Where to Go From Here: A Local-Global Action Plan in the Time of the Virus

If we’re just hoping to stop the virus so we can get back to normal, we’re missing an opportunity.

This isn’t a time to go back to how things were. This is a time to change how society works, to change what the economy is about, and to change our relationship with nature.

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Empty Supermarket Shelves vs Flourishing Food Gardens

The Opportunity

It’s time to find ways to make a living that aren’t directly at odds with the rest of the planet, that do not compromise the planetary life support systems that we depend on, and that no longer disregard and decimate the countless other creatures that live here.

It’s time to find better things to do with ourselves, things that go easy on the planet, and that help it repair. Those would be more meaningful, more enjoyable, and more satisfying things to do with ourselves anyway than most of the activities today’s economy offers.

The moral of the virus is not that we need vaccines faster or better antiviral drug discovery, much as we may need that now that we’ve really stepped in it. The moral is that very little about the way we live today makes any sense for our long term survival in the most expansive way.

Nearly all human activity today is at war with the living biosphere, the pale blue dot, the blue-green marble hanging in space, incomparable and so far unlike anything we’ve discovered elsewhere no matter how far we peer into deep space.

Nearly every human activity and endeavor is incongruent with and ignorant of, the biosphere and its ecosystems. Some of our activities are more benign and less benign, better and worse, but almost nothing we are accustomed to doing is actually good for the planet as a whole, and really very little of it good for most people either.

This way of living was devised in a time when there were far fewer people, who couldn’t screw up the planet too badly no matter how poorly behaved they were. This way of living was devised in a time when natural resources seemed limitless. This way of living was devised in a time when the Earth was perceived as a raw material instead of a life-form.

Take this time to question all of it, to revisit everything, to try everything anew. Do not simply wish for, hope for, or work for us to go back to the fatally flawed normalcy we had a few months ago.

If we do not change now, another opportunity will come, even more painful. And if we survive that one without changing, then another opportunity will come, more painful still, until the signal to noise is great enough that the feedback loop completes.

There is another way to live in relationship with, and as a symbiont of, the living Earth. It is not a path to endless economic growth, or toward any particular political system conceived of today. It is a path toward our enlightening, toward our collective self-actualization, and toward our continued evolution. It is a path toward a social and biological interdependence with the Earth so integrated and efficient, that the need for an economy at all will dwindle with each passing year.

Now all of this may sound so abstract that I will offer one concrete example of what I mean.

Last week when lines at Costco were going out the door and people were panic-buying, and all the food was flying off the shelves because god-knows where food comes from anyway and whether that supply will be interrupted and whether we’ll starve when it does — I went down to my local garden store, which was a ghost town with almost no one there.

There I bought a dozen different plants — kale, broccoli, lettuces etc. — for not much money which are now growing on my sunny balcony. These plants, with locally-generated soil from my neighbors, will now contribute to my diet for the next year or more. I will water them and add some compost in a few months; they will keep producing nutritious leaves, seeds, sprouts, flowers, and florets for me.

Now I’m not saying they will meet all my nutritional needs, but this relationship I am in with them now is a microcosm of the symbiosis with the Earth that needs to go from society’s current score of zero to a ten.

And the fact that the line at Costco was out the door and the garden store was devoid of customers symbolizes the problem. We are smart about so many specialized things today yet totally stupid when it comes to beneficially relating to the planet’s other lifeforms in even the most basic ways.

Instead people proudly told me, “I stocked up at Costco” as if they were especially clever and had figured out the secret to life. Instead we should be saying, “I went shopping and played my confused part in a zero-sum game of flawed and fragile globalism that I really don’t understand but I think I have a two month food supply now so long as no one breaks into my house and steals it or does whatever it is that people do when they’re starving.”

We are not clever right now. Or if we are, we are a kind of clever eclipsed by cluelessness. We are 8 billion people waking up to the fact that for all our charts and graphs and economic and political theories that we have had the luxury of devising and debating, in reality we are 8 billion people who do not know what a planet is or how a planet works.

This is our chance.

The Biosphere

Let’s recap why:

  1. Today’s economy grows and expands by consuming and destroying the only living biosphere in the known universe.
  2. We have all become so dependent on this economy that we seem powerless to make any substantial, positive, fundamental changes to it or do anything other than helping it to expand.
  3. We are almost completely disconnected from the reality that the biosphere is far more important to our survival than the economy.

And what is this biosphere I keep speaking of? It’s a complex living organism in which we live inside. It is made up of countless networks of living organisms that provide us with everything from food that sustains us to the very process of evolution itself which birthed us. It includes an atmosphere, so we can breathe and enjoy the sun’s warmth, and a magnetic field that protects us from harmful cosmic radiation. And if we sufficiently disrupt any of the biosphere’s systems, most or all of us will die.

All of our activities, from having families and children, to working at our various jobs and businesses, and all the pastimes and hobbies we enjoy, all happen inside the biosphere, are ultimately made possible by the biosphere, and in almost all cases today come at the expense of the biosphere. Said another way, no matter what it is you like doing… you need a working planet to do it inside of.

Whenever you see pictures of another planet, realize that it has no biosphere. No other planet in the Solar System does and possibly not even in the Galaxy. Realize that all the other planets, including Mars, are completely dead.

If you believe in God or the Universe or some other organizing force of grandeur, then the biosphere could be seen as the most extraordinary gift ever given to anyone. If you don’t believe in any such force, then the Biosphere is the most god-like thing you will ever encounter, for it is by its existence that you live and breathe.

The Biosphere is definitely more important than the economy.

But since we’ve gotten that completely backwards, and treated the economy as of ultimate importance and the Biosphere as expendable, our collective efforts to rapidly and endlessly grow the economy are causing the Biosphere to destabilize. Pollution at every turn, biodiversity loss, the extinction of species, rising sea levels, increasingly volatile weather, numerous public health crises, pandemics… these are the symptoms, the painful groanings of a damaged and destabilizing Biosphere.

Whenever you run into someone who tells you that everything is getting better and that we’re better off than we’ve ever been, they’re mostly referring to the unprecedented availability of goods and services, the increasing prevalence of money, credit, bank accounts, and other fixations of the human ego. And they know nothing about the Biosphere.

Our history and education system is such that a person today can have advanced degrees in engineering, a PhD in physics, a Nobel prize in economics, or a hundred million dollars in the bank, while knowing almost nothing about the Biosphere.

It’s not that we’re stupid. It’s just that the Biosphere has so far been invisible to industrial society. Too big to perceive. Nothing but raw materials everywhere to be endlessly consumed by any means and in any quantity for our various activities and industries.

If that seems odd, remember that it was only about 50 years ago that the first pictures of the whole Biosphere from space were even taken. And this situation of ours that it depicts — us riding on a living blue ball hanging in an inhospitable vacuum of space surrounded by dead planets, and all the implications of that — have yet to fully sink in.

Accordingly, we have failed to reign in the economy’s destructive tendencies. We have failed to transition the economy into something more harmonious with the Biosphere. We have lacked the collective will, the consciousness, the time, the attention, the discipline, the courage, the detachment, and the awareness… to tame the economic juggernaut.

The Virus

What no human or group of humans have managed to do gently and of our own free will, this invisible microbe is now doing with blinding speed — dismantling the economy.

Once you begin to perceive the Biosphere and realize what a threat we and our economy are to it, the Virus begins to look a lot like an immune response, a swarm of antibodies set against us and our out-of-control economy.

Incredibly, the Virus actually seems to be making us choose now between the economy and our own survival. Conduct business as usual and we risk infecting ourselves and our loved ones. Slow down and stay put and we will survive, but our income suffers, our jobs are cut, our stock markets crash.

If the virus could talk it might say one word. “Checkmate.”

And as the economy collapses? We see the skies clearing, the air becoming more breathable, animals coming out of hiding. We see the Biosphere beginning to heal and repair itself, like any living creature does when it is finally allowed to rest.

A Crossroads

The only legitimate way forward is to finally bring the economy into harmony with the Biosphere. All proposed solutions that do not address the fundamental disharmony between the economy and the biosphere are illegitimate.

If we do not do so now, we will only have to do so later. The longer we wait the more painful the adjustment will be. So let’s do it now, while the virus is expeditiously doing to the economy what we failed to gingerly do ourselves.

Now is the perfect time. It will seem frightening at first, but the truth is that we can soon be having an even better, more enjoyable time than we were having before, and be on track for a more secure, and more meaningful future than we previously were.

What We Must Do

First, we must reduce our dependence on the economy. We must reduce the economy’s stranglehold on us. Only by doing this can we give ourselves the breathing room to think clearly, to make the right changes, and to set up new more reliable systems on which to depend going forward.

If we do not reduce our dependence on the economy, no amount of printing money or fiddling with interest rates or promises from new political regimes will matter.

If we cannot take a step back from today’s economy, if we cannot even momentarily reduce our complete and total dependance on it, we will remain too feeble-minded, hard-hearted, insecure, and conflict-prone to work together in a coherent direction, let alone to learn anything about and do anything sensible about the Biosphere, which is the heart of the matter.

To be clear, this step of reducing our dependence on the economy is not a political plan to dismantle capitalism or establish socialism or communism or any other kind of ism. Such systems may forever come and go as societal overlays within the Biosphere.

The opportunity here is more foundational than swapping one economic or political system that humans have made for another. The opportunity here is to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the living Biosphere that made humans.

Reliance on the Economy -> Reliance on the Biosphere

Why food? Because people who are starving or are even remotely afraid of starving (anyone “stock up” at the grocery store recently?) do not have the presence of mind or level of consciousness required to make the transition.

To put it plainly, the sight of empty shelves at the grocery store fills people with self-centeredness and fear. While being surrounded by gardens fills people with feelings of calm and peace (and food).

Imagine if we had a million more gardens in the world right now. If we see food being grown everywhere as we walk around our cities and sit on our balconies and visit our neighbors, we will have the calmness of mind and resolve to take that step back and transition the economy. If instead what we see are empty store-shelves, and warily guarded shopping carts, we will not.

The food system is also one of the most dysfunctional of all human institutions right now, taking a massive toll on our health, on our bodies, and on the Biosphere. Our food system is also one of the greatest causes of suffering to the Earth’s other inhabitants, be they the animals raised with industrial cruelty for cheap meat, or the wild bats and snakes dragged out of the jungle and bound for a wet-market where the first human would contract the Virus.

A new, decentralized food system is the one thing that can immediately alleviate the environmental burden of our intense activity on the Biosphere, while reducing the amount of animal suffering in the world, while providing us with immediate sustenance as supply chains are interrupted, while reducing our own suffering and giving us peace of mind and the iota of independence we need in order to crawl out from under the economy’s thumb.

A new decentralized food system is the one thing that we can initiate right now, inexpensively and independently, without government intervention. The support of one’s immediate neighbors is at most, what’s needed. A new decentralized food system is the one thing that every single person can take action on right now, without delay.

A new food system, citizen-powered and decentralized is, therefore, the single greatest, most immediate, and most actionable leverage point available to us at this time.

A Two-Step Plan to Take Action

Step 2 — Start millions of gardens of every size and shape, right now, everywhere

This begins immediately to decentralize the food system, reminds us of where food really comes from and how it is created, and begins bringing each of us back into a symbiotic relationship with Earth and its many other life forms.

It doesn’t mean growing all of your food, but neither does it mean growing none of your food. It is time to be somewhere (anywhere!) in-between those two extremes.

Remember, you won’t be doing it alone as part of some isolationist compound or apocalyptic future, you’re doing it alongside billions of other people in a friendly and distributed manner, specifically so we don’t end up with an isolationist society or apocalyptic future.

Step 1 — Make soil

Soil is a storehouse of energy and nutrients in a stable, odorless form, ready and waiting to be turned into food. Even more, soil provides a home to countless microbes, the biodiversity of which helps protect the food supply and generally boosts the health and life of the Biosphere.

Why make soil together in our own neighborhoods? For one, because we must have the hands-on experience of regenerating the Biosphere directly. As we do, we begin to see ourselves differently: no longer just a consumer, not even just a producer, but a regenerator. It sounds obvious, but making new, living Earth is a very satisfying thing for an Earthling to do!

The other reason we make it together, in our own neighborhoods, is because that’s exactly where the raw materials for new soil happen to be.

Make soil… out of what?

Organic matter means food scraps, soiled paper, yard stuff. Pretty much anything that isn’t plastic, styrofoam, metal, or glass. Stuff that is essentially the remains of plants or animals, everything from banana peels and coffee grounds to used paper towels and coffee filters.

Contrary to common perception, this stuff turns out to not be garbage or waste or something to get rid of at all; it turns out to be nutrients and energy.

It doesn’t look that way to most of us because we were desensitized to its true nature starting in childhood with every toss into the garbage can. So now it just looks like life-less, inconsequential matter to be mindlessly gotten rid of, when it is actually the key to our liberation.

Today this misunderstood matter leaves our neighborhoods in one of two ways. Firstly, most of it, in most places, leaves as trash. You know the drill — first it goes into big plastic bags and then gets picked up by a big truck that gets 3 mpg and dumped in a landfill that no one wants to live near. Once there, it will turn into methane and CO2 and float up into the atmosphere, where it exacerbates many global problems and further imbalances the Biosphere.

Yet for all of the high-minded environmentalism and idealistic patriotism, for all of our professed love of The Planet, Earth, Mother Earth, Gaia, Our Country, or whatever it is we profess to love… many times a day, most people, in most places, take that supposedly beloved Planet-Mother-Earth-Gaia-Country, and toss or scrape it into the waste bin. We treat the planet like garbage. Literally.

This must stop. The Earth does not belong in a trash can.

The other way organic matter leaves our neighborhoods is through municipal compost programs. These programs are a good attempt at doing something better than making trash but they will not bring about the transformation we now require. Not only do they also require giant fuel-burning trucks to go up and down each city street, they also keep up the illusion that taking care of the Biosphere is someone else’s responsibility.

We must leave behind the box and bin culture, where stuff arrives in a box on our doorstep and leaves in a bin by the curb. In the box and bin culture we never learn how the planet works or our part in it, which is the only real way out of this mess.

So again, step one is that we stop needlessly making garbage and stop relying on programs to take away the waste that isn’t actually waste. Step one is keeping all the energy and nourishment stored in that organic matter from leaving our neighborhoods.

A helping hand

What then?

This isn’t about growing and selling enough food to quit your day-job or some form of supplemental income; it’s about becoming one iota less dependent on that day-job for your complete survival. It’s about creating a resilient web of relationships with your neighbors. It’s about beginning to depend less on the abstract, uncontrollable economy and more on each other and on the Biosphere directly. It’s about getting that first refreshing taste of a more regenerative, less convoluted economy. It’s about experiencing how being in such a relationship with the Earth and each other adds to our safety and security in ways that money can’t.

Then, if the economy stumbles and we lose our job, instead of worrying and being filled with fear, we instead come home to that bit of food we’re growing, and our friends come over with some food that they’re growing, and we sit around and reflect on what we liked about our job and what we really didn’t and what else we might want to do with ourselves now that we have some time to learn and try something new.

Once all of this is happening we will have done something very important. We will have made society and our lives far more resilient, able to handle the ups and downs of the economy, no longer at its total mercy, and therefore free to make changes to it. And we will also have eyes to see how to harmonize the economy with the Biosphere.

No one really knows how far our symbiosis with the Biosphere can go. No one really knows what’s possible when 8 billion creative and intelligent humans partner fully with the only living Biosphere in the known universe. But finding out together will be far more exciting than endlessly growing the economy ever was.

Written by

Founder at MakeSoil.org

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