Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Old Master Gardener

Grassroots Press column, Aug-Sept 05 issue:

I knew an old master gardener back in the early 70s. He taught me something I’ll never forget.

My wife of that era, Judy, and I decided that we wanted to go "back to the land." We were heavily influenced by Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog, both of which stimulated our intellects like they had never been stimulated before. Based on what we read, we decided to move to the Ozarks.

We ended up in Howell County, in south-central Missouri, two miles from the Arkansas border. We moved onto our two acres on the outskirts of the little hamlet of Moody in September 1970, with our month-old daughter, just in time for winter. It was during this winter that we met Mr. and Mrs. Henson. Mr. Henson was the master gardener.

Howell County was very poor, and so were we. Almost everybody got government commodity foods. We signed right up, of course. Mrs. Henson worked for the county or some government agency, travelling around and showing housewives how to make the most effective use of their commodity foods. She was a grandmotherly type in her 60s, and instantly adopted Judy and our infant daughter as her own.

Soon she and Mr. Henson were visiting us regularly. They had become our surrogate grandparents. They were about the sweetest old people you could ever hope to know. They were Mormons, and had moved to Missouri from Idaho ("Idy-ho" as Mr. Henson called it) to be with their children. Mr. Henson had been gardening his whole life. They had a few acres with a big garden, and goats and rabbits which provided plenty of manure. His garden had the biggest spinach plants I have ever seen – each leaf was at least a foot long.

Mr. and Mrs. Henson were living the life Judy and I aspired to – cutting their own firewood, growing a big garden and orchard, raising some animals to eat. They had a pantry full of home-canned veggies, and a freezer stocked with sweet corn and peaches for wintertime. Living free and simple on the margins of civilization. Or so went the dream at any rate.

Mr. Henson was humble. He had more gardening knowledge in his little finger than me and all my books put together. But yet, he was never puffed up. Once we were in my garden and he said, referring to my gardening techniques, "maybe I’ll learn something." I never forgot this casual comment. Mr. Henson, the most masterly gardener I have ever known, felt that he could learn something from the lowly apprentice.

He was modest about his enormous knowledge, and he was always willing to learn. I was impressed by his gentle brilliance. He left me a legacy I will always be grateful for.
I have thought about the Hensons from time to time over the years. I have thought about what it means to be a "master" gardener, or a "master" anything. I keep coming back to the old saying, "the true saint never calls himself a saint."

I think, once you reach a certain level of competence, you finally understand how much can go wrong. Despite our best efforts, disaster is always possible. When undertaking any project, you give it your best shot, and roll with the inevitable punches. If you can make lemonade from the lemon you started with, then you are a success in human terms. But nature always bats last, and whoever forgets this will inevitably be laid low.

The apprentice is clueless; the journeyman more often than not secretly thinks himself a master; the master realizes what a miracle it is to get anything accomplished at all. Only a master understands how easily "success" can turn into disaster. The master develops – or has burned into him – an attitude of humble gratitude.

I think about beekeeping. Gardening is my hobby, but beekeeping is my livelihood. My family’s economic survival depends on my beekeeping skill. The consequences of failure are severe, so the intensity level is high. Every year the bees – or the mites, or the weather, or endless unexpected factors – throw me at least one major curveball. I realize that it will always be this way. I will never get ahead of the game. I am doing well to cope from year to year. Bringing in honey is a miracle, and I’m grateful that I can make it happen to the extent I do. If anybody ever called me a "master beekeeper," I would just smile... enigmatically, I would hope.

America has always been a nation of journeymen, people who think they really know something. Actually they know plenty, but journeymen are not experienced enough to fully understand the consequences of what they do. They’re like chess players who can see only one move ahead. The people capable of understanding the big picture have always been marginalized in American culture. Now, as never before, idiot criminals are in control. Now, as never before, our frustration has become unbearable. Surely there exists a critical mass of Americans who can rip loose the new reality that has lain dormant until now. Surely we can feel the earthquake rumbling beneath us – it gets stronger every day. We are capable of releasing whatever we want. It’s up to us to figure out how.

p.s. There are several Las Cruces area sustainability groups forming. If you would like to be kept informed, please send Laura and me an email at and we’ll pass along whatever info comes our way.

Insect rancher Gordon Solberg rides herd on 4,000,000 bees between Radium Springs and Brazito.

Rough Drafts

I made three false starts on my July 05 Grassroots Press column. I became weary of my usual perspective, accurate though it may be. But I'm sure my usual readers will appreciate this stuff:


I like Arizona. Friendly saguaros wave as you drive by. Gila monsters lurk under every rock. The mountains silhouetted on the horizon look like they were drawn by a cartoonist on psilocybin. The ghosts of Cochise, Geronimo, and Barry Goldwater play poker together in the dry desert heat. And a 112° Phoenix afternoon makes you realize how cool Las Cruces really is. They say you need to drink a gallon of water an hour when it gets that hot; otherwise you will die.

Despite the lethal climate, the Phoenix metropolitan area has twice as many people as the entire state of New Mexico. Along with Las Vegas, Phoenix is the Los Angeles of the desert. Las Cruces will never compare, yet it’s instructive to look at Phoenix to see what’s in store for us unless the economy crashes first.

I ended up driving a 50 mile loop around the southeastern part of the metroplex, between Chandler and Tempe. This was originally an agricultal area, much bigger than the Mesilla Valley. What a farming paradise it must have been back in the day. There are still hundreds of fields growing the same crops found in our area – cotton, alfalfa, corn – with the occasional dairy. Most of the fields have "For Sale" signs. And popping up all over are housing developments – mile upon mile of new houses. You can tell they’re new houses because they’re only 10 feet apart and they all have tile roofs.

We think we have a housing boom in Las Cruces, but we are a mere pip compared to Phoenix. Maricopa County (of which Phoenix is the county seat) has grown over 10% in the past three years. That’s over 100,000 new people a year. That’s a lot of new houses. That’s a lot of new schools, grocery stores, toilets, refrigerated air conditioners, and black asphalt pavement.

What summed it up for me was an intersection out there surrounded by endless rows of new houses. On one side of the street is a brand new shopping mall. On the other side of the street, they are building another shopping mall. There’s a lot of new shopping to be done in Phoenix.

Phoenicians, as they are called, like water. Since the desert is so dry, they like to flaunt their water wealth. They like ponds, fountains, lakes, waterfalls, and lots of green grass. Their lakes probably evaporate 6" of water a day. The streets are lined with splendid public landscaping. Flowers are everywhere. There must be millions of flowering shrubs – oleanders, birds of paradise and tropical plants of obscure description – watered with underground drip irrigation. All this beautiful vegetation would live no more than a couple of days without water. In fact, I saw what would happen if the water supply so much as hiccups – I drove past an abandoned golf course. What a location for a post-apocalypse movie it would make. It’s what you would expect a dead golf course to look like. Instead of green, the grass was brown, and all the trees and shrubs were dead skeletons. Evidently the owner ran out of money. I imagine the Hanging Gardens of Babylon looked like that when they ran out of water.


George W. Bush is known in some circles as "Bubble Boy," because he lives in his own private reality bubble. He hears only what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. He has found perfection. There is no need for Plan B because Plan A is always perfect. Since neocons are all-knowing and all-wise, there is no need to learn anything, since they already know everything there is to know. Unfortunately for those of us suffering under neocon rule, the ability to learn is a key characteristic of what it means to be fully human. So by our definition, neocons are less than fully human. But we already knew that – just look at Limbaugh, Coulter, Rumsfeld, George W. Bush and all the rest.

Since the neocons already know it all, there is no longer any need for "objective" facts; in fact, the very concepts of "objectivity" and "factuality" are now superfluous. This is bad news for those of us who believe in the possibility of civilization. Last fall, liberals got their kickers in a twist when a Bush aide, in a surprisingly unguarded moment, said in short, "We, the neocons, have the power to shape reality at will; all you can do is observe and comment upon what we are doing." According to the neocons, our objectivity counts for nothing. They are as gods; we are mere spectators. Or so they think.

Bush, of course, is nothing but a figurehead. His regime can more accurately be called the Cheney Administration or the Neocon Regime. But he is perfect for his role, because so many Americans are Bubble People, too. People feel comfortable with a "leader" who is just like they are – clueless, yet projecting a smug air of confidence. Bubble Boy Bush couldn’t exist if America wasn’t already Bubbleland.

I recently spent a couple of days in a hotbed of Bubble People – Phoenix, Arizona. There are plenty of Bubble People right here in Las Cruces, of course, but Phoenix is the closest example we have of the bubble syndrome on steroids. We think we’ve got a building boom in Las Cruces, but we are a mere pip compared to Phoenix. To put things in perspective, the Phoenix metroplex contains twice as many people as the entire state of New Mexico. The Phoenixplex is adding over 100,000 people a year. That’s a lot of new houses, highways, schools, shopping malls, freeways, sewers... and it’s all predicated on unlimited energy and unlimited water, forever.

In the Chandler area southeast of Phoenix where I spent most of my time, there are mile upon mile of new housing developments, new freeways, new shopping malls... beautifully landscaped with green lawns, flowering shrubs and artificial lakes and waterfalls, all of it mortgaged to the max, squandering water and energy like there’s no tomorrow... and there’s no end in sight. This particular cancer (not just Phoenix, but nationwide) will continue to grow until something crashes. Either the global economy crashes hard, or Earth’s life support system with be destroyed. Or, most likely, both. We like to think our talk counts for something, but it doesn’t. Like the jumbo jet accelerating into the skyscraper, events are totally out of control.


I recently spent a couple of days in the Phoenix metro area, which has twice the population of the entire state of New Mexico. Their building boom is enormous by Las Cruces standards. I spent some time driving between Chandler and Tempe, which used to be an agricultural area much larger than the Mesilla Valley. There is still a lot of irrigated farming going on, but most fields now sprout "For Sale" signs. The amount of new development is mind-boggling – mile after mile of new subdivisions, shopping centers, schools – all of it beautifully landscaped with flowering shrubs, lush green lawns, lakes and waterfalls. Considering that this is the hottest, driest desert in America, this is an act of defiance if I ever saw one.

The philosophy at work here is the All-American credo – THERE ARE NO LIMITS. Limitless energy, limitless water, limitless money, whee! Get yours today, if not sooner. No money down; an infinite number of easy payments, and paradise can be yours. However, sooner or later, Americans will discover that there are too limits.

This is not new information to those of us with a shred of intelligence, who realize that we are, all of us, captive on a hijacked jumbo jet which is accelerating into the skyscraper. That’s an ugly thing to have to say, but it’s true. Ecological catastrophe is inevitable; we’ve already squandered whatever chance at redemption we might have had. You can take this as a definitive statement.

It’s a drag writing like this. Sure, it’s great to still have the freedom to speak out against the madness, but I don’t see much percentage in mere talk, and I don’t plan to continue in this vein. I’ll probably write an overview article once a year or so... saying, most likely, "Yep, the idiot criminals are still running the show." But these constant updates of our constant decline are getting ridiculous.

My Better Half encourages me to write about what I want rather than what I don’t want. I understand the psychological and spiritual advantages of doing this, yet it is difficult for me to write about a positive future I doubt will ever happen. I can’t insult my own shred of intelligence by playing make-believe.

Since I see no point in confronting the madness head-on any longer, I plan to shift gears and change my focus. If you want to know what the idiot criminals are up to, the internet will keep you informed in agonizing detail. There are many other topics to write about, and I hope to entice a new Muse my way and see what kind of interesting articles we can come up with.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Life After the Oil Crash

June/July 05 Grassroots Press column:

Peak Oil is already here. The decline will accelerate before this decade is out. For an overview of the situation, I recommend James Howard Kunstler’s new book, "The Long Emergency." In his view, we will never find a form of energy as concentrated and cheap as oil. We will discover that there is no quick fix; in fact, there is no "fix" at all. Oil, which makes possible the affluent lifestyle we take for granted, will be impossible to replace. Our obscenely wasteful way of life will be severely curtailed. This will be "the end of Western Civilization as we know it." Personally, I think it’ll be a few years before things get really serious, but it never hurts to plan ahead.

Kunstler’s weekly commentaries, "The Clusterfuck Nation Chronicle," are always a good read:

Joe Bageant, a liberal living in a redneck town, always has an interesting perspective on a variety of topics: .

Other Peak Oil websites include:

Or, Google "peak oil" for over 600,000 web pages. It’s not like this is fringe information or anything.

We will not suddenly run out of oil, but the price will continue to climb, and we will experience chronic shortages. Once SUV drivers start paying $100 and more for a tank of gas, will they acknowledge their own lack of foresight, or will they will be told who to blame by Limbaugh etc.? Let’s be realistic here.

I doubt if there will be much good news on the political front, yet we might still be able to carve out little niches of semi-sanity for ourselves, or so goes my wishful thinking at any rate. Fortunately for Las Cruces, the Mesilla Valley contains an elegant, gravity-fed irrigation system which is as reliable as the year’s snowpack will allow. When it becomes profitable to do so, farmers will start growing vegetables and grain for local consumption, which is excellent news for those of us who like to eat.

The bad news is the housing bubble is destroying our farmland with appalling speed. Even since last fall, an amazing number of new subdivisions have appeared in the Mesilla Valley. A large acreage of farmland now lies fallow, awaiting subdivisions which seem inevitable. There has never been anything like this bubble, and it’s happening nationwide. Our nation is truly under the grip of a mass psychosis.

But come what may, people always find ways to cope. That much is guaranteed. We will continue to get around. If all else fails, we will walk or use bicycles. But more likely, we will see a vast increase in the number of motorcycles, motorscooters, electric bicycles... any kind of economical motorized transportation. Many more people will use mass transit. There will be a wide open niche for the Chinese (if they will grab it) – we need a seriously economical (and inexpensive) "people’s car." Such a vehicle would seat two people, have a small cargo area for groceries etc., would have a tiny 2-cylinder engine that would get 80+ mpg, and would have a top speed of maybe 60 mph. People would buy these by the millions, while parking their SUVs in the backyard to be used as storage units or playscapes.

Americans might finally start taking solar energy seriously for household use. There are three main applications here:

Heating. The concept is simple: south-facing windows collect heat during the day. Cover them with heavy curtains at night to prevent heat loss. If natural gas prices double yet again (which they will), there will be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to make a good living building add-on solar heaters for houses which were built without taking solar energy into account.

Water heating. Take a water tank, paint it black, cover it with glass, add a little insulation to the back. A do-it-yourselfer could build such a unit (with all new components) for about $200-300. Entrepreneurs will be able to sell millions of these nationwide.

Domestic water. People who are fortunate enough to own their own wells will find it wise to convert their water systems to solar. Pump the water into a storage tank on a tower and voila, plenty of water for household use and irrigation whenever the grid goes down (which it will). Real Goods has two solar water systems in the $1500-1700 range. Go to and request their free catalog.

(You will notice I didn’t mention solar electric. Although countless households are off the grid, solarvoltaic systems are expensive ($10k and up), and the batteries have to be coddled and periodically replaced. Most people simply aren’t techno-savvy enough to bother. This will create an opportunity for entrepreneurs to install and maintain solarvoltaic systems for a fee. People pay to have their swamp coolers maintained, so why not solarvoltaic systems as well?)

Unfortunately, these concepts remain alien to American mainstream culture. Even though more people are waking up to the reality of Peak Oil, most Americans remain clueless. The status quo power structure remains firmly in control. (The top 1% controls 90% of the wealth, and completely dominates the public indoctrination, or "discourse" as they like to call it.) In the Las Cruces area, all the major new projects – the Spaceport, the total development of the Mesilla Valley and East Mesa, and the new high-rise downtown – are predicated on unlimited energy, forever. As usual, short-term profit is the only criterion.

Merely talking about Peak Oil will not change American behavior. Only when gasoline prices double and double again will it finally dawn on people that we have actually entered a new era, and then it will be way too late to change the trajectory. Government has failed us, and will almost certainly continue to fail us. (Which is precisely what the Republicans intend.) The more farsighted of us might be able to create a bit of fragile leeway for ourselves and others. But in the final analysis, our fate depends on how the transition to a post-oil economy plays out, and how rapidly Global Warming spins out of control.

(Laura and I will be teaching a Dona Ana Branch Community Education course on "Sustainable Living Strategies" this fall. Look for our listing in the catalog.)

No More Slopover: The Rich Want It All

I'm behind in posting. This is my Grassroote Press column, April-May 05 issue:

What we’re experiencing right now is the end of the slopover effect. Global resources are dwindling while the population continues to grow. The rich, as usual, want it all. Will we let them take it? Do we finally establish true democracy (and save what’s left of the planet), or do we become serfs to the insane masters of Armageddon? The choice is that stark.

To recap briefly: Since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, human societies have been dominated by tiny elites which have controlled most of the resources. This millennia-long equilibrium ended in the 1400s when Europeans with sailing vessels starting "discovering" – and exploiting – the rest of the world. So much new wealth was plundered that the elite couldn’t immediately assimilate it all. The trough slopped over. The wealthiest pigs could no longer hog all the wealth, and a new class – the middle class – was formed.

When the Europeans invaded North America – the richest continent on the planet – the slopover turned into a torrent. Incredible new exploitation opportunities created an exciting new economic mix – industrial tycoons, exploited immigrants living in squalid slums, farmers and artisans, and a relatively small middle class, all of them accumulating money just as fast as they possibly could.

The post World War II era was the final climax of this process. The entire planet was exploited as never before. Earth’s natural resources were used up as rapidly as possible, with no thought for the future. With unlimited natural resources – or so it seemed -- there was no need for conservation or efficiency. New technologies, coupled with a rapid draining of the resource base, allowed the creation, for the first time, of a large middle class. It would be a mistake to take this middle class for granted, because our new fascist overlords are starting to methodically destroy it. This process has just begun. Check back in 20 years and see how much progress they’ve made.

We need to remember that America has always been a no-nonsense oligarchy. It was set up that way from the beginning. Up until now, it hasn’t been deemed necessary, or cost-effective, to overtly oppress the working class too much. (It is really not necessary to oppress people, because they are naturally self-oppressing; their limited repertoire of behavior is automatically self-regulated by greed and fear.) It was deemed better to give America the trappings of democracy – there is no harm in giving common citizens a "vote" that enables the ruling class to always remain in power while receiving a gloss of legitimacy. Traditionally, Americans have been allowed to be "free" – which actually means "free to travel" and "free to shop." But free to set policy? You’ve got to be kidding! (As I tell my fellow peaceniks: "They make policy, we make puppets.")

But times change. Now, thanks to lucrative new private prisons, we are no longer limited to our traditional roles as consumers, workers, and soldiers; now we can also contribute to corporate profits by serving as prisoners. (One major contributing factor to fascism’s rise in this country has been the War on Drugs – specifically, the enactment of mandatory drug sentencing, and the confiscation of drug-related assets without due process.)

So here we are, 2005, counting down to Armageddon. What was once a relatively benign American oligarchy has now turned vicious. Since Chinese workers will work longer hours for far less pay, American workers are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The trend is toward a country consisting of service workers, consumers, soldiers, and prisoners, with a small financial and techno-elite to keep the wheels turning. The fascists are gathering power just as fast as they possibly can. We are very close to the Neocon dream of an authoritarian entertainment culture. (War is the ultimate entertainment.) Give them another 5 or 10 years, and we’ll be amazed at what they’ve accomplished. You can forget the Bill of Rights, but no worries – we’ll be free to watch any authorized channel, and we’ll be free to shop at any Wal-Mart in the country. They will still allow freedom of speech – as long as it doesn’t make any difference.

The reason all this is happening is because the trough is finally starting to run dry. There are already way too many people on this planet, and we are rapidly running out of resources. Oil will be first; food and water will follow. And the squeeze has barely begun. The rich are merely proactively protecting their share (which is, in their opinion, 100% of the pie).

Projecting present trends on a planetary level, there is nothing but utter devastation in store – a rapidly overheating planet without polar caps, without glaciers, without rain forests, without a Gulf Stream. On the human level we see war, pestilence, famine, and ever-increasing authoritarianism. Already, an increasing numbers of fundamentalists see it as their God-given mission to bring the Apocalypse to pass. (They are only 20% of the population, but they are disciplined and very well organized, and work at all times in lockstep unison.)

There are no silver linings that I can see. The fascists control the federal government (thanks in large measure to our archaic and profoundly undemocratic political system). The corporate press is criminally complicit. Hate radio blankets the country. Corporate television is a deadly joke. Fifty percent of Americans are so thoroughly brainwashed, they will follow their führer anywhere.

If progressives want to give logic and reason one final shot, they must create their own global satellite channel to even have the possibility of beginning a comeback. Fortunately, for the slim hope it offers, there is now some serious money currently in the process of creating a liberal answer to Fox News. But this will take at least a couple of years, maybe more, and in the meantime the fascists will be consolidating their power 24/7. (For a continuous supply of information on these and many other topics, I highly recommend Daily Kos,

I never liked the artificial dichotomy of "liberals vs. conservatives." More accurately, we should say, "preservers vs. destroyers". There is no doubt the destroyers are literally running out of gas, but will they be stopped soon enough? Demand for oil has reached unprecedented levels, and is increasing rapidly as resources dwindle. We are presently passing peak oil production, so it will be all downhill from here. According to the mad wisdom of capitalism, this means that we should use up the remaining reserves even faster. It won’t take much of a shortfall to bring down the whole house of cards.

The Almighty Dollar is on shaky ground. The major players (Japan, China, and Korea) are getting nervous by the Bush Administration’s irresponsible financial policies. The dollar is losing value relative to the Euro -- which is becoming the new de facto global reserve currency. The Orientals would bail immediately, but they are locked in a tricky karmic dance with us – they are tired of propping up our government deficit by buying 2 billion dollar’s worth of increasingly-worthless bonds each day, but they need America to keep buying their consumer goods. If America falls, they fall too.

Assuming the mother of all ecological disasters doesn’t happen first, the Global Economy is guaranteed to collapse, as the oil supply peters out. Ultimately, oil prices will reach a critical level and the economy we have always known will crash, and crash hard. It will crash like we have never seen before. Everything will be, as they say, "redefined." The question is: will we then be able to create the required sustainable civilization so that we and the rest of the biosphere can survive? Or will fascism retain its death grip as we continue our Astroglide into oblivion? This is where our saga will continue in some future issue.

P.S. Here are a couple more of my favorite blogs. When Digby nails it, is he ever good: And the Rude Pundit skewers the fascists with the crudity they deserve:

Gordon Solberg would have emigrated to another planet 30 years ago if he could have.