Let's Prehend
A Manual of Human Ecology and Culture Design


Sustainability is technologically easy, economically complicated, and politically unlikely. But let's imagine features of a sustainable culture, leaving its achievement to another time.

Earth's ecosystem and modern technology can provide a secure life and enriching culture for all humankind, supported by a sustainable ecosystem. At present, the ecosystem is degrading* because of human mismanagement.

Great work is being done. For example, Bill McKibbin's "DEEP ECONOMY" indicates a broadening of the natural ecology movement toward human ecology. Similarly, publications such as ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS exemplifies the excellent work being done worldwide. And World Watch Institute continues to lead the field.

The basic issue is whether humans can take responsibility for this damage, or whether our supporting ecosystem will continue to degrade. This degradation continues to stress humankind, from the poorest on upwards. Even the wealthy will suffer increasing insecurity as well as a poverty of culture. Will humans take intelligent responsibility for their actions, or will humans rely on natural forces, the marketplace, or the hand of God?

ENERGY is a common focus because the burning of fossil fuels, along with other factors, seems to be changing the climate. More importantly, our supporting complex ecosystem seems be degrading by loss of natural habitats, including ours. Switching to sustainable energy sources is cheap and easy.

Coal seems cheap because its external costs are ignored. What is it's contribution to global warming? What is the human cost of mining coal? What are the subsidies that support the industry?

Petroleum has an (objective) economic cost of about a tenth of the manipulated market price. Externalized costs include a large portion of the military wars and occupations all over the world, useful to secure profits from petroleum and other resources. [World Watch Inst. RESOURCE WARS]

Renewable sources such as wind, solar, tidal and wave, geothermal, water etc. are far cheaper, not by current distorted market pricing, but by more objective measures of material, labor, etc., even more so if the external costs are added. Our government picked the only program that does not work: corn ethanol. It wastes water, top soil, time and money. No one mentions that industrial ethanol made from fossil fuels is cheaper, easier, and cleaner. The Corn ethanol program not only wastes money, top soil, water and fertilizer, but also shifts wealth to the red states, and raises the world food prices. This boondoggle is unlikely to change given the political scene. [The Economist Magazine, 12/07.]

Let's consider easy technical solutions first:

CARS: President Clinton, the first, promoted a "Smart Car" program and induced three big automakers to build prototype diesel hybrids getting 80 mpg. [New Yorker, Nov.'07: "Running on Fumes"] By adding photovoltaics on the roof of these plug-in hybrids, a day in the sun would provide enough energy for a short commute. A properly designed auto would not need its biofueled engine except for longer trips to the snow or symphony. [`Volt' car already developing]

Safety of these light cars is a minor problem, especially since traffic is easier. For comfort, the old cars might be encourage to use separate lanes, and special therapy programs could be offered for those paranoids who need the security and domination of SUVs.

"Why are you trying to take away my car?" was one frightened response to these suggestions. This common reaction illustrates another undercurrent of distress, a Deprivation Indulgence (DI). [Note: These ideas and their acronyms are elaborated in letsprehend.com, a Manual of Human Ecology and Culture Design.]

TRUCKS would travel more easily on these less congested roads. We might emulate the Japanese a few decades ago when they organized to move as much freight as possible from the highways to the railroads.

A deeper neglected question should be asked: Where are all these people going? World Watch Institute (WWI), etc. estimate that less than a third are commuting to jobs. It seems like more because the gridlock is worse during commute time. Gridlock in the SF Bay Area wastes about a third of the motor fuel.

Employers & Realtors

The solution is simple: Allow, even encourage, employers to coordinate with realtors to build appropriate residences. People can walk to work, or take a short shuttle if the firm is necessarily very large or spread out. This would lower cholesterol and increase human interaction. Alleviating commute traffic by just ten percent would help save time and gas. As the traffic eases, it will be easier to drive to snow or symphony.

This means organizing neighborhoods near where people work. This easy program is so important it needs a special name. Let's call it EMP-REL.

Notice resistance to this image, "company town" "1984" by fragile freedom lovers who see this as a restriction of choice, not an expansion. We might examine how our present communities are designed, but not in this article.

This issue triggers the same anxiety about responsibility: Should human intelligence take responsibility for human actions, or should human's rely on market forces and the hand of God. [HOG]

Let's return to simple technical images:

HOUSING can cost less than a tenth of present prices if modern technology is allowed. Let's ignore that the obsolete building codes are firmly entrenched, and that most people have little knowledge of how their life support systems are built. Modern architects offer similar economies for large buildings.

The new EMP-RELs offer not only energy advantages, but social and cultural advantages as well. People will meet each other on the walk. Children will be able to play outside under the watchful eyes of neighbors who know them. Cafes and pubs will become community centers. Stores, schools and clinics can be within walking distance. Uncrowded highways will make travel easy.

FOOD is currently an issue for most people. Large portions of humanity have too much or too little, and the quality is poorer because junk food is subsidized. Corn flakes are priced at ten times what they cost.

World Watch notes that a large portion of the world's food is produced in cities around the home, even now. Also, the best produce is local and need not be shipped. And most importantly, gardening is high culture, offering group participation and fun activities for old and young. Local farming also offers limitless educational opportunities: How to grow it, where it comes from, how to preserve and prepare it, agricultural sciences, cuisine cultures, etc. Values would shift from golf to gardening.

Current world agriculture is not sustainable because it depletes ground water and top soil, and uses fossil fuel unnecessarily. Large scale agriculture may always have efficiency advantages, and can easily be made sustainable. New modes of soil preservation, water conservation, organic pest control, no-tillage systems, new crops such as perennial grains, all are currently available.

POPULATION is no longer a crucial issue. Only the degraded economies over-populate, and many of them are dying of disease. Africa, for example, with rich resources is extreemly poor because the productive facilities are owned by the capital rich peoples.

Common sense and sociological studies indicate that small isolated families are less supportive of human life and generally more pathological. Never in human history have children had so little attention or have elders been so isolated and ill used. With EMP-REL, children would get more attention and their vitality shared.

EDUCATION would become more diffused into the community. Our present peculiar system would whither away as the richness of neighborhood culture grows. MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte's $100 laptop deeply already is undermining our archaic educational system. Most importantly, children will learn from older children and adults just by living in an organic community. Tots will learn gardening from the old folks to the enrichment of both. The message to the young can be: "We love you and we need you", the opposite of the current competitive adversarial mode.

In most schools, children learn to pay attention. Pay attention not to their own mental growth but to the curriculum as the teachers direct. The implicit message is to be passive and compliant, often severely enforced. No wonder youngsters shift their allegiance from family and adults to peers, resulting the `teen tribe syndrome' and the breakdown of cultural continuity. ["NURTURE FALLACY" Judith Harris.] Most people find `learning' unpleasant. They avoid it by devoting their mental lives to the intellectual cliches of the media. That's why education is called `stupidification'.

Recreation can be more or less energy intensive. If the new communities offer pleasant, invigorating, social activities, people's lives will be enriched. Current favorite pastimes such as skiing, boating, big sports and entertainment, would probably decrease as people had more fun in their neghborhoods. Isn't it the childrens' purpose to entertain their parents?

Sports do not produce or create. In most competitive contexts, their rewards are explicit - wining - not producing or creating. Children are especially damaged not just by this mini-warfare, but by the neglect of deepening and broadening their lives. They could be learning how things work. Notice that sports are usually escapist activities, a desperate substitute for group processes, just as TV becomes a substitute for real emotional life.

Media, the `mind of society' is increasingly a substitute for social process, as are commuter games. Consider media a psychological sop to increasing isolation.

With EMP-REL We can expect that mental life will gradually become more interpersonal rather than electronic, even though internet will be increasingly easy and common.

Humans are the most adaptable of creatures. No one needs to be convinced of these changes, though advertising and public relations professionals can easily manipulate people. We usually change our behavior easily and quickly as circumstances or images demand. Our rationalizations and loyalties follow our changing behaviors, they do not lead them. People do not need to be conscious of these changes, any more than they are conscious of current changes. [DECOR, What We Think and Feel is the Way We Decorate Our Behaviour.]

Humans adjust to their culture, to the cultural systems that contain our lives. Tribal loyalty is a basic trait since long before we were humans, and it persists in modern humans as patriotism, belief, and the American way of life. But loyalties, like thoughts and feelings, follow circumstances.

Think of our institutions as having a life of their own. They thrive, protect themselves, expand and contract like any complex system. The people who rise to responsible leadership positions internalize the ethics of their bureaucracy. Some are able to use their human values to stretch or expand systems' values. The degree of human conflict roughly measures the degree of dissociation from organic life and culture.

In a sustainable economy, the rudiments and enrichments of life will be more pervasive. In the event of physical or systemic distress, not only will outside aid be easily available, but communities will be increasingly self sustaining. In the event of catastrophes such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or depressions, one community can aid its neighbors. Refrigerators, computers, and power devices last a long time and are easily replaced when needed.

To many people these images suggest primitive and even medieval life, even though they clearly picture a luxurious personal and social life enabled and enhanced by technology.

The economies of a sustainable culture eliminate waste and make most current jobs unnecessary. Imagine the hundreds of overseas bases returning their soldiers, thousands of tax accountants not need, much of the retail sector simplified, legal system localized (`subsidiarity'). With modern technology in a sustainable system, most jobs would disappear.

In the present United States over half the population is gainfully employed. In the world, less than a quarter of income comes from wages and salaries. (World Watch Inst.) Better distribution of resources is technically easy, economically difficult, politically unlikely.

At present a large portion of our population lead boring unproductive lives - depending on how it's measured. Those who are most productive are paid the least. Personal goals often contract to `just making ends meet' or gaining enough capital and income to avoid productive or creative activity. Surplus wealth is used for "conspicuous consumption". Schools train for this value system, and the media reinforces it. [ELBY, Ethics of the Lumpen Bourgeoisie]

The amount of `labor' required to maintain a sustainable and enriching culture would gradually decrease. The term `employment' would loose its meaning. The distinction between `work' and life would fade.

The economy as it is commonly measured would seem to contract as the quality of life improved. Gradually, sustainable living in enriching culture would be so cheap that all the world's people could enjoy it.

That's what letsprehend.com, a Manual of Human Ecology and Culture Design is about.

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