The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Charles Eisenstein. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: If you want to discuss today’s episode, drop by at Jim_Rutt on Twitter and comment on the episode post. See you there. Today’s guest is Charles Eisenstein. Charles is an independent thinker, writer, podcaster, and producer of videos and courses. I first encountered Charles’s thinking with his book The Ascent of Humanity, which was one of the books I and others in our circle were reading when we began thinking about what is now called Game B. In fact, one of the cool things about Amazon, I was able to go back and look and see when I got the book and the answer was 14th of February 2013, and I know I read it within a week thereafter. Very interesting book, which I’d recommend. Today we’re going to talk about Charles’s book, Climate: A Story. Welcome, Charles.
Charles: Climate: A New Story. Yeah, yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Jim. Happy to be here with you.
Jim: Yeah. Today we’re going to talk about Climate: A New Story, and it is indeed a new story. I didn’t think there was such a thing under the sun on the heavily talked about topic of climate. But before we do that, I saw a post, I think it was yesterday or maybe the day before, where you announced a big change in what you’re up to in your life. You’ve become involved with the Robert F. Kennedy Jr Presidential campaign. Can you tell us a little bit about what that’s all about?
Charles: Yeah. I’ve been basically a philosopher, a writer, public speaker, et cetera, et cetera, for 10 or 15 years, and all of a sudden, through some so-called coincidences, I became an advisor to the campaign and working very closely with the candidate and the core staff. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t wake up every morning motivating myself to do stuff. I’m on a team now and it’s a completely different mindset and a different experience, but the basic themes and ideals that I’ve always served, they’re still what I serve, but it’s just a different arena of application, and especially the climate, which you say, a new story.
Where I’m coming from is outside any of the easy categorizations or the easy position identities in the issue, and that is also something that I’m bringing into the campaign. Not necessarily to say that the candidate, Mr. Kennedy, and I agree on everything all the time, but it’s a conversation. Everything that is in the book is also part of the conversation, so I’m happy to … Yeah, so I can say that what I say to you in this conversation right now is not representing what Robert F. Kennedy Jr says, but it is in his field. So yeah, I’m happy to talk about what my views are.
Jim: Cool. Well, let’s take that as a given. He is talking for Charles Eisenstein, not Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. I will say, you are holding up your hand for Robert. It’s going to make me take another look at him because I got to say my historical view has been quite negative. I don’t know a lot about him, but the little I know is definitely in the oh dear, don’t like that category in the slightest. I mean, he’s been a very upfront, and I think very dangerous, anti-vax guy, and spreading false stories about vaxes and autism, or at least unsupported stories about vax and autism. And also, I got to say, I was fairly disgusted by his NIMBYism, as it seemed to me, with respect to the offshore wind systems near the family compound in the waters off Cape Cod. So I go, yo, spreader of false narratives and a NIMBY anti-alternative energy dude, not my kind of guy. So what am I missing there?
Charles: Well, so for one thing, we’re living in a political environment and a media environment where it’s all about controlling the narrative. So the influence of industry, big corporations and monied interests in politics and in the media is profound. So I would say first, actually listen to his direct words rather than what people are saying about him. Go listen to the podcast, what was it called? The All In Podcast or some of his interviews, there’s one on CNN, one on ABC, or listen to his campaign speech as well, and then make your own conclusions.
Jim: And I will do that now. If I hadn’t seen you raise your hand, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but I think you’re a person whose thinking I highly respect. I say, well, if Charles doesn’t think this guy’s a conspiracy theorist and a tool for the oil companies, then he probably isn’t. I do pride myself on keeping an open mind, so I will.
Charles: He’s definitely not a tool for the oil companies. I mean, his career was as an environmental lawyer. So he has sued pretty much every energy company, every polluter that you can think of, especially the coal companies and the coal-fired power plants where he’s been … The reason, the way that he got into the vaccine issue in the first place was because of the mercury issue that was poisoning the Hudson River and the entire East, mostly the eastern half of the United States because of coal burning power plants. That’s what led him to look at some of the science that is, and he would say that he’s pro-science not anti-vax and wants to bring the pharmaceutical influence out of science and out of the regulatory agencies. But anyway, that’s a different topic for a different conversation.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s move on from that. We have a relatively limited amount of time, and I really want to get into the book. Again, I’m going to repeat, Climate: A New Story, and Charles does now take a new perspective, at least one I have not seen before. Why don’t you start off, as you did quite eloquently, and kind of describe your dive into both the conventional climate change narrative and the skeptic narrative and then where you came out on the other side?
Charles: Yeah. Okay, so I’ve been an environmentalist since the age of, I don’t know, seven or eight. It’s a lifelong passion, and at first when climate change came on the scene as a concept, global warming we called it, it was really back in the ’80s that I first became aware of it. And at first I thought this is going to be great for environmentalism because all of the things that I’ve cared about, or most of the things that I’ve cared about that are ravaging our environment, now we have a reason why we have to change them. Now we have a reason why it’s not just the polar bears and the forests that we care about, it’s our own survival, so we have a reason that we can give people who don’t love nature why we have to stop drilling, and mining, and fracking, and making oil spills and all that stuff, why we have to change our whole system. It’s not just because we love nature, it’s because we won’t survive otherwise.
So at first I thought that climate change was really good news for the environmental movement, but over time I became more and more uncomfortable with what I call carbon fundamentalism, that equates every environmental problem or blames every environmental problem on the one thing that if we could only control this one thing, everything would be fine. So you see everything getting blamed on global warming or climate change, which blinds us to the actual workings of this biosphere, which I describe as, in a simple word, alive. This planet is alive, it has a physiology, it has organs, it has tissues. The organs are things like rainforests, like estuaries, like wetlands, like soil, like elephants, whales. Whales are an organ. Anytime that you compromise one of the organs of a living body, the integrity of the entire thing is degraded.
So say whales, when the whales are decimated, and really the population of whales now is somewhere between one and 10% of what it used to be, then the entire physiology of the ocean stops working. The whales no longer are transporting nutrients from their feeding grounds to their birthing grounds or from the depths to the surface where they can feed plankton. So plankton populations plummet, and the entire food web is impoverished. Even if you want to take it, I’m not sure how receptive you are to this kind of thing, but the songs of the whales that permeate the entire ocean and form a neural net or a communication system that maybe even purposely bring nutrients from one place to another, not to mention layer mixing that whales and fish accomplish.
Okay, so this is just describing an organ of a living being. You compromise that organ and you have all kinds of problems, that yeah, maybe rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases exacerbate those problems, but the conclusion I came to in my book is that even if we cut carbon emissions to zero overnight, if we continue to degrade ecosystems, destroy habitats, expand drilling and mining, the strip mining, the biofuels plantations, a lot of the things that we’re doing in the name of saving the planet, in the name of stopping climate change are actually making things worse, and if we keep doing these things, Earth will still die a death of a million cuts.
Jim: Yeah, and I think that was my number one takeaway, that whether carbon forcing is a dominating part of the problem or not, as you said, even if we cut it to zero, it’s the fact that we’re not addressing species extinction, soil depletion, land use changes, and you pretty eloquently said there, you draw a picture of something very much like the Gaia hypothesis of the earth. I think you actually name it a couple times as being, at least in some resonance, with the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth systems are a homeostatic system of balance that manages cycles of water and carbon and energy and other things, and this is where you go.
Then one step further, and I’m unsure about this, but I’d love to hear what you have to say about it, which is that perhaps the reason that we’re seeing temperature rise is not principally for more carbon dioxide, but from the breakdown of the homeostatic cycles within nature. And at least one could read what you said as saying that if we restored fully healthy homeostasis to the natural world, the ability of the natural world to process and build non-volatile carbon in the soil and in the water, et cetera, might actually be strong enough to absorb the carbon that humans are putting into the atmosphere via burning fossil fuels. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Why don’t you run with that and tell us your side of that story?
Charles: Yeah, so really what happens as we degrade ecosystems isn’t necessarily warming, it’s derangement. It is these extremes, floods, and droughts, and heat waves, and cold waves that it’s just like if your hypothalamus in your body is compromised, you could have wild temperature swings and all kinds of problems in your body. I think that greenhouse gases make the problem worse because here you have a system whose homeostatic mechanisms are already weakened and you’re putting more thermodynamic energy through the system.
So I’m not saying that greenhouse gases aren’t a factor, but if Earth is healthy, I mean, if you look historically, there’s been times in geological history where CO2 levels were five or 10 times what they are right now. Even in the last 10,000 years, temperatures were much warmer than they were today. We know this because of things like glaciers are melting and they’re exposing trees from the Holocene, recent, a few thousand, 5, 10,000 years ago, tree lines were several hundred kilometers north of where they are today and several hundred meters higher than they were today.
So there’s many indications that temperatures were much warmer in the early Holocene, even in the Roman Warm Period, the Medieval Warm Period and so forth. So it’s not that we’re having unprecedented heat, it’s that the Earth’s ability to handle this fairly rapid change in atmospheric composition is severely compromised. We have something like less than half of the mangrove swamps that we had a couple hundred years ago. We have massive deforestation. I mean, everybody listening to this knows it in the Amazon. Maybe you’re not quite as aware of what’s happening in the Congo rainforest, it’s even worse, or what’s happened to Borneo and Sumatra.
Jim: Yeah, I did not know about Borneo, because last time I looked Borneo was 90% rainforest and now you say it’s mostly gone.
Charles: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’m getting, maybe I’m confusing Borneo and Sumatra, but in Indonesia there’s been horrendous deforestation, a lot of it being replaced with palm oil plantations. Seagrass meadows, for example, is another huge loss. In New England, it’s something like 80%, and these feed back into carbon cycles because when you have especially marine ecosystems being compromised, or the whale is no longer feeding the plankton, which feed the coccolithophores which sequester huge amounts of carbon on the ocean floor, everything spins out of control. So yeah, so it’s not, but just to return to the point, the danger isn’t necessarily warming. What really affects humans the most is floods and droughts, and the biggest source, the biggest cause of floods and droughts is soil, and forest, and wetlands degradation.
Jim: Yeah. You did a great, very interesting job of painting the picture of how forests in particular are quite important in all aspects of the water cycle. Why don’t you tell that story for us?
Charles: Yeah. So when it rains in a healthy forest, the rain is absorbed into the ground, into the aquifers, and then is brought up over time by the trees which transpire the moisture, causing humidity, forming clouds, not just the water. They actually help the formation of clouds because forests, because the trees emit these volatile organic compounds which generate this chemistry which creates clouds, and like these bacteria waft up from the forest that nucleate ice particles and form clouds, and those clouds then reflect sunlight. The transvaporation also transports heat from the surface to the atmosphere, and then when the water vapor condenses again, it releases the heat. Some of it radiates out into space.
So forests actually cool the planet, not just locally underneath their canopy, but they transport heat out, back out into space. As they do this, so because they … And wetlands too, they absorb so much of this water, when the heavy rains come, there’s not as much runoff, there’s not as much erosion, there’s not as much flooding. And because they’re recycling this moisture back into the atmosphere locally and regionally, they prolong the rainy season and shorten the drought season. And even more than that, because this condensing water vapor creates a low pressure zone because the gas is condensing into little droplets, it pulls water up from the surface and then in from the oceans. In Brazil, it’s called the flying river. The Amazon is pulling water, and the Congo does this too, thousands of kilometers from the oceans to make the rain, which is why colloquially everybody knows that the forests, like all over the world people understand that the forests make the rain, which is very different from the geomechanical view that forests grow where there is a lot of rain.
No, Earth isn’t just a rocky ball that hosts life. Earth is life. Life creates life, life creates the conditions for life to thrive, and that’s what we have to understand as environmentalists. We have to understand this principle. Life creates the conditions for life, and anything that we do to serve life, anything we do to regenerate soil, anything we do to protect forests, and ecosystems, and species, anything we do will contribute to the vitality of all life on earth.
Jim: Now, there’s a data point. I wonder how this fits into your story. The eastern half of the United States was mostly denuded of its original forests, and by 1880 thereabouts it was 90% deforested. Since World War II and the movement of most agriculture to an industrial model out in the Midwest, the East has heavily reforested and it’s now about 55, 60% forest cover, and yet that does not seem to be doing much to the trend lines on temperature increase.
Charles: Yeah. Well, so for one thing I’ll say that yeah, so I want to talk about forests and what it takes for a forest to actually be healthy. It’s not just one clear cutting in the Eastern United States, most places were clear cut 3, 4, 5 times. Every time you do that, the healing that is required for it to become healthy again is magnified because you’ve eliminated keystone species, you’ve eliminated whole cycles that take hundreds of years have been truncated again and again and again. So, okay, so it’s keystone species have in many places been eliminated. They’re starting to come back, and as they do, the forest will regain their health, but I’m talking about wolves, cougars, beavers. Those would be three of the most important that really create tremendous biodiversity and alter entire landscapes.
So the beavers, beavers used to be so ubiquitous that our idea of a stream through the woods almost didn’t exist. You didn’t have these water courses that are creating what we call channelization that run deeper and deeper and are eroding the soil. You had a necklace of pools, you had 10 to 20 beaver dams per mile on these water courses creating huge marshes, and wetlands, and bogs slowing down the water so that you didn’t have the kind of flooding that we have today, and therefore you didn’t have the kind of droughts that we have today, and therefore you had much more stability. But it’s true that the forests are growing back. They’re not healthy forests yet. Because of the simplification of the ecosystem, we’re seeing a lot of tree death. The trees are weak, also because of the what’s happened to the water cycle. So they’re susceptible to fungi, they’re susceptible to insects and so forth, but it’s true. And in fact, temperatures have not been rising as fast as the models keep predicting.
If you look at, what is it, the University of Alabama satellite measurements, they’re about … The warming has slowed down a lot from what it was in the ’90s, and temperatures now are about the same as they were 10 years ago. Surface temperatures are also like that, and we haven’t seen the total melting of the ice caps. The temperatures have not been rising as fast as expected, which in a way for me is a cause for alarm, not complacency. I wrote an article some years back called Why I’m Afraid of Global Cooling, because here we have hitched our environmental horse, hitched our environmental wagon to the climate change horse saying we have to protect the environment because of global warming. Well, what happens if there isn’t warming? That doesn’t mean that we’re home free, because as I said before, the real threat is ecocide, it’s the destruction of ecosystems, and habitats, and forests, and soil all over the place. And if we were like, “Oh, great. It’s cooling now, we don’t have to worry anymore.” We’re actually making things much, much worse.
Jim: Yeah, and as you mentioned in passing, maybe one of these super tech energy sources will come through fusion or orbiting solar or something, and in which case what could happen, as you say, people say, “Oh well, then fuck nature. We got our stuff. We’re not going to cook ourselves.” So that could keep going about business as usual, and you actually painted a fairly horrifying vision, which I believe you called the world of concrete and shit.
Charles: Something like that. Yeah.
Jim: I believe that’s literally the words you use, where we decide that we can just power through this. And indeed, we’re pretty good technologically and getting better all the time, but we end up in a world that utterly humans dominate and is a world of concrete and shit, but we may not be that far from it. I actually went and looked these numbers up this morning to make sure that I had them approximately correct. One of my least favorite bits of data are these two. Humans now account for, humans and our domestic animals, now count for 96% of the biomass of all mammals on Earth, 96%. Humans themselves about 36%, in our domestics another 60, leaving the beavers, and the deer, and the wolves, and the cougars at 4% of biomass.
So think about that from an energetics perspective, right? What about those giant herds of herbivores we used to have on our grasslands in the Midwest and in the Savannas of Africa? And domestic poultry, perhaps even a bigger surprise, now, according to the numbers I saw this morning, 70%. I’ve seen numbers as high as 80% of the biomass of all birds on the planet are chickens, ducks, and geese. So if you take those numbers, we’re not that far from the world of concrete and shit.
Charles: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. It was this horrifying vision where nature doesn’t even exist anymore. By our normal metrics, were still fine. Where the homeostatic effect of life is we’ve substituted that for geoengineering and carbon … What’s it called? The machines that suck carbon out of the-
Jim: Oh, yeah, carbon sequestration. Yeah, carbon removal.
Charles: Yeah, right. And already they’re doing geoengineering experiments, spraying things in the sky to reflect sunlight, sulfur aerosols, aluminum particles, things like that. From this engineering mindset that progress consists in our expanding capacity to control and manipulate the material world. It’s this mentality of domination, which goes along with the domestication of all things and the conversion of nature into a garden or into a feedlot, really. I’m not against gardens, and I think that ultimately a vision of a healthy coexistence and co-creation between humans and the rest of life is not one where we absent ourselves from nature, but it’s one where we participate consciously in ecology and understand our role to be the same as actually the role of all other life, which is to contribute to the further unfolding of life and beauty on this planet.
So many of the regenerative modalities of our relation to nature, to soil, to water, to life embodies this principle where, for example, the regenerative farmer or the permaculturist says, “What can I do to enrich the soil, to make the soil more alive, to increase biodiversity?” Knowing that if I do that, I will be fine, that humans at nature are not separate. It’s not a zero sum game, but the richer life, the richer we are too. This is true on a spiritual level, where it’s desolate to look out on these mono crops and these concrete landscapes and these denuded landscapes. We feel alone, we feel insecure, as compared to seeing foxes, and hearing songbirds, and seeing trees and biodiversity, we feel that we belong under [inaudible 00:29:22].
Jim: Absolutely. I live on, as regular listeners know, I talk about this from time to time, I live on a very remote mountain farm for just that reason, of which about 70% of it is forests, which we’re just letting grow back, occasional, very selective cutting. We have all kinds of mammals, and birds, and salamanders, and other amphibians, and reptiles, and we were watching two snakes mating the other day, right? I mean, compared to living in even suburbia, it’s like your brain just expands in a very, very different way. I’ve become convinced that our urban and suburban lives are literally driving us insane and that much of the craziness that we see in the world. Yes, social media is part of it, but I suspect more of it than we’d like to acknowledge is just from urbanism. Humans were not evolved to live in such concrete palaces.
Whatever time I go to New York, while I enjoy kind of some of the cultural attributes, I always after three days kind of just get this horror living in this concrete edifice which is Manhattan. Let’s come back to the role of humans because this is interesting, and I think there’s some different perspectives on this.
You actually pointed me to a book called Tending the Wild, which I’ve just Kindled. I’m going to read it. And I have known that the discovery of the anthropologists, that the Amazon was a much more groomed garden than we ever thought before Western disease, basically mass slaughtered the people living there. And of course, the eastern forest was substantially groomed by the American Indians using fire. In fact, where our farm is, there were buffalo in the river valleys because the Native Americans burned off the woods periodically, but only in the valleys, not in the hills, to basically provide habitat for bison, woods bison, who also went in the woods, and elk, neither of which are there anymore.
So that’s humans, as my good friend Tyson Younga Porta, who’s a Australian Indigenous person, calls humans as custodial species, where we’re not like the other species. We’re the first ones over the general intelligence line, probably, don’t know about those big whales, but at least far as we know, we’re the first one over the general intelligence line, and maybe that puts us in a different category where it’s our job to enrich nature, beautify, add an extra level on top through things like grooming the forest.
On the other hand, I just read a book recently and have followed him from for a while, George Monbiot, or I don’t know if that’s how you pronounce it, but he’s of a different view. He says humans should get the hell away from nature and that we should grow our food in yeast tubs, and live in high rises, and give as much of the land back to nature without any human interaction at all. And I think those are two starkly different ways of addressing our overshoot. Could you …
Jim: And where do you fit on that, between custodial species on one side and humans just leave nature alone and retreat to the smallest footprint possible?
Charles: So as you can probably guess, I’m very much on the side of custodial species, and I think a lot of the assumptions … I mean, I understand where George Monbiot is coming from. It sure looks like we’ve just been a catastrophe, but that is a very Eurocentric or very Eurocentric view that takes a lot of modernity as defining of the human species, because if you look at many, many indigenous cultures, they were not a burden to their environments, they were an asset. They actually interacted with nature in a way that preserved or even enhanced biodiversity and biomass. When they were removed through these diseases, through conquest, through colonization, the landscapes actually degraded. These were not virgin lands that the European colonizers imagined them to be. They were, I mean, you could call them gardens, but you could really, the way I think of them is that they were deeply symbiotic organisms of which human beings were one of the organs.
I think that the healing of this planet is not coming through our abandonment of it and our retreat into a high tech, ultimately virtual digital world. It comes through reversing this long course of separation and seeing our function, seeing our destiny in very different terms than Descartes saw it, to be the lords and possessors of nature, very different terms than the anti materialist prejudice that says that things that are away from nature are higher, things that are away from the soil are better. This is a social prejudice that goes back to the beginning of hierarchical societies. The king’s feet were never allowed to touch the ground. The peasant, the farmer was the lowliest person. I mean, even why is low bad? Why is high good? What’s wrong with soil? These are some of the deep prejudices that we have to overturn.
So yeah, I’m very much wanting to … I advocate a return, not necessarily to indigenous ways of life, but to translate those ways of life into the context of a mass society, and this would be a profound return and a recovery of human nature. We see examples of it all over the place, where farmers and ranchers who really embrace this role of I am here to enhance biodiversity. I am here to build the soil. They’re doing incredible things, landscapes, and out west this happens. When they say, okay, we’re going to leave this landscape undisturbed, it continues to degrade, but when you have somebody who is listening carefully to the land, who is in love with the land, who’s dedicated to the land, who’s using all of his or her human capacities and intelligence to serve the land, then you have miracles of healing. You have places that were desertifying rapidly come back to life. You have springs that were dead for 30 years start flowing again. You have songbirds that haven’t been seen in a decade coming back. It’s incredible the healing potential of land when we humans align ourselves with that potential.
Jim: Here locally we have an interesting guy named Joel Salatin, who is basically taking some of the things you talked about in the book about more natural style of grazing, where you move the animals every two days. You might have 50 cattle at a two acre field, and then you move them every two or three days and so it’s more like how the actual big herds would move. I’ve been to his farm two or three times, about seven miles from here, and he has pictures of when his father bought it. It was an eroded, stunted grass, just nasty looking hillbilly farm, frankly, and now it’s like thick, spongy soils, top soil has probably grown an inch. Then he’s built a series of dams in emulation of beavers and holds the water. He basically provides all the water he needs from his own hillsides, et cetera and it’s pretty remarkable.
I also chatted with a guy, I think you also referenced him, when he lived in New Mexico, and we both lived in New Mexico, Allen Savory who had some very interesting ideas on how to restore. I think he’s originally from someplace in East Africa and was doing some very, very interesting work. And as you say, even in relatively arid New Mexico, bringing the land back by changing how the land use patterns are being applied.
Charles: Yeah. These guys are both regenerative superstars. I was going to say something about Joel Salatin. Yeah, the soil, I mean, it’s not just an inch over his lifetime. I mean, some of these guys are building soil at the rate of almost an inch a year.
Jim: I don’t know about that. I mean, we’ve been building soil on our farm too. We may have built an inch and a half or two in 30 years.
Charles: Well, yeah, but that’s, I mean, maybe you haven’t really been doing the intensive rotational grazing and stuff. I mean, even just the kind of thing you’re doing though, where you’re doing no harm and you have some consciousness around it, that will heal the land too. But there’s some of these basically agricultural geniuses out there.
Jim: Which Joel Salatin is certainly one. I can still recall the first time I rolled up there, I was expecting some kind of hippie dude by the way my wife was describing it, patchouli oil. And nope, he’s a good old kind of libertarian, right-wing Christian fundamentalist, but he and his father have really come up with some amazing innovations in how they work the land, and it’s now starting to spread in our area. There’s probably a dozen farms within 20 miles of Joel that are applying his processes, not necessarily as well as he does. It’s hard work, and one of the things that all of us who’ve looked at regenerative agriculture know is we’re not going to be able to live in a society where 0.7% of humans work the land, that’s going to have to be more like 15 or 20% probably.
Charles: Yeah, I make that point a lot in the book. With someone like Joel Salatin and a lot of these folks, one thing on a subtle level that it’s important to realize is that what they’re doing is not from an industrial mindset. It requires actual intimacy with the land. It requires them, maybe they don’t consciously say it this way, but it requires that they relate to the land as a being, and this is natural for farmers. You feel it’s not just some substrate where you stamp an industrial process. That’s what they’re encouraged to do by the system right now, but in their hearts, they love the land, and that’s what we have to invoke. Because you cannot take what Joel Salatin is doing and roachly apply that to some other piece of land somewhere else. What you do in one place is unique to that place. And you could learn from what someone is doing, what Joel Salatin is doing and translate that, but the way that it’ll be expressed the next valley over, let alone the next state, will be different.
So the grazing, there’s no formula. Okay, move the cows every two days. It depends on how fast the grass is growing, what kind of soil it is, what the weather’s been like. You have to know your land, you have to know the cattle, you have to know the weather. Ideally, this would be knowledge that is passed down through generations. To really farm right you have to have multiple generations of experience and relationship with the land. So what you’re saying is true, because the reason that we’re able to get by with 0.7% of the population engaged in farming is that we are doing it on an industrial scale. To do it right, to do it the way that Joel Salatin does it, we would have to have, my estimate was about 10% of the population engaged in farming, which is what it was in 1950.
Jim: And it was like 70% in 1870 or 1875, which is kind of one of the hinges of history where things started very rapidly changing, and was down to like 50% or less, maybe a third by 1920, and falling quickly. However, here’s the little secret about Joel. The only reason Joel’s farm works is he’s got armies of interns that not only work for free, but pay him for the privilege, and trying to make regenerative ag. And I have other friends who do regenerative agriculture here just in this area, it’s a really big hotbed for it. However, every one of them has day jobs, right? You can’t make a living straight up unsubsidized in regenerative agriculture in competition with Walmart, basically.
Charles: Well, I don’t agree with that because I know some farmers who are doing really, really well.
Jim: Yeah, I’ve overstated, I take that back. There are, I can think of a few. The ones who are highly, highly diversified and work their ass off from sun up to sun down, six days a week, but there are not many.
Charles: Well, yeah, and that’s partly a problem of agricultural policy. The subsidies are going toward the worst practices.
Jim: But even this part of the country, things are not very subsidized. We don’t do a lot of grain growing, which is the main source of subsidy. I did look into that, see how much subsidies were changing the economics around here. Unfortunately, it’s the coupling with game A, money on money return machine, right? It actually does turn out, you can produce beef cheaper by growing shitloads of soybeans, putting the animals in CAFOs and feedlots, and then selling it at Walmart.
Charles: But there are implicit subsidies in that too, because the people doing the CAFOs are not paying the costs of the destruction, the poisoning of aquifers and waterways through the effluence from the manure.
Jim: Yeah. Of course, one of the good points you did make is that part of the reforms here are fully pricing externalities. That is, of course, what every business person tries to do is how to dump toxics, whether they’re social or material, into the commons. That is the game A game. That’s how you make a lot of money real quick, and how you stop that in our current system is an interesting question. But let’s hold that off till we get to possible ways forward.
Let’s see what else we want to talk about. Yeah. If we had more time, we could go more deeply into regenerative agriculture, but let’s talk now about money. I know that’s a deep topic of yours, it’s a deep topic of mine. One of the things I just find so important, and you do highlight this, is that the current money system we have was not brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses on stone tablets. It’s a specific set of institutional choices that have been made over a series of time and have gotten locked in by things like the Federal Reserve in 1913, and Bretton Woods in 1944, I think it was. 1971 changed the completely unhinged fiat money, et cetera, but money is first, very important, not wealth. Money, if all the money in the world disappeared tomorrow, all the factories, farms, skills, cars, tractors, roads would still exist. Money is a modality for signaling cooperation around assets, consumption, savings, investment, innovation, et cetera. And our money system has very pervasive effects on how all these things work and what’s possible and what’s not. So with that, let’s hear the Charles take on money.
Charles: Well, okay, it’s a big topic. I guess, I wrote a book, 2011 it was published, called Sacred Economics. Basically I ask, why is it that when we ask the reason for any horrible thing happening on earth, that pretty soon we take it a level or two deeper, it’s about money. Somebody’s making money from the horror, from the exploitation of human beings, from the despoliation of nature, someone’s making money from it. And why should money be that kind of a force? When really what it is, it’s a token of value, it’s a means of exchange. It’s a symbol that society holds something valuable. It’s an agreement about value, it’s a story.
So why have we created a story and are living in a story that holds valuable the things that are not really valuable and that is stripping away everything good in the world, and what new story could we tell? So that led me into looking at the history of money and the dynamics, how it’s created and just how it operates in society. Basically to connect it to the environment, the design of money, and it’s not like some group of people came and designed it, all right? It evolved this way in tandem with our thinking and our mythology about who we are and what a human being is and why we’re here.
So the way it was “designed” requires that it always grow because it’s created as interest-bearing debt. So in order to keep pace with the growth of money, of which there’s never enough, there’s always more debt than money because it’s born out of interest. In order to keep pace with the growth of money, more and more of the world and more and more of human relationships have to come into the money economy. More and more nature gets converted into commodities, more and more neighborly relations get converted into paid services.
Childcare, for example, food preparation, even the growing of food, the building of houses, entertainment, singing songs, all these things were never once part of the economy. So this process, because of the nature of money, puts constant pressure on us to convert more and more of nature into things, into money, into products. And that goes along with the basic attitude of humans are here to grow, to take everything over, to domesticate the wild, to conquer nature. Even George Monbiot’s view is actually a distorted version of that, that we are separate from nature, that that is what progress is, to become more separate from nature.
So the money system that we have now fits in hand in glove perfectly with these attitudes, with these myths about ourselves and our relationship to the rest of life, and the money system will not change until that consciousness changes. The good news is that consciousness is changing. How many people really resonate today with the conquest of nature? That used to be a no-brainer. That used to be what idealistic young people wanted to contribute to.
Jim: It was thought heroic, right? To kill off all those wolves and cougars, right? I mean, even in our rural county as recently as 20 years ago, if you killed a coyote, you could get your picture in the newspaper, right? And now people go, “Ugh, no.”
Charles: That’s changed, and that’s such good news. That’s the psychic core of the world destroying machine has changed. That change, that shift in consciousness has not yet manifested in our systems.
Jim: This is a key thing I talk about a lot, love to get your take on it, and that is there’s two parts of social change. One is personal change, either in attitudes or capacities, but the second are the institutions that bring those things to have bearing in the world. There have been people who try institutions first. Think of Lenin, right? Who we’re going to make them new man by brute force at bayonet point. Well, it didn’t work out so well. And then there’s the personal change people, if we all meditate, the order will become a better place, and yet neither of those seems right to me, that there’s some spiral that has to work together, where personal change, attitudes and capacities are reinforced and stabilized by new institutions and new modalities, which then allow upgrading human capacities, which allow a new set of institutions that wouldn’t have been possible with the old people. Does that make sense to you?
Charles: Yeah, I agree with that. The consciousness cannot be separated from the environment. Our stories, our myths and our consciousness create our systems, and the systems create the consciousness.
Jim: Exactly. The second part is one that I think a lot of people don’t understand, that there’s only a few crackpots, you’re probably one, I’m probably another, that could have very, very heterodox views, despite the fact that we’re embedded in a system which we very, very strongly disagree with. Most people are way more agreeable than us, and they go along because that’s what humans were engineered to do. Crackpots like us would often be exiled or killed for challenging the holy of holies, right? And hence, so you need to build the scaffolding for these better views. That’s what I see so much lacking in the social change world, because they’re either focused on one side or the other rather than this balanced co-evolution of the two.
Charles: Yeah. There’s another aspect of it I would like to bring in though, which is that this complex of consciousness, story and system, it’s a gestalt, it goes all together. It’s a coherent whole. That being, that complex itself goes through a life cycle.
Jim: Say more about this.
Charles: Yeah. So the consciousness and the systems, they co-evolve as a whole. What we’re seeing today is the senescence, the obsolescence, the infirmity of an aging system, story consciousness complex. So in this moment, there is an unprecedented opportunity to change all three levels. I’ve been mostly working in my work at the level of story, changing the prevailing, defining stories of our civilization. But the story, it’s a mistake to see the story as primary rather than the consciousness, or as the system, as you were saying. That you take somebody from a modern competitive economy and you put them in an indigenous environment and doesn’t take that long before people really start to understand gift culture and become a very different person and vice versa also.
So yeah, so we have a moment now where that is ripe for change on every level. That said, the system comes last usually. It’s the last thing to change because it has so much more momentum, it’s frozen in place. So the moment we are at now is that the consciousness is rapidly changing. We don’t resonate with the values of the industrial age, but the institutions of the industrial age are still here. So there’s a big disconnect, and we feel therefore very much alienated, not at home, in the world that we’ve inherited.
Jim: Well, that’s true for college educated, upper middle class white people, right?
Charles: No, it’s even more true for … It’s true across the board. And in fact, in a lot of ways, college educated, upper middle class white people are more invested, not less invested in the orthodoxies and the systems that prevail.
Jim: I don’t know. I mean, look at China and India. Those people seem to be looking forward to, and as quickly as they can, adopting the American middle class way of life. Look at the penetration of air conditioning in China. It’s amazing. It went from 1% to 70% in 30 years. Number of cars, cars were a rare and exotic device in China 30 years ago. Now it’s the number one car country in the world and accelerating.
Charles: Yeah. I mean, there’s a cycle. I think you do have to experience the peak of separation in order to, but it happens a lot faster. I spent my 20s in Taiwan. When I first got there, my first visit in 1987, I mean, it was pretty much a Third World country. I mean, the agrarian past was still very visible, and there were plastic bags everywhere. There was no environmental consciousness at all. I mean, if you said the word environmentalism to somebody there, [inaudible 00:55:32], they would not even know what you were talking about. They were way behind us environmentally, now they are way ahead of the United States. I don’t know the latest, but banning single use plastics, having citywide composting programs. The consciousness has gone through the entire arc that took many generations here in just one generation. But I was responding more to just the situation in this country and noticing that the shift in consciousness and ecological awareness is it’s happening everywhere all at once.
Jim: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. You can feel it in the US, but again, particularly amongst the college educated, but perhaps other people now too. There’s always a lag. So we don’t have much time left, just a few minutes, and I wouldn’t even have put you to this probably because you were a thinker and a writer, not necessarily a doer, but now you’ve moved your flag over to the doers, right? You are now a political hack or wannabe political hack. So therefore, I’m going to ask you, what should we do? What should be done to move us in the direction that you see as moving us to a world of interbeing?
Charles: Yeah, in a way I have not actually changed.
Jim: I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding you, I know that, but it gives me good excuse to ask you the question.
Charles: It’s worth saying. It’s worth saying that I’m just surprised. I’m surprised every day that the ideas that I have worked with for decades are finding a landing place in a major political campaign. It’s not like I’ve abandoned them in order to fulfill a political ambition, quite the contrary. I could not have imagined that I would be in this situation. It’s profoundly hopeful for me. Like a lot of what I’m bringing to the campaign is ideas about unity, healing the divide, reconciliation, but also to move to your question, what to do about it, policies of regeneration, social, cultural, economic, and ecological. So as for what we can do, part of it is to take the resources away from the war machine and away from this distorted high-tech medicine, medical complex that’s absorbing $4 trillion a year, so there’s another trillion a year from military spending.
What would happen if we took all of that resource, even if we took half the military budget, and devoted it to regenerative agriculture and to ecosystem restoration? This country, this land mass would be transformed in a space of just a few years. None of our problems are that hard to solve, really. These prohibitive costs of restoring the environment, they pale in comparison to global military spending. All we have to do is turn our energies, and our priorities, and our love towards where it’s supposed to be, and we will heal very quickly. So that’s on the meta level, and I could talk more about agricultural policies and the ins and outs of that, but I think the most important thing is simply where we put our attention.
Jim: Indeed. Well, let’s wrap her there. I know you have to go. We could have gone on for another hour easily. This has been very interesting. This is a book I would strongly recommend. I mean, it caused me to think, think differ, as Steve Jobs would say, probably more than any book I’ve read on the topic of climate ever. And I could argue with you about panpsychism, but let’s not waste our time on that. We can do that a different day. I want to thank you for coming on the Jim Rutt Show and having a very interesting conversation.
Charles: Yeah. Thanks, Jim. Really enjoyed it myself too.