A Lifesized Lego Set for Farmers and Makers

Open source ecology. Bring it on!

Shawndra Miller

I was invited to visit the Indiana Small Farm Conference this past weekend, and was I ever glad I went. I got to reconnect with some farmer friends and make new connections. I learned about the challenges facing the people who grow our food on a small scale. And of course lunch was delicious, as well it should be with food supplied from local farms and prepared by the stellar whole-foods caterer known as The Juniper Spoon.

But the highlight was a session with a representative from Open Source Ecology. This is a group I’ve had my eye on for a while because of the radical way they are working to take back the building blocks of modern life. The goal is nothing less than a modular, low-cost, DIY “Global Village Construction Set” of 50 machines that would meet the major needs of civilization.

The best part? The plans are…

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End Factory Farming; Stop Runaway Climate Change

Will Allen, organic farmer ~ Change Your Diet ~ Buy Local

… the largest elephant in the room of climate chaos is our food and farming system. And hardly anyone is talking about it … We need to change our food habits. We need to stop eating factory-farmed meat and milk products. Since over 90 percent of all non-organic meat, dairy and eggs in the U.S. come from factory farms, we need a nationwide boycott and marketplace pressure, in the form of a CAFO labeling campaign.

Will-Allen-01-200x200Will Allen, Ph.D., organic farmer/teacher/activist and author of The War on Bugs, isn’t one to mince his words, and his keynote at the second Healing Our World and Ourselves Conference at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach last week, documented exactly what kind of mess we are in and what we have to do to get out of it.

Like Vandana Shiva and the permaculture community, Allen delivers a clear message: since agriculture as it is currently practiced is “the single largest contributor of greenhouses gases,” we must eliminate the products of factory farms and create new markets for local, organic, sustainable agriculture by voting with our food dollars. That such a shift in diet could also eliminate some of the diseases of the so-called rich world is already in the popular culture via books (Michael Pollan. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.) and television shows (the ubiquitous Dr. Oz).  (And yes, it will reduce belly fat.)

Compared to some of the latest techno fixes for “energy shortfalls” (some euphemism!) that come across my desk regularly, e.g. the moon as a solar plant, the switch to organic, locally-sourced crops and humanely-raised livestock seems like a reasonable strategy. The myth that organic food is too costly has been debunked, see my post Externalities.  And it wins the taste test, hands down.  But it would be naïve to imagine that Big Ag will give up without a fight, any more than Big Oil will suddenly switch to renewables.

What to do?  For one thing, you might post the link (see below) to Will Allen’s article to your social media circles.  You could pay a virtual visit to Cedar Circle Farms and see how he is training the next generation of farmers.  Perhaps you can fund a scholarship or two while you’re at it.  Educate yourself on the subject (see More Reading).  If you want to join the next march against Monsanto, have at it!  But look into your own eating and food-sourcing habits first.  With a 4°C warmer world already looming, we can’t afford the decades it took to make cigarette smoking decidedly uncool, or to get folks to routinely recycle.

Here are a few more things you can do today: check labels in your own pantry of staples and make a plan to eliminate all GMOs; don’t eat or minimize consumption of processed foods; ask your supermarket for more organic produce; let the meat and dairy departments know you want products from pastured, humanely raised livestock.

Here are a few things you can do in the coming weeks/months:  Go meatless as much as possible (here’s a great recipe for Hummus); grow something, however limited your space.  It just feels good; when you buy organic produce, SAVE YOUR SEEDS; compost your vegetable wastes; get familiar with the laws in your community – on the books or unspoken – against backyard vegetables and/or small livestock.   You don’t know until you check.  For example, most of us think we don’t have the right to solar panels if we live in an HOA.  Actually, this is not true.  Use your farmers markets to support the farmers and ranchers in your area.  Get to know your farmer.  Some, like our CSA Kai-Kai Farms, use pesticide-free sustainable methods, but are not certified organic.  We trust them.  That’s good enough for us.

If you have an idea for a good PSA on this or related topics, let me know.  If the idea of using social media to spread the word lights you up, let’s collaborate.  Let’s plant some virtual seed bombs around our neighborhoods and get this started.

More reading:

Climate Chaos: Boycott Genetically Engineered and Factory-Farmed Foods, Will Allen and Ronnie Cummins
Organic Consumers Association
Cedar Circle Farm
USDA Organic
Food Growing Summit 2014
Beyond Pesticides

Transition and Occupy

Transition and Occupy  *  Rob Hopkins responds  *  Can We All just Get Along?

Is Transition like Occupy?  A good question can raise the stakes; inject some excitement, into any presentation. I’ve experienced this fewer times than I would like.  But last Saturday, I was the person on the receiving end during my presentation on Transition to Ashley Moore’s permaculture course at Gray Mockingbird Community Garden in Lake Worth.

SONY DSCIt’s always helpful to say, Good question! and in this case, I meant it.  The answer is, No, and … Occupy and Transition have some obvious similarities.  Both are grassroots movements; both emerged from a conviction that the economic/political system was broken; both were rooted in action: Occupy, in the physical occupation of public spaces to demand change; Transition in community projects to make change.  Occupy is against business-as-usual; you could say Transition is focused on a better way to do business.

Many in my liberal religious congregation were very supportive of Occupy.  We have a strong tradition of social justice and our own martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.  So in no time, there arose a cadre of people willing to demonstrate regularly on the sidewalks in front of our property. We held a Saturday workshop on Occupy, including a session on Single Payer and another on songs of protest.  Protesting can produce a high, no doubt.  And, whatever happens to the Occupy movement now, we will not soon forget its identification with the 99%.

Although it’s not my thing, I have supported and/or engaged in protest actions for a specific goal:  equal rights for women, Move to amend, stopping the KXL pipeline.  So, although I agree that business-as-usual is in great need of a major course correction, I decided to remain on the sidelines of Occupy, and have happily found a home in the Transition movement.

Attempting to differentiate between Occupy and Transition led to some lively conversation and I’m very grateful that the question was raised.  But there is no more articulate spokesperson than Rob Hopkins himself in how the movements differ.  Here’s a response after he visited as a speaker during the Occupy London action in 2011.  Here are some key quotes (links to the entire article and others follow).

First, like the appreciative enquirer that he is, Hopkins gave tribute to the value of Occupy:

What Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space.  It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing.  It is underpinned by a realisation that this is a crucial time of change where everything is on the table, where business-as-usual is no longer an option.  It isn’t making demands because that would put the power in the hands of the people in power to decide whether or not to respond to them.  It is holding the space for the conversations, and is doing so on its own terms.  I admire that.

And here were some key divergences:

You can’t … just base deep change on an analysis of what is wrong.

Transition says to people “take this model and do it where you are”, whereas Occupy suggests coming together to suspend your life while you explore, with others, the question of what’s the best thing to do now.  Transition is about building that into your own life, right now.

…what everyone can do, in a time when it is increasingly clear to anyone who thinks about it, that business as usual is no longer a runner and that new thinking is needed and soon, is to occupy, in their own lives, that sense of possibility, that space for asking the questions that matter.

You might say that Occupy suggests occupying, for example, Wall Street, while Transition suggests occupying your own street, putting up runner beans and solar panels rather than tents.

Can We All Just Get Along?

That is the bigger question.  What would it look like if we reached beyond our differences and found common cause?  Sometimes, it seems possible, see: Fissures in G.O.P. as Some Conservatives Embrace Renewable Energy.  And A Green Tea Party?

So whether you are a 20-something in a tent city demanding change in the current system that rewards wealth at the expense of everyone else, or a 70-something grandmother who believes that we have to live with less so that others – including future generations – can simply live, we have to work together.  Because putting to rest the notion that we can grow or technologize ourselves out of this unprecedented planetary crisis, is too big a job for any one movement.

A Day at Occupy London
Comments are interesting, too.

How to Engage Occupy Movement

The Green Tea Coalition

In Search of a Transition Town

totnespoundfinal_02This week, I was out meeting with people to talk about the Transition movement, none of them in my home community.   Why is that? You may ask, and I’ve asked myself.  Some answers.

First, though mine is a pedestrian- and bike-friendly town, we drive far more than we walk or bike.  Whether or not one is conscious of it, cars make us feel rushed and busy.  Most drivers tear up to a red light.  Our 25 mph speed limit is routinely broken.  I’m no social scientist, but from my observations, people who depend on their cars for every errand, do not make good neighbors or stronger neighborhoods.  In my townhome community, it is the dog-walkers and the young parents out with a stroller who get to know each other.  We don’t have to become best friends, but friendlier and more helpful would go a long way.

Second, we have no walkable downtown or town center with the mix of diverse small merchants to draw residents in for those casual encounters and conversations that connect us.  Manufactured downtowns are no substitute, no matter how many musicians they hire or networking events they sponsor.  (I’ll save my riff on networking vs. community for another time.)

Shoppers conditioned to the mall atmosphere with mind-numbing music are not generally interested in other people.  We are a fairly affluent town dominated by the largest shopping mall in the region.  Big Box stores, fast food and restaurant chains, line a major thoroughfare, offering impersonal service, at best.  I would trade them all for a friendly chat with the guy at my local hardware store about which hose won’t kink up on me.

In a sense, we’ve designed for things like privacy, personal space and comfort, and security – the number of gate-secured communities here is astounding given the relatively low crime-rates —when, the truth is, what the world needs is people who are more trusting, capable of sharing (e.g. the Open Source revolution), creative and flexible.

On Wednesday, I had lunch with a young permaculture teacher who was about to launch a four-week course.  We agreed that we both do our best thinking outdoors, so although it was a day of heavy rain, we sat in a Tiki hut in an environmental education center where she is a graduate assistant.  As you may know, the Transition movement was founded by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher himself.  It draws on many of the principles of this nature-centered discipline, so I am excited by her invitation to talk about Transition with the students in the course and to learn from them.

That I had to drive nearly a half-hour to have this meeting wasn’t lost on me, of course.  I live in a county the size of Rhode Island, with a population perhaps even more socio-economically diverse.  Also like RI, much of our wealth is a fact of location: the Atlantic Ocean washes both our shores, bringing us tourism and high-end real estate, and all the services that support both.  To have the two major sources of our wealth at risk from a rising sea should be a fact that brings us together to search for solutions, right?

My next meeting with a veteran community organizer took me to a town also some distance from mine.  I was there to explore the possibility of introducing the ideas of Transition.  This community more closely resembles the small towns and cities where the Transition movement has caught on, all around the world.  It is walkable, with a vibrant downtown, many festivals, an up-and-coming community garden, and a lot of civic pride.  As an outsider, albeit an enthusiastic and frequent visitor, I am at something of a disadvantage here as I would be anywhere I don’t have roots (though I do have friends). So I was really grateful for the honest assessment I took away, that the Transition message might not be welcomed by all, that is could be controversial.  I couldn’t help but remember Rob Hopkins’ caveat: there were no guarantees that Transition will work everywhere…or at all.

I decided this morning to research sources other than my Transition texts on  what makes a community respond to climate change with action, rather than denial in one form or another.  The answers (from a NASA study) may surprise you.  In some cases, a community gets activated because of an obvious problem like flooding or drought or a Sandy-size storm.  The 911 response, you might say, where people who may not agree on what the underlying causes of the crisis are, can still come together to rebuild smarter and prevent or mitigate future crises.  In other words, they are not waiting for action from the government.

” Successful groups take action against climate change even though they don’t completely understand everything that might be needed to reach their long-term goal. They proceed by trial and error to make progress step by step. “— Dr. Ron Brunner, University of Colorado

But in many others, economic opportunity is the impetus.  There are numerous examples, but one of my favorites is the Danish island of Samsø which began working on reducing its carbon foot print in 1998 (via locally-funded wind turbines) and today produces excess energy it can sell.  Closer to home (and pre-Transition movement), there is the Ithaca Hour, a form of currency invented in 1991 in Ithaca, NY, that keeps money circulating in the community, about $100,000 at the moment.

Communities that support local businesses, grow (or raise) much of their own food, find ways to save money on energy, and clean up their air, water and soil, are not only better positioned to withstand future uncertainties.  They are places most of us want to call home.

Visit Samsø

Creating Economic Democracy