Warren Johnson: Letter To Obama


[Warren’s 1978 book, Muddling Toward Frugality, has just been republished with the foreward being a review of the book in 1978 by Edward Abbey. Warren is circulating this letter with hopes of getting through to the President. -DS]

Warren Johnson
74001 Dobie Lane, Covelo, CA 95428
(707) 983-6853  wjohnson3251@gmail.com

July 20, 2010

President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington D.C. 20500-0004

Dear Mr. President,

I tried to get this to you before, but now it is critical for the challenge all of us face in keeping the economy healthy when debt makes it risky to stimulate growth. My background in natural resources adds a second barrier to growth—the stabilization of oil production since 2005 that would drive oil prices up if new jobs were created.

What is needed is a way of creating jobs at less cost and use of oil.  This could be done by encouraging the creation of sustainable ways of life by offering assistance to those who would like to live in the simpler, more cooperative ways that can be supported with renewable energy.  The industrial niche is growing crowded even as it is being consumed with the depletion of the fossil fuels that made the Industrial Revolution possible in the first place.  The opening we have is in the sustainable niche that supported human life prior to the industrial era, and will do so again after the fossil fuels are gone, and with the larger amounts of renewable energy that modern technology can make available on an ongoing basis.

The cost of assisting those who would like to develop the sustainable niche will be small compared to creating jobs in the growth economy.  This is reflected in the cost of the stimulus efforts that halted the deflationary spiral, but were not able to return the economy to growth, in part because each uptick came with the rise in oil prices that cut short further recovery.  The potential for growth is declining now because of the decades long efforts to bias the economy toward growth in every possible way, but the sustainable niche remains wide open for the individuals, families, and the young who would like to create sustainable ways of life that will gain in value as less energy is available. The more Americans who do this, the less dangers there will be in the mainstream economy, with less unemployment and debt.

I see this offer of assistance as akin to the offer of land under the Homestead Act, with both attracting those seeking ways of using their energies that also benefit the nation.  In our case, this would be with the decentralization toward renewable resources, rather than bringing industrial resources to urban areas in super tankers and 18 wheeled trucks.  The debts and high oil prices plaguing the growth economy are the market signals directing us toward sustainable ways of life that will be all there are after the industrial resources are gone.

This proposal is spelled out in a manuscript that has fallen into the void between the partisan divide in this country.   It was different in 1978 when Sierra Club Books published my Muddling Toward Frugality that did fairly well, selling 50,000 copies.  I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but now see myself as a disillusioned humanist/modernist as politics became more of a way of protecting one’s own interests rather than the common good.  This put me among the many people supporting your election, but then made your job difficult when so many people persist in pressing only for their own interests.

The new manuscript is titled The Gift of Peaceful Genes and the Sustainable Revolution, and points to the value of cooperation in the long human advance, rather than competition.  My hope is that the transition from growth to sustainability will appeal to both conservatives and liberals because it moves us away from the anger and insecurity of a competitive way of life, and toward the greater importance of cooperation in the family and community in the smaller scaled, more decentralized ways of sustainability.  There are also general references to the selflessness asked for by all the great faiths, and a handful of phrases that reflect the wisdom in the Bible.

A central theme, however, if that the evolution of sustainable ways can be carried forward with the market forces that everyone is familiar with in this society.  They can take us through the new economic territory as ordinary people make the decisions that are best for them in the changing circumstances.  This depends, however, on biasing the economy toward sustainability rather than growth, with the highest priority being to preserve the ongoing health of the mainstream economy that everyone depends on.  This means that the amount of assistance will have to vary based on the need for jobs, profits, and balanced budgets, and that oil imports can be reduced steadily to assure the development of renewable energy without federal subsidies, but also with less defense spending needed. Markets have a proven record for encouraging change, but only if shaped by higher values, with sustainability the one that will take us in needed direction, rather than the growth that is leading to anger and fear when it is no longer possible. Sustainability can take us toward the stability and continuity that is the conservative value that has been lost in the modern era, but will return when sustainability is the more feasible goal, ending the high percentage of Americans who now feel the nation is headed in the wrong direction.

This all assumes that there is someone with the capacity, and courage, to bring such issues into the open for discussion, which is your great asset. This will be essential to overcome the understandable concerns about the end of growth, and especially if the transition toward sustainable ways can be carried forward by those who relish the opportunity to do this, without forcing all of society to move in this direction.

I have attached several items that I hope will provide you with a feeling for what I am proposing:

  • The Table of Contents and Preface of The Gift of Peaceful Genes and the Sustainable Revolution. The rest of the manuscript available on the internet at www.peacefulgenes. com.
  • Introductory material from the reprint edition of Muddling Toward Frugality that just came out, with a review of it by Edward Abbey serving as a forward, and followed by my introduction to the reprint edition hat points to how different our society is now than in 1978

I was pleased to see the advice for those writing to you, that I should ask for a response.  I know how difficult that must be, given the mail you receive, but it has been hard to have no responses to my efforts to have these ideas considered.  I would greatly appreciate any possible feedback.  I feel I have something important to offer, something that could make all the difference for what our children and grandchildren encounter in the course of their lives.

With the greatest respect,

Warren Johnson

Emeritus Professor of Geography
San Diego State University.



Fields of Interest: Cultural geography, natural resources, economics, world religions.

Member, Department of Geography, 1969-1997.  Chair, 1977-1980.

Education: M.S. and PhD, Resource Planning and Conservation, School of Natural Resources,

University of Michigan, 1965-69.

B.S. Civil Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 1959.

Franciscan School of Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, 2001.

Related Experience:

1960-67, Civil Engineer, National Park Service

1974-75, Fulbright Research Fellow, University of Leicester, Museum Studies, England

1984-85, Fulbright Lecturer, Urban and Regional Planning, University of Liberia, West Africa


1995, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico

1988, Egypt, Israel, India, China, Russia

1984-85, Africa–West, East, and Southern

!959-60, Around the world, via Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Japan

Europe, 1957, 1959, 1969, 1974-75, 1988, 1991.

Publications (selected): Books:

Muddling Toward Frugality, Sierra Club Press, 1978.  Paperback edition, Shambhala

Publications, 1979.  Danish, Spanish, and German editions.  50,000 copies sold.  Reprinted in                 2010 by Huston Studio Press, Westport, CT.

The Gift of Peaceful Genes and the Sustainable Revolution, unpublished m.s.  .

Economic Growth vs the Environment, Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1971

Public Parks on Private Land in England and Wales, Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.


“Traditional Architecture in the Middle East Has Ways of Keeping Cool,” Aramco World,

May-June, 1995, pp. 10-17.

“Who’s the Model Christian for the Religious Right,” Opinion Page piece, Los Angeles

Times, pg. B7, October 14, 1994.  Also in Chicago Tribune (11/28/94) and other papers.

“Europe” chapter in World Systems of Traditional Resource Management, edited by Gary Klee,

(V.H. Winston, 1980) pp. 165-188.

“Energy Conservation in Amish Agriculture,” Science, 198:373-378, October 28, 1977.

“The Comforts of Type B Christianity,” Human Development, Fall, 1996, pp. 25-27.

“The Guaranteed Income as an Environmental Measure,” in Toward a Steady State Economy,

Herman Daly, ed., (Freeman and Co., 1973).


And the Sustainable Revolution

Table of Contents

Preface                 The End of an Era, not the End of the World             1


The Lifeblood of Industrial Civilization    5

Rewinding the Industrial Revolution    11

The Rise of a Sustainable Economy     15

Evolutionary Sources of Hope            18

A Personal Digression                26

Chapter 2   THE GIFT OF PEACEFUL GENES                23

The Original Achievement of Hunters and Gatherers    24

Progress and Violence    31

The Second Great Achievement       37

Traditional Agricultural Societies     42

Where We Stand     44


The Nature of Change     49

The True Faith Today: The Market Faith    50

The Bane of Endless Growth     52

Dangerous Dogmas of the Market Faith     58

Something We Can Do Now: Live on Less    65


The Politics and Perils of Self-Interest      69

First Steps Toward Sustainability      72

Another Thing We Can Do Now: Saving for Sustainability   78

A personal Digression on Saving     82


The Premium Fuels: Oil and Natural Gas     84

Lower Grade Fossil Fuels and Global Warming     88

Nuclear Energy    95

The Renewable Alternatives     97

The Breakthrough So Far: Conservation     106

Roots of the Sustainable Economy     111


The Warmth Grows Cool      113

Helping Children Become Healthy    120

Rebuilding Personal Relationships     126

The Key for Now: Marriage     129


The Energy Transition   137

National Energy Self-sufficiency     137

A Digression on Market Forces     140

Conservation Taxes on Energy     143

Work in the Sustainable Economy    145

Potentials and Problems of the Sustainable Revolution     150

Conclusion.  The Parable of the Boats   158



Our economy is like a speeding train, one that is taking us into new territories, many of them quite exciting.  It’s an impressive train, there’s no question of that, but it has this odd characteristic of having to keep speeding up all the time.  For a number of would-be passengers the train is going too fast for them to get on, and many riders are not enjoying the trip as much as they expected.  There are also the spreading qualms about how fast the train will have to go, and if it can stay on track as it goes faster and needs more fuel.

The ideal, of course, is to control this powerful machine so it won’t have to keep going faster all the time, and to set it at whatever speed makes the trip most enjoyable, or even to operate several trains at different speeds to satisfy different travelers.  This book can be thought of as a traveler’s guide for those of us on this train, including how to allow it to slow down without breaking down as less money and energy are available to provide the needed jobs.

The difficulties the train is encountering are telling us that the urban industrial niche we occupy is growing crowded as more countries join it, adding their demands for the Earth’s resources and its waste absorbing capacities.  Worse yet, we are consuming this niche as we use the fossil fuels that made the Industrial Revolution possible in the first place. The recession that came with the financial breakdown in 2008 can be thought of as a pause in our journey, a way station if you will, that gives us the time and reasons to think about the trip we are on, and how to slow the train down so we can enjoy the view better.  Rising debts and oil prices are the flashing red signals along the track that are telling us of the dangers ahead, and the need to find the slower, more satisfying ways that are consistent with human nature and the long term potential of this small, beautiful planet we live on known as Earth.

The best kept secret in the world today is the stabilization of world oil production since 2005 at 85 millions of barrels a day.[1] It remained at this level even as oil rose to $147 a barrel in 2008, a price that surely would have brought out more production if that had been possible.  Oil is the workhorse of the U.S. economy since it provides the most energy and drives most transportation, and explains why the first sign of growth drives up oil prices to derail a nascent recovery.  Oil is the barrier to growth that reinforces the budget deficits that are the main concern now.  Together they are firm evident that spending to stimulate growth will only drive up deficits and oil prices without creating jobs.

Fortunately, we have another opening available to us, the sustainable niche that supported all human life prior to the industrial era, and will do so again as the fossil fuels are depleted, but in the simpler, more cooperative ways that renewable forms of energy can support.  We do not see this as an opening now because it would be such a come down from the modern high, but the long human advance went on in the sustainable niche, so it has a proven capacity for making life good, and in ways that are consistent with human nature that was evolving at the same time.

Those who relish the opportunity to explore the sustainable frontier will be the pioneers in creating the sustainable ways of life that others can adopt as the fossil fuels grow scarcer.  This is the extraordinary opportunity we have, of creating the ways of life that will have value for our descendents, and dwarfing the flash in the historical pan made possible with the fossil fuels.  We may be struggling with the failing truth of the growth economy, but we will also rediscover the truth of the sustainable economy that will replace it, and with increasing regard as the growth economy weakens.

The immediate economic challenge we face is to create jobs at lower cost and less us of oil.  The current cost of new jobs is reflected in the $200,000 per job created in President Obama’s recovery plan, and even then would entail more use of oil.  One way of creating sustainable work is offered in this book, but there would seem to be others if we directed our minds to the task of finding them.  If this book encourages such an effort, it will have served its purpose—of changing the focus from growth toward the ways that have greater evolutionary potential.

The cultural challenge is deeper but is also the main source of hope—of recovering the capacity of to work together that gave our species its great evolutionary advantage and is still the main source of happiness.  If all goes well, this will return with the simpler, smaller scaled, and more decentralized ways that will can be supported with renewable forms of energy, and will be shaped by the age-old cooperative institutions, the family and community, rather than a huge, impersonal, and competitive economy driven by self-interest.  It is in this process that lives will grow richer in social, emotional, and spiritual ways, even as they grow simpler in material ways.

[1] From the website of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.doe.gov.  Go to the Petroleum page and click on World Oil Balance at the bottom of it.

One Comment

The cost of assisting those who would like to develop the sustainable niche will be small compared to creating jobs in the growth economy.

(emphasis mine)

This is very encouraging. It seems one thing people in America are expected to do 100% independently is carve out a market niche for themselves. There are programs to help with job training, day care, disability accommodations, career counseling, etc., but direct job placement, it seems, is one thing The System will not help someone with. For actually getting to yes, it’s sink or swim. Result: a skills portfolio that doesn’t include selling oneself is worthless, no matter what it does contain, and at what level. Surely, a lot of talent is going to waste because of this.

And of course marketable niche trumps sustainable niche every time. Perhaps accounting methods that internalize the externalities can help with this.