Michael Dowd: Standing for the Future

Michael Dowd

The former pastor, Rev. Michael Dowd, is best known as the author of the best-selling book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. Dowd is a religious naturalist (“Religious naturalism (RN) combines a naturalist worldview with perceptions and values commonly associated with religions”), an eco-theologian and a pro-science evangelist. His passion for proclaiming a nature-honoring message of inspiration – what he calls “Right Relationship with Reality” – has earned him the title “Rev. Reality.”  Michael and his science writer and climate activist wife, Connie Barlow, have dedicated themselves to an itinerant life of permanent travel across North America, speaking out about our sacred responsibility to future generations.

According to their website, their core message is this: “What matters most now, individually and collectively, is to honor Grace Limits, and be a stand for the future, in word and deed.”

What does it mean to honor Grace Limits? Dowd considers Grace Limits to be “the inescapable, geological, ecological, and thermodynamic constraints to which humanity must rapidly adjust.”  He explains:

Both the nonrenewable (“stock”) resources and the renewable (“flow”) resources upon which we depend I call natural grace. The one-time endowments of stock resources and the sustainable use rates of flow resources are both necessarily constrained on a finite planet. These constraints I call grace limits. These are the limits that ecologists point to when discerning carrying capacity. When we overshoot Earth’s bounty and renewal capacities, we effectively remove ourselves from paradise and put ourselves on the path to hell. To learn to recognize and then scrupulously honor carrying capacity as Reality’s grace limits is a task to which the authors included [on his Grace Limits Audios page] are devoted. I think of these advocates as prophets of sacred realism, or factual faith. Each one, in his or her own way, reveals how the future is calling us to greatness. If we hope to spare our grandchildren from hell and spare ourselves their condemnation, we must now urgently attend to, not just personal piety, but systemic piety. We must immediately begin measuring ‘progress’ and ‘success’ in long-term, life-centered ways, rather than short-term, human-centered ways; nothing is more important than this.

Dowd’s Grace Limits Audios are an amazing resource. He’s spent innumerable hours recording in downloadable audio format the best work of a wide array of the most important sustainability and resilience authors – and all available for free download. Some of the authors represented include William R. Catton, Jr., John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, Thomas Berry, JoAnna Macy, Lynn Margulis, Samuel Alexander, Tom Wessells, Erik Lindberg, Walter Youngquist, Theo Kitchener, and more.  In addition to his own audio recordings of these works, he also provides a plethora of links to online information and presentations of others. A wealth of education is available here.


Dowd’s own recent work is perhaps best summarized in a 5 page essay, Evidential Medicine for Our Collective Soul: What’s Inevitable? What’s Redemptive?,” published in “Oneing” (Aug. 2016, Vol 4 No. 2), the quarterly publication put out by Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation.  A 19 minute audio recording of this essay is also available.

In this essay, Dowd notes that a new “Evidential Reformation” is coming into being, where all forms of evidence are coming to be valued equally and religiously. This includes scientific, historic, cross-cultural, and experiential evidence and includes, as Pope Francis has declared, ecology becoming integral to theology. Faith leaders such as Pope Francis (Roman Catholic), Patriarch Bartholomew (Easter Orthodox), and the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhist) are all at the forefront of this reformation that Rev. Dowd is calling “Religion 3.0.”

However, Dowd warns us that “the noble sentiments that spawned care for Creation are no match for the crises now spinning out of control.” He writes that “It is time for a prophetic turbo-charging of our religious traditions. Foremost is the need to expand beyond the self-focus of individual salvation of enlightenment to also include vital community concerns – notably, survival.”

In the section of the essay addressing “What’s Inevitable?,” Dowd outlines a series of predicaments.  Not problems that can be addressed and solved, but predicaments that we must live through and deal with – hence, what is inevitable. He discusses climate chaos, sea level rise, the end of the fossil fuel era, political unrest, toxic legacy, biodiversity catastrophe, cultural loss, and the unraveling of worldviews. He states that to stay relevant, religions will need to foster not only personal wholeness, but also social coherence and ecological integrity. Dowd prophetically calls us as individuals to “voluntarily sacrifice [our] own comfort and security in service of safeguarding cultural treasures through a dark age.” He invites us to embark on legacy projects that are meaningful to us:

“Love something, learn something, let something go, and pass something forward.”

In the next section on “What’s Redemptive?,” he advises that we can’t compensate for the ecological devastation that has already occurred, nor can we fully reverse the ongoing effects of past behavior. He calls us, as a prodigal species, to come home to reality and set a new course.  “If we treat primary reality as anything other than primary, there will be consequences.”

To realign with Reality means that we must redefine “progress,” and learn that the success of any species depends upon learning to thrive within the limits of carrying capacity of the ecological system that we inhabit. He writes:

It is time to integrate carrying capacity into our theologies. Toward this end, I now speak of “grace limits.” The bounds that delimit safe levels of human use of other creatures and their habitats are there by natural grace. By staying within those bounds, we experience the grace of God’s nature. To venture beyond – which we have done, excessively – we suffer “God’s wrath” via storms, drought, floods, wildfires, rising and acidifying oceans, and in a great dying.

The call to action for religious adherents is this: to first learn about, then reflect upon, and finally evolve our worldviews. Henceforth, the unbending grace limits of God’s nature, combined with carrying capacity deficits inflicted by a century of human overpopulation and extravagant consumption (i.e. “overshoot”) will constrain even our noblest aims and thus the bounds of our efforts.

Dowd concludes the essay with his own ‘top ten’ list: “Reality’s Rules: Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction and Redeem Humanity.” These are what he considers to be “the limitations on our behavior essential for human communities to persist over the long term,” or the “constraints that our species must now impose on itself while navigating crises of our own creation.” The first five commandments help to disabuse us of an unreal notion of God, and the last five offer a way back into a right relationship with primary reality. The “commandments” are framed in traditional religious language:

“Thus sayeth the Lord”

  1. Stop thinking of me as anything less than the voice of undeniable and inescapable reality.
  2. Stop thinking of ‘revelation’ or ‘divine instruction’ without including evidence.
  3. Stop thinking of Genesis, or your creation story, apart from the history of the universe.
  4. Stop thinking of theology apart from ecology: the interdisciplinary study of my nature.
  5. Stop defining and measuring ‘progress’ in short-term, human-centered ways.
  6. Stop allowing the free or subsidized polluting of the commons.
  7. Stop using renewable resources faster than they can be replenished.
  8. Stop using non-renewable resources in ways that harm or rob future generations.
  9. Stop exploring for coal, oil, and natural gas—keep most of it in the ground.
  10. Stop prioritizing the wants of the wealthy over the needs of the poor.

* * *

 A 17 minute video is available that sums up the message of the above essay: “Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction: Reality’s Rules.”

A full and expanded presentation of the ideas presented in the essay is also available as a 3-part video series.  I highly recommend this. I feel it is well worth the investment of time.  Part 1 is below, and runs for 55 minutes.  Standing for the Future (Part 1 of 3): “Evidential Reformation: Facts as Scripture; Ecology as Theology”

Michael and Connie are currently engaged in a speaking tour in the northwest U.S., with upcoming vists to Edmonds, Whidbey Island, Seattle, Orcas Island, and Bellingham, WA, in January 2017.  Check out their itinerary here. Our Transition Whatcom event listing is here – Jan. 22nd (Sunday morning) and Jan. 23rd (Monday evening), both at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship.



3 Minutes of Wisdom from Robyn Francis

Robyn Francis is one of the 26 contributors to Permaculture Pioneers – stories from the new frontier. In this short interview, introduced by co-editor Kerry Dawborn, Robyn talks about how permaculture informs everything in her life now, how permaculture brings a sense of hope during tumultuous times, and how the movement needs to find a better balance between the human ‘people care’ element and the practical physical systems.”

From http://holmgren.com.au/an-interview-with-permaculture-pioneer-robyn-francis/

International Permaculture Day

Today is International Permaculture Day.



This is a good time to consider the investment ideas from the Permaculture movement:

“The time now is of transition, of asking yourself, where do I want my money? Where do I invest my time? Start with yourself. Research this idea of the Great Reskilling and ask yourself what you know already, what you want to know, and what you need! How can you be so much more  than just a “consumer”? What can you produce? What can we produce together? Let’s produce a legacy worth saving.”

– Kenton Zerbin

See Investing: The Option They Never Told You About at the Permaculture Research Institute

Permaculture As a Design System

David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept, defines it like this:

“permaculture is a ‘design system based on ecological principles’ (see below) which provides the organising framework for implementing the above vision. In this more limited, but important sense it draws together the diverse skills and ways of living which need to be rediscovered and developed to empower us to move from being dependant consumers to becoming responsible producers.

In this sense, permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building or eco-village development as such, but can be used to design, establish, manage and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future.”

Co-originator of the permaculture concept, David Holmgren, gives an overview of the design principles as thinking tools that when used together allow us to creatively redesign our environment and our behaviour in a world of less energy and resources. Explore the permaculture ethics and design principles further by visiting www.permacultureprinciples.com.

NodoEspiral: What is Integral Permaculture?

This blog has just had a visit from NodoEspiral – permaculturescience.org. I want to share a video they created in 2010 as a promotional for their online Permaculture Design Certificate +++ course.  It’s a nice 5 minute video giving an overview of part of what the course covers in terms of answering the question, “What is Integral Permaculture?” 

Principles for the Pulse that is Peak Oil

From PatternDynamics (TM) by Tim Winton

From PatternDynamics (TM) by Tim Winton

A comment has just appeared below my post on The Wave/Pulse of Human History.  “The Emergist” writes:

Nice article. Fun to see you weave together the separate stories. I didn’t know Holmgren was into Odum. How do you see the idea of pulsing as changing your approach to design, specifically bridging the gap between pulses? Or do you think there isn’t much we can do as individuals to bridge larger scale pulses?

I thought I’d answer here, as my Earth Day blog post.  It seems appropriate to honor David Holmgren and Howard T. Odum on Earth Day, so much of this post will be extended excerpts from Holmgren’s 1994 article Energy and Permaculture.

Yes, Odum has been a huge influence on Holmgren (perhaps as much or more as his ‘in the flesh’ mentor Bill Mollison).  As far back as the first Permaculture book (“Permaculture One”), with Holmgren as lead author, the first footnoted reference was to Howard T. Odum.

In the 1994 article, Holmgren writes:

The work of ecologist Howard Odum provided a theoretical framework and conceptual tool which was critical in the development of the permaculture concept. In the 1970’s there was a flurry of research in this field but it declined along with oil prices in the 1980’s. Odum was one of the leading ecologists who developed a systems approach to the study of human/environment interactions. He uses energy as a currency to compare and quantify the whole spectrum of natural and man-made elements and processes.

Odum’s ecosystem approach:
  • Analyses ecosystem elements and processes in terms of energy flows, storages. transformations. feedbacks, and sinks.
  • incorporates non-living and living elements of the natural environment.
  • and incorporates human systems and economies as an integral part of the natural world.

As I wrote in my post about the Pulse, “Howard Odum was of the opinion that all systems on all scales pulse.  Storages gradually accumulate, consumers consume and develop, and eventually decline, and then dispersing materials that will be used in the next pulse.” And if “energy flows, storages, transformations, feedbacks, and sinks” are central to any system, man-made or otherwise, we can see that the peaking of world oil production is going to have a huge effect.

So, how does the idea of pulsing change one’s approach to design?

First, you’ve got to estimate where you are in the pulsing cycle.  In this case meaning, where are we currently on Hubbert’s Curve? And second, if your trajectory on the pulse is changing, then you’ve got to change as well. Time to do a reset on your design. Adapt or die.

The-Oil-Age-a-Game-of-Two-Halves-490x303[M. King Hubbert drew this graph circa 1956, showing his estimate for the peaking of world oil production. Comments inside the graph from Rob Hopkins, published in The Transition Companion]

Many of us believe we are now at or near the peak of this graph. This means two things. One, we don’t have to judge as “wrong” our culture’s past use of oil (at least until we learned of its affect on climate) – Odum told us that all systems maximize use of available power.  Two, when you approach and enter the downside of the pulse, you can’t continue operating as if the pulse were continuing to climb upwards.  Systems have to adapt to changing circumstances – especially when it’s a change in available energy.

Howard Odum, in A Prosperous Way Down:

What is appropriate during one stage may be poor policy in another stage,” he wrote. “For example, for a system in a stage of descent, it will not be good policy to foster growth that is no longer possible.”

And here is how Holmgren put it (more from Energy and Permaculture):

Odum’s work shows exactly how and why it is impossible to avoid those rules in any case without the need to resort to moral injunctions. High-energy industrial society is revealed as a quite natural response to fossil fuel abundance but maladapted in every way to a low energy future.

If there is a single most important insight for permaculture from Odum’s work it is that solar energy and its derivatives are our only sustainable source of life. Forestry and agriculture are the primary (and potentially self-supporting) systems of solar energy harvesting available. Technological development will not change this basic fact. It should be possible to design land use systems which approach the solar energy harvesting capacities of natural systems while providing humanity with its needs. This was the original premise of the permaculture concept. While available solar energy may represent some sort of ultimate limit to productivity it is other factors which primarily limit it.

Here is where the Permaculture Principles come in. Our culture is currently embedded in principles (acknowledged or not) that are adapted toward energy ascent, the left side of the pulse.  We need now to consciously embrace principles that are adapted for energy descent, the right side of the pulse. The principles that will serve us best will be those that “use energy as a currency to compare and quantify the whole spectrum of natural and man-made elements and processes.”

Holmgren continues:

Odum states, “Those systems that survive in competition among alternative choices are those that develop more power (rate of energy flow) inflow and use it to meet the needs of survival.” They do this by–
  • 1. developing storages of high-quality energy

  • 2. feeding back work from the storages to increase inflows

  • 3. recycling materials as needed

  • 4. organizing control mechanisms that keep the system adapted and stable

  • 5. setting up exchanges with other systems to supply special energy needs, and

  • 6. contributing useful work to the surrounding environmental systems that helps maintain favorable conditions, e.g.. micro-organisms’ contribution to global climate regulation or mountain forests’ contribution to rainfall.

When fossil fuel energy is abundant, systems can achieve the above differently than when fossil fuels become scarce.  When the net energy yields decline from fossil energy, then we change our approach to design by aligning more with natural systems to achieve the above.  Holmgren’s 1994 article laid out some of the foundations that were later developed into his Permaculture Principles (you can read them online here) that were discussed in his classic book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I agree with Stuart B. Hill, who wrote, “If the ‘Permaculture Principles’ that David Holmgren discusses in this extremely important book were applied to all that we do, we would be well on the road to sustainability, and beyond.” But here are the ideas as expressed by Holmgren in 1994:

Holmgren’s Sustainability Test
  • Does the system work to catch and store water and nutrients for as long as possible and as high as possible within its catchment landscape?
  • How does it compare with the performance of pristine natural systems as well as wild and naturally regenerated ones (weeds included)?
  • It is possible for managed productive landscapes to collect and store energy more effectively than pristine systems by the careful use of external, often non-renewable energies.
If net energy availability were to increase (through some optimistic/horrific realization of biotechnological dreams or some other current technological fantasy) then The Maximum Power Principle suggests that nothing would stop humanity transforming itself beyond recognition. This would be necessary to absorb and use that energy while pushing back the environmental debt yet again as has been done on a much smaller scale in previous millennia. In such a case, permaculture would be buried in the debris of history, while most existing human culture and values would be swept aside by an avalanche of change.
On the other hand, if net energy is declining, as more people have come to realize is the case, then attempts to maintain materialist culture based on growth economics are counterproductive, irrespective of any moral judgments. The permaculture strategy of using existing storages of energy (materials, technology, and information) to build cultivated ecosystems which efficiently harvest solar energy is precisely adaptive.

To summarize…

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (in that order).
  • Grow a garden and eat what it produces.
  • Avoid imported resources where possible.
  • Use labor and skill in preference to materials and technology.
  • Design, build, and purchase for durability and repairability.
  • Use resources for their greatest potential use (e.g. electricity for tools and lighting, food scraps for animal feed).
  • Use renewable resources wherever possible even if local environmental costs appear higher (e.g. wood rather than electricity for fuel and timber rather than steel for construction).
  • Use non-renewable and embodied energies primarily to establish sustainable systems
    (e.g. passive solar housing, food gardens, water storage, forests).
  • When using high technology (e.g. computers) avoid using state of the art equipment.
  • Avoid debt and long-distance commuting.
  • Reduce taxation by earning less.
  • Develop a home-based lifestyle, be domestically responsible.
Emergist, thanks for the question! I love opportunities to refer to the above Holmgren essay.  Perhaps my favorite two essays are Holmgren’s Energy and Permaculture and Odum’s Energy, Ecology, and Economics, published 20 years earlier, in 1974, by Mother Earth News.

Mitt Romney’s Energy Plan

A lot of environmental organizations are pointing out that Mitt Romney laughed about climate change during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

I don’t think it’s so funny when I’m reading every day about the current reality of a warming world. See if you laugh when you read these stories about arctic sea ice reaching a record low.

In 2011, Romney himself said:

“I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that. It’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors.” Source: Reuters

Romney has also just released an Energy Policy Whitepaper, which sets a goal of “North America Energy Independence by 2020.”  Chris Nedler has a nice piece on it, “Romney’s Energy Plan Follows the Money.”

In brief, I’ll mention that one of Romney’s sources is an already discredited report by oil executive (disguised as an academic) Leonardo Maugeri. The basic idea is that we’ve got plenty of oil and natural gas in North America, and if we’ll only exploit it, we can become energy independent in a few short years.  Of course, every president since Nixon has talked about energy independence, but for some reason we never  accomplish it.

I could point to hundreds of sources demonstrating why it is impossible to continue economic growth and achieve  energy independence at the same time, but the shortest way to get the point across is to share this new short video by Richard Heinberg.

Like Romney’s position on climate change, his position on ‘peak oil’ seems to have changed as a presidential candidate.  In his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, he made the following comment:

“Many analysts predict that the world’s production of oil will peak in the next ten to twenty years, but oil expert Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, presents a compelling case that Middle Eastern oil production may have already reached its peak.  Simmons bases his contention on his investigation into the highly secretive matter of the level of reserves in the Saudi oil fields. But whether the peak is already past or will be reached within a few years, world oil supply will decline at some point, and no one predicts a corresponding decline in demand. If we want America to remain strong and wish to ensure that future generations have secure and prosperous lives, we must consider our current energy policies in the light of how these policies will affect our grandchildren.” (p. 233)

The Romney Energy Agenda is as follows:

  • Empower states to control onshore energy development;
  • Open offshore areas for energy development;
  • Pursue a North American Energy Partnership;
  • Ensure accurate assessment of energy resources;
  • Restore transparency and fairness to permitting and regulation; and
  • Facilitate private-sector-led development of new energy technologies.

Romney talks about states rights because, he points out, “it now takes a shocking 307 days to receive [a federal] permit to drill a new well.”  In contrast, a state permit in North Dakota can take 10 days, or 27 days in Colorado, or 14 days in Ohio.

Romney assures us that these processes do not impose greater environmental risks.  Instead, he argues, “states are far better able to develop, adopt, and enforce regulations based on their unique resources, geology, and local concerns.”

Am I the only one just a wee bit suspicious about that claim? Apparently not. Chris Nedler comments, “the Romney plan’s pretensions to defending states’ rights are naught but a transparent effort to break down all remaining barriers to oil and gas exploration on federal lands.”  I’ll delve into this issue of local rights vs. states rights vs. national rights a bit deeper in my next post.

To the other bullet points, opening more areas up to offshore drilling is not going to help much.  Offshore production has been expanding, and as long as we’re willing to pay more and more (including paying for the environmental and climate costs) this cannot continue for a too much longer.  High oil prices makes drilling in ever deeper waters possible, but even here there are limits. The limits may be set by the next economic downturn (likely), or by geological limits.  They work in tandem.

Pursuing a North American Energy Partnership means approving the Keystone XL pipeline, and encouraging the continued development of tar sands in Canada.  Mexico, a former oil producing powerhouse, is now past it’s own peak in oil production.  Just the fact that Romney places such an emphasis on offshore oil and Canadian tar sands speaks volumes. This is what peak oil looks like: when conventional oil sources become harder to get, we then go after the difficult, high priced oil.  As Richard Heinberg points out, “It’s high oil prices that make unconventional oil worth producing in the first place.”

“Ensure accurate assessment of energy resources” – in principle this is a great idea.  There is indeed much confusion and obfuscation about the data.  Reliable data was one of the first and primary requests of the peak oil community. However, Romney’s plan is primarily geared toward allowing more exploration anywhere and everywhere.  The plan says “There is no excuse for placing any area so far off limits that its potential cannot even be determined.” The suggestion again is that too many regulations and restrictions are to blame our lack of energy independence.  The truth is, the United States has been extensively explored, and there are unlikely to be significant new findings.  It also should be recognized that energy resources do have significant environmental and climate change consequences, and each of these consequences carries financial costs as well.

Restoring “transparency and fairness” means reforming statutes and regulations that “have been seized on by environmentalists as tools to stop development altogether.” Romney wants to reverse the meager regulatory gains accomplished in the 40 years since the first Earth Day.  See above.

“Facilitate private-sector-led development…” The detail under this bullet point comes back again to “Strengthening and streamlining regulations and permitting processes…”  It encourages permitting nuclear power, and discourages subsidizing renewables (“distorting the playing field”), yet without mentioning elimination of the huge subsidies the fossil fuel industries now receive.  It has been estimated that Congress provides the oil, coal, and gas industries between $10 and $52 billion per year.

This brings us back to Chris Nedler’s article: Romney’s Energy Plan Follows the Money.

This should surprise no one since, according to Lipton and Krauss in the Times yesterday, Romney received nearly $10 million from the oil and gas industry just this week. Romney’s chief energy adviser is shale oil baron Harold Hamm, one of his top super PAC donors, who stands to benefit handsomely if Romney takes the reins. Oil and gas employees and their families are the sixth-largest source of donations to the Republican National Committee, as Jim Snyder and Kasia Klimasinska reported for Bloomberg today, and the industry as a whole is the tenth-largest contributor to the Romney campaign. The fossil-fuel tycoon Koch brothers alone have personally contributed over $60 million to Romney’s campaign.

As I detailed in my data roundup on energy industry lobbying two weeks ago, if you want to understand U.S. energy policy, all you need to do is follow the money. That is precisely what Mitt Romney is doing.

I hope to do a post like this on Barack Obama’s Energy Plan as well.  I suspect it will look more favorable than Romney’s, but please don’t expect a glowing review for Mr. Obama.  Keep in mind that Obama had a radio ad in Ohio with “a decidedly pro-coal message.

Dirty Energy Money pervades both sides of the aisle in U.S. politics.