William Ophuls: the Economy vs the Environment

A Plowboy Interview with William Ophuls, whose 1973 PhD dissertation was on the management of political, social and economic problems arising from the environmental crisis.
Reprinted with permission by Stephen McNmara, editor of the Pacific Sun
January/February 1974
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Because we are likely to exceed the Earth's carrying capacity for human population, society can be expected to crash to pre-industrial forms.
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Ain't Nature grand! She simply willnot tolerate a vacuum. Sure, the old order is dying on its feet of greed, corruption and resource mismanagement. But there's a whole new breed of still little known but keenly discerning movers and shakers coming on. We may not always like what they have to say . . . but their vision of the future — unclouded by under-the-table campaign contributions and wishful thinking — simply screams for our attention. 

One of these hitherto virtually unknown men isWilliamOphuls. Ophuls was the U S. State Department's political analyst for Afghanistan for two years. From 1961 to 1963, he served as vice consul and political officer at the U.S. Embassy in the Ivory Coast and, later, he was an assistant to United States ambassadors in Japan. Ophuls left the Foreign Service in 1967 and began work on a Ph.D. at Yale. He received that degree in June of 1973. 

Ophuls' Ph.D. dissertation was on the management of political, social and economic problems arising from the environmental crisis, and it was good enough to win the John Addison Porter Prize. It was also good enough to lure Ophuls into expanding the paper into a somewhat more speculative book — still being written — on the same subject. 

What will be the consequences if we adopt this approach over that one in our efforts to solve the environmental problems which mankind daily creates? William Ophuls is now living in California and devoting all his time to answering these thorniest of all questions. And he is coming up with (sometimes unpleasant) answers . . . as Stephen McNamara, editor and publisher of the Pacific Sun, found out last fall when he visited Ophuls at his home. 


PLOWBOY: When shortages of things such as gasoline first cropped up months ago, some people said that in truth there was no real problem . . . that the shortages had been caused by suppliers as excuses to raise prices. Is the problem a real one?

OPHULS: There's a certain amount of truth in the allegations that some part of the gasoline shortage is manufactured. And it is definitely true that we haven't yet encountered physical limits in petroleum production. There's still oil coming out of the ground. The gasoline shortage is largely due to mismanagement on the part of both companies and the federal government. But this kind of mismanagement is an integral part of the entire environmental crisis. Growth now moves very fast. When you start from a very high absolute base, you are hard pressed to keep up with it. It's not so easy to manage growth when it involves very large numbers . . . when you have to consider bringing 10 supertankers a day into a port. And, of course, these management problems are compounded by political difficulties like the Arab oil boycott.

PLOWBOY: Then you say the problem is one of management, as well as running out of oil reserves in the ground?

OPHULS: Yes, at some point we run out of the reserves in the ground. That's the ultimate limit. But there are all kinds of little limits that you encounter on the way.

It would probably cost three billion dollars to get that last drop of oil out of the ground. At some point you reach diminishing returns in terms of extraction . . . in terms of shipping the oil around the world, for example. All these supertankers steaming around . . . it takes them five miles to stop. They're very unmaneuverable and the more there are of them, the more chances you have of a serious accident taking place. The bigger and more complex the enterprise, the more chance there is for something to go wrong.

PLOWBOY: So then, on a purely statistical basis, the chances of things going wrong are increasing all the time?

OPHULS: Yes. The higher the volume and the greater the complexity, the more chance for a foul-up to occur. The mechanic doesn't tighten one screw enough and the machinery blows up. Or the president of the company doesn't think about how much fuel oil he's going to need five years from now. The dimensions of our social machinery are such that with exponential growth we are obliged to plan ahead a minimum of five years — but more likely 10, 15 or 20 — and the penalties for being wrong are serious.

PLOWBOY: Lots of people seem to feel that while the world may be going to hell in a hand basket, the whole unpleasant situation is something that their children and grandchildren will have to face. You seem to say that the crunch is coming sooner than that.

OPHULS: Yes. There are all kinds of difficult political and social decisions that we're going to have to make — not 50 years from now — in the next 10 years. It has to do with the fact that we're nearing the top of the exponential growth curve.

PLOWBOY: Exponential growth seems very important to this situation. Maybe you'd better explain it.

OPHULS: It's terribly difficult to explain, but I'll try.

Exponential growth is basically compound interest. At first the rate of increase is very slow. You put $10.00 in the bank at a compounded five percent and it takes forever to grow to $20.00. But eventually you begin working on larger and larger amounts and the quantity of increase gets bigger and bigger every time around. Finally, even though you're still multiplying your principal by that same five percent, its rate of increase eventually approaches an absolute limit at an astronomical speed.

So. If you're at Point A on the exponential growth curve, there isn't much change from one generation to another. Not that many more houses have to be built. Knowledge doesn't change so rapidly that fathers and sons hardly know each other. But when you get to Point B — the regime which has dominated the world since the Industrial Revolution — you begin to have change in very large increments. The same percentage of growth leads to enormous changes in quantity in small periods of time.

PLOWBOY: I liked the analogy they used in the book, The Limits to Growth . . . the one about the lilies and the pond. The idea was that every day the lilies doubled in number until they covered the pond and choked it off. But the intriguing thing was that the pond was only half covered just one day before this happened.

OPHULS: That analogy gives you a very good idea of how easy it is to become complacent about a problem where exponential growth is concerned. And it also gets to the core of the debate. The critics of Limits to Growth say, "It's true that if the pond remains the same size the lilies will eventually cover the entire body of water and kill the fish. But in fact, thanks to science and technology, we have been continuously expanding the pond for the last 300 years." The essence of the argument is whether we can continue to expand the pond.

PLOWBOY: Most ecologists say we can't. Why not?

OPHULS: OK, here are some figures on what happens when you get into exponential or "compound interest" growth: At an annual five-percent rate of increase, the quantity of whatever we're considering doubles in about 15 years. So in approximately 30 years — say by the year 2000 — something growing five percent annually will have quadrupled in size. Now the demands made on materials — on the ecosystem — are in fact growing at an annual rate of about five percent. So we are thinking in terms of quadrupling demands on our air and water resources by the year 2000 . . . if the current rates of growth continue.

PLOWBOY: That doesn't sound easy to manage.

OPHULS: No, it doesn't. You can also think in terms of what ecologists call "carrying capacity". Basically what this means is the ability of a given habitat or ecosystem to support the beings that inhabit it. Studies show that animals don't live at 100 percent of a region's carrying capacity.

PLOWBOY: Why not?

OPHULS: Because there are always fluctuations, and over the years evolution has taught organisms to use population control to keep themselves down around the 60 percent level. Well, let's be generous and assume that human beings now use only 10 percent of the earth's carrying capacity. If we keep growing at a compounded five percent, in 30 years we will be using 40 percent of our carrying capacity. In 45 years, or by the year 2018, we would be using 80 percent . . . way over the level which would be prudent. And in 2020 or thereabouts we would have reached the theoretical maximum of 100 percent.

PLOWBOY: Let's take something specific like the automobile and what happens with exponential growth. The car is a trademark of American technology. Since Henry Ford, "everybody" has had one. Can it continue that way?

OPHULS: I don't see how it can. If the population of cars doubles and then doubles and then doubles again, there simply won't be enough land area to build the freeways or parking lots to put them on. And you can see all sorts of problems with smog and supplies of gasoline. So we're really pretty close to the ceiling of the automobile population. In fact, we're probably well over the level that's tolerable in terms of public health and the gasoline supply. There is bound to be a leveling off.

PLOWBOY: How will that happen?

OPHULS: That's the big question. Does it occur when all the freeways in the state knot up and the smog gets so bad that kids start to die? Does it occur as a result of bidding up the price of cars to where only the rich can drive? Do you do it by decree, as in the Soviet Union, where only certain categories of people — senators and congressmen and other political types, plus the people in the economic sector closely linked with them, plus a few top ballet or opera stars and an occasional writer — can have cars . . . with all the rest of us pounding the pavement?

PLOWBOY: Let's go back to the problem of managing growth in large numbers. Are there particular problems?

OPHULS: There's something called Murphy's Law. Anybody whose life depends on technology, such as a pilot, has heard of it. It goes something like this: "If anything can possibly go wrong, it will."

No matter how perfect your procedures are, if you have 100 carrier planes, five of them are going to have some kind of failure. If it's a 747 you're talking about, then it's goodbye to 250 passengers. If you're talking about a breeder reactor, then the consequences can be much more serious than 250 dead passengers.

PLOWBOY: How much more serious?

OPHULS: Well, start with the fact that we will probably have a thousand breeder reactors strung up and down the two coasts by 1999. Then say that only one out of a thousand goes wrong every year. You spread plutonium around. If you inhale only a few particles you have a strong chance of getting lung cancer or leukemia. Plutonium has a half-life of 25,000 years, which means that it takes about 250,000 years for it to become harmless. So if you spread just a pound of plutonium around the Bay Area it would be one hell of a long time before it cools off again. That's the kind of technology we're thinking about having. And the regular nuclear plants we have now are already plenty dangerous.

PLOWBOY: If they're so dangerous even now, why do we have them?

OPHULS: There would be no nuclear generation of electricity these days if it were not for the Price-Anderson Act. It did two things: First, it limited the liability of companies from nuclear accidents. So suppose a plant blows up and does a billion dollars' worth of damage. The company that operates the installation is not liable for a billion dollars because there's a ceiling set. A ceiling of only $560 million. Second, commercial firms that provide insurance to the power generating companies are all reinsured by the government. They wouldn't touch it otherwise without the ceiling on liabilities and without the government reinsurance.

So, in effect, the nuclear industry has been turned down for Insurance as a bad risk. And if that happened to you, you'd say, "What's wrong with me that I can't get insurance?"

PLOWBOY: And despite all this scary stuff there are going to be more nuclear plants and breeder reactors?

OPHULS: Oh sure. That's the only way we're going to get around the fossil fuel crisis . . . around the pollution and exhaustion of supplies. Actually, we do have a lot of coal and oil shale. The problem is that to get at it economically we have to strip mine. Furthermore, if we really went seriously after all this coal, the places to strip would be the Iowa cornfields and the national forests. There's a lot of coal under all that corn and timber . . . but once we get the coal, no more corn and timber. So we're sort of pushed into nuclear power despite all the dangers.

PLOWBOY: Why not stick with the reactors we have today?

OPHULS: The kinds of reactors in use today will run through our available uranium very quickly. We have to go to the breeder reactors, which in a complicated technical way actually make a little bit more fuel than they use. But it's a very untried technology and, as one of its boosters has been honest enough to say, with this technological fix there's also a social fix . . . a Faustian bargain as he calls it.

PLOWBOY: Sounds ominous.

OPHULS: It is. We will have to have a cadre or priesthood of nuclear engineers who will plan and control this source of energy over generations, over far longer periods of time than anyone has been used to. With the breeder reactor you have the problem of waste which will have to be watched for a quarter of a million years. Recorded history is only six or seven thousand years old and think of how many dynasties and revolutions and upheavals there have been in that short period of time. To believe that somehow we are going to have stability that will give us perpetual care of these devices for many thousands of years seems to be utopian to say the least.

PLOWBOY: The technical problems are staggering enough. Are there other problems, too?

OPHULS: There are indeed. The political consequence of all this is: No More Muddling Through. That's basically the system we have now, you know. We don't plan, we don't think over the long term. We get together and palaver and hassle and we reach a compromise and every dog winds up with a bone. But with this new kind of extremely dangerous technology, the situation is just too precarious to handle that way. It tends to lead us along to a kind of Brave New World type of highly controlled, complex, conditioned society.

PLOWBOY: Well, what's the answer?

OPHULS: That's the problem. The answer, unfortunately, is politically unpalatable. Stop growth. Make a transition to what people call the equilibrium society, or the steady or stationary state society. None of these means rigor mortis, but they do mean moving into some kind of reasonable balance with our environment. We can't have a society in which people are demanding ever more and more . . . but the problem is, "more and more" has been the basis of our society since the Industrial Revolution. The idea was that once you abolished scarcity, then poverty and crime and all the other things that are alleged to be a consequence of scarcity would be abolished, too. So scarcity vs. non-scarcity is crucial to every political and economic doctrine we have had in the last couple of hundred years. The Enlightenment, Marx . . . everybody started from that point.

PLOWBOY: And now we're going to have to come up with a whole new set of assumptions . . .

OPHULS: The environmental crisis, if you want to sum it up in a few words, is the rediscovery of scarcity. But it is a different kind of scarcity than classical scarcity. That kind of scarcity was not enough land to go around, too many peasants and not enough stock. This new scarcity, on the other hand, is more the scarcity of a spaceship . . . where there are no mines and no sewers and you have to keep reusing, recycling. Along with that kind of economy may also come spaceship politics.

If you've ever read Plato's Republic, you'll realize that this is essentially his political philosophy. He likens political life to being embarked on a ship on a dangerous voyage. The rationale for leadership by the greatest man or the finest pilot or the bravest navigator is therefore inescapable.

Well, if that's the situation we're going to be in, then only those who are the most competent are going to get to run the ship. That's the Faustian bargain. This priesthood of nuclear engineers and other people like them are going to have the deciding word.

PLOWBOY: Do we have to accept these assumptions?

OPHULS: Aristotle didn't. Aristotle said no, society is not like a ship on a dangerous voyage. It's more like a group of people sitting down to dinner and deciding on the quality of the chef's cooking. The diners have the final say; it's not the chef telling the diners what they have to eat.

So that's what the argument is really about: it's the starting assumptions that are really critical. Is society now like a spaceship or a banquet hall? That's the question.

PLOWBOY: Well, let's assume that it is like a spaceship or a lifeboat. How is the captain going to be selected?

OPHULS: Here I run out of words except to say that this very question has been the subject of the great works in political and social philosophy since time immemorial. It's what Confucius was concerned about as well as Plato. And many of the sages of India. All of them, even Aristotle, stressed the need for a kind of excellence in political life that would certainly go against the grain in our current political culture.

In Aristotle's society you get an acceptance, for example, of slavery as being an institution that was necessary to make sure there was this cream of people at the top capable of directing affairs. And when he said that the diners should judge the quality of the chef's cooking, he wasn't talking about everybody. He was talking about those diners who were qualified to be judges by virtue of their education, etc.

So it does seem to me that whatever answer you come up with, in political terms, will mean more authoritarian and less libertarian, more communalistic and less individualistic societies. It doesn't mean that we're going to have an absolute monarch. But it does mean that the pendulum is going to swing back toward that pole.

PLOWBOY: There are a lot of dangers implied in all this.

OPHULS: The dangers are of course enormous. The evils of classical politics are very well known: that once having put power in the hands of a few — the oligarchy or the monarchy — there is serious danger that power that is not by the people and of the people will not be for them, either.

PLOWBOY: I gather that in some ways we are sort of going backward.

OPHULS: In a way, yes. If you look at the political philosophy of John Locke or the economic philosophy of Adam Smith you find them based on essentially cornucopian assumptions. Thinkers of previous eras could not use these assumptions because they were not true. But if we are now in a situation where the exponential growth curve has to level off, then we are back to the kind of political, economic and social assumptions that were characteristic of the time before 1650. To be sure, thanks to science and technology, we can't ever go back to a previous age . . . but the world we're entering is going to be much more like the pre-modern world than what we ourselves have known.

PLOWBOY: Give us some of the ways in which we will . . .

OPHULS: I really can't be more specific. Too much depends on the accidents of history. You can't make any predictions about what is going to be, nor can you really prescribe what it ought to be. What I have said is that it will be much more communalistic, much less individualistic, much more authoritarian and much less democratic or — in our sense — libertarian. The kind of democracy that we have — laissez-faire, mass democracy characterized by muddling through — is out. It is not going to work. And this is true, incidentally, whether or not you accept the Limits to Growth argument of running into scarcity or whether you accept its critics' argument that our technology will provide. Because you simply cannot have the man on the street making decisions about nuclear technology.

PLOWBOY: Maybe at one point the person in the street will say, "OK, I'll accept less electricity but I'm not going to let you build all those generators and set up those nuclear priests."

OPHULS: This could be the trade that people will eventually make. It's conceivable that individuals will say, "I'll walk, but I want to maintain the power to make decisions." It is also equally, or more, conceivable that people will prefer to retain affluence and give up a certain amount of political autonomy.

After all, for much of the population, democracy is largely symbolic already. They don't feel like the man at the town meeting, standing up and having his say. You just can't do that as an individual anymore. The best you can do is join forces with other people in a club, in the League to Fight Indecency, or whatever. But it's not the same thing.

PLOWBOY: You once mentioned something that intrigued me, about people having an energy allotment which they might be able to trade or buy or sell.

OPHULS: One possible long-range technical answer would be to have a dual currency system. The price tag on a typewriter or sofa or car would have the price in dollars . . . the wages, the material, the overhead involved in building the item. But it would also have an energy price attached to it . . . the amount of energy it required entirely apart from the cost in dollars. And everybody would have a ration book with erg coupons or Btu coupons or whatever. When you bought something you would have to pay the cash price and you would also have to pay the energy price.

PLOWBOY: Are there other ideas along that line?

OPHULS: Herman Daly, who is perhaps the leading thinker in the field of stationary state economics, proposes that the government appropriate all resources — energy and materials — and set a limit each year on how much it is ecologically advisable to use . . . and then auction this quota off to the highest bidder. He believes that the resulting prices would reflect the true ecological — and not just the financial — costs of production . . . and that energy-conserving, non-polluting technologies would be favored.

PLOWBOY: What do you think some of the more difficult decisions will be?

OPHULS: The really big problem is that these decisions have to be made now, or very soon. If we expect to make this a smooth leveling off, instead of the kind of thing the Limits to Growth study shows, then we have to make decisions very soon.

If we don't, we can get something that can be shown on a graph and which in biology is called an "outbreak and crash". Growth continues on past the level where it can be sustained over the long term, then it runs out of steam and crashes. Maybe it can creep up again. But maybe also that crash destroyed some part of the resources we need and so the equilibrium level is now considerably lower than it used to be. That's really the tragedy of it all. It's hard to believe that in the near future we're going to have a massive awakening to the difficulty of our situation, and to the necessity to start planning and to making painful changes.

PLOWBOY: Most people don't seem to realize that these shattering changes are on the way.

OPHULS: As a nation we have been extraordinarily lucky. We, this cornucopia which allowed us all sorts of liberties and freedoms which we took for granted. Democracy is all very well when things are going well, when there is always more. But when things get tough, politics gets more like a poker game where there is no money added . . . where, if I win, you lose. So if you get richer it comes out of my hide. Things can get p retty nasty then.

The history of democracy where there's no widespread value consensus is not a pretty one. Political theorists have always known that democracy is the hardest of all political systems to operate. It requires the people to determine the nature of the common interest and then to impose on themselves the sometimes onerous laws necessary to achieve that interest. It's much easier if you have somebody who does all this for you. Particularly if you're in violent disagreement about what the common interest is.

PLOWBOY: Are you talking just about the modern era?

OPHULS: Oh no. Take the history of Athens. The poor citizens would manage to outvote the rich citizens and then they would confiscate their wealth, drive them out of the city and all sorts of bad things to them. Then the old guard would come back and establish a regime where only the fat cats benefited, until there was another revolution.

This is the very thing that drove Plato to write The Republic; in one of his letters he said that the perpetual rise and fall of regimes in Athens made him "giddy." And of course he also had a personal motive: in the most recent revolution they had dislocated his family and taken away its wealth. But it was true: Athens in those days was like that. Governments rising and falling. Every time there was a war, if the war went badly they sacked the generals and put in a new pair. And so on. Democracy is an extraordinarily fragile and difficult social system.

PLOWBOY: But can't it continue to work for us?

OPHULS: Now that we're coming up against limits where hard choices have to be made, where sacrifices have to be made, there is some question as to whether we as a people are ready to face up to this kind of self-discipline. It's never happened to us before. We've been able to muddle through, to have a more or less amicable discussion over the spoils in exploiting this virgin territory. We can't do that anymore.

There's a marvelous Will Rogers observation: he said, in effect that we Americans are lucky. Want to grow some corn? Go out and homestead. Want oil in your house? Go drill a hole in your backyard. But one day all of these things are going to run out and then we're going to find out what kind of people we are, I think that's true.

PLOWBOY: How do you think we'll do?

OPHULS: I hate to be pessimistic but I don't really think that Americans as a whole are capable of facing up to these hard choices and making this kind of self-disciplined policies and imposing them on themselves.

I guess I can say this in part because I have experience in Japan where, even in a modern age with a relatively free market economic system, they still remain extraordinarily communalistic. I suspect the Japanese would adapt rather well to a stationary state economy. That's what they lived in for half a millenium. Their country was closed. They had to live in a spaceship.

Maybe this is the answer to people who say, "Don't tell me about Limits to Growth. I don't want to hear about it because the thought of not being able to grow and of having to live in that kind of stable society is so horrible I don't even want to think about it."

On the other hand, the cultural achievements of the Tokugawa Era in Japan are widely admired all over the world. It was the era before the Meiji Restoration, before the opening of the country. Kabuki, Japanese literature, haiku, Zen, brush painting, everything like that. Of course with that also went a political repression of the peasant class which you wouldn't want to endorse. But I'm convinced that such repression is not a necessary feature of such a society.

PLOWBOY: This is all pretty much of a downer. Do you see anything hopeful?

OPHULS: If by "hopeful" you mean do I have any solutions to this, then the obvious answer is no. But I do have my definite preferences.

I would prefer that we make a choice for an ethic that says the important things are not material . . . the things we need more and more of are not that much of an ecological drain. We could discipline ourselves, listen to people such as Thoreau or the Taoist philosophers.

How do we get there from here? It takes a political miracle. As Plato says, there has to be a king who is a sage from birth. Eastern philosophers also tend to have the sage as the model, the man who has achieved through strenuous self-discipline a certain wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.

At any rate, I'm afraid the answer, if there is an answer, is very likely to be one that involves fairly maximum leadership . . . probably religious or quasi-religious in nature. That has been the historical pattern. But basically the answer is inside people themselves. They have to be willing to discipline themselves. If they aren't, the discipline will be placed on them from the outside. There will be some Malthusian catastrophe, or the technocrats will be in charge, or some crazy Messiah will emerge from the backwoods just as Muhammad did.

PLOWBOY: That's pretty heavy stuff when viewed from the present and our immediate past.

OPHULS: True. Americans tend to think that we're on a constantly upward surge. Things are good now, and they're going to get better and better. But, in reality, we're nearing the end of a freak period in world history. It lasted a couple or three hundred years and in it a small number of people have had control over a tremendous amount of resources. These people had a political idea that happened to suit the physical situation and so they were able to spend 300 years muddling through. Rather than things getting freer and freer and us getting richer and richer, however, we'll soon look back on this period as a sort of aberration.

There's a kind of natural law in the way civilizations rise and fall.In one way or another the fetters will be placed on men. It's simply a question of how.

We still have very wide options to decide what form the future will take. We could, if we decided now, preserve almost everything we really cherish and that's really necessary to our style of life. What we would be giving up would be, from my point of view and the point of view of the sages, of trivial importance.


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