Looking to the Past for Answers

As with most of my thoughts, I tend to focus on how to improve the health of the inhabitants of this planet and the actual Earth itself; I find no other goal as equally important. I also enjoy studying why we make certain decisions despite knowing that the outcomes are detrimental to our health and to the Earth. This leads me to examine how we study history in school. Ask people why we study history and most will say that we do so in order to not repeat our mistakes. If this were the case, we would no longer be engaging in the act of war. There are certainly other aspects of history but I have not met a person yet who does not believe human life is of utmost importance so I do not see the need to study war, as it is a simple lesson; we should stop killing each other. I believe we should study history to learn from the things that have actually worked and that have actually made life better for humans by not destroying the only place we have to live.

Although it may seem harsh to say, there exists a pervasive sense of ignorance in modern society that transcends professions and I find it a result of not putting into practice what we know about history. In other words, our past/knowledge is treated as something we simply study. In an attempt to educate and ‘make advancements’, we forget that our past has many answers that actually make more sense than our so-called technical advancements. Instead of using technology to our advantage, we are claiming that these advancements are actually making life better. It is here where my interpretation of the word better typically diverges from the mainstream mind and takes the path less traveled. For me, “better” of course means what is healthy for the inhabitants of the Earth and the Earth itself. For most of society, “better” equates to money; we are convinced an economy is more important. Trading money for our health is, in my mind, a lack of common sense. I would like to identify two areas in society that seem to have lost the ability to use common sense as well as the ability to look at our past for answers to our future.


Current farming techniques involves chemicals to grow food as if nature forgot how to do it.

Current farming techniques involves chemicals to grow food as if nature forgot how to do it.

In modern agriculture we teach how to grow food by using chemicals. Although agriculturists are soil and plant scientists, they have lost focus of the power of nature. That, combined with the fact that we basically have a corporate controlled farming system, has led to the belief that our farming techniques are good for everyone. Instead of looking back at what plants and soil need to be truly sustainable, or better yet regenerative, we have convinced everyone that using chemicals and genetic modifications are the only way to grow food. In the same sense, traditional/modern building continues to use highly processed materials (which undoubtedly produce toxins) instead of truly taking into consideration the environment and its inhabitants. By looking at the past to identify what has worked traditional/modern building could eliminate destructive and unhealthy building techniques. Both professions have lost focus of what and whom we should keep in mind first and foremost: the Earth and the living things that inhabit this place.


It makes sense to eliminate chemicals and allow nature to do its job--this is organic!

It makes sense to eliminate chemicals and allow nature to do its job–this is organic!

A small group of volunteers here in the Santos region of Costa Rica is making an effort to transform current coffee farming techniques back to not just organic but to ecologically certified farming. Green Communities, a local organization founded by Jonathan Cerdas and Carlos Marin, began as a thesis project and has turned into a movement to educate local coffee farmers on the destructive techniques that have been become the norm and that have many thinking this is how it has always been. The Santos region has around 5,000 coffee farmers with plots along most of the steep valleys. They plant coffee only after clearing the land, either by cutting down trees from the dense cloud forest or by burning it. This first step, although seemingly normal to most, leads to erosion and a loss of plant and animal diversity. Agriculturalists know this but there is no attention paid to this issue. After eliminating the biodiversity that many plants and animals call home, they begin the destructive application of chemical farming. As with most traditional farming today, instead of using the biodiversity to help eliminate pests, we turn to chemicals for the answer and simply overlook the fact that we are sterilizing the soil of all living organisms, ingesting the toxins, and polluting the air as well as water supplies near chemical production facilities. By sterilizing the soil, we control weeds, pests, and dis-ease and can grow more food in the short term. This is the goal, more food production in a short amount of time as if we do not have enough food for everyone. In other words, all of the destructive practices are acceptable because it leads to a higher yield, which leads to…you guessed it, more money. However, this is a short-term gain, and only for the middleman. So the focus is on money, not the health of people, animals, or the Earth.

Besides the obvious negative effects of traditional farming, the rise in cost of chemical fertilizers leave the farmers with almost no profit, at least here in the Santos region in Costa Rica. Instead, the profits go to the middleman. This type of farming, all over the world, supports corporations, not local economies. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have seen this pattern over and over. The food producers, the ones in the fields growing the food, historically make very little money, while corporations reap the benefits and the end user, not knowing any better, ingests toxic products and supports the destruction of the only planet we have. Green Communities is educating farmers on the benefits of ecologically grown coffee. By not clearing the land, Costa Rica can continue to claim 5% biodiversity of the entire planet! By not clearing the land, the roots of endemic trees and plants actually help prevent erosion. By creating a food forest, growers will also be at an advantage because their crops will provide yields for many more years longer than chemically-grown crops. By not sterilizing plants and allowing them to build up their own immunity, many pests actually cause no harm to plants. And finally, by not using chemicals there is less pollution in the air and water supplies and toxins in our bodies. Farmers using ecologically sound techniques are actually saving money in the long run and claiming more profits. So, why is this not the norm? The answer is same for anything that we believe; we have been blinded into thinking this is how is it supposed to be and we have lost our ability to discern the information from the truth. The end user is willing to trade health for lower prices. And when presented with the facts/truth, we will argue that what we think is true even when the facts are clear. We spend a lot of money on education but we are really only graduating experts in economy, short-term monetary gain, and destructive practices. If agriculturists, who understand soil and plant science, do not actually use this knowledge, what advancements have been made?

The same lack of awareness is found in the residential building industry; however, since I have spoken in depth about this in other blogs, I will not spend much time discussing the topic here. Every person reading this was probably born in a modern building structure, full of toxic materials that were highly processed, meaning that coal is burned to make the product and high levels of pollution were released into the environment. It is all that we know and for this reason, it is all that we have come to expect. We simply do not have experience with natural building and so we cannot be expected to know anything other than what we experience. However, I would hope that architects would be educated about all types of building and would make decisions that are best for the Earth and its inhabitants. But, as Michael Reynolds says in his documentary, Garbage Warrior, architecture does not take into consideration people or the land. Is it possible that education only focuses on graduating experts in economy to support the systems in place that simply prioritize money? People often scoff when I talk to them about building with earthen materials questioning how long they last, how nasty it must be to live in a dirt home, and what a ridiculous concept it is to build out of the earthen materials when one can just go buy

Every aspect of processing involves burning coal.

Every aspect of processing involves burning coal.


How can we look at this and feel justified in using cement?

How can we look at this and feel justified in using cement?

drywall, cement, and brick at the local Home Depot. We spend billions trying to reduce the amount of pollution created by processing such building materials when we could simply use earthen materials and have almost no negative effect on the environment. By learning about how dwellings used to be built and continue to be built by people all over the world and by simply making some minor improvements we can build beautiful homes that solve many of the environmental and personal health issues we deal with today. Little thought do we give to the fact that builders are only interested in profits and cut corners all over the place, leaving the homeowners to fix things on their own after a short warranty period. We forget how often we hear about people having to put a new roof on their home or how cracks suddenly appear. We pretend we have not heard about how someone’s foundation was not built properly, not knowing that about 50% of California homes are built on expansive soil. In the end, we simply ignore the problems with residential building because we believe this type of construction is how it is supposed to be. We put our belief in the building industry, just as we put our belief into any other part of society, thinking the way we do things now must be the best way.

A typical natural building site has very little waste.

A typical natural building site has very little waste.

Natural building promotes community. It is about building equality, not equity.

Natural building promotes community. It is about building equality, not equity.

A traditional building site uses a dumpster because of the amount of waste!

A traditional building site uses a dumpster because of the amount of waste!

Earthen buildings can last indefinitely with a lot less maintenance than traditional homes, they provide more protection from fire and earth quakes and natural disasters, allow for cleaner indoor air, and since they use mostly earthen materials which can regenerate, have less of a carbon footprint on the Earth. They require less heating and cooling and typically cost less to build than a traditional home. A great example is the $22 electrical bill I saw for the month of July for the first straw bale house built in Tempe, Arizona, which is about 1,200sq. ft. In other words, just like agriculture, if we look to the past, we see that earthen homes make more sense all around and that the ‘advancements’ that have been made in modern building are not really advancements at all.

So is it possible that we are focusing on the wrong aspects of history? Maybe we teach history to make us feel intelligent, so we can say that we are avoiding the same mistakes. It sounds great but until mainstream education focuses on creating a healthier planet with healthier people, you will not find me supporting the ‘economy’ as if it were a living organism. The planet is a living organism yet we give more importance to something we made up. When will we learn that the economy will not provide for us what the Earth already does and has been doing for a long time? I would like to end with a quote, and although difficult to trace, it speaks the truth that we are not ready to hear. Some sources say it is a Cree prophecy, others say it is from Alanis Obomsawin, who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve. In either case, it is a powerful thought.

“Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

About Carlos Bill

Carlos is a dynamic public school teacher and Principal with professional development experience in 2nd language acquisition, educational technology, and classroom management. He also is Co-Founder of Travel to Learn, an organization dedicated to teaching people how to live a truly regenerative lifestyle with respect to health, relationships, and the natural environment. TTL does this through public speaking engagements, workshops, and travel programs.
This entry was posted in Earthen Buildling, Education, Energy, Environmental Sustainability, Food Production, organic farming, Sustainable Housing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Looking to the Past for Answers

  1. Elena says:

    Thanks Carlos for keeping on keeping on. I passed along your blog to a former student who I think will find it of interest.

  2. Slava says:

    Hi Carlos! My friend Julie Scannell told me to follow your blog – I could not agree more with what you shared. Hopefully more people will turn back to simpler natural practices, living in harmony with the Earth instead of against it. If you have not seen this Ted talk, you are going to like it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21j_OCNLuYg :-)

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