Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: Life Rules--Why So Much Is Going Wrong Everywhere at Once and How Life Teaches Us to Fix It

by Ellen LaConte                       
Green Horizon (2011) 

This article also appeared in Energy Bulletin on Friday, July 22, 2011.

Floods, drought, natural fires, hurricanes, violent storms, massive species extinction, infrastructure collapse, terrorist attacks, starvation, economic disaster, climate change, water shortages, food shortages, soil depletion, war, pestilence and a lack of preparedness for geologic events like tsunamis and earthquakes.

What in the world is going on?

"We've lost sight of the fact that the non-living systems we've created and the natural ones we didn't create share the same planet....and on Earth, Life rules, we don't," says Ellen LaConte, author of Life Rules.

What she is describing is Critical Mass, a term borrowed from nuclear physics, which identifies “a point in time when enough of something has been literally amassed that a spontaneous transformation occurs.” 

Already we are seeing five symptoms of Critical Mass occurring in both rich and poor countries, including our own:  hyper-urbanization, joblessness, poverty, dislocation and disease.

As we emerge from Critical Mass, says LaConte, we will either be on the path to our own extinction or we will evolve to a new consciousness where we conceive ourselves as a part of Life rather than as separate beings above it. 

The culprit in this whole process, she says, is the global economy where humans have “seriously compromised Life’s primary safeguard:  the natural communities and ecosystems that comprise Earth's self-protective, self-healing equivalent of an immune system.” 

As a result, we have unwittingly imposed a disease-like syndrome on ourselves that she compares to HIV/AIDS where all life on earth has the potential of being extinguished— including our own. 

This is sobering stuff to read and it may remind some of James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia, one of many authoritative sources LaConte summons in her book. 

So, if you are like me, you might be outdoors on a very lovely day enjoying the beauty and wonder of Nature.  Suddenly, you feel a great sadness that it could all gradually disappear not just in our grandchildren's lifetime but in ours!

Thus arises the question:  why do we continue to act so stupidly in the face of impending doom?  

LaConte’s answer is that “the Powers” (the top one percent of the economic pyramid) who are directing and making money on the global economy, are enticing the rest of us to enter the rat race, indulge in “conspicuous consumption,” and use every last resource on Earth. 

To operate the global economy “the Powers” have devised various “funny-money” tools and schemes that delude us into thinking (through the help of the mass media and advertising) we have a bottomless cornucopia of resources available to us—and no negative consequences.  However, in looking at the past 10 years there is enough evidence for us to suspect that this belief is false and misleading:  the 2008 financial crash, the fall of Enron, the huckstering of Madoff, food riots, famine in Somalia, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and 9/11 and other terrorist activities.
LaConte’s account reminds me of Dr. Seuss' classic, The Lorax where Once-ler’s workers cut down every last tree of the Trufulla Forest and used the foliage to knit Thneeds, a garment that, of course, everyone needed.  Unfortunately, the forest-dwelling Bar-ba-Loots not only lost their food supply but they contracted a disease called “the Crummies because of gas and no food in their tummies.” The Lorax tried in vain to warn the Once-ler of impending disaster to the community.  He showed little remorse and then continued to expand his business until all the trees were gone.

The book, written in 1971—the heyday of the environmental movement—is actually based on the story of the overexploitation of Easter Island where the early Rapanui people cut down all the trees in order to transport 887 moai monuments (roll the monolithic human figures carved from rock on logs), into position.  Their small island of Rapa Nui, the easternmost Polynesian island off the coast of Chile, was considered the “end of the world of the living” by the Europeans who discovered it in 1722. 

These two stories serve as a metaphor for our use of oil, the non-renewable resource that is central to running the global economy and which provides the modern lifestyles and accoutrements we enjoy today.  As the easy-to-get oil depletes, we are faced with exploiting oil that is harder and harder to get and therefore comes out at slower rates.  At some point soon, the overall oil production rate will begin to decline. 

Contemplating this fact, even for a moment, is just too painful for most people and it’s certainly not politically expedient.  Just one lone voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland), speaks about it regularly and only has the luxury of doing so because he is in a safe seat.  As a result, Americans either curtly turn up their noses in the fashion of Scarlett O'Hara’s “I’ll think about that tomorrow” or they go on optimistically believing that technology will save us. 

LaConte points out that neither our economy nor our technology should be the focus of our attention.  Rather, we should concentrate on changing our hearts and minds about the way we live and work on this planet—and more importantly, we must come to a practical understanding about how we are subject to Life's rules such as:
  • Life is not wasteful.  It does not make things it isn't going to use.
  • Resources are finite and if a species lives beyond its means, it eventually dies.
  • Life's economies employ several methods of accessing solar energy.  The food web is one of them.
  • Life treats resources as a common wealth and Earth as a common inheritance.  No one “owns” or “commodifies” them to sell to others.  Instead, every species prospers in a common trust where all their needs are satisfied.
  • Life's basic unit of economic activity is the community and not the individual.
  •  Communities are made up of a diversity of species each with specialized tasks that all work in concert to support and sustain the community in a self-reliant way in a particular place, through partnership and with purpose.
  • Communication goes on throughout the community and every species participates in the decision-making process.  This is not a pyramidal, hierarchical structure where only the leaders are privy to information and make the decisions.  Rather, this community is democratic and collegial with decisions made at the lowest levels. 
Not a bad system for creepy things like bacteria, which LaConte points out have successfully adapted to Life's rules and survived longer than any other species on Earth.  So, our best bet for human survival is to follow the example of bacteria.

Some people may claim that Life’s rules are “socialism,” but LaConte stoically assures readers that Life is not an ideological or a political enterprise.  Life is real and you either live by its rules or you die.  It’s that simple.

Ellen LaConte
This environmentally-oriented book is written by a woman who has been studying, living and writing on the subject for decades.  Life Rules is one more depressing reminder that we are in deep trouble—and LaConte recognizes that.  So, early on in the book as she digs into the immensity and scope of the problem, she beckons readers to jump to Chapter 14 so they don't lose hope.  In fact, the entire third section of the book illustrates what can be done to stop the Earth’s “bleeding” and what various groups are already doing.   

LaConte also emphasizes the point that the key to change is that we humans form more intimate relationships with Nature and learn her ways.  This is not just about conservation, Outward Bound bonding-with-Nature experiences or shopping at farmers markets, although these things are important.  Rather, this is about living a totally, different life on Earth.  She admits this will be difficult for us to fathom because none of us living today has ever been without oil.  So imagining a world not powered by it makes for some scary scenarios.

On the other hand LaConte reassures us that “we can obey Life’s rules, adopt lifeways that mimic Life’s ways and by that means, live within Earth’s means.”   

LaConte's argument is credible but trying to convince people who think oil will never run out as well as those who remain stalwart cornucopians will also be difficult because we all have a stake in continuing the status quo.

This dilemma prompts some distressing but vital questions.  What do we do to start this change?  What must we give up?  Who goes first?  When do we begin? 

I, for one, find these questions overwhelming even though I recognize the urgency to answer them in my own household, neighborhood and community. 

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book for personal reading and reflection as well as for discussion groups and classroom use because its edginess forces readers to confront their habits in the context of Life’s rules.

We’ve got to get the conversation going about what awaits us in the twenty-first century and Life Rules provides a good starting point.  The book is readable, sincere and instructive.  Now, let’s get to work!

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