Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Ellen LaConte – Life Rules [Review]

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0865717265″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61XVoB9ynXL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Ellen LaConte – Life Rules”]Deep Green Manifesto

A Review of

Life Rules: Nature’s Blueprint for Surviving Economic and Environmental Collapse

Ellen LaConte

Paperback: New Society Publishers, 2012.
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Reviewed by Josh Wallace


I was a climate-change doubter for many years. I’ve since had my conversion. I doubt, however, that Ellen LaConte’s Life Rules would have changed my mind.


Perhaps this okay. LaConte doesn’t set out to win over doubters. Judging by her endnotes, this may be an instance of the choir preaching to the choir. Most items she cites are put out by ecologically-minded presses or culled from permaculture, Deep Green, et cetera websites or newsletters. In the same way, the content of Life Rules is much more of a curated collection of the best ideas of other authors than an argument for a new conceptual scheme or course of action.


Life Rules styles itself as a survival guide for a post-environmental-and-economic-collapse future. Thankfully, Life (always capitalized) has learned strategies for avoiding, coping with, and recovering from Critical Mass (LaConte’s term – also capitalized – for “so much going wrong everywhere at once”). We humans, too, can keep these rules to find a life and a life worth living on the other side of the collapse.


*** Our Best Books of 2012 list

The book comes in three parts. Part One outlines the threat. Here LaConte does offer a new conceptual metaphor for what’s going wrong in the world: HIV/AIDS. LaConte lists the diverse symptoms of Critical Mass: unstable climates and extreme weather, food shortages and water crises, violent conflicts and wars, economic recessions and rising unemployment. She doesn’t, however, locate the cause in any one of these. These are symptoms. The usual suspects – climate change and peak oil – make an appearance as she moves toward naming a cause. But these too are symptoms. The cause, the virus itself, is a viral globalized economy.


Admittedly, the conceptual analogy is stretched thin at points. The global economy works like HIV. It attacks the very systems and communities that Life has developed to deal with Critical Mass-inducing forces. LaConte identifies Earth’s human and other-than-human communities and ecosystems as Earth’s equivalent to an immune system. By disrupting these communities, global economy-induced Critical Mass poses a threat to Life itself.


Part Two outlines the rules that Life has (genetically?) encoded for it’s living communities to negotiate Critical Mass. Life is naturally adapted to living on Earth, so its rules are resultingly Earth-ological and Earth-onomic. Applying both political and economic lenses to the histories and habits of ecological communities, LaConte finds that Life promotes lifeways that are, among other things, local, subsistence, democratic, and information-sharing. While her political and economic analyses are great (or at least those she borrows from primary sources are great), the characteristics that she discerns in natural communities feel a bit too rose-colored for my taste. Natural communities, it turns out, are everything we want to be! They enact everything we to which we aspire! (I worry that LaConte may join many of us in projecting our hopes onto a more primal blueprint; surely life in natural communities must offend us at least as often as it inspires us.)


The book is worth reading if only for the final section. In Part Three, “Deep Green Methods for Surviving the Global Economy,” Life Rules takes on a bit more of the character of guide for the perplexed. Life’s rules for survival are at risk of being one more casualty to this global disease. In Part Three, LaConte gathers those rules together, along with stories of human communities experimenting with obedience to them. She writes, “Acceptance of the fact that Life rules and knowledge of and obedience to Life’s Rules are as vital to our survival as a species as genetic encoding of those rules has been to other-than-human species. Mimicking Life is how we may yet, if slowly, fix what’s going wrong everywhere at once” (193).


Part Three reads more like a manifesto, a list of ideals, rather than like a protocol with step-by-step instructions. In fact, LaConte encourages readers to do an Internet search of some of the ideas she mentions for more hands-on-oriented tips. The information, whether it be Life’s Rules or the steps to implement them, are already out there. LaConte purpose seems to be provoking us to action rather, not telling us what exactly to do. To quote her once more, “All we have lacked, really, has been the context within which these prototypes and principles [= Life’s Rules] could be harmonized and integrated. My intent in this book has been to address that lack, to give more of us reason to seek out those prototypes, principles, techniques and teachers and to offer a fairly inarguable context within which we could understand how – and why – to use them: Life itself”(203).



I would not recommend Life Rules for someone who doubts climate change or peak oil or any of the other doomsday scenarios looming over us in these first years of the twenty-first century. Offer this book to the person who’s just realized that things are changing so therefore something in our lifestyle has got to change. Pass this book along to the person who’s contemplating digging up their lawn to try their hand at suburban farming. It will be good fuel for the fire.


But for doubters. . . well, all I can say is that it was the real-life habits of friends–the ones who started saving rain water and reusing their gray water, the ones who started raising chickens in the city – as well as novels that changed my mind. I suspect that only stories, whether the kind we hear over a meal or the kind we read, have the ability to show us the power and fragility of the lives we lead. Stories outweigh every sort of science.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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Reading for the Common Good
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