Life Rules:
Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once
and how Life teaches us to fix it

by Ellen LaConte


Green Horizon, 2011. ISBN 978-1-450-25918-7.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 05/05/2011

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

We all know that the climate is unstable and that the economic climate has reached its own tipping point. Oil prices are peaking as supply begins to fall behind demand, and food prices are rising in tandem with oil, at least in part because industrialized agriculture is fossil-fueled. Unrest rocks North Africa, several nations in the Mideast have become seriously unstable, and uncertainty unnerves the rest of us.

What's happening? Why? And what can we do about it? These are the tough questions that Ellen LaConte tackles in her new book, Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it.

What we're seeing, LaConte says in Chapter One, "Diagnosing a Critical Condition," is a "chaos creep" that will end in a catastrophic collapse—slow or sudden, but an inevitable collapse. Why? Because (putting it simply) our fossil-fueled culture has "gone viral." As we have expanded our reach, we have destroyed the life-support systems that permitted our species, and others, to evolve and thrive. Our growing population (now projected at 10 billion by the close of the century), our insatiable desires, and the economic systems we have created to satisfy both are out of control. The perpetual growth required just to maintain the status quo is simply not sustainable. We have "bumped up against the limits" of Life—the term LaConte uses to describe the planet's self-regulating natural economies that have produced and maintained the amazing range of living beings on this planet. And as science and historical experience teach us, when any biological community—plant, animal, human—reaches this stage, the next step is collapse. It's happened before (LaConte provides examples). It will happen again. To us, if we don't mend our ways.

What can we do to remedy the dire situation in which we find ourselves and prevent the kind of full-scale global catastrophe that looms like a dark cloud (or hangs like the sword of Damocles) over our heads?

First and most importantly, LaConte says, we can start playing by Life's primary rule: "Live within Earth's means." We must downsize, diversify, de-carbonize, de-materialize, de-globalize, and democratize. We must return to "communities of place" where humans can retrofit themselves, their numbers, desires, and demands to the resources of the bioregion they occupy. We must return to "subsistence economies," she says, where Life's "mechanisms of frugality"—using just enough for to satisfy current needs and leaving the rest for later and for future generations—are the general rule. We must, she says, change the way we do business, shifting from competition and profligacy to cooperation and conservatism.

LaConte's message isn't new, of course. Ecologists like William Catton and James Lovelock, Bill McKibben, Kirkpatrick Sales, James Gustave Speth, and many others, have been issuing similar warnings for decades. In fact, one of the things I like best about Life Rules is LaConte's constant reinforcement of her argument with the words of others, in numerous sidebar and frequent in-text quotations, a practice that situates her squarely within the growing community of concerned ecologists, economists, and historians. (My single disappointment with the book is that while there are adequate end notes, there is no index, a deficit that I hope will be remedied in later editions.)

But what sets LaConte's work off from others, to my mind, is the clarity and comprehensiveness of her descriptions and the power of her analogies. She hits hard and gets right to the point: what's wrong, why, and how we can fix it. And yes, despite the fact that things are really, really, really bad, they can be fixed, she argues, as long as we remember and observe Life's inviolable rule: live within Earth's means.

But can we? I mean, do we have the political will, the collective power, and the shared commitment to make the hard choices that will avert catastrophe? And even if some of us are willing to buckle down to this hard work, what about the rest? How many of us will it take to constitute the "critical mass" that LaConte says we need to keep us from running over the cliff? I am not among the optimists who think that a significant change in direction by a significant number of people is likely to happen, and LaConte herself is careful to acknowledge the difficulties. Drastic change, she admits, is a "hard sell." Frugality seems bleak and forbidding compared with the glittering promise of growth, progress, and prosperity.

Ellen LaConte is a rational optimist who hopes that we will choose to create livable communities, design resilient local economies, and make frugal, thrifty uses of the available local and regional resources. At the same time, she knows that "going Deep Green" involves more than just making a few quick cuts and practicing a few easy strategies. Learning to live within the planet's means demands a radical course change, a reversal in the way all of us think, work, and act. But as LaConte points out, the human species is innately adaptable and resourceful. In our long evolutionary past, circumstances (climate change, natural disasters, disease, resource depletions) have forced us to change our ways of thinking, behaving, and living. In other words, we can do it when we have to—as long as we remember that Life's rules. Life rules, we don't. And that's the bottom line.

For the general reader, Life Rules makes a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature on personal, community, and cultural transformation. LaConte successfully manages two challenging strategies: alerting her readers to disaster with a darkly realistic description of the situation we face and motivating us to the personal and community solutions that will ensure a future for ourselves and our children. Life Rules is an important and valuable call to action that deserves to be widely read.

Read an excerpt from this book.


A former editor of Farmstead magazine and the newsletters ForeFacts, Teaching Tomorrow Today and Starting Point, Ellen LaConte is a contributing editor to Green Horizon Magazine and The Ecozoic and sits on the Advisory Board of the EarthWalk Alliance. Author of two memoirs about Helen and Scott Nearing, LaConte has been published in The Sun, East/West Journal, New Perspectives, Odyssey, Country Journal, Countryside, Convergence and Gaia: A Literary & Environmental Journal, and in numerous trade journals and newspapers. She lives and gardens in the Yadkin River watershed of the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina. Visit her website.

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