Category Archives: Sustainability

Too Many Jobs?

What if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?

If “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs are beneficial for the economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?

      Nearly every politician campaigns on the promise of strengthening the economy, creating jobs, and putting people back to work. Jobs are a big issue in the best of times and in the worst of times. In fact, jobs are often the only issue we hear about in the news. But what if job creation actually makes us poorer instead of richer? And what if the path to prosperity called for less work and fewer jobs?
      Consider those green “Recovery and Reinvestment” signs that sprouted up in every community as part of the federal government’s effort to create jobs and get the economy rolling in 2009. How many people were employed mining and refining the metal for all the steel posts and aluminum signs? How many people were employed printing and distributing those signs, or mixing the concrete and mounting the signs in place? If these signs were so beneficial to our economy, why don’t we install a million times as many and grow the economy that much faster?
      The answer should be obvious. Building signs contributes absolutely nothing towards our standard of living, our quality of life, or the health of our environment. On the contrary, essential natural resources were mined, processed, and used for no net benefit. At the end of the day we are left with fewer natural resources and ultimately higher prices for those resources.
      Similarly, consider something as ubiquitous as junk mail. How many tens of thousands of people are employed to cut down trees, mill them into paper, produce ink, do graphic artwork for catalogs and political campaign brochures, address them, mail them, ship them across the country, and sort them into boxes, only to have most of them discarded and recycled or landfilled without even being looked at? Everyone along the way, from the graphic artist to the accountants and the janitors, are glad to have the work, a chance to earn money and keep food on the table, without anyone seeming to notice that they are functionally employed to do nothing more than consume and dispose of our natural resources.
      But burning up billions of barrels of oil permanently depletes the resource, devastates the landscape and pollutes the water, contributes to global warming, and results in higher prices at the pump. If we have nothing tangible to show for the investment, then we literally make ourselves poorer by working too much, leaving less wealth to pass along to the next generation.

      What if you were offered a job whose sole purpose was to use up our natural resources to ensure that there will be none left for the next generation? Would you take such a job to feed your family? And how would that be different from the work you are doing now?

“Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back.” –Henry David Thoreau, 1863

      As Henry David Thoreau pointed out in Life Without Principle in 1863, “Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.” In fact, our situation is far worse, because throwing stones over a wall is utterly harmless. But we have millions of people employed directly or indirectly in extracting and processing our remaining natural resources for no other purpose than to dispose of them.
      Junk mail is only one example among thousands. Worldwide, millions of people are employed to convert raw wealth into garbage destined for landfills. Consider the ubiquitous plastic products at the ‘big box’ store. How many hundreds of thousands of people are employed to extract and refine the raw materials, design and make molds, build factories, manufacture, ship overseas, and distribute utterly useless products that we then hire more people to transport to a landfill and bury underground for eternity? That is the fate of any product that is neither biodegradable nor recyclable. If you walk into any big box store like a Wal-Mart or a Target, you will find that virtually every shelf in every isle is filled with cheap plastic crap that was made in China, designed to break or wear out quickly, and is destined to be permanently buried in the ground after a few weeks, months, or at best years. Almost nothing on the shelves will last more than a decade.

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing, natural resources for products destined for landfills?

How many millions of people are employed extracting and processing natural resources for products destined for landfills?

      It’s not just plastic crap, either. It is also the appliances that break down within a few months or a few years. From freezers to blenders to food processors, the consumer is better off looking for well-used, forty-year-old American-made appliances, rather than buying brand new appliances that are likely to fail in short order. It is also our disposable tools, the drills, saws, wrenches, and shovels that often break the first or second time you use them, including my all-time favorite, the hammer that bends backwards when you try to drive in a nail!
      The Chinese must think that Americans are the stupidest people on the planet. In an unprecedented transfer of resources, we converted one of the poorest nations on earth into a budding superpower. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and our country is practically bankrupt. The Chinese are literally selling us garbage to bury in our landfills, while diverting profits towards constructing bullet trains, installing solar power, launching a space program more ambitious than our own, buying American companies, and loaning operating funds to our federal government while we dig yet a deeper hole for ourselves.
      At the heart of this problem is not junk mail, big box stores, or the Chinese, but the perceived economic benefits of “planned obsolescence.” In essence, a company that builds a product that is too good is ultimately destined to saturate the market with that product and run itself out of business. If all products were made to last, then people wouldn’t need to buy anything, factories would shut down, employees would be laid off, and nobody would have any money to buy anything, even if they wanted to. Making products that are designed to fail is believed to be good for business, and a sure means to keep the economy rolling.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

Long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected.

      We all know the story of Thomas Edison, and how he tried thousands of different filaments to make a long-lasting incandescent light bulb. Less commonly known is that early light bulbs lasted too long, so long that one bulb has been in continuous use for more than a 100 years in a fire department in Livermore, California. But long-lived light bulbs were not good for sustained business, and so a cartel of light bulb manufacturers created a pact and set standards to invent more fragile bulbs. The industry standard systematically fell from 2,500 hours to 1,500 hours, before the 1,000-hour light bulb was perfected, as detailed in the documentary Pyramids of Waste (also known as The Light Bulb Conspiracy).
      The documentary details economic theory about the need to make short-lived products to maintain consumer demand and keep the economy rolling. For instance, Dupont chemists were pretty proud of nylons, first created back in the 1950s. But they were sent back to the lab to rework the formula, because the original stockings were too durable to wear out efficiently. The documentary takes the viewer into the university classroom to see how engineers are formally trained to satisfy employers by dumbing-down products to ensure failure. This is the American way to achieve prosperity. Millions of people are gainfully employed mindlessly cranking out and distributing useless or inferior products. Money flows around and around the loop, and we work our entire lives to keep ahead of engineered entropy. Advertisers encourage disposability by seducing consumers to want newer, glitzy products, even if they haven’t worn out older models.

“every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere.”

      This inverted logic might have made sense when markets were finite and our natural resources seemed infinite, but now the reverse is largely true. Resources are limited, and anything tossed in the trash raises the price of our remaining natural resources. For example, copper is becoming increasingly expensive, and every time we discard an electrical cord in the trash instead of recycling it, we effectively raise the cost of copper products everywhere. Meanwhile, the sheer size of the global marketplace is hard to fathom. It might be possible to saturate one market, but there are always new markets to reach out to. For example, the Skil Corporation manufactures a quality worm-drive Skilsaw, used primarily in wood construction work. Unlike other tools, a Skilsaw doesn’t break and get tossed in the trash. It is built to last and almost infinitely repairable. It is a successful product because of its durability, and that is a successful strategy for the company, rather than making an inferior product. Unfortunately, durable products are an exception to the rule.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

Most houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage.

      We have built not only a disposable economy, but also a disposable country. Even the houses that shelter us from the elements are little more than temporary shanties, dressed up on the surface. Most houses are designed so poorly that they require a constant influx of fossil fuel energy to keep them cool in summer and to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter. Most houses are so flimsy that you could punch a hole in the wall with a fist. From leaky water heaters to failing asphalt shingles, from carpets that must be replaced and bathrooms that rot out, houses require an army of maintenance workers just to keep the structures habitable long enough to pay off the mortgage. Look around you at the millions upon millions of houses, and consider that almost none of them were engineered to last more than a few decades without major repairs. But all that work is supposedly good for the economy. It keeps people gainfully employed converting raw wealth into more garbage for the landfills.
      By the same reasoning, earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are often considered good for the economy, because people find work cleaning up the mess, rebuilding infrastructure, and replacing merchandise. Every major oil spill is recorded as a positive economic entry in our national accounts due to the jobs and income “created,” while completely ignoring resource loss or damage. According to this kind of logic, America would be richer than ever if we just burned down every house, office, and factory and demolished all our possessions!
      Never mind that carbon emissions are spiking upward when they should be tapering off. Never mind that global warming is happening faster than predicted, or that cumulative factors could potentially lead to a runaway greenhouse effect. With the economy in the doldrums and unemployment levels high, all other concerns are secondary. It is imperative that we keep everyone gainfully employed doing important work, like making plastic toys to go with our Happy Meals.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

Only a few percent of the labor force is employed producing essential goods and services.

      We are arguably victims of our own success, and our cultural customs are not unlike the historic potlatch ceremonies of Northwestern Native American tribes, where chiefs demonstrated their great wealth and prestige by giving away their possessions, or better yet, destroying them. In a highly productive tribal economy, where material wealth is functionally meaningless, what better way to flaunt your status than by tearing up blankets, punching holes in canoes, burning down your house, or killing your own slaves in front of honored guests? At the very least, it kept the economy rolling.
      Our industrial economy is so incredibly productive that it only takes a few percent of the population to supply all of our needs, and everyone else therefore must be employed doing alternative, often meaningless work to pretend they are contributing to society.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt.

In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt… Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money.

      In a hunter-gatherer society people made their own clothes, and it could take a couple weeks of dedicated effort to tan hides and make one shirt. Advancing to the technology of a livestock-driven agricultural society, a specialist might tan hides or spin fibers to make a shirt every day or two. In an industrial society, a worker may crank out a new shirt in an hour or two, and with today’s automation, it becomes possible to press a button and spit out a whole pile of shirts. Every increase in efficiency means that fewer people are needed to make shirts, which translates to higher unemployment and a need to create alternative work for people to earn money so they can afford to buy those shirts. As a society, we unconsciously create meaningless work to keep people busy doing work that doesn’t actually produce anything; it effectively redistributes wealth from those who produce it to those who don’t.
      For example, H&R Block, Inc. has approximately 11,000 company-owned and franchised retail locations in the United States, employing a great many people to help American citizens pay – or avoid paying – their taxes. This is just one company out of hundreds involved in the tax industry. We might be glad to pay a little money for an accountant or a do-it-yourself software package, but that expense is effectively a tax. We could easily invest that money towards something useful, such as paying off the federal deficit, investing in education or the environment, or in a better space program. But instead we redistribute the money to pay for office buildings, desks, computers, lava lamps, cleaning supplies, and employee wages for an army of people who don’t actually contribute to the economy. Most of that work would be unnecessary if we scaled back the IRS, greatly simplified the tax code, and collected “green” taxes against products that are harmful to the planet.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood.

      The irony is that job creation is intended to sustain the economy, but there is nothing remotely sustainable about employing people to decimate life on earth. There have been five past mass extinctions in the history of life on earth. From asteroid impacts to massive volcanic eruptions that smothered the planet, each event permanently wiped out half or more of all species on the planet. In each case it took tens of millions of years for the surviving species to diversify and fill the ecological voids. Now we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, as a result of the collective human effort to exploit all remaining marketable resources before our grandchildren reach adulthood. We have destabilized the climate, with the forecast calling for more ‘job-building’ natural disasters ranging from floods to droughts, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, rising sea levels, and now even “superstorms.” Meanwhile, grasslands are turning to deserts, tropical forests are being logged to oblivion, the Arctic ice sheet is rapidly melting away, coral reefs are dying, and the oceans are predicted to be fished out by the middle of the century. We are expected to wipe out half of all life on earth this century, and politicians everywhere are worried about the unemployment rate.
      But the reality is that committing labor and natural resources towards work that doesn’t produce anything ultimately results in a net drag on the economy. It raises costs and makes us poorer. And that is the sad reality of our present economic situation: the faster the economy grows, the more impoverished we ultimately become!
      Conversely, the path to building a sustainable and prosperous economy is to eliminate extraneous work and dedicate our resources towards investments that make a tangible, positive difference in our world. Call it “green prosperity.” The more we invest in conservation and eliminating waste, the wealthier we become.
      Prosperity in the twenty-first century will be created by those who seek profit by making the world a better place. Ecopreneurs will out-compete inefficient, abusive industries by starting green businesses that close the loop on wasted materials, energy, time, money and labor. They will heal wasted ecosystems and restore biodiversity at a profit while delivering useful goods and services to the public. Homeowners too, will profit by seeking ways to eliminate everything from high energy bills to mortgage payments–even eliminating the need for a regular job. But there is no need to wait for such a future to come, for the revolution has already started. The door is wide open, and anyone can walk the path to green prosperity, changing the world every step along the way.
      Taking one small step, an individual can install a solar water heater or hire a contractor to install it for them. The solar water heater reduces a household’s dependence on fossil fuels, lowers the utility bill, and brings a timely return for the investment. By making similar investments and upgrades in a house, a person can trim the utility bill down to almost nothing, and even install photovoltaic panels to run the meter backwards and wipe out the utility bill entirely. In fact, it is a whole lot easier to avoid expenses and debt in the first place than it is to earn a fat paycheck and spend one’s way out of debt.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

There is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all.

      As a young adult, I hated the idea of getting a job and paying bills. I abhorred the idea of spending my entire life working to pay a mortgage, rent, utilities, car payments, school loans, or any other kind of bills. I didn’t mind working, but I wanted it to count for something. I have succeeded in life by avoiding extraneous work, rather than creating it. I successfully avoided paying rent or a home mortgage, college loans, car payments, big utility bills, or any other substantial recurring expenses. Indeed, there is no greater feeling of security than having a durable and efficient home with no mortgage and no utility bill. The greatest job security is not needing a job at all, and it was that freedom that allowed me to indulge in my writing until I turned it into a successful career.
      While there are many pathways to eliminating expenses, debt, and the need for jobs, as described in my article Escaping the Job Trap, the reality is that most people will never walk that path on their own. As it is, shockingly few people install solar water heaters or properly insulate their homes, even though the economics are already good, and tax incentives often make it even better. But it takes a certain amount of know-how to install one’s own solar water heater, and a certain amount of knowledge just to competently hire a contractor to do it for you. As a result, there are disappointingly few solar water heaters in operation in our country.
      It would be far better to provide incentives for utilities to install and maintain solar water heaters themselves. For example, if a utility pays for and installs a solar water heater on a home, then the utility should profit from most of the energy savings. The customer could get a small reduction on their gas or electric bill, while the utility would continue to charge the customer as if they were using almost as much power as before. But the energy saved would be sold elsewhere, so that the utility would get paid twice for the same energy. It would be in the utility’s best interest to install identical, durable solar water heaters on every house, in order to reduce maintenance costs.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence.

      With the right incentives to spur investment in conservation and alternative energies, we could create real jobs and put millions of people to work weaning our civilization off of fossil fuels once and for all. In fact, with appropriate incentives for companies to manufacture long-lasting products and recycle everything, it wouldn’t take long to create a futuristic world where everyone has everything they need, and nobody really has to work any more.
      That might be a little hard to imagine, but it wouldn’t be that hard to achieve with a little commonsense. I know from experience that it is possible to break free from the rat race, live in prosperity with minimal bills, and choose whether or not you work. It is the freedom to pursue your own Dreams and make yourself a better person and the world a better place. We can build a green economy, end poverty, and conserve resources for future generations. But first we have to stop creating meaningless work and consider what kind of world we really want to bring into existence. Indeed, re-envisioning the meaning of work is the only chance we have of saving the planet and leaving something for the next generation.

      Thomas J. Elpel founded Green University®LLC in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Direct Pointing to Real Wealth, Roadmap to Reality, and Living Homes.


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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Energy Issues / Policy, Politics, Sustainability

Break Free from the Machine

      “The final dream of civilization is that everything will be controlled, organized, categorized; all wildness and spontaneity will be eradicated. Fish will live in fish farms. Trees will grow in tree farms. Animals for our food will live in feedlots. Humans will live in cities completely isolated from any other creatures (except cute pets), isolated from anything that might remind them of true wild nature. “Inferior races” will wither in poverty until they vanish. The Earth will be remodeled in the name of production. Any spontaneous, uncontrolled expression of life will be crushed.”

–Miles Olson, Author Unlearn, Rewild

Listen up first graders. My name is Mrs. Smith.

      Good morning Mrs. Smith!

Welcome to the Machine. In this classroom you will learn to sit quietly and pay attention to me.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

Forget your personal interests in life. I will decide what is important to learn. You will be obedient and follow orders.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

You will obey your teachers to start with, and when you are an adult you will obey your employers, doing whatever meaningless task they tell you to do.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

You will become good consumers and purchase whatever the commercials tell you to buy. You will go to college and pay for a piece of paper that says you are qualifed to serve the Machine.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

Above all, you will live out the rest of your days enslaved to the Machine, working to make monthly payments on college loans, a mortgage, a car, utility bills, phone bills, and more. Your life is not your own. It belongs to the Machine.

      Yes, Mrs. Smith.

      Individual: No, Mrs. Smith. I will not be assimilated!

Thirty years later…

      The Machine is everywhere and infinitely large. You cannot stop it by yelling at it. You cannot stop it by marching in protests. You cannot stop it by throwing rocks at it. You cannot stop it by burning down buildings or blowing up dams.

      We will lose half of all life on earth to the Machine this century. Below the sea, the coral reefs are dying and the fisheries are dwindling. Restaurants are substituting one fish for another on the menus as earlier species disappear from the oceans. The seas will be fished out by the middle of this century.

      Above the seas, our world is turning into deserts. For every bushel of corn produced, we still lose more than a bushel of soil. We have lost at least half the earth’s topsoil already. The soil carbon has been oxidized back into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. We have destabilized the global climate and we are losing more species to extinction every day.

      What is the Machine?

      The Machine is everything you have ever known and everything you have ever been told. The Machine is the unconscious collective sum of humanity. It assimilates everything in its path, turning meadows and wildlands into subdivisions and shopping malls. The Machine sucks the life out of children, making them into automatons that work without meaning and consume without purpose.

      Is the Machine alive?

      No. The Machine just assimilates and grows, assimilates and grows, consuming everything in its path. The Machine is only interested in its own culture of pizza, beer, and celebrity dramas. The real world is irrelevant to the Machine. The automatons live like zombies, oblivious to the loss of soil, habitat, and species around them.

      If we cannot defeat the Machine, then we should escape and be free!

      There is no escape. You can hide, but the Machine just keeps coming, devouring everything in its path. Your hiding places will be consumed and assimilated one by one until they are all gone.

      Then what can we do?

      The Machine has one weakness – it is utterly unconscious of its own existence. We can walk and play among the automatons unnoticed. And for those who are interested, we can study the Machine, figure out how it works, and redirect it from inside. I am looking for a few good warriors to help me. Are you up to the challenge?

      How does one become a warrior?

      Every human being is born with an inner light. It is a guiding light that can lead you through life, following a path that is uniquely yours. Learn to listen to your heart and not your head. Allow your inner light to guide you.

      The path of the warrior is not an easy one. The greatest challenge is to stay focused on that inner vision against the pomp and glare of Machine culture. Social conditioning starts at an early age, shaping the child to conform to the expectations of society. Rather than pursuing their own interests and passions, kids are molded to fit the Machine, to sit in desks and follow a routine prescribed by others. And they are bombarded by media glamorizing the Machine. Day by day, year by year, kids become increasingly confused until they lose track of that inner light.

      They may still emerge as teens or young adults with idealism or optimism, but they lose the ability to steer themselves and crumble under the weight of should’s and should-not’s. They learn to follow the rules and jump through hoops towards imaginary achievements.

      Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, most kids lose the light forever and become automatons enslaved by the Machine. Some are assimilated into the Machine without regret. Others rebel and try to prove that they control their own destiny. They refuse to be assimilated.

      They throw parties, get drunk, and smoke cigarettes and pot, thinking they are being wild and free. And yet, they play right into a trap of the Machine. They mimic what they see in Machine culture, pretending to have fun until it feels real to them. Ultimately, they are reduced to consumers, dependent upon and addicted to the corporations, money, and jobs that supply the goods.

      Those who knew how to play and have fun in nature as children may find themselves lost as adults. They sit around the campfire, drinking and talking about sports and dumb movies, because they have forgotten how to play. The only way to “connect with nature” is to pass a joint around and get high. But getting high and thinking one is connected with nature is very different from immersing oneself in nature and truly connecting.

      In the end, they are broken by the Machine, plugged into a life without vision. They work meaningless jobs by day, numb themselves in front of the television by night, and get wasted on the weekends to pretend they are free by forgetting that they are not.

      Unfortunately, those who lose respect for themselves also lose respect for the earth. They are automatons, blind to the beauty of nature. A few may profess to love nature, but they bring the party with them, leaving behind a trail of cigarette butts and beer cans.

      Once assimilated by the Machine, there are few that ever wake up again to remember their inner light. All that was human is lost. They may one day become productive members of society, but merely as instruments of the Machine.

      But we can make a difference. Here at Green University® LLC we are looking for a few good warriors to change the world. Through multiple levels of training, we can help you break free from the Machine and empower you to make a positive difference in the world.

Breaking Free
      Start by reclaiming lost freedoms as a hunter-gatherer. Learn to butcher deer, tan hides, and make your own clothing and equipment. Learn awareness skills, ecology, and survival skills. Learn how to walk free in a world full of artificial boundaries. The physical, mental, and emotional training is rigorous. At times you may hike long distances through rough terrain in daylight and darkness, learning to survive and thrive even with inadequate supplies for shelter, clothing, or food. You will learn how to be self-sufficient and survive independently in a world full of automatons.

      As apprentice warriors you gain hands-on experience in alternative construction, sustainable living, and green business development. You learn to think for yourself and to create opportunities you never imagined possible. You learn how to avoid paying a mortgage, how to eliminate utility bills, and how to greatly reduce your food expenses. You learn to live free of the Machine, even while you live within it.

      How far you go in the program is entirely up to you. For some, the inner light will guide you away from the battle, but set you free to live a life that is true. For others, the inner light will guide you to become warriors of peace, and together, we can infiltrate the Machine and render it harmless.

      Together we can reach out to the next generation and introduce kids to new possibilities. We can connect with anyone who shows a glimmer of light and hope and help reconnect them with the natural world. We can provide an example of freedom, demonstrating that any person can be free to live their dreams.

      And for those who are truly dedicated, we can maneuver ourselves into positions in business and government where decisions are made and take over the controls. We cannot shut down the Machine without rebellion from the automatons, but we can give them new tasks to green the Machine and halt the destruction of the rest of the planet. The automatons will never notice. They will do whatever the collective unconscious of the Machine tells them to do.

      We cannot run away from the Machine. Not any more. We must make our stand and make a positive difference. But please understand that the path of the warrior is not an easy one. When you break free from the Machine you develop awareness. You connect with the earth. You learn to care.

      We may yet lose half of all life on earth this century, and yet the automatons won’t even notice. They are not aware of the natural world. It won’t look any different to them. But you will notice. You will feel the pain of loss of every plant, animal, and child to the Machine. You will feel both the joy and the anguish of awareness.

Expect the Unexpected
      As apprentice warriors, you must also learn to expect the unexpected. Watch your backside at all times and learn to sleep with one eye open. Every moment is an opportunity to hone our awareness skills as we stalk up on each other for the attack or count coup and run away.

      Finally, as a warrior, never forget that death is stalking you.

      Death stalks all of us, warriors and automatons alike. But automatons never see it coming. Each day they go to work being busy at something they don’t care about, only to one day retire and live out their days glazed over in front of the television until death stalks up behind them and finishes them off. To live and die as a automaton is to have never lived at all.

      As a warrior, you cannot escape death, but you can see it coming. You can learn to be aware every moment of your life, always on guard for death, or on guard for another warrior-in-training ready to leap out at you. In the words of Thoreau, we seek “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

      As long as you are aware, you are alive, and when death finally comes, you can face it like a warrior, alive and fighting to your last breath.

      If you think you have what it takes to be a warrior of peace, then Join Us at Green University® LLC and together we can make a positive difference.

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

      “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

The Matrix, 1999


Filed under Education Reform, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival

Would you Vote for a Guy Who Eats Dumpster Food?

I spent my entire life polishing my public image and resume so that I could get into politics and make a positive difference in the world. But that ended when my twenty-year marriage went down in flames, along with pretty much everything I ever worked for, believed in, and cared about. The experience radicalized my worldviews, and reduced me to scraping by, scavenging for food in dumpsters. Well, not really. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy dumpster diving, and I treat it as a sport. Screw public perception. I will live my life however I want, and if I ever do get into politics, I will proudly put “dumpster diver” on my public resume. But would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

These are some of the goodies we picked up from grocery store dumpsters on our latest run.

Dumpster diving is a sport I primarily engage in on road trips, especially along regular routes, where I already know a few good stops along the way. It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get. One dumpster can be empty, but the next a bonanza with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. Driving home from Washington through Idaho to Montana this week, we hit up six dumpsters en route, and came home with less than usual, but still with more value than what we spent on gasoline getting home. Actually, we only hit two good dumpsters this time, but this is what we got:

4 – 7 oz jars of almond stuffed olives
7 – 6 oz containers of Greek yogurt
1 – 24 oz tub of Greek yogurt
3 – 32 oz chocolate soymilk boxed drinks
1 – 16 oz Synergy kombuchia drink
5 – 32 oz jars of Knudsen blueberry juice
1 – 20 oz ranch dressing
1 – 12 oz organic ranch dressing
6 – 12 oz boxes of granola
2 – boxes of 6 chocolate biscotti
1 – 4 oz apple pie snack
12 – jumbo chocolate cookies
12 – jumbo peanut butter cookies
12 – loaves mixed breads and buns
24 – 16 oz containers of caramel dip

Everything else we left behind, due to lack of space in the car. But we also picked a nice supply of apricots from feral trees along the way, plus 2 ½ gallons of blackberries. All in all, foraging turns a tedious drive into a fun adventure!

One time we arrived home from a five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. We don’t go out of our way to do this. We only stop at dumpsters along the way to other places.

What we find varies tremendously every time. Sometimes we bring home lots of dairy, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk. Sometimes we bring home lots of fruits and vegetables that are just slightly overripe. Sometimes we find a dumpster full of perfectly fresh meat, and have to go in the grocery store to buy ice to keep it cool until we get home. Sometimes we come home with a bunch of cookies, cakes, cream cheese platters, and other junk food that we really don’t need, but eat ourselves silly before giving the rest of it to the chickens. In one record-breaking run, we finished the five-hundred mile trip with more than $500 worth of groceries and goodies. One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!

“One time I even found several dozen roses for the new love of my life, and she was thrilled that they came from a dumpster!”

In general, big grocery stores in big towns usually have trash compactors, making them the least likely targets for dumpster diving. But once in awhile you will find a grocery store or bakery that still uses an open dumpster. Really small towns with Mom and Pop grocery stores typically have open dumpsters, but seldom waste anything. Medium-sized towns are more likely to have grocery stores with rich dumpsters and no trash compactors. My friends and I try to be minimally stealthy, not so much because we fear being chased away, but because grocery stores are more likely to put locks on their dumpsters if they perceive a problem. We are very careful to avoid making a mess, and sometimes even clean up trash around the dumpsters.
The groceries we bring home are perfectly good, just discarded because they reached the “sell by” date stamped on the products. This food could and should be donated to local food banks, but isn’t. Back in the 1990s, President Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to encourage grocery stores to donate surplus groceries to food banks and other non-profit organizations for distribution to needy individuals. The law acknowledges that foods can be safe for human consumption after the sell by date and protects grocery stores from liability in the unlikely case that someone should get sick from donated foods.

“It’s kind of like bargain shopping, except that everything is free, and you have no idea what you are going to get.”

The need for donated foods is great. According to the Foodbank Network, 30 percent of the population here in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, food insecurity is “The inability to access food in a consistent and socially acceptable manner to meet the family’s nutritional needs. Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.” In the face of that, grocery stores still discard hundreds of tons of perfectly good food in trash compactors and garbage cans. It seems like a crime!

I typically get about half of my winter heating wood for free, already cut to length, without having to start my chainsaw, just by picking it up at the dump.

My own interest in dumpster diving is rooted in the pragmatism of my grandmother. Shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s as a teenager and young adult, she didn’t believe in wasting anything. She taught me how to skin and butcher road-killed deer. She ardently believed in recycling and reusing materials and refinishing old furniture. I doubt that Grandma ever dug in a grocery store dumpster, but one of our favorite pastimes together was going to the town dump to dig through everyone else’s garbage for treasures to bring home.
The individual town dumps around here have all been shut down since then and replaced with big dumpsters that are hauled to a regional landfill, but the principal is the same. I stop and check the county dumpsters any time I have an excuse to drive by one. Every year I haul home hundreds of dollars worth of good lumber, insulation, PVC plumbing, garden hoses for my irrigation system, fence posts and wire, bales of straw and hay for mulch, uprooted flowers, free firewood, cleaning supplies, as well as scrap metal for recycling.

“By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center.”

Part of my interest in dumpster diving stems from my interest in sensible resource management and policy. Copper, for example, is quickly becoming a precious metal as demand soars and resources dwindle. Every electrical cord tossed in the dumpster effectively makes copper more scarce and raises the cost we all pay for new copper wiring and plumbing. By clipping the copper electrical cords off appliances in the dumpsters, it doesn’t take long to accumulate a five-gallon bucket full, worth about $25 bucks at the local recycling center. By recycling assorted scrap copper, brass, aluminum, and scrap iron, I earned more than $500 last year – and only engaged in the hobby when I happened to be driving by a dumpster anyway. Add in the value of free food from grocery store dumpsters and the building materials obtained from scrap piles at local factories, and my total take in freebies adds up to thousands of dollars per year. By being thrifty, I have managed to live a successful and prosperous life, without being dependent on a regular job. And although I may be a packrat, I am also a neat freak, so I actually put all those treasures to use. Frankly, I think my thriftiness would look pretty dang good on a political resume, and if I were ever elected to office, I would definitely be serious about cutting costs and waste.

These hoses and soaker hoses found in a dumpster were mostly new or only needed simple repairs.

Implementing an effective recycling program is definitely a bigger challenge in rural areas than in cities. Collecting the recyclables is only one challenge. Shipping recyclables hundreds of miles to a processing center is another. The gas and labor can far exceed the value of the recycled materials. Therefore, recycling rates are typically much higher in urban areas. San Francisco, for example, achieved a record-breaking 77 percent diversion rate by 2010, diverting that much of the city’s trash to recycling, composting and re-use – all while saving money and creating local jobs.

Bread baked from bagel dough scavenged from a bakery dumpster.

Our local recycling rate might be closer to 7 percent. We do have recycle bins for such things as aluminum and tin cans, scrap metal, glass jars, and mixed paper. Yet many people drive right past the bins to throw their recyclables in the dumpster. Tragically and comically, some people even sort their recyclables before tossing them out with the trash. It is not uncommon to find a whole garbage bag full of nothing but beer cans, as if the drinker wants to recycle, but doesn’t quite have enough brain cells left to figure it out!
Insofar as policy goes, what I have learned from digging in dumpsters is that most people are basically brain dead and utterly unaware of resource issues and depletion. Sorting cans, bottles, and plastic requires too much thought and effort. Sadly, most people are willing to use up everything on the planet in this generation and leave nothing for the next. It would take a huge rise in social consciousness to significantly boost recycling rates around here. It might be far more simple to mandate that all plastic or paper food packaging sold here be manufactured from 100 percent compostable and biodegradable materials. Instead of asking people to sort out seven different types of plastic for example, they could just brainlessly discard the packaging with their food waste, and yet it would all be compostable. People would still need to learn to separate out cans and glass bottles, but less is definitely more attainable. We could conceivably reach a point where most of our trash is composted and then screened afterwards to separate out any remaining garbage. I also wonder if it would be sensible to employ minimum security prison inmates to help dismantle electronic waste for recycling. It is something to consider.

“I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources.”

As far as food waste goes, I don’t believe in penalties, rules, and regulations. Yes, it seems like a crime for grocery stores to discard perfectly good food when good citizens are going hungry. But rather than penalize them, it would be better to create a competition to see which stores can donate the most food to food banks and to publicly acknowledge and reward them for their actions.
I don’t know if I will ever get into politics or not. But if I did, I think I would put on a suit and tie and film a commercial in a dumpster about cutting government waste and making better use of our resources. I might even tell the viewer that they are brain dead if they can’t separate out their recyclables from their trash. I’m just not sure if I could really get elected that way. What do you think? Would you vote for a guy who eats dumpster food?

Interesting Stuff? Dumpster diving is included in the culture and curriculum at Thomas J. Elpel’s Green University® LLC. Learn more about Tom’s efforts to create a better world at


Filed under Autobiographical, Conservation, Economics, Politics, Recycling, Sustainability

The New Era of Self-Sufficiency

As a wilderness survival instructor, I have spent a good deal of my life out practicing skills—sleeping in holes in the ground, eating roots and bushes, starting fires by rubbing sticks together, and trying to figure out how to kill stuff with my bare hands, since it seems like cheating to bring a fishing pole or a gun. These survival skills were the skills of our ancestors, who lived by their hands and wits for most of human history, until the rise of agriculture. But one must wonder if this kind of traditional knowledge is still relevant today.

Thomas J. Elpel, Keynote Speech.

Speaking at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska. October 2011.

It is arguably self-indulgent to go camping in the woods to freeze and starve for entertainment while the whole world seems to be careening towards economic and environmental collapse. Indeed, the practice of survival skills flies in the face of the prevailing conservation ethic, which preaches that we should stay on the trails and leave no trace. As the saying goes, we should “take only pictures and leave only footprints,” not go thrashing through the woods, breaking down trees to build shelters, nor throwing sticks and rocks at the wildlife. But having done these things, I would posit that traditional skills are absolutely relevant today, and that by rekindling our connection to the natural world in this way, we can find answers to some of the most vexing problems that face our species.

Connecting with Nature
The way we relate to nature ebbs and flows with the fashions of our culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in the management of our national parks. Places like Montana’s Glacier National Park, for example, were not set aside out of any particular conservation ethic, but at the request of the Northern Pacific Railroad, to create a tourist destination with ritzy accommodations to entice wealthy clientele to ride the railroad West. Later, the rise of the middle class made the national parks a playground for common people, a place to camp with the family and feed the bears for entertainment. And America’s love affair with the car led not just to drive-in movie theaters, restaurants, and churches, but also to paved roads winding through geyser features in Yellowstone, and drive-through trees in California’s Redwood and Sequoia National Parks.

The prevailing philosophy today is supposedly more ecologically enlightened, and environmental educators often remind us that we are part of the interconnected web of life. Yet, in the next breath, they tell us not to step off the boardwalk. We are told to leave nature as it is, and not touch, pick, or eat anything. It is as if nature has been reduced to an exhibit in a museum. We can look at it, but not participate in it. In many cases it isn’t even legal to gather firewood and build a campfire, not even in the dead of winter, camped miles from the nearest road, in the middle of a million acres of firewood.

This hands-off philosophy isn’t limited to the national parks. It is deeply embedded in our culture, touted by ecologists, environmentalists, wilderness advocates, boy scouts, parents, public land managers, and even taught in public schools. The theology is well intentioned. Our species is clearly devastating the planet. But there is something wrong with an ideology that tells us on the one hand that we are part of nature—and on the other hand that we are the bad part!

As a society, we have embarked on perhaps the greatest social experiment ever conducted. What happens when we tell our children to look at nature, but not to touch it? What happens when kids are herded into organized sports, but never really get beyond the lawn grass to explore, play, or build forts in the woods or gullies at the edge of town? What happens when kids spend all their free time exploring virtual worlds, but not the real one?

Consider the Army veteran who was unable to start a fire in my neighbor’s wood stove, because he couldn’t light a big log with a little match. He had no concept of tinder and kindling, and he was unable to warm up the house on a cold winter day. He is not alone, and I am continually shocked to meet adults who don’t know how to chop wood, or cannot start a campfire without gasoline and matches. We have an entire generation of young people who are very smart, yet don’t know how the world works and don’t know how to take care of themselves. Conceptual knowledge is meaningless without context, much like having a brain in a box on a shelf. What good is it unless you can take it out and do something with it?

Author Richard Louv called the nation’s attention to the dangers of losing our connection with nature in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. His book sparked a new back to nature movement, as people began to recognize the importance of connecting with the natural world and having free time to play and experiment in the environment. Even the Forest Service has jumped on the bandwagon with its Kids in the Woods programs in an attempt to reconnect children and nature.

For those of us involved in traditional skills, Louv’s book labeled a problem to which we had already grasped the solution, as implied in the title of my wilderness survival book, Participating in Nature.

In short, what one can learn while playing in the woods is nearly impossible to quantify on a written test, yet essential to our understanding of real-world physics, essential to the quest for sustainability, and essential for sound resource management. In my case, figuring out how to meet my needs for shelter, fire, water, and food in the wilderness provided the proper grounding to address those same needs in society.

As a child, I lived in what later became known as the Silicon Valley, but every summer we traveled to Montana to visit my grandmother, Josie Jewett. She lived, “up a creek without a paddle,” as she often liked to say, and we kids spent our summers playing in that creek, building forts, and roaming the hills and meadows. Grandma Josie still cooked on a woodstove, and every day she made a pot of herbal tea, using herbs such as peppermint, yarrow, blue violets, or red clover, which we collected on our walks and dried. When we moved back to Montana for my junior high and high school years, Grandma’s house was the one place that I wanted to go every weekend and every summer.

As a teenager and young adult, I indulged in things that our culture doesn’t necessarily view as productive. I had little interest in going to college or getting a job. Instead, I hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains, studying plants, stalking deer, and experimenting with survival skills. Every day was a new opportunity to starve, trying to live on roots that were too small to justify harvesting them, trying to outwit ground squirrels that were smarter than me, or trying to down a dinner of fried grasshoppers and enjoy it.

Every night was a new opportunity to freeze in shelters that seemed like good ideas in the survival books, but didn’t really work in the northern Rockies. The challenge is that you can’t just take a class and get a diploma that says you now know how to survive in the world. You can get the basic idea, but ultimately, you have to go experiment to figure out how these skills apply to your specific environment.

I lay awake, shivering in many cold, damp, or drafty shelters, before I learned how to build some that were adequately warm and dry, or sometimes downright cozy, even without a blanket. Through trial and error, with little more than my bare hands, I learned the fundamentals of sound construction principles and energy efficiency. Lacking a tent or sleeping bag, a thermostat, or a furnace, I became acutely aware of heat loss due to drafts or conduction. Trying to stay dry taught me a lot about proper shingling and ditching around my dwellings. Hauling firewood to my shelters made energy itself tangible and quantifiable and taught me the importance of conservation. Rubbing sticks together and living with fire gave me an intimate familiarity with my energy source in all kinds of conditions, from hot and dry, to cold and windy, drenching wet, or even while sleeping inches away in a grass-lined bed inside a shelter built of kindling.

My greatest fear in life was getting stuck in a job and losing my freedom. I understood that I could not just hang out at my grandmother’s house and tan hides, eat cookies, and go camping my whole life. But I desperately did not want to go the conventional route of going to college, getting a job, and paying down a mortgage until retirement. That seemed a little more complicated than it had to be anyway.

With my background in survival skills, I recognized that it was fundamentally the same issue. We are all on one great survival trip, trying to figure out how to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food—preferably without destroying the planet in the process. That really is the bottom line. How can we sustainably meet our needs for shelter, water, fire, and food without consuming all the earth’s resources, without altering the climate, and without being enslaved to a meaningless job until we die?

The conventional route of getting a job and paying a mortgage doesn’t really work. Conventional houses are way too expensive, and not even very good. Most houses require a furnace and constant inputs of fossil fuels to keep the pipes from freezing and breaking. The bathrooms are virtually guaranteed to rot out halfway through the mortgage. The walls are so flimsy that you can punch a hole through one with a fist. From the floor to the roof, there is an endless parade of ripping out, landfilling, and replacing carpets and cabinetry, furniture, and shingles.

It is any wonder that we struggle with resource depletion and global warming when every person in America is burning up the pavement running back and forth to a job that is generally bad for the environment, just to make a pile of money to throw at their home mortgage, utility bills, and endless repairs? What happens if we hit a recession and don’t bounce back? How long can we maintain the illusion of being an affluent nation?

It made sense to me to focus on the basics and build my own house, figuring that if I had a place to live and no mortgage then I would be free to do whatever I wanted in life. I had no qualifications to build a house, beyond having read some books on the subject, but I was accustomed to making do.

I did know how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, and with that on my resume I got a job working with troubled teens in the wilderness, and saved up a small nest egg to get started. I married my girlfriend from high school, and together we bought land, moved into a tent and built a passive solar stone and log home for about the cost of a new car. Later, we added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, producing on average as much power as we consume. Naturally, the house doesn’t have either a furnace or a thermostat.

Ironically, life’s choices later took us away from home for most of eight years, but I never really worried about the house. We could leave it all winter without risk of freezing the plants or breaking the pipes. The house just sat there sustaining itself. The solar water heater kept producing hot water; the photovoltaic panels kept generating electricity, running the meter backwards. I stopped by every couple weeks and watered the greenhouse, which kept growing greens, and thanks to my brother’s care, the chickens kept laying eggs. And that’s the funny thing about sustainable living. It’s really not all that difficult to achieve and it is far easier than the conventional route. If we had built houses properly in the first place, then we wouldn’t be facing such dire economic and environmental issues today.

I read an article recently outlining ways to create jobs and get the economy back on track. Oddly, one of key suggestions was to provide incentives for foreigners to come to America to start businesses and create jobs, as if we Americans are no longer capable of doing it ourselves. Are we really that far gone as a country, that we are dependent on the charity of others for employment opportunities? Have Americans lost all sense of self-sufficiency, reduced to mere couch potatoes, capable of thinking, but not of doing? What happened to the can-do attitude that built this country?

The reality is that graduating from college with a piece of a paper that says you know something no longer guarantees that you can get a good job. Getting a job no longer guarantees that you can keep it for life, and having a fat retirement fund one day is no guarantee that it will still be worth anything when you actually need it.

Welcome to the new era of self-sufficiency. It is about shelter, fire, water, and food. Whether you live in the city or the country, there are always steps you can take to become more self-sufficient. You can prioritize your expenses to pay down your mortgage faster. You can improve the energy efficiency of your home to become more independent from the power company. You can remodel and retrofit rot-prone materials with something made to stand the test of time. You can collect rainwater from the roof for use as household or irrigation water. You can plant fruit trees to grow free food either for yourself or for children walking down the sidewalk. If you have the skills to take care of yourself, then you have the skills to take care of others, and you will never be short of work. Moreover, if you have your shelter, fire, water, and food in order, then you can choose whether you want to work or not.

Today there are a great many disenfranchised young adults who don’t feel that college is for them, and don’t want to get a job and become hopelessly stuck in the machine for the rest of their lives. I founded a fledgling Green University® to provide a new and desperately needed model for higher education—one where young people can get grounded with hands-on wilderness skills, combined with a healthy dose of do-it-yourself alternative construction and sustainable living skills. It is my hope to eventually mentor participants in green business development, providing a support network to help students incubate enterprises that will make a positive difference in the world.

In addition to mentoring young adults, the highlight of my year is always taking the local junior high kids out for three days and two nights of wilderness survival skills. They sleep in shelters of sticks and bark, even in torrential rains, and sometimes they sleep in piles of grass without even a blanket. They make fires by rubbing sticks together. They make their own dishes; they wade into the swamps and gather cattail roots for food; they cook their own meals, doing such things as a stir-fry using hot rocks on a slab of bark instead of a metal pan, or cooking bread in a stone oven. They stalk wildlife; they stalk each other. They play in the mud; they have marshmallow blowgun wars.

As one student, John, wrote after a camping trip, “I have pondered the simple construction of the mousehut… sticks, grass, and bark piled on each other, but yet it is one of the warmest shelters I have ever encountered. How interesting that a mouse, a hundred times smaller than myself, can survive performing the same tasks we did to make the shelter. Also, how smart this creature must be to come up with this simple, but yet, complex design. In my opinion, you must experience it to fully understand what it is all about.”

I doubt that any one of these kids will ever be in a situation where they have to build a mouse shelter or start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. But I also know that you can ignite something much bigger than a fire with these kinds of skills. Doing hands-on skills connects the brain to the hands and the hands to the world. This kind of hands-on ability not only makes it possible to transform ideas into reality, but also facilitates the flow of information the other direction, from the hands to the brain, opening up a world of infinite possibilities.

Towards a Sustainable Civilization
Perhaps most importantly, the hands-on quest for shelter, fire, water, and food ultimately enables a deeper connection with the natural world. As I wrote in Participating in Nature:

      In primitive living you learn about the wilderness as you create your niche in the ecosystem and gather the resources you need for living. For example, to harvest edible plants you have to learn about them. You learn the names and the habitats of plants. You learn about individual edible plants by eating them and by noticing the changes in the appearance and taste throughout the year. As you harvest plants you learn to recognize them throughout the year, as dead stalks, or seeds, or even by the roots. As you seek out edible plants you begin to notice characteristics of the soil; you begin to notice that your desired herb grows better in one type of soil than another.

The knowledge that you acquire is not always scientific, but you develop an acute awareness of nature and natural resources. For instance, you learn the basics of geology as you look for different types of rock that are useful as tools in primitive living. You might look for quartz, quartzite, or chert rocks to use as “flint” in flint and steel fire starting. Or you might look for sandstone to use for sanding arrow shafts or bows, or to abrade a stone tool. You might look for a clay deposit for making pottery, or for various minerals for mineral paints. You learn about geology as you spend hours searching the riverbank for the right piece of round, symmetrical, fine-grained rock for a hammerstone. You begin to notice if the rocks around you are igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary. Instead of merely hiking from point A to point B, the process of hunting and gathering makes you investigate the land around you.

This intimate connection with nature isn’t just critical to our own well-being, it is essential to the effort to conserve nature. The bottom line is that the more you know about something, the more you care about it. The more you care about it, the more you will work to protect it. One of the greatest threats to wilderness and wild places is a lack of cars at the trailheads. If we reduce nature to mere wallpaper — something to look at, but not to touch — then who is really going to care about it or advocate for it?

As another student, Chas, wrote after the three-day camp-out, “It has always seemed to me that nature is like a piece of artwork, fragile, but only to be admired through the gentlest of hands. We go walking on a weather-beaten path that so many have followed, but never step off to travel farther into the heart of the forest. I now know what it is like to go into the depths of the forest, experiencing the full force of the wild. Nature is not a picture. It is much more than that.”

Some of the most successful conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited or Trout Unlimited, are driven by consumers of nature — people who work to expand habitat and breed more ducks and more trout because they like to hunt and fish for them. This act of participating in nature effectively increases the demand for more nature. As ecologists and environmentalists, we need to adopt this new paradigm and help the populace reconnect with the natural world before we bulldoze and develop everything that is left.

As Spencer wrote after the camping trip, “The outdoor classroom experience has given me a more in-depth look at nature and our ancestors than any movie or text book has or ever will. Living in the outdoors has shown me that nature is full of surprises and that it provides everything that we need to survive. If more schools took their students on outdoor trips like we do, humans might learn to be more conservative and save our world.”

An experiential connection with nature is in fact imperative if we are to conserve and sustainably manage our natural resources. Consider energy. What happens when people grow up without a quantifiable sense of energy or knowledge of where it comes from when they flip on a light switch? How can we formulate sensible energy policy or steward our resources when energy itself is an abstraction?

If you spend enough time living with fire, you can develop a quantifiable sense of energy. You will know approximately how much heat and light a given pile of firewood produces, and from that you can better extrapolate to make meaning out of energy policy concerning coal, oil, gas, or the various avenues of generating electricity. Likewise, if you have a solar water heater, you can temporarily turn off your electric water heater, to experientially discover just how much hot water a solar water heater produces according to the weather and the seasons.

My local utility would very much like to construct a massive transmission line, with fourteen-story tall towers, down our local section of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. It is being touted as a “green” energy project because it would serve partly as a conduit to send wind energy from Montana south to markets in Las Vegas and California. But it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that there is nothing remotely green or sustainable about building this kind of industrial infrastructure and ramrodding it through virgin land. It would be far more sensible if utilities installed solar water heaters for their customers and took care of any maintenance, just as some utilities still come around to light customers’ gas furnaces each fall. Rather than each customer researching solar water heater brands and installers, the utility could take advantage of volume-pricing to install thousands of identical units, charging customers for some, but not all of the energy they save. In effect, the customer would get a small discount on the monthly utility bill, while the utility would get to sell the same electricity twice. That would constitute green energy policy.

A Deeper Connection
There is one more thing you may begin to see when you spend enough time in nature and begin to connect on a deeper level. You can begin to see the things that are no longer there.

That is perhaps the greatest irony of our cultural disconnect with nature. If you don’t know what lives outside your window, then you will not notice if it disappears, either. In fact, you can take a lush and forested ecosystem and completely denude it, and if it happens slowly enough, than nobody will notice any difference.

I’ve walked thousands of miles across several western states, looking at the ground. Prior to the domestication of livestock, semi-arid rangelands took care of themselves. In North America, massive herds of buffalo migrated across the West, sticking together for protection from predators. These herds nuked everything in their path. Anything not eaten was trampled into the soil, effectively planting fresh seeds while providing a mulch cover of organic matter and manure.

Today our rangelands suffer most from a lack of animal impact, so new seeds don’t get planted. The bare ground between the plants keeps spreading, even when the existing grass grows tall and green. In places like west Texas or South Africa, where the wild animals were too numerous to count only two hundred years ago, the land supports only a handful of cows over hundreds of miles today. The same process is happening all the way north to Montana, but almost nobody has a clue, because most people are too removed from nature to know what they are looking at on the ground, and whatever you see out the window looks completely normal, as long as you have nothing else to compare it to.

Moreover, the thing that makes the soil brown or black in the first place is carbon that has been extracted from the atmosphere and, in the case of rangelands, trampled into the ground to build soil. Grasses grow rapidly, and grasslands can sequester significantly more carbon per acre than forests. We’ve not only shut down the sequestration cycle on every continent, we’ve also oxidized half or more of the organic carbon from most crop and rangelands back into the atmosphere. And we wonder why we have a global warming problem.

It is hard to imagine now, but people once hunted pigs in the forests of Israel. Greece was also covered by rich Mediterranean forests. The fertile fields of Libya once grew grain for the Roman Empire. Is it any wonder that people fight all the time in places like Libya, Afghanistan, or Iraq, where the land has lost its fertility?

We may see on the news that the capital of China is in danger of being buried under sand dunes, but what we don’t see is that we are also turning the American West into a new Saharan desert. You can watch it happen year by year if you are accustomed to looking at the ground.

The problem can be easily remedied once it is understood, and with proper soil management, we could potentially put the brakes on global warming. Yet, the ground beneath our feet is functionally invisible to most people. Perhaps we could see it better if we took off our shoes and got back in touch with the earth.

I like to think of primitive living as a metaphor for living in the modern world. The metaphor reminds us that we are part of the ecosystem and we have no choice but to take from it. But in the quest to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water, and food, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the ecosystem, and we become empowered to make a difference in the world. Playing in the woods won’t solve all the world’s problems, or necessarily any of them. But it can point us in the right direction, and direction is perhaps what we need more than anything else.

Thomas J. Elpel delivered this as the keynote speech at the Bioneers conference in Anchorage, Alaska in October 2011.


Filed under Conservation, Education Reform, Energy Issues / Policy, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Wilderness Survival