Wednesday, August 10, 2011


If the consumer has not the will to make common cause with the worker – specifically, the willingness to spend more in acquiring less when such transactions are necessary to ensure that workers are able to earn sufficient wages to feed and shelter their families – then no other force on Earth can protect labor. A poverty of self-governance is no foundation for a popularly-elected government to build the onerous restrictions on business and trade that would be needed.

Is there any other delusion so cruel as imagining that reform of democracy – or worse, revolution – could compensate for a so basic a failure of brotherhood? Perhaps yes: the belief that free markets among selfish men might yield a condition of virtue.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Treading Lightly

The quest for “sustainability” is a continuing challenge we pose to ourselves: “What shall I do – what shall WE do – to welcome those who would tread lightly on Earth into our community?”

Thus we would ask, “What do those who tread lightly need from me and my neighbors?”

First we should recognize that “treading lightly” is not merely a figure of speech – it has everything to do with how much stuff, how much land, and how much energy one demands. Indeed, “treading” is all about motion: mass, speed, size, momentum, displacement, kinetic energy. The more one takes, the faster one goes, the further one travels, the heaver the treading. There may be no better indicator of our footprint on Earth than the odometer reading in our car multiplied by the aggressiveness of our driving.

Offhand we might think those who demand little in the way of stuff, land, and energy would need little else from their neighbors, but this is not so. Why? Treading lightly is by nature a fragile undertaking – one which cannot take root and thrive where the swift, the powerful, and the heavily armored dominate the landscape. It is no overstatement to say that “Light Treaders” are an endangered species in this nation, and that we-the-people continue to degrade and destroy suitable habitat for them. If you are wondering whether this pertains to zoning codes, sprawl, self-segregation, and automobile dependence, the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

I will end with a specific challenge. Children – left to their own devices – are some of the Lightest Treaders still extant. What, my friend, are you doing where you live to make it safe, practical, and pleasant for children to walk to school, ride their bicycle to soccer practice, run over to their friend’s house to play?

I would suggest there is nothing they need more from us than our feet…on the ground…with them.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Am I my Brother's Keeper?

I would say that two worldviews currently dominate our public discourse about political economics in these United States. One holds it is the responsibility of Government to ensure that people have jobs and that their basic needs are met. The other holds that an unfettered Free Market will provide sufficient employment (and other means of livelihood), thereby ensuring that people can take care of their own needs.

As divergent as they might first appear, they have much in common. Both assign responsibility to abstractions. Both relegate human behavior to the realm of mechanics. Both trivialize (or worse, ignore) issues of scale in human relationships. One usually demands more taxes (albeit from someone else) while the other invariably demands fewer, but neither demands much else in the way of citizenship. The difference between “The Government is my brother’s keeper” and “The Market is my brother’s keeper” pales to insignificance when compared to “I am my brother’s keeper”. Our tendencies to outsource responsibility are staggering.

One might think the tremendous political turmoil which has seized us in Wisconsin would have shifted our public debate beyond these two worldviews, but thus far I see little evidence of it. The sustainability and Transition movements are still “fringe” – and perhaps for good reason, given how new and as-yet ill-defined they are. Most on the left, many in the center, and an astonishing number on the right instinctively reject traditional religious prescriptions for the public realm. One might be forgiven for concluding that Ayn Rand and Paul Krugman span the entirety of economic philosophy.

As for me, I find myself returning to the words of Edmund Burke, which I will paraphrase here:

“We are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to our disposition to put moral chains upon our own appetites…it is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Our passions forge our fetters.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Leaving It In The Ground

How is it possible we are not discussing how much fossil fuel we will LEAVE IN THE GROUND, just in case our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren need it for truly important purposes like growing food?

This is not merely a prudent form of insurance. Responsible stewardship – including a willingness to sacrifice present consumption – is a profoundly moral imperative. What kind of people would grab for all they can get from the Buffet Table of Life…and not give a second thought to leaving some for those who follow?

There are no guarantees that replacements for cheap and abundant fossil fuels will magically appear just because our heirs happen to need or want them. Hoping or expecting technology or market forces to “save” them is criminally irresponsible. If their inheritance from us is a continued structural addiction to oil – but not enough oil to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves – our generation will have perpetrated an unprecedented injustice.

A great deal of our current energy consumption in the United States is discretionary. We burn millions of barrels of petroleum to play, mow lawns, and blow leaves off our sidewalks. We drive and fly billions of miles for vacations. We demand uniform indoor temperatures year around. Perhaps as many as half of our high school juniors and seniors drive to school – even though school buses and transit are available. None of these are essential for civilized life.

And consider the lunacy of automobile-based access. Surely there is not enough energy on Earth for 7 billion people to drive everywhere in 2-3 ton motorized exoskeletons! Moreover, when most of us drive to most of our destinations, we make our communities unsafe, impractical, and unpleasant for non-motorists – which is to say, we force high levels of energy consumption on all who live in our midst.

What is needed? Increased efficiency is necessary but not sufficient. We need to CURTAIL our discretionary fuel-guzzling activities. Any comprehensive accounting will show the possibilities are vast. The more we curtail now, the more fossil energy we leave for a what may prove to be a difficult and lengthy transition.

Does our generation have the decency and determination to roll up our sleeves and get on with the job? Do we even have the backbone to make those who chant “Drill baby drill!” hang their heads in shame?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Alien Nation

I believe the physical isolation and socio-economic segregation afforded by the automobile are integral to the cultural alienation and political bipolarization which afflict our times. There can be no meaningful discourse among us if we spend most of our lives withdrawn into suits of armor – metaphorical or actual.

For it is not merely the shells of automobiles which separate us – it is the lifestyles and community patterns we have built to accommodate them.

I think of the tremendous joy I felt mingling with the crowds on Madison’s Capitol Square during the last few months. Then I think of how terribly lonely I felt yesterday, standing with a campaign sign along Main Street in the village of Oregon as rush hour traffic surged by. Yes, some drivers honked their horns and flashed a thumbs-up – and more than a few cursed me and flipped me the bird – but there was precious little HUMAN connection in any of it. For these motorists I did not persist; like the torrent of images on a television screen I was a phenomenon that rapidly came up before them and just as quickly vanished in the rear-view mirror.

And yet one great irony struck me amidst this fleeting interaction: how many motorists seemed to resent my imposition on their solitude – as though I was standing in their backyard peeking through their windows. Is this our expectation – that motoring is a personal and anonymous act, and that public thoroughfares are extensions of our private property?

P.S. You may ask why I chose Main Street. Because it is the closest thing to a “public square” in my village.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


(1) One pivotal question of our time is whether we shall commit ourselves to protecting variants of the human species whose technological will-to-power is modest from variants whose powers are great. The fact that we have chosen to idolize a Darwinian form of economics would suggest otherwise.

(2) The First World suburban Progressive with the “COEXIST” bumper sticker on his Prius may indulge fantasies of solidarity with the oppressed billions in the Third World, but the raw daily-average horsepower which undergirds his secure and comfortable way of life places him in an entirely different league. Empire is his father; Growth Capitalism is the hand that has woven the world-wide-web of extraction which daily brings hitherto-inconceivable material abundance to his quiet tree-lined neighborhood.

(3) It is much easier for those of us with secure income flows to contemplate these things. The insecure will naturally be more inclined to heed those who promise a quarter-million new jobs.

(4) If you do not grasp the ramifications of #1 in the abstract, try to exercise your right to ride a bicycle on one of Dane County’s “rural” arterial highways at rush hour.



Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shovel-Ready versus Soldier-Ready

There really isn’t any serious debate in Washington over Keynesianism. Or there won’t be when the Tea Party freshmen get over their delusions of independence. When money has done the talking for you, it expects you to do the talking for it.

Here is the “split”.

Some of them want to throw money at “shovel-ready” highway projects…and their good friends in the road-building, car-manufacturing, and fuel-pumping businesses.

The others want to throw money at “soldier-ready” military adventures…and all their defense-contractor pals.

Whether you drop money from helicopters or “forget” to include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the budget comes down to the same thing.

The handful of real peaceniks and budget hawks in Washington have no idea what they’d do with the staggering unemployment which would result from a 50% cut in defense spending. Somehow the prospects for renewed frenzy in McMansion-building, Escalade-manufacturing, and imported-TV-selling don’t seem all that plausible right now. As always there are a lot more jobs to be had in making stuff and then blowing it up.

What to do about it? Hmm…what would happen if we-the-people began to behave as though we valued dignified, fulfilling jobs for one-another over the lowest prices and the highest rates of return? What would happen if we stopped outsourcing so much responsibility?

To be continued…