Redesigning for Cultural Sustainability


"Instead of tagging tropisms, we could simply reimagine."

In my previous post, I ranted about a mailing from a major climate action group that had declared the climate catastrophe can’t be allowed to define our future. Were that true, the next most obvious question would have to be, so how do we go about that?

If you ask them, they will talk to you about buying an electric car, buying more efficient home appliances, maybe eating less red meat, and of course, donating money. There may be an appetite for vegan alternatives, but there is no appetite for deeper cultural change.

And yet, without that, lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

That was the inscription over the Gates of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which translates, “all hope abandon ye who enter here.”

What does a more permanent culture look like? Could it be that it is one with no guns at all, where conflicts are addressed at their inception, and where emotional issues are treated early?

I am not a country basher, but you know what I find annoying? The “USA First” mantra you encounter in everything from pickup truck commercials to political campaigns. I recently had to hold my nose and sign a federal form to gain eligibility for my organization to make biochar for a scientific research project, pledging to “buy American” before the alternatives.

It is nasty because if you consider the essence of charity, this is the opposite. Self-interest should have no role. Helping your family and friends is just what you do. That’s a given. Helping someone who is not in your tribe, someone who may not have the advantages of your family, maybe even someone that has wronged you in some way, is actual charity.

The “USA First” meme escalates the tribalism that is tearing the USA apart. It is rank jingoism. From a biological point of view, I understand it, because we have a tribal gene that descends from our evolutionary history as herd animals. TV series like The Sopranos, Yellowstone, and Succession derive their popularity by tagging that tropism. But it is not healthy.

A case now making its way to the US Supreme Court could redefine human rights. Indeed, it may alter conceptions of racism, genocide and prejudice. In this case is concealed a legal conundrum as old as the Spanish Inquisition: for the good of a cultural norm, should religion, superstition, and “conventional wisdom” trump science? Hidden in a petition about a prisoner’s right to fresh air and sunlight is an early, oblique test of how the Court may rule on homosexuality, transgender and sexual preference. Less directly, it implicates how society views climate change.

The case is Johnson v. Prentice, accepted to the October term. Ostensibly, it is about a mentally ill inmate in Illinois, Michael Johnson, who was punished for his hallucinations by being deprived of routine exercise, which only made his behavior worse. I would urge all my readers to take 5 minutes to read the petitioner’s brief starting with the Statement of Case on page 5.

At issue is the role of science in law. The en banc federal appeals panel below split evenly, five judges in favor of science and five against. Science — specifically psychology, neurobiology and physiology — says humans require sunlight and fresh air for their mental and physical health. Superstition says, “nonsense, let the witch burn.” Fourteen federal judges, so far, have sided with the mob.

Other challenges are coming. There are state prisoners who have spent three decades inside windowless 6x9-foot cells. In Texas, more than 500 prisoners have served more than 10 years in near-total isolation. One hundred thirty-eight have served more than 20. Across the country, about 1,500 have been isolated for more than six years. “It drives men mad,” retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in an address at Harvard Law School in 2015.

“… common side effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

Point Deux. Transgender discrimination in the US is spreading like wildfire through State laws. On the order of 10 to 15% of the global population has a different sex hormone assigned in the third trimester of womb-time as was assigned by random luck to their first-trimester fetus. How young people react to those hormones’ incessant messages to their brains has always been as much a cultural question as a biological one. As with Johnson v. Prentice, questions of culture versus biology are reaching the Supreme Court at a political moment when the witch burners’ star is ascendant and the Court is packed with Grand Inquisitors. We shall see what happens.

PS: a few hours after I wrote this, John Oliver devoted his comedy show, Last Week Tonight, to solitary confinement.

Maybe we tapped into something.

In the USA, mass shootings have become so commonplace, so every-day, that hospital emergency rooms have had to adjust their schedules to increase staff during school hours and be ready for gunshot wounds. Despite this, elected officials refuse to ban sales of military-style assault weapons, stiffen background checks, or further limit who can own them (all of which are supported by the majority of the electorate). Instead, their answer is more guns — millions of AR-15s in homes across the country but apparently not enough of them in kindergartens.

When we look at solutions, we need to think less like ER doctors and more like permaculture designers. What does a more permanent culture look like? Could it be that it is one with no guns at all, where conflicts are addressed at their inception, and where emotional issues are treated early rather than imprisoned in windowless cells? To get to that ideal society we need to start by building trust — the foundation of that system. Trust does not come from stoking tribalist divides. It does not come from building borders and jingoist rhetoric. It comes by embracing diversity, acknowledging weaknesses, building conducive spaces, and unleashing creative thinking.

Last month the Global Ecovillage Network reopened its annual Ecovillage Design course. The entire curriculum takes four months, but you can mix and match. You can study regenerative farming and food security with me, or you can take classes with our other experts in the transformation of consciousness and collective trauma, designing regenerative cultures, evolutionary approaches to education, or ecovillages and the Sustainable Development Goals. You don’t have to do them all, or all at once, because we will offer the whole program again next year.

A step at a time, these solutions can scale.



Meanwhile, let’s end this war.
Towns, villages, and cities in Ukraine are being bombed every day. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. There are still 70 sites in Ukraine and 500 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”

The Green Road is helping these places to grow food and to erect greenhouses, and raising money to acquire farm machinery and seed. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.

Those wishing to make a tax-deductible gift can do so through Global Village Institute by going to or by directing donations to

There is more info on the Global Village Institute website at and read this new article in Mother Jones.

The COVID-19 pandemic destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed climate change, a juggernaut threat to all life, humans included. We had a trial run at emergency problem-solving on a global scale with COVID — and we failed. 6.87 million people, and counting, have died. We ignored well-laid plans to isolate and contact trace early cases; overloaded our ICUs; parked morgue trucks on the streets; incinerated bodies until the smoke obscured our cities as much as the raging wildfires. The modern world took a masterclass in how abysmally, unbelievably, shockingly bad we could fail, despite our amazing science, vast wealth, and singular talents as a species.

Having failed so dramatically, so convincingly, with such breathtaking ineptitude, do we imagine we will now do better with climate? Having demonstrated such extreme disorientation in the face of a few simple strands of RNA, do we imagine we can call upon some magic power that will change all that for planetary-ecosystem-destroying climate change?

As the world emerges into pandemic recovery (maybe), there is growing recognition that we must learn to do better. We must chart a pathway to a new carbon economy that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backward — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience. We must lead by good examples; carrots, not sticks; ecovillages, not carbon indulgences. We must attract a broad swath of people to this work by honoring it, rewarding it, and making it fun. That is our challenge now.

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