More and more people are waking up to the fact that something is drastically out of balance in the world. Oil spills, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, government repression, super-storms, recession, alienation, debt. We generally categorize these different problems into different social arenas, with terms like “the environmental crisis” or “the economic crisis”, but there is a nagging and growing feeling that they are all somehow inter-connected.
What’s the larger picture we’re not seeing? I have a theory. Well, it’s more like a love story. And it starts at the beginning of the universe.
There is a joke that the history of the entire universe can be summed up in a single sentence: “Hydrogen is an orderless, colorless gas that, given enough time, turns into people.” There was a time when the universe was composed enitrely of hydrogen atoms. And then, under the force of gravity- the strange force that pulls the stuff of the universe towards itself- balls of hydrogen began clumping together. Closer and closer. Faster and faster. Hotter and hotter.
The individual nuclear forces of each atom strained to repel each other- to resist the drive of the universe towards union and maintain their singularity. There was a moment of unbearable pressure. And then, something that had never happened before, happened. Two hydrogen atoms pushed so close together that they overcame the repulsive forces that kept them separate and they fused into the very first helium atom.
Those two atoms, now working together as one, didn’t need so much energy to keep themselves together. A spark of extra energy was shot into the universe, where it hit other lonely hydrogen atoms, pushing them over their barriers, and starting a chain reaction that ignited the nuclear heart of the very first sun.
Some time later, there was this place called Earth, which was made up of a whole bunch of new elements that exploded out those first suns. Every molecule on earth came from a dying star, which is neat. For reasons we don’t really understand, those molecules started dispersing the energy received by Earth’s nearby star, Sol, by forming complex structures that were able to maintain their pattern of organization over time, even as matter and energy passed through them. We call this process “life”.
There is a theory that life is way for the universe to dissipate energy more efficiently. Life’s ability to disperse the energy of the sun, even as it creates extremely complex, ordered structures, is actually helping the universe reach equilibrium faster, in the same way that a whirlpool forms and maintains its pattern because it helps drain the water out of a bathtub faster.
Anyway, life formed and for about 2 billion years (!!!) there were only very simple structures that we call, very generally “bacteria”. Bacteria do not have a cell nucleus. They just have a cell membrane that protects the chemical reactions that sustain the cells from just floating away into an unimaginably immense space, which sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
These bacteria eventually evolved a few important techniques for acquiring the energy it takes to sustain themselves. Some developed to the ability to break down complex molecules and “feed” on the extra energy that was released. Some developed the ability to build up complex molecules using the light from the sun. And some developed a spiral shape that allowed them to move through their environment and find complex molecules to break down.
Ok, now here comes the interesting part. Sorry for the background stuff. So around 2 billion years ago, something happened that had never happened before. The individual bacteria had become so prevalent, that the major types began living in closer and closer proximity to one another. Their individuals skills proved to be mutually beneficial, since the photosynthetic bacteria could build complex molecules from sunlight, the aerobic, and anaerobic bacteria could break them down again, and the spiral bacteria could physically move towards food and sunlight.
At this point, evolution began to favor the the colonies of bacteria that worked well together over individuals. The dominant theory is that one of these bacterial cells actually incorporated the others into itself, gaining their abilities to metabolize food and sunlight and becoming nucleated cells- the kinds of cells that make all plant, animal, and fungal life possible.
We call this idea “endosymbiosis” but you’ll notice that as a pattern its quite similar to the way the first Helium atom formed. You start where there are individual things, they get pushed all together, and ultimately they fuse, incorporating each other and becoming a new thing that changes everything. Even though the new thing is made of smaller, older things, it is actually totally different, behaves differently, and can be seen as a distinct thing in and of itself. It becomes a meta-thing.
And this is exactly what happened AGAIN with those nucleated cells. They began copying themselves and reproducing as wholes, not parts, and eventually became multicellular life, and eventually became things like mushrooms, pine trees, and humans, which are also meta-things, or if you want to be specific, meta-meta-meta-meta things (give or take a few metas).
And there is another thing that happened with all that Meta-ing that was going on: At some point living systems developed feedback loops that allowed them to interact with their environment. Bacteria can sense light and move towards it. Sharks can smell food and swim towards it. Over time, with each new level of complexity, these individual portions of the universe became ever more AWARE of the immediate universe outside themselves, and developed GREATER ABILITY TO CHANGE THIER BEHAVIOR BASED ON THIS AWARENESS.
Eventually, life forms evolved such complex awareness systems, such as multiple sensory organs and central processing, that they could begin to be aware of the environment to such a great extent that they were actually able to be aware of themselves as a part of the universe. To our knowledge, which is limited, and admittedly biased, this capacity is developed more completely in humans than in any other terrestrial life form. Self-reflection was not a problem bacteria had to grapple with. Bacteria never had to CHOOSE anything. Choice doesn’t exist at that level of complexity. But it does exist at our level, and that fundamentally changes the unfolding of reality.
So when we talk about crises like environmental destruction or economic collapse, we must not fall into the trap of believing that these things are inevitable. The very fact that we even know about all these problems is a symptom of our exponentially increasing awareness, and where there is self-reflective awareness, there is choice. We get to understand our environment and CHANGE OUR BEHAVIOR based on that understanding. We get to choose where we go from here. In fact, we have to choose, and choosing to do nothing while the whole thing collapses is a choice too. It’s just a stupid one.
But if we choose to really look at the problems we face, rather than ignoring them, we will see that they are ultimately fleeting and solvable. I cannot say what will come next, because it will be a product of each of our individual choices. Every one of us is leaving our mark on this story. But based on the history of everything, I can say where I could see us going, and it is far more complex, mysterious, and awesome than we have been talking about, and if it seems preferable to you, then we can choose to make it happen.
I sense we are at the same point as that hydrogen atoms right before helium happened. There is a moment of unbearable pressure. We are on the brink of a new meta-thing. But what will it look like? This isn’t new age woo. Well, this isn’t JUST new-age woo.
Looking at the example of the first cells, we know that evolution tends to advance not by mutuation or random chance, as we previously thought, but by the synthesis of meta-organisms through the symbiosis of different individual life forms. And just so you don’t think that’s an isolated thing, consider the fact that you are not so much a human, so much as you are a colony, or an ecosystem. The human cells in your body are only about 10% of the cells in your body. Talking about yourself as human, and meaning JUST human, is the same as talking about a coral reef and meaning JUST the coral. You’re missing an important point. Check out the human micro biome project for more on that.
And speaking of coral reefs, just so the concept of a metaorganism doesn’t sound too out there either, ecosystems are already metaorganisms. They are symbiotic webs of relationships that are processing the light from the sun more efficiently than any individual organism could alone. Ecosystems are metaorganisms that eat sunlight and produce consciousness as a byproduct.
But the REALLY interesting thing is the concept of ecosystemic symbiosis combined with human choice, awareness, and creativity. This is what Permaculture is all about- observing and interacting with nature. It is totally within our power to create human habitations- houses, communities, even entire cities, that are not just “eco-friendly” but are literally alive. Literally.
And not just living in tress a la Avatar either, although that would be awesome, and I generally support it. Cities and towns and buildings can be just as alive as you or me. The steel and carbon and even plastic that we incorporate into their structure is no different than the calcium atoms that coral polyps incorporate into their shells. Life isn’t about organic materials, because more and more materials are becoming organic. Life is about pattern and process, and these are the things that we must learn if our cites and civilizations are to come truly alive.
Like the first cells did, we can find the organisms that already do the things we don’t do better than we ever could. They already exist all over the place. Anaerobic bacteria break down feces and food scraps into natural gas (where do you think all that natural gas in the rocks came from?). Aerobic bacteria break down waste at a temperature of 160 degrees- enough to sterilize it of all human pathogens and heat water and houses. The by-product of both these processes is disease-free, nutrient rich fertilizer, which Duckweed can turn into protein at a rate 50x greater than soy, doubling it’s biomass every 36 hours. We can then turn the duckweed into alcohol fuel using yeast, natural gas using archea, and even building materials and insulation using fungi.
We can incorporate these and many, many, other species into our dwellings, communities, and cities, decentralizing the production of food, energy, and clean water, and making the places we live naturally metabolize our waste and grow it back into our food and energy using just the light from the sun.
The new paradigm will be photosynthetic, not solar powered. The difference is very important.
And this is not as far off as it may seem. There are very real, very tangible social, political, and economic strategies we can use to make this happen, very quickly- within the next 10 years, if we choose to do so, which is what I will now cover.
The problem with most even the most dysfunctional and destructive power structures is that they actually do a really good job of providing for their people. Capitalism, for all it’s failings, does a remarkable job of distributing resources like food, water, shelter, to a significant enough majority of the population to keep them from wanting to tear it all down. All in all, most people are pretty comfortable at the moment.
Every now and then, a charismatic group of folks succeeds in turning the population against the government or economic order, only to find that creating a new system overnight is impossible. Things break down, people loot, fields go fallow, infrastructure rusts. Revolution is often a very bad thing for most people- even the most righteous revolutions.
But it is clear that something drastic and unprecedented must be done, and reform, even if it were enough, is just not sexy enough to mobilize people on the scale that is needed. People need something they can believe in- something they are willing to die for. Over the years, there have been many ideas that people have been willing to die for: freedom, equality, independence, religion, communism, democracy. These are ideas that have so motivated people that they have fought, struggled, and died. These are ideas that have given people meaning beyond themselves- and that is one of the most powerful forces on Earth- to feel like we matter.
Which is why I think this understanding of the process of symbiogenesis, rudimentary as it is, holds so much power. Because in it, there is a new story for us to believe in, a new idea to give us meaning beyond ourselves. Maybe we are all meant to be here. Maybe we are not inherently sinful. Maybe we are not unnatural. Maybe the Earth we live on is alive, and is more than capable of providing the necessities of life for ALL people. Maybe we don’t just have to destroy ourselves because we’re somehow not good enough for our own home- our own mother.
This is an idea that I am willing to die for.
But the problem is that the things that people are willing to die for a usually things they’re willing to kill for as well. But in this worldview, there is no enemy to fight. The battle for life cannot be won by death. We must become fully ourselves in order to become more than ourselves. The enemies we face are not people, but behaviors and the conditions that create those behaviors. Greed, violence, intolerance, and the conditions that breed them- scarcity, alienation, coercion, these are our enemies, and we can do battle with them for the whole world to see, without resorting to violence against people.
No matter how justified, a revolution at this point in history would not be wise. Our system is precarious- a house of cards. We are utterly dependent on the capitalist system for our food, waste disposal, water, gas, electricity, goods, and information. If these systems break down before viable alternatives can be developed, we will have a much harder time coming to a peaceful resolve.
On the other hand, developing viable alternatives should not be thought of as a chore that we’ll have to do before the can get to the real revolution. Developing viable alternatives is the real revolution. Resisting oppression by decentralizing the ability for people and communities to provide themselves with the resources necessary to thrive without ecological damage will have far deeper and longer lasting political implications than any violent uprising ever could.
We already know that it is possible to build human systems- homes, communities, and cities, that are symbiotically alive, and use the local flows of energy, like sun, wind, water, and decay, to drive a cycle of life that can sustain human civilization with minimal external input. It sounds great, but the question is, how do we get started, like, now?
The technologies and systems that we already have to do these things are amazing, but they are just scratching the surface of what is possible, and they fall far short of what we’ll need to survive the next century on this planet. They are often difficult, complex, and expensive to build and maintain. They are like the room-size computers of the 1960s- they are powerful and useful, but they’re not going to change the world until anyone can just pick them up and use them.
The rapid development of new, easy to use, plug-and-play, open source permaculture systems that will allow normal people in normal city blocks and neighborhoods to easily become self sufficient is needed. In order to do that, we need large teams of people assessing community needs, researching alternatives, coming up with designs, doing experiments, building prototypes, can sharing what they learn with other teams around the world.
How can we possibly afford to do that? Where will the money and resources and time come from? Again, we can look to evolution for inspiration. There was a period of about 30 million years when trees didn’t decay because nothing had evolved to break down cellulose yet. There is a tremendous amount of energy stored in “waste”, and when a new type of organism learns how to break it down waste into an energy source, everything changes.
Phase One: We become the decomposers.
If you live in a house in Portland, once every week a big truck rumbles up your street and collects your compost, recycling, and garbage. For that privilege, every single house in Portland pays about $38.40 per month ($76.80 every other month is how it’s billed). That means that 100 houses- about 6 blocks- are paying $3840 a month, just to have a big diesel truck come by once a week and pick up 3 bins of trash. We can do better than that, can’t we?
Imagine that instead those 100 houses paid that money to a group of their neighbors to do exactly the same thing- come by their house once a week and take away the trash. $3840 is more than enough to pay for a house for 6 people, food, and utilities. These 6 people would have their living expenses completely covered, and wouldn’t have to work for corporations to get by. And how much work would they actually have to do? If there were 6 blocks, and 6 people, and they worked 6 days a week, then each person would only have to pick up the trash for one block (16-20 houses), once, one day a week.
Not to mention the fact that that “Waste” is only waste if it’s wasted. What do people throw out? Food scraps can be biodigested into biogas for cooking. Yard waste and wood chips can be composted to produce hot water, and high quality organic compost that can be re-sold at $20/yard while promoting local food systems. Electronics can be scavenged for parts and e-cycled. Plastic bottles and cans can be recycled, paper can be turned into seed bombs, or a number of other useful, paper-cast items, or burned. Plastic can be pressure molded in building blocks, or gasified for energy. Anything that MUST be landfilled could easily fit in the back of a pick-up and legally disposed of at the transfer station for less than $20.
So imagine we had a house full of 6 humans who only have to work one day a week, and are completely supported with rent, food, and utilities, and who get to check in with all of their neighbors once a week. What an amazing platform for community organizing! Imagine if they started interviewing their neighbors about other things? They could ask philosophical things like, what do you really want out of life? But also practical things like, how much are you paying for your food, water, energy? Are you in debt? How much? To whom?
Imagine what a team of even 6 passionate, supported humans could come up with if their full time job was researching, prototyping, and developing new community systems! They could start developing new solutions that save their neighbors even more money. They’re already stopping by once a week, why not drop off boxes of produce grown from community gardens, like the Urban Farm Collective? Why not do a group buy of LED light bulbs, and save $40 a month on electricity for the next 5 years? Why not install rainwater barrels during the winter average period and save $20 a month on water? Why not re-invest those savings back into supporting even more humans to develop even more elaborate community systems?
Saving people money on their recurring expenses is relatively a-political, since pretty much everyone likes to save money. But in fact, it’s VERY political. It keeps money in our communities. It diverts money away from corporations and governments that seek to control, privatize and sell resources. It keeps people from having to make more money, and you don’t have to pay income tax on money you don’t make, which starves funds away from the military industrial complex, while directly supporting social systems that taxes are SUPPOSED to fund in the first place.
A new kind of work, a new kind of education
One of the biggest problems with the current system is the education system that upholds it. Children are taught from a young age that education is about having the right answers – and not about creativity, inquiry, curiosity, or uncertainty. The best students are the ones that passively and unquestioningly absorb the information that the teacher has to deposit in their heads.
After high school, many people are funneled into college, take on huge amounts of debt, and still not knowing what they want to do with their lives. They leave college in too much debt to take risks, and so they take jobs that are safe, which are jobs that are profitable, which means that they directly or indirectly are taking the finite resources of Earth and liquidating them into capital.
What if we did it differently? What if instead of going to high school, you left your parent’s house but stayed in your community, to live in a community co-housing space like this, with a supportive community of peers and mentors and your family close by, where you applied and developed your unique skills and talents towards solving community problems, and sharing them for free online?
What if your contributions were recorded and documented, and became the equivalent of a resume and a degree, allowing you to earn the reputation currency needed to be trusted with even more complex problems and challenges. What if when you graduated high school, you found a group of people you work well with and spun off another community house, supporting itself by handling the communities trash, and using your time to change the world? Does that sound preferable to working a corporate job you hate?
World Game is a term I use to describe the ways that a system like this could be designed using game dynamics and positive psychology, to make it more fun, engaging, and rewarding, than work is now. It is based on the idea of World Game developed by Buckminster Fuller in 1961, which he described as a game whose goal was “Make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.”
His vision was the direct opposite of World War. How do you motivate people on the same scale as war, but to make the world work for everyone?
If all the people working on creating an infinitely regenerative, open-source, decentralized symbiotic future that works for 100% humanity shared what they were learning in a standard format, then those projects could win awards, or be recognized for being the best in certain categories. Recognition from peers is a very strong incentive, and makes people feel appreciated and recognized for their contributions.
The actually mechanics of the World Game are less important than the idea that we could gamify the work that needs to be done in ways that makes humans flourish. I imagine it as a tournament, where local “teams” compete for regional titles, regional titles compete for bio regional titles, and bioregional titles compete for global titles. This part is still a work in progress, but you get the idea.
501c10s- Fraternal Benefit Societies.
If we’re going to do any of this in any sort of legitimate sense, we’re going to need a legal structure. As much as I hate bureaucracy, what I’ve learned is that the only thing more stressful and disempowering than working within the legal system is trying to work outside of it. You never know when someone is going to shut you down, and it keeps you from acting legitimate.
And we are legitimate. In fact, I think a big part of the psychology of the revolution is to stop acting like we’re doing anything wrong. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we want to overthrow the current order, we must be subversive criminals. We need to stop acting like that. We’re trying to make the world work for everyone, damn it.
Anyway. There’s an archaic tax structure that describes benefit societies- groups like the Elks or the Masons. This structure has some interesting properties that could be VERY useful to our purposes of creating decentralized community education/research/development centers all over the country.
First, members of fraternal benefit societies need to have a common goal, purpose or vocation. “Make the world work for everyone.” Check.
Second, they need to operate under the lodge system, which means there needs to be a parent organization, and chapters, which are local, mostly autonomous, self-governing sub bodies of the parent organization. Perfect.
One of the neat things about this is that any chapter that meets the requirements of the parent organization becomes a separate legal entity (and is thus liable for their actions, not the parent org), but AUTOMATICALLY gets the parent organizations’ tax exemption. Which means you don’t have to write your own bylaws, or wait 18 months for the IRS to recognize you as a non-profit, which is huge.
The society needs to spend it’s money on “religious, charitable, educational, or fraternal purposes.” Educational is defined as providing information that is “Useful to the individual and beneficial to the community.” So sharing everything we learn online for free with the whole world definitely counts and educational. And “fraternal purposes” means basically any social gathering among members.
Finally, each lodge is allowed to carry out business activities that are completely tax exempt, as long as they serve a charitable purpose (see above) and as long as they are carried out primarily for the benefit and convenience of their members. Which means that any ongoing business activity- group buys, food co-ops, restaurants, hacker spaces, garbage pick up, community internet, whatever, is not only legal, but also tax exempt, as a long as the money goes back to serving the chapter’s charitable mission, which is making the world work for everyone by saving the community money and time and sharing how they did it.
Imagine all the money that you currently pay for food, garbage pickup, and internet, being tax free and staying in your community to support your neighbors to develop even more awesome community systems, while sharing those solutions with the rest of the world, and benefitting from all the solutions that all the other communities are developing simultaneously.
I think that we have the ability to fundamentally change the way we approach work, education, and government, without having a violent revolution.
I think that setting it up as a playful competition would provide for enough interesting content to unite the world the same way that the World Cup or Olympics do, but around things that actually matter to the survival of all life on Earth.
And I think that as an artifact, these games and endeavors could produce a database of content, not unlike wikipedia, that contains in it all of the knowledge, technologies, and strategies needed to create a self-sustaining human civilization from scratch in every bioregion of planet earth, and make it available or accessible to every human on Earth in every language for free by 2035, which would decentralize the control of resources on Earth to the point that it would make it exponentially more difficult for any human group to oppress another by controlling access to food, water, energy, or information.