Can We Save the World? Part II

Burkey, Tormod V. | December 20, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

This article is the second in a two-part series by Tormod V. Burkey.
Part One: Can We Save the World? can be read here.

In our busy and fragmented lives, things have a way of slipping. Ordinary people, politicians, organizations, international bodies, bureaucrats, we all kind of muddle along, trying to keep up with our daily tasks, hoping against hope that the aggregate of our efforts will somehow, magically, produce good overall results. Everyone is too busy to do their job properly. In the words of Raymond Dasmann (1975): “nobody is at the wheel.” And perhaps human frailties are such that nobody could, or should be, in charge. But we would still like to do well the things that we want to do. So how do we get things done when we need to?

Like poverty breeds myopia and short-termism, the broader view is often the first casualty in a hectic life. Even among those engaged full time in efforts to save the environment, few dare take a hard look at how much we really achieve. One would like humanity to really make a concerted effort, to take a deep and brutally honest look for real solutions. And by “solutions” I mean a set of necessary and sufficient steps that are actually implemented; not only the changes needed, but how we can get them implemented. How do we get humanity to actually take the necessary and adequate steps?

Interrelated Challenges

The climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, overfishing and other over-exploitation of natural resources and habitats, are all problems of a nature whereby we may suddenly, and perhaps unbeknown to us, cross a threshold that makes it too late to solve them. Extinction is forever. We wipe out other species at an unprecedented rate and have exceeded several other planetary boundaries. We do not know how or when the loss of individual species will manifest on the larger scale of ecosystem integrity and suitability for other life forms.

Can we fix the biodiversity crisis without fixing the climate crisis? Can we fix the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis without changing the economic system? Can we solve large problems given the weaknesses of our democracy? Can a weak democracy fix itself? Can we build better institutions within the existing framework or do we need to go beyond the existing framework? Can smaller questions like overfishing/over-harvesting, invasive species, strife and poverty be fixed without fixing the larger problems of climate, biodiversity crisis, economic crisis, population crisis, institutional crises, and the weaknesses of our current (democratic) model? Can you save one species, without saving a host of other species that it interacts with, and solving the problems of habitat loss and over-exploitation?

Choosing What We Care About

Finding real solutions depends on what you are willing to do. Which, in turn, depends on how desperate you are, and how severe you perceive the situation to be. Great problems are not to be taken lightly. Nor can one blindly hope that things will, somehow, turn out OK, and keep plodding along as before.

This is partly a question of values. Our ethics. In the absence of a God that gives value to things, we all have to choose what it is that we care about.

Barriers to Action

Checks and balances were built into our systems so major upheaval (and abuses of power) would not occur, but in the kinds of problems addressed here you actually need some major action to be taken at times. In the internet age power seems to be more decentralized and fragmented than ever before. Power is relative. By one definition, power is the ability to get someone to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. When everyone has power, no one has power. Powers cancel each other out, unless one party can forge larger alliances than others. Such alliances can be unwieldy and flighty. With an increasing number of checks and balances, and a growing number of micro-powers, paralysis and inaction may easily result.

The dysfunctionality of the US political landscape might convince anybody of the futility of concerted action, and international cooperation is certainly no easier. You get three people in a room together, and typically they can’t agree on anything.

It is hard for anyone to act unilaterally. Unilateral action is much more expensive (and perhaps impossible), than to act as part of a larger group. In the absence of global consensus, can one start in smaller groupings while exploiting mechanisms that encourage others to join in?

Does a Solution Exist?

Can we ever know what is necessary and sufficient? Perhaps it is easier to just start doing something. And hoping that of all the independent and uncoordinated efforts something will pan out. But is it really wise to proceed without asking whether what we are doing is adequate, or at least thinking about how it can be scaled up to meaningful proportions?

A solution is not a solution unless it is implemented. We need to know not only what is needed, but how we get humanity to actually do it. Like Archimedes, we need a firm point on which to stand and a long enough lever to move the world.

When mathematicians are working on a particularly difficult problem, they sometimes try to show whether or not a solution exists at all before trying to find it. This can be a very powerful exercise.

What do we know?

What are the problems we need to overcome to enable humanity to act? I suggest we organize a seminar series with experts that have worked on mechanisms that hamper our efforts, and people with experiences with existing efforts, to ask the question: “Can We Save the World?” The results from such a seminar series should be contained in an edited book of the same title. Each chapter in such a book should compile what we know about each set of mechanisms that make saving the world difficult in practice. Presenting what we know in each of the related fields and brainstorming around the issues should help us make some progress towards finding ways of getting around these obstacles.

Subtopics for analysis/book chapters might include:

•  Why are we not acting to save the world?

•  How to make good international agreements.

•  Acting unilaterally in a connected world.

•  Our current democratic system: designed so nothing much will change, so what do you do when something really needs to change? Can a weak democracy fix itself?

•  Our future democratic system: What are the characteristics of a system that works when you need it to? Democracy is a matter of degree, not simply that you have it or you don’t. What measures can we put in place to improve our democracy?

•  War-time economies and how we got things done when we needed to. Are any of the tools from war-time and states of emergency applicable for us now?

•  An international system that works: What is needed in (a) super-national institution(s) to save the world?

•  Time constraints: Can we make it in time? How to deal with irreversible damage and systems with break points, tipping points and positive feed-back loops.

•  Everyone doing their little bit: What if there are not enough doing it? Can we get enough people involved in time? How could you ever know what is necessary and sufficient?

•  Is inter-disciplinary research/collaboration possible? What models work best for teams that want to get things done?

•  Can we get society to use the knowledge and the experience that we already have?

•  Can we plan in complex systems? If complexity, unknown unknowns, social contagion, accidents of history, punctuated equilibrium, and our proneness to a diversity of fallacies limit our power to predict, what hope is there for planning?

•  Super wicked problems and general approaches to solving them. What do we know about how to solve super wicked problems?

•  Process versus results: if you can’t plan for results, does the uncoordinated, multipronged, decentralized, unplanned, trial and error approach actually make sense?

•  What role is there for the legal system, international or domestic? Law is usually pretty conservative. Can it lead?

•  A new economy: Are real solutions compatible with our current economic and monetary systems? What are the traits of an economic system where we actually could save the world?

•  Dealing with uncertainty: Can we act responsibly under uncertainty? Will science ever get to the point where politicians and bureaucrats will/can take meaningful action?

•  A role for coercion? How would it work? Are there feasible and acceptable ways to coerce our own populace, or that of other nations?

•  Trans-border problems. To what extent can a problem be effectively addressed within a single nation or other administrative boundary? What do we know to be useful when we have to solve trans-border or multinational problems?

•  Communication: How to communicate effectively for action. What do we know about social movements?

•  The strategic mindset: Tools for strategic and tactical organizing. How to win the battle and the war.

•  What difference does a problem make? Does the solution depend on the nature of the problem?

•  Interactive problems. Can we solve the different problems in isolation, when they are interdependent?

•  Technofixes: Is this all we can hope for?

•  Exploitable social tipping points in solutions. Can we use our knowledge of the dynamics of social systems to exploit the nature of tipping points and social trigger points in our quest for solutions?

•  A new story for our existence. Do we need a new narrative for humanity in order to make fundamental changes in our lives, communities and mentalities necessary to address root causes of the threats we are facing?

Anyone willing and able to help make Can We Save The World?, the seminar series/book, happen—whether it be planning, fundraising, organizing, participating, facilitating, brainstorming, providing a venue, publishing, whatever—please get in touch.

Tormod V. Burkey is the author of “Ethics For A Full World, or Can Animal-Lovers Save the World?” and a conservation biologist passionate about saving animals, plants and wild places. You can follow his tweets: @Toruk_Makto_ and/or his blog: Thor’s Hammer. “Ethics For A Full World, or Can Animal-Lovers Save the World?” will be available through the publisher, Clairview Books, on April 3rd or can be pre-ordered through

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  • Diogenes60025

    The world is perfectly capable of saving itself. It doesn’t need a claque of fascist communitarians to impose tyranny on the human race in its name.

  • Meditor

    Should we be systematic in this endeavor? Should we assess what the state the systems are in? Shall we accumulate what we know of the state of the sea, the poles, potable water, arable land and the global social structure?
    I have read Cohen’s marvelous book “How Many People can Earth Support” in which he outlines all the ways the answer to that question is problematic; even so, we can interpolate between population and resource depletion; we have many ways of doing this.
    When we know the state of environmental and climate systems, and the load humankind is likely to place on this deplete Earth, we can begin an analysis of the global economic and political system and assess its stability and its ability to bring positive change, and we can assess the cost (because there is always a cost) of making those changes.
    Having done an objective analysis of our situation, and having identified the elements of the global system which encourage population growth and/or resource depletion, we might then proceed to determine what can be saved of the world.
    Does that seem reasonable?

    • Rob Harding

      Yes, that seems quite reasonable. Thanks for presenting the idea. I’ve also read that book and agree with your point that we can infer that both the size and continued growth of the human population is contributing significantly to resource depletion, and I’ll add resource scarcities to your point.

      From reading the Brundtland Report, released in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, my interpretation is that this was more or less the initiative that the report attempted to inspire. I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already. I found it to be just as impressive as Cohen’s book.

  • jpcarson

    We need, I think, to “count the cost” – there is great institutional evil in today’s world and the people who benefit from it will try to murder or otherwise destroy those they perceive upsetting their apple carts. This reality does not get mentioned in MAHB, making it a bit “unreal” to me.

    So, Tormod, what would you say to the family of someone killed by some unknown person hired “powers that be” – because he or she wanted civilization to have a chance to sustain to year 2100 or beyond?

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      I guess I would say that the rest of us should have stood up with that person so that this hadn’t happened, and to help make the efforts they died for more successful.

      • Joe Carson

        I agree, with the qualification that you should add something as “and more of us will be murdered (or have careers destroyed) in similar fashion if we refuse to be terrorized/intimidated by the fearful (in two senses, they are afraid of losing their power and their power is fearful) “powers that be.”

  • Julian Cribb

    This is a great discussion. For me, two key issues emerge, however: first the necessity of solving all ten existential threats simultaneously. (Extinction, resource scarcity, WMD, climate, global toxicity, food insecurity, pandemic disease, population, dangerous new technologies and delusion). A solution to any of these which makes the others worse is no solution, and this is the problem of a piecemeal approach: solutions need to be cross-cutting, for all existential threats. Yet that are both conceivable and achievable (see The killer is Number 10, the human capacity for self-delusion. Humans have four dominant belief systems that are without evidential base or existence in the cosmos outside of humanity: money, religion, politics and the human narrative. Each of these can be, and is being, used to distract and divert us from solving the risks we now face. So one of the primary tasks is to devise belief systems that are focussed on human survival, not on other more selfish ends, or to correct the ones we have. I think this is do-able, but the essential question is whether it costs 4 billion or nine billion human lives before we reach the point where we change our attitudes.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Agree. Though still not sure about it being achievable/conceivable. That’s for us to find out, and where I was hoping a well-designed “seminar” and edited book project could help a bit… (Thanks for the link, but I think it has been abbreviated and doesn’t work?)

      Also, to me, human survival is still a selfish end. I have more love for the innocent victims of humanity, all those other species that are already impacted by “our sins”…

      More on all of this in my book… 😉

  • rreezz

    we are locked into a system that needs to be toxic to operate. Therefore there is no fix fot it. It doesn’t need to be adjusted but replaced by a new system which can be compatible with the earth system. there is NO solution to a predicament.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      So can we fix the system, or build a new one? I agree it is a tall order, especially with the looming deadlines. (Some of which may already have passed…)

      If we can’t save the world (with existing institutions, or whatever), then someone should say so loud and clear.

      • passenger66

        That would be your fellow conservation biologist Guy McPherson.
        Perhaps you disagree with him. If so do you think it worthwhile to say why he has it wrong?
        My personal take, after having attempted for a few decades to look for objective evidence that we are a good enough species to fix things up, is that such evidence does not exist. Objectively, we seem to be an asshole species.
        Perhaps we are doubly doomed, by processes that are running away as described by Guy and by our own inability as a species to act well (the former being a result of the latter).
        I suspect we have or had the science and technology to implement sustainability, but we haven’t, have we? I’m afraid it’s not looking good.
        For solutions, to my mind, I’d want a list of quantified technical approaches for example the incomplete list in Prescription for the Planet. By quantified I mean which scientifically can be seen to fix the measurable things. Eg like providing enough food for people in a fashion that leaves say 25% of the earth land surface totally wild, on the basis that someone has shown that is is necessary to leave 25% wild because otherwise there is not enough biodiversity for sustainability. Once such a list has been posted up, then there would be a quantifiable target to rally around. (I’m inclined to suspect a change to the system of economics is also required somewhere on this list. I have a feeling there is something wrong with the current pricing mechanism.)
        I can’t be the first person to have had this idea – but I haven’t seen such a list. I’d have thought this site would have a link to such a list in the top left hand corner of the home page.

  • Meditor

    Poverty necessitates immediacy; your description of “breeding” seems heavy with value judgements. The poor are only destroying their environment because the organized world gives them no choice: people cutting down rain forest to grow consumer products are victims of exploitation: they work for pennies to underwrite the wealth you enjoy.
    That was me, following your advice and choosing what I care about. I care very much about rural people and poor people. I very much care about their survival under the onslaught of globalism and urbanism. Hungry people make choices from the menu that is offered them. Sometimes the only items on the menu are starvation and poaching.
    I noticed that among your informal list of interconnected problems you missed the most important of those. First, obviously, is overpopulation. The second is empire. For example, Rome drove some species of trees in North Africa to extinction in search of wood for large tables. They nearly deforested Britain making glass. Exploitation of rural peoples and the environment they depend on is a hallmark of empire and urbanization. Cities are growth factories; they either attract population and commerce, meaning they exploit people and the environment in far away places, or they die. All cities from Ur have had lines of organization to bring in food and haul out waste, to bring in market goods and wring out and concentrate wealth.
    So, two things we could focus on which would sweep all that interconnectedness into one basket is to literally save the environment and humankind by dramatically reducing those aspects which encourage population growth and resource exploitation. To save the world we must de-urbanize and reduce those aspects of society which encourage consumption and relegate so many to poverty, and provide wealth, with externalized costs, to so many.
    Of course, giving up the drivers of overpopulation and over consumption will mean saying goodbye to many of the things we see as benefits to social complexity: the pretty parts of the city you see in marketing brochures. Garish hotels and office buildings; environment killing malls, lofty universities and so on.
    But, I wonder if that isn’t what you mean to say when you say “saving the world.” Do you literally mean “saving the environment and human kind” or do you mean “finding a way to keep what we have but somehow not kill the planet”?
    Because, actually stopping the Anthropocene means very few humans alive, and no Starbucks.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      I _am_ heavy with value judgements.

      I don’t blame the poor. At least not as much as I blame those who have more options.

      I also don’t get much enjoyment out of my wealth, with things the way they are (i.e. the millions of species that I love under onslaught).

      I certainly don’t miss overpopulation, nor power relations.

      De-urbanization creates other problems, such as greater human land use (though of course living humans will do anything to get food, and the food still has to be grown whether we live in cities or countryside).

      What I really mean is “finding a way somehow not to kill the planet”.

      • Meditor

        I’m sorry, I might have been inconsiderate. I, too have values; likely much like yours.
        I’m just certain that it is too late, that we are still running, but about to fall down. There is so much damage to the planet it simply can’t support all the humans we have who want the things the West already has.
        In that case, what we are talking about is triage.
        Forgive my inconsiderate remarks.

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          No worries, amigo. Not at all…

          It may be too late. I don’t think we are completely sure of that just yet. It is hard to know exactly when a tipping point has been exceeded.

          If it is too late, I think it is because of the time it would take us to get humanity to get their act together. If we actually got our act together, completely, today, I think perhaps that it would not be too late. But it would have to be an all out effort. And we would have to be smart about it. Not a predominant feature of a crowd of humans… Population size, the momentum built into the population pyramid and the climate system, and people’s desires, their ignorance and selfishness, are challenges for sure.

  • Herb

    I have a bit of a contrarian view. I elevate climate change above all other problems for the obvious (at least to those closely following the latest studies and reports) reason that we have perhaps a generation at most to transition to a zero carbon world to avoid the decimation of all life on earth.

    This is a task much larger than mobilizing to fight WW2.
    Massive amounts of capital must be diverted from its current business and usual destinations to clean energy, direct air capture, soil carbon health, alternative transport, city densification, low impact agriculture and so forth.

    It is clear that central governments can only do so much, given the vagaries of politics and the anesthetization of much of the voting public in most key countries.

    So I propose that a small group of people with time, sophistication and deep knowledge of climate change, finance and social change systemically work to convince as many of the 1%ers as possible to refocus a significant but manageable proportion of their billions to finance climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. $100 billion raised annually would finance an important chunk of the capital needed to transition to a low carbon economy in a decade or two at most.

    Read my upcoming book at no cost. It invents a new climate vocabulary.

    • Sailesh Rao

      According to the World Wildlife Fund, 52% of all wild vertebrates disappeared between 1970 and 2010. During that time, human population doubled and human per capita consumption doubled so that human impact on the planet approximately quadrupled. Assuming that the rate of disappearance of wild vertebrates is proportional to human impact on the planet, we are on pace to kill them all off before 2030.

      Our environmental crises are all interrelated and systemic and they require a systemic solution.

      • Tormod V. Burkey

        I agree we need a systemic solution. At least major parts of our efforts must be to create systems which create better trends in aggregate human behavior and solves collective action problems.

        But how do we do that? Where do we start?

        • Sailesh Rao

          We must start with our human story:

          Who are we?
          What is our relationship with the world?
          Why are we here?

          Can we answer these questions in such a way that a positive nonlinear shift in human behavior becomes inevitable? In my books, “Carbon Dharma” and “Carbon Yoga,” I use the Caterpillar and the Butterfly analogy to posit that everything has happened for the best.

          Using the internet, public-key cryptography and block-chain technology, it is now possible to create an alternate, distributed, open-source system of political, social and economic governance oriented towards human creativity and not growth, with compassion as its organizing value, not consumption, and collaboration as its organizing principle, not competition. Creativity, compassion and collaboration are all infinitely sustainable characteristics whereas growth, consumption and competition are not.

    • Mike Hanauer


      We must get beyond just fighting the latest fire.

      This is much BIGGER than only climate change (or whatever symptom you want to fight today), which is one of many difficult environmental and social problems we now have. I have come to believe that getting to authentic sustainability, as the real environmental issue, is the required overarching goal if we wish to save our planet, our nation, and our communities.

      If we only try to mitigate symptoms like climate change, we still NEVER attain authentic sustainability. That means the oceans still die, the fish are all eaten, the planet’s diversity of life disappears with all its habitat, the traffic, sprawl, heaps of trash, and economic inequality still only get worse with always escalating housing prices, clean water becomes ever scarcer, and we still need franken foods to feed the growing population. In fact, mitigating only carbon emissions may well allow us to further escape sustainability and worsen all the symptoms. Our continuing population and economic growth overwhelms all else, including carbon emissions and our need for energy. I believe we must get to a steady state economy (see CASSE at

      Our culture of looking to (eternal) growth is the SOURCE of most of our problems, NOT the solution. The USA doubles its GDP every 40 years and doubles its population every 60 years. Growth overwhelms all else we try to do to help the environment and our society. It only feeds quantity while quality is overwhelmed.

      You say we don’t have time to act on the overarching issue of growth? We have said that for 50 years, yet we always find some other symptom to fight. Further, changing population trends is technologically easy and quick compared to changing atmospheric carbon levels. It is time! Individuals and, especially, organizations must rise to this reality if they value their mission or an honest quality future.

      Consider even the local financial, water and open space challenges in your own community. Without always pressure to support more growth, we could concentrate on our quality of life rather than in always somehow accommodating more. “Better, not bigger”.

      Population is the great multiplier!

      “Anyone who believes in unlimited growth is either a madman or an economist”. -Kenneth Boulding

      • Herb

        You must realize of course that the only effective way to avoid the extinction of human beings by climate change is to move to a degrowth model. How else can we reduce our carbon emissions by a minimum of 80%? What I am proposing is not In opposition to what you’re saying. But we must keep an eye on the ball…and the ball is survival of life on earth.

        • Mike Hanauer

          Did you see my reference to CASSE?

  • Mike Hanauer

    I think the real question is Do we want to save the world (which includes nature)?

    Most of our public and private institutions involved with environment just talk of one issue — water, air, climate change, economy, animal rights, biodiversity, human rights, etc. Very few talk authentic sustainability — asking what is needed to get there and advocating a program (which must include fixing our Overpopulation). And then, hopefully, getting the other groups to sign on.

    Short term and feel good thinking rather than long term do good thinking is rampant.

    IMHO, breaking out of that, in a big way, is necessary if we rally care about any real semblance of quality of life and the natural world.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      OK. Yes.

      Assuming we did want to save the world, could we?

      If people don’t want to save the world, could we get them to want to? I know I do…

      • Mike Hanauer

        1. I believe we could.
        2. I hope so; Check out and

      • davidbb

        of course we can save the world, but we would have to identify with it and the future to do so. Humans dont even identify with humans not in their families. lack of identification is key

  • runningwolf

    It is not the Earth that is in crises and needs saving, but rather humanity. The Earth has been around for billions of years whereas we as modern mankind have only been around for a few thousands of years…as far as we know that is. The Earth can take care of itself for it is a living thriving intelligent being. When it deems it necessary it will get rid of us like a dog that scratches to get rid of fleas. Until humanity can change their basic outlook on life and turn away from greed and hostile fear based aggressive competition, life on this planet will only continue to slid into situations such as they are. A total change in consciousness that promotes cooperation and the value in diverse cultures is absolutely necessary if we’re to survive and prosper on a world wide basis. We’re entering the Age of Aquarius, where humanity supposedly comes together in cooperation, harmony, brotherhood, and connectivity. This is akin to a beehive or ant colony where each individual bee or ant is unique with its own special purpose and direction, but always working for the good of the whole. Until we can do the same we will continue to do the things that have brought us to the brink of destruction and possible societal collapse. Too much of humanity remains barbaric and self-centered, even though we have wrapped ourselves in the cloak of modern technology. It’s time to wake up!!

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      What about all the other species on earth?

      It is obviously true, and honestly, quite sophomoric, that the Earth has been around a long time and will continue to be so for quite a while. Though one may not be happy to see Earth turned into another Venus, or the loss millions of present day species at our hand.

      Otherwise, I agree with you.

      • Tommy Tolson

        I suspect that a critical mass of ecological literacy will be required to have an available basis that fits the life system in our designs for a safe future on this planet. Perhaps not most, but a lot of us know (believe?) that biodiversity creates (by symbiosis, Lynn Margulis says in “Symbiotic Planet,” if I read it correctly) and comprises the ecological structures that provide the ecological services that support life. If we don’t have functional ecological worldviews, we can’t see solutions within problems with clarity sufficient to support effective designs of structures in the landscape that function as we expect – to build structures that can support the life system so life joins our designs. When (if?) that happens, our design has succeeded, and the life system has a foothold for regeneration.

        This is permaculture design, ecological design with an ethics system guiding the observation that sees the solution in the problem. Essentially, we design and build functional (after life joins) ecosystems. Even though that sounds like nonsense to reductionist culture/science, it is one system that, used with wisdom and knowledge of the feedbacks that allow us to observe the design’s current status and tweak it when needed, restores resilience to the life system, one design at a time.

        Permaculture was born in Australia, created by forest ecologists in response to the ecological crisis that was already well underway in 1970 but had a tough time in the “real” world that created the crisis. The “aha!” that drives paradigm shift allows us to rejoin the life system as Aldo Leopold’s “plain members” and find the niche the system has for us that gives us our living, with economic liberation, or subversion, as a special added bonus, while we do the work we’re designed to do is such a subtle thing until we steep in it for a while and recognize its profundity, and then we’re in the rebirth of our souls, newly mindful of connections that support life.

        With US citizens, ecologically illiterate by default because it serves the present assault on the life system, converting resilience to money that won’t buy the ecological services to keep us alive in an ecological collapse like the one now in progress in the atmosphere. “Climate change,” a reductionist term invented by a GOP spinmeister because “global warming” told more than Republicans wanted known, is such a weak view of the process of collapse it’s effectively arrested development, and proves the intelligence of GOP propagandists with designs for recreating the 50s, a world safe for old white male supremacy. So we’re told that we have to tell the truth so people can hear it, a difficult task with the ecologically illiterate invested in remaining so.

        We have a design system intended to engage the life system in such a way that we can, in one spot on the planet, reverse collapse, with 4 decades of documentation of its efficacy. A Permaculture Design Course costs a lot of money, from about $2500 on up, but it’s a bargain because it provides a way to make productive use of ecological literacy so it drives a design system for restoring the life system to health in one place. It’s been growing all over the planet since the 70s and it’s still a long way from the solution it can be – must be, really. We don’t have as much time as some need to believe to get the life system regenerating itself, with our cooperation.

        I think we teach ecological literacy so we get to the “aha!” with the least truama possible, in live groups is probably easiest for the learner if not the teacher, who is also, in what’s left of my mind, a learner, and we teach permaculture design to ecologically literate people who can run with it as soon as they get their certificate.

        If I’m right (after finding the upside of being right vastly exaggerated) the proverbial wheel is ready to roll. There just needs to be a lot more of them.

        I think. Thanks for what you’re doing with MAHB.

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          I like it. I like the way you think.

          Can permaculture save the world? Alone?

          Can we get to that point where you want us to be? Can we do it in time?

          • Tommy Tolson


            I think that no matter what humans do, as long as we don’t cause Earth to perish in a fireball of methane that burns past the bacterial layer, then Earth can recover, whether the human species survives or not. It might have a better chance if we don’t.

            Some people don’t harm the life system with their lifestyles until five years after western culture’s capitalist vultures get TV propaganda to them. Permaculture design doesn’t mimic them, but it does create the opportunity to choose our behavior in the world.

            Many people in the US think food comes from the store. Going on 9 decades since the Great Depression, it looks to me like knowledge of how to live in the life system instead of a cultural cocoon designed by ecological illiterates in order to continue to plunder the life system for whatever can be converted into wealth is almost gone, for a majority of citizens of the gloabal North.

            So I think the chances that permaculture design *will* save the planet are slender.

            Still, it could, if enough people practiced its ethics, principles, and practices, because it has created more than one oasis in more than one desert.

            We live in the Texas Hill Country where we moved into a rock house on an acre of land in the city limits in a relatively destroyed riparian corridor of the Blanco River. When we moved in, something told me to avoid mowing, so I refused to do it, or to let it happen again after my partner hired a guy to mow it. It grew out into native prairie and fed all kinds of creatures and now she’s happy to avoid mowing, too. She drove in one day to find the milkweed’s lovely purple blooms just covered in butterflies, not long after I refused again to cut them. She was converted, but not too long after that, the people in back of us used Roundup to clear out the chain link fence between us, killing the milkweed. I doubt they’ll do that again. I’m seeding to grow more.

            This place is a certified wildlife habitat now, and my permaculture design has to fit within that landscape. The deer come here to have their fawns and leave them here until they can jump the fence. We feed them, but they graze all the time they’re not sleeping, which a lot of them do here. They reseed the place with what they like to eat. Their scat is seed bombs.

            I grew up in town, eating from stores, and lived in Houston when I left for the SF Bay Area for grad school (I have a MFA now), and one of the things I did was take a Permaculture Design Course from two of the awesome women of the world, Penny Livingston and Starhawk. That time changed my outlook forever. From Richard Heinberg at New College, I learned human ecology, and energetics like Howard Odum taught. Even though I organized Houston Greens and called myself living by the Green 10 Key Values, I knew almost nothing, to my alarm, about global ecology. I still don’t know as much as I want to. Permaculture design taught me to leave the landscape alone until I observed it long enough to understand the life system there. This city lot is a university.

            Do no harm to the life system. That’s my intention. Now I have a fair idea of how to manage that. We’re headed toward a negative carbon lifestyle. Our family unit – us and 7 cats, all but 2 of them rescue cats – have half the carbon footprint of the average American. No one in Texas wants to learn that. Texas is all about carbon. So I do what I do, and write fiction. I got my MFA when I was 54 and fiction writing is the best game in town. Human ecology is all over my stories.

            I don’t know that anything I do will make a difference, but I act as if it will, and I’ve pretty much learned to live within my values, so even if I don’t make the difference I want to, I’m headed in that direction.

            We lived atop a mountain in a functional forest ecosystem for 5 years before we moved back into town. In the 2011 drought, we saved a lot of critters, so we know it’s what we ought to work at. It’s never easy but it’s always been worth the effort.

            Anti-war activists taught me about the ecological crisis when I was in San Francisco for a Navy school. When I got to Vietnam, I found that all they told me was true. The ecological destruction the US made a living at distorted my soul. Moral wounding, they call it now, and that is the right thing to call it. The US did all of that for oil, tin, and rubber if the Rand Corporation told the truth, and they did because no one has proven the Pentagon Papers wrong, just as they’ve not proven a single tenet of The Limits to Growth wrong. The authors’ model still holds up. Their data set was limited but their model still got it right. Their results are close to what actually happened.

            I’m 3rd generation oilfield and nearly all of my family on both sides was in the oil business. A lot still are. But what those antiwar folks taught me kept me out of the oilfield all but about 4 or 5 years of working on rigs for six months then having to quit for moral triage until I ran out of money, then I’d find another rig.

            If I could start from there and be here, anyone can, and if enough people know permaculture design, it can save the life system from us and our illiteracies. Discarding ignorance is hard, painful work, but it may be the best thing humans do. It’s easier in groups but still tough. A lot won’t go into that much pain on purpose, but salvation lies on the other side, liberation of a sort no one can take away. We live in a culture of trauma and we have to heal before we can manage the sort of transformation ecological literacy requires.

            I’ve often felt like Cassandra, unable to have people understand what I need to say.

            But permaculture design lives in the middle of my life, and it gives me all the rewards I’m able to accept. My partner got cancer, and she’s still recovering 5 years later. I went to Vietnam and I’m still recovering more than 45 years later. I worship the energy that animates all life and our Methodist minister understands and honors that.

            One of my stories is about Vietnam, one’s about the prison capitalism makes of paradise, one’s about permaculture ethics, another is about the Trail of Tears, and my work is getting those stories out of me and into tree-free ebooks. Fiction tells truth people can hear better than nonfiction, it seems to me, so I continue to write to learn how to say what I need to have said, in the end.

            We can get there, if we’re willing to do what it takes, but in time? It’s hard to see how it could be in time, but I keep going in case it is. I’ll be okay with death if it isn’t, but I’ve been okay with death, in theory, since I was 19, in Vietnam, getting shot at now and then. I never know what effect I may have. What people have told me I’ve said to them has given me profound amazement.

            I hope I’ve come relatively close to answering your questions. They are good questions. Thanks for asking them.

          • Rob Harding

            Great post, Tommy. Thank you for sharing. I found it quite inspirational, especially the following sentence which also happens to describe how I feel along with what drives me.

            “I don’t know that anything I do will make a difference, but I act as if it will, and I’ve pretty much learned to live within my values, so even if I don’t make the difference I want to, I’m headed in that direction.”

    • Meditor

      We aren’t hive animals, though, are we? In a hive, all the animals share a common gene set. Even in animals which establish large social groups, there is a high degree of shared genetic material. In those instances, very few individuals are allowed to breed, but other individuals benefit by not breeding since their dna is represented by the troop or pack.
      We are not like that. Your value judgements about barbarism are misplaced. The barbarians dismantled Rome, doing the entire world a favor. Barbarians took care of their children while Romans could sell their children. Barbarians allowed women in positions of authority; Rome never did.
      You’re rooting for the wrong team if you want to save the world. It’s Rome that brings about collapse.

      • runningwolf

        What does Rome have to do with our present situation?? Are you saying that we keep hitting the repeat button?? Look at the BIG picture and back out of the minutia…….it just tends to cloud and confuse the issues…….