What is Sacred Headwaters?

Sacred Headwaters is a bi-weekly newsletter that aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come. Subscribe below if you haven’t already:

How to use this page

The newsletter is delivered bi-weekly via email using a platform called Substack, but it’s grown to be such a broad collection of material that Substack’s interface for browsing past issues doesn’t allow readers to “catch up.” This table of contents is meant to be both a reference and a guide. If you’re just joining us, consider starting with issue #1 and then browsing as you see fit. Neither the English language nor the format of this page are conducive to communicating the complex nature of the relationships between these concepts, so don’t feel confined by the order the issues were published in.

This table of contents lists the readings from each newsletter, but I’d highly recommend heading over to the newsletter itself (by clicking the title) where I’ve introduced each reading with context and a short summary.

I’ve done my best to use long-term available links but URLs change over time. Please let me know if you run into any broken links so I can fix them! Barring that, you may be able to use archive.org to access the broken URL.

Table of contents

Issue #1: Uninhabitable Earth An introduction to Sacred Headwaters, the climate crisis, and Project Drawdown.
Issue #2: Planetary Boundaries and Doughnut Economics An introduction to the planetary boundaries framework and the complex systems involved in earth’s capacity to sustain human civilization.
Issue #3: Dirt Exploring the broad impacts of agriculture on planetary boundaries and the opportunities to use food growth for regeneration.
Issue #4: Introduction to Systems Thinking Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world as it really is: a complex network of relationships where nothing exists in isolation.
Issue #5: Carbon Sequestration Carbon sequestration – or “negative emissions” – is a tool for climate change mitigation. What is it, how important is it, and to what degree can we rely on it?
Issue #6: New Climate Economy Transitioning to a more sustainable economy is actually the fiscally conservative option. Why can’t we do it?
Issue #7: Degrowth Some economists believe it’s time for a new paradigm to govern global progress – and that our existing one is fundamentally incompatible with sustainability.
Issue #8: Systemic Risk and Resilience The global system is deeply interconnected, both ecologically and socially. Small (or large) disruptions can have cascading and unpredictable effects. How can we plan in the face of uncertainty?
Issue #9: Indigenous Ways of Knowing One predominant culture permeates most of our world today. But others have existed in the past (and continue to exist on the margins) that operated in fundamentally different ways. What can we learn?
Issue #10: Generative Economic Models We’ve talked a lot about the extractive nature of the existing global economy. But what other options are out there?
Issue #11: Circular Economy Waste is a product of all life. But in natural systems, it’s always recycled. Can our human systems be restructured to operate the same way?
Issue #12: Public Banking Globally, public banks account for $35 trillion, or 1/4 of all banked assets. But there are only three in the US. What are public banks, and what role can they play in a global energy transition?
Issue #13: Practical Inspiration Things can seem pretty grim both globally and specifically in North America. But it’s important to take a step back and look at some of the positive steps towards transformative change.
Issue #14: “Defund the Police” Policing as we know it today has not always existed – it’s a modern construct and it’s important to understand why it exists, if it needs to exist, and whether reform is possible as we move forward.
Issue #15: Systemics of Anti-Racism Anti-racism activists and abolitionists have long recognized the systemic nature of racism and how other forms of marginalization and inequality are deeply intertwined with it.
Issue #16: Racial Capitalism Is racism a foundational component of capitalism?
Issue #17: Environmental Racism Environmental racism manifests in many ways, including in the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change. But why does it exist, and why can’t we seem to resolve it?
Issue #18: Universal Basic Income (UBI) Thanks to some combination of the pandemic and Andrew Yang, UBI has entered the mainstream discourse. But it’s been explored as an idea for hundreds of years and there are many real-world experiments.
Issue #19: Sea Level Rise We know sea levels are rising because of climate change. But the exact details – how much? how quickly? – are much less clear than one might think.
Issue #20: What are the RCPs? Climate impacts are generally contextualized with references to different emissions scenarios. What are these scenarios, and what does “business as usual” mean in this context?
Issue #21: Shifting Baselines Every year seems to have a new record-breaking storm, wildfire season, heatwave, or more. How can we avoid normalizing the rapidly changing climate in our discourse – and in our minds?
Issue #22: Fossil Fuel Companies Fossil fuel companies are largely responsible for our lack of meaningful climate action over the last few decades. Are they just evil, or driven by structural factors?
Issue #23: Fossil Fuel Subsidies Fossil fuel extraction has been the most profitable industry in human history. But even today, with full knowledge of the causes of climate change, governments continue to subsidize it. Why?
Issue #24: “Cars to drive or a planet to live in?” Mainstream “green” narratives and climate strategies are focused on rapid electrification. But is a world full of electric cars actually sustainable, or do we need more radical transformation?
Issue #25: The Intransigence of Auto Policy In the last issue, we looked at whether simply substituting EVs for ICEs in our existing system could meet emissions goals. The short answer? It can’t. So why is that our current trajectory?
Issue #26: Student Loan Debt Student loan debt has grown into a massive crisis, specifically in the US but analogously in many Western countries. Why has it escalated so much and what can we do about it?
Issue #27: Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) MMT is a heterodox economic theory that recommends a new approach to fiscal policy (government spending). What is it, and why does it matter – or does it?
Issue #28: Money, Debt, and Society We tend to think of money as a tool that facilitates exchange, and of debt as a simple representation of money. But some authors argue that money and credit systems actually shape society.
Issue #29: International Debt International debt and institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have played key roles in the world’s least developed countries over the last 70 years. Who do these roles benefit?
Issue #30: What is Neoliberalism? The term “neoliberalism” is increasingly common even in mainstream discourse (and in this newsletter). What exactly does it refer to, and how did it grow into the global framework that it is today?
Issue #31: “Housing Policy is Climate Policy” Densification, green building standards, and transit planning are important climate actions. But paradoxically, if affordability isn’t a key tenet, they can actually cause emissions to rise.
Issue #32: Financialization of Housing The increasing role of finance in residential housing has had transformative effects across the global economy over the last few decades. What are they, and how can we work to reverse them?
Issue #33: Social Housing Housing unaffordability is in large part driven by financialization, but financialization is a macro-scale process with a complex network of drivers. How can we escape it and decommodify housing?
Issue #34: Net Zero…or Not Zero? The last few years have seen rapid growth in both net zero commitments and net zero’s prevalence in global discourse. Is that good, or is net zero functioning as a “discourse of delay?”
Issue #35: Corporate Sustainability Corporate sustainability is a big industry and a big part of many businesses, and it has been since long before the rise of “net zero.” Do these efforts actually do anything good? Can they?
Issue #36: Vaccine Apartheid Locking vaccine production down with intellectual property restrictions is devastating the Global South and driving mutation. Everyone seems to agree. So why aren’t we waiving them?
Issue #37: The Individual Footprint The “individual carbon footprint” is a concept that has become ubiquitous over the last two decades. Does it actually help us achieve long-term decarbonization, or is it a neoliberal distraction?
Issue #38: On ‘the appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change’ How misguided and misleading economic analysis has worked to undermine climate action for four decades.
Issue #39: Divestment Divestment has been one of the most long-lived climate movements and continues to gain momentum, but its real mechanism is subtle. How does it actually contribute to the project of decarbonization?
Issue #40: Supply Side of Climate Change Fossil fuels cause climate change. The world ostensibly wants to mitigate climate change. But countries are planning to produce more than twice as much fossil fuel in 2030 as is compatible with 1.5C.
Issue #41: Alternative Strategies for Fighting Fossil Fuel Growth COP26 has been just the latest data point showing that governments and international negotiations are unwilling and unable to initiate a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry. So, what do we do?
Issue #42: Carbon Colonialism Pt 1 - Historical Emissions Just a handful of countries – overwhelmingly, the same countries that have benefitted from five hundred years of colonialism – are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions.
Issue #43: Carbon Colonialism Pt 2 - Carbon Inequality Historical emissions demonstrate how culpable certain nation states are. Current emissions don’t change that picture much, but they do show us that borders aren’t the only key: wealth is, too.
Issue #44: Carbon Colonialism Pt 3 - Carbon Markets Carbon offsetting is becoming increasingly popular and COP26 took steps to accelerate this. But what impact do these markets have on the global north/south divide?
Issue #45: Carbon Colonialism Pt 4 - Carbon Outsourcing Many countries of the global north have reduced their territorial emissions over the last decade or more. But are they actually just passing those emissions to the south by outsourcing production?
Issue #46: Free Steven Donziger And make Chevron pay. How fossil fuel companies and their lawyers bribe public officials to hold political prisoners – even in the United States.
Issue #47: Building Alternative Systems – Transition Towns Transition Towns, a framework for building climate resilience through an emphasis on localization, has been incredibly successful. But is it fundamentally reformist or radical? Can it be both?
Issue #48: TINA Pt 2 – Catalan Integral Cooperative The Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) is a network of co-ops in the Catalonia region of Spain that aims – explicitly – to build a decentralized, post-capitalist economy based on cooperative ownership (of housing, of businesses, of distribution networks, etc.) that can fully satisfy the needs of everyone in the region without dependence on a broader capitalist system.
Issue #49: TINA Pt 3 – the Paris Commune The Paris Commune was a short-lived revolutionary experiment. It challenged state sovereignty and implemented progressive ideals that wouldn’t be seen again for decades. What can we learn from it?
Issue #50: The State of Mitigation (IPCC AR6 WG3) We’ve known about climate change for a century and have been – allegedly – trying to prevent it for almost forty years. Have we made any progress?
Issue #51: TINA Pt 4 – Kurdish Rojava Kurdish Rojava is an embattled young experiment in radical democracy that’s emerged in northeast Syria. What does radical democracy look like?
Issue #52: TINA Pt 5 - the Zapatistas In Chiapas, Mexico, a coalition of Indigenous peoples oversees a large swathe of autonomous territory. The Zapatistas are building lives free from the control of neoliberal globalization.