Monday, May 25, 2015

The BioLite Stove as a Metaphor for American Promise and Peril

By Bob Ferris

My loving wife bought me a BioLite stove for Christmas.  She was excited because she had found
something that really intrigued me and I was excited by the idea of a product that operated on readily available (and free) resources, integrated energy production with energy use in a teachable moment manner, and was well executed and designed.  I also like it that the stove created a certain buzz as well as serving a practical function.

We have used the BioLite for a while now and like it a lot, but are amazed by some of the negative reviews and comments.  It’s too heavy and not ideal for backpacking.  It does not charge electronic devices very quickly and you have to keep feeding it wood.  It is slower to heat water than some stoves and is often very smoky.

A few of these criticisms are on some level warranted and some not.  Take the smoky comment, for instance, the BioLite is not a magical device and I suspect those who made smoky fires in a BioLite might also do the same in their fireplaces or woodstoves.  Fire making is as much a science as it is an art form that involves the use of good, dry wood and often the fuel addition timing sense of a practiced comedian delivering a punchline.  Creative color schemes and clever designs do not change the nature of combustion.  To think otherwise misses much of the essence of what fires are and have been for mankind across tens of thousands of years.

The wielders of these criticisms really and fundamentally miss the point.  The BioLite is remarkable not because it is the best, lightest, or the swiftest stove or the whizz-bang fastest charger.  It is remarkable because of the thought behind the device and the philosophy expressed through its design and the company's business plan. It makes me wonder what these same folks would have said at Kitty Hawk or during the rocky formation of this country.

Some might think it silly or inappropriate for me to compare the US to a spiffy, albeit imperfect, camping stove but please consider that the BioLite is a progressive product that looks towards a better future state for itself while encouraging change elsewhere around the globe.  This is much like what the founding fathers intended with their actions either consciously or unconsciously.  Although many would try to cast US founding fathers in a conservative light, launching a democracy in a sea of kingdoms was a pretty radical leap.

The BioLite is also a product that is criticized by those holding on to the status quo like steroid-dosed limpets which is reminiscent of criticism the rebelling colonists were subject to more than a couple of centuries ago.  We often forget that only 40-45 percent of colonists openly supported the rebellion and they were heavily criticized by the 15-20 percent who seemed fine with maintaining themselves in a taxed, but unrepresented state and were unwilling to rock the boat.

And the BioLite needs to be maintained and adjusted during operation for it to work as intended.  So too does a democracy formed in response to a distant government too beholding to commercial interests, ultra-sensitive to a particular class, and inextricably linked to a single church.  Each time we deviate from the “We the People” model by allowing or enabling corporations, a class, or a church to recapture elements of this past power on our soil we must correct that situation just as we put in smaller twigs, use dryer sticks, or blow on failing and air-starved embers in our tiny stove.

We have had to rekindle the fire of our democracy repeatedly over the course of the past two centuries.  The Civil War exploded in part because some confused “states’ rights” with the personal rights expressed by the “We the People” phrase and expanded upon in the Preamble of the Constitution.  Theodore Roosevelt adjusted too in the early 1900s when he worked to wrest power away from certain snowballing corporations and the so-called robber barons bent on treating our natural resources as theirs and making America a playground for their abuses and excesses.  And we adjusted again during the Great Depression in the 1930s and also during the Civil Rights struggles in the 1960s to make sure that institutions and programs were in place to protect people from peril and mistreatment as well as to further memorialize elements of the Preamble.

Right now our “stove” is smoking mightily.  The corporations expelled at least twice from power in this country have become re-empowered by our inability to curb campaign contributions and quickly reverse the Citizens’ United decision.  These corporate-led initiatives are increasingly perverting our political system in order to reduce regulations and once again grant themselves the unfettered access to our resources they once enjoyed.  It is obviously a serious problem when entities established and forgiven taxes because they serve the “public good” are able to place themselves in a position where they greatly influence those who define public good.

In addition, some members of the billionaire class seem to be rejecting the idea of making this country more vibrant and sustainable in favor of sponsoring candidates who more resemble gladiators swinging swords of fear, ignorance, and hatred as distractions away from the material damage of their fiscal, foreign, and environmental policies.  At times it seems like those bankrolling candidates are playing a cynical game where the prize goes to the one who can get the most outrageous and least qualified candidates elected.
If any gentleman supposes this controversy [about an American Anglican bishop] to be nothing to the present purpose, he is grossly mistaken. It spread a universal alarm against the authority of Parliament. It excited a general and just apprehension that bishops and dioceses and churches and priests and tithes were to be imposed upon us by Parliament. It was known that neither king nor ministry nor archbishops could appoint bishops in America without an act of Parliament; and if Parliament could tax us they could establish the Church of England with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other churches as conventicles and schism shops. . . . John Adams in a letter to Hezekiah Niles regarding the American Revolution February 13, 1818
And then we have the church.  While religion seems to be a waning interest in the coming generation and we see elsewhere in the world the problems associated with countries ruled by religion, some elected officials and candidates seem intent on making Christianity the state religion once again and even—in some extreme cases—suggesting that church attendance be mandatory. That a formerly influential Congressman would publicly make the specious claim that God wrote the Constitution and that it is based on the Bible—a document that contains absolutely no mention of democracy anywhere—without broad dismay and outrage seems simply bizarre and troubling in a country so firmly and purposely constructed to separate church from state (see Tom Delay video below).


So the three Cs that served in part as catalysts for the American Revolution (i.e., corporations, class, and church) are all now running rampant in the country that was constructed expressly to be insulated from these sorts of often abusive influences.  Moreover, forces within these elements are working overtime to convince intellectually vulnerable segments of the population to argue against their own self interests.  The Cliven Bundy incident and the emerging situation with the out-of-compliance miners in Oregon are perfect examples with the Oath Keepers and the III Percenters (see III Percenters rant here) fully strapped with weaponry and disturbing t-shirts as well as a manufactured paranoia that is simply stunning.

Congress is not a reflection of the American people.  That is a huge problem in a democracy.
The media focus on these numerically insignificant but noisy factions—like the Oath Keepers, the III Percenters and Bundy’s babbling posse—paints a public portrait of an extremely conservative country becoming more right and more Christian each day.   While this certainly reflects what is happening in Congress in terms of makeup and actions, it does not reflect the leanings of America’s people by a long shot.  And this is the crux of the problem particularly for a country that purports to be a democracy rather than the oligarchy that we are becoming.

So our “BioLite” is smoking and there is a real danger that the fire is going out.  What do we do? The first thing we do is blow hard on the remaining embers.  And we do that by informed voting and being politically active so that others are informed as well.  Do not let a Tea Party myth more than likely crafted by a PR firm pass without comment all the while remembering that the forces who have created this mess are investing billions to make trillions and therefore will be making noise as well.  But in this we have one thing that they will never have and that is numbers, if we have the will and discipline to exercise our franchise responsibly.  And one of the highest priorities that we must have in this regard is fixing the political money angle.  Certainly we need to correct Citizens United but more than that needs to be done.

The "little twigs" in this equation has to be a massive investment in infrastructure starting with education.  We cannot long survive as a world leader if the technological competency of the next generation is ebbing at the same time when the world is becoming increasingly reliant on technology. Moreover, the US is rapidly becoming a third world country because of our continued neglect of our myriad infrastructure systems from transportation (i.e., bridges, rail and roads) to life support (clean air, clean water and adequate natural areas).  Tax cuts are wonderful things, but if we are less smart, it is harder to get goods, and we are sicker as well as dying younger the cuts seem hardly worth the ultimate price.

The cost of tax cuts for the wealthy comes out of the hides of those
who depend on the maintenance of shared resources for quality
of life.  We have gotten significantly reduced visitor center hours,
 higher tuition and crumbling infrastructure as a reward for waiting
 for wealth that was supposed to trickle down but never did.
And lastly the “large sticks” (i.e., the refueling) in this equation starts with a declaration that the great redistribution experiment of transferring the wealth of the middle class to the upper registers of society is a worsening failure.   Those who make disproportionately more in our society use and impact the collective assets of society in a massively different way than most of us and should therefore throw more into the pot not less.  The Walton Family, for example, gained their fortune by using subsidized highways to ship their goods, having many of their employees partially supported by government assistance, and exploiting trade agreements that have contributed mightily to our trade deficit and the shipping of American jobs overseas.  Likewise, the Koch Brothers have capitalized on our general acceptance of the externalization of environmental costs of corporations (i.e., impacts on our air and water quality) and are using part of their gains to make themselves even more unaccountable for these impacts in the future.  In addition, the public good of American corporations (i.e., the rationale for them to be forgiven taxes at public expense) in terms of employment and prosperity becomes extremely questionable when the CEOs of these entities are rewarded too handsomely for cutting jobs and shipping functions overseas.


In terms of solutions for the above, there are many.  The first is to get those disproportionately exploiting our natural resources and using our shared infrastructure as well as fouling our air, water and ecological support systems to pay a fair share reflecting their out-of-scale impacts. Moreover, they should no longer be getting a pass because of the mistaken belief that riches for all of us will spring from the crumbs dropped carelessly from their tables.


Corporate CEO (and senior management) compensation has to be controlled too as it makes little sense to argue that a corporation that pays their CEO several hundred times what they pay their average employees is making prudent use of their revenues with an eye towards creating jobs and public good.  The last figure I saw indicated that corporate CEOs in the Standard and Poor’s 500 make 354 times what their rank and file employees make.  Limit that to just 100 times and you would create employment room for 127,000 folks just at those 500 companies.  There are something like 2.5 million traditional “C” corporations in the US.  While not all follow the compensation patterns of these 500, it does not take a degree in economics to understand that a very large number of Americans could benefit from this sort of adjustment. (This is not in any way a condemnation of capitalism, it is rather a commentary on a broken system and abuse of public trust.)

After roughly 20 days of use we are still learning about our BioLite and
perfecting methods.  It lets me know when I am not diligent.  And
that is just fine with me.  
Now these are big ideas that will take a monumental sea change in Washington DC and elsewhere to accomplish.   I will apologize here for associating this large task with a small and growing stove company, but all enterprises—from stove start-ups to experiments in democracy—must start with undying optimism to beat overwhelming odds and a willingness to do what it takes and make necessary changes to succeed in an evolving world.  I wish BioLite well for the same reasons that I wish success for America:  Intelligence, innovation, and creativity must always prevail over ignorance, fear and greed.  We must in every way possible support those entities that lead us into a bright and accepting future.

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