A New Paradigm for Thinking about Paradigms

In the debate over how most effectively to “make a difference” in the world, we’ve talked a lot about the approach of small steps in the right direction versus a complete paradigm shift.

The paradox lies in the fact that in the absence of a complete paradigm shift, small steps in the right direction are, in fact, merely smallER steps in the wrong direction. (Smaller, that is, than the giant leaps towards hell that the current paradigm prescribes.) Simply by existing within the systems we have in place, we in some way support the current paradigm.

To illustrate the point, let’s say you hang your clothes out to dry when it’s sunny, and ride your bike to work when it’s not raining. Those are certainly steps in the right direction, but you, my friend, are quite literally a fair-weather environmentalist. Paradigm shifts are hard-core, man, and I don’t mean just riding your bike in the rain. Let’s talk about avoiding commercially produced goods, redesigning all systems to eliminate waste altogether, and shunning the entire monetary system.

It will happen one day.

Really? You say…


In the wake of nuclear fallout, or whatever Global Weirding may have in store for us, there will undoubtedly be a paradigm shift, arrived at via no shortage of death, destruction, and utter civil mayhem. Paradigm shifts are scary.

But do they have to be? I would like to suggest under The New Paradigm for Thinking about Paradigms, that they don’t. While one may not be able to deny the paradigm shift that follows a marked historical event (the fall of Rome) or scientific discovery (the world is round), let’s see if we can convince ourselves that the aggregate of many hard wrought, smaller steps may deserve the same recognition.

This New Paradigm is inspired by a recent opportunity to attend a presentation by Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, and a little bit of “borrowing” from recent strategies employed by the Republican party. Now don't give up on me here - I may be a lot of things, but I am most certainly not a Republican. Just read carefully, because this could be HUGE!

I read an article recently that highlighted the strategies that have allowed the Republican party to enjoy so much success in recent years (barring this month’s election, of course). First of all, they are masters of appropriating language. The Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind… you can’t argue against the concepts behind these propositions without, at least on some level of perception, arguing against patriotism itself, or for leaving children behind (poor, defenseless ones, shivering in the cold...) The bumper sticker “Peace is Patriotic” is a perfect analog for the argument I’m about to make in that it’s a response (and by responding, we validate) to the assumption that patriotism means, for the time being, support for the war in Iraq. This strategy has even been employed to recharge common symbols with whole new meanings. Since 9/11, to fly an American flag signifies support for our Republican government. How did they slip that one by?

It was clear in the 2004 election the Democrats believed all they needed to do was stand back and let the Republicans dig themselves a grave. Kerry, afterall, was the ultimate 'not Bush.' The problem was that without a clear solution for a problem that somebody else created, they left the world vulnerable to further creep to the right by the Republican party. War? The GOP is FOR it. Abortion? Not so much. Deficit spending? What better way to stimulate the economy. Revolving doors? Can't do it without 'em.

And on the ‘digging themselves a grave’ bit, it became clear that the Democrats may in fact have been too right on that one. Turns out the current administration dug a grave big enough for all of us, right at the bottom of Shit Creek.

Meanwhile, the Republicans managed, step by step, to creep the barometer right-ward on the spectrum of platform issues, until suddenly we realize we’re voting on things that shouldn’t be brought to question in the first place. Gay marriage? The right to choose? Why are we even voting on that? At this point, to bring up Democratic ideals of government programming and environmental stewardship sounds like out of touch idealism.

What I’m getting at here is that the GOP has done nothing short of shifting a paradigm. This paradigm, however, was not forced by a world-changing catastrophe, rather it came as the aggregate of lots of small, intentional, right-bound steps.

We live in a country of corrupt electoral practice, involved in a bogus war, where all the politicians are in bed with the very corporations that are acting against common interest. Oil subsidies and support for chemical agriculture hurt our ability to sustain food production amidst a growing world population while simultaneously allowing big corporations to out-compete smaller farms who are doing it right. Under this model we have our tax dollars accelerating the inevitable arrival of ‘the last drop,’ which, if catches us off guard will surely lead to the ‘hard way’ of arriving at a paradigm shift. (Death and destruction, remember?)

So how do we use these strategies to get what we want in a new paradigm?

Let’s talk about Lancaster. This guy is amazing. You could say he’s on the fringe, but you could also say he’s on the forefront (how’s that for being intentional with language?). He lives in an abundant oasis he created for himself of the fruits of his land, which lies in the seemingly barren desert of Tucson, Arizona. He proves to us that while society at large (under the current paradigm) mismanages the region’s resources, we simply don’t need to do things that way. More than arguing against the current way, Brad is actually modeling a better way. He gives us a palpable (flourishing and fragrant, even) alternative to the status quo.

Now sure, some of the things he’s suggesting might seem a little weird to the average Arizona suburbanite: A composting toilet? Recycling greywater? Hmmm… But in the last few years, things that used to be considered fringe elements (co-housing, natural food stores…) are creeping closer to the center of our operating standards. This, in my opinion, is thanks in no small part to many recent covers of mainstream publications such as TIME and Newsweek; marketing efforts of outfits such as (gasp) Wal-Mart; and the rampant upcropping of various “green” household and industrial products. While perhaps mostly “greenwash,” as sustainability gurus love to point out, it’s hard to deny that all these forces are succeeding in changing the language.

For example, LEED may be mostly bullshit (the embodiment of smaller steps in the wrong direction), but it’s certainly better than not LEED, and now everybody wants it. That’s a smaller step in the wrong direction at a societal level. HUGE! Once LEED becomes standard, the world will be ready to swallow a bigger pill.

There will always be a dominant discourse, and there will always be a voice of dissent. Though as the rules of power go, our inability to fully understand the effects of our actions over time will cause a constant effect of changing context (e.g. Global Warming). Because there will always be people on the fringe (excuse me, the forefront) - people who march to the beat of their own drummers - people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds - people who are scared shitless but speak up anyway - people who lock themselves in rooms with books and technology - people who post long diatribes on weblogs they know only their friends will read… All of these people are fomenting an energy, bursting at the seams of the dominant discourse, just ready to bubble over at every little opportunity. Because of the combined efforts of the small steps of all these people, new ideas will be in place when the old paradigm falls away – not all at once, but element by element, onion layer by onion layer.

Keep doing the little things. Those small steps will gradually change social norms until one day, to look back in time, you realize you’re sitting on a New Paradigm. No destruction necessary.

The grass is greener over here, so creep on over.


The Vermont Report

True to its name, Vermont is both mountainous and green. Well, for part of the year, anyway. Early September defines the nick of time for catching the very first of it: one flickering flame poetically painted onto the thick green of the mountainside. From afar, the changing leaves look like they’ve been laid onto the green canvas by spongeprint. If the child artist within Mother Nature is anything like the child artist within me (the one that really loved cutting Barbie's hair) she will admire the lone red tree for a while, knowing somewhere in her consciousness that it’s perfect in its minimalist simplicity. But then she will add one more, and, okay, just ONE more. And then it’s all over. Before you know it, Barbie’s got hair plugs and the mountainside is completely ablaze.

Here is where the comparison fizzles, though, because while Barbie loses all her garage sale resale value, Mother Nature gets it right in all of her zealousness. And that’s why I’m here at Yestermorrow, nestled within the Mad River Valley, still on my quest to learn from the Big Mama’s righteous ways.

What I didn’t know when I signed up for this gig is that the Mad River Valley (great name, eh?) is a complete hot bed for architects. More architects per capita than anywhere else in the world, they say. The story goes that back in the late sixties, a guy named David Sellers got disgruntled with the theoretical nature of his architecture training at Yale, and dropped out to come to Vermont (the land of liberal politics and few building codes) and build wacked-out things. He invited all his crazy architect friends to drop out of school and come join him in a design-build binge. Many of them did, and as a result there’s a huge number of amazing experimental homes and studios scattered throughout the valley, mostly on one hill called Prickly Mountain. A half a generation later, a young architect named John Connell followed the legend and ended up founding Yestermorrow, for the purpose of teaching architects how to build. To this day, the school draws a broad range of people to teach them a plethora of things in a hands-on fashion. Sustainability is a strong vibe here, but it’s not the founding principle (more on that later).

Hanging out with the interns is fun. Though we haven’t visited any dumpsters yet, we’ve had a couple of community cook-a-thons. Last night we got brave and fired up the cob oven to make some pizzas. Not bad for the first time, but we learned there is true skill involved, which we’ve yet to acquire.

I have to hold my tongue sometimes for fear of earning myself the tag of “This-One-Time-at-Ecosa-Girl,” but the experience does beg comparison. Whereas Ecosa brought together a group of young people with varied backgrounds, bound by the thread of wanting to save the world through sustainable design; the tie that binds the Yestermorrow crew is the great affinity for fine craft. Sustainability, though still a strong vibe, comes in a stark second to creating really cool things. Don’t get me wrong – they grow their own veggies, build strawbale structures, a solar shower, composting toilet, cob oven and the whole bit. I’ll also mention “The Punch Bowl,” the swimming hole at the nudist colony across the road. Leave your clothes at the door and jump in – hey, sounds like a motto to me! Alas, I digress - back to Yestermorrow and sustainability: the point is, you can bet your Yurt these are the nicest damn solar shower and composting toilet you’ve ever seen.

After gaining some exposure to Eco-communities of various sorts, I can really appreciate Yestermorrow’s approach to building and refuse. While most of this blog is dedicated to the virtues of salvaging waste (and I’m definitely FOR it), I’m also for recognizing that there is a point that shit is just shit, and needs to be tossed. Many eco communities and craft schools quickly come to resemble junkyards as years-old models and sketches adorn shelves and walls. If they’re not to be considered enduring art by all, surely Someone-Someday-Somewhere will find their soul alight at the potential of the parts of said model, disassembled. Same goes with the heaps of old trailers, appliances, retired vehicles, what have you, that the same Someone-Somewhere-Someday will find innovative use for. And before you know it, your studio, your garden, and your whole grounds are a growed-up version of a preschool playroom (http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=irule) Okay, so this site has limited relevance to the topic at hand, but it’s hands-down the funniest thing on the web. Really, what your grounds look like when you stop believing in getting rid of anything (under any circumstances) resembles the result of combining a landfill and the large-scale explosive of your choice (Fuckin’ hippies!).

Maybe it’s Vermont state law that would forbid such an eye-sore among the serene green, or maybe it’s that sustainability isn’t in the driver's seat. You can be sure it occupies every other seat in the bio-fueled car, though. I’ve got much yet to experience, but from what I’ve seen, Yestermorrow’s got a good thing going. And now, off to the Warren Woods and Forestry Festival...


Hello to all my balcony buddies and dumpster friends.

So I'm in rural south easeten Washington, in the mountains of klickitat, at the windward institute. A sustainable community in progress if ever there was one. Some of our projects for the summer include aquaponics, solar ovens, biofuel, and watching the peacocks get rejected time and again.
Feel free to check www.windward.org for stories and info.

I'm also working on designs for some of the many, many shipping containers we have in our possession. So any design ideas or input would be really appreciated cough:::aaron:::cough.


The New-Aged Hippie's Urban Survival Kit

After finishing an immersive semester in sustainable design, I've been reconnecting with old friends who have been to the far reaches of the earth. There seems to be a recognition among those of us who are experiencing reverse culture shock upon coming home, that our mainstream American society can be quite accurately described with one word: disposable.

This disposability, though, seems ultimately to be rooted in the much broader cultural indicaor of how we value time. A friend who just returned from 10 months in South America says she misses the slower pace of life down there. People live their lives day-to-day, contributing to their families and communities as determined by the roles they have adapted themselves to fulfill.

Returning to the States imparts an immediate feeling of stress upon remembering that in this country, we are constantly trying to climb the ladder until we find the rung on which we want to settle (but does anyone ever get there?), or to find the next big adventure that will prolong our state of transience (a state that our generation is first to enjoy on a large scale; but also to discover the downfalls of not being able to identify, though maybe temporarily – or so we tell ourselves - with a true home).

And the result? Lots of waste! Return to South America and you won’t find the prepackaged frozen meals, plastic utensils, and paper cups that feed our hungry-for-something society. I remember my shock at learning from a British friend that cars in England don’t have drink holders. Why would a person eschew the opportunity for social engagement - or solitary reflection - presented by a hot drink in order to cram its consumption into a tiny vessel that moves 80 miles per hour? I decided not to ask him what he thought about fast-food drive throughs.

To change our values as they relate to time would surely constitute a paradigm shift. But from the perspective of right-here-right-now, where trying to shift a paradigm feels as difficult as knocking over your local coal processing smokestack with one hand (you’re holding your coffee in the other, remember) we see that we may not realistically readopt our colonizers’ time-valued tradition of high tea at the expense of commuting with coffee or fast food on the road.

So what CAN we do?

After a few days of struggling with eco-ethical questions such as ‘is it cool to “let it mellow” in a friend-of-a-friend’s house’ and ‘am I really going to carry this banana peel around with me until I find a compost bin,’ I began to feel like I was falling into the trap most aptly portrayed in a recent Southpark episode in which all the characters buy hybrid cars, only to replace their SMOG problem with a SMUG problem.

So for now I’ve decided I’m quite comfortable with what I call my Urban Survival Kit - four simple things that are easy to carry, and allow me to opt out of the most prevalent disposables of a typical day:

  • A durable water bottle
  • An insulated coffee mug
  • Camping utensils (though chopsticks may be more appropriate lest you ever be faced with the unsuspecting sushi-diner’s option of destroying the planet or being culturally insensitive…)
  • A bandana

While the Survival Kit doesn’t require me to slow down at all, it certainly allows me to slow my rate of contribution to the landfills without much expense to my million-mile-an-hour life.


Most of us have seen this bumper sticker at some point while cruising the open road and it was interesting to see it again after having spent the last four months immersed in ideas of sustainability. The original message is obviously that we better take care of the trucking industry and make sure they get what they want since they're responsible for getting all of our food from the farm to our plates (the average piece of food travels over 1200 miles to reach your grocery store). Viewed in a new light however, it's a powerful argument for supporting locally produced food since sooner or later the trucks will stop. Oil prices will get too high, we won't be able to spend billions of dollars building and maintaining highways, and it just won't make sense to transport our food this way when we can grow it in our own backyards.


But where do we start?

To Do:
  • Reclaim food.
  • Wash clothes.
  • Finish drawings for portfolio
  • Return library books.
  • Shift paradigm.

Engaged as we are in the pursuit of a safe and sustainable future for all, the question often arises of where do we begin? When you start to think about all the problems we face (climate destabilization, genetically-modified foods, privatization of the commons, peak oil, persistent environmental toxins that mutate babies at parts per trillion, an ever widening gap between the rich and poor, the break-up of Phish, and the discontinuation of many fine Ben and Jerry's flavors to name but a few) it begins to feel like nothing short of a massive change in pretty much every aspect of our lives is going to save our species from annihilation. Unfortunately, Paradigm Shift Inc. isn't hiring and we are left with the same debate of where to start. Do we begin with business? Education? Medicine? Biology?
Here at the world renowned Ecosa Institute the concentration is, for the most part, on buildings and construction. Since almost half of the energy the U.S. uses goes to the construction, maintenance, and operation of our buildings, this seems like a logical area to focus our efforts. If ideas like passive solar design, day lighting, alternative building materials, and environmentally benign finishes could be brought into the mainstream the effect could be HUGE! But the majority of us don't necessarily have the opportunity to build a straw bale house, construct a LEED certified office building, or install super-efficient windows in our homes. However, there is something we all do everyday that has great potential to be a catalyst for change, we eat. We get three votes everyday, more for some of us, to cast either in the ballot box of industrial agriculture (the current winner by far), or for locally-supported, organically produced farm goodness.

Ahhh industrial agriculture. From the nitrogen fertilizers, to the chemical pesticides, to the tractors, trucks, and trailers, an incredible amount of energy goes into producing, processing, packaging, and transporting our food. Most estimates come in around 10 calories of fossil fuel burned for every 1 calorie of food produced. To provide the food for a family of four eating an average diet would require the equivalent of 930 gallons of gas a year, or 34,000 KWh per year. By contrast, the same family would use on average 10,800 KWh of electricity to power their home and 1,070 gallons of gas driving a year. Wow.
Tracing that energy back to the farm, the majority of it goes into just three crops, corn, wheat, and soy that, for the most part, are completely inedible without further processing. While most of this is used to feed livestock anyways, about 45% of all corn grown becomes sugar, high-fructose corn syrup to be more precise, that winds up in 3/4 of all our processed foods. Mmmmmm - fructorific. When you add in the amount of water used in irrigation, the loss of topsoil, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the replacement of diverse ecosystems with monocultures, opting out of industrial agriculture seems like a pretty good way to reduce one's personal energy consumption. (Apparently you can save more water by not eating beef than you can by not showering for an entire year!)

Getting back to those three votes a day, what if we used just one of those on locally produced organic food bought at the local farmer's market through that wonderful idea of Community Supported Agriculture? Food seems like such a wonderful, and more importantly feasible, leverage point for the whole environmental movement. It has great potential to save energy, it's local, it supports community, it is usually very delicious, etc. So don't stop fretting over which light bulb to buy, what color to get your Prius in, how to recycle the computer you bought 4 months ago that is already out of date, how many toxins are in your paint, or how you can afford that sweet, custom, straw bale home, but in the meantime, grab some friends, head over to the farmer's market (better yet the farm!) and sit down together and enjoy a delicious, home-cooked feast.

Further inspiration:
We Are What We Eat - Michael Pollan
Fossil Food: Consuming Our Future - Tom Starrs
The Oil We Eat - Richard Manning
A Tale of Two Apples
No Bar Code - Michael Pollan

Reclaimed Recipes, Vol. 1


reclaimed butter (organic preferred)
1 reclaimed sweet potato, sliced
2 slices reclaimed bread of choice
2 rounds reclaimed eggplant
1/4 reclaimed red bell pepper, slit lengthwise
1/4 reclaimed avocado
1 slice reclaimed cheese of choice

2 slices reclaimed tomato
3 leaves fresh reclaimed basil

Melt reclaimed butter in frying pan over medium/high heat. Add reclaimed sweet potato rounds and grill until golden brown (about 4 minutes each side). Remove from pan and set aside. (If available salt with reclaimed salt. In a pinch, sweat from your brow will do).

Reduce heat to medium. Melt more reclaimed butter. Grill reclaimed pepper and reclaimed eggplant until golden (about 3 minutes each side). Remove from pan and set aside.

Place reclaimed bread slices face down in the pan. When golden brown, flip and add reclaimed cheese slice to one side. Top with grilled reclaimed eggplant and reclaimed bell pepper. Leave on burner until reclaimed cheese reaches desired meltedness.

Meanwhile, spread reclaimed avocado on the other slice of reclaimed bread. Top with reclaimed tomato and reclaimed basil leaves.

Put it all together and enjoy!