by Jennifer Reed

Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it

“At least the leak isn’t at our end of the boat.”

I was living abroad when I first clipped that headline out of a London newspaper. I am reminded of it whenever I read articles about famine and drought, mudslides and wildfires, public education, unemployment and corporate bailouts. Really, I can apply that phrase to almost any current events topic. It perfectly illustrates our disconnect from one another and our environment.

As polar ice caps melt, deserts expand, violent storms increase along with oil, gas and coal shortages, it seems that we are only shielded from these problems because the water hasn’t yet gushed to our end of the boat. The correlation between our lifestyle and current crises happening all over the globe are dots that we are choosing not to connect. Our nonchalance in this regard is one of our largest hurdles to a successful outcome, and by that I mean life.

We all will eventually face the looming catastrophes of peak oil, climate change, loss of irreplaceable biodiversity, food scarcity, lack of clean water and economic collapse. These are the holes in our boat and the water’s rising. Not believing there are holes will not keep it from sinking.

These are the critical questions that Ellen LaConte addresses and astonishingly answers in her recently released book, “Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it.”

LaConte, editor of Farmstead magazine and other nationally distributed newsletters, discusses the intimate relationship we have with the Earth, our part in its destruction, the results of living beyond the Earth’s means and the decision to walk a path that will lead us out of the catastrophic mess we’ve gotten ourselves into before it’s too late.

”Nature” she says, “ is not part of our life. We and our lives are part of Nature. Getting this relationship wrong was the cause of our present crisis.”

The Earth is so large that it’s difficult to imagine running out of anything, but if humans continue to consume 20 percent more natural resources than the planet can produce (2004 report by the World Wildlife Federation), it doesn’t take a brainiac to see a bit of a problem on the horizon. Humans are the only specie that takes more than it needs to survive, becoming a robber baron that plunders without restoring its own habitat. This is living beyond Earth’s ability to renew and restore itself – living beyond its means.

“Live beyond Earth’s means long enough,” LaConte writes, “and in due course you will run out of what you need to live, and you will destroy the other-than-human species and natural communities on which you actually depend for your life.”

This is simple eco-nomics. Worldwide, approximately 150 species of plants and animals are lost each day because of deforestation, pesticide use, and pollution. The naturalist John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in Nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

So with the loss of each species, this web that we are a part of and depend on becomes more tenuous. If we lose bees, for example, the pollination of $30 billion in crops is at stake. Imagine what other anonymously miraculous species are already extinct.

The author notes that the culmination of this crisis, which she describes as ”critical mass,” is analogous to AIDS in the human body. For years AIDS was misdiagnosed because its wide variety of symptoms were thought to be related to other diseases. LaConte suggests that worldwide problems, such as bankrupt local and national economies, declining resources, crumbling infrastructures, disastrous weather, corrupt governments and a widening gap between rich and poor, are interconnected and can’t be dealt with as discrete issues. Any effective cure for the disease, she argues, must be rooted in an understanding of how we got into this predicament.

The book’s title,” Life Rules,” has an interesting double meaning. First, it suggests that there are guidelines that all life, including humans, must follow in order to survive. But there is another, more ominous, meaning: If we ignore these rules, life will have the last word.
LaConte shows that these rules are meant to be followed down to life in its smallest forms and that if we follow the survival instincts programmed into these organisms, we can learn to save ourselves.

One survival strategy is the organizing and strengthening of communities into smaller self-governing, democratic bodies. It was interesting to read in the book about the Chestnut Hill Community Association as an example of neighborhoods taking back their power within the context of a larger government. But before we all swell with pride, it is also noted by Lloyd P. Wells, founder of the Chestnut Hill Local and former president of the CHCA, “that in recent years the CHCA has fallen prey to the same sorts of failures –diminished democratic vision and energy, resident passivity, personal ambitions and fiscal corruption and irresponsibility – that plague many modern American communities, but that a fresh batch of “Hillers” and some of the old guard who are distressed with the loss of consensual process may be shaking things up in Chestnut Hill again.”

I took a break from reading doom and gloom books because, well, they’re gloomy. One can take only so much bad news in a day, and radio, television and the Internet are already full of it. LaConte, however, gives us plenty of evidence of why we should be worried – very worried. But she also lays the groundwork for our rescue from ourselves. We all like a happy ending, and it exists. We just have to make it happen because it’s not going to happen on its own.

As I read in my Water Department bill every month, the time to prepare for an emergency is not in the middle of it. We are all afraid of collapse – the sudden and complete failure of everything that we currently take for granted. But “collapse” is a word that will describe the situation that comes when we sit back and do nothing to prepare. We can no longer afford to remain ignorantly blissful.

To prepare, start reading about the problems we will have to face, and “Life Rules” is an excellent start. To get an idea of how many Earths we would need if everyone lived an American lifestyle, take the Ecological Footprint Quiz at

Order “Life Rules” at or any other major bookseller or from a local, independent seller, such as Big Blue Marble in Mt. Airy. Reserve it at the Chestnut Hill Library, where Ellen LaConte has donated a copy.

Pull quote:
It’s easier, happier – and characteristically human – to deny the seriousness of the fix we’re in than to face what it would take to fix it.  – Ellen La Conte, “Life Rules”

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