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Food & Babies

Cultural ecologist Richard Heinberg predicts we need more and less to survive

By Gretchen Giles

THE YEAR 2050 dawns dully. The world's economy is in a shambles, China is eating the cupboards of the global village bare, and cement shackles the land where forests once grew. God, Buddha, and Allah are dead, and the spirituality of this day is predicated upon violence, unrest, and an unceasing search for the homely basics of food and shelter. Moreover, those children awakening in homes ravaged by abuse and neglect have never had the simple vision of a deer, a hawk, or an unfettered hill.

This grim fantasy could easily be the reality of our grandchildren's future--particularly if we continue to have the children that have the grandchildren, predicts Santa Rosa cultural ecologist Richard Heinberg in his thoughtful, frightening, crystal ball­to­action book, A New Covenant with Nature: Notes on the End of Civilization and the Renewal of Culture (Quest Books; $20).

Studying cultures as ecosystems unique to themselves, Heinberg strives to identify incidents of violence, community building, and child-rearing practices in order to assess the general health or dis-health of the collective. Not all, he reassures us, is lost for us--yet. But, he argues, the collective stasis of our agricultural- and industrial-driven society will strangle us all. There are no coulds about it, but what might result could be better than before.

An ecological call to arms, New Covenant outlines Heinberg's proposals for the decentralization of government, the debunking of the Manifest Destiny ideals that expanded America's borders across the continent and beyond, the de-powering of the corporate systems overtaking the world market, and a return to community efforts and values as particular as disparate, region-based monetary systems, the building of one's own residence--preferably with a straw-bale core--and the return to the home garden as a primary source for the table.

Positing that civilization is itself a disease as virulent and self-destroying as cancer, and that industrialized peoples suffer from self-inflicted collective post-traumatic stress, Heinberg suggests that from the wreckage of what we have made for ourselves can come the beginnings of a vital and creative new society.

Authoring a monthly essay-style newsletter, The Museletter--nominated by Utne Reader magazine in 1994 for an Alternative Press Award--Heinberg has also written Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (J. P. Tacher; 1989; reprints, 1990, 1995) and Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms Through Festival and Ceremony (Quest Books; 1993). Clearly outlined and written for the lay person with no more exposure to radical ecological ideas than those set forth in McDonald's recycling programs, New Covenant is both anarchic and exhilarating.

And Heinberg doesn't expect anyone to follow it.

"To propose alternatives that may be politically unrealistic or economically unrealistic now, but that are biologically sound, may just be an exercise," Heinberg says, leaning back on the couch in his modest home. "But from a larger standpoint, somebody has to do that, somebody has to be speaking for a position of biological sanity."

Unperturbed by his pet birds flying freely through the living room, Heinberg continues. "We need to take back as much of our autonomous power as possible, which means that we need to learn to feed ourselves as much as possible, and make genuine connections among ourselves that involve patterns of mutual aid. That's basically what we can do, because we're planting the seeds of the new culture. The fact is that the system is far more powerful in its present form than any small group of anarchist radicals ever could be. There's no point to it, but there is a point to demonstrating an alternative that is sustainable and is survivable. And from my experience, it's more fun living that way."

WHILE CITING a rising population that correlates in no manner with our ability to feed and house these hungry new mouths, Heinberg incredibly remains optimistic about the challenges that a frayed society might restitch for tomorrow.

"I think that it's possible that we could create a culture that's beyond anything that human beings have known up to this point," he says, visibly excited. "Even though civilization as a form of social organization shows signs of deep woundedness and is a kind of social cancer, through this process we have nevertheless learned some things.

"We have learned about the consequences of violence, we have learned some things about ecology and sustainability that maybe indigenous cultures knew about intuitively, but that we understand in a much more concrete manner. Engaged in a process of synthesis and learning and growth, we could be involved in a culture that is more sustainable, more harmonious, more loving, and more non-violent than any in history. But we have to have those things as goals.

"Right now the goal of our culture is to make our nation wealthy," he says simply. "We're doing that very successfully. We don't acknowledge that openly, but that's what it really is. We human beings are very good at succeeding at what we set our minds to. We have set our minds to creating a technologically sophisticated militaristic culture and we've succeeded in spades.

"Now, if we set our minds to creating a culture that is biologically and spiritually regenerative and healthy," he smiles, "I know that we could."


Richard Heinberg reads from and discusses A New Covenant with Nature on Monday, Nov. 18, at Copperfield's Books in Montgomery Village, 2316 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 7 p.m. Free. 578-8938.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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