Earth Garden


Hank Stone

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You are on your way to an exam, and are late. Furthermore, you haven't studied for it, and don't remember what the subject is, and don't know where it's being held. That's an unsolvable set of problems! Many people have experienced such circumstances, in bad dreams.

You can't solve these problems. But when you wake up, you find that each problem in the dream has vanished.

The world is plagued by a complex of interconnected, global problems.

When the world situation is presented as problems, they are too intimidating for people to face, because we can't "adjust" our society enough to solve them. In other words, these problems are so serious, they CAN'T BE SOLVED!

But WE CAN WAKE UP FROM THEM. We can wake up from the American dream.

We live in the PROGRESS Paradigm, of scientific progress, economic growth, population growth, and the promise of more of everything-- forever.

I propose an entirely different paradigm: EARTH GARDEN.

In this story, humankind is a family tending a garden. What are we humans here on Earth to do? Garden. We plan the garden, work the soil, plant the seeds, water, weed, protect the crops, harvest, prepare the food, and eat the food. We raise a family. Our children help in the garden, grow up, get married, and grow their own gardens.

We can create a new society, better than the one we have now, without the present problems. We can preserve the best of present society, and prosper for the indefinite future. And we can live happily through the transition. But PROGRESS will not get us there.


We will not dwell on the global problems, about which much is known, but will name six big ones. It is our human nature to drift into denial. Denial is comfortable, but if we are asleep we are irrelevant to the human future.

C is for climate change.
O is for peak oil. World production of conventional oil has already peaked.
W is for fresh water scarcity, from snow melt failure and over pumping aquifers.
P is for world population, which has doubled twice in the last 100 years.
U is for unsustainable economics. Our debt-based Capitalism can only grow or collapse.
W is for the war system of dispute settlement. In the nuclear age, war itself is unsustainable.

Our way of life assumes continuous growth for the indefinite future: PROGRESS. Continuous growth on a finite planet is, of course, absurd. So things WILL change.

If we are to control that change, we must in some way address COW PUW.


Waking up from the American dream sounds drastic. Can't we make adjustments to the status quo to address COW PUW?

We know that big jobs can be divided up so they can be handled by ordinary people. That's bureaucracy. Corporations, governments and militaries routinely do this, and achieve large-scale objectives.

If "everyone does his part," we suppose we can get society "back to normal." People take refuge in doing activism they feel can "make a difference." It feels good to be working purposefully to help society. Sometimes success is achieved, which also feels good.

But the divide-and-conquer approach cannot succeed with our very large scale problems, for three reasons.

FIRST, rich and powerful people, who could theoretically give society the structural change it needs, see no need for change. Society is set up to give them comfort and privilege, thank you very much.

Society is therefore set up to distract us ordinary people from believing that anything is fundamentally wrong. "The experts" will figure out what to do. "They" have the time, expertise and legitimacy to make things work. Consider that for the whole of our lives, we have been relatively prosperous, comfortable and free—without having to "wake up" from anything!
We individuals can "make a difference" all we want, but while powerful bureaucracies promote the status quo, that's what we get.

SECOND, society does evolve. Slavery was once widely accepted, but now is not. The problem is, we need a generational change, but don't have a generation. Now that our society is toying with evolutionary dead ends, the time for adjustments is past. The time for activism is past. The only action we can take that is fast enough is to transform our thinking—to wake up.

The THIRD and most important reason we cannot solve our large-scale problems is that there is no "normal" to which society can return. World population has been able to grow to 6.9 billion by using up resources, including oil, arable land, minerals, fish stocks and forests. There is no prospect of feeding everyone on Earth as was done before the age of oil. America's banquet has become musical chairs.

No adjustments to "life as we know it" can solve these problems. In fact, adjustments are how we got where we are. Very large numbers of people have been working earnestly to improve some aspect of public life, but our society is in increasingly severe trouble. We suppose it would just take more people working for the good, or working harder. We suppose the public is in denial and/or discouraged, and they are. But that's not the central point.

Even talking about our interconnected, global COW PUW problems binds us to the story of PROGRESS, and leads us to believe we can make adjustments so that PROGRESS can continue. It cannot. Adjustments to the Progress story ARE the Progress story. Adjustments to the status quo ARE the status quo.


How does a bee know how to communicate with other bees, find flowers, and make honey? We talk about "instincts" that we assume are programmed into their DNA.

Our relatively complicated human "operating systems" are mostly taught to us when we are children. We learn speech, toilet training, table manners, social skills, reading and writing. We learn how the world works, and how to get along in it. We learn what is true and false, right and wrong, possible and impossible. Cultural stories are everything we learn through our whole lives: everything we know or believe.

Our cultural stories appear to us to simply be the way of things: Reality. But because we can point to cultures with very different stories from our own, we see it's not that simple.

We all want to do "what's right," but what is that? Our behaviors tend to reflect our mores and laws, which tend to reflect our beliefs: our cultural stories. The cultural stories, behaviors, laws and institutions of a culture all tend to evolve together. Schools (and other institutions) teach children what the society thinks they should know. The children grow into adults who know "the way of things," and behave more-or-less as the culture thinks they should. The adults then reinforce society's institutions, laws and practices, and teach them to the next generation.

When times are stable, the cultural stories we learn as children prepare us for our roles in society. Our stories unite us, giving us a shared interpretation of the events we all experience. When times are changing, as they are now, our stories may not be equal to the task of preparing us to live successfully in the world as it is. Our cultural stories need to be challenged.

For example, we were all brought up to believe that war was necessary, from time to time, to protect our country. The role of citizens was to trust our leaders, pay our taxes, and make occasional sacrifices--sometimes human sacrifices. Now we find ourselves involved in the military occupation of two countries. We are told that keeping just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year costs $1 million. Why are we there? Trust your leaders and don't ask questions.

There are quite a lot of cultural stories we are not invited to question. Yet our unquestioning obedience has brought us to COW PUW.


Why not simply change our stories, when reason says they no longer serve us?

Our perception deceives us. Deceptive Perception is a mental illusion all normal people experience that gives us the impression that we live in "the real world."

We have five senses, which, we think, anchor us to reality. But in truth, the flow of sensory information coming into us at every moment is so great that our conscious minds couldn't handle it. Our sensory data are filtered through our subconscious minds, eliminating the extraneous, so we can concentrate on the business at hand.

The filtering, however, is based on what we know (or believe we know): our cultural stories. What do we need to see / hear / smell / taste / touch for what we are doing? Depending on our task, our perception may be distracted, narrow, prejudiced, and otherwise subjective.

Our subconscious then knits together "reality" for us, so we have the impression that there is one "real world" in which we all live. Though our worlds are very real to us, WE ALL LIVE IN DIFFERENT WORLDS.

We imagine that other people live in the same world we do. Therefore, when people act in ways we would not, they may seem malicious—or just plain crazy!

Saying the rich and powerful could change society but do not makes it sound as if they are our enemies. They are not.

Almost everyone at almost every time is trying to do what he or she thinks is best under the circumstances. But what are the circumstances?

Every normal person knows many things, only some of which are true.


Earth-as-Garden is a proposal for new cultural stories that would lead to new institutions, mores and laws. The Earth Garden story is a starting point for urging people into behaviors that would give us planetary residents the best hope of happy lives, and a sustainable, healthy and prosperous future.

The Garden paradigm is about planning, preparing, planting, tending, and harvesting, in a cycle that continues sustainably. Scraps and waste are recycled, in a closed system-like the Earth.

Of course, gardens alone do not serve all human needs. What might a community be like that expressed the Garden paradigm?

Community-as-garden would not just grow plants and animals sustainably, but provide all goods and services needed. It would make and distribute clothing, shoes, furniture, tools, hardware, communications, musical instruments, books, means of transportation, medicine, dentistry, education, and so on. Doing so it would provide work not just for gardeners and farmers, but also miners, manufacturers, teachers, doctors, systems analysts, builders, shopkeepers and laborers.

If we envision our communities as gardens, how do we know what belongs, and what doesn't belong? Which are the plants, and which are the weeds?


Four particular Earth Garden principles are Sustainability, Cooperation, Efficiency, and Beauty. Of course, living successfully also requires integrity, independence, trustworthiness, reason, knowledge, and assorted virtues. The need for these latter is already part of our cultural stories.

SUSTAINABILITY. We humans have demonstrated the ability to do adventurous things, like breaking the sound barrier and traveling to the moon. We have created amazing technologies and sophisticated social systems.

But we have been slow to recognize the problems with runaway growth on a finite planet.

In the future, we can't have more people than resources. Every person alive requires food. We can have arbitrarily great wealth, but not for an arbitrarily large population.

We will have to give up unsustainable use of fresh water, oil, coal, natural gas, and give up activities that pollute the ground, air, or water.

Our economy is being crushed by debt that can't be paid pack. That is unsustainable.

Any system or practice that can't be sustained must be changed, or fail. This is obvious. This is reality. If we expect to live in this world for the indefinite future, we must live sustainably. We must sooner or later discard any activity that degrades the environment.

COOPERATION. The "garden" we tend must be the Earth. In an interconnected world, attending to just our community or our country is unsustainable. Since we rely on the global climate, and global resources, and the natural world, our attention must extend to the whole Earth, as well as the community of human beings.

Any plan that would benefit ourselves but would seem unjust to others, can't be adopted. Most people are suspicious of those with different cultural stories. We need plans robust enough to accommodate everyone, and that are transparently fair, or they won't be supported.

Designing a world that works requires brainstorming "far out" possibilities, then trusting ourselves to discard unworkable ideas. We need patience to discuss how to proceed, despite our different perceptions and cultural stories. Our "gut feelings" have failed us in the past. We need logical procedures for coming to agreement.

EFFICIENCY. The present GROWTH-society tolerates a lot of waste.

We build automobiles that are expensive to repair. The original Volkswagen Beetles were built with few changes year over year. This made it possible to keep old cars running using salvaged parts. Of course, manufacturing and selling new cars generates more economic activity than does repairing old cars. In the growth era, waste created wealth. But in a resource-constrained world, waste creates deprivation.

Composting is the ultimate efficiency. Plant waste and garbage become high quality plant food. Waste doesn't accumulate, the plants prosper, the garden thrives, our lives are supported, and the whole system works on renewable solar power. Simple and elegant.

Any human activity that produces waste that doesn't feed another process is unsustainable, but also wasteful and--inefficient.

BEAUTY. Earth-as-garden must be cooperative and harmonious, but also beautiful. If we grow the human population beyond the point where everyone can have a good life, including healthy food, shelter, basic education, healthcare and other human rights-then not everyone will have a good life. Such a situation could be sustainable, in the sense that famine and plague will always limit population. But is it good? Is it beautiful?

People will resist a plan that they don't experience as good, and right. The paradigm must change, but our need to do what we think is right -- cannot change.

What shall we take with us into the Garden? Beliefs, institutions and practices that are sustainable, cooperative, efficient, and beautiful


Gardening is what God does. The sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night; rains come; seeds grow; and animals, including ourselves, eat of his garden.

Consider the butterflies, the birds, the bees, and the babbling brooks: the Creator is making beauty. The Creator is writing a beautiful story, in which we get to play a part. That's not a trivial role for us human beings.

Atheists, don't be put off by this wording. Just observe: the Universe creates life.

We parents love and try to protect our children. Suppose there is a God, who created us all. Would we expect that God to be a less loving, less caring parent than we ourselves?

We human parents can't guarantee the success of our children. They must be able to make mistakes, or they can't grow. But we try to provide them a successful path forward.

The creative elements of the Universe have given humankind an impressive DNA inheritance, rich historical experiences, and a planetary home with abundant resources and beauty.

A billion-year successful future is possible for humankind, if we choose to claim it. But it is not guaranteed; it can slip through our fingers.

If there is a path to a successful human future, then ordinary reason tells us how to follow it. Considering the effects of our actions on the next seven generations, for example, is a good start.

Cause and effect apply. In these times, we are badly served by the notion of an impatient and warlike God. If our religious beliefs conflict with meeting society's present needs, our religious beliefs must be updated.

If we believe we can have a billion-year successful future, we can release ourselves from incremental thinking, and explore ways to make human life truly wonderful.


My activist friends are in a hurry to "do something" to "make a difference." We know that things break and need to be fixed, and we should fix them. If we can't fix them personally, we report them to the authorities. When that doesn't work, we protest, or "struggle against" unjust people or policies or institutions, hoping they will fix them.

This approach assumes that our civilization is essentially on the right path, and relatively minor adjustments will serve.

What can we do if our social systems aren't broken, but are wrong for the times? Suppose we are a caterpillar, but need to be a butterfly? The butterfly we need to be is not a caterpillar with wings, but something entirely different. The caterpillar doesn't need to be protested, but transformed.

Here's something you can do. Every day, set a timer for 10 minutes. For that time, give yourself a vacation from business as usual:

FIRST, discharge any ANGER you may have at people, institutions, or policies. Yell and scream if you have a suitable place. If you are keeping any enemies, confront them if it will help, but get your anger out without doing harm. Then forgive everyone.

SECOND, if you have time left, take a vacation from WORRY. Give yourself permission to look at our global circumstances without fear. Remember that no matter how serious things may appear, nothing will get appreciably worse during your 10 minutes.

THIRD, if you have time left, consider what a sustainable future that works for everyone might look like. ENTER THE GARDEN and look at the fruits of sustainable, efficient, cooperative and beautiful choices.

If you find envisioning the Garden hard, then read, or talk to others about their ideas. Quite a lot of people are working on transforming society.

LASTLY, if you have time left, APPRECIATE your world. Bring to mind everything for which you are grateful. Gratitude helps possibility thinking.

How, asks the PROGRESS mind, can this inner work address our outer COW PUW situation?

In the PROGRESS dream, it cannot. Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz clicks together her red slippers and says "There's no place like home." In Oz these are nonsensical acts. But Oz is the dream! Dorothy has to wake up to return to Kansas.

Realization of the outer EARTH GARDEN will have to wait for more people to wake up. Lots of people are waking up, and leadership is emerging. But that is almost beside the point.

When we were growing up, we weren't told we could choose the story we live in, but we can. Once we wake up to the state of the Earth, we think differently. We hear the conversations around us in a different way. We have new options. We are already free of the dream.

We see that the Earth is already a great garden. The sun evaporates water and rain falls. Plants grow. Abundance and possibilities surround us.

The inner EARTH GARDEN is ours as soon as we claim it. The Universe is already biased toward abundant life, and we can cooperate with it. We can plan, and plant and prune our share of the garden. We can be patient, appreciative, grounded, and secure.

Ready or not, the world is changing. The most important contribution you can make to the change is to bring the EARTH GARDEN inside yourself.

You can live in the Garden at every moment, starting now.

Hank Stone
December 29, 2010