Tag Archives: Environment

D-Day Every Day

Nature, Warfare, and the Illusion of Self

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Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these mangrove seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

I often wonder what it was like for the Allied soldiers to step off the boats into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy. As an empathic person, I get emotionally entwined with other people’s realities. For our soldiers on June 6, 1944, there was nowhere to hide. Allied forces took the beach through sheer numbers, by putting enough bodies on the beach that the Nazis couldn’t shoot them all, that enough soldiers would survive to overtake the German positions, enabling the Allied forces to get a toehold in France, put down roots, and slowly reclaim the European continent. I cannot imagine the horror of advancing across the beach that day. And I can’t help but notice the curious parallels among nature, where D-Day happens every day, and wonder what we might learn from it all.

Landing on another beach on the other side of the world in New Zealand, I was fascinated to discover a legion of army-green seeds amassed on the sand, deposited there by the tides. Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

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It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

The seeds shed their outer seed coats, and the folded seed leaves had begun to spread. A few had grown short roots, although the roots were fully exposed to the mid-summer sun. One was several inches tall. The prop-roots on the sides tipped me to the identity—mangrove seedlings. It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

I soon discovered that the mangroves lived in a nearby estuary, well adapted to the brackish water where slow moving river water mixed with salty tidal water from the ocean. They rooted easily there, growing in dense profusion within the sheltered backwater. But the seeds on the beach were doomed. The lack of previously established mangroves on the beachfront implied that the odds were against them, that nature could send battalions in wave after wave to take the beach and each seed soldier would try its utmost to sink down roots and unfurl its leaves, only to be bounced around in the tide, doomed to slowly desiccate in the sand, salt, and sun. Yet, nature doesn’t stop sending in more troops and trying again, because that’s what nature does every day, everywhere.

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Apricots produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity.

Closer to home, I see the same story played out again and again. Thousands of inch-high plant seedlings carpeting otherwise barren ground in early spring when the soil is moist, only to whither and die as soon as the sun dries the soil. Perhaps one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, survive to carry out their mission. I’ve seen it with feral apricot trees, too. They produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity. It isn’t just about plants either, because every year there is an explosion of new life, new baby birds and cuddly little mammals, and by the following year there are, on average, no more of any given species than there was the year before.

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How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road?

Being empathetic, or rather sympathetic, I cannot help but think that it all seems unfair. Seedling plants, baby birds, newborn fawns, nineteen-year-old soldiers; their lives cut short before they’ve begun. How many mothers lost their precious teenage sons as “cannon fodder” to use up the Nazi bullets? How many soldiers trained for battle, yet took a bullet in the choppy surf, dead before they reached the beach or even fired a shot? How many baby birds are devoured alive by snakes or rats or raptors while their parents helplessly watch and scream in protest and pain? How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road? How many newborn seedlings have given their utmost to put down roots and send up leaves, only to be desiccated in the sun or starved out by more established vegetation?

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We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes.

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes. On the beaches of Normandy, there was no significant advantage for seasoned war veterans over new soldiers seeing their first tour of duty. All were equally exposed to the unrelenting hail of bullets screaming across the beach. And so it is with plants and animals. The seeds that survive to grow into plants or trees are not always those with the strongest genes, but rather those that are lucky enough to find bare ground to take root, yet not so much sun that they dry out too quickly. The shadow of a small rock may provide the magic microhabitat that allows a seedling to take root. If it isn’t grazed off or stepped on then the plant might survive to maturity.

Reaching maturity doesn’t necessarily provide any guarantee of survival either. Many birds have over-wintered in the tropics and flown thousands of miles back to mate, nest, and raise a family, only to be eaten by a house cat upon arrival. I cannot help but sympathize and anthropomorphize with ground squirrels that wake up from hibernation and excitedly run about in a celebration of spring, only to be flattened by a passing car.

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What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world.

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world. The ground squirrels that are instantly flattened are perhaps the lucky ones, at least compared to the deer that are mortally wounded by cars, hunters, or mountain lions, only to die a slow, painful death alone in the brush.

Spend much time in the woods, and you will notice that there are bones everywhere. Everything dies, and frequently in the most painful ways imaginable, such as for a mouse that is repeatedly tossed into the air by the claws of a cat or carried off in the talons of a raptor, often eaten while half alive. For the soldiers, too, I suppose the lucky ones received instant death from a killing shot, while most were just brutally torn apart, gut shot, or totally incapacitated by an exploded femur bone, bleeding to death in agony.

We live in a society that is highly insulated from death and the realities of life. People feel no twinge of pain when they buy a beefsteak neatly shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray, or a head of cabbage decapitated from its roots yet very much alive, even while being finely chopped and mixed in coleslaw. We euthanize our pets or “put them to sleep” as we say it, to mask the reality that we are killing them, indeed murdering them. We hire morticians to embalm our deceased loved ones in lifelike form and display them in pretty boxes. We are so detached from death that we don’t understand what it means to be alive.

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As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock.

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock. It feels like murder every time, as it should, because that is the reality of living. As Buddhism teaches, “life is suffering.” The nature of existence is inherently painful, yet we can have compassion for all living things.

Whenever I kill an animal, I find myself wondering who might be left waiting back at home. Did it have a mate? Did it have a mother or father that was still watching over it? Did it have young ones hidden away in a nest or burrow, forlornly waiting for a next meal that will never come? What was it like for women back home, waiting for letters from the war front, never knowing which letter might be the last?

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In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things.

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things. Every plant and animal is a unique individual with its own genome, and with animals at least, a unique “personality.” Yet they are nameless and therefore selfless, celebrated as part of the interconnected web of life, rather than as individuals with personal biographies and self-importance.

The soldiers of Normandy were also selfless and that is difficult to appreciate in a world of selfie sticks and Facebook profiles. I see the names of fallen World War II solders engraved in plaques in city parks across our country. Each one was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, or maybe a father, their lives cut short by warfare. Collectively, they were bodies who selflessly threw themselves at the battlefield, much as the mangrove seeds tried to storm the beach with sheer numbers.

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Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty.

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty. The same could be said about the Allied invasion of France.

Our world would be a much darker place today if the Allied forces had decided to accept a Nazi Europe, knowing that the price for taking back the continent would be so high. But a great many young men understood that being a body for the cause was more important than being an individual.

I think about the selflessness of that generation and wonder what we could learn from that today. We live at a time when life is more imperiled than ever before, and the cause is arguably the rise of the self and self-importance. We are a consumer culture, consumed with ourselves. It is the ego of the self that drives people to bulldoze a mountaintop or riverfront property to build a house with a view. It is the self that wants a trendy new car, a big flatscreen television, and organic coffee imported from the other side of the planet. It is the self that cares only for itself, celebrity news, and who wins or loses the Super Bowl.

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We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago. Yet we are consumed with trivial things like getting a job and buying useless stuff, as if saving the planet were somebody else’s responsibility. But the reality is that there is nobody else, and the only thing that will save us from ourselves is to lose ourselves, to recognize that our lives do not belong to us and never did. Our lives belong to the earth and we are here to serve future generations to the best of our ability.

Halting the destruction of our world and creating a sustainable future will require a selfless commitment equal or bigger than the commitment that took back Europe. For it wasn’t just soldiers on the front lines that made a difference, but all those back home who worked to grow food, build equipment, and recycle metals needed for the war effort. At this late juncture, healing our world will require similar selfless commitment, coordination, and camaraderie of everyone working together towards a single unifying goal: Life. If we pull together towards the common cause, we can make the world a better place for all.

            Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

 

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Filed under Conservation, Nature Awareness, Sustainability, Wilderness Survival, Wildlife

Russian Roulette with a Bottle

"Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky."

“Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky.”

The True Cost of Drinking
      One gun. One bullet. Spin the chamber. Pass it around. Each person puts the gun to their head and pulls the trigger. One person dies. The others live and call it entertainment. Sound barbaric? Americans play the game on a daily basis, but we don’t use a loaded gun. Instead, we use a loaded bottle, and it is just as lethal.
      Almost any adult can name at least one person they have lost to alcohol. A parent. A sibling. A cousin. An aunt or uncle. A childhood friend. A neighbor down the street. For some, it was drunk driving. For others, it was binge drinking or cirrhosis of the liver. Others never tasted alcohol, but were mowed down by someone who did. Many who lost their lives are not dead. But alcohol cost them their job, their marriage, their family, and their dignity. Some lost their mobility and dreams to a beer-belly and never regained their freedom. Controlled by alcohol, the bottles and cans stack up into great piles for the dumpster, or hang on wires around the garden to scare away the birds. Nearly everyone can think of someone who lost their life to alcohol in some way or another, but strangely that knowledge doesn’t stop people from drinking.
"The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents."

“The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.”

      Statistically speaking, the odds of roulette run in your favor. About one out of every thirteen Americans has an alcohol problem, so any individual can confidently put a bottle to their head on the expectation that they will be one of the twelve who gets lucky. The odds are less favorable for some people than others. Kids who start drinking before age fifteen have a one in six chance of becoming alcohol dependent. Adult children of alcoholics are most at risk, with approximately one in three becoming alcoholics like their parents.
      Statistics vary from source to source, but according to the Council on Alcoholism, about 85,000 Americans die from alcohol-related issues every year, including about 16,000 from drunk driving or drunk drivers. Alcohol is also implicated in about one fourth of all emergency-room admissions, one third of all suicides, more than half of all homicides, and half of all incidents of domestic violence. Alcohol is associated with unplanned and unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and abortions. About 1,700 college students are killed in alcohol-related incidents in the U.S. every year, but they are generally considered expendable because they are someone else’s children, not ours. It is part of the cost of roulette. We accept their loss as necessary in order for the rest of us to have a good time.
      That is the reality of Russian roulette. It is a game. It requires winners as well as losers. The odds are pretty good for any one individual. It is only a question of whom we are willing to sacrifice for our entertainment. Point the bottle around the room at friends, family members, and strangers.
"Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle."

“Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.”

      Alcohol will ruin the life of one out of every thirteen people in the room, whether or not it actually kills them. Whom do we consider expendable? A brother? A sister? A niece or nephew? Our own child or someone else’s? We don’t know who the winners and losers will be. We only know that roulette requires participants, and we willingly gamble with other people’s lives every time we reach for the bottle.
      In the effort to make roulette safer, people are encouraged to “drink responsibly.” Put the bottle to your head. Just don’t get trigger happy, or at least don’t try driving after you’ve blown your brains out. Responsible drinking works great for the winners, not so great for the losers. How many people have been seriously maimed or killed in a drunk driving accident after attending a funeral for someone who died driving drunk? Sadly, it happens all too often.
"Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior."

“Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.”

      Drinking alcohol is a mimicked behavior, and participants are recruited early into the game. Give alcohol to a child, and they will likely recoil in disgust the first time they try it. But adults act like alcohol is special, fun, and tastes good. Drinking and partying is glorified in television and movies. Drink it enough times, and a child learns to like it. Some families are so alcohol-oriented that every party and family reunion is a drinking escapade, as if they wouldn’t know how to interact with each other as authentic human beings without alcohol. Children learn that it is necessary to drink in order to have fun, fit in socially, and play the game. In my home state of Montana, drinking is a way of life, indoctrinated early.
On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

On July 14, 2011 Megan turned 20 years old, and only 2 days later on July 16, as she celebrated her birthday with friends by floating the river and drinking, Megan thought she was okay to drive. She crossed the center lane and was hit by on-coming traffic and she died instantly.

      In rural communities, the bar is often the town center. Kids flow in and out of the bar as they grow up. They play pool while the adults drink. But teenagers drink at the bars, too. I stopped by the town bar one lively night this past summer to check out the music and street dancing. My recently graduated son’s eighteen-year-old classmates were also at the bar, drinking beer and totally smashed. The adults knew they were underage. The cops knew it. Nobody cared. As one of the boys said when he went on a camping trip with us, “I’ve never been in the woods when I wasn’t drunk before.” It is a way of life here. Montana has the highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the nation, and our state is the national champion of drunken driving. Teenagers are killed in drunken driving accidents all the time, and nobody cares enough to change their own behavior.
      I was fortunate to grow up in a family where alcohol wasn’t particularly important. It wasn’t celebrated, and it wasn’t a game. Nor was it consumed in sufficient quantity to change anyone in that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way that is often encouraged by other people. I’ve tried alcohol, but never drank enough when I was younger to acquire a taste for it, and at this point, probably never will. I don’t mind when other people drink, unless they make a big deal out of it and carry on like they are mimicking some party scene they saw on television. I would rather socialize with real human beings.
      As a nondrinker, it is perpetually incomprehensible to me why anyone would desire to drink until they puke their guts out, then engage in behavior that results in a trip to the emergency room or an unplanned pregnancy, only to suffer through a hangover the following day — all in the name of “fun.” There are a million ways to have fun without getting wasted and feeling lousy. It is a sad commentary on the quality of life in our culture that people find it necessary to get drunk on the weekends to forget for a moment how dreary their lives are the rest of the time.
Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster... by the recycling bin.

Beer bottles discarded in a dumpster… by the recycling bin.

      Roulette is not so great for the planet, either. Beer commercials often highlight beautiful scenery, but there is a direct connection between getting wasted and wasting the planet. Beer cans and broken beer bottles are strewn along millions of miles of highways. They can be found littered along most floatable rivers. They accumulate in fire pits and around the parking lots at campgrounds and outdoor recreation sites. We would be lucky if litter was the beginning and the end of the problem, but it isn’t. It is fundamentally an issue of self-respect. People who lack the self-respect to take care of their own bodies are less likely to respect other living beings and the environment. Here in Montana, for example, beer and guns are a common combination, as people drink while blowing away ground squirrels for entertainment. Those who lack respect for themselves are more likely to work meaningless or environmentally destructive jobs. Getting wasted on the weekends only ensures continued entrapment to destructive behaviors.
"People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment."

“People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment.”

      That is perhaps the great irony of the great escape. People learn that alcohol is a means of escape, rebellion, and freedom, but it is ultimately a tool of entrapment. It is an imaginary escape that leaves a person enslaved to meaningless or destructive employment to pay for a meaningless and destructive addiction. Perpetuating the game is good only for padding corporate profits. True freedom requires breaking free from the game to play life by one’s own rules.
      Unfortunately, no one can legislate freedom or end the game. Alcohol is a cornerstone problem linked to broken dreams, broken marriages, broken families, domestic violence, homicides, and wasting the planet, and yet, there is no person or entity on earth powerful enough to outlaw the game or enforce such a law if it were passed. Prohibition was an utter failure, and arguably only glorified alcohol even more.
      What we can do is lessen the impacts to the greatest possible degree. For example, states with deposit fees on cans and bottles have higher recycling rates and far less litter and waste than states without deposit fees. We can also hold corporations responsible for their part in encouraging addictive and destructive behavior. For example, the bags of cans and bottles that pile up at an alcoholic’s home typically come from only a couple major corporations, such as Anheuser–Busch (Budweiser) and MillerCoors. Ditto for most of the cans and bottles littered along our highways and rivers. These companies profit at the expense of individual lives and should be required to do more to rectify the problems caused by their products, or taxed sufficiently to fund treatment and counseling for everyone who needs it. Local microbrews, on the other hand, are not usually associated with destructive behaviors and should be exempt from such requirements. Beyond that, the best that any one individual can do is to refuse to play the game and set an example for our children, our families, and our friends, that drinking isn’t particularly interesting or important.

      Thomas J. Elpel is the author of six books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit. He has often dreamed of getting into politics and making a positive difference in the world, yet recognizes that it might be difficult to get elected if he cannot sit down and drink a beer like a “regular guy.”

Drinking

Hi Tom,

You wrote an article last year on the destructive elements of alcohol and it’s been really helpful to me quit drinking. I find myself going back to it frequently. It’s been a recurring problem for me but I’ve been fortunate not to get into any serious trouble. Your work is very inspiring to me, thank you.

When you have a lot of Native American blood like me, the odds are really against you. But I’m determined to keep positivity in my life as a focus. Groups like AA don’t take the attention off the problem and can keep someone overly identified with their problems… in my experience anyway.

–Max H.

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Filed under Drugs and Alcohol, Uncategorized

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.”

–“Morpheus”
The Matrix, 1999


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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 www.Elpel.info.

Also be sure to watch this news clip about the growing popularity of dumpster diving:

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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.

Self-Sufficiency
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.

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

Governor Wannabe

"It is an interesting contradiction to have the absolute confidence that I could change the world, while on the other hand, being too shy and socially awkward to walk through the halls at high school."

As a teenager and young adult, I was never interested in hot rod cars, loud speakers, getting wasted, or hanging out at the mall with a pack of friends and doing nothing. Instead, I had a passion for botany, wilderness survival, sustainable living, and getting into politics and changing the world.

Physically, I spent most of my youth identifying flowers, hiking and camping, and practicing my survival skills. Mentally, I was seriously distracted by a nonstop inner dialogue about pertinent social, economic, and environmental issues. I developed an early appreciation for holistic thinking and the idea that there was a win-win-win solution to every problem – we didn’t have to give up jobs to save the environment, we didn’t have to sacrifice quality of life to live sustainably. Although the media always seemed to frame issues as this-against-that, I found that there were typically third alternatives – options that would enable us to build a clean and green society, one that made people both richer and freer.

I hiked miles and miles through the mountains, exploring my backyard, while processing ideas such as low-cost, high efficiency house construction, sustainable farming practices, launching green businesses, holistic management, foreign policy, reducing the national deficit, designing more fuel-efficient cars, biogas plants and swamp filters for treating city sewage, revamping the educational system, and on and on…

I wanted to change the world, but I was just a kid with a lot of big ideas and no credentials. If anyone were to ever listen to me, first I needed to walk the talk and demonstrate that living green was indeed the path to prosperity. But to do that, I needed a partner.

It is an interesting contradiction to have the absolute confidence that I could change the world, while on the other hand, being too shy and socially awkward to walk through the halls at high school.  If the weather permitted, I walked from class to class around the outside of the building. At lunch, I sat at a table for other social misfits who had nowhere else to sit, and there met my first love. Being a holistic thinker, I believed that any relationship could be made to work; I just needed a partner who believed in me.

Together, we built an epic story. We walked across Montana, then returned home, got married, bought land, moved into a tent, and built the house of our dreams on a shoestring budget.  We avoided the mortgage trap and the job trap, not by earning a lot of money, but by avoiding the need for it in the first place. Although we were poor by any reasonable standards, we had few expenses, so we went on exciting wilderness adventures, and we installed a photovoltaic system to produce all of our electricity from sunshine. It wasn’t that difficult to do.

Along the way, we started a family, I wrote books and produced videos, taught survival skills, built my own publishing company, bought a business and started a bookstore, and founded the nonprofit Jefferson River Canoe Trail.  I built houses, testing out energy-efficient design concepts and alternative methods and materials.  I bought a diesel truck and attempted producing my own biodiesel from waste French fry grease from restaurants. I launched our fledgling Green University® LLC and began to explore an alternative approach to higher education, mentoring young people in sustainable living and green business development.

The inner dialogue never shut off in my head, and I never wavered in my belief that I could change the world. I built up a resume that, while sparse in some areas, was at least minimally adequate to launch a political career and run for governor of Montana. The one thing I still needed was the support of my partner.

From the beginning, my marriage was predicated on the belief that there was a win-win solution to any issue.  No two people will agree on everything, but there is always a workable solution if both parties are willing to consider all the alternatives. That belief held my marriage together for nearly twenty-one years, despite our differences.

I wanted to change the world. I felt compelled to help create a sustainable civilization for the next generation. My wife just wanted to raise our family and live our lives. I wanted a public life. She didn’t want anyone to know we existed. I wanted to pounce on her and play and wrestle. She wanted me to sit still and talk. On the one hand, we got along great as friends, we seldom fought, and we were together 24/7 for most of our marriage. And yet, we never resolved our differences, and we never bridged the emotional divide between us.

My marriage was sustainable as long as I believed we could ultimately resolve our differences. It just took me twenty-one years to admit defeat.  I experienced the last three of those years as a string of chronic panic attacks at the prospect of ending my marriage, breaking up our family, and losing everything I had ever believed in, worked for, and in a sense, campaigned for.

As I start over with a new life and a new relationship, I find myself optimistic at times, but also greatly shaken.  Emotionally, losing everything shook me into rubble.  I lack the inner confidence I always had – that I could change the world, that I could learn or do whatever was necessary to accomplish that mission, even stretching far beyond my otherwise quiet and introverted self.

Challenges that once seemed easy, now often seem insurmountable. Rebuilding my personal life, my enterprises, and my resume often seems like too much work and too much trouble, and I don’t presently have the emotional spine necessary to endure a political life. More than anything, my outlook is darker, as for the first time in my life, I have acknowledged that some problems have no winnable solutions.

By any reasonable measure, I could be immensely successful if I would just focus on any one topic and make a career out of it, as most normal people do. I am sufficiently well-versed in at least a dozen different subject areas, any one of which could become a full-time career. And yet, there is nothing that I am willing to give up, and so I find myself stumbling along, scattered in so many different directions that sometimes I feel ineffective at accomplishing anything.

More than anything, there is still that inexorable pull to keep flowing in the same direction that I always have. Working to make a difference in the world is the only vision I have known since childhood. It is this big dream of changing the world that inspires me, and nothing less seems worth working for. Trying to look at the bright side, losing my marriage has at least made me a little more human, and I can better relate to other people and their circumstances.

I don’t know if I will ever run for governor, but at least I may run for a local house or senate seat and see what happens. In the meantime, I have started this blog to begin articulating my resume and vision – if not for the reader, than at least for myself, as part of the process of getting back on my feet and starting over. Or, maybe I am just getting eccentric at an early age, and I can spend the rest of my life pretending to be governor.

If you like what you see on my websites, and want to be part of it, then please ask away. Being introverted and solitary by nature, I have often tried to do it all myself – everything from writing or filming, editing and formatting, publishing, marketing, and often packing and shipping my own books and videos, to handwriting all of my own HTML, to designing and building my own solar water heaters and developing new construction techniques.  I have tried to be an institution unto myself, seriously understaffed and underfunded for the scale of the projects I undertake. Thus, I am seeking partners who want to make a difference in the world, anyone who thinks we might have even one thing in common and wants to work together to make it happen. Drop me a note. Let’s see where it goes. [Read More…]

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Filed under Autobiographical