Category Archives: The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible

This is a Wake Up Call

The Covid-19 crisis is a wakeup call. It is a literally once in a lifetime opportunity for every single person in the world to stop and question the status quo.

This crisis has shown everyone that real, meaningful change is possible. Governments around the world are issuing Universal Basic Income to their citizens during this crisis. The US 2.2 trillion stimulus measure is the largest federal response in history. Things we were long told were impossible are now simply reality. Now that this is undeniable, it is up to each and every one of us to make meaningful change.

All human institutions are simply stories. In other words, every human social institution is real only because a group of people agree that it is real – a social construct if you will.

An easy example to point to are nations. Despite being the global hegemon and the most powerful country in the world right now, the United States of America did not exist 300 years ago. Looking at a map, it seems so substantial, but in a very real sense the border between the U.S. and Canada does not exist. A black bear has no idea that it is passing from one country to another when it crosses our invisible line. To that bear there is simply the land, regardless of whatever stories we humans tell ourselves about it. America is a story that enough of us hold in common, and for that reason, and for that reason alone, it exists.

For just about all of us, we live almost entirely inside of these social constructs. Property is a story. Money is a story. Religions are stories. Political ideologies are stories. Culture is a story. We live in a world that is built out of stories. What makes stories like these so powerful is that few recognize them as stories. Most of us take them to be as real as gravity. It of course makes complete sense to think of them as real, because they are. But they are only conditionally real. Their reality rests on the agreement, the belief, of enough people.

This belief is implanted in us as young children and then continually reinforced as we grow older. Social science refers to this process as enculturation and/or socialization. It is through enculturation that societies keep themselves alive. Human cultures maintain continuity and perpetuate themselves as each generation passes on its stories to the succeeding generation. Thus we inherit the bulk of our stories – our agreements – from those that have come before us. It is through this process that we are taught how to see the world, our worldview. We are taught right and wrong, what is and what is not acceptable behavior in our society. It is through this process that we are taught the shape of the world.

    Many of the things we are taught are ultimately arbitrary; learning English instead of Spanish for example. Others are just plain incorrect. I believe that is the responsibility of each of us to critically examine the beliefs we were raised with, and see if they are true and worthwhile. It’s not your fault if you were born to a racist household and raised with racist beliefs, but it is your responsibility as a moral adult to challenge that belief in yourself.

It has long been my position and message that the current social institutions of the world have not been serving us for a long time and need to be changed. By us I mean all of us. Every single person on this planet. The few benefitting at the expense of the many is not in service to all.

The beauty of this is that our institutions are ultimately arbitrary and thus are able to be changed. All it takes is the breaking of old agreements, and the creation of new ones.

The Covid-19 crisis is just one of many facing us as a species. What makes it special is that it’s sudden, highly visible, and can affect anyone and everyone (most notably the rich and powerful). This is in contrast to the many other crises facing us, which are much slower moving, less visible, and disproportionately affect the poor and other marginalized peoples.

Let’s look at world hunger. Around the world, 821 million people do not have enough of the food they need to live an active, healthy life. One in every nine people goes to bed hungry each night, including 20 million people currently at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. About 9 million people die of hunger every year – that’s 25,000 a day. At the time of this writing, I would be very surprised if the death count of Covid-19 will reach that high.

The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food in the world – there is – the problem is that it is not worth it to those that have the food to give it to those who don’t. Put another way, 821 million people go hungry and 9 million of them die each year because the rest of us don’t care enough that they do. This is a systemic issue. A feature – not a bug – of capitalism. As long as we continue to practice global capitalism the way we have been, this will continue to happen.

To bring it closer to home, Covid-19 is highlighting other crises here in America. Many people are predicting domestic violence to spike because of quarantine. Our response to this crisis as a country was incredibly impaired due to the polarization of our social discourse – half of the country can’t talk to the other half (I examine this in detail in my last post). Even before Covid, America was in the midst of several “epidemics,” including obesity, opioid abuse, and child hunger. Our population is not a healthy one, despite our spending more money per capita on healthcare than any other country by a good bit. Perhaps the largest pre-existing crisis that Covid is both highlighting and exacerbating is economic inequality.

Per the American Payroll Association and the National Endowment for Financial Education, 74% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. In the wealthiest nation in the world. Examining the causes of economic inequality is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that they are systemic, and not just people making bad decisions. With many businesses closed due to quarantining, many people have lost their jobs and will run out of money. America’s social safety net is minimal compared to most other developed nations, and will be stretched to the ends of its ropes by this crisis. I will state, without making the case for it, that economic inequality is another feature, and not a bug, of capitalism. Furthermore, people living in poverty are much more likely to have already had health issues, and thus Covid-19 will be much more severe and deadly among the poor.

There are too many existential crises facing us as a species to go into them all, climate change, AI, ocean warming and acidification, and ecosystem loss being just a few of them. These, as the ones we explored above, are all consequences of what has up until now been the norm. Normal, our system of relating to each other globally known as capitalism, is the problem. And these crises, when they hit fully, will be far, far worse than Covid.

Luckily capitalism, like all our other social constructs, is not a fact of life but simply one out of many possible ways we could relate to each other. It is a choice. We can choose other possibilities. It is this knowledge, that we don’t have to accept the status quo, that we do have a choice, that I hope I get across in this post.

But it is we, the ordinary people, the 99%, who must make this choice. Real, meaningful change will not come from our so-called leaders. Our current leaders are in the position they are in because they have sought power and attained it, and it is this self-same pursuit of power that created the mess we now find ourselves in. Those in power will make only the bare minimum concessions to the rest of us, just enough to prevent outright revolt, while making no real changes to the underlying system that is the cause of all the symptoms.

The truth is, those in power are in power only because the rest of us agree that they are. The French Revolution, and the many revolutions that followed it, proved once and for all that the true power lies in the people. It is they who need us, not us who need them. They have gotten very good at tricking from us our agreement, but that is only because they need it so badly.

As Charles Eisenstein often points out, none of the challenges and crises facing us are technically difficult. We have all of the knowledge and technology that we need to solve them. What we lack is the political will. The system, and those that rise to the top of it, have failed us.

So, what are our alternatives? I will offer two different ones. One that I consider idealistic, and one that I consider realistic.

Idealistic:

We collectively realize that we are all equal members of one human family. It is globally agreed upon that every human being deserves to have their basic needs met. This, and repairing the damage we’ve done to the environment, become the priorities of the world. This could look like:

  • Universal basic income for all humans on the planet
  • Universal healthcare for all humans on the planet
  • A wealth cap. Say $10M
  • An income cap. Say $1M/yr.
  • Removing fossil fuels from global supply chains as quickly as possible
    • This would entail massive relocalization, which is great for the environment and human well being (it restores the basis of community, which is just about destroyed here in America)
    • Eventually switching to a closed loop resource cycle.
  • Remove the economic necessity of growth by switching from our current debt-based money system to an alternative model, perhaps demurrage.
  • The global economy becomes centered on meeting the needs of each human, and preserving and restoring the environment.

As I said, idealistic.

Realistic:

The above does not happen. Not enough people are willing to challenge the status quo. Instead, we get disaster capitalism. The rich get richer, the poor die or get poorer. Covid-19 is used as the reason to increase totalitarian measures – increased surveillance, mandatory vaccinations, etc.

However, even though there isn’t a sufficient critical mass of people willing to challenge the status quo, this crisis is the final straw for some people. These people realize that the system is irredeemably broken, and start to look for alternatives to it. They realize the system is based on power-over dynamics and built on taking advantage of the weak. No longer wanting to contribute to it, they realize that if you’re not meeting your own needs yourself or locally, then you are dependent on and contributing to the system. There’s a new Back to the Land movement as more and more people reclaim their personal sovereignty by growing their own food. They realize that there is no freedom without food security.

These people realize that to directly fight the system is to lose. The only way to win is to not play the old game. They see the truth of Buckminster Fuller when he said, “In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” As the old system and its stories fall apart, these people will be the seeds of what is to come.

Normal was not serving us. Rather than seek to return to it, let’s instead create The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.

Meat is Not Killing the Planet

World-destroying beasts

Industrial Agriculture is.

Meat is, of course, produced by industrial agriculture (IA), and the meat thus produced – IA meat – is absolutely bad for the planet and for the health of those consuming it. IA meat makes up almost all of the meat that is produced today, and thus it is very understandable that meat in general seems terrible for the environment – most people don’t realize that there is meat that isn’t produced by IA.

It is very important to recognize, however, that plant-based IA is also terrible for the planet. This often goes unacknowledged by those advocating for vegan and vegetarian diets.

Before going into the details of these distinctions, I want to acknowledge the truth – to the extent that they are true – of the many articles and studies that claim that meat is terrible for the planet. The meat available in grocery stores (IA meat) is terrible for the planet, period. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) are hell-holes of animal cruelty and disease, as are IA slaughterhouses. IA beef, as an example, takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. IA figured out that chickens would eat their own shit if it was mixed with enough molasses and salt. IA meat is absolutely worse for the planet than IA plant-based foods. In South America they are cutting/burning down the Amazon to make room for more pasture for cattle. These things acknowledged, let’s now examine how these facts don’t tell the whole story.

The primary misleading assumption is that IA is taken as a given. Given the choice between IA meat and IA plant-based foods, the choice is clear: IA plant-based foods are more humane and better for the planet. But this is a false dichotomy. IA plant-based foods are still inhumane, terrible for the planet, and terrible for people’s health. IA plant-based foods are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and IA plant agriculture is unsustainable.

So it is not meat production and consumption in and of itself that is harmful but instead the constellation of bad practices that comprise industrial agriculture. Let’s now dig into how exactly IA plant-based foods are problematic:

Energy Consumption

IA is highly reliant on fossil fuels across the entirety of its supply chain. In the US, 15-20 Calories of energy are spent to produce one Calorie of food.

Large amounts of  fossil fuel are required to power heavy farming machinery, to process foods, to refrigerate foods during transportation, to produce packaging materials, and to manufacture and transport chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers containing nitrogen are particularly fossil-fuel-intensive; production and transport of 1 lb of nitrogen releases an average of 3.7 lbs of CO 2 into the atmosphere.

A tremendous amount of energy is also used to transport our food. As a result of the development of centralized industrial agricultural operations and the corresponding disappearance of local family farms, food is now shipped extraordinarily long distances before it reaches your dinner plate. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, food and agricultural products (not including imported or exported foods) are transported 566 billion ton-miles within U.S. borders each year, constituting more than 20% of total U.S. commodity transport. In 1969, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that, on average, food traveled 1,346 miles. Another study conducted in 1980 determined that fresh produce traveled 1,500 miles!

Furthermore, an increasing quantity of food is now being transported internationally; in 1998, a total of 172 million tons of food were shipped into and out of the U.S.10 In 2001, the U.S. imported 39% of all fruits, 12% of vegetables, 40% of lamb, and 78% of fish and shellfish. This excessive and unnecessary food transportation requires the consumption of large quantities of fossil fuel, thus polluting the environment and damaging human health. Lengthy food transport also generates additional energy expenditures by creating the need for increased food packaging, processing, and refrigeration.

Fossil Fuels and Agriculture

If we recognize that we have to cease all carbon emissions, relying on an agricultural system that depends on fossil fuels is insane.

Monoculture and artificial fertilizer

IA plant-based foods are essentially synonymous with monoculture. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. Think endless rows of corn, soybeans, and wheat. This is obviously not a natural state, and there are many problematic consequences of practicing it.

First, to create cropland one must destroy an ecosystem. Instead of a forest or a prairie, there is now a field. Instead of many birds, animals, and plants, there is now one. Monoculture is the exact opposite of diversity, and diversity is necessary for a healthy environment. There’s a lot of death and destruction that goes into creating cropland.

Monoculture breaks the cycle of life. Simplified: the soil feeds the plants, the plants feed the animals, and the animals feed the soil. Growing for market entails taking from the soil – from the land – and not giving back to it (because it’s shipped far away). This is unsustainable. In order to grow, plants require nutrients. The big three are nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus. When plants are grown and harvested, the nutrients are taken from the soil, which then has fewer nutrients for the next crop. Continue this for too long and the soil becomes barren – it will no longer grow crops. To rejuvenate the soil, nutrients must be added back to it – this is what we call fertilizer. Non-monocultured soil is fertilized by dead plants and animals, and animal feces. Monocultured soil misses out on most of these inputs.

Back in the early twentieth century we were starting to run out of nutrients in our soils, which was resulting in diminishing crop yields. This problem was overcome (at least for the time), with the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed us to “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere, at the expense of immense heat and pressure fueled by natural gas. The Haber-Bosch process was discovered as the result of a multi-year, focused, competitive effort responding to the widespread fear of food scarcity.

The Haber-Bosch process has dramatically changed the face of agriculture and with it the face of our planet. The introduction of nitrogenous fertilizers and their increasing application had a dramatic impact on grain yields. Together with new high yielding, short-stalked varieties and chemical protection, yields of wheat and rice worldwide eventually tripled and quadrupled during the 20th century (Smil 2011). The availability of these fertilizers also opened the door for farms to move away from the proven and millennia-old system of cycling and re-cycling nutrients and organic matter in each farm. Diversified farms growing crops for humans, soil-building crops for livestock where the manure was applied back onto the land had been the norm. Now it suddenly became possible to look at a farm in a much more linear way, importing plant nutrients and exporting crops. Industrial monocultures began to take over. Farms moved away from being diversified and multi-dimensional and the `modern’ corn-soybean crop farm took over. Also the disconnecting of animal husbandry from the land and from crop growing set the stage for the so-called CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). What used to be the perfect “marriage” between cropping and livestock turned into two serious problems, the need to import expensive fertilizer into farms and the necessity to dispose of animal manure. A much-valued resource, `black gold’ has suddenly become a waste disposal problem (Pollan 2006, Montgomery 2007, Hager 2008). Haber-Bosch also made possible the `Green Revolution’, which transformed agriculture during the mid 1900’s in many so-called developing countries. This massive technology transfer of a more industrial style agriculture rested on the availability and application of nitrogen fertilizer.

The increased yields worldwide supported the rapidly expanding global population, which grew by 5 billion between 1900 and 2000. The number of humans supported per hectare of arable land has increased from 1.9 to 4.3 persons from 1908 to 2008 (Zmaczynski 2012). Today our world food supply has become very dependent on anthropogenic nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers supply just over half of the need of our world’s crops (Smil 2011).

Without this industrial nitrogen our soils today simply could not grow enough food to provide for our current dietary needs. While this fact might be a reason to celebrate, it does come at a higher and higher price. The increasing application of soluble nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides into soils and environment brings with it serious ecological challenges in the form of emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as ground water contamination and surface water eutrophication (Smil 2001, Smil 2011, Charles 2013). The well-documented `dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea have gained infamous notoriety, among countless other examples. Additionally, industrial agriculture and the `Green Revolution’ have had other dramatic negative, unforeseen and unintended consequences. Socio-economically, with the advent of industrial agriculture came the disruption and weakening of traditional farming systems and the communities and local economies they were embedded in (Berry 1986, Shiva 1991). The significance of Haber-Bosch in our current world can hardly be overstated.

The Haber-Bosch Process

The energy and hydrogen required to power the Haber-Bosch process are provided by fossil fuels, which are of course problematic and unsustainable.

The Haber process now produces 450 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. The Haber process consumed 3–5% of the world’s natural-gas production (around 1–2% of the world’s energy supply). The Haber–Bosch process is one of the largest contributors to a buildup of reactive nitrogen in the biosphere, causing an anthropogenic disruption to the nitrogen cycle. Since nitrogen use efficiency is typically less than 50%, farm runoff from heavy use of fixed industrial nitrogen disrupts biological habitats. Nearly 50% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber–Bosch process.

Wikipedia

Pesticides

Monocultures are also vastly more susceptible to diseases and pests than polycultures are. Thus they require herbicides like Bayer’s RoundUp (glyphosate), fungicides, and pesticides. These are toxic, and end up in the soil and water harming humans and other life.

GMO

You might be thinking that you can avoid the above issues by buying non-GMO organic. You’d be partially correct, as non-GMO organic is less problematic. It’s still however quite problematic. Most of the issues with monoculture still pertain to organic plant-based foods. Large amounts of fossil fuels are still required to grow, preserve, and transport it.

Organic farming, as it is practiced now in the U.S, is largely reliant on the very synthetic fertilizers and the confined animal feeding operations that it prohibits. The link in this reliance is animal manure and the key nutrient is [once again] nitrogen.

http://csanr.wsu.edu/organic-ag-synthetic-nitrogen/

The exception to this is of course if you buy from local farmers whose methods you trust. But how many people buy exclusively from local farmers? And even then they are still using fossil fuels, as we all are. And as the above link points out, pretty much any farmer growing for market benefits from synthetic nitrogen fixing.

Water

IA plant based agriculture also draws heavily on water resources. The reason California has droughts and water issues is the same reason as why the Ogallala aquifer that feeds America’s breadbasket is running out: IA agriculture uses more water than is sustainable. Addressing water scarcity would take an entire blog post on its own, but is a huge deal, and IA is a huge contributor to it.

In short, IA plant-based foods are neither healthy nor sustainable. When articles tell you to stop eating meat, this is what they want you to support instead.

Non-Industrial Agriculture

And believe it or not, there are viable sources of healthy meat. In fact, when done properly animal husbandry is good for the planet. I’ll even take it one step further and say that responsible animal husbandry is actually crucial to the future of agriculture.

Cows

Let’s start by talking about cows. Cows and beef get a lot of bad press, for example, the statistic I quoted above that it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. The argument goes that this grain could instead go to feeding people directly. Ignoring the fact that no human would want to eat the grain that gets fed to cows, let’s instead talk about how cows shouldn’t be eating grain in the first place. They should only be eating what they evolved to eat, which is motherfuckin’ grass.

Cows are incredible. They are renewable solar energy sources. They turn sunlight into beef and dairy. Grass, unlike monocultures, requires very little management. Now you might say here, plants turn sunlight into food even more efficiently. You are of course correct, but you might not be aware that pasture is not the same as cropland.

Pasture =/= Cropland

Intact grasslands inhabited by herds of large herbivores have a tremendous capacity to sequester carbon in the soil. Data in terms of tons of carbon per hectare is hard to pinpoint because estimates obtained through measurement and modeling vary by several orders of magnitude, depending on geological conditions, rainfall, types of grasses and whether they are cut, and the presence or absence of herd animals (whether wild or domesticated livestock). Furthermore, sequestered carbon can remain in the soil for varying lengths of time. Some carbon-containing soil organic matter decomposes in a year or two, much of it remains in the soil for a few decades, and some isn’t recycled back into the atmosphere for thousands of years (if ever). The ten-foot-thick topsoil of the American Midwest (much eroded today) testifies to the ability of grasslands to store carbon underground.

The highest carbon storage comes from native grass mixes occupied by large, roaming herds of herbivores. Sadly, 97 percent of the original North American highgrass prairie has been converted to cropland, suburbs, and sown pasture. Originally covering 70 million hectares, its carbon-regulating capacity was enormous. Judging by the data, albeit sparse, coming from management-intensive grazing practices that seek to replicate natural herbivore grazing behavior, it is conceivable that highgrass prairie could sequester 8–20 tons of carbon per hectare per year. Today, instead, most of this land is a carbon emitter, because it is cultivated for crops. Plow-based cultivation that exposes bare soil to the air, water, and wind makes its organic matter (carbon) available for oxidation. A similar story has transpired in the steppes of Asia, the veldts of Africa, the pampas of South America, and so on. According to the FAO, up to a third of global grassland has already been degraded. What could be a carbon sink is becoming an emissions source.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate, A New Story

Furthermore, not all soil is the same, and there is plenty of soil that is unsuitable for growing crops yet grows grass well. Thus, done properly, cow pasture does not compete with cropland, and expands the amount of land that is able to contribute to human food.

As mentioned above, large ruminants (i.e. cows, bison, etc.) play a crucial role in healthy grasslands. Their main contribution is their heavy hoofprint which presses grasses down into the soil, thus sequestering carbon, but their poop also contributes. What makes a ruminant a ruminant is that they have four stomachs that allow them to ferment grass inside themselves, growing bacteria, which is what actually provides them nutrition and energy.

Rumens are meant to digest leafy plant matter. In the case of cows, mostly grass. Their stomachs are not meant to digest grain, nor do they handle it well. Thus, it makes little sense to be feeding cows grain. IA does it because it causes them to gain weight faster, with higher fat content, at the expense of their health.

As large ruminants, cows in particular have a huge roll to play in regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is practicing agriculture in such a way that it is not only sustainable, but actually regenerates the land upon which it is practiced. An example would be reclaiming the land now used for cropland in the American high plains and restoring it to prairie. This would stop the carbon emissions that cropland causes, and start to once again sequester carbon. Since the American Bison was hunted close to extinction to remove it as a food source for Native Americans by colonizers, cows will be very helpful in restoring the prairie. Cows are also incredibly useful for building soil and soil health in any grassland setting when managed properly. Pastures sequester more carbon than do forests.

Carbon sequestration is important for more than just fighting climate change, it also makes for better, healthier soil. In the soil, carbon is commonly referred to as ‘organic matter content’ and is one of the primary things that determines how healthy soil is. This is because carbon enters the soil in the form of plant matter, which then becomes food for the bacteria and insects that make soil alive. Soil with high organic matter content can also absorb much more water during rainfall, making less runoff and therefore less soil erosion.

Pigs and Chickens

The main two other meats that we eat are pork and chicken. IA pork and chicken are way worse in pretty much every way than IA beef. Given the choice between IA pork and chicken and IA beef, I’d choose IA beef every time, both in terms of my own health and that of the planet.

Outside of IA, however, both pigs and chickens have valuable contributions to make to a holistically managed farm. Pigs turn compost into bacon and lard, and chickens remove insect pests and produce eggs and meat. Pigs also can provide value by working the land. Look up Joel Salatin for more information. They can be raised in a way that is beneficial for the land, and provide valuable nutrition.

Done properly, animal husbandry is much more labor efficient than plant-based agriculture in terms of calories and nutrition produced (Outside of IA. Of course it’s more labor efficient in terms of man-hours to have fossil fuels do all the work). I don’t know how many people have ever tried to completely feed themselves out of a garden, but gardening is long and hard work. Properly managed animals require a lot less time.

Conclusion

If you actually care about the planet, the thing to do is stop supporting the Industrial Agriculture system. This, however, is harder than it sounds. It pretty much means that you stop buying food in the grocery store. And since that’s where pretty much everyone gets their food, it’s a tall order.

However it’s easier and easier to support local, regenerative agriculture. There are CSA’s (community supported agriculture) all over the place, likely near you. Most metropolitan areas will also have access to a butcher that sources local, healthy meat.

One way or another, at some point we will no longer use natural gas to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. We might stop when we realize that burning fossil fuels is no longer tenable. At the very least we’ll stop when we run out of natural gas at some point in the future. By being dependent on a non-renewable resource, the Haber-Bosch process is by definition unsustainable. A sustainable agricultural system will need animals, especially cows, to maintain soil fertility.

Support holistic/regenerative local farmers!

Energy Price Tag

An idea for a new law: next to every normal price tag must be an “Energy Price Tag” that tells you how much energy was spent to get that item/service to where it is – in other words its cost in terms of energy.

First, a brief digression into what I mean by energy. In this post when I refer to energy I will mean in the physical sense, i.e. as defined by science/physics. Energy is the ability to do work. There are a large number of units that all measure energy. The SI unit for energy is the joule. Energy is also given in terms of: BTUs, kWh, calories, and other units.

Why would we want to do this?

Because it would raise awareness around energy consumption. Most people have no idea how much energy it takes for our economy to function as it currently does, and this would make it far more transparent. It would make it much easier for people to factor in environmental costs to their purchasing decisions.

For example, pre-industrial agriculture was an energetically positive endeavor. What I mean by this is that more energy was gained by eating the food than was spent to grow it. This is not the case for modern industrial agriculture, which is completely reliant on fossil fuels. Now on average 12-15 Calories of energy from fossil fuels are spent to create one Calorie of food. This results in a huge net energy loss.

How would this work in practice?

Businesses at each step of the supply chain would be responsible for monitoring and reporting the energy that goes into their process/product. It would be the energetic equivalent of a value added tax – without the tax.

There would of necessity be some sort of compliance enforcement. Perhaps the IRS could be expanded to include energy monitoring, or there could be independent firms that do the same thing, like accounting firms today.

Once the system was in place, it would be simple for the last step in the supply chain to add up the energy cost of the previous steps, add their energy cost to it, and then display it for their customers.

What would the difficulties of implementing this system be?

Most of the difficulty in implementing this new law would be in getting the necessary systems to do so up and running. A standard would have to be created and agreed upon, and then some kind of monitoring agency would have to be created. Businesses would have to implement new processes to determine and then monitor their energy usage.

Because monitoring and reporting energy use would be an added burden on corporations, they will be opposed to doing so. Corporations will almost certainly lobby against this, should this idea ever make it into potential law.

The biggest difficulty would be that this would have to happen world-wide. Because supply chains are so globalized, instituting this law in just one country wouldn’t work. However, it would really only take a handful of the largest economies to insist on this rule for it to be implemented.

What might the consequences of implementing this system be?

Hopefully, and especially if this effort is accompanied by an educational campaign, consumers would display some amount of preference for lower energy cost goods and services. For a (made up) example, if a bottle of Coke and Pepsi cost the same amount of money, but it takes twice as much energy to create that bottle of Coke than that of Pepsi, some amount of people might decide to purchase the Pepsi on the basis of its lower Energy Price Tag (EPT). All other things being equal, I imagine that most people would chose the energetically cheaper option. I can even see people being willing to pay more money for a product with a significantly lower EPT.

If the above bears out, this could have all kinds of eco-friendly effects. Companies might start advertising that their product is energetically cheaper than their competitors’. Companies would be incentivized to be more energy efficient. Local goods would almost always be energetically cheaper than foreign goods, and thus there would be some amount of incentive to shop local which is good both ecologically and socially. New machinery would almost always be more energy expensive than repairing old machinery, and thus EPT might help combat planned obsolescence.

Other considerations

I glossed over it earlier, but coming up with standards to properly measure energy usage and then allocate it appropriately among goods and services will not always be easy and in some cases could be incredibly difficult. For example, how would one allocate the energy spent researching a new pharmaceutical over the pills it leads to? This might require two separate EPTs, one covering the manufacture and transport of those individual pills and another noting the net research energy cost. However, I think the time and energy it takes to do so will be well worth it.

In my initial conception of this idea, I think it would be best to only measure and account for non-biological sources of energy (fossils fuels not being considered biological). Thus fossil fuels, wind, solar, geothermal, etc. would all factor into EPT, while human and animal physical labor would not. An exception to this would be biofuels such as ethanol. The EPT of biofuels would only measure the energy that went into growing them, not the energy that they captured from the sun.

Determining the EPT of energy itself would be another interesting case. Perhaps noting that energy source’s EROI (energy return on energy invested) would be sufficient. Dividing the amount of energy you use from a given source by its EROI would give the EPT of that amount of energy.

It is also worth keeping in mind what EPT would leave out. EPT would not measure ecosystem degradation or destruction. EPT would not account for socially disruptive practices. EPT would not measure humans rights abuses such as sweatshops, and perversely would actually incentivize them. Perhaps this could be addressed by requiring sweatshop use disclosure in products.

I’m sure there of many considerations I haven’t thought of, and would love to hear from you if you think of one.

THE MORE BEAUTIFUL WORLD OUR HEARTS KNOW IS POSSIBLE

This post (and the sub-title of this blog) shares a title with the book of the same name by Charles Eisenstein. I first encountered these words in another book of his, The Ascent of Humanity, and immediately loved them. If you are at all interested in the themes of this blog, I cannot recommend these books, and Eisenstein in general, enough.

This term, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, is his. And I am unabashedly hopping on its bandwagon. He has written quite a bit about what it means to him, and I have found his doing so to be inspiring, enlightening, and affirming. So much so that I want to share what it means to me.

At its simplest level, it is my knowledge that the world could be a so much better place than it is. If we were so motivated, we have the capability to completely reinvent the human condition as it is now as well as heal the biosphere. Almost all of the problems facing the world today are human caused. Can we even begin to imagine what the world might be like if we stopped causing them? Or began to instead seek to make life as amazing as possible for each other? I have a hint of an intuition, but I know the realization of this possibility is so incredible that I cannot begin to grasp what it might look like.

The world is the way it now for very good reasons, and in no way am I suggesting that we abandon our hard won gifts of hand and mind. What I am saying is that if we take an honest look around us we find that there are many large problems facing us that are only getting worse. What has worked for us ever since the advent of agriculture is no longer helping us, it is hurting us and our planet.

For me at least, whenever I witness injustice or hear about some avoidable tragedy, I can’t help but think there could be another way. A better way. A more beautiful way. That is what Eisenstein’s phrase means to me: there is a better way than what we are currently collectively doing. And I want to do everything I can to help bring this more beautiful world into being.

This is not just about feeding the hungry and saving the rainforest, it is also about restoring our happiness. I think we all feel it, a nagging sense that life is supposed to be more than what is offered to us. We all have those rare moments when the humdrumness of life stops for a bit and we experience a pure joy just for being alive. But for me at least, those moments don’t come that often. But I think they could.

What I have found is the structure of our socioeconomic systems actively works against my more noble aspirations. It makes me more self-centered, and more afraid that I won’t be able to get by or be happy.

When we submit to lesser lives, we cannot avoid a sense of self betrayal: that we are complicit in the plunder of our most precious possession. The roles society offers do not befit the divine beings that we are. It is not merely that a career as a retail clerk is beneath my dignity; it is beneath anyone’s dignity.

-Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

While I have no idea what shape it will take, I KNOW, to the core of my being, that there exists a world in which no one has to wash dishes for 8 hours a day, or cut down rainforest to provide for their family, or have children starving to death daily.

There exists a world that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, rooted in the knowledge that we are connected to all things, and what we do to others and the planet we also do unto ourselves. That humans – all of us – are meant for so much more than just to get by and survive.

So I ask you: what do you think would make the world a more beautiful place? And what are you doing to make that a reality?