Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Grape-nuts of wrath

By Baynard Woods

I’ve been thinking a lot about John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Sure, I know, it’s the Great Recession and everybody has been thinking about it. (Well, this being America, 87 percent of people probably think I’m talking about breakfast cereal). I’ve been asking myself: what is it that separates us from the Depression depicted by Steinbeck? There are many things, of course, but one major thing sticks out: ecological disaster. Imagine a dustbowl and food shortages on top of everything else.

It’s not hard to imagine. We’ve been further depleting the soil since the dustbowl. Our genetically modified food supply is quite vulnerable and dependent on oil. Our infrastructure and our education are close to failure.

And nobody has any ideas at all. The Democrats are doing nothing—they are proposing no realistic vision of what America can be in the 21st Century. The Republicans are worse because they offer completely dishonest and disingenuous solutions. They’re still talking about trickle down tax cuts—but they’re investing all their money in gold. (Don’t they know, they’re making the price of gold artificially high and destabilizing that too?) The only golden trickle down I’ve ever heard of was valuable only if Elliot Spitzer was paying.

And yet, here we are, facing crises in every sphere, and we are all --Democrat and Republican alike, despite what they say-- waiting for the government to act. The problem with our government is not that it is too strong, but rather that it is too weak to do everything we ask of it. Like the great writer Braxton Marnus said of our new reality, “I thought they were reading my mind; it turned out they couldn’t even read their email.”

So, rather than complain, or talk about nut-job preachers, I thought I’d talk to as many people as possible and try to come up with a few things we could do.

Take your money out of the stock market. It is betting on rich people jousting. Take it and truly invest it in your community. Invest in companies you know and care about, rather than mutual funds. Sure a mutual fund is “safe” in a sense—in the same sense that it is safe to simply sleep around, enjoy the rush of new infatuation, and never commit.  Put your retirement, instead, in your own community, in the things you live with every day and would like to retire to. The stock market may have a place here—you may really use and believe in Netflix and want to own part of that business. That’s fine. But why not the place you really love up the street? Invest in invention.

Don’t put your money in gold. Gold is stupid. It will be less, not more valuable if things get really bad. A gun might be fine—but an arsenal is as stupid as a vault of gold.

Invest in food instead. Food is the thing that we need every day. It is our primary relation with the world. The price will rise dramatically for good food. Support your local farmers. I think our only hope as a major 21st Century nation is as a food producer—a return to an agricultural culture.

Biochar. Some scientists (such as James Lovelock) believe we can take all of the carbon we have ever produced since the industrial revolution out of the atmosphere in four years, while also producing super-fertile soil, if we take all of our agricultural waste and turn it into charcoal that is soaked in compost.  We know from the Incas that it works as fertilizer. We should at least try it. Even if it is not biochar, we should all become inventors and solvers. We can try ten million different ways, and we must. It’s the only way to accomplish anything. Look up biochar on YouTube for some encouragement that we’re innovative at things other than excuses. (Thanks to Chris Farmer for these last few).

Houses are not investments. They can no longer be hubs of consumption, but must return to some kind of production. If you want your house to make money, you’ll have to get solar panels and produce energy, make a business in the front, or a workshop in the back. Raise chickens or grow vegetables. We’ve taken the home entirely out of economics. It should be the duty of every house to produce something—canned goods, energy, fertilizer, software, ideas, art. All our homes have produced for the past half-century is trash.

We can’t count on either the government or corporations to do it for us. They are too busy propping each other up to be effective in ways we need them to be. Often regulations are such that only the giant players can meet them (thanks to Paul King of Conway and Scott Bowers of Greenville for this). If we all become inventors, experimenters, entrepreneurs, then we might do something. If we wait for the Democrats, Halliburton, and the religious fanatics to work it out, we are doomed. We must meet the challenge of our times.

These five points are an attempt to say something meaningful in the face of a failure of imagination and courage on the part of most of our public figures.


  1. Mr. Woods brought up very valuable points that WE all should heed and put into practice!

  2. This is one of the most constructive and informative I have read in a long time and his suggestions are doable. So, let's get busy! Very well done.

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