One of the reasons discussions of whether “organic” and “local” can “feed the world” often founder so badly is the whole set of presumptions that precede such a discussion. So let’s talk about those - James McWilliams’ book "Just Food", and others have stirred up a good bit of controversy on this subject, and lots of people seem to know the answers. But the real problem is that most people don’t really seem to understand what the questions are.
image above: A large modern combine on the landscape. From http://teagantimes.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/the-monsters-come-out-of-hibernation
While I may eventually write a review of Just Food", which is a thoughtful, if sometimes weakly argued book, I think it is more important to speak about the terms of the debate, because discussions about food tend to begin from deeply wrong premises.
Consider the common question “Can we feed the world with organic agriculture?” Besides the fact that we haven’t asked what kind of organic agriculture (and people like McWilliams consistently conflate multiple kinds of agriculture, assuming that industrial organic and small scale agriculture are the same, and have the same proponents), people raising this discussion almost never actually ask “Did we ever try to feed the world?”
The assumption, of course, is that industrial agriculture has always been engaged in the project of “feeding the world” - Cargill, ADM and Monsanto regularly argue that these are their goals, that their research is required to bring new crops that will make it possible to feed two or three more billion people.
The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that industrial agriculture has ever had the objective of feeding the world. I am repeating here something Aaron and I say in much more detail in "A Nation of Farmers" (and with full citation), but if you track the research, what you find is this. The vast majority of increases in grain yields since the beginning of the Green Revolution didn’t feed hungry people - they went to feed livestock, to make meat in the rich world, and then to ethanol - with the help of the same industrial corporations that we plan to rely upon to feed us.
The same corporations that are going to “feed the world” by introducing new, drought resistant crops invested heavily in ethanol infrastructure, helping move more of the world’s grain harvest into gas tanks, rather than into people’s mouths.
At the same time that corporations were breeding herbicide resistant corn, and struggling to breed (unsuccessfully thus far) drought resistant crop varieties to respond to climate change, they were enabling climate change - encouraging the expansion of industrial agricultural plantations of palm, bananas and grain into rainforest areas that are carbon sinks, using heavy chemicals and encouraging corn-soybean rotations that strip the soil of organic matter and leave soils unable to hold carbon in large quantities, and, of course, encouraging people in the poor and rich world to turn agriculture, which could be a net carbon sink, into a root source of up to 1/4 of the world’s total emissions.
We assume that industrial agriculture is “efficient” - and in some ways, it has been efficient at reducing human involvement in the rich world, and replacing it with humans from the poor world or fossil fuels. But industrial agriculture also is deeply inefficient - that is, at the same time it works towards a stated goal - feeding people - it also operates to reduce our capacity to feed people.
Imagine that, say, Microsoft were to devote nearly as much of its resources to getting people not to buy Windows as they do to selling it, and that gives you a sense of the scale of the problem. One of the most basic ways to streamline the food system would simply be to stop the “three steps forward, two steps back” system, and go for one or two steps forward at a time.
Moreover, when discussing the future, we must talk clearly and honestly about climate change. Aaron Newton and I also asked “can we feed the world” and spent several years researching the answer. Our answer is simply this - it depends on the extent and violence of climate change. More profound droughts, loss of meltwater for irrigated agriculture, which produces 30% of the world’s grains, more flooding, the permanent loss of some land to food production, higher temperatures that reduce grain yields, all of these things move us towards a food disaster.
And what most commentators ignore in the discussion is this - we have pinned our hopes on GMOs - and we have no evidence (something McWilliams cheerfully ignores) that even were there no other concerns about GMOs, that we can increase yields with them. McWilliams speaks of the importance of creating drought-resistant cassava varieties for African farmers facing climate change as a good use of GMOs. The difficulty is that several studies have demonstrated that up until now, no genetically modified food (and they’ve been making them for some time now) has ever had a significant impact on yields. The fact that so far, GMOs don’t work is a fairly big elephant in the room.
And perhaps it would make sense for us to pin our hopes on that elephant if we had no other options - but what people tend to ignore is this - what’s fascinating about research on small scale intensive, low input (some organic, some not - Aaron and I are not organic purists, but we believe that given our fossil fuel predicament, the chance that we’re all going to be able to dump all the fossil fuels we want on food without causing famine by food price rises is ridiculous) agriculture that focuses on soil and sustainable systems is that they often come close to matching the yields of industrial agriculture, but fall short in the best years.
What’s important to know, however is that in the worst years - the driest and the wettest, these systems come into their own. Greater amounts of organic matter mean both more water in the soil in dry years and better drainage in wet ones. Greater diversity of crops means fewer complete losses. Right now, the only proven tool we have for responding to climate change in agriculture is small scale, low-input, diversified small farms - period. We can debate about what the best hypotheticals are, but the proof is all firmly on the side of one model.
Aaron and I spend a lot more time on this question in our book, but it is important to note that our current agricultural model does not either intend to feed the world, nor does it do so. The UN FAO reports that at this point, two *billion* people in the world live on the product of low input, small scale, non-industrial agriculture.
I often hear people observe that without fossil inputs on a large scale we can feed only half a billion or a billion people - McWilliams puts this figure at 4 billion, which is at least more credible. But we are already feeding 2 billion people that way. Moreover, large scale industrial agriculture is not presently feeding the world - 85% of the world’s farms are small farms, smaller than 5 hectares. These farms produce nearly half of the world’s total grain, and much more than half (since they are usually diversified) of the world’s total food calories.
Local food may not be feeding New York City and the I95 corridor, and it never will - I know of no rational thinker who believes so. But local food *is* already feeding much of the world - the majority of the world’s poor don’t eat a Caesar salad that travelled 1,500 miles - they don’t even eat rice that traveled that distance.
The correct QUESTIONS are not being asked.
• To what extent can local food continue to feed the world? How can we begin to grow food in a way that doesn’t undermine our capacity to feed ourselves in the future?
• What are the best demonstrated ways to adapt to climate change?
• How should add complexity to discussions of organic or local to create ways of eating that actually lead to a future where everyone gets food?
• How do we make the best use of our limited resources, in a world of limits?
Until we ask the right questions, we will never get decent answers.
This funny thing used to happen when my friend Todd and I discussed peak oil and energy descent back when we were just coming to grips with all of that. One of us would begin to explain a particular future scenario or perhaps a strategy to address that scenario. All of these conversations could be loosely described as plans to addresses to collapse of modern civilization. We were both a little more Doomer than we are today but even back then we recognized that “collapse” wouldn’t necessarily mean an overnight, madmax scenario complete with bunkers guarded by automatic weapons and the ubiquitous zombies coming to steal stockpiled spam. We felt there was a good chance things might get really bad, especially if the collapse was swift, but that “collapse” could mean many things.
At the beginning of these conversations we would usually have to define the situation, the extent to which the world and our lives had changed as a consequence of energy descent. For instance if Todd mentioned that he’d spent $600 stockpiling food over the weekend that would fall into the immediate collapse category in terms of response. If he wanted to have a conversation about integrating agriculture into community master planning (at the time we were working together as land planners) then I knew Todd was thinking about a collapse of the current paradigm of reckless land use planning not the sudden collapse of the western world.
Dmitri Orlov, author of "Reinventing Collapse" wrote an excellent post some time back about the Five Stages of Collapse (http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2008/02/five-stages-of-collapse.html).
He defines them this way.
Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in "business as usual" is lost. The future is no longer assumed resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out, and access to capital is lost. Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that "the market shall provide" is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down, and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm. Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that "the government will take care of you" is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance. Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that "your people will take care of you" is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum run out of resources or fail through internal conflict. Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for "kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity" (Turnbull, The Mountain People). Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes "May you die today so that I die tomorrow" (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago). There may even be some cannibalism.
The entire post is worth a read.
Neither Orlov nor I believe that all 5 stages are inevitable. He says,
“Although many people imagine collapse to be a sort of elevator that goes to the sub-basement (our Stage 5) no matter which button you push, no such automatic mechanism can be discerned. Rather, driving us all to Stage 5 will require that a concerted effort be made at each of the intervening stages.”
This is important because I don’t want to give the perception that we’re all in a hand basket and headed for hell regardless of what we do. I certainly don’t believe that’s the case. But I think it’s important to recognize that because collapse is likely to play out over decades not within weeks, we need a temporal framework within which to consider our plans and actions and does so in the context of resource availability.
For instance, before or during the financial collapse might be a good time to insulate your home or at least work hard on that goal and you can postpone hoarding all that spam until you get that done. ;-) Learning a new skill is almost always useful but should you develop a local currency and open your own bank or take up blacksmithing? Both might be more useful depending on what collapse looks like in your future.
And it’s likely that there will be regional differences in terms of how collapse unfolds. We already experience regional differences that might make blacksmithing a more reasonable skill to pursue even today. Or there might already be a local currency in your area making that a project you need not start from scratch. It’s almost certain that financial collapse will affect some areas more severely than others. It’s important to consider how this timeline will vary based on where you live.
I’ve had several recent conversations with people who are trying to response to energy descent, climate change and resource depletion (and their financial repercussions) by adapting in place. The task can seem overwhelming. Trying to figure out what needs to be done and when- do I reinsulated the house now or use that time and money to jumpstart my gardening efforts. I find it helps to consider a timeline that thinks about how resources might be available in the future. It goes something like this.
[By the way I’m hoping
Stage 1. Business as usual. Resources are available in roughly the same way they were at the turn of the century. Cheap electronic gadgets and pet food are purchasable at Wal-Mart. Food is still plentiful (even if the cost is putting it out of reach for more Americans) and electricity is still less than $0.20 per kilowatt hour. Gasoline is less than $4.00 per gallon. Home heating and cooling and cooking costs are not prohibitive for most.
Stage 2. Life gets expensive. Resources rise in price to the point that many more Americans cannot afford to keep a steady stream of consumer goods coming into their households. (The death of a cell phone for instance might mean looking for that old one buried in the junk drawer or buying a used one on Craig’s List or even going without) Food rises in price to the point that more American have gardens (at least small ones) than not. Some items like pineapples become unavailable or a luxury for the rich. Electricity doubles in price forcing those who can afford it to invest in renewables and others to start turning things off. At $5 or $6 per gallon, gas prices force less transportation of everything and everyone. Thermostats go down in the winter and up in the summer and people start plugging in lots of space heaters and window units.
Stage 3. Intermittent Service Disruptions. Some resources become unavailable through the regular channels- Wal-Mart runs out of calculators and pet food several times a month. Food becomes even more expensive and the diet of most Americans begins to change out of necessity. Chocolate and oranges show up as Christmas gifts not as everyday treats. Communities get serious about farming resources (or they don’t). Regional outages of electricity mean that it is not available 24/7 everyday of the year throughout the
Stage 4. Resource Scarcity. Many resources aren’t available to most people especially those that come from far away. A serious salvage economy develops. Food production is largely local with regional support. Self provisioning becomes a must for most households. Food returns to the center of culture and community. Electricity is generated through home or community efforts if at all. Travel by car becomes a luxury of very few people because of the cost of fuel, with roadways degrading badly. Walking and biking become the norm (potentially rail services as well as horses are used again). Winters are cold and home heating is accomplished in large part by burning wood (sustainably?). Home cooling means taking off your shoes and cooking outside on the porch in the summer. Entirely new systems of trade are established.
I want to stress that I’m not suggesting a linear progression from top to bottom. Space aliens could arrive with cold fusion technology tomorrow or we could find ourselves in Stage 3 next Sunday. Or it could be argued that we experienced Stage 3 in a way here in the Southeast as we were without gasoline- actual empty pumps- after Hurricane Gustav ripped into us last year. It was temporary but it was a service disruption. I think using the mental framework of these categories is useful as a way to make plans in accordance to resource availability.
We have the current resource prices we are presently experiencing, in the future we’re likely to have greatly increased prices, we’re likely to experience periods where we flat out can’t get some stuff at least temporarily and eventually we’re likely to experience a world with fewer resources across the board. For me it’s helpful to consider what stage I’m planning for when my family makes decisions about how to adapt in place.
see also: Island Breath: The Waking Up Syndrome 4/19/08
Edward Gibbon described the happiest age of mankind as the period of the “five good emperors” between AD98 and AD180, when Marcus Aurelius died.
image above: Mark Bryan painting of 'The Course of Empire". From http://www.artofmarkbryan.com/course_empire.html
What was America’s Golden Age? It is much too soon to write the history of America’s decline and fall. Still, that doesn’t stop us from guessing.
We would name the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Bros – a period of only 19 years – as the peak of US power and wealth. Of course, Americans were dreaming during those years. The dreams were the usual imperial sort – that the US Empire was such a benefit to the rest of the world that the foreigners would support it indefinitely.
Rome didn’t take any chances; it forced its conquered nations to render tribute…slaves…gold…and wheat. The American empire depended on trade…and the dollar. As long as the United States had a commercial advantage, the empire was profitable. But as the 20th century aged, so did the US economy. Its competitors – notably Germany and Japan – had a big advantage. They had been bombed out in the ’40s. They could build anew. America’s trade advantage slipped away…and then its trade balance went negative in the mid-’80s. It has been getting more negative almost every year.
The trade losses shrank after the fall of the House of Lehman. Americans cut back. But today we get news that the trade deficit has just grown more than in any month in the last 10 years. Have Americans suddenly become big spenders again? Probably not. But we’ll have to wait for another explanation; we don’t have one.
No account of America’s glory years – roughly the period between the reign of George Bush I and that of his son, George Bush II – would be complete without mention of the events that happened on this day eight years ago. A small group of terrorists pulled off an amazing coup – bringing down two of America’s iconic buildings, right in the heart of New York City…and on primetime TV! Historians might be tempted to use this event as a milestone, marking the end of the period of maximum happiness in the United States of America. We caution against it.
It was only later that it became apparent that the US reaction to the terrorist incident was suicidal. The nation desperately needed to bring its ambitions back in line with its means. It needed to save and invest in new factories and new infrastructure. Instead, it wasted trillions fighting phantoms and nobodies. But as far as anyone knew, US influence, prestige and power remained near its zenith throughout the wars on terror and Iraq.
The fall of Lehman changed things Then it was obvious that not only was America vulnerable, she was an enemy to herself. She had diddle-daddled during the glory years, dawdling with the lion cubs that would grow up and maul her. Now, in the period we are living through, she attempts to go back to sleep and rerun her balmy dreams. That is what “recovery” is all about – a return to the land of nod and nonsense…in which people think they can actually become wealthier by squandering money they don’t have on things they don’t need.
Fortunately, as near as we can tell, most private citizens are now awake. A report at the beginning of this week showed that they repaid debt at a rate four times faster than economists projected. Savings rates are rising. Spending is falling. People are doing what they should do – they’re cutting back.
But the feds continue their efforts to sabotage the correction and destroy the empire. They have already blown-up the budget – with $9 trillion in deficits expected over the next 10 years. Now, they’re working on the dollar.
Yesterday, the dollar fell to $1.45 per euro. Gold remained just below the $1,000 an ounce mark. And the Dow rose 80 points.
Stock market investors seem to be looking forward to another big bull market. But with the economy deteriorating, they are probably just dreaming, too. Median household income fell 3.6% over the last 12 months. Of course, that’s just what you’d expect in a correction. But it’s not what the feds were hoping for. So, they’re pulling out all the stops to try to turn it around. Most important, they’re pulling out the stop that keeps the dollar from rolling down the hill.
The empire sinks into the mud. Yes, this is the downhill period…the slide into corruption…the period in which Juvenal complained that Romans were only interested in ‘bread and circuses.’
When you are on the board of a decent corporation, for example, if you have a direct financial interest in a matter under consideration you’re expected to ‘declare an interest’ and absent yourself from the vote. But in a mature democracy, the most self-interested citizens are those most likely to vote. Currently, about 20 million people work for government. About 45 million receive Social Security benefits. About 34 million depend on food stamps.
(People who count on the government to feed them, warned Jefferson, “will soon want bread.” That doesn’t seem to worry many people. But at least the state of Maryland has an Orwellian sense of humor about it. People who depend on government for food are given “Independence” cards.)
That’s 99 million people who have a direct interest in expanding government outlays…with some overlap, of course. And it doesn’t mean that every person receiving a Social Security check is going to back the feds. But it doesn’t count all the millions more who get subsidies, bailouts, welfare payments (often masquerading as tax credits), government contracts, and so forth, either.
Well, how many people does it take to win a national election? Obama won with 63 million votes.
The dollar’s weakness hasn’t been missed by it biggest foreign holder – China.
Reported earlier this week in the Telegraph:
“‘We hope there will be a change in monetary policy as soon as they have positive growth again,’ said Cheng Siwei…talking about America.
If they keep printing money to buy bonds it will lead to inflation, and after a year or two the dollar will fall hard. Most of our foreign reserves are in US bonds and this is very difficult to change, so we will diversify incremental reserves into euros, yen, and other currencies,’ he said.
“China’s reserves are more than – $2 trillion, the world’s largest.
“Mr. Siwei continued: ‘Gold is definitely an alternative, but when we buy, the price goes up. We have to do it carefully so as not to stimulate the markets,’ he added.”
Then, two days ago, in came a report that China is going to issue bonds of its own – in yuan.
This news is a shot across the bow of America’s imperial currency. It signals that China is moving into position to eventually challenge the greenback. Investors will have another alternative to the dollar… another bond issued by another government and backed by another economy… maybe one that is on the way up, rather than on the way down.
Meanwhile, Americans grow poorer. Bloomberg reports: The decline in incomes we’re seeing certainly has implications for consumer spending, particularly post-housing bubble when families can’t tap into home equity through loans,’ said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a research organization headed by John Podesta, a leader of the Obama administration transition team.
“The poverty rate is likely to keep rising through 2012, even after the recession ends, adding to pressure on the Obama administration to enact a second economic stimulus package, said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, a policy research group.
“‘We will likely have not only a jobless recovery but also a poverty-ridden recovery,’ Sawhill said. ‘The stimulus money is going to go away long before the poverty rate peaks.’”
see also: Island Breath: The Great Turning - From Empire to Earth Community 5/22/08
New York City–based writer Colin Beavan was casting around for a new book idea a few years ago, and fretting over the state of the planet, when he had an epiphany. He and his family (wife Michelle and baby daughter Isabella) would live for an entire year while making as little impact on the environment as possible.
image above: The Beavan family traveling in New York City in a rickshaw. From http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/freshloaf/2009/01/21/sundance-movie-recap-no-impact-man
That meant no motorized transportation, no elevators, no nonlocal food, no caffeine and (eventually) no electricity. TIME talked to Colin and Michelle about the new book and documentary on their green year, No Impact Man, and why pulling the plug on modern life was the best thing that ever happened to their family.
For your year of living with no impact on the environment, what was the hardest thing to give up? Michelle: For me the hardest thing was giving up the caffeine. The brutal and ugly and murderous caffeine withdrawal — that was tough. And I wasn't able to see my family because they don't live locally, so it was great on day 366 to be able to get on a plane with my daughter Isabella and go see my parents.
Colin: I find it interesting that everyone asks that question. But the surprising thing to me is that instead of how hard it was to live environmentally, we discovered how joyful it was. We found that by creating space in our lives in terms of letting go of stuff, cutting out the TV screens, we had more time for relationships — more time to spend with each other and with friends. More time just reading books or going to the park and going swimming. We were eating better and getting more exercise. That's what really struck me.
And what did you do with all that time that was opened up by the project? Was it hard to figure out what to do once the noise of electronic culture and consumer culture ceased? Michelle: There was this weird moment when my consumer self kind of died away, and it felt like there was an empty spot. If you've heard of the slow-food movement, this was like the slow-life movement. It changed my perspective of time.
Michelle, all through this year, you kept your job writing for BusinessWeek. How did you manage to keep up that fast-paced lifestyle, and shift back and forth? Michelle: It was like two alternative realities that I would have on the same day. But they were really complementary.
How so? Michelle: BusinessWeek was my fast life, where I got my weekly adrenaline rush, doing this work I really love and really believe in, which is a huge part of having a happy life. And then I would go home, where the screens were off and it was very quiet and it was just my family. I was living in the moment then.
Colin, you mentioned before that there were environmental groups that, when news of what you were doing first broke out, were worried. They thought people already associated environmentalism with giving things up, and they worried that message wouldn't work with people. Do they still feel that way? Colin: For me, there are two models for change. One is a model that works through collective action and politics. And then there is the model that works through individual action and lifestyle change. People in the environmental movement have been working so hard for collective action that when No Impact Man first started to get attention, they became very concerned that people would only think they had to change their lifestyle and didn't have to worry about collective action. I think some people are very ambivalent about the possibility of political action, but are wiling to change their own lifestyle, and once they have skin in the game, so to speak, they will get into politics.
Are we ultimately going to have to redesign our lives, make do with less, if we want to combat climate change? Colin: The simple answer is yes. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that developed nations are going to have to change the way they live. But maybe there's a chance that we could actually gain something — a different kind of life that we might like more.
You talk a lot about how the year of no impact actually improved the quality of your family's life. How?
Michelle: Before the project started, I was really heavily into a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. My life was very much determined by having screens all around me, all the time. I was a major TIVO user, totally addicted to sugar and reality TV. I was just a high-consuming member of the high-consuming lifestyle. And I think that I was just asleep to the toll, in terms of my health, in terms of not being with my family, and to the literal cost in terms of debt. I also realized halfway through the project that it was a great joy to eat this way and live this way, and how much I'd been sacrificing without realizing it in my old life.
You started out this project in a state of despair over the fate of the planet and over your inability to do anything about it. After a year of no-impact living, how do you feel now?
Colin: You know, a couple of years ago, when the publicity over this first started, I tried to tread gently on this question, but the truth is that I believe we're in a gigantic crisis and it's a difficult one. I see a huge number of people trying to figure out the solution to the problem. I don't despair for the human race. I'm an optimist — I believe that people are good. I don't despair of our ability to affect change when we need change. But what is required is that we actually engage that ability. I believe we can solve the problem. We have to yet to find out, however, whether we have the collective will.
Where did all the blue sky go? Poison is the wind that blows From the north, east, south and sea.
For a brief moment after the first Earth Day, it made perfect sense for the civil rights and environmental movements to be singing the same tune. Tragically, those movements soon diverged--diverged so far that some people still find it odd that activists like ourselves are working side by side again on issues like global warming and poverty. But it makes perfect sense--there is no threat to social justice greater than the breakdown of our earth's physical systems, and no way to ease that threat without rearranging power, both in America and around the world.
Think for a minute about Hurricane Katrina: those high winds blew in a lot of truths. For one, we've amped up nature in a dangerous way: scientists now expect ever stronger storms to rake our shores. For another, poverty puts some people at far more risk than others. No one will ever forget those pictures of the Lower Ninth Ward when the levee broke, but in almost every city on earth the poorest people live in the equivalent of the Lower Ninth.
It's not that everyone won't eventually be affected by climate change--plenty of middle-class white people lost their homes when the storm rampaged across Louisiana and Mississippi. But almost everywhere, rich people occupy higher ground, and the places that flood belong to those who can't afford better. As the oceans rise throughout this century, those are the places that will turn wet and swampy first--substandard housing in the twenty-first century still means lead paint and asthma, but now it means you better cut a hole in the attic so you can get on the roof and wait for the helicopter.
And of course there are whole nations built on low ground--places like Bangladesh, which may see a fifth of its land under water. In this decade we've watched diseases like dengue fever spread through the poorest parts of the poor world, driven by the mosquitoes that like the warm, wet world we're building. We've watched blocs of nations--low-lying islands, for instance--turn to the UN to demand action to ensure their very survival. Almost without exception, these endangered places are filled with people of color, and with poor people.
That's why the fight against climate change is a very basic fight for people in New Orleans, or in Oakland, or in DC--or in Dhaka, and Calcutta, and Lagos. These are the places that will drive the demographic future, here and abroad; the centuries to come belong to black and brown and yellow humans. But 200 years of burning coal and gas and oil, mostly by Americans and Europeans, threaten to make that future impossible.
That's why, right now, we've got to take a united stand to slow it down--why 350.org will be holding demonstrations around the planet on October 24 to demand that our leaders pay attention to science and limit carbon concentrations to 350 parts per million. That's the most important number on the planet, though no one knew it eighteen months ago. NASA's Jim Hansen and his team reported recently that concentrations higher than 350 are not compatible with "the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted." Since we're at 387 and rising right now, that's very bad news. It explains why the Arctic is melting, why Australia is drying up and why we watch the hurricane season with more trepidation with each passing year.
It also explains why more than a thousand actions are already planned for October 24, in every corner of the planet. The earth's immune system is finally kicking in, people are signing up to march in China and India, and churches across America are pledging to ring their bells 350 times that day. It may turn out to be the largest global environmental action of all time, and beyond any doubt the most beautiful and diverse. Some of those protests will be atop lofty mountains, or undersea off the Great Barrier Reef, or on the lovely organic farms of Vermont. And some will be in grittier places, where the battle is even more crucial.
That battle--which began when the Hip Hop Caucus and Green for All announced the Green the Block campaign on August 4 from the West Wing of the White House--is for many things. One of those is a stronger deal at the Copenhagen climate conference in December than the weak agreement currently under consideration. Yvo de Boer, the international diplomat who is chairing those talks, recently pointed out as diplomatically as possible that the numbers on the table are nowhere near what the science demands. "This is not enough to address climate change," he said. Later he told activists that it would help the process enormously if they would mobilize: "If you could get your members out on the street before Copenhagen, that would be incredibly valuable." So we will--and if Copenhagen is to succeed, we must move American policy too.
The Waxman-Markey legislation on Capitol Hill goes further than any climate legislation in the past, but it's still riddled with loopholes and giveaways, because members of Congress still fear the coal industry more than they fear the effects of climate change (or climate-minded voters).
But this environmentalism can't just be about the dangers we'll face if we don't take action--Green the Block means embracing the changes we must make as a way to build inclusive, thriving local economies. We need to put people to work swinging hammers--not building luxury condos for people with easy credit but installing insulation in old homes and solar hot-water heaters on roofs. We need urban farming and strong local businesses standing up to the big boxes that suck the life and money from communities.
We believe we will be able to affect the decisions in Copenhagen and in Congress, because some of the leaders of this new movement are different from the environmental lobbyists of the past. The old school are still important, but their constituencies are also graying, their work too often confined to making cozy arrangements with the powers that be. The new environmentalism draws everyone from church people to business people.
The world's greatest mountain climbers are busy recruiting their brethren for October 24, urging them to get up high with banners. Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are rallying small farmers and food activists; people will rally at many a farmers' market that day. And b-boys and graffiti artists are busy recruiting their friends to create images of 350.
But most of all, the constituency is young people, who understand that they will bear the results of inaction for their whole lives--and who understand in a visceral way the hopeful possibilities that come from a newly connected world. Marvin Gaye and the soul era gave voice to the oppressed during the struggle for civil rights. Now young people are singing new freedom songs and identifying with one another under an umbrella known as hip-hop. The swagger and style that young people and their urban-influenced culture bring to the green movement bear little resemblance to the old tree-hugging brand of environmentalism. But as the conscious caretakers of a "block" on the brink of climate catastrophe, they are powerful partners in the green movement.
That's why the soul of modern environmentalism is right where Marvin Gaye left it in 1971, the spot we never should have walked away from:
Oh, things ain't what they used to be What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?
By Michael Pollan on 9 September 2009 in The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/opinion/10pollan.html
image above: One out of three Americans are obese, not just overweight. From http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSTRE50863H20090109
To listen to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night, or to just about anyone else in the health care debate, you would think that the biggest problem with health care in America is the system itself — perverse incentives, inefficiencies, unnecessary tests and procedures, lack of competition, and greed.
No one disputes that the $2.3 trillion we devote to the health care industry is often spent unwisely, but the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained, as a study released last month says, by our being fatter. Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.
That’s why our success in bringing health care costs under control ultimately depends on whether Washington can summon the political will to take on and reform a second, even more powerful industry: the food industry.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.
We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.
The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. The president has made a few notable allusions to it, and, by planting her vegetable garden on the South Lawn, Michelle Obama has tried to focus our attention on it. Just last month, Mr. Obama talked about putting a farmers’ market in front of the White House, and building new distribution networks to connect local farmers to public schools so that student lunches might offer more fresh produce and fewer Tater Tots. He’s even floated the idea of taxing soda.
But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.
Why the disconnect? Probably because reforming the food system is politically even more difficult than reforming the health care system. At least in the health care battle, the administration can count some powerful corporate interests on its side — like the large segment of the Fortune 500 that has concluded the current system is unsustainable.
That is hardly the case when it comes to challenging agribusiness. Cheap food is going to be popular as long as the social and environmental costs of that food are charged to the future. There’s lots of money to be made selling fast food and then treating the diseases that fast food causes. One of the leading products of the American food industry has become patients for the American health care industry.
The market for prescription drugs and medical devices to manage Type 2 diabetes, which the Centers for Disease Control estimates will afflict one in three Americans born after 2000, is one of the brighter spots in the American economy. As things stand, the health care industry finds it more profitable to treat chronic diseases than to prevent them. There’s more money in amputating the limbs of diabetics than in counseling them on diet and exercise.
As for the insurers, you would think preventing chronic diseases would be good business, but, at least under the current rules, it’s much better business simply to keep patients at risk for chronic disease out of your pool of customers, whether through lifetime caps on coverage or rules against pre-existing conditions or by figuring out ways to toss patients overboard when they become ill.
But these rules may well be about to change — and, when it comes to reforming the American diet and food system, that step alone could be a game changer. Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like “pre-existing conditions” and “underwriting” would vanish from the health insurance rulebook — and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change.
The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.
When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system — everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches — will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.
AGRIBUSINESS dominates the agriculture committees of Congress, and has swatted away most efforts at reform. But what happens when the health insurance industry realizes that our system of farm subsidies makes junk food cheap, and fresh produce dear, and thus contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It will promptly get involved in the fight over the farm bill — which is to say, the industry will begin buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.
In the same way much of the health insurance industry threw its weight behind the campaign against smoking, we can expect it to support, and perhaps even help pay for, public education efforts like New York City’s bold new ad campaign against drinking soda. At the moment, a federal campaign to discourage the consumption of sweetened soft drinks is a political nonstarter, but few things could do more to slow the rise of Type 2 diabetes among adolescents than to reduce their soda consumption, which represents 15 percent of their caloric intake.
That’s why it’s easy to imagine the industry throwing its weight behind a soda tax. School lunch reform would become its cause, too, and in time the industry would come to see that the development of regional food systems, which make fresh produce more available and reduce dependence on heavily processed food from far away, could help prevent chronic disease and reduce their costs.
Recently a team of designers from M.I.T. and Columbia was asked by the foundation of the insurer UnitedHealthcare to develop an innovative systems approach to tackling childhood obesity in America. Their conclusion surprised the designers as much as their sponsor: they determined that promoting the concept of a “foodshed” — a diversified, regional food economy — could be the key to improving the American diet.
All of which suggests that passing a health care reform bill, no matter how ambitious, is only the first step in solving our health care crisis. To keep from bankrupting ourselves, we will then have to get to work on improving our health — which means going to work on the American way of eating.
But even if we get a health care bill that does little more than require insurers to cover everyone on the same basis, it could put us on that course.
For it will force the industry, and the government, to take a good hard look at the elephant in the room and galvanize a movement to slim it down.
This was the first visit of an ambassador to the village, and came about through a Cuban connection between a family member of one of the founders of the Cloughjordan Eco-village. The Ambassador had been intrigued by the eco-village and paid a visit there to see if links could be made with similar projects in Cuba.The visit was especially appropriate as it took place at the end of our Permaculture Design Course. A short reception on the village green with the Mayor and other local dignitaries was followed by a tour of the new eco-village development and a tree planting ceremony; later the film "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" was shown and a panel discussion followed with Albert Bates- one of the tutors on the permaculture course; Michelline Sheehy Skeffington, a botanist from NUI Galway; and professor Peadar Kirby of the University of Limerick, hosted by Iva Peacock of Coughjordan Eco-village.
In the panel discussion, a common theme was that Cuba was no garden of Eden.Michelline Sheehy Skeffington Michelline, who has been in Cuba for several visits and worked on a voluntary basis in the National Botanic Gardens in Havana on the fruit tree project in 2001, pointed out that most Cuban will drop the bicycle as soon as they have a little money to use a car, and also told us how, despite the extensive market gardens that are shown so well in the film, she actually found that they were given very little vegetables at meals- the Cubans prefer meat! She also asked the question, could the Cubans have managed so well as they did during the Special Period were it not for the socialist system, particularly with its emphasis on education?
Albert Bates Albert has not actually visited Cuba but has worked with many Cuban Eco-villagers in the United States.
He began his talk by saying that there are parallels between the island nations of Cuba and Ireland - an island nation will have in innate awareness of natural limits. He also called for a campaign in the US and internationally to end the US trade embargo and sanctions against Cuba.
Cuba was the first Latin American country visited by Peadar Kirby, in 1979, and he also paid tribute to the country which had survived so well through hardship and its people who had managed to forge a future despite the US making life as hard as possible for them. He raised a huge laugh by claiming Cuba as being the only country in the world he has visited where the people will spontaneously come up to you and tell you how much the government means to them!
Ambassador Noel Carillo The Ambassador made quite an impression and came over as a very personable character, and echoed the comments of the previous speakers: Cuba is no paradise on earth. It continues to be a struggle for the Cuban people, and although he knows they have to work it out for themselves, he also wants to make links with the eco-village in Cloughjordan.
Cuba, he told us, had made a lot of mistakes. During the Soviet era it was just too easy to take the fossil energy from their allies and trade with Eastern Europe. Twenty years ago they were importing 13 million tonnes of energy every year. They had serious pollution problems because of their industrial model, and had become very lazy. At the same time, they had been just as keen as the west to develop consumer lifestyles, an ideology that had been deeply rooted in their minds after being taught for 60 years by the Americans!
Once the Soviet block collapsed, Cuba found itself with no assets, and only itself to blame for its dependency. The Ambassador pointed out the complete lack of resilience in the system up to that point.
He spoke of how hard it was still to make links internationally- for example it had been practically impossible to make links with Irish companies becasue of their US connections.
He echoed Michelline’s comments about Cuban dietary preference, raising quite a few laughs with his frankness about the downsides of Cuban life and culture, telling us that, like many Cubans, he doesn't like vegetables! “I know they are good for you but we Cubans want to eat beef!” He also stressed that for most ordinary Cubans, the “organoponic” farms are preferred just because they are cheaper. The more sustainable lifestyle portrayed in the film have been adopted only because of necessity.
They are still hugely dependent on imports of a lot of their food, in particular more than 2/3 of their milk is imported despite being strictly rationed within the country. (Apparently they used to buy from Ireland but now find milk cheaper from New Zealand!)
There is still a huge amount of unused land in Cuba, but apparently land will be given freely to anyone who wants to start growing food- a scheme that caught the attention of several of the permaculture students there!
He also told us how they had reduced energy demand by a government scheme that simply gave everyone a free fluorescent light bulb in exchange for an old incandescent one; and how they operate a decentralized grid with over 200 mini power stations throughout the country.
Most tellingly of all, the Ambassador told us that, although he thought he would be killed for saying this in his own country, he hoped that they never find oil in Cuba- it would always place them under US scrutiny and control if they did.
Afterwards I managed to get in a couple of questions about Cuba and the Special Period, and how he thought Ireland might cope under similar circumstances, before he was lead away to watch a display of hurling on the GAA pitch. I hope to post this interview as a podcast at a later date, once I have mastered the technology.