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Durable Goods

October 27, 2018

Ed. note: The post below is a transcription of Post Carbon Fellow Stephanie Mills’ remarks at the 50 year anniversary of the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Gratitude to Mother Earth, ground of being. Gratitude to Stewart and Ryan and their colleagues for realizing this event.  Gratitude to Stephanie Feldstein for her partnership tonight.

The image was taken this summer in a stand of old growth White Pine saved in 1973 from the chainsaws by a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. The flowers are Bunchberry and Canada Mayflower. Gratitude to all those beings.

Stewart, master of compressed utterance, asked for five minutes on the last and next half-centuries: More than a tweet, less than a tome.

Fifty years is an eyeblink. Yet despite many good faith efforts at every level to prevent waste and ruin, the growth of industrial civilization has ravaged the Earth, depleting soil, water, and biodiversity, contaminating oceans and the atmosphere.

In 1968 Paul and Anne Ehrlich dropped The Population Bomb. There were about 3.5 billion of us then, over seven billion now.  Contraceptive means improved, while political calculation, cultural conservatism and patriarchy hampered their widespread adoption.

Sixties temblors of revolutionary change cracked a few foundations. In 1972 from the Club of Rome we got a world systems model forecasting industrial civilization’s inescapable limits to growth. In 1974, Congress heard of M. King Hubbert’s curve mapping the limits to oil production, the end times for a petroleum-driven global infrastructure. Big business as usual has continued. Critical thresholds have been crossed.  A late-breaking discussion of degrowth is underway but yet to reach a wide audience.

A half-century ago we thought about living more responsibly. “Access to tools” enlivened possibilities of household, homestead, village, and neighborhood self-reliance. There was hope of stalling the Apocalypse Juggernaut.  There still may be.

While I was at CoEvolution Quarterly (best magazine that ever lived), I also worked on The Next Whole Earth Catalog. Its extensive reviews of essential means like hand tools and simple machines, how-to books for scores of timeless crafts, a spectrum of advice on farming and gardening, and astute reporting on appropriate technologies remain durable goods. Where I live, quite a few young hand-makers, digital natives, cherish the Catalog for its can-do spirit and for arraying the physical and conceptual tools they wield. They’re flourishing while reducing their dependence on brittle systems and long lines of supply.

What’s coming? Possibilities I hope for, probabilities to dread. Possible: A renewed stirring of love for the Earth. Respect for and reciprocity with all beings.

Both love of place and interest in nature stem from our longtime past. Although these days they court struggle and grief along with authentic connection, they’ve got survival value. Belly botanists and bird nerds, frog-counters and foragers begin as kids.  They’re the ones who grow up to be the Rachel Carsons and E.O. Wilsons, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Maybe you’ve got such a one. Hope so.

In the chaos of our moment, perhaps a new understanding is immanent. A fundamental change of heart is needed, and there are harbingers, from the eco-Pope to ecological restorationists everywhere. Animals of our kind are supposed to be uniquely moral actors. Now’s the time to prove it. If our descendants are to inhabit a whole earth after this collision with ecological limits, we had best embrace virtues like Taoism’s Three Treasures: frugality, fairness, and humility. We can polish up our capacities for neighborliness and mutual aid. We may be as gods, but we’ll live better as members and plain citizens of our biotic communities.

Originally posted at Resilience.org

Estivant Pines Forest Floor image credit: Dave Egan