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Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
13. Opting Out of a Broken System
May we look upon our treasures,
the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war
have nourishment in these our possessions.
—John Woolman (1720–1772)
Our predicament is the result of a vast industrial-commercial system of living, which can be viewed in various ways. It’s the systematic fossil-fuelization of almost everything. It’s the replacement of interpersonal transactions with money and debt. It’s the redirection of distributed natural cycles with linear, centralized, monetizable flows of energy and resources—the stuff of billion- aires’ dreams.
It’s as if humanity’s cyclic connections to the land were cut by the scissors of the industrial system. We then plugged ourselves into the matrix, and we must now rely on that system for our survival.
Part of my response is to opt out of this destructive system. Opting out brings me the satisfaction of transitioning from consumer to producer. It can be playful, or delicious; sometimes it can be frightening; ultimately, it’s fulfilling. Opting out is another form of reconnecting; as I lessen my dependence on global corporate systems, I naturally need to opt in to local biospheric systems.
Even as I explore how to opt out, I nonetheless remain deeply intertwined within the industrial system. After all, I use roads even when I ride a bike. But that’s OK; this is a path of transition, a middle path, accessible to all.
This chapter is a smorgasbord of opting out of this system, a few of the experiments I’ve explored over several years. Of course, there are innumerable other ways to opt out; you may decide to go much further than I have. Cultivate stillness, listen, go where your principles lead you—and do what brings you satisfaction.
Opting out of stuff
So much of industrial civilization revolves around stuff, and much of this stuff quickly finds its way to the landfill. Does our stuff make us happier?
Getting rid of stuff frees up physical and psychic space—but get- ting rid of stuff can be harder than acquiring it. During an early summer heat wave, I decided to sell the window air conditioner in our bedroom which we hadn’t turned on in four years. When I sat down to put it up for sale online, to my surprise I had second thoughts. I felt fear. What would we do in a heat wave? Without realizing it, I’d been mentally attached to that old air conditioner, a high-energy security blanket.
I put up the listing, and someone came the next day. The window was freed up, the bedroom became more inviting. Since then, we’ve had some intense heat waves, but I haven’t missed the air conditioner.1
My big old motorcycle took up lots of space in my garage. I didn’t ride it enough to justify its existence; worse, I had a guilty sense that I should ride it more. Selling it freed up space in the garage, and in my mind.
Under our system of industrial capitalism, we’ve become hoarders, takers. As humans, we do need some stuff to survive; but most of us now have more stuff than we need. I used to hoard stuff. Now I prefer getting rid of it.
Repairing things saves money, keeps stuff out of landfills, and keeps CO2 out of the atmosphere. It also fulfills me at a deep human level. (It may be more of a man thing, though. I asked Sharon if repairing things makes her feel deeply human, and she said, “Not particularly.”)
Early in the course of my adventures with my WVO car Maeby, I made a replacement aluminum handle for the pump I use to collect veggie oil.2 Simple as it was, I showed it to my little sons proudly: “Made in America, by your dad.”
To repair something, I need to project my mind into it. I need to see how its parts function and interact with each other. Only then can I come up with a good repair strategy. This process is a kind of flow; it brings me a sense of harmony with the physical world.
I’ve fixed leaky faucets, wobbly toilets, leaky roofs, the internet router, an old wheelbarrow the neighbors threw out, the solenoid in our dryer before we stopped using it. I’ve fixed a hundred things on Maeby, from her cruise control to her alternator, her front suspension to her rear axles, and seemingly everything in between. This is the price for keeping a 1984 car rocking and rolling.
It might seem like fixing things is a manifestation of attachment to them, but I find the opposite to be true. The ultimate fate of every fabricated item—every car or laptop or ceramic bowl—is to end up broken. During a repair, the transience of objects becomes so clear, and therefore my attachment to them becomes weaker. Things come, and things go.
Appropriate (low-energy) technology
We humans are technological animals, and technology will play a role in our response to our predicament. The most obvious example: renewable energy is replacing fossil fuels.
But there’s an overlooked type of technology, maybe not so glamorous, that works with little or no fossil fuels. Things like push lawn mowers, solar ovens, treadle sewing machines, and bicycles—and techniques like orcharding, organic gardening, natural building, and plant medicine. These technologies are time-tested, relatively simple, easy to maintain, and ready to go.
I’m not suggesting that everyone start brewing beer or keeping bees, but I personally find using these kinds of low-energy technologies to be satisfying. And you don’t necessarily need to set up a forge in your backyard; you can commission your local blacksmith to make those candleholders you need.
A transition away from consumerism and toward local, people-based productive economies would require more of us to be producers. This could create meaningful jobs, result in tastier foods, build up communities, and make us happier in the long term.
I build furniture when I need it, and my reason for doing so might surprise you: I often find it easier to build than to buy. Instead of spending a day going out to furniture stores, settling for something that’s at least not awful, shelling out a small fortune, and figuring out transport, I prefer spending about the same amount of time creating a simple design and making the piece myself.
I built precisely the bed frame we wanted (it wasn’t available to purchase) and a small nightstand to go with it. This was a fun way to spend time with my sons, who worked the drill. I built precisely the coffee table we wanted, and precisely the kitchen storage shelves we needed.
Sharon and I get cast-off clothes from friends and relatives, and from thrift stores. People discard clothes for various reasons, but usually not because they’re worn out. It’s easy to get decent clothes this way. (Jon Jondai, a master of opting out, articulates this point beautifully.3) Clothes seem precious to me, so I take care to make them last.
Clothes are a medium through which we differentiate economic class and group identity. So learning to embrace plain or hand-me-down clothes is a valuable practice for dissolving vanity and questioning repressive social structures. And the practice can go much deeper.
It’s interesting to think about making clothes from scratch. You’d need to raise sheep, grow fiber, or hunt for hides; and then spin, weave, tan, and tailor. This thought experiment powerfully illustrates the impossibility of true self-sufficiency, and the necessity of community and specialization.
Of course, Gandhi famously made homespun clothes (khadi) a cornerstone of his practice; for Gandhi, khadi sat sweetly in the overlap between personal transformation, constructive program, and satyagraha. From my experience with homegrown food, I can imagine the immense satisfaction from reconnecting to the Earth in this way. I’d love to try it someday.
Build a simple California king bedGet the following pieces of wood: 6 pieces 4 × 4 × 15″ (the legs); 14 pieces 1 × 4 × 72″ (the slats); 2 pieces 2 × 4 × 66″ (head and foot parts of the frame); 3 pieces 2 × 4 × 73″ (right, center, and left parts of the frame). Also get some 1-inch screws, some 2.5-inch screws, and 24 3 × 3⁄8-inch lag bolts. Lay out the frame on a flat surface, with the short pieces on the outside so that the frame dimensions end up being 66 by 76 inches. The third 73-inch piece is an optional center support for sturdiness. (If you leave it off, you will only need 4 legs.) Fasten the frame together with some 2.5-inch screws (drill small pilot holes). Then lay the 4 × 4 legs in the frame corners and fasten them to the frame with the lag bolts (two per contact face; use 3⁄16-inch pilot holes). Now you have an upside-down frame. Turn it over, lay the slats on with even spacing, and screw them to the frame. To save time, I have the local lumber store cut my wood to size for a few dollars more. I use lag bolts for load-bearing joints, and star head screws for every- thing else. I try not to overbuild; here, the 4 × 4 legs are stouter than necessary, but I like the way they look. Sharon and I agree that this is the most comfortable bed we’ve ever slept on. We use a basic five-inch-deep latex mattress. Try to find a mattress that hasn’t been treated with toxic flame retardant. Or make your own.4
On December 1, 2011, there was a powerful windstorm in Altadena that knocked down trees. Sharon was almost killed by a branch that fell in our driveway, seconds after she’d moved out of the way. Our electricity was out for three days.
Although my friends complained frequently about the outage, I loved it. The nights were quiet, and beautifully dark. We’d read for a while by candlelight and then go to bed early. I caught up on my sleep.
One of the main goals of Being the Change is to describe the experience of gradually opting out of fossil fuels while living an otherwise normal suburban existence. Leaving fossil fuels, in addition to reducing our emissions, holds the potential for radical reconnection and reminding. It may even hold the seeds of a new society.
The Possibility Alliance is an intentional community in north- east Missouri, founded by Ethan and Sarah Hughes in 2008. They use no electricity and no fossil fuel. At night they burn homemade beeswax and tallow candles. And they don’t view this as sacrifice— they love it.
Adam Campbell, a resident, said, “There is no dogma in any of this. We’re just having a great time living out a different way of being that we feel is a fundamentally better way to live, because it’s more connected. It’s more responsible. It’s healthier. It’s more vibrant. It’s more participatory, and it’s more fun. And visitors give us feedback that this is really true.”5
My friends at Casa de Paz in Oakland, inspired by visitors from the Possibility Alliance, have also embraced the darkness; they light their nights with candles. After visiting them, I was similarly inspired; my family is trying it once per week. On “candle night,” I do no work—no staring into the luminescent computer screen. Instead, Sharon and I play games with the boys. It’s empowering to experience that we don’t need fossil fuel to live our lives.
Over the course of three days at a local school garden, I had the good fortune to build a wood-fired earth oven alongside master adobe craftsman Kurt Gardella. We laid a foundation of gravel, built up the base with adobe bricks (formed onsite from the clay subsoil), and added a layer of beer bottles for insulation. The oven floor was made from bricks laid in sand. We formed the dome by covering a sculpted sand dome with cob (mud and straw plaster). When the cob was dry, we scooped out the sand. Earthen building is the kind of work that makes you sleep well at night, a satisfying, meditative, and empowering experience: building on a human scale, with your hands.
Now that I’ve built a simple oven, a modest earthen house feels doable. Earthen homes are works of art, planned with one’s own mind and built with one’s own hands, brimming with handmade personality connected integrally into the landscape. They stay cool in the summer and snug in the winter. Building them produces no greenhouse gases.
Someday I’ll build one. I’d incorporate a rocket mass heater6 into the design. Rocket mass heaters extract nearly 100% of the heat energy from their fuel, which can be “junk” biomass like pine cones and sticks. This means a fraction of the work chopping wood.
And earthen houses prevent debt. Jon Jondai built one in just three months, working two hours per day. Compared to some- one with a thirty-year mortgage, Jondai had an extra “twenty-nine years and ten months of free time.”7
Opting out of industrial food
Becoming more food-sufficient is a revolutionary act. In Chapter 12, I discussed tending fruit trees, vegetables, soil, chickens, and bees. In this section, I describe a few other fun ways I’ve opted out of the broken industrial food system.
I tell my mom that she taught me to not waste food so well that now I dumpster dive. It feels good to save valuable food from being dumped in the landfill, it feels good to get food without using money, and it’s fun being part of the dumpster underground.
Two experienced divers showed me the ropes one Thanksgiving morning.8 The streets were desolate at 7 am, but I still man- aged to pull up ten minutes late. The two divers, E. and M., got out of a small white hatchback. I felt nervous, like I was showing up late to the revolution, but E. and M. greeted me warmly.
The dumpsters were in a barbed-wire enclosure festooned with “No Trespassing” signs, but the enclosure was set into a hill, and the back corner was easy to climb over. While lifting my leg over barbed wire, E. said, “You enter at your own peril.” I paused, and entered.
Inside, E. nimbly vaulted over the side of a dumpster and then handed me a waxed box. “You never have to bring your own box,” he said. He passed me a full white trash bag over the side of the bin. Inside, I found several cartons of eggs (each with ten or eleven perfect eggs), a large tub of foil-sealed yogurt with a cracked plastic top, some pita bread, dozens of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and orange peppers. There were bagels and cream cheese. I found some cucumbers and offered them to E. He asked, “Are they organic?”
Freegans tend to eat consciously, and E. and M. are no exceptions. They happily eat food from dumpsters—so long as it’s organic. To put this another way, they’ll eat food past some arbitrary expiration date, but they avoid food known to be literally laced with poisons (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides).9 I find their point of view to be reasonable.
E. and M. no longer buy groceries or chicken feed. Instead, they dive once a week. They keep what they need and donate the rest. I now work with a local supermarket every two weeks, distributing their “spoils” to charitable groups and taking what my family needs.10 In a country that wastes 40% of its food,11 it feels good to live mainly off food saved from the dump, and to bring even more of this reclaimed food to others.
Freeganism, of course, is a stopgap, a way to live gracefully within a broken system. It reminds me that every bite of food is a gift. When I eat mindfully, with gratitude and with awareness of origins, I realize that food is a wonderful fuel that keeps my mind and body running well so that I can serve others.
There’s a flow of plastic bottles and plastic bags through my life. In our society, we love encasing our food in plastic. I’m amazed by how quickly the recycling bin fills up with plastic bottles and plastic produce trays. And our garbage is nearly 100% plastic bags, packed down into another, larger plastic garbage bag. If our tech- nology is so great, why isn’t our food packaging compostable?
I try to minimize my food packaging by growing food, and buying grains and legumes in bulk.
I don’t eat meat. This works for me—I’m fortunate to have access to a variety of vegetarian foods—and it aligns with my principles of minimizing the harm I do to other beings, and minimizing my green-house gas emissions.
It’s true that the industrial meat system is both inhumane and misaligned with the biosphere. And it’s also true that eating meat with little or no awareness of its origin indicates the deep and widespread disconnectedness of modern life. Still, I don’t believe that vegetarianism or veganism is unilaterally better than meat-eating. Generalization here is unhelpful. Would it make sense for the Inuit to be vegetarian? Has there ever been a tribe of vegan indigenous people? A resident of arid eastern Montana who respectfully hunts elk is eating biospherically.
From time to time, I end up with big batches of homegrown or freegan fruit. So I make jam. A pound of fruit makes about a pint of jam. Yes, it does take sugar. I have friends who avoid sugar like the plague, but I think a little sugar is nice—especially when it’s in jam. (It’s a middle path, right?)
Making a batch of refrigerator jam (which skips the time- and energy-consuming sterilization step and must be kept in the fridge) takes me about an hour, counting prep and cleanup. For me, this making usually occurs shortly before midnight on Sunday night, after I return home with freegan spoils. I might have a box with ten pounds of blackberries that aren’t getting any younger, say. To wait would be to lose the race against mold.
But the next morning, the line of beautiful, full jars makes it all worthwhile.12 Homemade jam is far better than what you can buy. And gifting it makes people very happy.
Wild foraging: Eating “weeds”
Some plants seem worth foraging to me, while others are too much work. It’s a lifelong practice. Here are some of my favorite plants for foraging. Your region will have its own palette.
- Acorns: Acorn veggie burgers are worth the work of gather- ing, shelling, and leaching. As opposed to fast food, the ethos here is that the work makes the meal even more satisfying. I gather acorns from the coast live oaks along my bicycle commute between my house and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I use the flat of a cleaver to crack the shells, bearing down with straight arms.
- Manzanita berries: Manzanita shrubs grow in the San Gabriel mountains and in the foothills of the Sierra. The outer berry flesh has a delicious, unique flavor. Like acorns, manzanita berries were a staple food of the native Chumash people.
- Stinging nettle: If you pick the leaves from underneath and fold them in half, they won’t sting your fingers or mouth. The leaves are rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein. They make a wonderful tea.
- Wild mustard: This plant grows profusely along the wooded stream bed near our house. It’s considered an invasive in Southern California, but it’s delicious.
- Purslane: A fast-growing weed, delicious raw and with more omega-3 than any other leafy veggie. I eat it as I weed it.
- Miner’s lettuce: Miner’s lettuce grows in shadier areas along the same stream bed as the wild mustard, but it’s a native. It makes delicious salads.
- Dandelion: Dandelions grow as a weed in my yard. Some people love the greens raw, but I find them too bitter. They’re delicious, however, sautéed with white beans, garlic, and lemon juice.
- Arroyo willow: I make the leaves into a pleasant earthy tea which is also a painkiller.
Jun tea: Opting out of industrial beverages
A friend dropped off an extra SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) one night. I’d never heard of kombucha, but the SCOBY looked so vile that I knew I had to try it. I brewed some green tea sweetened with raw honey, let it cool, and plopped in the SCOBY. After a few days, I screwed up my courage and took my first taste. It was still on the sweet side, with a tart kick—not bad!
Later, I started brewing jun tea, a fermented green tea beverage sweetened with honey that I like even more than plain kombucha. I sip bubbly jun instead of beer.
To make it, I use gallon pickle jars, with a rubber-banded cloth cover to keep out fruit flies. The SCOBY grows on top of the liquid; it’s similar to a mother of vinegar. When it gets to a pleasant sourness, I put the jun in seltzer water bottles so that it builds up serious fizz. Sometimes I add flavorings like mint, ginger, pomegranate, or white sage.
Dad’s root beer
Brewing root beer is one of my sons’ favorite projects. The idea is to make a dark and rich root tea, add sugar and yeast, and bottle. Adjusting the flavors to your taste is part of the fun. I bottle into used plastic seltzer bottles. (If you choose glass instead, be careful of exploding bottles.) The finished product is best opened slowly, outside. The sound after my first sip: mmm, ahhh.
If you can’t find sassafras or are worried about the safrole it contains,13 you can leave it out and bump up the wintergreen and sarsaparilla to compensate.
- 14 quarts water
- 8 cups sugar
- 1⁄2 c molasses
- 3⁄4c sarsaparilla root, chopped • 1⁄2 c sassafras root, chopped
- 7 star anise
- 1⁄2 cinnamon stick
- 1⁄4c raisins, chopped
- 1 vanilla bean, chopped
- 1⁄8tsp nutmeg
- 40 (or so) juniper berries, crushed
- 1⁄2 tsp salt
- 3⁄4c wintergreen leaves, chopped
- 1 pack brewer’s yeast
Heat 1⁄2 the water in a large pot. Add everything except the wintergreen and yeast. Simmer for an hour or so; this is a good time to sterilize your bottles with an iodine-based sanitizer. Then add the wintergreen and the rest of the (cold) water. You can taste as you add the cold water to adjust the overall flavor strength and the sweetness. I like it strong—for slow sipping. Once it’s at blood temperature, mix in the yeast, and bottle using a strainer. Store the bottles at room temperature; when they’re rock hard (after three or four days), stick them in the fridge to stop the ferment. Makes about 14 quarts.
Opting out of the money system
I still use money, but I do so carefully. Our money system en- courages separation. Money leads to separation from our food, from our biosphere, and from each other. It depersonalizes interactions, transforming a human into “the checkout person.” Money’s addicting nature even leads to separation from our selves.
If you really look, you’ll realize that money is a collective delusion. Opting out of wrong livelihood I was once lost in the rat race’s maze, a young man working on Wall Street as a computer programmer, dreaming, sadly, of money. After three years of this, I’d had more than enough of helping the rich get richer. I thought, “If I keep doing this, it will be a waste of my life. When I’m on my deathbed, I’ll regret it.” So I applied to graduate school in physics. Later, I realized I wanted work that more directly helped others, so in a warming world, I switched to Earth science.
It’s important to continue examining our livelihood as we go through life. “Is my work meaningful? Does it make me happy? Does it help others?” In industrial society, we’re conditioned to work in a peculiar way. The way we work differs markedly from the way people in other human societies have worked. Years of school give us a worldview, expectations, and a work ethic; then capitalistic culture pushes us to work long hours, often at repetitive, unsatisfying tasks. We become workaholics. We feel pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” and to “get ahead.” We judge ourselves and each other by the size of our bank accounts. When we narrow our- selves like this, we miss opportunities to live a more satisfying life.
We can consciously opt out of work that harms ourselves or others. We can opt out of work that makes things that no one needs, or that feeds addictions, or that harms the biosphere. We can choose to leave jobs at liquor stores or weapons laboratories. Instead, we can seek meaningful work that helps others.
Leaving big banks
The heady days and nights of Occupy Los Angeles in 2011—and the many conversations I had with other protesters on the steps of LA’s City Hall—raised my awareness of the problems endemic to our money system. During this time, I walked over to a nearby Bank of America branch and closed my accounts. This felt surprisingly good. I moved the money to a local credit union.
Next, I cut up my big bank credit cards. I had two, including one that earned frequent flier miles. If ever there was a symbol of our predicament and its deep and interconnected roots in our social, technological, and money systems, it’s got to be frequent flier programs. The customer service rep in Gujarat transferred me to a customer service rep in Florida who offered me layers of incentives to stay. I finally persuaded her to close the account.14
Switching to cash was Sharon’s initiative. Says Sharon: “I like sticking it to the credit cards. I know they’re always lying in wait, waiting for me to miss a payment by accident. You think you’re always going to pay on time, but they have actuaries, you know, just waiting for the time your bank account number changes and your direct payment breaks.”
Paying with cash helps local businesses, as well. I called my friend Jon over at Oh Happy Days, the vegan café and health food store here in Altadena, and he said the fees he pays when customers use credit cards amount to about 3% on average. He calls the credit card industry an “interloper.”
The Shopping Challenge
Sharon wanted to see if we could go 46 days15 without buying anything, except for groceries (we do still buy some food) and urgent maintenance items. I thought this was a capital idea. Many of the habits we started during this Shopping Challenge became permanent because we enjoyed them.
To save fuel, I biked the kids to school in the bike trailer. To get to UC Irvine, Sharon biked to the Metro, transferred to commuter rail, and then biked to campus. On a typical weekday, we didn’t drive at all—a habit we’ve kept.
We adapted. We moved non-essential appointments that required driving. Buying lunch being off limits, I brought my lunch to work, ate more fruit than usual, and didn’t feel so heavy in the afternoon. This habit has also become permanent—and saves us thousands of dollars each year.
A surprising side effect of the Shopping Challenge was an increase in the time we shared with friends—an increase in community. For example, on Day 2 we still thought it was important to get some gasoline; we’d forgotten to fill up, and the car was nearly empty. I called a friend, and he agreed to trade gas for eggs. We had his family over for dinner, and he and I siphoned some gas out of his car. Asking for help leads to connection.
Here’s a complete list of what we bought besides groceries: bicycle brake pads ($10); co-pay for medicine (eye drops) for Braird ($13); six tomato seedlings ($15; save seed instead). We also paid our utility bills and mortgage. I biked more than usual—70 to 80 miles per week, up from my usual 50 to 60. The Shopping Challenge was great fun, and I highly recommend it.
Divesting from fossil fuels
The world will move away from fossil fuels sooner or later; investing in them seems increasingly unwise. Despite inevitable setbacks by ignorant people and politicians, the transition from fossil fuels will accelerate over time as global warming impacts become more severe and alternatives gain ground. Fossil fuel corporations will be forced to write off stranded reserves they’d long planned to sell; this will lower their valuations. In 2015, one of the world’s largest banks, HSBC, advised clients to divest, saying those who don’t “may one day be seen as late movers, on ‘the wrong side of history.’”16
My own employer, Caltech, refuses to divest from fossil fuels at the time of writing. Caltech is not alone: most universities have so far refused to divest. I find it odd that institutions ostensibly serving humanity and young people would continue to support the industry responsible for global warming. Call me crazy, but it seems wrong to destroy the biosphere for a bit of profit.
The money system has many problems, but I especially dislike paying for war. About 45% of US income taxes are spent on the military.17 While I don’t mind paying taxes, I do mind that about half of what I pay funds institutionalized murder, which goes against my deepest principles. And in addition, the US military burns more fossil fuel than any other institution in the world. Veterans, I’m truly grateful for your individual service. But as an institution, nothing says “violently preserve an unjust global status quo that’s rapidly destroying our biosphere” half so well as the US military.
In 2013, after talking it over—Sharon had reservations—we became war tax resisters. I took a few extra exemptions on my W2 form so that less federal income tax would be withheld from my paycheck.18
In April, I filed our 2013 federal taxes with a check for the balance of only 55% of our tax, along with a letter explaining my principles (which hopefully amused a bored IRS agent somewhere). I deposited the remainder into an escrow account run by Quakers,19 to be released on condition that it not be used for war.
We understood that this was a symbolic action, and that the IRS would soon seize the rest. Most war tax resisters only have their bank accounts levied against what they owe, but some, randomly, are forced to serve years of jail time.
Facing off against systems of power is scary. In war tax resistance, we target the social system’s lifeblood—money—and in doing so, we open ourselves to its full apparatus of legal, violent retribution. However, I have to say that standing up for my principles in this way makes me feel fully alive. More people ought to try it for that reason alone.
When we began receiving the threatening letters from the IRS, I held firm, confident that they’d soon seize the remaining funds and be done with it. But Sharon became increasingly nervous. Eventually she could no longer take the strain, so we paid up.
The US spends more on its military than the next ten nations combined.20 This money causes great misery, largely for the sake of maintaining access to fossil fuels, and in my opinion could be better spent elsewhere—for example, transitioning to carbon-free energy. I also believe that the ongoing “war on terror” is making us less safe. In a global poll in 2013, 24% of the world’s people said the United States is the greatest threat to world peace. The second- place country, Pakistan, had only 8%.21
Some will criticize me as “unpatriotic.” However, for the above reasons, I believe that supporting the US addiction to war is un- patriotic. Supporting the US war machine is not unlike handing a drink to an alcoholic. Both acts lead to nothing but misery. War tax resistance is actually patriotism of the highest degree.
Money and the means of production
After college, Sharon spent two years teaching English in a small town in the Mongolian countryside. Traditionally, nomadic Mongolian herders lived far from cities, meeting their needs without money. Their animals gave them food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. But climate change is drying the Mongolian grasslands, forcing many herders to move to slums in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Because they’ve been cut off from the means of production, they depend on money and are reduced to offering their labor for bare subsistence. The money system tends to replace a basic connection to the land, making people easier to exploit—slaves to money.
I’m not saying that we should all become yak herders. But I am saying that there’s value in maintaining direct access to the means of production (such as land, resources, and information). The billionaires certainly realize this.
Once, when driving through Utah in Maeby, we stopped in Moab to meet Daniel Suelo. Suelo, whose name means “soil,” has lived without money since 2001. He doesn’t spend a dime, he doesn’t barter, and he doesn’t accept anything that isn’t freely given. He spends many of his nights in a cave up in the hills. He dumpster dives, he hitch- hikes, and he’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He’s far happier than he was when he used money.
Your typical homeless person craves money. But Suelo isn’t typical: his decision to leave money was clear-eyed and voluntary.
Here’s how he describes setting down his last $30 in a phone booth: “It was this total feeling of liberation, I felt like it was warm water pouring over my head, this total comfort, feeling like, wow, everywhere I go I’m at home, and everywhere I go I’m employed. The universe is my employer. It’s like I’m always at home and I’m always employed. It’s this intense feeling of security.”22
I found Suelo in the Moab public library doing email, and after he finished, we walked over to a city park to share a meal. Sharon and I made tortilla pizzas with tomato paste, mozzarella, and olives cooked up on the camp stove, and Suelo pulled out some free- gan corn chips and canned salmon. He shared his food with us (the boys, who are not vegetarian, loved the canned fish), and we shared ours with him. Moab residents frequently stopped by to hug him and chat. Suelo freely gives a gift far more precious than money: he makes people happy.
I think Suelo is onto something real, and I can see myself fol- lowing his path someday. But to live moneyless with small children would require a strong moneyless community; and there’d be no way to do Earth science, which I feel called to do. For the foresee- able future, I need to use money—but I don’t need to love it.
Opting out and mindset
Opting out of the global consumerist complex is helping me come out of the old mindset I described in Chapter 6. The more I opt out, the better I feel, and the more I want to opt out.
The average American watches over five hours of TV per day—12 years over a 40-year period—and one-quarter of the content is advertisement.23 The average child sees 25,600 TV ads in a year.24 From an impressionable age, advertising conditions us to be docile consumers. TV makes us more passive and submissive to authority.25
Screens also take time away from other activities that are ultimately more satisfying and useful: developing skills, pursuing interests, getting exercise, engaging with others. Time for meditating can be found simply by watching less TV. (Trading TV for meditation is a good way to start thinking more clearly.) And deleting my Facebook account allowed me to focus my writing energy into this book. I opted out of Facebook in 2010 and haven’t missed it once.
I had an eerie experience on the BART train in late 2016 in the Bay Area: nearly every person was staring at a screen. What’s more, their expressions looked distinctly unhappy. It felt surreal, isolating, like something out of the twilight zone. Those little screens are addictive,26 and they’re making us depressed.27
I have a friend, a former spacecraft systems engineer at JPL, who welds as a hobby. I asked him to help me weld a trailer hitch for Maeby.
At first he responded with an enthusiastic yes. But an hour later, he called to say he’d changed his mind. He’d thought it over with his engineering hat on, and decided that the risk of highway failure wasn’t worth the DIY satisfaction. While I see the wisdom in his decision, it raises an interesting philosophical point. In commercial society, we’ve engineered out a good deal of individual responsibility; this has percolated deep into our mindset. We use money to move risk into the corporate goods and services we purchase, which can be a very good thing (I’m actually glad most people don’t weld their own trailer hitches). But have we taken it too far? Are there hidden costs?
Some of my actions do involve risk. Bees can be deadly. Humanure composting, if done incorrectly, can cause disease. A re- engineered old diesel running on WVO can stall on the freeway. When I take risks like these, I’m aware of them. I do my best to manage risk by becoming knowledgeable, avoiding temptations to cut corners, seeking expert help when necessary, and recognizing when I’m in over my head.
I think it’s worth taking on some managed risk for the sake of building skills and increasing resilience. But I also take on this risk for the same reason I go surfing and skiing: it’s fun.
Biospherism and the law
Consumer society has its preferred way of doing things; opting out of these preferred ways can bump against the legal system. Backyard beekeeping is illegal in Altadena (although this may soon change). War tax resistance is illegal. So is growing food in my front yard; growing food in vacant lots; using WVO as fuel; composting humanure; keeping chickens in my backyard; saving seeds; and using greywater from the washing machine.
But love is greater than law. Laws change and reflect the priorities of the dominant social group. And legal systems have been used as tools of the utmost violence and oppression. Indeed, the very foundations of the US were built on the legal genocide of native peoples, and the legal institution of slavery. Whenever love and the law are at odds, I’ll choose love.
Still, despite this moral clarity, exploring mindful biospherism can be scary. In addition to occasionally pushing against the legal system, it pushes against social norms. I’ve faced ostracism from friends who don’t want to think about global warming, and neighbors who want me to have a tidy green lawn. I’ve been on the “wrong” side of the police line at Occupy Los Angeles. Sharon was rattled for months after police banged on our front door for a honeybee complaint while I was out.
And I feel I’m risking my career as an Earth scientist by writing this book.
In my opinion, this risk is all quite tame considering the stakes. I’d do more—if only I knew what. Global warming is a different kind of challenge than Civil Rights or Indian independence, because there’s no clear oppressor. Rosa Parks could spark a revolution simply by refusing to vacate her seat on a bus. Gandhi could spark a revolution simply by burning his identity card. These acts took courage, but they were simple, and the course of action was clear.
I see no analogous nonviolent action for global warming; if I did, I’d do it.28 We’re all contributing to global warming. We choose to burn fossil fuels; no oppressive law forces us to do so. Therefore, the relevant “what to do”—stop burning fossil fuels— isn’t civil disobedience. If I decide not to drive my car anymore, the cops aren’t going to arrest me. It won’t be on the evening news.
The fallacy of self-sufficiency
Opting out is gradually decreasing my dependence on the industrial system. The more we live outside of the industrial economic system—the more we take back the means of production—the more resilient we become. While there is ultimately no material security (this just isn’t a guarantee the universe makes), opting out makes me feel more secure than hoarding money would. You can’t eat numbers in a database.
However, opting out doesn’t mean that I need other people less. It has actually increased my reliance on my local community, friends, neighbors, and relatives. The way I view community has changed.
I used to view community, vaguely, as the people within a geographic boundary. Now I view community as the people I can count on. The reason I know I can count on them is because they can count on me. We are experienced in helping each other: we trust each other.
- Around the same time, I added extra insulation to our attic floor, which reduces transmission heat from the hot attic to the living space, and makes sense in any climate. Other energy-saving cooling alternatives (that may work best in hot, dry climates) include a whole-house fan, radiant barrier under attic rafters, and a reflective “cool roof,” which has the additional benefit of reducing the urban heat island effect. If I ever replace my roof, it will be with a cool roof: heat waves are a bigger challenge in Southern California than cold snaps.
- Access to machine shops is a perk of being part of a university community.
- For example, see Mrs. Homegrown (a.k.a. Kelly Coyne). “A Home- made Mattress.” Root Simple blog, March 15, 2013. [online]. root simple.com/2013/03/a-homemade-mattress/.
- See Jon Jandai. “Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?” TEDxDoi Suthep, August 3, 2011. [online]. youtube.com/watch?v=21j_OCNLuYg.
- Edited for clarity from Richard Whittaker. “A Conversation with Adam Campbell: A Taste For Life.” conversations.org website, No- vember 30, 2012. [online]. conversations.org/story.php?sid=336.
- See for example: Keiren. “Rocket Mass Heaters.” Blog entry. [online]. niftyhomestead.com/blog/rocket-mass-heaters/.
- Jon Jandai. “Life is easy.” Also, Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley built a cob home for $500: Michael Smith and Ianto Evans. “Questions and Answers about Cob.” Natural Building Colloquium Southwest. [online]. networkearth.org/naturalbuilding/cob.html.
- Stores overstock before holidays and then throw out two days’ worth of expiring food instead of one.
- Organic doesn’t necessarily mean that pesticides weren’t used. Still, I’d rather eat an organic apple than a conventional one. See: Beth Hoffman. “Five reasons to eat organic apples: Pesticides, healthy communities, and you.” Forbes, April 23, 2012. [online]. forbes.com /sites/bethhoffman/2012/04/23/five-reasons-to-eat-organic-apples -pesticides-healthy-communities-and-you/#5b19cc846d21. As far as food certifications go, organic is the best we have; we should work together to continue strengthening it.
- This takes an hour of my time every other week. I got this gig
after I offered bread to my crop-swap group after a Christmas dumpster dive. Someone in the group was already working with thesupermarket and asked me to help. This is how the universe works:
when you are open to people, people are open to you.
- Dana Gunders. “Wasted: How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Natural Resources Defense Council Issue Paper #IP-12-06-B, August 2012. [online]. nrdc.org /sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.
- As far as preserving food goes, I also like canning homegrown tomatoes, drying fruit such as figs (laying trays of fruit on a car dashboard keeps the flies off), and saving up vegetable scraps in freezer bags to make broth.
- There’s some evidence that safrole is carcinogenic in rats, at ingestion levels far greater than what you’d get from homemade root beer: Peter G. Wislocki et al. “Carcinogenic and Mutagenic Activities of Safrole, 1′-Hydroxysafrole, and Some Known or Possible Metabo- lites.” Cancer Research 37(6) (1977). [online]. cancerres.aacrjournals .org/content/37/6/1883.short. Many people use sassafras anyway.
- I then obtained a card through the Permaculture Credit Union, the only card I could find with no connection to a large bank. That credit union is now managed by the Sandia Area Credit Union.
- Sharon was inspired by the 40-day period of fasting observed during Christian Lent.
- Luke Hurst. “HSBC warns clients of fossil fuel investment risks.” Newsweek, April 21, 2015. [online]. newsweek.com/hsbc-warns-clients -fossil-fuel-investment-risks-323886.
- War Resisters League. “U.S. Federal Budget—2015 Fiscal Year: Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes.” [online]. warresisters.org /sites/default/files/2015 pie chart—high res.pdf.
- The W2 system makes war tax resistance more difficult. Take too many exemptions, and you risk being charged with W2 fraud.
- New York Yearly Meeting. “Purchase Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers): Peace Tax Escrow Account.” [online]. nyym.org/purchasequarter/peacetax.html/.
- Mark Koba. “U.S. military spending dwarfs rest of world.” NBC News, February 24, 2014. [online]. nbcnews.com/storyline/military -spending-cuts/u-s-military-spending-dwarfs-rest-world-n37461.
- Meredith Bennett-Smith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat To World Peace.” Huffington Post, January 2, 2014. [online]. huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/02/greatest-threat-world -peace-country_n_4531824.html.
22. Daniel Suelo interview by Shirley Jahad. Crawford Family Forum, Pasadena, California, March 26, 2012. Archived by Southern Cali-fornia Public Radio. [online]. scpr.org/events/2012/03/26/584/one
- The total time spent staring at screens in the US is closer to eight
hours: Molly Brown. “Nielsen reports that the average American adult spends 11 hours per day on gadgets.” GeekWire, March 13, 2015. [online]. geekwire.com/2015/nielsen-reports-that-the-average -american-adult-spends-11-hours-per-day-on-gadgets/. The twelve years statistic assumes eight hours of sleep per day.
- “Advertising to Children and Teens: Current Practices: A Common Sense Media Research Brief.” Common Sense Media, January 28, 2014. [online]. commonsensemedia.org/research/advertising-to -children-and-teens-current-practices.
- Bruce E. Levine, “Does TV actually brainwash Americans?” Salon, October 30, 2012. [online]. salon.com/2012/10/30/does_tv_actually_brainwash_americans/.
- Mengwei Bian and Louis Leung. “Linking Loneliness, Shyness, Smartphone Addiction Symptoms, and Patterns of Smartphone Use to Social Capital.” Social Science Computer Review 33(1) (2015). [online]. doi:10.1177/0894439314528779.
- Kimberly S. Young and Robert C. Rogers. “The Relationship Between Depression and Internet Addiction.” CyberPsychology and Behavior. 1(1) (1998). [online]. doi:10.1089/cpb.1998.1.25.
- If you do see such an action, please let me know what it is.