Friday, June 28, 2013

“Soil, Soul, Society” 

By Monica Perez Nevarez

Adapting to climate change requires we re-examine how and why we live. And change starts with us, as individuals.

There are few things human beings need to survive: food and water to feed our bodies, homes and clothing to shelter us from inclement weather. Other needs stem from these primary requirements, including energy and sanitation that help with efficiency and health. Farming, water management, tool-making, and cloth-making were the pillars of ancient economies, aside from war plunder. (House-building was a communal activity at first). Is there a way back to that kind of simplicity? And should we go back to it if we can?
Society progressed and embraced technologies that facilitated farming (the wheel, the hoe, domesticating farm animals), water delivery (the Roman aqueducts), tool-making (fire, bellows, iron and bronze), and making cloth (spinning wheel, looms, growing flax, cotton, and farming silkworms, creating the 'Silk Road'). Nine thousand years after learning to farm and live in villages, technology, science and education took a great leap forward with the invention of the Steam engine, and everything changed. The added energy of the engine made more work possible in less time, and empowered individuals to do alone what had up to then only been done communally. And it concentrated wealth to those that had that power.

The Industrial Revolution bloomed: businessmen began to extract natural resources at breakneck speed, without supervision and poor regulation or understanding from government; they broke up work processes into discrete actions, making production of goods more efficient and cheaper, but destroyed artisanal masters and their ethos of 'building to last'. Businesses in the Industrial Revolution went global (tea from India, coffee from Kenya), and offered new 'necessities of life' to society at an affordable cost, and society became hooked on the immediacy and comfort of those new products and services. 

But somewhere in the last 150 years, the idea of development was transformed, from an exercise in communal growth, to one of individual growth and mechanization; businessmen focused exclusively on getting richer, and amassing larger fortunes, and that mindset spread like a virus. Businessmen began to choose personal wealth over communal well-being, and shaped the framework within which our economy is now run, with unfortunate consequences.

Today there is obscene inequality in wealth, education, and opportunity, as well as rapid and unfair resource depletion; we are killing the planet, and the cult of the individual and the corresponding myth of ‘free markets’ has corroded unity and continues to dissolve communities, as more people leave rural areas in search of work. Most egregiously, society has lost the intimacy every person had with the land and the food they eat, and wealth concentration has created ‘food deserts’ among those that most need nourishing food, the poor.

From the Land of Milk and Honey to the Land of CAFO's and Colony Collapse Disorder

In the last 60 years, the way we do business has consolidated industries and created a society that is dependent on ever-increasing consumption of genetically modified crops and highly processed foods, dangerous extractive practices of natural resources, the use of toxic materials and petroleum-based synthetic fibers to produce goods, and the consumption of ever-larger amounts of fossil fuels, at a time when environmental priorities demand alternative lifestyles that are completely foreign to mainstream Americans. The offshoots of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex have taken over the economy, politics and the government.

And not only are we dependent on toxic processes for our food and livelihoods, we have become a consumer society made up of individuals that no longer know how to be self-sufficient, and our communities are too politically polarized to effectively talk to each other. Add to that the imminent threats of climate change, and you realize humanity is facing the greatest challenge it has ever faced: how to help every living person realize what the real costs of a rich world lifestyle really are, what our collective mistakes have been in our development trajectory, and use the knowledge and technology we have to create a world that allows comfort and work, health and happiness for all (including other living beings). To do this, we have to act ethically and wisely as a society, as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a race. Technology won’t solve this problem, although it might help. But change must begin at the individual level first.

As Wendell Berry wrote in a recent article “…responsibility for the better economy, the better life, belongs to us individually and to our communities. The necessary changes cannot be made on the terms prescribed to us by the industrial economy and the so-called free market. They can be made only on the terms imposed upon us by the nature and the limits of local ecosystems. If we’re serious about these big problems, we’ve got to see that the solutions begin and end with our selves.”

Are there any role models to learn from? Yes. Aboriginal and Native peoples around the world were perfectly attuned to their environment before the advent of the Discovery Age. There is much to learn from them. Thousands of books have been written on ecology, environment, economy and climate change since the 60’s; they are a good resource. We can also look to our own recent ancestors, who, although the Industrial Revolution had well engulfed them, still lived close to the land and in tune with it. We need to learn how to live and consume the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did, study how we can adapt our lives to their level of energy consumption, community participation, entrepreneurship, and personal resilience. We need to become interdependent again (not dependent as children are, nor independent self-seekers, but interdependent adults), in order not to depend on corporations for our food, our well-being or our jobs. We can marry lessons from the past with current knowledge and technology and transition into a sustainable future.

Are there any current examples to follow? Cuba, Transition Towns and rebirth in crumbling urban centers.

In places where people have no choice, alternatives sprout up: on the economic sidelines we see a robust trend towards becoming self-sustaining. Cuba, long under Soviet dependence and a crippling US embargo, turned to urban gardening after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which twenty four years on has evolved into relaxed laws that allow ‘Home Restaurants’ and other capitalist offshoots, and a growing entrepreneurial society, which would have been unheard of under Communism. In Britain, groups of neighbors got together to “re-localize” their economies and grow their own food and the idea stuck; they are now known as “Transition Towns” and the concept is spreading around the globe.

Out of the bleak remains of inner-city Detroit, people bought foreclosed properties and county administrators tore down derelict buildings; and a city map that was densely populated with small homes on stamp-sized lots now looks like a patchwork quilt of urban gardens; a garden city is emerging that is self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and urban chickens. In Milwaukee, one man turned a 1,000 square foot derelict greenhouse into a business that produces over one million pounds of produce a year. Here in New York City, groups in Brooklyn have created rooftop farming (The Brooklyn Grange, and urban gardening in a Food Desert (East New York Farms! and are bringing back local produce.

 Where do we go from here?

Start with the things an individual can do. Be energy efficient (offset your travel and driving by buying carbon credits, change lightbulbs to LED's, use solar energy, buy solar and wind powered electricity, drive electric, eat locally sourced foods, build to LEED or Passiv Haus standards, reduce waste, recycle, consume less, for example). Re-localizing the economy and growing healthy food counteracts wealth concentration, spreads wealth and wisdom locally, and creates community bonds, which engender resilience. And it starts with one person doing business with another person in their own community, producing your own goods or growing your own food garden, or engaging with young people in educational experiences. Figure out what works for you while solving the larger problem.

Make use of all the science and education that already exists to set personal and communal metrics, benchmarks and goals, so you know how you are doing and why you are doing it. Once you have created a community, spread that friendship and that community-building message to neighboring areas, and expand your network outward, organically.

Make special efforts to love, be generous, and teach the next generation about the Earth, the community and their role within the web of life, so we no longer grow men and women that think humans can control everything through wealth, power or technology, or that some humans are better than others, or that our species is more important than other species that share the planet with us. We are all equally a part of the Web of Life.

Use all forms of available communication media to get your message out. Face to face is a good starting point, but engagement requires constant tending, and social media is global, immediate, and can be compelling. Educational disparity fuels inequality, so use every tool at your disposal to abolish that inequality, and disseminate more knowledge to every person in your community.

What of Businesses?

Non-Profit entities that survived the Great Recession of 2008 have realized that their old business model is not sustainable in this new economic reality. They now actively supplement their fundraising activities by seeking partnerships with for-profit businesses and government agencies in order to build sustainable income flows. For-profit business are finding that arrangement satisfying and profitable.

Partnerships between the privates sector (business), public sector (government agencies), academia (schools, colleges and universities), and the third sector (non-profits) are flourishing even as the business sector institutionalizes business models that embed these partnerships (B Corps and Impact Investing networks flourish in a new economic landscape (Ceres, Net Impact, The Climate Group The trends are there, make use of them. More partnerships like these are needed.

The Challenge

The Earth’s Atmosphere reached 400 ppm of Carbon Dioxide in May 2013 (a number that scientists agree delineates the amount of greenhouse gasses that will cause catastrophic climate disruptions that we will not be able to stop or control), and on a blistering hot day in June, President Obama stood up in Georgetown, and for 50 minutes set out his plan to curb climate change.

[As an aside, nary a network television channel (ABC, CBS, NBC) carried the speech, and of the two cable channels that carried it, both CNN and Fox News cut away from the President after ten minutes to discuss the plan with talking heads or climate deniers, respectively. C-SPAN and the Weather Channel carried the speech in full, and social media was (forgive the pun) all a-twitter about it. The broadcast media response to the President of the United States’ speech on climate change is very telling, and one of the reasons neither individuals nor businesses have understood the urgency of the challenge. This too must change.]

President Obama ended by exhorting us, the American people, to “Act on Climate.” So the challenge has been voiced, and now it’s our turn, as cognizant individuals, to step up. We must do as Wendell Berry says, and start with ourselves: go back to the soil, find our souls and build a better society.

Comments welcome, email me at guayabapr (at) gmail (dot) com.