This conversation with Albert K. Bates was recorded in April of 2007 and first "aired" in episodes 29 and 30 of the C-Realm Podcast.
KMO: Welcome back to the C-Realm podcast. My next guest is author Albert K. Bates.
Albert is a retired public interest attorney and author of several books on energy, environment and history. He is a co-founder of the Eco Village Network of the Americas and the Global Eco Village Network.
During his 26-year career as an attorney, he argued environmental and civil rights cases before the US Supreme Court and drafted a number of legislative acts while publishing “Natural Rights”, a quarterly newsletter on deep ecology. His books “Shutdown!; Nuclear Power on Trial” and “Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do” provided early insight into two of the greatest dangers now confronting the world.
An inveterate inventor, he holds a number of design patents and was the designer of the concentrating photovoltaic arrays and solar hybrid automobiles displayed at the 1982 World’s Fair. He has been director of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology since 1984 and the Eco Village Training Center at the (Walnut Hill) Farm Community in Summerton, TN since 1994 where he has taught natural building, sustainable agriculture and appropriate technology to students from more than 50 nations.
KMO: Albert Bates, thank you very much for appearing on the C-realm podcast and welcome!
Albert: Well, Thank you for having me. You know I recognize that this may be listened to by those archeologists, possibly astro-archeologists, from other worlds who manage to decrypt this electronic stream and find out what is was that we’re possibly thinking back in this period. So I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to have a piece of that conversation.
KMO: It sounds like you have listened to an episode from the C-realm podcast or two.
Albert: A few, yes!
KMO: I’m guessing you’ve listened to at least two that I can think of because the guests were friends of yours, and that was sort of your vector to the show. Is that right?
Albert: that’s right. Dmitry Orlov is a friend of mine and we’ve been exchanging advice and ideas about this coming era over the last year or two.
KMO: The other author you mentioned when you first contacted me, she’s more than an author, she is a once very successful investment banker and member of, I think it was, the first Bush administration, Catherine Austin Fitts.
Albert: She is actually a neighbor to us here in this part of rural Tennessee, which is kind of interesting to have someone of that stature move down into this neck of the woods.
KMO: Well, it’s funny who you find when you slip off into the boonies.
Albert: That’s right, and I am sure you can relate to the fact that it takes us a while to get back to civilization having been here, but we are finding ways like this satellite technology that allow us to have wireless internet contact here, although I am kind of watching the gage as I am speaking and I’m seeing the satellite strength go up and down, and we may or may not, depending on the winds have a good signal today.
KMO: Using Skype to record a phone conversation is somewhat akin to using tin cans and string to try to carry on a conversation. But as I mentioned in the podcast that I posted last week, it amazes me when it works at all. So when it falls down a little bit that just seems to be, you know, something that I should expect and take in stride.
Speaking of Dmitry Orlov, he has written a nice little blurb for your new book. If you would, tell us about the book, and then I will read his little blurb.
Albert: Well, the book is "The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times,” and I was trying to figure out what it is people are going to most need, or most need to learn about, when they are making this transition in the coming years between the era of petroleum that has been going on for a century or more and the post-petroleum era. And it is kind of like shifting from your savings account, in this case the fossil fuel savings account that was accumulated over a hundred million years, to a current checking account which is based on income in the form of solar energy striking the planet every day. And it is a significantly different kind of lifestyle, living on your income, than it is living on such a massive pile of savings.
And so I put together advice. And it is based on thirty-five or forty years of living very close to nature and also having my internet too. And also some ideas about what kinds of things need to change if we are going still inhabit this planet a century from now.
KMO: Well, looking through your book, just even without reading it paragraph by paragraph, just flipping through it I can see there are so many things in there that are of great interest to me like, for example, I have a composting toilet, a Sun-Mar brand, and it is new in the box, and it is sitting in my carport. I have owned it for years, and it was to go into the house that I was building, and the house didn’t ever get finished, and I just sold the land that it was on to pay off a lot of credit card debt. So I am a sort of a frustrated ‘high-tech, eco back-to-the-land’ type.
Albert: Yes, the type Sun-Mar is interesting, I know that brand. I know that particular model, and the State of Tennessee, in its infinite wisdom, decided that it was going to put a requirement on the books, and they are going to say that basically you can’t have anything that is not made of plastic for your composting toilet. It has to be approved by some engineering standard that was developed by people who were working in some corporate office somewhere in some skyscraper on a coastal city, instead of the technologies that we have; some of them coming from Europe and some of them coming from the Third World, for doing some very effective composting of human waste and returning it to the soil.
And you know, you can do that either through a wet process such as constructing wetlands, or you can do that through a dry process such as a dry toilet. Any one of which can be built for much less money than you would spend on these plastic ‘jobbies’ and the electric fans to run them. And the thing about the plastics is, "Where does that go?" I mean, what happens? First of all it comes off of fossil fuel, that is from petroleum, and then secondly, it goes into where? The environment. Where does that mean exactly? Probably tiny little bits and oodles that are being flushed into some system like the oceans where it will be digested by sea turtles. We really need to get away from that into much more natural states, things that you can build yourself.
KMO: Well, I hope that my Sun-Mar composting toilet, plastic though it may be, actually gets pooped on and peed on eventually because, thus far, it remains utterly pristine. I would hate for that plastic to have been created and molded into that shape for no purpose at all.
Albert: Well if you take care of it, it should well last a good long time and sunlight, more than anything else, will break that down. So keep it in a dark place.
KMO: Well it is in its original box. So I think given its current level of usage it should last a very long time.
Well, Dmitry Orlov wrote of your book, “As we blindly motor up to the top of peak oil, thoughts turn to what lies ahead. To help those who find the plan of driving straight off a cliff disagreeable there is an experienced Sherpa, by the name of Albert Bates, pointing out the best ways to negotiate the downward slope. All the essentials are covered: water, shelter, fuel, food, and of course food preparation. I especially recommend his borsht.”
Albert: Yeah, I don’t know if he actually tried my borsht, but I am personally fond of it, and I think that cabbage is one of those things anybody can grow. It is pretty much of no-brainer. It even made it through our recent 18 degree late freeze here in April. So I think that is something that we can all learn how to do.
KMO: You and I are both at the same latitude so I got that exact same freeze. For people outside the United States or for those folks within the United States who unfortunately conform to the stereotype about American ignorance of geography, Albert’s State of Tennessee and my State of Arkansas are contiguous.
Albert: Right, and for folks outside the United States, 18 degrees Farenheit is well below zero Celsius.
KMO: Yes, that is below freezing.
Albert: Actually, I have a little bit of an anecdote here, if you allow?
KMO: Yes, definitely.
Albert: I just want to have a mention of an earlier show that you had on dream travels, and, I have to remember, that there is an occasion when I was sound asleep. And I wasn’t particularly used to dreaming, but I did have this one dream in which I was lying on a beach and someone came up to me and gave me the ambient temperature in Celsius, and I immediately converted it to Fahrenheit, and it was just a no-brainer. It was just right there in my mind and then I went and checked the figure when I woke up, because I still remembered it, and you know what? It was exactly accurate, and I am somebody who is really bad at math and couldn’t remember the formula of how you convert Fahrenheit into Celsius, but my sleeping mind was able to make that conversion instantaneously with no sweat.
KMO: That is a topic that fascinates me, the possibility that maybe there are other, separate, discreet intelligences running on the same hardware that supports, you know, the processes that you would think of as being Albert Bates or that I think of as being KMO, and all sorts of Science Fiction/Horror scenarios leap to mind.
Albert: Yeah, I am something of a science fiction fan. I use a lot of those allusions that you are talking about, the different sorts of scenarios that may play out in our future.
KMO: So, science fiction scenarios in thinking about the near term future, you know, if you look through the episode notes for the various C-Realm podcast shows, you will see that I am interested in something called the technological singularity. And right now it seems like the technological singularity and the utter collapse of our corporate capitalist system seem to be racing, and which one will arrive first I think really will have a decisive impact on the course of human history.
Albert: Well, I agree with you. I think that what I am seeing is a race. It is a race between whether we will attain a degree of consciousness on this planet. I have some misgivings about the use of the technological singularity as a metaphor because I look at an exponential growth of anything, and at some point the line goes straight up, which to me suggests that it is a kind of a quantum world where many things exist simultaneously. And for me that gets difficult to wrap my mind around.
But I think that we are in a race, and it is a race between whether we are going to have a habitable planet or whether we will attain, as life forms on this planet, some form of cosmic consciousness in time to carry out, finish out this experiment that was begun many billions of years ago. And I think that, what I have been seeing in these last few weeks or months is some warning signs that we are not winning our race... that Gaia is in a lot worse trouble than we thought.
And let me give you a couple of examples: The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Policy Panel on Climate Change, which is part of the United Nations and consists of 1,200 scientists from around the world collaborating, came out with its fourth assessment. There are three reports to come out, and the first two working groups have already published theirs, and the third one is coming out next month. And the second one was kind of more dire than the first. I expect we may see the same in the third, and what they are basically saying is that the planet has now passed a number of tipping points in anthropogenic warming. And at this stage of the game we cannot say for sure whether we, as humans, will be able to do anything to arrest the changes that are now unfolding.
And the scary thing about that is that our planet is relatively fragile. We have the six inches of soil beneath our feet, and we’ve got the small layer of breathable oxygen over our heads. And then beyond that, it is very difficult for life to sustain itself, and we are fortunate in having this very lovely habitable world, but it is a world that is getting pretty old, I mean in terms of the solar system. You know the Earth is like a 65 year-old woman in human terms; she is 4 billion year and change, and the first billion was her pubescent stage, and DNA has been going for about 3 billion now. She only has another billion, or so, to go, which may not be enough to repeat the experiment a second time before the sun gets too hot and the laboratory that has been Earth shifts to the fourth rock away from the sun or farther away.
And I am seeing all of this and, it is sad to say it, but it seems to me that history might indeed be ending. And if climate change tips us in to a desert world, and it does this in less than a thousand years, maybe even in a hundred years, instead of a billion years, well it is our fault. But you know blame is pretty useless. So what was the end result of the experiment, you know? Some would say that the purpose of the experiment, of having life on this planet, was to lift off consciousness, to transcend the corporeal realm, and to start working consciousness through various dimensions. And for the past many decades, that is what we have been doing. Albert Hoffman discovered LSD, about the end of the 1940’s. We had Gordon Wasson going down to meet with the Curanderos in Mexico in the 50's. You had a lot of people who were beginning this exploration, and in fact that number has been expanding every year. And time is now getting very short. And you have to wonder whether we are going to make it to the finish line in time. That is the race I see underway, and who knows how it is going to come out?
But I think whoever is engaged in this exploration is doing the heavy lifting for all life on earth at this point. It is absolutely essential work, and it is much more important than sending rockets to Mars or building fusion reactors. Consciousness is the most important field of scientific endeavor in which we can possibly engage right now. And you know, at the same time I have to say that I think the age of science may soon be ending and giving way to an age of art and that it will be artists, not scientists, who save us.
This is the part I got into when I started thinking about this change that is happening now with peak oil. Peak oil is kind of the leading edge of this change that is about to transpire on this planet. The leading edge because we are getting to the plateau point or the point where we cannot produce any more than we produce right at this instant; about 85 million barrels per day. As we start to decline, we begin to go down each year, and that means that the economy, as it were, contracts.
The human population has to scale back a bit and the food supply is holding also if we are not going to have the same ability to produce, and so our economies begin to shrink a bit, which means also that we are not going to be able to take care of a lot of the problems that we created when we had these huge sprawling civilization problems; problems like nuclear waste and toxic time bombs of various kinds, genes that are loose in the cornfields of Mexico or the same in fisheries of the Atlantic and so forth. So we are having to think about what is it going to be like in a lower energy future and we regress back to, you know, before Colonel Drake discovered oil in the 19th century, or do we go back and stop somewhere sooner, or do we have some kind of technological future that is based on lower energy or solar energy, and exactly how does that all play out? And I began to see that really, the future has to be one of less consumption, and if you start talking about less consumption, you have to think about less production, OK?
And so consumption and production are pretty much two sides of the same coin. You have to do with less of both, and what is a lifestyle that is less productive? It is like people need to have this kind of drive, this need to produce? And they don’t feel worth anything unless they are producing something? And so, what do you do that is not actually producing things, that is not actually taking resources from the earth and putting them into one-time uses and then disposing of them and get rid of that whole paradigm?
And I came around to a vision of a civilizaton where there are artists, there are dancers, there are musicians, there are surfers. OK, surfers is a metaphor, let’s think about that, because here we are coming up on this big wave now out there, and here we are standing with our surfboard, and it is all waxed and ready. Surfers, if they have a good day, then what do they produce? Well, they produce a suntan; they have a really good rawhide, but what does that action? Well, maybe it produces some serotonin; maybe it makes them feel good. And they could do worse. And then they have to go figure out, "Well, how do we get some food and shelter and whatever else we need so that we can be ready to surf on the waves when they are up again?" And so they flip a few burgers and they sand some surfboards, and then they are ready when the waves are right. And I think that that is actually doable too.
I mean, people worry, "How are we going to have enough food, and how are we going to have enough water?" But, you know, there are civilizations... If you go back in history, the Incas lived with the ability to produce all of the food and shelter and other needs that they had in sixty-five days every year. And that left them three hundred days left over, after the basics were covered. And they were actually living in a fairly harsh climate. And the idea that somehow we can’t do as well as the Incas and produce everything we need in sixty-five days per year... Well, the Incas also realized that they can’t just party for three hundred days. They needed to have some productive activity. Otherwise people would become idle and become unhappy, and so they created the Mit’a system; the idea of public works, and they built these twelve foot wide stone roads that went for tens of thousands of miles, and they built terraces on the sides of steep hills where they carried soils up from the river banks and put them in and grew corn up to ten thousand feet in altitude and those kind of things. They had fantastic clothes and beautiful art, and so really, that is where they could excel.
The Incas had a certain thing going; they had good things and they had bad things about their society. They only lasted about hundred years as a culture, but that was largely because of the Spanish conquest that happened at an unfortunate time in their history. But they had, on the good side of the ledger, an appreciation for unusual occurrences; different kinds of diversity. Such as, if they had people who were developmentally challenged or otherwise deformed at birth, they could find ways to honor and employ and respect those different characteristics and integrate those people into the society which is unusual for the civilizations in that period. And you also found that they would, through their respect of genetic variation, be able to develop things like the twelve rowed corn, or various different soft fabrics, such as alpaca wool. And that they could grow two hundred different varieties of potato. So by a kind of respect, being able to manage what they had, they were able to develop a civilization that really had it pretty knocked. I mean they had their bases covered. And then they could go all around and say, "OK, beyond that, what is it that we can do to improve things?” And that civilization, the Inca civilization, still exists in a kind of vestigial form in Peru. You have the Quechua language still being spoken there.
KMO: Is the character of our current civilization capable of even accepting a lifestyle that includes a lot of free time and a lot of room for self-expression and activities that are not necessarily considered 'labor'?
Albert: I think one of the major problems that we face is that we have this set of expectations that are part of our education; part of our development as individuals when we’re young. And it comes from our heritage which is out of the kind of war-like evolutionary process over the course of many centuries, and we see the need to be somehow striving constantly through achievement in some way, shape or form, and I think that that’s one of the big problems that we have as a society. It is why we are having the issues that we are having, like climate change, because we are overextended. We are overextended on our resources.
Our demands on Gaia have greatly exceeded what Gaia’s capabilities are, and I think that we have to change that need. We need to shift. We need to go to a much less consumptive, but also easy-going society, and I think that it is probably going to happen through education of children more than any other way. Although we need to also think about how adults can change. What are the ways we change adult thinking? And I think arts are one of ways that we do that, but I think that also the change may not happen fast enough if we wait generationally, to make the shifts that we need to make.
One of the major changes that has to happen has to do with the population, we have religious and cultural boundaries that we placed on large families. You know, we say, OK, we should have people; lots of religions, why should we have more kids and prohibit birth control and so forth, and what we find is we get in this situation now where we are exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet, with this sudden explosion in the last few hundred years of up to six and a half billion of us now, heading on its way to nine billion. It is pretty hard to stop that. And the question is how do we bring that down? What’s the process by which we can bring our population down?
I think, as we go through this crisis in coming years and have to shift to an agricultural economy, in some ways, that event gets harder because people will think of feeding their kids in order to help them grow more food and to care for them in their old age. And that sort of thing, which is traditional in a farming economy, it’s an economy that tends to have large families, but we really have to change. We need to figure out ways to make not having kids more fashionable, and to begin to bring the population down by whatever means we can come to, because if we can’t do that in an organized, peaceful way, then nature will take a hand and do it in a way that’s not very pleasant.
KMO: I spoke in a recent show about the possibility of a coming 'Malthusian correction', a big die-off, that, under the technological singularity vision of how our future, our near term future will unfold, can be avoided, either by people being 'uploaded' to some less consumptive medium or by moving out into space, and just using technology to feed people and house people with less of an impact on the planet. But it also seems as though those technologies and the will to employ them might not come in time, and that we might be facing a serious human die-off in the not too distant future. Do you have any thoughts on that topic?
Albert: Sure, in a way. I would recommend, if you have the opportunity, that you invite Albert Bartlett, who is a University of Colorado professor, maybe as a guest on your program. He has a wonderful lecture that he gives, and now he has given it so many times, and it has been videoed a few times and I have downloaded it from YouTube. You can download it in a variety of formats and watch him. I highly recommend his presentation called “the Exponential Function." I think that one of the things that he gives us is an analogy. He is a math teacher, so he is talking to his students, and he is asking them a math question on understanding the exponential function. Imagine that there are a couple of bacteria, and you drop them into an empty jar, and they double every minute, and at the end of a 24-hour period the bottle is completely full. So the question he asks is, "At what point is the bottle half-full?"
And for math students it’s pretty easy. The bottle is half-full at one minute to midnight because in that last minute the bacteria will double again and fill the bottle. So if you go back 2 minutes the bottle is a quarter full, you go back three minutes and the bottle is one eighth full. And then suppose you are a bacteria and you look up at all this open sky above you, and you say, "You know, there is seven eighths of the bottle still open space." So you are not worried, and yet you’ve only got three minutes before that bottle is going to be full, and you do not realize it because of the exponential function.
Well, if you look at the carrying capacity of the planet, and I get World Watch reports, the new current edition of the “State of the World 2007” shows this graph, and we exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, as humans, back in about 1990. So now we are headed to where, you know, we are already overflowing the top of the bottle, and if you are a bacteria, and you see with 2 minutes to go that you are going to need another bottle, and you go out and get another bottle, then at once you are out of the top of the bottle, you only have one more minute before you fill the second bottle, and in another minute you fill two more.
So how are we going to find the planets, where are we going to find the planets to get humans onto fast enough to be able to avoid what’s coming? And I think that you are probably right, that we are probably passed the point. And really what we are facing now is a drastic de-sizing of our human dimension, and it’s going to come in our lifetimes. I think that there are things that can be done about it, and I think that this is about human evolution, about choices and it’s a question of how do people decide to live a different way, and my feeling is that they are drawn to it by attraction. You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, and that people see things in others, they see things in the world, that they emulate for their own life and that they begin to gravitate towards those things. So the idea is to create attractive ways of living that people can embrace and say, “I would like to incorporate that into my personal lifestyle." One of those may be a smaller family.
KMO: You mentioned the bacteria in the bottle reproducing at an exponential rate so that when the bottle is still mostly empty in terms of its volume, in terms of the process of it filling up over time, it is almost finished. Bacteria are not capable of looking at all this empty volume and realizing that, in terms of the amount of time they have left, they are almost done. Human beings and other general intelligences can do that. Right now, humanity is acting like a mass of bacteria; responding unconsciously, automatically, to immediate stimuli, and it seems as though we need to stop acting like bacteria and start acting like sentient agents; which is to say, "Start acting like Humans."
Albert: Yes, I sometimes wonder if humans are smarter than bacteria, and it seems to me that we certainly behave very oddly. You know, one of the things that Albert Bartlett points out is that if you have a 7% growth curve and, in a lot of places they say, "Seven percent; that is a nice return on investment," or "Seven percent is what we’ll figure is going to be the spread of suburbia around some small town," and Bartlett points out that a 7% annual increase means that you double in 10 years. Well let’s flip that over, suppose that the slope from fossil fuels, including coal, is a downward slope at 7%, in other words, we are no longer going to be increasing our consumption gradually every year, but we are actually going to be declining... actually diminishing our supply and therefore diminishing our use every year. That means that, if it was 7%, we would have half our current supply in 10 years and half again as less in another 10 years, so we would have a quarter of what we currently use in 20 years. So imagine that, imagine having 25% as much energy 20 years from now; 25% of the amount of automobile transportation, 25% of the new buildings going up, 25% of long-distance airline flights and other sorts of things like that. I mean, this is a very general way of looking at it, but scaling down, there’s really not a lot out there that’s going to make the leap if this happens fast enough, and actually 7% is not even necessarily as bad as it gets, it could be 16%. It could be 20% down slope.
The reason it was a 2% decline for the United States when we hit this point of peak oil in 1969 and 1970 was that we started importing more so our economy stayed the same and actually continued to grow, whereas our oil supplies, our domestic oil supplies, could gradually decline because we could use less and less of those because we were importing more and more. Well, when the world as a whole hits peak there is no place to import it from.
Albert: I am in the process of moving into an octagon and buying a new bed so I know where you are at.
KMO: You’re moving into an octagon you say, an octagonal house?
Albert: Yes, I am actually. I have been in a kind of a split living scene here where I am in a small straw bale cabin in the wintertime when I need to stay warm, and I am in a canvas-sided yurt in the summertime. And after fifteen years of living here in this canvas-sided yurt, the canvas has pretty much given it up, and I was kind of like living under FEMA tarps over the top of the canvas, and so it is time to make a change, and all we did was, we went to the local Amish sawmill and got a bunch of cedar and built an octagon on the yurt platform and I put it up two stories with a nice balcony but I am going to need to refurnish it now so that is why I’m kind of out there shopping around to see what it is I am going to need for this new building.
KMO: Well Albert, we have a great many things to talk about but really not all that much time in which to talk about them, and your next interview starts in just over fifteen minutes, so I would like to wrap things up for the time being, but I would like to visit you on the Farm and continue these conversations, and do that shortly after tax time if that is possible.
Albert: Sure, let’s just call this "Hello," and the next stage will be to get to know each other even better.
KMO: Well, Albert Bates, it has been a delight talking to you and I thank you again for joining us here on the C-Realm podcast.
Albert: Thank you, KMO, and all you C-Realm listeners out there, keep the faith!
I did visit Albert Bates on the Farm, and you can hear the conversations that I recorded on that visit in episodes 31 and 32 of the C-Realm Podcast.