Mud City Press reviews Michael Richards'
"I am writing this segment of my book from the trading floor of the Dubai Financial Trade Center, the Wall Street of the Arabian Desert. Floor traders in Dubai hold personal computers as they engage in the real-time global trade of the 'black gold' of the Petroleum Paradigm. Standing in the same floor space, I hold my personal computer as I compose my action plan for the Post Petroleum Paradigm. In this one moment in Dubai, the mind-shift from the Petroleum Paradigm to the Post Petroleum Paradigm share an exact same time/space locus. This is an interesting experience. As a crowd of men in the traditional dress of their pre-petrol history trade the diminishing supplies of oil on the global market, I am actively writing my plan of action for the End of Oil."
SUSTAINABLE OPERATING SYSTEMS: THE POST PETROL PARADIGM by Michael Richards may be one of the most unusual and informative books to pass through Mud City Press in the short lifetime of the website. We received this book from Richards in May of this year with little or no idea what to expect. With its plain sage green cover and dense print format, it appears to be a technical book or a text book, but very early into the material Richards makes this remarkable statement that assures the reader it is something more: "I am bold enough to declare myself as one ‘architect of the post petrol paradigm.’ When there are no leaders in sight, it is time to stick your neck out and lead."
Michael Richards is the owner of SoyaWax International and the inventor and patent holder for a process to make wax from soybeans. His product, market name soyawax, is a water-soluble, renewable and environmentally preferable alternative to non-renewable petroleum wax. Its primary use is for candle making, but SoyaWax International is seeking to expand soyawax into the entire petroleum wax realm. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cited SoyaWax International as the National Best Practice in Community Economic Development. A year later, Candleworks, a subsidiary of SoyaWax that enables homeless people to operate their own businesses, was cited by Vice President Al Gore as the National Business of the Year for Welfare to Work. In other words, SoyaWax Corporation is set-up as a cooperative business, a business that strives to work in conjunction with and for the benefit of the community. And this is essentially where Richards' book is pointing us. Yes, we can establish sustainable markets, but the building block of these markets is even more important, sustainable community.
What makes SUSTAINABLE OPERATING SYSTEMS such a unique book is that it is written both to envision the evolution of post-carbon culture and to promote Richards' soy wax business. "Defining the long-term business objectives for S.O.S. is one important purpose of this book," writes Richards in his introduction. But what is S.O.S.? On one hand, it's the universal call for help. S-O-S. Difficult times are ahead. Cheap oil, the grease of the industrial economy, is no more, and this simple reality will effect just about everything we do. S.O.S is also the sustainable "whole systems" business model that Richards advocates and is working to build. Creating sustainable operating systems to confront the problems related to peaking oil production is what this book is about. That is, reengineering our economy for sustainability by using the existing market system to make sustainable systems work and pay for themselves through co-operative, community serving enterprise. As the petroleum complex gradually exhausts itself, we are surely coming to–by hook or by crook–something new. And Mr. Richards has declared himself a founding member of that new era. Take your choice: bury your head in the Arabian sands or apply your energy to something that might work.
Clearly this is not your usual pessimistic take on the collapse of oil. This is an aggressive advance on new economic systems. We cannot be beaten down by the unending reports of doom and gloom. We must learn to accept the passing of the oil culture as a good thing. It has proven to be no less than dirty, corrupt, and antithetical to the life of the planet. Be forewarned however, we have delayed far too long to make the critical transitions easily. The new age will not come gift-wrapped. It will belong to the bold, the innovative, and the creative. Perhaps we will build out of the ashes. Perhaps we will build through opportunities created by others failures in the market. In any case, collapse will not come to nothing. Collapse leads to rebirth, rebuilding, and perhaps with progressive reform at every level of our lives. This is Michael Richards speaking into the dark winds of change.
At first gloss, you might be tempted to write this man off as another in the "power of positive thinking" mold. You might be tempted to put his book down and return to the empty vision that seems to hover over our future. Or you might read Richards' analysis of the Petrol Paradigm, and after he has exposed with outrage, wit, and full seriousness the depth to which he has applied himself to the problem, you will then, perhaps, believe that this same perspective applied to solving the problem of petroleum depletion is credible, important, and worth pursuing. Then add that Richards has, for seventeen years, successfully invested himself in the model he advances.
"The S.O.S. venture was launched with our Soyawax business group as the economic seed. We will nuture this seed to build our innovative business model into vertically integrated resource management and production systems. We'll utilize biomicry to build a living global economic organism. We'll build integrated whole system biorefineries. From key global access points, we will draw in sustainable agricultural produce and plant feedstock. A biorefinery extracts the entire value chain of food, biofuels, fiber, and biobased phytochemicals to replace petrochemicals in the industrial value chain."
For all that you have read on peak oil or climate change, this book is different. It is an imaginative mixture of vision, analysis, solution, and marketing. Yes, the book is absolutely a push for Michael Richards' soy wax business. And it is unabashedly so. There are significant portions of the book that are trying to gather you into his soy wax enterprise. You are invited to help him sell wax. You are offered the opportunity to start your own business and make candles or market other soy wax products. Or to use his model to enable the creation of other sustainable business systems. Richards is a scientist, a hands on researcher, who is also an entrepreneur with something to sell. He gives his pitch like any pitchman and it is a good one.
Mud City Press found this book so intriguing that we decided to call Michael Richards. We wanted to talk to this man with a vision, and we were pleasantly rewarded with our call. Michael Richards was a gracious, intelligent, and compassionate man, who didn't knock us over with a big ego or wild proclamations. In an age of climbing carbon emissions, he was a breath of fresh air, a pragmatic man of uncommon sense who has decided to take the bull by the horns. His business model is working on a small scale, and he wants to push it out further. As his book says over and over, the time is ripe. Innovative thought and creative business are the key ingredients. With S.O.S. he invites his readers to join in with this endeavor.
We have long heard of the genius of the market. We have long been told that as valuation of the environment becomes more profitable the market will honor it. But that time has come and gone. Nonsensical government subsidies and foreign policies have empowered the petroleum industry for years. The "anything-but-free" market, particularly in energy but also in agriculture, is sending the wrong message. Neither gasoline prices nor grain prices are true to real costs. A gallon of gas, when all the costs are compiled, including the environmental damage and the cost of constant war, should have topped the $10 mark long ago. Instead we have propped up the oil industry; we have propped up the agriculture industry, and those products that should be weighing in as alternatives have not gained major market share. Instead, we are literally paying to line the pockets of the some of the richest people in the world and enable the destruction of the environment.
Richards challenges us to make a stand and change. Why can't sustainable services, whether in production, design, or cleanup be profitable work? This is what S.O.S is really asking. Rising energy costs mean one thing for business. Localize. Diminish travel and shipping expenses. Make the market work by clarifying the system. There can only be one real market price. Anything less than a thorough and honest evaluation of every aspect of the product through the grid of sustainability is a corruption of the market ideal and human purpose. At the local level, good product and real value will trump the failure of our government to honestly address the problems. It’s time to move on. Richards' points us in a new direction.
What makes this book so stunning is the author's courage to announce that this is the movement that we need, and that he is stepping forward as one of its leaders. Richards' analysis of the petroleum paradigm is complete, from the detailed analysis of farming techniques to the network of nineteenth century tycoons who determined the part petroleum would play in the twentieth century. But he also includes a lucid vision for the Post Petrol era, and step by step, he reveals what changes must be made and what a sustainable future might look like. This kind of vision is exactly what the doctor ordered. Our current vision of the future is a muddled muck of anti-terrorist strategies and ways to defend existing petroleum reserves in order to allow for more carbon excess. Where exactly will this line of action get us? To an ugly economic melt down and a catastrophic change in our way of life? Richards gives us his appraisal:
"Some regions of the USA will fare better than others. The arid Sunbelt will suffer in proportion to the degree that it prospered artificially during the cheap oil, piped-in water heyday of the late 20th century. It is reasonable to predict that the Southwest will become substantially depopulated, since they will be short of water as well as gasoline and natural gas. All regions of the nation will be affected by the challenges of this 'long emergency.' New England and the Upper Midwest have considerably better prospects, since their return to a local, agrarian, land-based economy will require much less radical change. The local areas that still have some vestiges of their rural roots are much less likely to fall into lawlessness, anarchy, or despotism. They are more likely to salvage the memory and possibility of our best rural social traditions and keep them in operation at some level. These areas are where the Post Petrol Paradigm is most likely to take root and thrive over time. It is time to 'return to the Heartland.' The same will be true in all nations of the earth. We will have new agrarian societies grow, but these healthy green enclaves will be qualitatively different than the past; as we will have the digital connection to share emerging life support technology. The Global Village will become a very dynamic social model."
This last point is an important corollary to Richards' model. We can create relocalized whole systems while also taking advantage of the facility of the World Wide Web. We are not going backwards to the 1880s; we are going forward, enabling a simpler localized philosophy with the high speed sharing of information. This is a workable formula for our future.
Stylistically the book is somewhat of a collage of ideas. At times, a topic will cover many pages. At other times, it seems that each paragraph is a thought unto itself, as though Richards were carrying his laptop with him throughout the day, and whenever an idea occurred to him he would put it into his S.O.S file. Though he suggests reading this book in one sitting over a weekend, it is really too dense for that. It reads better in small samplings, where each nugget, each paragraph or series of paragraphs can be pondered. It is organized into seven sections, the Seven Pillars to Support the Emerging Global Culture (sustainable food, bioshelter, renewable energy, ecology of trade, post petrol politics, community, and consciousness), but the flow of the book seems more organic, the structure just a way of holding in all the ideas. No matter what you may know about peak oil and the implications of our changing world, no matter how much reading you may have already done, SUSTAINABLE OPERATING SYSTEMS is a provocative read and a valuable resource. More than that, its energy is contagious and inspirational. When Michael Richards tells us "we are the people we have been waiting for," you know for certain he is one of them–and that you might be also.
The Permatopia Pattern below is printed on the inside back cover of SUSTAINABLE OPERATING SYSTEMS. This design comes from the permatopia.com website, owned and operated by Mark Rabinowitz. The pattern's simplicity and completeness speak volumes about whole sustainable systems in a single image. Rabinowitz designed this pattern and several others that can be seen at his website.