"Life Rules" Review - An Interview with Author Ellen LaConte

We all hear about climate change on a seemingly daily basis, but just how can climate change really impact us? How did all of these environmental crises come to be? Is there anything we can do? If so, what should we be doing to assure a sustainable future in which people, planet and all of its inhabitants survive? Check out my interview with Ellen LaConte, author of Life Rules, to learn the answers to these questions and much more.

LaConte in her city-limits herb garden.

Andrew DeCanniere:

In your book, Life Rules, you suggest that the earth has developed the equivalent of AIDS,
brought about by our actions, though few people seem to recognize this. Instead, just as doctors had when AIDS first came on the scene, people tend to look at the individual symptoms, considering each symptom as separate, distinct, when in fact all of these seemingly separate symptoms or events are indicators of this same disease. You go on
to say that this disease is due, in large part, to the way our economy is set up.

You do put forth some suggestions as to what we need to do to change 
things, so that we might still have a livable, sustainable future. Among these suggestions 
is a transition to a “steady-state economy.” Can you expand upon how the U.S. might make this transition, what it would be like if this new economic system was adopted, and how such a system would benefit both people and planet?

Ellen LaConte:

All economies are dependent on the largest economy – the largest supplier of goods and services – of which they are a part. On Earth the largest economy is the biosphere, Life itself. Life manages Earth’s accounts of nonrenewable and renewable resources sustainably. Life recycles renewable resources without degrading them and it does not use renewable resources faster than they can be renewed in biological time frames. It’s an eco-logical, steady-state – that is, a no-growth – economy because, obviously, though we’ve forgotten this, perpetual growth of population and consumption on a finite planet is a physical impossibility.

The global capitalist, industrial economy does not manage Earth’s accounts sustainably. It’s an anti-ecological, perpetual growth economy that has now run up against the limits of non-renewables like metals, minerals, water and fossil fuels and of slow renewables like fisheries, forests, and arable soils. It’s too big now not to fail. Under its influence we are living beyond Earth’s means. Cheap-easy fossil fuels, water, food, and money and a congenial climate are only the first casualties.  Functioning governments will soon join them.

When the global economy no longer delivers the goods, we will be forced to relocalize, or more accurately, re-regionalize economically. Then, we can either burn through all remaining local resources and destroy our ecosystems, or we can create Life-like, sustainable, steady-state economies. The transition will not be a national one. No candidate can get elected on a no-growth platform. And steady-state economies require that the people managing them are intimately familiar with and protective of the local human and natural resources that are their real wealth.

Michigan Ave new-growth birch forest.

AD: The first thing that people are likely to notice when it comes to a “steady-state economy” is
 that there are no promises of never-ending economic growth, unlike what we’re so used to
 hearing from elected officials today. How would we keep unemployment low and ensure that people have what they need while adopting this new type of system?

EL: No capitalist economy has ever ensured that all people have what they need. Several billion people do not have what they need presently. When empires collapse, and this economy is the biggest empire ever, people die. Many Americans will need to move away from places where geography or weather prohibits them from producing what they need locally. Many suitable regions will become overcrowded. But communities that take Nature’s economies as their model will choose self-reliance, frugality, cutting back, collaboration, cooperation and sharing over last-one-standing competition. And, ironically, in locally self-reliant economies, where the provisions themselves rather than money to purchase them, are paramount, everyone has a skill or ability that the community needs. One of the first things communities will do, as they did in the Great Depression, is create local currencies and bartering systems.

Reynolda Gardens in Winston-Salem, NC, feeds the eyes of visitors and stomachs of volunteers and local institutions.

AD: You also talk about the need to calculate Green GDP. What is Green GDP and in what ways would calculating it benefit us and the planet as a whole?

EL: Gross Domestic Product accounts for money spent without regard to what it’s spent on. Investments in clear-cutting old-growth forests, cleaning up disastrous oil spills, and building prisons goes in the plus column along with investment in alternative energy technologies, organic agriculture and building schools. GDP does not factor in damage the economy does to the environment, human communities, sustainability and social justice. As a “true cost” accounting system it would value the energy technologies more highly than cutting down forests. Green GDP yields a better picture of what’s sustainable and what’s not.

Out of business after fifty years, in Northport, ME, 2010.

AD: While reading your book, I came across a chart that indicates what percentage of individuals in various countries live in poverty, with data provided by the UN Human Settlements Program. It says that something like 50% of Iraqis, 45% of Iranians, 45% of Mexicans, 40% of Salvadorans, 85% of Haitians, 25% of Turks, and 28% of Dominicans and Algerians fell into this category of “living poor” in 2009. To me those numbers are pretty staggering.
 Do you think most people living in the so-called “first-world” are aware of just how many people are living in poverty around the world? What could be done to raise awareness of the situation? What can we do to help them improve their conditions or circumstances?

EL: People are more aware than they used to be as the major media now report data like close to a billion people around the world go hungry every day and a couple billion live on less than $2 a day. But, particularly now they’re worried about their own future, most Americans don’t give much thought to those stats. The lives of the poor are inconceivable to those who are not.

The best things we could do for the poor around the world are (1) stop using their homelands as supply regions for resources we’ve burned through closer to home, and (2) dismantle the global economy that requires them to export their resources and goods rather than providing for themselves.

AD: Another thing you talk about is our Ecological Footprint, which is intriguing and revealing 
in terms of what it says about our habits when it come to our use of natural resources, and how uneven the consumption of these resources seems to be globally. What does this mean for us now, in 2011, and what will this mean for us in the not-too-distant future if this continues?

EL: The ecological footprint, reported in acres or Earths, reveals how much land and water is necessary to support a particular lifestyle. Even a relatively frugal, middle class American lifestyle, if all humans were to achieve it, would require 7 to 10 Earths to support it. If everyone lived like the rich, it would take 100 planets-worth of resources. Only the poor live within Earth’s means. The implication is that by around 2030, there will not be enough resources left to support as many of us as there will be and the global economy and American Dream will come to an end.

LaConte raises lettuces, greens, carrots, beets, and turnips enough for four adults in this 4' x 16' raised bed.

AD: Speaking of resource use, you say that one key thing about the economies of natural, other-than-human communities is that they are place-based. They do not have the option
of importing resources the way that we can (and do) import resources. They must learn to make do with the resources that are available to them wherever they happen to be. You suggest that if we are to live in a sustainable manner, this is something that people should learn to do as well. How would we go about doing this, particularly as a country that is so reliant on imports or used to importing products and how would we and the planet benefit?

EL: Activists in an exciting movement, Transition USA, offer training about sustainable techniques and technologies around the country to help them become more self-reliant.

The key is to use what I call “Life’s Economic Survival Protocol,” a sort of ten commandments of sustainability, as a guide. Relocalization – establishing systems for providing for our communities with food, fibers, salvaged materials, medicinals, local currencies, ecological literacy (knowledge of how our local ecosystems work and what they can provide us with sustainably), social services, locally generated electricity, low- or non-petroleum transportation systems, etc. – will be the secret to functional survival.

AD: I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but I will say that whether you agree with some of it or all of it, it is an interesting, thought-provoking look at the environmental, social and economic issues we are currently faced with, and is something that I would recommend others pick up and read. What is it that you would most like for readers to take away from this book?

EL: Creating steady-state, Life-like, local and regional economies, using what remains of scarce resources to make the transition, before the economy collapses would be smart. Taking charge of our food and water supplies probably tops the list of things we need to do now. Except for the driest desert communities, every community in the U.S. could get pretty close to food self-sufficient. Most Americans could become a lot healthier in the process because post-fossil fuel, post-global food would be tend to be cleaner, safer, veggier, and leaner than what we eat now. How-to books and websites about urban and suburban gardening techniques abound. Chicago’s rooftop and vacant lot gardens are exemplary. City park orchards, warehouses converted to poultry, fish, mushroom, hydroponic and compost production, and wise use of Lake Michigan, for example, could make the city even grEATer. Water catchment and conservation technologies and neighborhood-scale wind and solar systems improve yearly. A lot of jobs involved in bringing provisional systems closer to home.

Out of work, Waldo County, ME, 2010.

 AD: Last but not least, what are you working on at the moment? Do you have another book in mind already and what will that be about?

EL: I’m working on the pocket version of my book, The Little Book of Life’s Rules for Surviving Critical Mass, which is what I call this syndrome of crises we’re facing. And I’m uploading my environmental novel Afton to my website.



For information about Life Rules, author Ellen LaConte and more, visit her website at www.ellenlaconte.com.


Photos: Courtesy of Ellen LaConte


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