This month’s Green Energy Times column is being written in a small northern village in Liberia, West Africa where I am once again working with local people to improve the quality of their soap products. We use palm and palm kernel oils crudely pressed just outside of town. I show them how to mix wood ashes with lime or salt and lime with water to make different types of caustic, an essential ingredient in making soap. They ask me to bring nice scents and colors from America to pretty up their bar soaps. Instead I show them how to take the scent from the plants around them; lemongrass, ylang and others; and to dry and crush the bark of the cinnamon tree to make a nice dark brown color that also smells nice. For fun we swirl in the colors making a novel marbled look. Everyone loves this effect. We use the neem tree to make a medicated soap and add shea butter from just north of here to make soothing, skin smoothing soap.
Life is slow and a little boring in the villages. People spend most of the day hanging around gossiping as far as I can tell. They work hard for a while each day hauling water and firewood on their heads and then rest the day away. Only when building a house, fixing a roof, digging a ditch or making a garden do they really go at it. By comparison I am a human dynamo teaching and demonstrating constantly during the hot long days and working diligently at the laptop nights. I have lots of neat toys; they have lots of time. Food is seasonal and often the same for months on end. Few travel. Everyone has something to do and it usually involves basically being there should something happen. It seldom does.
Two different lives; two different cultures. I work hard, have toys, but enjoy little free time. They have lots of time, few toys and a narrower world view, though this too is changing as internet and television bring the world to their door. Nigerian soap operas show wealthy, sociopathic Africans living in mansions and being mean to their wives while their grandparents in the villages live idyllic lives in clean, happy suburban style huts. Neither depiction is quite accurate. The people see wealthy NGO volunteers (as I surely appear to them), with cool kits and drivers in white SUVs carrying them around the countryside. The disease of civilization is upon them. In the words of an old and wise Amerind chief, “They have the white man’s disease, usually fatal. It is called Wants Plenty Things”.
Their lives have changed little in the past 1500 years. Ours change so fast we need a smartphone just to keep up with it all. We go through our days breathless and never quite caught up, while they sit and wait for someone to buy a small item from them so they can purchase some cloth or sandals which they have somehow forgotten how to make for themselves. Their lives, slow and boring and filled with hang out time with friends, family and neighbors is sustainable. Our busy lives have incurably altered the face of the planet, the weather, and the course of evolution. Not content to use the 10,000 chemical combinations found in nature, we invent new ones with which the biology has no experience in breaking down and recycling the components of. Not satisfied with cross breeding food for greater yield we invent new biology (GMOs), not even knowing how they will interact with the rest of the biology that has been quietly evolving here for 2.5 billion years.
We travel through space and around the world, conquering all in our path. We allow the 3% of us that are sociopaths to hold the reins of power over the life and death of an entire planet rather than saving ourselves by euthanizing them at birth. (An MRI can now determine the exact degree of sociopathic tendencies in an individual). We rush around telling ourselves “We gotta”; as in “We gotta do this and we gotta go here” when in fact all we gotta do is perform basic biological functions.
My students, naïve, open and vulnerable to suggestion as any stare with wide eyes at my very strange pale white skin and my cool kit ready to accept anything our conquering culture tells them. They are almost eager to turn their back on the sustainable, natural culture that brought them to this point in time; while we Moderns use detergent shampoo with the fake scent of natural herbs and proclaim, “I’m a natural girl. I use herbal essence!”
Modern life has so much to offer, and at such a devastating price. Natural Earth Wisdom has so much to teach us; thousands of years’ worth of knowledge. Who is listening? We must, right now, in our very lives plant one foot firmly in the Modern and one foot firmly in the Traditional. This is wisdom. This is the key to our survival, to the survival of the biology that sustains us, and to our mutual sanity.
And this is the Soapman, imploring Traditionals and Moderns alike to PLEASE keep it natural. The survival of our grandchildren and countless life forms depends on it.
Will be back in beautiful Vermont soon. Be well, live long and gently prosper.