Arriving at the Farm, I gravitated towards Plenty and during 20-some years directed three large projects. The first was initially called the Shutdown Project, later The Natural Rights Center. The second was Ethos Research Group. The third continues today: the Ecovillage Training Center.
Nuclear power is emblematic of the darkest elements of the human enterprise. Call it hubris, expediency, greed, or what you will, for the past 70 years nuclear power has required the concealment of a crime of horrific dimensions, through an elaborate campaign of disinformation, in order to line the pockets of a relatively small number of people.
To say nuclear power is immoral is an understatement. Nuclear power is not just a crime against present people, whom it might be argued can defend themselves. Nuclear power is a crime against future people, who have no choice in the matter, enjoy no benefit to compensate their sacrifice, and must endure unimaginable sorrow, pain, loss, and death as a consequence of the date they are born.
Ever since the Second World War, the U.S. Government has owned nuclear energy — every patent, every microgram of fuel and waste, every building and centrifuge. It licenses its exclusive ownership to private licensees on conditions set by Legislative, Judicial and the Executive branches. Consequently, every death that occurs has the government as its ultimate author. When challenged, the three branches have struck a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” posture.
Beginning in 1976, I prepared a legal case for Jeannine Honicker of Tennessee against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission challenging their constitutional authority to sacrifice innocent lives of present and future peoples for no greater purpose than to generate electricity. I sat for the Tennessee Bar Exam and became a licensed attorney. I filed our case with the agency, waited a respectable 30 days for the NRC to rule, and then appeared before a federal judge with a motion for a restraining order to shut down the more than 350 nuclear facilities in the United States under federal license.
Then followed seven years of litigation as the case passed through the hands of 22 federal judges and went four times to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gradually, over the course of that time and those proceedings, the biological facts were updated, refined, and eventually confirmed by both sides.
On August 4, 1981, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission published a table of mortality that could be reasonably attributed to the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle to the year 2000. Their number was 1.74 million cancers and birth defects in the general population as a result of normal, routine, legal releases of radiation.
When that admission worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court dismissed our case, sealed the record, and erased all reference to the case as ever having existed.
Needless to say, as I raised these issues in the courts and in the press, and later in a law review article and two books, the nuclear industry was forced to respond by allocating huge resources to their defense. I recall finishing a motion and not having to drive (or bicycle, as I sometimes did in those days) to Nashville to file it because the government’s lawyers had a black limo parked at the front gate of the Farm, with a lawyer waiting to take my motion and proceed to the nearest pay phone (this was before mobile phones) to read it to a room full of attorneys back in their headquarters office in order to prepare a response and avert an immediate shutdown. What we continuously threatened was no less than that. The entire enterprise was in our crosshairs.
When I began work on the case I worked out of my home, plunking away on the keys of my Kaypro-10. The Plenty board saw the significance of my work and moved me to an office in their headquarters overlooking the horse barn. When not arguing cases in court, or traveling to take depositions of witnesses at various national laboratories or nuclear facilities, I was part of the daily life of the Plenty office.
Because Plenty had very little money it soon became apparent to me that if I wanted the Shutdown case to keep going, at roughly $1,000 per week, I would need to raise my own support. So a substantial part of my time was spent developing bulk mailings, writing for publications, attending fund-raising dinners, or otherwise soliciting donors to support the work. Fortunately I did not have to do the bookkeeping myself. That was handled by the Plenty treasurer, who received donations, sent receipts, and disbursed checks to me when I needed them.
This led to the creation of the Natural Rights Center, which for 16 years supported injury claims by atomic veterans, uranium workers, and local residents living near radioactive chemical waste disposal sites. We scored significant victories in veterans’ rights, the first successful claim for Agent Orange injuries, repeal of the restriction on access to lawyers, and hundreds of Atomic Veteran appeals. We were involved in cases related to the voting rights of felons, Native American religious practices, and the deployment of new, horrific weapons.
The Natural Rights Center won the first successful claim for a U.S. veteran injured by Agent Orange.
Ethos Research Group
In 1980, Barbara Wallace, Matthew McClure and I formed a think tank to study some of the trickier impacts of the bio/chemical/radioactive industrial complex. We performed the first epidemiological study of cancer mortality by county in Tennessee from 1940 to 1975, uncovering hotspots around Oak Ridge and in areas with intensive use or disposal of agricultural chemicals.
That led us to sue the Tennessee chemical industry to stop the use of injection wells. We compiled thousands of studies on climate change in order to demonstrate the likelihood of a greater demand for underground water in the future. Eventually we shut them down, ending fracking in Tennessee in 1985. From 1981 to 1989 I compiled the evidence into a book entitled Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do, with a foreword by Al Gore.
In that book I wrote about how, in the space of a single decade of new discoveries, science had moved from a global warming prediction of 1 degree per century to, on a business-as-usual trajectory, 4 to 11 degrees. We now can see in hindsight how accurate the predictions of Climate in Crisis were, but that is scant comfort. My decade-long climate studies produced a profound malaise within me, and it took me a number of years to work out what I needed to do about it.
In 1990, I was asked to represent Plenty at the 10th anniversary of the Right Livelihood Award in Villa Era, Italy. At that conference, I had the opportunity to meet or renew contacts with many of the people with whom I had worked over the preceding 15 years. It was at that meeting that Helena Norberg Hodge (pioneer in the localization movement) made a comment that had an enduring effect on me. She said, “ecovillages are so important to the future of the world, people should be paid to live in them.”
In 1991, I was invited to participate in a conference in Denmark, sponsored by the Gaia Trust, which brought together many of the same Right Livelihood crowd that had been together in Italy the year earlier.
The purpose of the Denmark conference was to discuss the future of civilization and consider the most strategic points where thoughtfully applied leverage might bring about a favorable change of trajectory. After a week of caucusing, we arrived at three strategies.
First: a new paradigm for education that could embody a holistic, action-learning approach and immersion pedagogy, which later came to be called Gaia University. The first campus of Gaia was established here at the Farm in 2007, offering accredited Bachelors and Masters degrees in Integrative Ecosocial Design, Financial Permaculture and related subjects.
Second: whole systems design based on the green cell model put forward by Karl Henrik Robert, founder of the Natural Step program — a cradle-to-cradle approach that would transform consumer culture to a steady state economy; the “Great Turning,” as one of the seminar participants, David Korten, would later call it. This embodied the whole of the endeavor that the late economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, after Gandhi, called “appropriate technology.”
Third: a rapid transformation to ecovillages, as models for the new eco-ethical approach to living, and as immersion school campuses for Gaia University and the Natural Step.
The Ecovillage Training Center
It seemed to me that the best way forward would be to have a hostel at the Farm where we could provide accommodations for visitors such as Chinese and Russian ecovillagers or Israeli kibbutzniks and Palestinian villagers, and anyone else wanting to build peace villages like the Farm, and bridges between cultures.
The five founding co-sponsors of the ETC were The Second Foundation (the Farm’s communal religious society); Context Institute (representing reform of the first world); Ecoville Foundation (representing the nascent Russian ecovillage movement, and the second world); Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (our management vehicle for the project, representing the third world, especially Latin America); and Plenty (representing the fourth world — the wisdom of indigenous peoples).
In 1996 I co-founded the Global Ecovillage Network, and that became a full-time passion. I resigned from Plenty’s Board, turned my office over to Kids to the Country, and left to teach courses on peace through permaculture and ecologically restorative design.