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Notes from Underground

Book reviews:

Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets

The Global Class War by Jeff Faux

Healthy Money, Healthy Planet by Deirdre Kent

Home Enlightenment by Annie B. Bond

Independent America by Heather Hughes & Hanson Hosein


MYCELIUM RUNNING: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World
by Paul Stamets
Ten Speed Press, 352 pages, 2005, $35

Reviewed by Starhawk

If humans as a species and complex human culture are to survive the myriad ecological and social catastrophes looming over our future, we desperately need to rethink our relationship with the natural world. We need to shift from a model of controlling nature to one of listening to her and learning from her. We need to forgo arrogance in favor of humility, a word from the same root as humus, its core meaning to bend low to the earth.

No one is better equipped to guide us through this process than Paul Stamets, the shaman of fungi. Over the last few years, Paul Stamets has been electrifying audiences at Green Festivals and Bioneers conferences with his research on fungi and their multiple uses in earth healing. People come away from his slide shows starry-eyed, their despair about the state of the global ecosystem temporarily in abeyance. Now he has collected his research into a new book. We writers like to believe that the words we put on paper will somehow save the world. Stamet's book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, just might do it. Stamets has turned his vision to the ground, to contemplate the lowly fungi. In so doing, he has discovered powerful allies of healing and fertility.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies, the reproductive organs, of mycelia, much larger, underground webs of threadlike structures. Mycelium plays a hugely important role in the life of a forest. The hyphae, or threads, hold the soil, improving its structure and ability to absorb water and nutrients. Mycelium excretes enzymes that break down decaying matter and wood, transforming them into soil, recycling nutrients and preparing the ground for other forms of life. Mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic with plant roots, extending their reach and allowing them to transfer nutrients. The e mycelium that permeates soil is sensitive to information, and Stamets begins this book with a chapter on mushroom mycelium as “nature's internet.”

His experimentation and careful documentation have led him to discover fungi's astounding capabilities. Mushrooms are a nutritious food, high in protein, and many are powerful medicinals with antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer properties. The enzymes secreted by mycelia can destroy pathogens, and mushrooms can be used for mycofiltration to treat contaminated water.

Because mushrooms break down tough, organic compounds like the lignins and cellulose in wood, they have evolved the ability to split chemical bonds. In mycoremediation, mushroom mycelium is used to clean up oil spills and break down toxins in contaminated soil. Heavy metals cannot be broken down, because they are elements, but they can be taken up in mushroom fruiting bodies and safely disposed of. Stamets has also discovered mycopesticides.

Many mycelia attract insects, and some have evolved to then kill their insect hosts. Stamets has developed methods of ant and termite control using mushroom mycelia that are safe (for everything but the insects), nontoxic, and enormously effective. He now has research on fungi that can neutralize smallpox, anthrax, and nerve gas.

The first section of his book details these discoveries and more. The second section is the how-to part, filled with valuable information on ways to cultivate mushrooms and grow mycelium.

Stamets' company, Fungi Perfecti, www.fungi.com, sells mushroom spawn, spores, and everything related. Nevertheless, Stamets has generously packed this section with the low-tech methods of propagating mushrooms without buying spawn. It includes a chapter on gardening with mushrooms. The final section describes many of the most useful species. The book is lavishly illustrated, with beautiful photographs of mushrooms, drawings of the stages of the mushroom life cycle, and electron microscopy of spores and gills and life processes.

Mycelium Running is an invaluable resource for anyone involved in earth healing, permaculture, forestry, gardening, or bioremediation. I use it in the permaculture courses I teach, which now always include a section on the multiple uses of fungi. And it's a key resource for the work I've been doing in New Orleans with the Common Ground Bioremediation Project, teaching methods of healing toxic soil using natural means.

Okay, I admit it — Paul Stamets is also a friend of mine, and besides being a genius, he's a really nice guy. But even if he weren't, even if he'd run off with my lover or fleeced my old grandma in a shady real estate deal, I'd have to rave about this book. It's expensive, $35, but worth every penny.

For if we succeed in moving through this crisis time, and making the transformation to a just and balanced world, fungi will play a vital role in sustaining health and creating abundance. And we'll have Paul Stamets to thank, for teaching us how to reach out and enlist their aid.


Starhawk, www.starhawk.org, is an activist, organizer, and author of The Earth Path, Webs of Power, The Fifth Sacred Thing, The Spiral Dance, and other books on feminism, politics, and earthbased spirituality. She does trainings in permaculture design and peace and justice activism (for more information, see www.earthactivisttraining.org and www.rantcollective.net).


THE GLOBAL CLASS WAR: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future—and What It Will Take To Win It Back
by Jeff Faux
Wiley, 2006, 292 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Chuck Collins

Globalization is producing not just a borderless market, but also a borderless class system. The result, as Jeff Faux, founder of the DC-based Economic Policy Institute, argues in his new book, is that U.S. standards of living will inevitably decline. As Faux observes, we are only just beginning to understand how “far up the pyramid of privilege the fl oodwaters of America's competitive crisis are going to reach.”

The news media suggest that we look at the world in terms of political parties, nation states, and national interests, but the corporate ruling elite has gone bi-partisan, wireless, and borderless. Faux calls this global governing group the “Party of Davos,” referring to the annual gathering of the world's business leaders at a ski resort in Switzerland. This party is well organized, shares a worldview, and has built institutions such as the World Trade Organization to bypass national governments and advance a neoliberal free-trade agenda.

This insight isn't terribly new. But Faux gives a terrific analysis of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and how business and political elites—the Party of Davos—in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. worked together to enact a treaty that has increased inequality, worsened living standards, and accelerated environmental destruction in all three countries. To head off America's competitive crisis, we in the U.S. need to buy less and save more, export more and import less. This will not happen without political upheaval in the U.S. and economic dislocation with our main trading partners on our northern and southern borders.

What makes Faux's book worth reading is not this depressing insight, but the solution he offers. By looking at the global economy through the lens of class, Faux comes up with an intriguing regional plan for a counter to the current corporate scheme of globalization. The solution lies in forging greater alliances across borders between workers and civil society organizations, starting with Canada and Mexico.

Faux proposes the creation of a North American common market with Canada and Mexico. Such a common market, like the European Union, would remove trade barriers among the three countries and permit free flow of workers. Together, the three countries would create a customs union and a common tariff that would protect them from a competitive race to the bottom with emerging trade blocs in Asia, especially China with hourly wages less than 50 cents.

Faux's North American market would include a development fund for Mexico, a continental bill of rights that would raise labor and environmental standards, and a North American Congress for citizen participation in governance. Such a common market would stretch from Chiapas, Mexico, to the Arctic North, include 430 million people, and have a Gross Domestic Product of $20 trillion a year.

It would include the world's first, eleventh, and twelfth largest economies. The three countries are already deeply intertwined, with 85 to 90 percent of exports from Canada and Mexico already going to the U.S.

While global governance seems forever elusive, the idea of greater regional government has some real possibilities. Traditional protectionism ignores how bound together we are with ordinary citizens of Canada and Mexico. As Faux writes, “As long as the people of Canada, Mexico, and the United States see their political interests as separate from one another, while the elites of these same nations see their interests as joined, the gap in wealth and opportunity between the Party of Davos and the rest of us will continue to grow in all three nations.” The Party of Davos has globalized; it's time for the Party of the People to do the same, or at least to regionalize.

Most members of the transnational elite are not interested in this conversation, though we must search for vocal allies among the owning classes. Their interests are served by silence and disorganization among the nonelites. Canadian and Mexican elites have been well rewarded in their “role as interpreters and emissaries” of U.S. capital interests.

Hope lies in the myriad examples that Faux describes of citizens building alliances across borders around issues such as labor rights, public access to water, environmental policy, and many others. They serve as an inspiring foundation for a greater commonwealth.


Chuck Collins is Senior Fellow at Class Action (www.classism.org) and co-author with Felice Yeskel of Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity (New Press).


HEALTHY MONEY, HEALTHY PLANET: Developing Sustainability Through New Money Systems
by Deirdre Kent
Craig Potton, 2005, 320 pages, $34.99

Reviewed by Paul Glover

 

There are already thousands of run-for-your-life crisis books. Celebrations of success are rarer. Deirdre Kent's book Healthy Money, Healthy Planet is a fine contribution to the latter, a great tool for those who want to convert today's bad news into good news.

Community currencies, for example, have begun to prove that economics and ecology can become friends. Kent's book explains the diff erences between money that connects people and money that controls people. Th e author starts with an authoritative history of national money systems.

Commercial bankers create money just by signing loan contracts. Only 10 percent of the dollars they lend are backed by bank reserves; 90 percent are fantasy credits. Here's the trick: bank interest charged can never be repaid because, like musical chairs, the moneylending game doesn't provide enough credits for repaying both principal and interest. The resulting deliberate dollar scarcity forces a desperate scramble for sales regardless of damage to communities and nature.

Bankers foreclose the inevitable losers and then control more wealth than ever. And control of money decides where jobs are available and for how long; decides who owns land and what gets built; decides what is legal and what's a crime; decides who lives well and who struggles. (For a fuller discussion of money systems, see Thomas Greco, “The Trouble with Money,”and Bernard Lietaer, “Beyond Greed and Scarcity,” YES! Summer 1997.)

Why should bankers have all the fun of printing money? There are now thousands of community currencies dedicated to social justice, environmental repair, and neighborhoods. Local cash can fix problems that dollars ignore, Kent points out.

Healthy Money dedicates most chapters to these proven solutions, rather than stuffing them into the last paragraph, as do so many books. She compares paper scrips, digital credits, smart cards, and barter banks. She prefers that monetary theorists take action, and risk blundering in the real world.

At the same time, Kent exhorts community organizers to act on the larger stage. She endorses healthy globalization that promotes labor rights and environmental justice. She is enthusiastic about commodity-backed international currency, such as the Borsodi Constant, a currency backed by fixed amounts of commodities. Kent also supports carbon-emissionsrights currency, which creates a trade in the right to spew carbon, as a way of capping global pollution. She recommends that currency activists learn business sense from those who comprehend profit and loss.

And since money multiplies its force when banked, the author considers community banking to be just as necessary as community currency.

Some community currency advocates are skeptical of local currencies that are not backed by national currency. But all national currencies are in debt to nature, since modern economies extract resources faster than they replenish.

Even the United States' dollar is no longer backed by vast domestic petroleum reserves, boundless woodlands, and deep soils, nor by gold or silver, but by $8 trillion debt, rusting industry, and declining military control of foreign oil.

That's why HOUR systems (ithacahours.com) are deliberately backed by local labor and sustainable partnership with nature. As the notes say, “HOURS are backed by real capital: our skills, our time, our tools, forests, fields and rivers.” When dollars, euros, yen and yuan fade, HOURS can take over.

Kent does not pretend to have written a how-to manual. But Healthy Money prepares us well to understand finance, while making it serve our neighborhoods and revive the planet our grandchildren will inherit.


Paul Glover is founder of Ithica HOURS, the Ithaca Health Alliance, and Citizen Planners of Los Angeles. He is a consultant for grassroots economic development: www.paulglover.org

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HOME ENLIGHTENMENT: Practical, Earth-Friendly Advice for Creating a Nurturing, Healthy,Toxin-Free Home and Lifestyle
by Annie B. Bond
Rodale Books, 2005, 600 pages, $ 27.95

reviewed by Lilja Otto

 

Have you ever felt the urge to take the fresh air from your last hiking trip home, but found that “Mountain Spring” room spray leaves you feeling drowsy, unsatisfied, even sick? From nontoxic air fresheners and cleaners to healthy lighting, furniture, and bedding, Annie B. Bond's recent book reveals a multitude of eff ective, earthfriendly choices.

Home Enlightenment covers solutions for the entire house, room by room. The guide has quick tips for beginners and extensive background information, making it a reference for sustainability pros as well. Change is easy with Bond's simple advice.


Lilja Otto is an Editorial Intern at YES!

Independent America
A film by heather Hughes & HarrisonHosein,
80 minutes; available on DVD or at independentamerica.net;

Reviewed by Daina Saib

Two married former NBC journalists embark on a road trip across 32 states, documenting independent, local businesses and their struggle to compete with the spread of corporate retail giants such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart. Along the way, filmmakers Hanson Hosein and Heather Hughes talk to locals on all sides—from economists, activists, and political leaders to small business owners, union workers, and average Americans. They also interview a top executive from Wal-Mart.

To make things interesting, Hosein and Hughes give themselves some rules of the road. They can only travel on secondary highways and country roads—no interstates—and they can do business only with independently owned companies, so all of their food and lodging must come from “Mom & Pop.” This proves challenging.

Wal-Mart is the big bogeyman of the film, and the other retail chains introduced at the beginning, Starbucks and Borders, were not allotted enough time for their effects to be fully fleshed out. But Hosein and Hughes are likable and the difficulties of their journey are educational and entertaining.


Daina Saib is an Editorial Intern at YES!

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