Lemmings and Pioneers: Our Toxic Foundational Myth

Individualism is killing us. Our shared faith in an idol – the rugged individualist – is leading us off a cliff. We must rediscover a suppressed feature of our origins and history. We succeed when we work together, but we also face the threat of shared failure in the form of economic and ecological collapse.

Perhaps campaign finance reform can still save us from the worst of these problems, but we must keep in mind that economic and government dysfunction are symptoms of a problem that resides in the stories we tell ourselves, at the level of mythology.

The individualist myth is embedded deeply in our collective psyche.

Ultimately, it is the root of our identity as “Americans” as well as the root of our troubles. However bad our shared troubles get – economic malaise and wealth concentration, climate change and ecological devastation – we are captive to the notion that if we just work hard enough, we’ll (individually) be exempt from the (collective) consequences of our actions.

Individualism is ultimately infantile nonsense based on a selective misreading of history.

Although it may perhaps be traced back further, American Individualism is rooted in the notion that Pa Pilgrim somehow bought a ticket to the New World, buying one-way tickets for Ma, Junior and Sis Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, and later that rugged pioneers loaded their nuclear families into a wagon and headed west, perhaps with a wagon train – a democratic small town (of separate households!) on wheels.

Perhaps the American experiment was not quite what it cracked up to be. Consider all the burdensome collective emphasis in the nation’s founding documents about how “We the people” found it “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.” These are the opening words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, respectively.

But just as most Americans of European origin left their homelands individually there was always the option of escape from what they found on this side of the ocean, via the mythical Frontier. We are ultimately a society of quitters: people who looked around them, sized up the situation and said, “Screw these losers, I’m heading west!”

Sure, they traveled in groups. But upon arrival they supposedly found the best piece of land upon which to build a homestead (idyllic and isolated, in our mind’s eye). There is truth in this; a great many people got 160 acres for themselves through formal homesteading programs that supported isolation by reducing the land to a grid of acreage (which continued until 1976 – and for another decade in Alaska).

The stereotypical rugged individualist actually stood little chance against the stereotypical bands of Indians. On the other hand, the communalist Mormons built a flourishing new civilization in a rather difficult region of the west. Although The Book of Mormon included next to nothing that explains their propensity to develop elaborate socialist economics, the Saints used commonwealth approaches to counter the hostile settlers who passed through on their way to the gold fields. More on this here and much more in Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

We should wonder whether many pioneers would have made it to California if their path hadn’t conveniently included a stop to rest and resupply in Salt Lake City. And of course that great Mormon commonwealth (for all its flaws) was built by means of intensely collective travel: At first the community sent advance teams to build a string of camps from Missouri to Utah, and to build up the roads that would carry the wagons. The advance team also planted crops that would be ready for the main body of settlers.

For the second half of the 19th centurey the Latter Day Saints were gathered by means of the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which helped finance the hiring of ships from Europe as well as overland travel. The iconic image of Mormon migration is the handcart, which carried the goods of six people as part of a large company. When one handcart company ran into trouble, supplies were sent east to help them continue as winter approached. The Saints also built large stretches of railroad and telegraph line, creating a large and prosperous infrastructure that drew resources from Montana to Arizona into a thriving metropolis that was an essential stop for all who passed through on their way to the gold fields.

Once in the Gold Country (perhaps influenced by what they witnessed during their passage through Zion), these supposedly rugged individualists would often form collectives in which a half-dozen or so miners would band together: One would find paid work to raise cash for tools and equipment while the rest would set to work building common sluices and other infrastructure to work their nearby claims. Once development of their claims was complete, all would set to work. Leland Stanford, who made his fortune selling to miners, was so inspired by this model that he pushed co-op legislation while in the U.S. Senate and founded a university as a utopian experiment to build a cooperative world. Yes, that university.

I happen to believe that there would not have been a critical mass of emigrants to allow the United States to wrest the southwest from Mexico had it not been for the Latter Day Saints. The Great Basin would have remained a land of sparse outposts along a poorly defined border, perhaps along the lines of southern Algeria and northern Mali. We certainly wouldn’t have any Olympic host cities among the arid plains and forbidding mountains in which Brigham Young’s followers attempted to build the Kingdom of God.

The Mormons were not alone in this endeavor. And all homesteaders also built systems of mutual aid, and somewhat obviously they worked together to build new economies and systems of defense against the land’s previous residents (for better or worse). And there were many dozens of communes constantly springing up as the United States’ spread westward. This was a dominant model, as surely all but the dimmest erstwhile settler knew that simply heading off into start farming in “Indian Country” would not end well.

Although the American mythology is usually identified as “Judeo-Christian” this term is reduced to meaninglessness. If we are to make any progress against the entrenched imperial bastardization of these great traditions, we must confront what is really meant by Judeo-Christian. To wit: Christianity was an attempt to restore the deeply collectivist and anti-authoritarian nature of the ongoing Israelite resistance against Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Rome.

Whatever Judaism and its revivalist offshoot might offer in our context of collapsing empire, most American Christians studiously miss the point. We make noises about following Jesus while missing his core message: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

The expanding frontier of the United States has always been dotted with collectivists of all stripes, developing communities with loaded names like New Jerusalem or Zion. Even now the Hutterites and Amish show us that something else is possible on the outskirts, while Christian communards carry on in Chicago – including both the hippy-era Jesus People USA as well as 1950s-vintage Reba Place Fellowship.

Collective organizing did not stop with the closure of the frontier. Even in the 1950s, an era marked by paranoia against anything with a whiff of communism, huge cooperative enterprises were flourishing nationwide. As Jerry Voorhis described in American Cooperatives, a startling snapshot from 1961, well before the hippies supposedly invented co-ops as part of their counterculture, the nation was experiencing a golden age of cooperation, including major supermarket chains in numerous cities, as well as refineries to help farmers tap into the petroleum wealth under their land.

There is no Frontier anymore. We’ve got nowhere to which we might escape, so we have to stick around. We must pull out of the economy but remain facing it, ready to receive those who follow us. In the same way that the Mormons developed systems of emigration stretching all the way back to Europe, we need to find ways to draw people out from however deeply they are ensnared.

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Co-ops vs ISIS

The speed with which the supposedly pluralist Iraqi state has given way to sectarian extremism is breathtaking and heartbreaking. After nearly a century of contrived interethnic states carved out of the old Ottoman Empire, a period of score-settling seems inevitable as part of the movement toward a new equilibrium. This process has gone relatively smoothly in the mostly-Sunni (and sparsely populated) lands seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (Syria), but a much bloodier battle looms in Baghdad and the mixed communities that surround it.

ISIS now exists as a nascent state, like it or not, and the main question is about its boundaries. The speed with which ISIS has expanded using military forces generally estimated to be less than 10,000 fighters means that it will need to work with the locals to establish effective ongoing control. So governance in the areas relieved of the oppressive control of the Shi’ite-dominated Maliki government is likely to exhibit great diversity depending on the cultural conservatism, tribal influence and strength of civil society in a given community.

There is another way, and it ironically involves following the teachings contained in the Qur’an, which is the holy book of the main belligerents in this exploding crisis.

Although this conflict is much broader and more complex than a simple squabble between the two major sects of Islam, there is nonetheless a religious element involved, particularly in regards to the efforts by ISIS militants (and religious authorities) to establish Shariah law in their new caliphate.

“Shariah” is a very loaded term, so we must unpack the text on which it is based. While there are no doubt atrocities being committed in the name of Islam, it’s important not to assume these reports are true, and essential not to generalize them. I suspect that there are also a great many people already involved in more decentralist and less authoritarian structures, looking for opportunities to maintain or expand their work. We should be looking for such groups and seeking to make contact to support their work.

The cooperative model, by relieving pressure on geographically defined political structures through emphasis of voluntary mutual systems, provides our last chance to avert a future of ongoing ethnic and religious division. There are certainly cooperative financial and insurance organizations in the conflict zone, and these must be supported in some way as they join the struggle to address a massive financial disruption and humanitarian catastrophe. I don’t pretend to know the specifics of how such support should unfold, but I hope that this writing calls attention to some ideas that may help guide discussions among those in a better position to help.

Cooperators would benefit from a cursory survey of what the Qur’an actually teaches about rules and power. To that end, I’d like to revisit a section of a paper that I presented at the 2008 International Co-operative Alliance Research Conference, held in Italy. “Holy Cooperation: The Economy of Reconciliation” looked at how all three Abrahamic faiths taught something like cooperative organizing, and observed ways in which that has manifested among followers of each religion.


Because of the serious misconceptions shared by many (including myself before undertaking this research), it seems helpful to spend some time establishing what the Qur’an actually teaches in regards to belief and disbelief.

The actions of a militant fringe have led to widespread perception that Islam is an inherently rigid faith that seeks to bring the entire world under theocratic control. While it is true that this goal is shared – to varying degrees – by some Muslims, the same can be said of Christianity with its vigorous missionary tendencies and its past penchant for theocracy and crusades.

Three points must be considered when considering a Qur’anic perspective on social organization with regards to the subject at hand. First, the Qur’an clearly identifies the Jewish and Christian scriptures as being from God and teaches respect for those who follow such scriptures. Second, any calls to fight against the enemies of Islam are clearly qualified as defensive in nature. Finally, it is important to spread the word and seek converts, but that does not mean that any sort of coercion is appropriate.

Islam has a complex relationship with Judaism and Christianity, whose followers are known by Muslims as “People of the Book” (or Scripture) and distinguished from other nonbelievers. The Qur’an contains dozens of references to the stories of its older siblings. Jesus himself is mentioned more than 50 times throughout the Qur’an. His mother Mary is mentioned nearly 20 times, many of which are in the surah (chapter) that bears her name and describes her conceiving despite never being touched by a man. (19:20-21)Another passage confirms the importance of many Hebrew prophets, including Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, John the Baptist, Jesus, Elias, Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah and Lot. (6:83-6)

This topical overlap is complicated by a number of contradictions, and these should not be minimized since they are the essence of why we have three religions and not one. We cannot ignore these real disagreements if we are to seek a meaningful reconciliation.

In any case, the Qur’an provides a generally favorable view of the other two religions, their teachings, and their followers (misguided as they may be). In the Qur’an, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet sent to once again straighten out God’s chosen people, the Jews.

Jesus’ Gospel was a revelation from God, and his disciples submitted to God. “But when Jesus became conscious of their disbelief, he cried: Who will be my helpers in the cause of Allah? The disciples said: We will be Allah’s helpers. We believe in Allah, and bear thou witness that we have surrendered (unto Him).” (3:52)

Christians and Jews may be viewed as stray Muslims, but the Qur’an teaches that their paths can still lead them closer to God. The Qur’an explicitly calls for Jewish people to be good followers of their Law, and Christians to be good followers of Christ.

For example, those who believe in what the Torah revealed may be redeemed through good works, “especially the diligent in prayer and those who pay the poor-due, the believers in Allah and the Last Day. Upon these Weshall bestow immense reward.” (4:162)

Christians, meanwhile, should be held to their own standard: “Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers.” (5:47)

What’s more, Muslims are encouraged to study Jewish and Christian scripture and teachings in order to better understand God’s wisdom: “And this is a blessed Scripture which We have revealed. So follow it and ward off (evil), that ye may find mercy. Lest ye should say: The Scripture was revealed only to two sects before us, and we in sooth were unaware of what they read” (6:155-6)

Ultimately, the Qur’an teaches respect for those of other religions as long as they live good lives. “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender.” (29:46)

Having established Muslim scripture teaches a generally tolerant and respectful view towards Jewish and Christian scriptures, which are revelations from the same God, we now turn towards the Qur’an’s teachings on how to handle discipline.

There are indeed specific rules about what is right or wrong, sometimes with prescribed punishments that strike the modern secular westerner as overly harsh. To cite a notorious example, “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands.” (5:38)

These strict teachings have been reinforced by later writings. However, these sort of passages are difficult to square with others. When the Qur’an is examined by itself, as the religion’s central text and the final word of God, a picture emerges which demands serious consideration of how to live together in a pluralist society. It may well be best to live by a strict moral standard, but the Qur’an warns against the imposition of such a standard.

Today’s news from the so-called “War on Terror” is filled with fearsome news articles referring to a violent and apparently insatiable jihad (which literally means merely “struggle”) with a goal of establishing a strict theocracy based on shariah (Islamic jurisprudence), and it does seem that there are some militants who will not rest until all the infidels are vanquished.

However, this sort of aggressive stance is contrary to several passages in the Qur’an, which consistently call for any such struggle to cease when the opponent is no longer actively attacking.

For example: “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.” (2:193)

Furthermore, another passage cautions against acting in ways that might intimidate people into right behavior: “We are best aware of what they say, and thou (O Muhammad) art in no wise a compeller over them. But warn by the Qur’an him who feareth My threat.” (50:45)

There are numerous passages that emphasize this theme that moral decisions are between the individual and God. The most striking of these is a short surah near the end of the Qur’an. This passage may be understood as a warning against religious compromise, but it is incompatible with religious coercion.

“Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”(109:1-6)

This passage is not an exception to some rule. The Qur’an acknowledges elsewhere that one’s belief or lack thereof is under God’s control alone, and the plurality of faiths is part of the divine will. “If We will, We can send down on them from the sky a portent so that their necks would remain bowed before it.” (26:4)

Not only that, but it is not the believer’s concern to worry about others’ faith: “Had Allah willed, they had not been idolatrous. We have not set thee as a keeper over them, nor art thou responsible for them.” (6:107)

Muslims are taught to trust that God will reveal God’s will to people: “There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break.” (2:256)

The Qur’an also teaches that God speaks through people from outside the worldly power structures, and Muhammad himself was from an unremarkable background. These messengers sometimes worked in groups to support each other. For example, this passage describes what happens when two previous messengers were not heeded.

“And there came from the uttermost part of the city a man running. He cried: O my people! Follow those who have been sent!” (36:20)

Clearly, the encouragement did not come from within the halls of power.

Indeed, these messengers, much like the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, offered a message that was based in justice and mutual aid, and this was apparently not well received by those with something to lose from a more just distribution of wealth.

“And We sent not unto any township a warner, but its pampered ones declared: Lo! we are disbelievers in that which ye bring unto.” (34:34)

Ultimately, the Muslim is called to spread the word of God without attachment to its acceptance. “But if ye deny, then nations have denied before you. The messenger is only to convey (the message) plainly.” (29:18)

Not only this, the Qur’an also teaches that Muslim leaders are not to coerce others: “And lower thy wing (in kindness) unto those believers who follow thee. And if they (thy kinsfolk) disobey thee, say: Lo! I am innocent of what they do.” (26:215-6)

How does all this square with specific punishments dictated elsewhere in the Qur’an? Ultimately, this will be a decision for Muslim communities, themselves. However, it is worth noting that specific rules can be interpreted as secondary to general principles about how rules are to be applied. That is, Muslims are encouraged to make agreements that are in accordance with the Qur’an, to whatever degree of strictness they feel is appropriate. Once someone has made that commitment by joining a given community, they will be held to the more specific standards.

Ultimately, this is the same principle by which members of certain cooperatives pledge to do business through the cooperative. For example, in order for a dairy co-op to function well, it needs to know that its members are committed and will be bringing their milk to be processed. The benefit of joining the society is tied to certain expectations, which vary widely from one society to another.

This may resemble a relativism that would be promptly rejected by most Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. However, the passage is not about whether it is right or wrong to follow a specific rule. It does not say “if they disobey you, that’s no problem and Allah doesn’t mind.”

Instead, it focuses on the leader’s role of stepping back from a perceived wrong, and letting God handle any disciplinary actions through the natural consequences of the act. This is not much different than the model shown by Israel’s Judges who gave room for people to act according to their own conscience, or the conflict resolution process prescribed for Christians in the book of Matthew, chapter 18.


I encourage readers to view my whole paper, which looks at the broader religious context of the “children of Abraham” and also shows how each of the three great faiths have applied their cooperative teachings. Although the Syrian/ISIS/Iraqi conflict is currently playing out mainly among Muslims, there are communities of Jews and Christians caught in the struggle already. And while established nation-states seem to be setting aside their rivalries to thwart this new arrival, it is not hard to see how Israel may be drawn in to the conflict, or the United States might revisit its unhelpful crusader role, further inflaming the situation. Futhermore, it’s quite possible that this conflict may spread and metastasize (along with those in Ukraine, Libya and other places where centralized national power is collapsing).

This situation is dire and urgent, and I pray that my humble offering may provide some help in thinking through ways that cooperatives and civil society outside the immediate conflict zone can play a productive role.


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Everyday Collapse

My last post was a bit heavy, I’ll admit. Pondering statewide catastrophes that lead to permanent regional change is not easy reading, and probably most people would rather not think about it too much.  If I lost anyone, I regret it.

So today I’ll get back to my old modus operandi of focusing on positive solutions! In this case I want to share a way to address a much more modest sort of deterioration, which if left unaddressed would eventually lead to a collapse of habitability for 850 households in Tennessee.

The Harpeth Wastewater Cooperative was formed to address an apparently common problem of which I was previously oblivious (having lived with well-organized public sewage systems except for a couple of years of outhouses during my Alaska phase). I discovered this story through the excellent electric co-op news site, ECT.coop. I love that one “utility” co-op form is providing expertise to another field that is less-developed – this is what cooperation among co-ops is about.

A electric co-op state association staffer, Mike Knotts, is leading the effort to bring a badly-neglected sewer system near Nashville, Tenn. under community control. They created a (de facto) co-op following a “bloodless coup” to wrest control from the last in a long series of owners, who (foolishly) changed their unprofitable business into a nonprofit in an attempt to skirt regulation.

This passage in the article really shows the nature of the beast.

The story really begins some 40 years ago, when a developer wanted to build homes in a vacant part of Williamson County, Tenn., outside Nashville. “He built his own sewer system to serve that neighborhood,” said Knotts, noting that it’s a somewhat common business model.

Over the decades, the sewer utility was sold to one private owner after another. “All of those owners have been property developers. Everyone who has purchased that utility has purchased it for the purpose of developing a new neighborhood,” said Knotts.

Many of those prospects failed, Knotts said, with the result that “every owner has been sitting on an asset that they don’t know how to run, and that they no longer have any profit motive to own.”


Harpeth apparently faces colossal problems related to four decades of patchwork construction to serve the real-estate development needs of its various profiteers, combined with their structural lack of interest in maintenance. So the members probably have a hard struggle ahead, as they try to balance growing needs for major work against increased costs to members.

Will they be able to meet the challenge? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: They are more likely to succeed in restoring this decrepit sewer than would an absentee owner whose success depends on minimizing expense on the existing system in order to expand its periphery. Such parasitic ownership has a definition of success that is in obvious opposition to the success of the community.

Harpeth’s co-op probably has a good struggle ahead, but at least they’re moving in the right direction, with support from a much-better-developed co-op sector in a related field of operation.


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Introducing “The Coastlands” – a work of exploratory fiction

Last week was full of disastrous anniversaries: Most notably, 108 years ago the United States was struck by its last truly catastrophic earthquake.

Meanwhile, an unsettling series of earthquakes seems to be working its way up from South America: Chile had an 8.2 April Fools Day. Nicaragua had a pair of magnitude-six shakers last week. And of course Mexico woke up Friday to a 7.2 that did surprisingly little damage

And it’s not just that. Last month California’s North Coast got off easy from a 6.9, and a smaller but substantial 5.1 rattled Los Angeles more recently. A trio of tremblors struck off the coast of British Columbia in recent weeks.

Of course there is no clear link between all these events. But at the same time, when a fault gives way at one point, the stress moves along the fault to places that haven’t had a release lately. In any case, California is probably about due for a catastrophic quake.

But the Oregon coast is overdue for something much worse, the stuff of fiction. And so I’m going to write some fiction about it, or something like it. But while it will be exploratory fiction, I also want it to have an element of fact based on real-world projections, real-world models and real-world experiences.

Oregon’s Inevitable Future

Recently the New York Times published a story about empty “promises of preparedness.” It referred to a report called The Oregon Resilience Plan. This absolutely chilling document illuminates a state that is dramatically underprepared for an inevitable and devastating earthquake; recovery of basic road access, tap water and sewage, electricity and telecommunications will be measured by months and years in some places.

Every 240 years on average – most recently in 1700, so long overdue now – the earth’s crust gives way somewhere offshore, resulting in shaking in excess of 9.0 on the Richter scale as well as devastating tsunamis.

This catastrophe could be rather similar to the 2011 Tohoku quake and tsunami that devastated Japan, but with a key difference: While Japan is highly prepared, Oregon is highly unprepared. Much of Oregon’s key infrastructure was built without much attention to seismic safety, and most of it was built before the danger of the Cascadia Subduction Zone was fully understood.

Now, the best the “Resilience Plan” can do is seek an acceptable level of resilience in 50 years – and of course to hope that the quake doesn’t happen sooner than that.

But if the quake does comes soon, damage is expected to be so severe that U.S. 101 and routes to the coast will be impassible. Even Interstate 5 will be out of commission for at least a few weeks, leaving U.S. 97 – parallel to the coast about 100 miles inland, on the eastern side of the Cascades – as the main north-south route and staging area for the recovery efforts. Spokane, Wash., Boise, Idaho and Redding, Calif. would be the main airports for ground access into an immense and rugged catastrophe zone where recovery of basic services will be measured in weeks and months.

When this quake hits, even if it isn’t the worst-case scenario, the Oregon Coast will be forever changed. Its tourism and retiree-based economy will collapse, at least temporarily. The report estimates that about ¾ of US 101 bridges will be out of commission – 56 collapsed and 42 heavily damaged – and it will be difficult to repair them because so many of the roads approaching the coast will also be severed in multiple places. The report estimates that it will take several years to get coastal access highways back up to even 60% of current capacity.

Similar damages (and repair timelines) are expected on the electrical, telecommunications, water and sewage systems. Essentially it will be months before any semblance of normalcy returns to the coast (but only weeks for Portland and the Willamette Valley), and years a return to anything near what exists now. Who knows what will be left of the small businesses serving tourists by that point? And for that matter, who knows what will be left of a solvent state government? The report uses “lost generation” to describe the long-term economic and social decline that is to be expected.

But it’s not clear that normalcy will ever return. In several places the report authors declined to predict recovery timelines for the tsunami zone. And on page 173 of the report is an offhand comment, a dry understatement that suggests that the overlapping systems damage might be so severe that it isn’t fixable even on the rather dire timelines described in the report:

The state’s main power transmission lines are expected to be down for 7-51 days. However, “This scenario assumes many ideal conditions (for example, that BPA employees and contractor resources are immediately available, all roads and bridges are passable, and sufficient fuel is available), which is optimistic.”

Optimism is not enough. We should expect at least something approaching the long-term damage to New Orleans that still lingers a decade later, or even the painfully-slow recovery from Superstorm Sandy that continues within sight of the gleaming towers of Wall Street. Lovely little out-of-the-way burgs like Astoria, Newport and Coos Bay are not going to get much help when Portland and Seattle are still digging out in the media spotlight. They’ll get even less help if this quake follows another disaster – say, a quake in California or another major hurricane strike. They’ll be on their own.

Consider that a month after the large but solitary landslide that devastated Oso, Wash., there is still no timeline for reopening that road. Consider what it would be like if that sort of damage occurs simultaneously in hundreds of locations.

It’s hard to imagine, but somehow I can’t resist. And I think that’s why I’m feeling called to write a work of fiction.

Our Potential Future

The Coastlands is a work that has been growing in me for years now. Every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of the future somewhere – a vibrant local economy peeking through the ruins like plants growing through cracks in the sidewalk.

The Coastlands will be somewhat apocalyptic, but not in the usual Hollywood sense of Mad Max, The Road or The Postman. I’m after a more nuanced world between dystopia and utopia, where people have begun to adjust to different circumstances in a whole range of ways. Some will be more or less effective, more or less authoritarian and more or less hopeful. An authoritarian (and yes, dystopian) core will remain of the United States, but its reach and control will be dramatically reduced. Some places will experience independence or abandonment, depending on one’s perspective.

I imagine that the Oregon Coast will become rather isolated in the Resilience Plan scenario, and those who remain there will have to adapt to a very different way of life. Thus, this very real and plausible hypothetical scenario in the (very real) report provides a thought exercise for how society might be reordered in the wake of disaster, as well as the inevitable longer-term unraveling of centralization. We also have a variety of models for community-based disaster recovery and grassroots organizing.

I think this sort of thinking is especially important for us in the West, because there are growing cracks in the façade that suggest we might see dramatic changes in our lifetimes. We face the end of our centralized social order, and we must be dreaming up what structures and practices will best help us make the transition to a new way of being, less dependent on Washington, on the global economy, on capitalist industry.

I believe that some form of change is inevitable and ultimately good. This change will be best if it happens sooner and on our own terms. So we must try to discern the beginnings of the change and move toward it rather than flee.

The Coastlands will be my own attempt at this discernment, which I hope will inspire others. I’ll start publishing in the coming days, in draft form at first, to get the ball rolling and gauge interest as I prepare to launch the full project – which is going to involve intersecting blogs from sometime in the not-so-distant future.

Stay tuned…

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More Thoughts on Agriculture

A couple of days ago I submitted a modest blog post proposal that California’s agricultural system should be transformed in a modular sort of way, starting with irrigation districts (and other water-delivery entities, including mutuals and co-ops). My thinking was that pretty much every farmer facing this water crisis is in some way tapped into some sort of collective water-delivery scheme. In any case, it’s much more prevalent and geographically dense than co-op membership, which tends to be by crop rather than proximity. Water delivery organizations seem like natural building blocks to me (a city guy with little experience with agriculture).

A reader named Graham provided a very thoughtful comment, beginning:

The underlying issues here are surely about the agricultural practices that have been adopted in this area, practices which have led to destruction of soil biology and huge demand for water and nutrient inputs. If, instead of “retiring” farmland than was once some of the most fertile land on the planet, these farmers adopted regenerative farming practices that worked hand in hand with the natural environment, they would relatively quickly, and cheaply, be able to bring this land back into production and build resilience and true sustainability at the same time, making their land better able to withstand drought.

I agree that unsustainable farming practices are doomed to fail and a huge part of the problem with Central Valley agriculture. I didn’t miss that point so much as I chose to focus on a different one to keep that post at a semi-manageable length. I’m an organizational geek and not an agricultural scientist, and I wanted to focus on the structure of how change might happen systemically, rather than the specifics of that change as implemented. I am already a bit over my pay grade here without trying to plan for a very difficult farmland restoration element to the structural changes; I do admit that such restoration will be needed if we hope to continue with anything close to our current population.

I would love to see a more restorative approach, but I’m not sure if that is possible now with the amount of damage, the urgency of drought (as well as chronic pressure from globalization), and the massive debt and investment in existing practices. In any case, I suspect it would take a full stop to restore and relaunch something more sustainable.

I tried to convey with my detailed description of the Westlands’ location that not all agricultural land in this generally amazing agricultural region is the same. As far as I can tell (which is admittedly not much), much of Westlands was always quite marginal due to drainage issues. Even without added chemicals, the local groundwater has its own load of salts and minerals that are causing serious soil pollution problems. This is not prime valley floor, and apparently can’t even last a single farmer’s lifetime without an elaborate drainage system developed and maintained by the federal government.

It’s not clear that more sustainable technical practices would even work in this land with the current occupants’ level of investment, debt and so on. Even assuming that it could work, there’s the challenging matter of switching. Organic certification is quite expensive in the US and I would argue that a cooperative structure (or at least some sort of non-cooperative shared effort along the lines of Westlands Solar Farm) is needed to help share the substantial short-term costs of transition and make the conversion as quickly and painlessly as possible.

There is certainly a role for co-ops in this, although we must admit that many large co-ops in the US have been slow to move toward sustainability; I attribute that slowness to their inability to just dump conventional growers and buy from someone who has already made the change at their own personal risk – co-ops are stuck with their members and must find a way to help members make the transition.

However, I would argue (as I have) that “an increasing share of the organic industry’s product is distributed through investor-owned distributors and sold through investor-owned stores. This makes ‘sustainable’ products ultimately unsustainable, by shifting the profits away from the altruistic entrepreneurs who started these companies, and toward investors who are primarily out for profit.”

I believe that economic and structural sustainability is fundamental, and without it no piecemeal changes to the practices of specific farming operations will really be sustainable. That isn’t to say that these piecemeal changes shouldn’t happen – they must – but I just don’t see how it will change anything in the long run.

Westlands isn’t a co-op so it isn’t bound by the Co-operative Principles. Of course, I would agree with Graham’s second assertion that “concern for community” is where sustainability comes in, and I hope that co-ops add it as a standalone principle, really. Sustainability is not really negotiable – all farmland, sooner or later, must be farmed sustainably or not at all.



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The Co-op Pope

Pope Francis caused a lot of excitement during his papacy’s first year, and much of it was economic in nature. He has been making a whole variety of statements that have caused unease among those most comfortable with the established order. Francis has challenged the established capitalist way of doing business

But how might an alternative unfold? While state socialism has a well-know history of antagonism with religion, there is a wealth of models for voluntary, egalitarian and community-based models that allow for the participation of all. These cooperative forms are in many cases rooted in the earliest days of the movement that became Christianity. They are also supported by more than a century of papal pronouncements as well as parish organizing.

A Co-op Pope?

During his first year, Pope Francis embraced cooperative forms, likely influenced by the long history of Catholic cooperative organizing. This embrace was most clear during a papal audience held in October. Co-op leaders from Francis’ home country of Argentina, as well as key figures in the International Co-operative Alliance, spent most of an hour with the pope; ICA president Dame Pauline Green gave this description in her blog:

It’s true to say that we were all mightily impressed with The Pope’s intimate knowledge and understanding of our movement. All alone with no staff or advisers and not a note or briefing paper to be seen, he spoke our co-operative language during a 45 minute informal discussion. Stopping once with a laugh to apologise for giving us a sermon, the Pope argued that global leaders need to understand that co-ops are not just something for moments of crisis, but the way in which economic life should go in the future.

It seems that Francis was also touched by the encounter. A month later, his own message to the Third Festival of the Social Doctrine of the Church included this:

Also a thought on cooperation: I met several representatives of the world of cooperatives. We had a meeting here in this room some months ago. I was very consoled, and I think it is good news for everyone to hear that in responding to the crisis net profits have gone down while the employment level has been maintained. Work is so important. Work and the dignity of the person go hand in hand. Solidarity must also be applied to guarantee work; cooperation is an important element to ensure a plurality of presence among employers in the market. Today this is the subject of some misunderstanding even at the European level yet I maintain that failure to consider this form of presence as relevant in the world of production constitutes an impoverishment that leaves room for homologations and fails to promote difference and identity.

I remember — I was a teenager — I was 18 years old: it was 1954, and I heard my father speak on Christian cooperativism and from that moment I developed an enthusiasm for it, I saw that it was the way. It is precisely the road to equality, not to homogenity, but to equality in difference. Even economically it goes slowly. I remember that reflection my father gave: it goes forward slowly, but it is sure. When I hear some of the other economic theories, like that “of the commodities” — I don’t really know what it’s called in Italian — [the Pope is referring to an optimistic economic theory on the fall of prices of goods and the reduction of poverty]. Experience tells us that that way doesn’t work. (parenthetical in Vatican’s source document – AM)

I hope that all of you who are committed to cooperative reform, will keep alive the memory of their origins. The cooperative forms established by Catholics such as the implementation of Rerum Novarum bear witness to the power of faith, which today as then is capable of inspiring concrete action to respond to the needs of our people.

Francis has also appointed Cardinal Peter Turkson to act as an ongoing liaison to the cooperative movement. Turkson’s duties so far have included delivery of a message to the ICA conference in South Africa shortly after the audience:

Thus we note that the cooperative has been a fertile field we to exercise participation and subsidiarity, bases of cooperative economic structure to ensure the objectives themselves valuing the participation of each of the partners. The performance of these principles by cooperatives has been: a valuable contribution to building democracy by explicitly encouraging the principle of participation, an important contribution to overcoming poverty, which identifies the most urgent needs people and promoted as protagonists of their own development, and an invaluable contribution to the establishment of peace by encouraging cooperative partnerships between movements in different regions fostering dialogue and fraternal cooperation between the societies of origin .

I haven’t yet encountered a clear public reference to the massive Catholic-rooted cooperatives of northern Italy, the Basque Country, Nova Scotia or Quebec, although I believe that the “Rerum Novarum” is an indirect reference (see below).

No Blessings for Capitalism

Francis’ stance toward capitalism provides a stark contrast.

During January, Francis sent a message to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, where the world’s elite was openly fretting about how they are sitting at the top of a house of cards caused by wealth disparities. The organizers are worried enough to create something called A New Social Covenant; it sounds nice but we shall see what fruit it bears.

Some have reported that Francis “blessed” the gathering in Davos. But while he did close with the words, “I invoke divine blessings on you and the participants of the Forum, as well as on your families and all your work,” it is important to note that this invocation is something altogether different than the endorsement that is usually implied by the word “blessing.” Rather, the actual text of the message reveals that Francis is calling the assembly to task for its failure to create real economic progress for all, and invokes blessings in apparent recognition that God’s help will be needed for this crowd’s repentance.

In the context of your meeting, I wish to emphasize the importance that the various political and economic sectors have in promoting an inclusive approach which takes into consideration the dignity of every human person and the common good. I am referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought.

This is a personal concern: While Francis was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998-2013), he witnessed firsthand his country’s economic collapse at the hands of capitalist globalization. He was familiar with one of the worker-owned recuperated workplaces that made Argentina an inspiring model for the world – popularized by the 2004 documentary The Take.

The Gospel Against Consumerism

We should also look at Francis’ writings.

The most prominent of the pope’s statements was Evangelii Gaudium, which has been described (somewhat inaccurately) as a “manifesto” against capitalism. This label jibes with the accusations of Marxism popular on the economic right. The Holy Father’s writing – titled The Joy of the Gospel in English – is not a papal encyclical, a specific type of document that establishes Church doctrine and is perhaps a closer analog to a party manifesto. It is in fact a “papal exhortation,” a guide to Catholics offering them encouragement to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Students of Marx will recall that this was not a common theme of his, although there is some overall resonance in the economic values described.

On the other hand, there are quite a few encyclicals that already do establish an economic doctrine that is squarely at odds with the ways of the world. These social encyclicals run all the way back to Pope Leo XII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”). That earlier writing helped set the Tyrolean Alps afire with an economic revival that laid the foundation for one of the world’s great cooperative economies – which has transformed life for Catholic and secular Italians alike.

Evangelii Gaudium is a papal exhortation: encouragement for members of the Catholic Church to act in certain ways as they preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not primarily a critique of capitalism; it is, first and foremost, a religious statement. However, in some ways its non-doctrinal nature heightens the power of the writing by its simple emphasis upon the spiritual impact of economics. To Francis, consumerism tempts us to accept capitalism’s rule of wealth over people, and is therefore a grave obstacle to preaching the Gospel. This obstacle is presented prominently, right in the second paragraph of a document that approaches 50,000 words:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience…That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

There is much more writing like this, particularly in chapters two and four. But in case we might be tempted to squirm away from dozens of passages and thousands of words driving home the message, the Holy Father leaves no wiggle room here:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.

The capitalist economy is based on exclusion and inequality, and results in death. It therefore violates one of the Ten Commandments. No more avoiding the issue. Anyone who intends to live a good life as a Catholic simply must find another way of engaging with economics.

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Dismantling Agriculture, Rebuilding Anew

California’s worsening water situation is changing the face of agriculture. Much of the San Joaquin Valley is already being fallowed for this year due to acute water shortages. There is also the growing prospect that the state’s growing population, diminishing snowpack (still less than 1/3 of normal after a near-average March) and literally collapsing soil (subsiding up to a foot a year as salt levels increase toward the point that nothing can grow) herald permanent changes that will lead to permanent abandonment of some farmland.

In some areas water shortages and related issues are already forcing the retirement of farmland in of one of the world’s great agricultural zones. This apparently inevitable contraction can happen in one of two ways: through disorganized competition or organized cooperation.

In the competitive scenario, increased cost and scarcity of irrigation water may force farmers out of business in a haphazard way that concentrates what little wealth remains in the region and worsens the already dramatic economic displacement underway.

But perhaps the mutual roots of irrigation may provide a pathway for organized retreat. Think of it as consulting blueprints in order to carefully dismantle a structure for reconstruction into a new system, rather than simply bringing in the market’s wrecking ball to shatter the system at its weakest points (where lack of water rights or excessive debt shut down production of land whether or not it makes sense to do so).

Some blend of these approaches is likely, but it seems that if left to its own devices, the invisible hand of the market is going to mostly just shatter a weakened agricultural system and leave us with a vast debris field.

So where to start? Where are the natural joints at which we might start to disassemble this creaky old barn before it collapses under its own weight?

Go West

As I have read the news about California’s historic drought, I’ve noticed that the name “Westlands” keeps popping up. I became curious, and I think I may have found a starting point – the eaves of the barn roof, if you will. Westland Water District is a public entity (not a co-op), but it is at heart an old mutual irrigation scheme, of the sort that is dominant throughout the West. Positive collaboration to move beyond farming is already underway even as Westlands members struggle to preserve their agrarian ways of life.

Despite the individualist mythology of the Frontier, development of irrigation in the western United States was highly collectivized. The western system is much different than the chaotic and individualistic system that spread from Europe into the eastern United States, where streams flowing throughout the growing season were quite common and water rights basically came with the land.

Water mutualism were pioneered by the Mormons, who recognized that the eastern “riparian” system would only allow irrigation of the miniscule bit of land with year-round surface water. Groundwater extraction through wells was often unreliable and prone to pollution with salts as well as poisonous minerals like selenium and arsenic – a problem that generally grew worse over time.

By collectivizing water access to divert year-round surface water through aqueducts, arable land was expanded out across the valley floors. So snowmelt from the mountains provided adequate irrigation to grow food for the booming civilization centered around Salt Lake City. It worked and it was copied.

This larger economic system was destroyed at the close of the 19th Century, but irrigation mutuals, cooperatives and districts proved quite adaptable on their own and spread like wildfire across a dry land. Westlands Water District was created in 1952, and now provides water for roughly 600 farmers on 600,000 acres. The district also provides an organizational structure, which is interesting for reasons that I’ll discuss in a moment.

Where is Westlands?

Understanding Westlands’ location is crucial to grasping its problems and opportunities. The district sits in Fresno County, on relatively high ground on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. A quick glance at a map suggests that it would be a rather unremarkable spot in the middle reaches of the valley’s namesake river.

In fact, Westlands is only marginally in the San Joaquin watershed, perched on high land between that watershed and the Tulare Basin. To the east of its southern portion, the Kings River actually splits and flows both north into the San Joaquin and south through a number of distributaries.

From the southern end of Westlands, water flows (when there is enough rain) into the Tulare Basin, which was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River before water diversion dried it up. This lake was a major source of fish and turtles during the 19th Century and was large enough to serve as a military floatplane base as late as World War II.

Westlands Water District has very poor drainage. Whatever rainfall makes it past Big Sur and the Diablo Mountain Range to this naturally dry rainshadow tends to soak into the ground rather than running into a creek and eventually a river. This is fine with rainwater, which is relatively pure.

On the other hand, irrigation water sometimes comes from mineral-rich wells and usually receives added contamination from pesticides and fertilizers. So its evaporation leads to increasingly toxic and saline soils. Salinization is a problem for irrigated agriculture everywhere, but the San Joaquin Valley appears to present an unusually acute case.

It’s important for us to remember that agriculture in this part of the world has been a relatively short experiment. And this experiment appears to be leading toward a conclusion that it wasn’t such a great idea to farm there. So how do we extricate ourselves?

Sharing the Burden

Westlands is a sort of high point in the overarching structure – the barn – in its size and location as well as the urgency of its problems. And is therefore worth consideration as a point to begin the disassembly and reconstruction of San Joaquin agriculture.

Westlands’ own “History” page acknowledges that something has to give: “Westlands also faces significant drainage problems. Approximately one third of the district does not drain properly. As a result, salt present in the water imported from the Delta accumulates in the soil.”

Westlands blames this problem on the Federal government’s failure to provide drainage since the closure of the San Luis Drain, which was shut down in 1986 after its outflow proved devastating to birds in the Kesterton Reservoir, into which it drained.

It’s hard to see how a new drainage scheme will work without some sort of water treatment, but Westlands has a point: Its members were led to believe that drainage would be provided. So they made decisions and investments based on the assumption of drainage.

And at the same time, drainage cannot be provided without some dramatic changes. It’s been nearly 30 years now, and it’s time to admit that the San Luis Drain ain’t coming back in its old form. There would be simply too much clamor from those downstream.

Yes, Westlands is only a small portion of the overall problem, but – fairly or unfairly – its reliance on a hypothetical drain creates for it a higher bar than other farmers whose runoff may be just as toxic but can flow freely into a self-draining river.

These dramatic challenges – common throughout the valley but aggravated by Westlands’ history and expectations surrounding the drainage issue – demand some sort of collective response. So it is hypothetically possible that Westlands might provide a structure for either conversion to farming practices that produce much less runoff, and especially less-toxic runoff. And to some extent, Westlands could conceivably provide a structure for buying out some of its members with less-suitable land.

It is obvious that a group of struggling farmers on land that was always marginal cannot bear the cost by themselves during a multi-year drought. Fortunately, there is ample precedent for government assistance to farmers to not plant. These subsidies are sometimes controversial, but it seems that if there were ever a time to use government assistance, it is in this sort of large-scale transition where individual acts are overwhelmed by market forces. Rather than simply easing the current pain, funds might be used to develop a new reality.

Westlands has already recognized that its current route is unsustainable. To their credit, members are already retiring tens of thousand so acres of farmland.

But more interesting, Westlands is also exploring the creation of a solar farm project within the district. I don’t see any evidence that the new organization is using a cooperative structure to develop the solar facilities, but there is at least an element of collective problem solving that echoes the original organizing of the district by the current members’ grandparents.

Allow me to think ahead a bit:

What if solar developments provide the means for compensating those farmers whose fields are closest to forced retirement? What if Westlands is able to develop a structure through which its members can gain temporary subsidy as they manage an organized contraction – perhaps even developing a structure for subdividing those fields most suitable for dry farming, while also moving toward more sustainable practices that produce less-toxic runoff that could be further treated before it is sent down a reopened San Luis Drain? What if Westlands is able to serve as a pilot project for how irrigation districts can move into a new field of production?

I am just scratching the surface here, but it seems like Westlands is going to be a key location in the growing water struggles in this state. I’m glad to see that they are engaged in some shared problem-solving and hope that we might be able to all learn from their experience as we struggle to change California’s troubled relationship with water.

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