John Shuttleworth shares his speech from a 1975 alternative energy and agriculture program held at Goddard College up in Plainfield, Vermont, and recalls the many figures of the ecology movement who have inspired him along the way.
In short, I came away from Vermont with a bone-deep feel that even we "enlightened ecologists" of the ecology movement are still far too much a part of the problem instead of the solution.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
As most readers of this publication should know (thanks to full-page ads placed in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NOS. 31, 32, and 33), Goddard College up in Plainfield, Vermont hosted a program on "alternative energy and agriculture" during the summer of 1975.
And, sandwiched in among the heavyweights (the Murray Bookchins, Karl Hesses, Wilson Clarks, and Steve Baers of the ecology movement), the editor-publisher of this magazine was invited to attend the three-month gathering for a week as one of the "visiting faculty". Apparently someone wanted to measure the real movers and shakers against a farm boy from Indiana so that, by contrast, everyone would know how important all those other guys really are.
At any rate, whenever I'm invited to speak at one of these shindigs, I always seem to come home with more insight than I took. This trip was no exception.
Because as much as I've helped to promote wholistic ways of living and the so-called "alternative" energy sources . . . and as much as I approve of Goddard's experiments with aquaculture, wind generators, solar collectors, low energy construction, bio-dynamics, methane tanks, etc. . . . and as much as I liked, admired, and respected almost everyone I met during my week in the program . . . and as much as I intend to continue trying to modify our society so that it can be operated by a gentler technology . . . that Goddard program rubbed my nose — and rubbed it hard — in some unpleasant facts of life.
In short, I came away from Vermont with a bone-deep feel that even we "enlightened ecologists" of the ecology movement are still far too much a part of the problem instead of the solution. That we're more interested in rearranging the external trappings of our lives instead of really making basic changes in the way we live. That we find it much easier to tinker with solar collectors and windplants than to teach ourselves to exist without the gadgets that such "alternative" energy devices are designed to operate. That we still prefer to point fingers at other people's "stupid" electric toothbrushes . . . while donning the headsets of our own stereo systems.
It was this feeling which led me — on Wednesday, July 2 — to open my class with these words:
Although I am as guilty as anyone of promoting solar collectors, windplants, and methane generators, I do have grape doubts about the environmental movement's present "white man's eco-technology " approach to solving the world's current problems . . . problems which are largely with us because of earlier white man "solutions" to the world's problems. "Solutions" such as the Industrial Revolution . . . which — if we're honest — we must admit that our plastic-and-aluminum solar collectors, copper-wound windplants, and stainless-steel methane generators are part of rather than an alternative to.
Perhaps, then, it's time for us to at least question our prevailing love affair with "white man eco-technology" by looking back at what might — for want of a better term — be called "primitive eco-technology " ' And as we conduct this comparison, I ask you to remember — as Bill Coperthwaite, of the Yurt Foundation recently pointed out to me — that the definition of "primitive " is not really "inferior", as we now usually think. "Primitive " derives from "primus " and means "first" or "prime ".
Now that's very important to keep in mind. Because it seems to me that, in general — and I want this to be known from now on as Shuttleworth's Law of Something or Other than, in general, the first and the most basic discoveries and developments in any field are the best. They use the least amount of the most readily available resources, they require the minimum energy input for their manufacture, they last the longest, they work within only a few percentage points of optimum efficiency with minimum care and maintenance, they're recycled the easiest when their useful life is over, and they leave little or no pollution behind when they're gone.
Glass, for instance, is better in all important ways than plastic for containers, windows, lab work, solar collectors, and all the other common uses to which it is put. Glass is made by a relatively low-energy process-at least compared to its "replacement", plastic-and, unlike plastics, which are produced from dwindling petrochemical stocks or increasingly dear foodstuffs, glass is made from silica sand . . . which is one of the most plentiful mineral resources we have.
Glass can be made more shatterproof than plastic. More heat resistant. It doesn't scratch the way plastic does. Unlike the exotic plastic films now being touted for solar collectors, it doesn't age in the sun. It doesn't impart flavor and cancer causing agents to foods when it's used for storage. And so on.
Another example: No matter what Bucky Fuller says about building houses like airplanes and using aluminum and geodesics for the construction of a minimum-weight dwelling, I still think that basic stone . . . or wood . . . . or, most basic of all, earth . . . is awfully hard to beat when it comes to choosing the building material for a house.
Earth is available everywhere you'd really care to live. You don't have to use energy to ship it to your construction site . . . it's already there. You can fabricate an earthen dwelling with only the simplest tools and technology . . . and that home will be naturally warm during the winter and naturally air conditioned in the summer. A properly constructed dirt building will, with minimum care, last hundreds of years almost anywhere on the planets surface . . . not just in the and regions, as we usually think.
Unlike an aluminum or plastic dome-or even the more conventional dry-walled, jerry-built frame boxes in which most of us now live-an earthen building deadens sound. Correctly used, earth is windproof waterproof, and absolutely fireproof.
It doesn't give off toxic vapors the way "modern" construction materials do. It feels satisfyingly solid. It doesn't wear out.
In short, a home built of earth does exactly what it's supposed to do. It satisfies human wants, needs, and desires at minimum cost and with minimum trouble. It works . . . and works supremely well.
Yet a third example: Many of us — and this includes the folks at THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS ® — are currently trying to develop "new and better" solar collectors. And we talk about and experiment with and get turned on by flat-plate collectors and vertical-plate flat-plate collectors and parabolic collectors and front surface mirrors for reflectors for collectors and all kinds of other "new and better" solar collectors.
Yet I would like to suggest that the best solar collectors of all-the absolutely most efficient solar converters-have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. We call them trees and vegetation. And they build themselves automatically. They feed us They shade us. They regulate our micro-climates and play a most important part in regulating the macro-climate. They constantly purify the air. They absorb sound and act as pollution buffers. Shelter and nourish most of the insects, animals, and birds in the world. Warm us in such forms as peat and wood.
Their reeds, thatch, and lumber house us They supply us with bows and arrows, rifle stocks, axe handles, rope, and other weapons and tools. Their tapa cloth, cotton, linen, etc., clothe us. Their wood and fabric make our sleds, buggies, wagons, automobiles, and airplanes. They are by definition — since we have adapted to them over thousands of years — absolutely non-polluting and completely recyclable. And, once they've served their useful purpose, they do that recycling all by themselves with no help from us.
We are, in other words, very egocentric animals if we grandly think that we are-in any way and by any stretch of the imagination-going to devise any kind of solar energy collection or conversion system that even remotely approaches the total efficiency of vegetation Our mechanical gadgets may well concentrate more of the sun's warmth into a given area than, say, trees or grass will. But they won't construct themselves automatically in the first place . . . or purify the air . . . or act as noise and pollution buffers . . . or clothe us . . . or repair themselves when they're damaged . . . or recycle themselves automatically when their useful life is o Per . . . or do any one of a thousand other things that vegetation does for us every day.
Well, the message — at least to me — is clear. "Don't just do something, white man . . . stand there. " It's far easier, you know, to tinker with some external machinery than it is to delve within ourselves and make meaningful changes in the way we view the world.
Perhaps, though, if wed just open our eyes . . . if wed humbly accept — as Dave Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, says — that everything we really need is already here and we don't have to "improve" on anything . . . maybe then we'd find that a lot of our "problems" would solve themselves. Or would never have descended on us in the first place.
We wouldn't, for instance, have aerosol cans destroying the ionosphere. Or automobile exhaust eating away at our lungs. Or DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbons creating cancers in our bodies Or the so-called "Green Revolution "destroying the world's plant genetic pool Or cities built for machines instead of people. Or any one of thousands of other "marvels of modern science" with which we're now "blessed".
It is fair to say that — in my mind, at least — "progress" is truly our most important problem. Even to the extent that I have grape reservations about the "progress" of the very eco-technology that you and I are here today to promote.
I believe, then, that probably the single most important thing we eco-freaks can do is to always — first and foremost — evaluate every new development, every new "breakthrough", every new solar collector design, every new windplant, every new aquaculture system we devise against the natural systems they're designed to replace or improve. And we must dispassionately ask ourselves whether or not our "new" and "breakthrough" designs really do improve or replace the natural systems.
And, if we're truthful, I think that, not in 50% of the cases, or 70% or 85%, or 99% . . . but virtually 100% of the time our honest answer will have to be "no".
I suggest, in other words, that our Brave New Eco-Movement is, so far at least, probably no real eco-movement at all. We are still much too preoccupied with taking our machines out into the woods, instead of making a place for the forest in our hearts. We are too intent on finding ways to run our electric toothbrushes and our powered handsaws and our stereo sets on solar or wind energy when, maybe, what we should be doing is remodeling our internal makeup so that we don't need electric toothbrushes . . . or powered handsaws . . . or even stereo sets at all.
We cast ourselves out of The Garden thousands of years ago and we daily continue to lock the door behind us.
Until we begin to appreciate the incredible beauty and rightness of nature and start fitting ourselves into the naturally occurring scheme of things, in short, instead of constantly trying to bend nature to our irrational, greedy, people-centered desires . . . I don't think we 'll have done much that is worthy of the self-proclaimed labels "environmentalist ", "ecologist ", or even "alternative lifestyle" that we so proudly stick on our chests.
As Pogo quite aptly said, "We have met the enemy and he is, indeed, us." When that first inventive caveman struck the first flint-and-stone spark he lit a long, slow fuse which will eventually set off the final thermonuclear holocaust which is destined to destroy this planet. That's just the kind of animal we are and, so far, you and I have done nothing to change our destiny.
Or, to put it another way by paraphrasing a good old saw, "That government is best which governs least". The only really good technology is no technology at all.
For, in the larger sense, our technology — even the "white man eco-technology" with which we're now bravely trying to right all mankind's wrongs to the planet — is, in reality, only taxation without representation imposed by an elitist species upon the rest of the natural world. I'm convinced we've got to change that if the planet is to endure.
Well, as might be expected, I was pretty proud of myself for having delivered such a wheelbarrow-load of portentous thought to the august crowd assembled at Gadded that hot July day.
But then my conscience got to bothering me and I began to dig back in my files to find out just who the heck had planted those weighty ideas in my head in the first place.
And it turned out that it was only Paul Ehrlich and Dave Brower and Bill Coperthwaite and William Ophuls and Howard Odum and Jacques Cousteau and Dennis Meadows and nearly everyone else who's ever given this matter serious thought.
Some of my best lines though, as it turned out, were directly inspired by a fellow named Peter van Dresser . . . and that's why I wanted Peter's old LIFESTYLE! interview and a piece he wrote for Free America back in 1938 reprinted in this MOTHER EARTH NEWS issue!
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