Examining Dependence on Harmful Systems and Exploring Alternatives

Humans have developed a variety of systems for meeting their needs and desires. Some of these systems are ultimately causing harm to people and the planet. Nevertheless, many people are dependent on these systems to meet their needs. If we are to last as a species, we must work towards attaining independence from harmful systems. To achieve this independence, we must create and grow peaceful, voluntary, sustainable alternatives that can meet our needs.

“Relational-cultural theory” focuses on the concept of “social connection.” Although the term “connection” is used commonly to refer to any kind of relationship, relational-cultural theory defines connection as an “interaction between two or more people that is mutually empathic and mutually empowering. It involves emotional accessibility and leads to the “five good things” (zest, worth, productivity, clarity, and desire for more connection).” Individuals are said to operate at their most efficient when they are connected to others in a healthy way.  It is proposed, however, that much of the world is living in states of “chronic disconnection” and “condemned isolation”.  Aggression and power struggles regularly interfere with the ability of individuals to connect to one another leaving a sense of loneliness and isolation.  With this said, many current systems of the world seem to be based around the concepts of power, aggression, and the initiation of force, fraud, and coercion.  As a result, these practices tend to promote chronic disconnection and isolation in society, as well as further the cycle of aggressive violence, coercion, and fraud. An alternative is to build and grow intentional communities centered on mutually empathic and mutually empowering connection, unanimous consent, and peaceful, voluntary interaction.

With much of the world living in environments characterized by the widespread and systematic use of aggressive practices, it doesn’t seem surprising that a large portion of society struggles with chronic physical and mental ills related to distressed states.  Many of these individuals lack access to medical care. Further, although modern medical interventions and technology are highly effective for emergency procedures and symptom management, many forms of dis-ease are not healed through these methods. “Complementary and alternative” methods have been said to provide sometimes instant symptom relief for many conditions and to ultimately promote healing.  Most of these approaches are noninvasive, non-addictive and manifest no negative side effects, yet are commonly underutilized and disincentivized in favor of pharmaceutical and other invasive interventions.

Conventional agriculture suffers from numerous problems, mostly stemming from the widespread reliance on farming practices that treat natural patterns as an enemy to be conquered, instead of an ally to be integrated into a sustainable and productive land-use design. Much of the food that is affordable and available to the average person is produced through practices such as the “factory farming” of livestock, wherein animals are kept standing in their own excrement in overcrowded pens, fed unnatural foods, and heavily medicated to treat the symptoms of living in such unhealthy conditions. Monoculture, where crops are segregated and grown in rows or even entire fields of a single species, is a related common practice that, while seemingly beneficial in that it makes machine-harvesting easier, often ends up resulting in more problems. The resulting problems, such as greater susceptibility to diseases and pests, are then “treated” via methods such as genetic modification and chemical pesticides, only to result in yet more problems. Other conventional methods, such as tilling the soil and adding chemical fertilizers, are also commonly used in spite of their tendency to disrupt the growth of beneficial microorganisms and break up underground networks that distribute nutrients and moisture.  Access to sustainably produced, healthy, organic food is often suppressed or disincentivized in favor of the highly-processed food-products of an unsustainable agricultural system causing harm to people and the planet. Permaculture is an alternative that utilizes biologically diverse small-scale perennial polyculture gardening methods to produce food as part of an integrated land-use design. Bill Mollison has described permaculture as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than premature and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single project system.”

Conventional construction is another area where implementing permaculture alternatives may reduce reliance on harmful systems. Many buildings, residential and otherwise, seem to be designed with little regard for their long-term efficiency or the natural environment in which they are set. As a result, their inhabitants are rendered dependent on external systems for food, energy, water, and waste disposal. Common design problems include: building with expensive non-local materials where suitable local materials are available, using building methods that require expensive highly-trained experts when simpler methods are available, ignoring or not fully utilizing the renewable energy of the sun, ignoring or not fully utilizing the renewable resource of rainwater, excessive reliance on electrical or “automatic” systems without manual backups, attempting to heat space rather than mass, and the use of septic systems. On the other hand, designing human habitats not as isolated systems but as integral parts of the environment in which they are set may ultimately turn out to be more ecologically and economically sound.

Septic and sewage systems are inherently wasteful and harmful, and yet these systems are the most commonly used and regularly mandated in this part of the world. The origin of the word “septic” is the Greek word “septikos,” meaning “to make putrid”. Conventional septic systems are not designed to kill the human pathogens that inhabit human excrement, which can be accomplished simply by the natural process of thermophilic decomposition. Instead, with every flush, nutrient-rich human excrement, (along with several gallons of clean water,) is piped into a tank to be stored in a water-logged anaerobic environment, and essentially prevented from thermophilically decomposing. Some of this now putrefied water is then leached into the ground, (usually below the rhizosphere where plant roots cannot access and filter it,) and can eventually end up in the groundwater supply. Meanwhile, the sludge that sinks to the bottom of the tank is usually pumped out and trucked elsewhere at great expense, to be “treated” with the toxic chemical chlorine and often eventually drained to the ocean. Water is an extremely valuable resource in a world where 1.2 billion people lack access to clean water, and properly composted humanure is an extremely valuable resource that can be used to grow food in a world where over 900 million people are hungry. Despite this, many people are dependent on sewage and septic systems that waste huge amounts of these valuable resources and cause severe harm to ecosystems in the process. A proposed permaculture alternative would include using a sawdust toilet as part of a well-maintained thermophilic composting system and implementing a graywater recycling system.

Another problem is the widespread reliance on centralized, monopolized electrical grid systems. Such systems inherently lack the resilience of local and decentralized electricity generating systems. During “blackouts,” people that are reliant on the grid are suddenly cut off from access to electricity, and when coupled with design problems like excessive reliance on automatic systems without manual backups, this can have serious consequences such as lack of access to basic needs. Furthermore, grid power is often produced by unsustainable methods such as the burning of fossil fuels, or dangerous methods such as nuclear fission. Using renewable resources like solar and wind, localizing and decentralizing energy production, and designing human habitats with manual backup systems, are proposed alternatives that can strengthen resilience and reduce dependence on the power grid.

Clearly, widespread reliance on harmful systems is a vast and complex problem. A multi-pronged approach to reducing dependence on harmful systems takes into account the ways in which these systems interact and reinforce one another, and attempts to create an alternative paradigm that is self-consistent and itself composed of mutually reinforcing systems. This author proposes as a solution: intentionally creating communities based on social connection and unanimous consent, integrating permaculture insights into their design and operations, and holistically practicing complementary and alternative healing methods.

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