Blabbings about family, community, sustainability and life from Frederick, MD.

The Book of Our Future April 20, 2007

Deep Economy, Bill McKibben’s new book, does the best job of laying out the social and environmental ills of our day and the path to fixing them. Put another way, it is hard to think of a more important book.

“Social and environmental ills” is a poor phrase. The word “Environment” is often thrown around in the context of political issues, like “Transportation” or “Education.” We’ve become so abstracted from our natural existence that “the Environment” seems to sit appropriately lined up side by side those other “issues.”

However we distance ourselves from it, the reality remains that we are creatures living on a planet, depending upon that planet and one another for our existence. And in that context, the environment and our society is EVERYTHING: it is our lives themselves and the existence of our species and fellow living creatures. And it is at that profound level that McKibben looks at our ills.

McKibben begins by explaining how for all of human existence, MORE has always meant BETTER. More warmth, more shelter, more nourishment, more resources always rightly meant a better life. Humans used their minds to generate MORE, and certain principles of economy, efficiency and capitalism became the best ways to organize and operate to produce MORE.

The invention of the steam engine in 1712, the first industrial use of fossil fuels, marked a profound change in humanity’s ability to produce MORE. The solar energy of eons, stored in fossil fuels, was unlocked for human use.

After three centuries of fossil fuel use, however, things have changed–at least for the industrialized world. For the first time MORE does not necessarily mean BETTER. In fact, no only do we have more than ENOUGH, but MORE is more and more yielding WORSE. Specifically MORE is:

  1. generating more social inequity
  2. destroying our planet and our existence upon it. Global warming is the attention-grabber here, but it goes beyond that. Modernity’s use of fossil fuels and other natural resources is simply unsustainable.
  3. breaking the bonds between one another, hollowing our communities and our humanity. Interdependence is a good thing, and we’ve lost it.

The problem is that the correlation of MORE to BETTER is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is it unfathomable to break the connection. So we go on, building houses that are TOO big and TOO far apart, driving our cars TOO much, working TOO much, eating TOO much food that is TOO processed, living in TOO mobile, TOO global of a economy and society. I’ve read many books on the destruction of the environment or on the dearth of community in our day, but I’ve never before read a book that ties the two together so eloquently, tracing it all to the excesses of fossil fuels and the pursuit of MORE.

McKibben of course recognizes that capitalism and democracy are the best ways to organize society. In fact, many detractors, hoping to see McKibben as some freakish communist, would be surprised to know McKibben to be a Sunday school teacher (liberalism and Christianity can co-exist; they can even thrive–consider the radical Christ was in his day). The solution that he proposes is “localism” — living in smaller communities, within regional economies, in a life that is somehow a little less competitive and a lot less fossil fuel dependent.

While some Vermont antecdotes paint a nice picture of what localism might look like, how this occurs exactly is a question he does not fully answer–he never gets much beyond the construct of a farmer’s market. It makes me think of latter 20th century Latin American economies that tried to become “localized,” to stay capitalist but be entirely self-sufficient with huge tariffs. That was a huge flop. To turn your back to global competition seems like a bad idea.

So figuring out this balancing act–reducing the scope of our economy, the scope of our lives to something more human in scale, while recognizing that competition and openness are the best drivers of beneficial cooperation in our society–is a question left unanswered. It will continue to be pondered here.

An easy answer is peak oil. The global economy can only function because of cheap, abundant energy. If the supply of fossil fuels tightens and the the prices rises dramatically, getting our TV’s from China (that contains parts shipped in from Holland, Brazil and Indonesia; built by workers fed on food from the U.S., Canada and Russia) no longer works that well. Localism would be forced upon us.

But such a calamity is not to be wished upon the world. Instead of a shock, let’s hope such a transition happens gradually over a long period of time. But while the delay would prevent economic disaster, our souls and environment will continue to rot. Somehow we all need to see the benefits of a more localized society and voluntarily move toward it.

Reading Deep Economy would be a good start. I hope you do it.


The Big Picture in Iraq April 16, 2007

Filed under: iraq — tobymurdock @ 1:09 pm

Pictured above is Ret. Marines Gen. John J. Sheehan, who wrote a column in the Post today. He was asked by the White House to become the Middle East war czar, but he declined, and in the column he gave his reasons.

He said that there were three major strategies at play. He describes #1 and #2 and then here describes the third:

The third strategy takes a larger view of the region and the desired end state. Simply put, where does Iraq fit in a larger regional context? The United States has and will continue to have strategic interests in the greater Middle East well after the Iraq crisis is resolved and, as a matter of national interest, will maintain forces in the region in some form. The Iraq invasion has created a real and existential crisis for nearly all Middle Eastern countries and created divisions among our traditional European allies, making cooperation on other issues more difficult. In the case of Iran, we have allowed Tehran to develop more policy options and tools than it had a few years ago. Iran is an ideological and destabilizing threat to its neighbors and, more important, to U.S. interests.

Of the three strategies in play, the third is the most important but, unfortunately, is the least developed and articulated by this administration.

Incredible and tragic that even the guys that the administration is trying to hire so clearly see the folly of our approach in Iraq, but the administration itself does not. Although we never should have invaded in the first place, once we had done so, we should have an idea of what we’re trying to achieve. And that is not simply trying to subdue a country somehow and then naively think that democracy is going to sprout.

Anyhow, this guys is not going to do the job, and nobody intelligent is going to either. Basically we’re screwed.


Things Fall Apart April 11, 2007

Filed under: Economy,globalization — tobymurdock @ 1:00 pm

Harold Meyerson presents an interesting story today in the Washington Post about one of our country’s big box retailers:

On March 28, Circuit City announced that it was laying off 3,400 of its salesclerks. Not because they had poor performance records, mind you: Their performance was utterly beside the point. They were shown the door, said the chain, simply because they were the highest-salaried salesclerks that Circuit City employed.

Their positions were not eliminated. Rather, the store announced that it would hire their replacements at the normal starting salary.

One can only imagine the effect of Circuit City’s announcement on the morale of the workers who didn’t get fired. The remaining salesclerks can only conclude: Do a good job, get promoted, and you’re outta here.

It was, in short, just a normal day in contemporary American capitalism.

This just is not going to work. It is an unsustainable condition in our society. Economists, business leaders, whomever, have to come down from the theory and view the reality of our humanity.

Capitalism as we know it has served humanity well for centuries. But I think that is has passed some threshold in the U.S. Its efficiency has become excessive. It no longer is serving the interests of society as a whole. And what the upper strata of America does not realize, I think, is that we are a democracy. Our capitalism works well because the consensus of our country allows it to do so. Cultural intertia–a well-bred American devotion to capitalism–is buying time to allow our systems to go on unchecked. But eventually the popular will is going to mandate changes to how things function.

What should that change be? Meyerson goes on to suggest typical liberal tweaks. I don’t know if they are the answer. And of course the inverse of capitalism–socialism–has been proven by the 20th century to be a grand failure.

I think it is yet something different. To me it is also tied to the environment, as fossil fuels behind the scenes have really been what has enabled our social and economic perversion. Maybe Bill McKibben has some thoughts . . .


Poem for Easter April 5, 2007

Filed under: poetry,Religion — tobymurdock @ 3:04 pm

My friend and biz partner Mike turned me on to Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” I’ve put some excerpts pasted it below. Go here to see the full version.

Whitman’s voice seems to me to be constantly that of someone who just finished a 50 mile bike ride on a beautiful spring day after a great sleep, drinks up from a delicious mountain stream, takes a deep breath of clear mountain air, and then sings out his exultation of the universe. In other words, our best selves. Who we should strive to be regularly.

I like this poem particularly for Easter. Walt here is seeing the God in all things, how all things are connected together, and the beauty of that connection. Inhaling that connection, loving all of it, he urges us to boldly head out to be our best selves, to be the Christ within each of us, and live our lives to the fullest.

A great message as we celebrate the Spring, Christ, and re-birth. Enjoy.

Or as Whitman would say, “ENJOY! ENJOY! ENJOY!

Song of the Open Road

AFOOT and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.



Obama The Inevitable April 4, 2007

Filed under: obama,politics — tobymurdock @ 6:52 pm

I’m trying to figure out which one of these images best captures Hillary’s expression when she learned the news today that Barack has raised $25M in Q107, almost equal to her record-setting $26M. Why would she be so shocked? The Fix on explains:

One of Clinton’s keys to the nomination all along has been the idea that no candidate will be able to compete with her financially. That perception is now debunked . . .  the reality is that Obama’s number has knocked out one of the main pillars of the Clinton “inevitability” argument.

Another great step forward for the Obama campaign. Hillary should give up. Here we go!


Annie in Baltimore March 29, 2007

Filed under: Children,family — tobymurdock @ 2:04 am

Our family and a bunch of Frederick other families went to the “big city” of Baltimore on Sunday night to see Annie.

It was awesome. Great musicals are magical experiences. And Evie and Lucie had memorized the soundtrack through the DVD and CD. And there eyes were huge throughout.

An experience like that at their age leaves a mark.


Gig at Church March 20, 2007

Filed under: music,Religion — tobymurdock @ 1:38 am

I sang and played “Shine a Light” by the Rolling Stones at church this weekend. I was on the guitar and Dave, who is our fantastic church pianst, was on the keyboard. It went very well and everyone was kindly very enthusiastic.

Though I of course didn’t do it as well as Mick, here he is doing the song: