Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Master & the Emissary: How the Structure of the Human Brain has Influenced the Development of Western Civilization

Iain McGilchrist's book "The Master and the Emissary" looks at how the structure of the human brain has influenced the development of Western civilization. He suggests that the health of individuals and civilizations depends on a strong reciprocal connection between the right hemisphere (which connects us to the world, "wholeness," and the mysteriously "unknowable") and the left hemisphere (which narrows our focus to "parts" and assumes it knows more than it does). Perhaps many of the problems we are now facing can be traced to a growing separation between the functions of each brain, and an over-reliance on the left hemisphere, which projects its limited vision onto an essentially ambiguous reality.

Jeremy Rifkin: How the 99% Are Using Lateral Power to Create a Global Revolution

It's happened before, in 1848 and in 1968. The youth of the world took to the streets to protest the injustices of autocratic political regimes and rapacious business interests and to demand the most basic human right to participate as equal citizens in the affairs of society.

On October 15th, millions of young people -- and their parents and grandparents -- swarmed onto the streets in large cities and small towns around the world, decrying an economic system that favors the rich 1% at the expense of 99% of the people. The protesters are frustrated by a lack of jobs. They are angry over governments giving bailouts to global banks and subsidizing corporate giants while cutting vital public services to the middle class and poor. And they are worried over the steady rise in the earth's climate from industrial-induced carbon dioxide emissions that now threatens to disrupt the world's ecosystems and trigger a mass extinction of life on the planet.

I recently spent time with many of the October 15th organizers in Spain and Italy -- the countries that hosted the largest street protests. I came away with the clear impression that the young people in these countries, and on Wall Street and around the world, are interested in more than just reforms of existing political and economic policies and practices. They sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the very way the political and economic system is set up and are beginning to search for a new economic vision that can put people back to work, establish a more responsive governing framework and protect the biosphere of the earth. Finding that new vision requires an understanding of the technological forces that precipitate the profound transformations in society.

The great economic revolutions in history occur when new communication technologies converge with new energy systems. New energy revolutions make possible more expansive and integrated trade. Accompanying communication revolutions manage the new complex commercial activities made possible by the new energy flows. In the 19th century, cheap print technology and the introduction of public schools gave rise to a print-literate work force with the communication skills to manage the increased flow of commercial activity made possible by coal and steam power technology, ushering in the First Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, centralized electricity communication -- the telephone, and later radio and television -- became the communication medium to manage a more complex and dispersed oil, auto, and suburban era, and the mass consumer culture of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The Old Power Elite

Communication/energy regimes largely determine the way societies are organized, and, particularly, how the fruits of commerce and trade are distributed, how political power is exercised, and how social relations are conducted. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions were built atop the most centralized energy regimes every conceived. Fossil fuels -- coal, oil, and natural gas -- are elite energies because they are found only in select places. They require a significant military investment to secure them and continual geopolitical management to assure their availability. They also require centralized, command and control systems, and massive concentrations of capital to move them from underground to end users. The ability to concentrate capital -- the essence of modern capitalism -- is critical to the effective performance of the system as a whole. The centralized energy infrastructure, in turn, sets the conditions for the rest of the economy, encouraging similar business models across every sector.

The oil business is one of the largest industries in the world. It's also the most costly enterprise for collecting, processing, and distributing energy ever conceived. Virtually all of the other critical industries that emerged from the oil culture and feed off of the fossil fuel spigot -- modern finance, automotive, power and utilities, and telecommunications -- were, in one way or another, similarly predisposed to bigness in order to achieve their own economies of scale. And, like the oil industry, they require huge sums of capital to operate and are organized in a centralized fashion.

Three of the four largest companies in the world today are oil companies -- Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, and BP. Underneath these giant energy companies are five hundred global companies representing every sector and industry -- with a combined revenue of $22.5 trillion, which is the equivalent of one-third of the world's $62 trillion GDP -- that are inseparably connected to and dependent on fossil fuels for their very survival.

It goes without saying that the beneficiaries of the oil era, for the most part, have been the men and women in the energy and financial sectors and those strategically positioned across the First and Second Industrial Revolution supply chain. They have reaped extraordinary fortunes.

By the year 2001, the CEOs of the largest American companies earned, on average, 531 times as much as the average worker, up from 1980 when that figure was only forty-two times greater. Even more startling, between1980 and 2005, over 80 percent of the increase in income in the United States went into the pockets of the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.

By 2007, the wealthiest 1 percent of American earners accounted for 23.5 percent of the nation's pretax income, up from 9 percent in 1976. Meanwhile, during the same period, the median income for non-elderly American households declined and the percentage of people living in poverty rose.

Perhaps the most apt description of the top-down organization of economic life that characterized the First and Second Industrial Revolutions is the often-heard "trickle-down theory" -- the idea that when those atop the fossil fuel-based industrial pyramid benefit, enough residual wealth will make its way down to the small businesses and workers at lower levels of the economic ladder to benefit the economy as a whole. While there is no denying that the living standards of millions of people are better at the end of the Second Industrial Revolution than at the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution, it is equally true that those on the top have benefited disproportionately from the Carbon Era, especially in the United States, where few restrictions have been put on the market and little effort made to ensure that the fruits of industrial commerce are broadly shared.

A New Economic Paradigm

Today, Internet technology and renewable energies are beginning to merge to create a new infrastructure for a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) that will change the way power is distributed in the 21st century. In the coming era, hundreds of millions of people will produce their own green energy in their homes, offices, and factories and share it with each other in an "Energy Internet," just like we now generate and share information online. The creation of a renewable energy regime, loaded by buildings, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, distributed via an energy Internet, and connected to plug-in zero-emission transport, establishes a 5-pillar infrastructure that will spawn thousands of businesses and millions of sustainable jobs.

The Third Industrial Revolution will also bring with it a more democratic economy. The distributed nature of renewable energies necessitates collaborative rather than hierarchical command and control mechanisms. This new lateral energy regime establishes the organizational model for the countless economic activities that multiply from it. A more distributed and collaborative industrial revolution, in turn, invariably leads to a more distributed sharing of the wealth generated.

The new, green energy industries are improving performance and reducing costs at an ever accelerating rate. And just as the generation and distribution of information is becoming nearly free, renewable energies will also. The sun, wind, biomass, geothermal heat and hydropower are available to everyone and, like information, are never used up. The shrinking of transaction costs in the music business and publishing field with the emergence of file sharing of music, e-books, and news blogs, is wreaking havoc on these traditional industries. We can expect similar disruptive impacts as the diminishing transaction costs of green energy allow manufacturers, retailers, and service industries to produce and share goods and services in vast social networks with very little outlay of financial capital.

How the Internet Generation is Using Lateral Power to Transform the Political Landscape

The democratization of the economy goes hand and hand with the democratization of governance. The internet generation is driven by a new political agenda. Their politics has little in common with the right/ left dichotomy that characterized the ideological politics of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. The young activists of the October 15th movement judge institutional behavior from a new lens. They ask whether the institutions of society -- be they political, economic, educational or social -- behave in a centralized manner and exercise power from the top down in a closed and proprietary fashion, or whether they function in a distributed and collaborative way, and are open and transparent in their dealings. The new political thinking is a game changer that has the potential to re-make the political process and re-shape political institutions in every country.

Lateral power is a new force in the world. Steve Jobs and the other innovators of his generation took us from expensive centralized main-frame computers, owned and controlled by a handful of global companies, to cheap desktop computers and cell phones, allowing billions of people to connect up with one another in peer-to-peer networks in the social spaces of the internet. The democratization of communications has enabled nearly one third of the human population on earth to share music, knowledge, news and social life on an open playing field, marking one of the great evolutionary advances in the history of our species.

But as impressive as this accomplishment is, it is only half of the story. When internet communications manage green energy, every human being on earth becomes his or her own source of power, both literally and figuratively. Billions of human beings sharing their energy in vast social networks, like they now share information online, creates the foundation for the democratization of the global economy and a new beginning for the human race.

The youth protest, that began in the Middle East, Spain and Italy and spread to Wall Street and then the world, is a harbinger of a new era. "Lateral power" has become the battle cry of a new generation, determined to create a more just, equitable, and liveable society.

The youth have shown that they know how to use lateral power via Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social networks to bring millions of people to the streets to protest the inequities and abuses of the current economic and political system. Now, the looming question is whether they can harness the same lateral power to create a sustainable economy, generate millions of new jobs, transform the political process and restore the earth for future generations.

Friday, September 9, 2011

“Tell me your image of God and I’ll tell you your politics.” - Marcus Borg

The following is from a speech made by David Korten, a man in the forefront of the movement to lead us into a new paradigm, a new economy.

“Some years ago I was privileged to share a conference platform with Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. I will never forget his defining statement: ‘Tell me your image of God, and I will tell you your politics.’ Borg explains that the many scriptural images of God are of two basic types. One is the patriarch with the flowing beard: the God we visualize in human form, the God of Michelangelo’s famous painting in the Sistine Chapel, who lives in a distant place we call Heaven. The other image of God is as a spirit manifest in all being.

“The patriarch image sets up a hierarchy of righteousness and domination running from those closest to God to those most distant. It leads to a competitive individualistic politics of separation, domination, favor seeking, and wealth accumulation. It is the foundation of the Calvinist belief that the rich and powerful are by definition God’s most favored, and that financial success and Earthly power are marks of special righteousness. Within this belief system, the world is whatever God the patriarch wishes it to be, and it is beyond our means to change it for better or worse.

“By contrast, the spirit image-by which we recognize the face of God in every human being, animal, insect, and grain of sand-leads to a politics of community, shared purpose, and mutual service. Everything in creation is both manifestation and agent of a great spiritual intelligence seeking to know itself through the creative exploration of its possibilities. Within this belief system, to do harm to another being is to harm oneself. We see ourselves as agents of that creative journey and find our ultimate fulfillment in devoting ourselves to it.”

This reminds me of a film, the Global Oneness Project produced a while back called "A Thousand Suns: Food, Ecology and Religion in the 21st Century. Worth a watch for sure:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Now is the time for NauHaus

A radical new building concept coming out of Asheville, North Carolina, has recently wrapped up. The LEED-Platinum pursing NauHaus project used organic hemp bio-masonry materials with some other cutting-edge green building technologies, such as the new Serious Windows---the house aims to be carbon-neutral. The exterior landscaping of the project will be done using permaculture design principles. More builders and homeowners need to be thinking in this direction--it's the future. You could take it one step further and pursue the Living Building Challenge, that would be awesome, any takers???

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back to the Future - The New Bio Economy

From Hydrocarbon to Carbohydrate Economy

The excitement continues to grow for building a new economy--an economy that as David Korten recently wrote in Yes Magazine “seeks to bring the way we live into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere.” This new economy acknowledges the need to move away from non-renewable hydrocarbons towards renewable carbohydrates. The idea of a carbohydrate economy is not a new one; industrialist Henry Ford first talked about it in the early 1930s: “Why use up the forests which were centuries in the making, and the mines which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the fields?”

A new carbohydrate-centred industrial design paradigm points to solutions to current environmental problems. For one, harvesting annual bio-material crops reduces the need to use old-growth forests for biomass, or petrochemicals for polymers. Of course, not all carbohydrate-based products are created equal. Consideration must be given to how crops were grown and harvested, whether pesticides and synthetic fertilizers were used, and if top soil was depleted or replenished. There are also legitimate concerns about using food crops for other industries (such as the “food for fuel” issue that has been presented with GMO-corn). Hemp and flax (organically-grown) are two crops that have been shown to have great potential for use in green building. Both crops can be grown quite sustainably in a crop-rotation, and both produce copious amounts of fibre, a by-product of seed production. Hemp is superior to other agricultural crops in terms of biomass; comparing it to wheat, for example, we find hemp yields triple the amount of fibre per hectare (and sequesters 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare as well).

Bio-material development is catching on everywhere---Europe has been at the forefront of research over the last 25 years and North America is starting to catch up. Batt insulation made from hemp and flax, Structurally Insulated Panels (SIP) made from straw, and hemp masonry materials are attracting interest and publicity. Studies have also been done on the use of mycelium or mushrooms to produce foam alternatives; one company, based in upstate New York, has produced a styrofoam packaging replacement now being test-marketed by the likes of Dell and Steelcase. The company also intends to produce a SIP for use in green building projects.

More and more attention is being given to the use of hemp masonry materials, produced from using processed hemp fibre and a mineral binder such as natural lime or magnesium cement. This form of construction has been advancing in France and more recently in Ireland and England as well; the technique of using hemp and lime in buildings is centuries old, however. Hemp buildings have been shown to be highly insulative, fire and mold resistant, extremely durable and carbon neutral. In Canada, where the hemp industry is now over 15 years old (growing hemp is still prohibited in the U.S.), several provinces have invested significant amounts of capital in secondary processing for bio-materials, one example being the Alberta Government’s decortication plant in Vegreville (decortication separates the two types of fibre). Other privately owned facilities exist in Manitoba and Ontario. Now pending in the province of British Columbia is a processing plant slated for construction near 100 Mile House, where there is keen interest in developing a hemp fibre industry.

Healthy Materials

Developing healthy materials is also a huge imperative for the green building industry. Bio-materials can be developed using non-toxic binders, but unfortunately not all manufacturers are currently choosing them. It is quite common to come across board or sheeting products that were produced using organically grown flax or hemp and subsequently combined with a binder containing formaldehyde. We need to get the word out about the toxic nature of chemical adhesives such as formaldehyde. As the green building industry becomes more transparent, stamping their products with ingredient fact boxes such as the new Declare system from the International Living Future Institute and the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Lens, more people will hopefully become aware of what is in products and whether or not they contain any toxic and/or carcinogenic compounds.

Luckily, lots of work has been done on developing bio-materials that meet high standards, such as the rigorous Living Building Challenge Red List Ready status. Binders such as magnesium oxide or natural lime pose no risk and have attributes such as fire resistance that are ideal when creating green materials.

Bio-Regional Model

The old economy largely abandoned local manufacturing in favour of exporting jobs overseas because of cheap labour, but now those jobs are starting to come back. Not enough attention has been given in the past to looking at where the materials are coming from and how they are made. The case of imported toxic drywall in 2008 is a perfect example of how something tragic can happen when the manufacturing is sub-contracted out and the company that distributes the product does not oversee what is going into that product---most houses made with the hydrogen-sulfide contaminated drywall had to be demolished. This was a real shame and something we just cannot afford to have happen again. By relocalizing manufacturing, we can have greater control over quality and can ensure the production of non-toxic, healthy building materials. An added bonus will be the creation of many meaningful green jobs. The bio-material industry is perfectly positioned to help bring this new paradigm into fruition. When we keep industries local, carbon emissions are reduced, local farmers are assured demand for their fibre crops and local economies start to emerge. What better way to “grow and build” a new economy, than by growing products we can build with?

How can you get involved?

- Help spread the word through social media about the emerging local living economies and buildings movements. Visit and and follow their Facebook groups, also check out this article by David Korten in Yes Magazine

- If you live in the United States, visit and lobby your congressperson to support industrial hemp legislation that has currently been put forth by Congressman Ron Paul.

- If you’re looking a building a new house or retrofitting an existing one, consider using materials made from local bio-material companies.

- Take a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and learn how to live more sustainably.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Living Buildings, Living Economies, and a Living Future

David Korten: What we can learn from two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time.

At a recent conference, I saw the potential for blending two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time—the living building and the living economies movements. A vision of the combination of these two movements energized me with renewed hope that we humans can end our isolation from one another and from nature—that we can move forward to achieve a prosperous, secure, and creative human future for all.
The Living Building Challenge

The conference I attended was led by Jason McLennan of the Cascadia Green Building Council and the International Living Future Institute. Ambitiously titled “Living Future 2011,” the conference focused on the “Living Building Challenge,” which takes Green Building standards to a new level. As I listened to the conference presenters, I heard some of the brightest and most tech-savvy minds in architecture, construction, and urban planning spell out the practical possibilities for creating built spaces around integrated energy, water, and nutrition (food) systems. Some of the ideas are still theoretical. Most, however, are already in application or being incorporated into physical structures now under construction.

These innovative proposals eliminate waste, feature natural lighting, and provide for onsite capture of rainwater, energy (wind, solar, and thermal), and organic matter (food scraps and human waste) for recycling and reuse, including for urban gardens (edible roofs and walls and built in green houses).

Water is used in the first cycle for drinking, dish washing, and showering; recycled for laundry and micro-flush composting toilets; and directed from there to onsite gardens from which it filters into the aquifer. Hot water, cooking, and space heating are integrated to optimize overall energy efficiency.

Integrating multi-purpose buildings into a larger multi-building neighborhood or district system adds opportunities to develop public green spaces, community gardens, edible landscaping, and small-scale poultry and livestock production, as well as natural wetlands and living machine water purification to continuously recycle nutrients, water, and energy.

Integrative projects also create opportunities to balance the utility loads of businesses, which generally have greater energy needs during the day, and residences, which have greater needs during nonbusiness hours. Bringing residences, employment, shopping, and recreation together in close proximity minimizes transportation requirements and facilitates the sharing of autos, bicycles, appliances, and tools, and community connections to mass transit, bike trails, and other transportation alternatives.

The Living Economies Connection

The living building framework focuses attention on shelter and nutrition as the basic essentials of a human livelihood. It seeks to remedy the dysfunctions of current infrastructure designs that isolate us from one another and operate in opposition to the biosphere’s natural generative processes. The living economies framework focuses on networks of living enterprises and seeks to remedy the dysfunctions of an economic system that contributes to this same isolation and disconnect.

Both movements seek to bring the way we live into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere, which self-organizes locally everywhere to optimize the sustainable utilization of energy, water, and nutrients in support of life.

The corporate ruled global economy isolates people and communities from the sources of their food, energy, water, materials, and manufactured goods, leaving them dependent on corporate controlled global supply chains that are wasteful, unstable, unaccountable, and environmentally and social destructive. The underlying system structure and dynamics are in most every respect mirror opposites of those of the biosphere.

Working in opposition to the biosphere, the global economy is maintained only by unsustainable dependence on a non-renewable fossil fuels subsidy. It is already failing and its ultimate collapse is only a matter of time.

The living economies movement seeks to displace this failed economic system with a planetary system of resilient, self-reliant local economies comprised of human-scale, locally-owned enterprises that use local resources to meet local needs in cooperative alignment with the structure and dynamics of local ecosystems.

Up to this point in time, the living economies movement has focused on the enterprise as the primary unit of production. The living buildings movement brings in a focus on restoring the household as a unit of food, energy, and water production. Each is an essential contributor to household and community livelihoods in a living future, and each creates opportunities for the other.

Implementing the Living Building Challenge creates many opportunities for local businesses to supply and install locally sourced building materials and technologies for the construction of new buildings and for retrofitting existing ones.

While home production will reduce demand for conventional food, water, and energy services, it will create new opportunities for local businesses to provide relevant expertise and inputs. There will be needs for local food processing and market facilities, as well as for businesses that specialize in creating and maintaining edible walls, roofs, and backyard gardens for households that lack the skills or inclination to do their own planting and maintenance.

Many of these activities require financing from community banks, mutual savings and loans, and credit unions that understand and support the unconventional technologies and ownership arrangements involved. Rebuilding community financial institutions that support all elements of the local living economy is a top priority of the living economies movement.

A Natural Alliance

The leaders of the living economies movement are predominantly entrepreneurs who view the world through the lens of marketing, finance, supply chains, and business value propositions. They are natural doers and risk takers eager to test new ideas, disinclined to spend a lot of time on planning, and impatient with drawn-out conceptual conversations.

The leaders of the living building movement are predominantly architects, with a sprinkling of urban planners, developers, engineers, and contractors. The architects and urban planners view the world through the lens of design and structure, think in terms of systems, and are drawn to conceptual frameworks that deepen understanding of what is required to bring the human species into alignment with the structure and dynamics of Earth’s biosphere.

The living economies movement stands to benefit from the living building movement’s conceptual grounding in ecological systems thinking. The living buildings movement stands to benefit from the living economies movement’s skills in linking local businesses into mutually supportive networks of business relationships. The living building developers and contractors mix easily with the living economy entrepreneurs and are a natural bridge between the two movements. Both movements stand to reap significant benefit from this natural alliance.

The Connected Life

We humans, in a fit of adolescent hubris, have sought to liberate ourselves from the responsibilities of life in community. We are in denial of our fundamental nature as living beings—forgetting that because of the way life manages energy, living beings exist only in active relationships to other living beings.

We have so confused individual autonomy with personal liberty that we have created economies that reduce caring human relationships to soulless financial exchange and structured our physical space around buildings and auto-dependent transportation systems that wall us off from one another and nature. In isolation from nature we have sought to dominate and control rather than work with nature’s natural generative processes. We have paid a terrible price.

As we restructure our physical and economic relationships to achieve true economic efficiency and reduce the human burden on the biosphere, we will see even more clearly our interdependence with one another and the place we live. We will know where our food, water, and energy come from. We will know where our wastes go. And most of all we will be constantly reminded of the extent to which our happiness and well-being depend on our active engagement with the generative living community of which we are a part.

The challenges we face in making the transition are enormous. But so too is the opportunity to create and secure a living future for ourselves and our children for generations to come.

(David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Challenge

This short teaser is part of a larger documentary project that the Cascadia Green Building Council/Living Future Institute is hoping to put out in the near future. The International Living Future Institute is leading the way for a bright green living future, but we all need to lend our support and help connect more people to the movement; to support the people and initiatives that are working and successful in articulating the problem with the right solutions. ILFI is one of those many organizations. Check them out!

The Challenge Teaser 2 from FILMTHROPIC on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Living Future unConference spawns Living Future Institute

This past Friday, the 5th annual Cascadia Green Building Council's Living Future unConference wrapped up in Vancouver. The amazing three day event, attended by delegates from multiple countries worldwide, featured keynote plenaries by Eco-Entrepreneur Majora Carter who discussed some truly inspiring community-based urban environmental recovery projects she has been involved in (in the Bronx);; Cascadia CEO Jason McLennan & Systems Organizational Consultant Margaret J. Wheatley who spoke about her new book "Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now". Thursday night's Big Bang Dinner featured an awesome music set by folk singer Sarah Harmer and a brilliant presentation by the Jasper Sustainability Club on educational reform. In addition, the winners of the Living City Design Competition were announced. A major theme of the conference was moving beyond thinking about designing green buildings and communities, to enlarging the vision to take in a broader range of initiatives. Thus Cascadia has decided to change the name of their recently launched Living Building Institute to the International Living Future Institute. CEO Jason McLennan said in a press release, "As our pioneering project teams have discovered, 'green buildings' don't exist in a vacuum, they are part of a web of influences moving from the materials we build with, to the structures we create and maintain, and on to the communities we inhabit." David Korten from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) was on hand in and around the conference and spoke to the need to connect two movements as well. Expect some "big stuff" from Living Future coming soon to a community near you!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

10 Wild Materials That Could Help Save the Earth

A look at the just-announced 2010 Materials of Year from Fast Company's Co.Design

We take the stuff that makes up our world for granted. Plastic is plastic, right? And wood is wood? Absolutely not: Materials are still a hotbed of innovation, often involving ideas to help save the planet in imperceptible ways that mask their huge impact. Those innovations are highlighted in this year's Material of the Year awards, given out by Material ConneXion.

That company is pretty ideally situated to give the awards: If you're a designer looking to find a material for manufacturing something that seems impossible, start with them. And if you're a brilliant chemist with a world changing idea about plastics, you also want to start with them.

This year, they've given their grand prize to a new type of concrete that emits 90% less carbon dioxide when being produced -- a huge reduction, given that some scientists believe that concrete production causes 5% of mankind's carbon footprint. But the nine other materials cited in the awards are equally amazing, involving fungus-grown replacements for sytrofoam, plastics blown up to twice their size, and electrical circuits made of carbon nanotubes. Take a look here

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Money from Nothing? The Illusion Behind the Magic

by David Korten

The ancient alchemist and modern Wall Street capitalist have much in common. The latter has achieved the modern equivalent of the alchemist's dream of turning cheap metals into gold. He creates money out of absolutely nothing and wholly free from exertion or the inconvenience of producing anything of real value.

Making money with no effort can be an addictive experience. I recall my excitement back in the mid-1960s, when Fran, my wife, and I first made a modest investment in a mutual fund and watched our savings grow magically by hundreds and then thousands of dollars with no effort whatsoever on our part. We got a case of Wall Street fever on what, by current standards, was a tiny scale.

Of course, most of what we call magic is illusion. When the credit collapse pulled back the curtain to expose Wall Street’s secret inner workings, we learned the extent to which Wall Street is a world of deception, misrepresentation, and insider dealing on a breathtaking scale. It was such an ugly picture that Wall Street’s seriously corrupted institutions stopped lending even to each other for the simple reason that no one trusted the other guy’s financial statements.

Much of what Wall Street celebrates as financial innovation involves borrowing to inflate the value of financial assets to create collateral to support more borrowing to further inflate the assets to create more collateral… Whether you call it a loan pyramid or a Ponzi scheme, it is a form of theft.

A responsible Federal Reserve would have raised interest rates to dampen asset bubbles like the tech-stock bubble of the 1990s and housing bubble of the 2000s. Instead, captive to Wall Street interests, it pursued cheap money policies to encourage and facilitate ever more borrowing by speculators to keep the bubbles growing.

Academics who never learned the difference between real wealth and phantom financial wealth published scholarly articles celebrating the discovery of the secret of effortless wealth creation. Back in 1997, I came across an article in Foreign Policy by John Edmunds, then a finance professor at Babson College and the Arthur D. Little School of Management, titled “Securities: The New Wealth Machine”. This is a defining quote:

"Historically, manufacturing, exporting and direct investment produced prosperity through income creation. Wealth was created when a portion of income was diverted from consumption into investment in buildings, machinery and technological change. Societies accumulated wealth slowly over generations. Now many societies, and indeed the entire world, have learned how to create wealth directly. The new approach requires that a state find ways to increase the market value of its stock of productive assets. [Emphasis in the original.] … An economic policy that aims to achieve growth by wealth creation therefore does not attempt to increase the production of goods and services, except as a secondary objective."

The thesis was so absurd that on first reading I thought it must surely be some sort of joke or parody intended to expose the irrationality of the exuberance surrounding the inflation of financial bubbles. In his 2008 book, Bad Money, the journalist and former Republican Party political strategist Kevin Phillips notes the Edmunds article was widely discussed on Wall Street and implies that it may have inspired the securitization of housing mortgages.

Contrary to the Edmunds “logic,” an asset bubble—real estate or otherwise—does not create wealth. A rise in the market price of a house from $200,000 to $400,000 does not make it more functional or comfortable. The real consequence of a real estate bubble is to increase the financial power of those who own property relative to those who do not. Wall Street encouraged homeowners to monetize their market gains with mortgages they lacked the means to repay except by further borrowing. It then converted these toxic mortgages into worthless toxic securities and sold them to the unwary, including the pension funds that many of those who borrowed against their inflated home values counted on for their retirement.

Why do we tolerate Wall Street’s reckless excess and abuse of power? In part, it is because so many people of influence have bought into the Edmunds fallacy. If you have difficulty understanding "economist speak," it may be because you are in touch with reality.

David Korten ( is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group. This Agenda for a New Economy blog series is co-sponsored by and based on excerpts from Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In It Together: Small Group Organizing for an Uncertain Future

“I don’t believe the economy is getting better,” says Billy R., a member of a mutual aid group in Oregon that he jokingly calls “my reality support group.” “All around me I’m surrounded by media and advertising urging me to keep borrowing, buying, and sleepwalking. I love meeting with others who are staring down the potential risks and challenges of the future.”

Maybe more of us could use a reality support group.

Even with the announcement that the official unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent, millions of people remain in dismal economic straits. The pace of home foreclosures has barely slowed and millions remain out of work. Even upbeat scenarios still assume protracted unemployment and economic stagnation for much of the decade ahead. The unspoken scenario is that things could get worse.

So here’s the point: you must not face the future alone. Find your own “reality support group” (we’ll tell you how below). This year, make a resolution to deepen your relationships with people around you with whom you can face what’s coming down the pike.

Sometime during the next couple of years, there will likely be a fundamental shift. It might be another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008, or a shock to the economy thanks to a rapid spike in energy costs. It could be a series of extreme weather events that result in flooding, drought, or unprecedented heat waves. Think Hurricane Katrina on a larger scale. These changes could lead to food and water shortages—and test our personal and community preparedness in ways that we have not experienced in our lifetimes.

You should know that we, the authors of this piece, are not apocalyptic, bunker-building, pessimistic people. We’re both parents, gardeners, and active in our neighborhoods. We like a good football party—though we root for different teams (Patriots v. Steelers).

We believe our society has almost everything we need to build stronger communities, reduce inequality, live in harmony with the earth, and make a graceful transition to a new sustainable economy. But we won’t get there ignoring the data, and we won’t get there disconnected from one another.

We’re not talking about yet another issue campaign. We certainly need to remain engaged in the good fights around economic justice, peace, democracy, the environment. But there is something huge missing right now in our approach to social change. Our social movements are weak and, with some inspiring exceptions, not changing the political dynamics. The “Net Roots”—online organizing and social media—are creative ways to aggregate money and power in specific situations, but online activism is not a substitute for a movement based on durable and trusting face-to-face relationships. In some religious and labor traditions, this is called solidarity.

Fearful, Alone, & Ashamed

Presently in the United States we are witnessing the emergence of politics based on fear and the erosion of status. Millions of people saw their livelihoods and dreams collapse in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. People lost their homes, jobs, savings, and sense of a positive future. They’ve had to adjust their expectations—for example, facing the reality that they may never be able to retire or improve their standard of living.

Some people respond to these circumstances by blaming themselves and feeling ashamed about their difficulties. Many are hunkering down, feeling depressed and withdrawn. In the U.S., we tend to think everything is about the individual—even blaming ourselves for things that are largely beyond our control.

Others of us respond by scapegoating others, often those more disadvantaged. These responses often come from a place of fear, isolation, and shame.

There is good reason to be angry and focus on powerful financial and political actors who are responsible. But, as in the grieving process, we must move from anger to a place where we can boldly face today’s difficult realities and also initiate pro-active responses. We can start by learning to accept and live within new limits set by economic and ecological reality. Many people are already deliberately moving away from the old economy, and they’re finding new types of security and abundance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often feel much richer than they did in lives defined by the “work-watch-spend” cycle.

Rebecca Solnit, in her remarkable book A Paradise Built In Hell, reminds us to look for the “shadow governments of kindness,” the deep reservoirs of resilience and compassion that emerge during disasters and troubled times. All over the planet, people are defying the stereotypes of the self-centered “economic man” and instead caring for one another, building alternative economies, and deepening solidarity.

A Movement to Build Economic Security

The good news is people are already coming together in small groups to form and strengthen relationships. Some are called “common security clubs,” while others go by names like “mutual aid groups,” “resilience circles,” and “unemployed support groups.”

Call it what you want, but the purpose is the same: getting together regularly—8 to 15 adults—to face ecological and economic change. Small group organizing is part of the missing architecture in our social movements ... which may be why it’s catching on so quickly.

Such groups are designed to strengthen our personal and community resilience. They typically have three purposes: to learn together, support one another through mutual aid, and engage in social action.

Learn together. It’s hard enough for each of us alone to keep up with news about the ways our changing economy and ecology are impacting our lives. But it’s particularly challenging to face unsettling realities in isolation. In order to move forward, we need a community to help us learn and figure out how to deal with our fear, anger, loss, and feelings of betrayal.

Group members watch videos, read articles, talk to each other, and organize forums. Since the “experts” mostly got things wrong two years ago, participants are investigating things for themselves. What’s really happening in the economy? What caused the economic meltdown? What’s changed? What are the ecological risk points? How will the decline of cheap, easy-to-get oil affect the future economy? What will a transition to a new economy look like?

Mutual Aid. Our mutual aid muscles are out of shape. We need to find ways to increase our real economic security and web of support through shared resources, skills, experience, and capacities. Some folks do this through extended families, religious congregations, and ethnic and fraternal associations. But millions of people are disconnected from extended family and the immigrant and civic associations that helped earlier generations survive. And many religious congregations have gotten out of the practice of being centers of mutual aid.

Common security clubs often gather around potlucks, sharing food and recipes for healthy, low-cost meals. They support one another to get out of debt, brainstorm about employment options, share tips on saving money. They form bartering circles to swap skills, tools, and time. They talk about the challenges of parents moving in with children, children moving in with parents—and adjusting to new norms and limits as a result of the changing economy and future.

Social Action. Many of us want to make meaningful change at the local and national level. We want to find ways to constructively channel our anger and fear to resist further Wall Street destruction of our local economies. We want to act together in ways that go beyond online petitions or phone calls to our member of Congress. Think “affinity group” or “social action group”—a place to deepen our effectiveness as a small unit, but be part of larger movements.

Common security clubs in particular have worked for national policy changes, from universal health care and Wall Street financial reform to the extension of unemployment benefits. Many clubs, animated by the “break up with your bank” and “move your money” efforts, relocated personal, congregational, and other funds out of Wall Street, and into community banks and credit unions.

Other clubs have connected with community-wide “transition” efforts, inspired by the Transition Town movement sweeping England and now moving U.S. communities into action. Transition neighborhoods and towns proactively prepare themselves for climate change, economic hardship, and the decline in easy-to-get oil and cheap energy—with its huge implications for transportation, food security, building design, and our standard of living. Within the broader initiatives, small personal groups like common security clubs provide a place where people can meet to practice mutual aid and reciprocity. Both transition towns and common security clubs are integral components of building needed personal and community resilience.

A Few Stories

Encouraging stories are emerging from common security clubs and other mutual aid groups.

A group of unemployed workers in Maine created a resource sharing exchange. They met regularly at the library and laughed so much the librarian didn’t believe they were economically struggling.

A group in Greenfield, Massachusetts calls themselves “the neighbors” and meets monthly to check in, sing together, and practice mutual aid. On another night they meet for a monthly game night—what one member called “fun and affordable entertainment.”

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a network of Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers meets weekly and has formed committees to help educate one another about computer use, unemployment insurance, stress management in tough times, and green job opportunities. “Part of our work is to help face the unemployment bureaucracy so people get their benefits,” said Tom Lewandowski, a founder of the group. They invite people leaving unemployment offices to join the group. Members volunteer at libraries on Sunday afternoons to help unemployed workers file claims online.

Small Groups in Social Movements

Can forming a small group like this really make a difference, when the problems we face seem so overwhelming? History tells us they can. At many crucial moments in our past, small groups have played an essential role in incubating the seeds of great change.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more than 27,000 “Share Our Wealth” clubs formed to discuss the causes of the Depression and advocate for a radical program of wealth redistribution.

Also in the 1930s, seniors organized “Townsend Clubs” to advocate for old age pensions—a formidable social movement that added to the pressure to establish Social Security. By 1936, more than 8,000 Townsend Clubs had been formed with over 2 million members. In ten states—including Oregon, Colorado, California, Florida, South Dakota—there were more than 50 clubs per congressional district.

In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, people formed nonviolent direct action groups to engage in sit-ins and keep up morale. Activists rooted in faith-based congregations and tight-knit communities were able to take greater risks knowing that if they should be jailed (or worse), there were others to care for their children and elders.

The women’s movement was built upon small consciousness-raising groups, which enabled millions of women to reflect on their identity. “The personal is political” was experienced in thousands of face-to-face gatherings, ultimately shifting gender attitudes throughout the society. The anti-nuclear movement in the late 1970s formed “affinity groups” as part of direct action efforts to prevent power plants from being built.

In the labor movement, the success of organizing female clerical workers into trade unions depended upon an organizing approach that included small support groups. Large mega-churches have grown upon a foundation of “small group ministry” in which members connect through smaller, face-to-face groups. A growing number of organizers today are examining the “power of networks” in social movements.

Given the challenges we’re collectively facing in the present, where are such movements today? It appears that without a lived experience of “solidarity” in our personal lives, it can be difficult to respond to an abstract call for the common good. It may be that small group organizing is central to our hopes for broad-based change.

Potential Shock Points

There is good reason to believe that the next 10 years are going to be very different than the 10 years prior to the 2008 economic meltdown. Persistent unemployment means that millions of people may live out the decade in an economic depression.

Moreover, the underlying economic structures that brought on the collapse have not been addressed. We remain at risk for more financial nosedives. As a result, new Wall Street economic bubbles and busts may emerge. The “danger” light on the dashboard is still flashing…

In fact, the future could bring any number of “shock points”: another economic meltdown along the lines of 2008; a further increase in unemployment, even to 20 percent; more extreme weather events (hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves); new spikes in the cost of energy; rapid deflation as the value of money falls; a dramatic increase in the cost of food; and/or shortages of fresh water.

Because of the extreme inequalities of income and wealth that have opened up over the last generation, the brunt of these changes is falling, and will continue to fall, most intensely on lower and middle income and disadvantaged folks. But these changes will touch everyone in various ways, even those who believe they have built a wall of economic security around their families.

These are some of the reasons people need to face the future together and strengthen the social fabric of our communities. This is not a future you can, or should, face alone.

The Transition to the New Economy

Eight million jobs in the old economy are not coming back. But new jobs, enterprises, and livelihoods are emerging. We are seeing vibrant new kinds of enterprises in the local food sector, green building, and alternative transportation, as well as locally rooted cooperatives and producers. These are the pieces of a new economy that is emerging piecemeal around the country—an economy based upon entirely different models of economic growth and indicators of community health, and also new conceptions of wealth, community, and governance.

This new economy includes financial institutions invested in the real economy, like community banks and credit unions walled off from the Wall Street speculation that adds no real value to our economy. It includes respect for “all that we share”—our commons of public and private institutions such as libraries, schools, or agricultural knowledge. It is based on sound management and protection of the gifts of nature including water systems, seed banks, and land conservancies.

In the current political moment, leadership for large-scale transition to this new economy will not come from Washington, D.C., but from movements around green jobs, local manufacturing, alternative transportation, regional food, and more. This is a moment for each of us to reflect on our own power and agency. We each have a role to play, but perhaps we aren’t sure what it is yet. This is where your small group is important. Small groups help disconnected individuals find their roles, turning them into community players who contribute to the movements toward the new economy.

If we are prepared for a transition, we will be in much better shape than if we simply hope life will somehow return to normal. If we have our “core group,” we can face changes with less fear and more sense of our personal agency. Together, we will be able to work toward an economy that works for everyone.

--Chuck Collins and Sarah Byrnes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. Sarah is the organizer for the Common Security Clubs at IPS.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Interview with John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

In this video, the Health Ranger interviews John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Hoodwinked and The Secret History of the American Empire. Here, Perkins discusses his history as an economic hit man, how the U.S. controls and manipulates the economics of developing nations, how U.S. agents organize revolutions or assassinations of world leaders, and how U.S. corporations actually run the whole show.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Trailer for The Economics of Happiness

(Via GOOD Blog)

Bill McKibben sets up this trailer for the new movie The Economics of Happiness by noting that "The number of Americans who say, 'Yes, I'm very happy with my life,' peaks in 1956 and goes slowly but steadily downhill ever since."

The film promises to investigate potential causes of that decline: problems with ad-driven consumerism and the associated insecurity, long hours at the office, and a flawed food system, among others. The solution, at least as far as one can tell from the trailer, is reorienting our economies and our lives around local communities.

Of course, happiness is a complicated quality and you can't buy it (even if you buy local). How deeply the film explores the psychological science of happiness is unclear. But it looks interesting anyway. The film is touring North America in January. You can get details at its official website.