Ziegler: Real solutions require a change of culture

By Karen Kotiw
Asheville Global Report
No. 425 March 8 - 14, 2007

Mar. 3, 2007- When I first met Alexis Ziegler in 2005, I proudly picked him up in my new-to-me Jetta Diesel. I had aspirations of homebrewing biodiesel, thinking I had outsmarted “the Man” once again. It took me quite some time to wrap my head around what he told me about my biodiesel band-aid. With biofuel poised to seamlessly replace our petroleum addiction, it’s looking more like switching from Coke to Diet Coke.

In his discussion of Peak Oil in his new book, Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire, he outlines these points: if we could find a new source of cheap energy, it would do more harm than good; biofuel is not a substitute for fossil fuel, but rather could be the trigger for a global-scale genocide; and the solutions to our energy problems are, from a mechanical perspective, relatively simple. Real solutions require a change of culture.

Ziegler’s book is not a manifesto or a call to arms. It is a big-picture look at reshaping the foundations of culture. His aim is a do-it-yourself rebuilding of the left ideology.

When I said goodbye to Ziegler, he unfolded his traveling bike. He politely refused my offer to give him a ride to the train station. He said it wasn’t that far, and he was right.

Ziegler is a reserved, thoughtful and well-spoken man who doesn’t seem to get rattled very easily. I interviewed him over the phone, in his home in Charlottesville, VA. He spoke at Malaprop’s bookstore on Mar. 2.

AGR: You draw from many disciplines: what is your background?

Ziegler: I grew up on a farm in Georgia. I am self-educated no higher education of any kind. I lived at Twin Oaks [an intentional community in Virginia] for eight years. If I have a question I want to answer, like: “What’s going on with abortion in South Dakota?,” I’ll follow the bibliography of a source and find where these sources find their sources.

AGR: In your book you say something like, you regard activism as a higher calling. What draws you to activism?

Ziegler: It’s funny not information, that’s a liberal illusion that we need more information. People have the information. I have a strong sense that we are messing up civilization. Perhaps that’s a little arrogant. I have a sense of my capacities, that I can have an impact. On some level I feel obligated.

AGR: What were some of the first issues you worked on?

Ziegler: Transportation, bike lanes, mental health support. I was not drawn in, I always had a grandiose vision of culture and saving the world from the beginning. I guess you could say I have a Messianic streak.

AGR: How did you move from ideology to action?

Ziegler: My first campaign was putting bike lanes in Charlottesville. It was my first sense of being effective on the ground level. It was a blast, I loved it. Had a core group of obsessively energized people. It was only seven to eight people. It was political trench warfare. There were businesses that didn’t want it. We did media, petitions, on the street theater. Everything. Civil disobedience was not necessary because we had political support.

AGR: When did you start working on this book?

Ziegler: I actually wrote it fairly quickly. But I had been working on this my whole life. It took about a year.

AGR: Why did you write it at this time?

Ziegler: Two reasons: Peak oil is going to be a huge shift in opportunity, and a threat. A more personal reason is where I am in my activist life. I am ready to get out and engage issues on a broader geographical scale to see what kind of impact I can have.

AGR: Who is the publisher, Ecodem?

Ziegler: It’s self-published. I published another book before. It’s a matter of practical necessity. I am going to do it whether I have support or not. I am impatient, I don’t want to wait for people to do anything.

AGR: In your book you talk about your life living in community. How did you get started with this?

Ziegler: I’m a refugee from redneck Georgia. It was a way to get out of a messed up situation. As a teenager, I mailed every wing-nut organization in the country. I had grocery bags full of propaganda. Community was the best option at the time.

AGR: Your book talks about “empire.” What are you talking about, and what does this have to do with a throughput economy?

Ziegler: Empire is a large social system whereby a central state or class feeds off an extensive network of people and resources. The US economy is one of these. Let me add to that the Western industrial empire. It’s one global culture and politically expedient for the global ruling class to have us not see it this way. It is not the American or European or Japanese ruling class, it’s a global ruling class. And that means a lot of poor people do a lot of work to make rich people rich.

AGR: You are very critical of biofuel, which many are turning to as an alternative to petroleum. Why?

Ziegler: If we lived in a world where there was already an equitable distribution of resources, we could decide how much to create and how to distribute it. But, given the global system we have now, putting the cars of the global ruling class in direct competition with the stomach of all the poor people in the world could have genocidal results. Biofuel is also likely to have ecocidal results as we flatten the last of the natural and forest ecosystems in the name of biofuel production.

AGR: You state that we have a cultural problem, not an energy problem.

Ziegler: To actually sustain humans, our well-being, would not be difficult if resources were intelligently and equitably distributed. Our current cultural system is blind and destructive and unsustainable, and it is leading us to a very bad place. We need conscious culture and its application.We need social movements that enlighten and empower people at the same time, which is not what movements have done historically.

AGR: Tell me about your house. In the book you say that it is straw bale.

Ziegler: It’s an old house. We put strawbale around it, just stuck straw bale around the cinderblock. It’s solar heated, low-end cheap eco. Eco doesn’t have to be expensive. I think that’s nuts. I live in a cooperative house, an intentional setting, with cooperative food purchasing, a garden, an orchard around the house. We support each other support people with serious mental health issues. Used to call it the Woodfolk Asylum. It’s important because activists are often misfits with traumatic histories. Also, tolerating difficult behavior in other people helps us tolerate each other.

Source: AGR; Image: courtesy Ecodem Press

Last edited by TeganDowling. Based on work by Olde.  Page last modified on March 10, 2007

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