Regeneration The Art of Sustainable Living

Meetings with fascinating ecological Regenerators. Grounded sustainable thinking and commentary from a Permaculture perspective.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Valuing Life-Support Systems

Valuing our Life-Support Systems.
... illusory gains in income and permanent losses of wealth
By : Claude William Genest

Could you survive for the next two years on 5 million U.S. per year ? Surely that would buy you all the essentials, right ?

Before answering, consider the plight of the 20 “Biospherians” and their 200 million dollar Biosphere II greenhouse in the Arizona desert - the team of top flight scientists were to spend two years in a glass enclosed reproduction of earth’s varied ecosystems. You likely recall the fanfare of them entering, but probably didn’t hear about them exiting. The team had to leave early because they radically underestimated the role played by soil microorganisms in creating and maintaining the atmosphere. As a result, the fragile eco-systems were in chaos and the team members, literally suffering from altitude sickness, had to be evacuated.

The somewhat embarrassing lessons learned by our best and brightest was how much we don’t know about eco-system services, and that these services are literally invaluable in that no amount of money can recreate them.

The environment is not merely a nice patch of woods to be preserved, it is literally our life support systems.

Good Business Sense

No business can sustain liquidating capital and while calling it current income. The manner in which we are using up our natural capital is akin to burning furniture to heat the house. It is, to coin a phrase, unsustainable.

We, business savvy culture that we are, desperately need to recognize what is capital and what is interest: Forests, waterways, and soil are capital; lumber, fish and food are the interest. Our M.B.A.-run polity is pursuing economic policies that would bankrupt any company and so, contrary to what we are continually told, what we are actually experiencing are illusory gains in income and permanent losses of wealth.

The economy is a subset of the ecology to which it is inextricably bound. It is a sad commentary on our times that this seemingly obvious truism even needs to be stated.
Sadder still are the politicians promoting 19th-Century supply side solutions to 21st-Century resource problems.

It seems clear, does it not, that the ongoing depletion of our natural capital, the source of our wealth, can only lead to, in the not-so-distant future, lower standards of living, higher costs and more social anxiety ?

The limits to productivity today are no longer a lack of boats, fishing nets, chainsaws and tractors, but literally declining stocks of fish, lumber and viable soils.

But even this is only half the story, for by narrowly viewing ecosystems as mere providers of natural resources, we neglect their far more valuable services as air purifiers, flood controllers, waste disposers, rain makers and climate regulators.

Just how much are these services worth, especially given that they work year after year? - According to our best economic minds and political leaders the answer to that question is.....ZERO !

Perhaps we’d do well to consult the Biospherians.....

We don’t need more health care...
... we need more health !

By: Claude William Genest

Grandma was right: an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

Our Western medical model of treating disease is the best ever devised for dealing with emergency, trauma and sickness. Good thing, given skyrocketing rates of degenerative disease.

Medical treatment is unfortunately a profitable growth industry, and huge multinational pharmaceutical and healthcare companies wait impatiently to service Canada's “need” for privatized medicine.

We’ve forgotten Grandma’s wisdom: Health care doesn’t begin at the hospital !

Preventive medicine starts in the soil. The equation is simple - healthy food equals healthy people. Doctors take the Hippocratic oath, yet stubbornly ignore the prophetic words etched on his tombstone:

“Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food”.

Economically, grandma’s wisdom is equally applicable, a dollar of prevention is worth many, many dollars of cure.

The question then, is why do governments worldwide pursue policies that simultaneously make us sick and cost us money ?

The “Life Sciences” Corporations

Unknown by most and under-reported by the media is the fact pharmaceutical companies and agri-business have merged to create the “Life Sciences” companies that today dominate food and medicine on a global scale.

From the perspective of a profit driven CEO, it’s the business plan of the century: Sell them the stuff that makes them sick, and then the stuff that makes them well ! Worse, we are subsidizing this folly on several levels :

  • You and I are paying exhorbitant taxes to subsidize toxic industrial agriculture that hemorrhages top soil, chokes waterways, fouls the air, decimates communities and poisons all living things.
  • We pay to finance and maintain the roads, bridges and ports that allow these multinationals, (who remember pay virtually no tax themselves), to transport their “bads and disservices”.
  • Then we fund soil conservation agencies and restoration projects to clean up and mitigate the mess. ( And that’s after paying regulatory agencies to monitor that pollution is done within “acceptable” limits).
  • Finally we pay again in the form of ever increasing Medicare costs for degenerative diseases that are overwhelmingly the result of environmental factors and NOT genetic “bad luck” - Turns out we really are what we eat !
If you feel your ire rise and blood boil in reading this, fear not, we can always raise taxes and get you some blood pressure pills for “free” !

Myth Exposed

In response to these disturbing, costly and altogether unsustainable realities, our leaders insist that industrial agriculture is the only way for farmers to stay competitive. “Get Big, or get out” is the mantra. Economies of scale and mass production, we’re continually told, are the order of the day.

The time has come to expose this fallacy for good.

Given the associated environmental and health costs, the notion that industrial agriculture is cheap, is clearly a hollow myth.

Indeed, it is a dismal failure even by the skewed accounting of conventional economists in that it violates their most basic tenet - the law of supply and demand.

Where is the logic in pumping out ever more of the very commodities that glut the market, and continue to drive prices ever downward ? Clearly this is of no benefit to the farmer who in many cases sees costs of production exceed revenue.

No, the only winner here is agri-business who, vertically integrated from seed to shelf, makes its money retailing processed, packaged and especially shipped goods.

Gandhi was right : “We don’t need mass production, but production by the masses”.

Support your local Farmacy !

Is there a solution ? Yes ! and on top of being embarrassingly simple, it’s enormously beneficial : By shifting subsidies to support local organic agriculture, at the individual, municipal and provincial levels, we could create more employment, healthy foods, healthy communities and a healthy environment while lowering health care and infrastructure costs.

And given that we import nearly 90 % of our food, a readily available and completely unrecognized market awaits : Us....

Isn’t that the kind of health care we really need ?

Green Economics: A Dose of Reality

Green Economics: A Dose of Reality

Our skewed system of accounting hides the truth

By: Claude William Genest

Businesspeople demand to know “the bottom line”. In order to know where we’re going, they rightly reason, we need an accurate accounting of where we are.

Currently, the state of the economy is measured by the Gross Domestic Product. Unfortunately, this outmoded accounting paints a grossly distorted picture of reality.

Consider the following examples:

  • An oil tanker spills its load into the ocean decimating hundreds of miles of coastline. Is that a plus or a minus on the GDP ?
  • Rates of disease, crime and divorce skyrocket... plus or minus ?
  • Forests are clear-cut and precious top soil erodes into waterways choking aquatic life for decades to come. Add or subtract from the GDP ?
Believe it or not, since they all result in economic activity, they are all counted as PLUSES. The GDP it turns out, is counted on a calculator that has no minus
button - there literally is no occasion to subtract from the GDP no matter how much it subtracts from our quality of life or how much it is in fact costing us ...

In response to this alarming omission, classical economists reply that since there is no agreed upon way to “objectively” value ecosystem services, it makes sense to simply ignore them. This is called “externalizing” costs.

Well, while we may not agree on what natural, social and human capital is worth, surely we can all agree that it’s worth more than what it’s currently being valued at ....which is zero.

Show me the Money ... ?

Traditional political parties laughably promise increased spending on services and infrastructure while simultaneously cutting taxes - without offering the slightest inkling of how to accomplish this magic feat.

Maybe they should learn to subtract in order to start counting what really counts and not just what’s countable.

Leaders lamely crow over an economy that saw unparalleled growth for most of the last two decades even though virtually every quality of life indicator we have reveals a different story:

Health, safety, education, homelessness, drug addiction, suicide, depression, burnouts, air, water, forests, food quality, traffic, infrastructure, community cohesion etc. etc. almost everywhere you look, things are getting worse, not better.

The list above reminds us that “quality of life” has precious little to do with the “quantity of things” that the GDP insists is the only measure of “prosperity”.

Indeed, even by the lopsided standards of conventional accounting, the extractive, destructive economy is failing us - the much trumpeted economic gains turn out to be illusory - The “rising tide of economic prosperity “ has in fact lifted only a few elite boats. (Eighty-six percent of stock market gains between 1989 and 1997 flowed to the top ten percent of households while 42 percent went to the most well-to-do one percent. The after-tax income flowing to the middle 60 percent of households is the lowest on record since 1977 - The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 1999, p. A6.)

For the rest of us, real wages have barely risen, and in some cases even gone down ! (on an inflation-adjusted basis, the median hourly wage in 1998 was 7 percent lower than in 1973 (Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis data reported in State of Working America 1998-99).
Meanwhile, working hours have increased enough for us to surpass the Japanese as the most overowrked people on earth . (According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the typical North-American now works 350 hours more per year than a typical European -- almost nine full weeks.)

We’re working more, making less and killing off our future prosperity in the process. The obvious question then is how can more of the production and consumption system causing the problem ever be the solution ?

If enough is never enough, how can more possibly be better?

.... And yet that's just what our government is proposing, financing and subsidizing.

Clearly, we need a dose of reality. We need Green Economics.

Environmental Health Care
... Agriculture Supporting Community
By: Claude William Genest

Traditional political parties and the public at large agree, we need more health care and more money to fund it.
The regenerative policies proposed by many progressive thinkers however lead to a different conclusion - We don’t need more health care, we need more health !
This is based on a profound and simple truth, one that is alarmingly overlooked, under-reported and under-estimated - Health care doesn’t begin in the hospital. It begins in healthy soils. Turns out we are in fact what we eat.

Sick Food, Sick People
An agriculture that cares for its soil bears healthy and health-giving plants. We really are what we eat, and an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

The tombstone of Medicine’s father Hippocrates reads “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food”. Doctors eagerly prescibe expensive cures and genetic research but ignore, to our collective peril, the prophetic words of the man to whom they swore an oath to “First, do no harm”.

It has been forty years since the Godmother of modern ecology, Rachel Carson revealed the bio-accumulative and chemically synergistic effects of toxic farm chemicals on life: Cancers, Mutations, and Birth-Defects among the most noticeable.

"Substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals penetrate the germ cells to shatter the very material of heredity upon which the future depends.....Synthetic insecticides.....destroy the very enzymes whose function is to protect the body from harm"

Today, toxic chemicals used on lawns rivals and sometimes surpasses use on farms, while farms still receive tax subsidies to continue chemical agriculture.

Healthy Farms, Healthy Economies.
Large scale industrial agriculture kills our soil, our water, our communities, our security and independence. It is also killing us. In this context, the market demands to prove the economic costs of these policies seems redundant at best.

Small scale local organic agriculture is an investment in the regeneration of our natural, social and human capital. It is a market that is growing at an astounding twenty percent a year and yet it comprises less than 1 % of our food supply.

The vast majority of taxpayer subsidies goes to the largest, most destructive farms. Creativity, fine-cuisine and artisan flair are deterred by the stranglehold of agribusiness unions over government.

Is there a way out of this seeming gridlock ?

Growing Health
Our methods of food production are unsustainable and ecologically devastating. Incredibly, it leaves us dependent and insecure - we import nearly 90 % of our food!

Therefore a ready market awaits : Us. Who is more deserving of our highest quality food than our children, our elderly, our sick, convalescing and infirm ?

Subsidizing institutions to provide “ounces of prevention” in the form of locally produced nutrient-dense food means stimulating local economies while promoting personal and ecosystem health.

This process could be further supported by giving organic farmers incentives to produce for institutions.

By linking healthy soils to healthy insitutuons we bring community supported agriculture full circle to agriculture supporting community and begin a chain of cascading environmental, social, economic and health benefits.

Suburbia as Solution ?!

Suburbia as Solution ?!

In keeping with the idea that the problem can be the solution if we change our minds about "waste", I give you Suburbia as solution.

If ever a "wasteland" there was....

If one could step back from the debate around ecological degradation and take a whole-systems look at things, we'd see what currently escapes our attention.

We gotta eat.

While the world is applauding Holland for example for its model greeness, we neglect to recognize that it needs a land area 17 times its size to provision it with food !

Where is our food coming from and what's it costing us?

Currently every pound of food is roughly akin to 10 pounds of C02 emissions owing to the sorry fact that our food travels on average nearly 2000km to get to our mouths.

Every bushel of corn, wheat and soya represents between 6 and 10 bushels of soil lost.

"So what ?" You may well ask. Good question my astute friend !

See, once the soil is mined out, tilled up and beat down to mere dirt, it becomes vulnerable to being washed and blown away - Proverbial "dust in the wind".

The traditional "solution" has been to abandon it and seek "greener pastures". Go West young man. And once you hit the coast, transfer your agricultural needs to the third world and mine its resources.
We deplore the burning of the amazon but don't seem to recognize that it's happening to compensate for our inability to feed ourselves.

And how we can achieve food self-sufficiency has much to do with Suburbia.

Say what ?

Have you ever considered why cities get settled where they do ?

It's simple, humans chose the locations for their soils - Typically sediment river frontage.

And where do suburbs go ? Well as the Vermont farmer is fond of saying "the only thing growing on our fields are houses".

In other words, our myopic (sub)urban planning, borne of a blindness towards sustainability is depriving of us of the very lands that would allow us to move towards a sustainable food source.

The solution then is to begin to reclaim these neglected lands and reintroduce organic agriculture into our midsts.

Model on the Ground

One of the segments we'll be featuring on our tv show Regeneration - The Art of Sustainable Living is the Intervale in downtown Burlington.

This is one of the best examples of urban regeneration in the entire nation.

Serving as an incubator for farmers and value added businesses, it aims to provision the city of with a whopping 10% of its food. As a bonus, it has also become a wonderful park-like setting drawing visitors and wildlife alike.

Furthermore, it adresses issues of "waste". Here organic material ("garbage") is recycled into primo compost providing not only the (chemical free) fertility for the farms but also keeping the landfills free of methane producing waste.

And in terms of profitability it can't be beat: Farmers get the full retail value for their work while the communoty at large benefits from the health giving properties of this ultra nutritious produce.

Suburbs as solution .... Whod'a thunk it ?

Claude William Genest

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Can we save the earth? CBC Roundatble

Can we save the earth?

This was the question posed to a panel of experts and laymen on a CBC roundatble discussion last night.

The overall tone was optimistic. Seems that the finger pointing is giving way to the need for solutions.

The solutions however were predictable and tepid.

"Drive less"
"Consume Less"
"Consume the right things"
"mitigate the damage with remedial measures"
"Reduce, reuse, recycle"

One bright spot was new Green Party leader Elizabeth May who's incisive comments on the need to tax shift shone through the rhetoric.

She was also the only one to state the obvious retort to the conservative faction who harp on the "costs" namely, what is the cost of NOT dealing with the problems ?!

Had she been given more time I'm sure she would also have made another obvious link that no one else touched (but that was a favorite refrain of former Green Party Leader Jim Harris) what are the health care costs of inflicting disease on a massive scale ?

In the 45 minutes of air time I kept waiting to hear someone take the perspective I so hope to convey in my new tv show for PBS - namely that of Regeneration: That we can turn wastes into resources and therefore problems into solutions.

Can we save the earth ?


Where do we begin ?

Why with the earth itself of course.

Seems that with all our education and high-tech savvy we ignore what the word earth means.

It also means "the soil".

As my mentor, Permaculture founder Bill Mollison so astutely observes " No civilization can survive without a sustainble food source".

Seems obvious and yet the number one problem facing humanity, dwarfing in comparison even climate change remainns completely invisible - Soil loss.

That's right. Lowly dirt and insignifigant earthworms are the key to both our demise and our salvation.

Sounds crazy I know but stay with me....

From the Environmental Literacy Council:

" 85 percent of carbon in the atmosphere comes from biological reactions in the soil... It is estimated that there is twice as much carbon in soils as in the atmosphere, and three times as much carbon as is stored in all the Earth's vegetation."

So it's simple - Industrial agriculture, by pulverizing and poisoning the soil, releases carbon, robs us of the ability to sequester greenhouse gases, squanders our most vital natural capital and poisons us for good measure.

It takes away the good and gives us bads.

Clearly, this problem can become a solution.

Sustainable agriculture regenerates soils, sequesters carbon, creates biodiversity, reduces food miles and health care costs and rejuvenates local economies.


Now here's where it gets really interesting.

You know that bit of "science"we all grew up with that it takes a thousand years to grow an inch of topsoil ?

We can do better.

One of the segments of my show will feature innovative "grass farmer" Abe Collins of Swanton, Vermont.

Abe reckons that by using Yeomans style Keyline Plowing and subsoiling

we can build top soil at a rate of an inch or more A YEAR.

And that if we increase the soil organic matter of the world's agricultural soils by only 1.6%, we could reduce Co2 levels to pre-industrial levels.

By looking at our problems from a systems point of view, and from the ground up, we can devise solutions that tackle multiple problems at once and provide multiple benefits to boot. We just need the humility to admit that worms and dirt are better than us at dealing with the problems we've created !

Green Regards,

Claude William Genest

- Founder Green Mountain Permaculture Institute of Vermont
Solutions, Sustenance, Sustainability

- Creator "Regeneration - The Art of Sustainable Living"
From "Something-Must-be-Done" to Something we can do !

- Ecological Coordinator
Club St.Paul Ecological Golf Course

- Vice-President Green Party of Quebec "pour nous et nos enfants"

- National Spokesperson Green Party of Canada
"The Future is Now ! "

Regeneration the tv show now in production

After three years of shopping this timely and important show, the enlightened folks at PBS affiliate Vermont Public Television decided to finance two half hour pilot episodes.

I thought it would be a good idea to begin blogging my experiences as I am meeting such great characters along the way.

So far we have shot a segment with radical family farmer Doug Flack who is a huge proponent of Raw Milk and traditional fats !
This is important nutritional information that goes decidedly against the grain ( and literally so as he is dead set against feeding his cows any grain if it can be avoided).

One of his interns is s story in his own right. Richard Morris was 300lb computer programmer from Chicago and found his way to the "Fat" family farm where a regimen of good fats and good work transformed him inside and out. Today he runs a superb web site that is "CELEBRATING REAL FOOD, INDEPENDENT THINKING AND LIVING A LIFE UNBURDENED". Check it out:

And for a better, not to say radical understanding of traditional foods and their incredible health benefits, check out

We've also shot a segment on 7th Generation - the folks who bring you those natural household products. They were in the midst of a workshop with Biomimicry expert Janine Benyus

The way I opened the segment is " Regenerative thinking means not only working with, but learning from nature. Business increasingly is looking to unlock nature's design secrets- How she manufactures, packages, distributes... And 7th generation household products in Burlington is wondering - How will the house of tomorrow clean itself?"

It's fascinating, exciting and so encouraging to think that we can move from the centuries old paradigm of Take, Make, Waste and Heat, Beat, Treat to one that works with nature to create processes that are not only benign, but beneficial to nature.

Ok. That's my first ever blog ! Let's see what happens from here..... I still can't believe this will reach anyone's eyes and I have no idea how to get it there, but I'm now in the game and hope to keep you all abreast of my show's developments.

Best Regards,

Claude William Genest

- Founder Green Mountain Permaculture Institute of Vermont
Solutions, Sustenance, Sustainability

- Creator "Regeneration - The Art of Sustainable Living"
From "Something-Must-be-Done" to Something we can do !

- Ecological Coordinator
Club St.Paul Ecological Golf Course

- Vice-President Green Party of Quebec "pour nous et nos enfants"

- National Spokesperson Green Party of Canada
"The Future is Now ! "