Summer Reading 2013

By Bob | September 5, 2013 |

Four books have dazzled me this summer. Here, for your perusal and amusement, brief explications. (Thanks, Brian Wicklund, for the nudge!).

Gar Alperovitz' What Then Must We Do? (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2013) starts with systemic malaise: the generalized but unfocussed recognition that the system's broke and that the means to fix it are not apparent: markets and the economy are out of control, government is for sale, climate change is happening and no one says boo . . . you get it. Alperovitz argues that this has a lot to do with not just the concentration of wealth, but also the disconnect between finance, control and the real world of jobs, families and ordinary life. He sees "democratic ownership" such as coops, mutual banks and the like as ways for communities to be more directly connected with the decisions that affect them.

The End of Money and the Future of Civilization by Thomas H. Greco, Jr. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2009) covers some similar ground in the obvious (to me, anyway) critique of our disasterous financial system. He usefully notes that money at present serves three distinct purposes: 1) as a means of exchange, 2) as a measure of value and 3) as a store of value. In his view these functions can be separated and accomplished by various means such as local currencies (e.g. Berkshares) to use an obvious example. Like Alperovitz (and many others), Greco values community, localism and personal connections and provides many examples. His specific suggestion of a credit clearing scheme may be beyond our grasp at the moment, but offers fascinating food for thought.

Take Back the Economy: an ethical guide for transforming our communities by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) argumes for localism and community as a question of ethics. By framing it's explorations with the question 'How can we survive well together?' and using illustrations and exercises the book provides thoughtful pathways to greater understanding of the ethical impact of our economic behavior. For example, they demonstrate how finance obscures the personal impact of our economic choices: when we look at a t-shirt at Target we ask "Can I afford it? Do I like it? Will it work for me?" etc. all of which seem to make sense. But we don't ask, "What was the carbon footprint of getting this here? Who was involved in making it and were they fairly compensated? Was there pollution or waste of resources in making it?" – By framing our decisions in terms of money, we simply fail to see the other costs of our choices. This is but one example of the kind of thinking they apply to work, business, markets, property and finance.

Finally, I just finished Marjorie Kelly's Owning Our Future (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012). Kelly draws a distinction between the extractive economy and what she calls a generative economy. These alternatives are deeply connected to notions of ownership and lead to very different outcomes. She identitifes five core elements of generative ownership design invoking Alexanders ideas of pattern language as a model for her analysis. Not only did I find her ideas engaging and well presented, but many of her examples were familiar to me: Organic Valley Coop, The Wild Rumpus Bookstore here in Minneapolis and the John Lewis Partnership where we liked to do business when we lived in England.

As I've explored Transition, climate change and energy issues, I've often encountered the idea of re-localization, the notion that as present global systems change, local alternatives may well prove more resilient and appropriate. The underlying argument being that the energy and carbon cost of global business may be unsustainable. Taken together, these books offer an entirely different path to a similar conclusion based on ethics rather than limits and demonstrating repeatedly why human-scale, community economic systems rooted in personal relationships and particular places offer not just a possible way to weather uncertain times, but an attractive, positive alternative to a present system careening blindy towards destruction.

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N.B. My local bookshop, Birchbark Books, is where I knowingly pay more than the Amazon price to support a local business and community asset. If they don't have them in stock, they can get these books for you.

10 Inches of Rain

By Bob | June 15, 2012 |

Last night Cannon Falls got 10 inches of rain. The farm took a bit of a beating as you can see from the photos. We lost our culvert completely: a 6-foot diameter corrugated steel pipe was washed 120 yards downstream around an S curve, and a 4-foot diameter 40-foot long culvert wound up at a 45 degree angle, 100 yards downstream. We lost a number a trees and have a cleanup job ahead of us.

Makes me think about resilience in the face of weather extremes. Climate change?

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A State of Transition

By Bob | July 14, 2010 |

At the weekly informal Transition gathering at the Blue Moon Coffee Cafe this morning, prompted by a new and thoughtful presence (welcome, Pierre!), we considered the state of Transition in the Twin Cities. Here is one take . . .

Diffuse. There are pockets of Transition interest and activity in various neighborhoods around town and in various community groups. At present, none of these nodes has coalesced into a formal ‘Transition Initiative’. The Blue Moon gathering continues to provide a safe haven for folks concerned about Peak Oil and Climate Change, but awareness (or willingness to consider) these issues is largely absent from the general public as far as we can see.

This observation prompted discussion of just what Transitioners hope to – and can reasonably – accomplish, given the real world in which we find ourselves. We acknowledged that getting the message out is not among our strengths (we’re clearly not getting that job done – as wonderful as our tiny group is, it’s still tiny). Thus the massive systemic changes that most of us believe are needed are far beyond our reach – at least for now.

Given that, what might be more modest but achievable aims? The consensus this morning was: leading by example. Mostly around food but also energy and community, individuals are increasing their skills (reskilling?). In our collective view, the larger society will come to grips with the issues only when it is forced to do so. When that happens, we’d like to be ready to provide examples of resilience in our lives, homes and communities.

And we want to have fun doing it. Sharing food, music, dancing and the arts is essential as we work together towards our attractive shared vision of a more connected, more human and lower energy world and as we cope with our ‘End of Suburbia’ moments and other challenges.

What is the State of Transition in the Twin Cities? No one has the authority to say, but by example and by trial and error we all hope our individual efforts may serve not just ourselves and our families, but others as and when they decide to join the party.

How Economies Grow and Peter Schiff

By Bob | July 7, 2010 |

Ok as far as it goes . . .

Peter Schiff’s How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes offers a gently amusing introduction to his take on Austrian School economics by allegorically representing the United States as an island with an economy based on fish. While the book effectively presents his views and offers useful insights into the current economic morass, I want to mention two of its significant weaknesses. First are the inherent contradictions of Schiff’s biases and second are the enormous gaps left by realities not measured by economics.

“The Market” is Schiff’s demigod: its magic solves all problems and leads to the highest and best use of all resources. If Government would just get out of the way, The Market would take care of everything. Unfortunately, there are several problems with this view. Most obvious to many folks today is that the present Government is effectively a subsidiary of the businesses that comprise The Market. Look at the astonishing speed with which the Government decided to lend trillions to private banks with effectively zero oversight. Consider the revolving door between business and Government brought to new heights under Bush II and barely touched by Obama. It’s a complicated mess to be sure, but at this point in our history, Government primarily serves rather than hinders business (permits for Deep Water Horizon . . .). The massive debt problems of such great concern to Schiff expanded because The Market persuaded The Government to stop regulating just as Schiff would advocate. Sadly, reality doesn’t match the tidy absolutes of Schiff’s allegory.

But there is a deeper weakness to Schiff’s work and it starts at the beginning of his tale: Schiff’s island has an unlimited supply of fish. Ask a Canadian fisherman about the Grand Banks: resources deplete. Would Deep Water Horizon exist if there was an easier way to get the oil? Resource limits are absent from Schiff’s world, but not ours, alas.

Why an Economy Grows provides a pleasant introduction to aspects of economics, and a valid critique of our unsustainable financial ways, but ultimately, something smells fishy – and I hope some of the reasons are now a bit clearer.


By Bob | July 6, 2010 |

Welcome to, Bob Young Walser’s internet outpost. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota I hope to chronicle unfolding responses to the challenges of Energy Uncertainty (aka Peak Oil), Climate Change and Economic Change in the heartland of the U.S.A. With an eye to the ideas of Transition being developed in England by Rob Hopkins and others, I wonder what the evolution of life in the Midwest will look like and I hope to celebrate the successes of that process as well as to recognize the challenges. I agree with Chris Martenson when he says that the next 20 years will be nothing like the last 20 years. We shall see . . .