re looking, of course, for books from the original appropriate technology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. There were hundreds of them back in the day, a small number from the large publishing houses of the time and a great many more from struggling presses run by individuals, or by the little nonprofit groups that created so much of appropriate tech. You may find anything from professionally bound hardbacks with dust jackets down to staplebound pamphlets with hand-sketched illustrations. You may find them in the gardening section, or in the home repair section, or in the science section, or in the nature section, or in a special section all its own labeled "Homesteading" or "Back to the Land" or something like that. (I haven’t yet found a store that labeled it "Naked Hippie Stuff," but hope springs eternal.) You may even find it jumbled up all anyhow with the general nonfiction because the proprietor of the used book store has no idea where to put it.

Wherever it turns up, you’re looking for a book on organic gardening, energy conservation, renewable energy, or anything related to them, preferably one that includes hands-on projects or ecological philosophy, or some of both. If you get one of the classics – The Integral Urban House, Other Homes and Garbage, Rainbook, The Book of the New Alchemists, The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse , or the like – that’s good, but it’s not required. It counts just as much if you find a little staplebound pamphlet on composting, or a ragged trade paperback from a small press on building a solar oven, or an old Rodale Press hardback on insulated window coverings, or what have you.

There are two points to this exercise – well, actually, two and a half. The first point is that your work with green wizardry certainly shouldn’t be limited to what one middle-aged archdruid has studied and practiced, under sometimes sharply limiting conditions, over the last thirty years or so. If you make appropriate tech part of your life – and if you intend to practice it at all, that’s pretty much what you need to do – at least a modest library of books on the subject is essential. You will develop your own personal take on appropriate tech, and your own personal style in putting it to work; the books you read and study, whether you agree with them or not, will help you start the process of bringing the take and the style into being.

The second point is that many of these books are nearing the end of their useful lives. The limited budgets available to most of the appropriate tech presses meant that most of the books were printed on cheap paper and bound by whatever method cost least. If they’re going to become anything but landfill, and if the information they contain is going to find any sort of new home, somebody needs to take responsibility for making that happen and, dear reader, it might as well be you.

The half point is that the appropriate tech movement, like any other movement on the fringes of the acceptable, had its own quirky culture and its own distinctive take on things. If you were learning a martial art, let’s say, an important part of your early learning curve would have to do with picking up the customs and traditions and little unspoken rituals of the art, which have nothing to do with how to block a punch and everything to do with navigating the learning process and interacting constructively with your teachers and fellow students. This remains important even when the movement no longer exists and the surviving participants have either gone on to other things or have spent the last thirty years laboring away in isolation at ideas and practices nobody else cares about; your task is harder, that’s all, and one of the few ways you can get a sense of the culture of the movement is to spend time with its writings and its material products.

So that’s the second part of your quest for the fragments of the Gaianomicon. The third and final part is simpler, and those of you who are wondering why you can’t just do all your book shopping on the internet can take heart, because this part of the assignment can be done online if you like. Your task here is to get a good basic book on ecology. If at all possible, it should be a book from the late 50s, 60s or 70s, when the concept of the ecosystem was central to the field in a way that hasn’t always been the case since then; the ecosystem approach is central to the way of thinking we’ll be exploring in posts to come, and a good grounding in it will be essential.

If you don’t have any previous background in the life sciences – and if what you have is what you got in American public schools, that amounts to no previous background – a book I like to recommend is a deceptively simple little volume called Basic Ecology , by Ralph and Mildred Buchsbaum. Originally published in 1957, it has been in print ever since, and provides a clear introduction to the ideas you’ll need in a very readable and nontechnical form. If you’ve got enough background that a serious textbook holds no terrors for you, one to get is Eugene P. Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology , probably the classic statement of the ecosystem approach. There are other good books on ecology to be had, however; while you’re at the used book store, you might want to take the time to see what’s in stock.

So those are your initial textbooks or, to use the archetypal metaphor with which I introduced this post, the tomes of ancient and forgotten lore you need to gather in order to begin your training as a green wizard: the Master Conserver handouts, one or more old appropriate-tech books, and a good introduction to the science of ecology with a focus on the ecosystem concept. If you already happen to have the latter two sitting on your bookshelves, and I know some of my readers do, that’s great; if not, please try to get them over the next week or so. Either way, put some time into reading them, and think about how the ideas contained in them might be applicable to the challenges of a world on the far side of peak oil. Next week we’ll start weaving some of those ideas together and exploring how the green wizardry of appropriate tech can be put to work.

Live video tech is catching up with promisesBook Review: “Creating a Forest Garden”

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