Let’s Talk Dirty

I’ve wanted to write that headline ever since Dr. Mehmet Oz did his poop show on Oprah, giving us more on that subject than we ever wanted to know. But this is about sewers, another subject we just as soon not think about. It’s just flush and forget, until something goes wrong. And then, we call the plumber. The end? Not exactly.

van-goghs-toilet-claire-wentzelI first got curious about sewers when we had a block-long pavement collapse in front of our building in New York City in the late 1980’s. It was caused (we were told) by the breakdown of an old water main, and it took over a week to replace the section of pipe and repair the road. In the meantime, we residents of adjacent buildings and passersby got a good look at the size of pipes that move water – and sewage, too – through underground tunnels in a city of that size. I could have stood up in the pipe, assuming I wanted to, and stretch my arms straight overhead. Back then, I wasn’t all that worried about crumbling urban infrastructure, let alone what could happen in the kind of flooding Sandy brought to lower Manhattan and Hoboken (another place I’ve lived) across the Hudson River.

Then my husband came across an oddball story from Dubai about waste management that curled our hair. Terry Gross zoomed in on it, too, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Kate Asher on her book (The Heights) about skyscrapers, including Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, still the world’s tallest building. Of course, if you’re a fan of hers, you’ll know that Terry Gross cuts right to the question that everyone wanted to ask : “When you’re on the 100th floor of a building and you flush the toilet, what exactly happens after that?” (Quick answer: about the same as what happens in a two-story townhouse, with more pipes.)

Burj Khalifa has broken all kinds of construction records, but what the official page fails to mention is that its plumbing is not connected to the Dubai sewer system. In a building designed to hold 35,000 people, this means that about 15 tons of human waste must be hauled away each day, by truck to a sewage treatment facility. Sometimes so many trucks line up this process can take 24 hours to complete, whereupon it begins again. Seems a bit cart before horse s—t, to me, design-wise. (Google Poop Trucks of Dubai if your curiosity out-weighs the eeww factor.)

Feels like the subject keeps chasing me. Found this in my inbox today: We have a “scary sewage problem,” wrote Gar Alperovitz in Alternet, due to aging, overwhelmed treatment centers and the kind of infrastructure problems I got to witness first hand over 20 years ago, in all our older cities. If the more visible roads and bridges are allowed to fall apart, chances are what is out of sight is getting even less respect and maintenance. Mix flooding from heavy rain to the runoff from agriculture, and you’ve got a sanitation and water security problem, Houston, and Toledo, too, where toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie recently poisoned the drinking water.

In his groundbreaking book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, historian/political economist/activist, Gar Alperovitz offers plenty of great ideas for addressing the huge problems with our economic system that too many people rant endlessly about on Facebook and other social media. Hint: he’s big on cooperatives. So I wasn’t at all surprised that, although he is straight talking about the challenges, he also sees plenty of opportunities, as in JOB opportunities, in fixing the monster urban sewage problem. Chief among these is prevention of storm-water runoff in the first place. He points to smart design approaches like urban forestry, green roofs, and artificial wetlands, among others. It reminds me of the ‘soft’ design approaches to an inrushing ocean – high dunes planted with dune grass vs. seawalls – that spared some Jersey Shore communities during Sandy.  It also made me think of On the Water: Palisades Bay, the architectural design project that captivated me during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 (see link below).  These are the kinds of things we need to lobby for in our cities, whatever their size, as adaptive strategies to climate change that also positively impact the economy, immediately and later on.   Check out Alperovitz’s work at Democracy Collaborative about building a more sustainable, equitable economy, and what we as thoughtful citizen can and must do.  Sign up for his newsletter.

Click for pdf intro: On the Water: Palisades Bay (Soft infrastructure aims to synthesize solutions for storm defense and environmental enrichment along the coast.)

Photo: Van Gogh’s Toilet by Clare Wentzel

Transition and Diversity

How can we ensure that Transition isn’t primarily a pleasurable movement for predominantly white, educated, post-materialist, middle-class small community people?  ~ Simplicity Collective

Among the many things we discussed last night at our monthly Transition meeting, the issue of inclusiveness – racial, ethnic, socio-economic, gender — resonated with me enough to want to investigate further.  Thanks to Caroline Chen for having brought it up.   Like other attendees interested in Transition, Caroline lives in Lake Worth, which takes some pride in its ethnic diversity, including a large Guatemalan community.  How, she wondered, could we reach out to the wider community?  I think the underlying question is: how might we build a local movement that reflects the community as it really is, and educate ourselves into a community that brings out the best in us all?

In attempting to find some answers, I was glad to discover that Transition US is responding to the Simplicity Collective’s critique. This fall, the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub will offer a webinar entitled The Maturation of a Social Movement: A Regional Response to a Critique of the Transition Movement on the Transition US website, to explore diversity, among other issues.  November 6, 2014, 2:00 pm ET, Click here to register (I just did.)  An important aside: this webinar, like the regularly scheduled Salons are all available at no cost from Transition US via the Maestro Conferencing system, one of the many benefits of belonging to a worldwide movement.  My donations (and yours) help keep this high quality education coming.

Funny, you don’t look … Mutts like me tend to be acutely conscious of the racial mix of any size group, or lack thereof.   Even in my admittedly limited experience with face-to-face climate activism, I can see why the misconception that the environment is a white person’s issue persists.  At last year’s Walk for Our Grandchildren, for example, people of color were noticeably in short supply.  And yet since Katrina, no sane person would argue that climate impacts fall equally on us all in this country, let alone on the low-lying and/or island nations most threatened by a rising sea.

Check out the blogosphere, and you’ll see a lot of opinions on this.  I’ll sum up like this:  people who are struggling to find and keep jobs that satisfy basic needs – predominantly of color, urban, and poor  — have other things to worry about beside the environment.  I’ll leave that stereotype unchallenged for now.

kids in gardenIn this recent article, (first published in Grist) Mother Jones assigns partial blame to high-profile green organizations that are falling far short in achieving equality in their hiring practices.  Weirdly enough, what has existed and been tolerated, despite mounting criticism since the 1970s, is an ‘apartheid ecology.’  Furthermore, (the article continues) civil rights activists have had cause to be suspicious of any movement that would draw energy – not to mention funding – from the on-going struggles for social justice.   That Green activism has been predominantly white and male is not a new problem, conferring on it an elite status that I believe has held it back.  This is clearly one among many issues that the shifting demographics in this country will address and possibly resolve.  As Center for Diversity and the Environment notes:  In 2043, people of color will be over 50% of the U.S. Population.  But everything we hear from climate scientists tells us we can’t wait that long to bring everyone into the fight for our very survival.  This is the unique challenge Transition US is girding itself to tackle through educational and outreach.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this intriguing topic.  So join me in my continuing education in the weeks ahead, focusing on youth and the next generations who will literally inherit the earth (school farms, here I come!).  So far, the most interesting work in the new, more inclusive environmental activism makes a strong case for the societal and economic necessity of tackling climate change and shrinking resources (energy, water, food) now, rather than later.   In addition to CDE just cited, check out the mission statement of Van Jones’ Green for All: Building a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.   Those of us seeking to build local Transition Towns could do well to borrow a page from this playbook.

More reading:

Greening Forward (young people)

NAACP Climate Justice Initiative

Center for Diversity and the Environment

The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations

Transition Network Inclusion and Diversity

Deep Outreach

Water: Next Capitalist Tool?

This photo of a Burmese girl at the head of a long line on her daily water-collecting chore went viral last year; the girl became a new poster child for injustice, incompetence and greed in Burma.  Involuntary child labor is rare in our part of the world, and a chore like this the stuff of weather-related emergencies, unless you happen to live in Detroit.  Retrieving the photo was no more difficult than turning on a tap to fill my kettle or wash my hands.  In a well-functioning society, we take water — and Dala township, Burma: people line up to collect waterelectricity, and until recently, the Internet — for granted, squandering them as if there was no tomorrow.

If you’ve been following social media, you may have noticed that water is on the brink of becoming a marketable commodity, like fossil fuels.  Maybe you thought that just because water makes up between 50-75% of our bodies, it is a human right.  Corporations like Nestlé beg to differ. Nestlé has been bottling water from aquifers in Palm Springs, California, and selling it to drought-stricken Los Angeles.  Maybe we should have seen it coming when we gave in to the whole bottled water craze like our European neighbors, without cause.  New York tap water is wonderful.  But there’s no stuffing that genie back into the bottle, recyclable or otherwise.  I’m not generally an alarmist, but this latest corporate move does seem like a strike against basic human rights on a whole new order of magnitude. Water: Next Capitalist Tool.

As a coastal Florida resident, I think a lot about water, maybe more than most of my neighbors.  We prefer our water where it ‘belongs’:  at the beach where we can use it for recreation, and flowing from our taps for all the things we must do with water … and then some.  But too much water or the wrong kind can change that in a flash, as neighborhoods in Miami, Delray Beach and Loxahatchee know too well every time there is heavy rain, high tides and/or a full moon.

Last week, at the Second Annual Sea Level Rise Symposium, I got a refresher course in just how important water is to my adopted state, delivered by a group of smart, dedicated people — scientists, elected officials, activists and philanthropists.   Attendance this year was roughly double, filling up the auditorium of Oxbridge Academy.   In sum, according to keynote speaker, Kristin Jacobs, Broward County Commissioner and Co-Chair of the President’s Subgroup of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and others, unless we can respond appropriately and very soon, climate change will deliver two distinct threats to a state that is essentially entirely coastal: 1. the risk to real estate and tourism in the billions due to storm damage and flooding, and  2. saltwater contamination of drinking water wells, due to sea level rise and a compromised water table.  The maps made by Jayantha Obeysekera, aka “Obey”, chief modeler, South Florida Water Management District were, in a word, scary.   There are, he said, no wells that will not be affected.  Who should care?  All of us. And yet, according to Keren Bolter, FAU Geosciences PhD candidate, there is a chasm in public awareness between those who get it and those who haven’t … yet. Even EPA operatives are behind the curve on climate science, noted Bryan Myers, Energy and Climate Change Coordinator, EPA Region 4.  Don’t look for much help from our current state administration.  Commented Bobby Powell Jr., Florida State Representative, District 88, salt water would have to flow from our taps before there would be any action.  Just remember that come election time. So, where to turn?

Go local (where have I heard that before?).  Said West Palm Beach Major, Jeri Muoio, in any emergency, the buck stops at the mayor’s office.  In Miami, considered the most vulnerable city in the world for storm surge and sea level rise, 87% of residents approved higher taxes to address impacts, and agreed to an 84% increase in their storm sewer fees.  We, the people.

Jan Booher, South Florida Climate Action Partners, and Barbara Eriv, League of Women Voters of PBC (one of the Symposium sponsors), running a breakout session on Community Outreach, would agree.  The two are members of the Climate Change Working Group which is designed to enable climate activist groups to share information, plans and results. They intend to use citizen muscle — that would be us — to get more municipalities to sign on to the Mayors’ Climate Action Pledge.  As of this writing, only two out of 38 municipalities in Palm Beach County have done so: Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.

According to attorneys Mitchell Chester, SLRAmerica.org and Richard Grosso, Nova Southeastern University, Director of Environmental and Land Use Law Clinic, (Breakout: Legal Wars and Economics) the existing environmental laws are ‘more than sufficient to protect health, business, property.’   However, our justice and financial systems have yet to understand that climate change and sea level rise (SLR) represent a “global phenomenon that are a major challenge to our way of governance,” or to prepare for it.  We need a financial system for SLR because it is a monetary problem for individuals, and ‘there is money to be made’ in addressing it.  “If you deny climate science,” said Grosso, “you can still value the health of your children, the economic value of our coastlines, the need for clean air and water.”  How to communicate better with skeptics?  We could all use some help with that.  Until someone designs such a course, consider these.

HuffPo on Nestlé

The Everglades supply 66% of all the water used in South Florida.  Check out Love The Everglades.  Support this and other eco-organizations with your time and money

Read John Englander’s High Tide on Main Street

Write/call your state representatives, and VOTE.


For Utilities, Small is Beautiful…Again

Click on image to embiggen.

Thanks to Ed Scerbo’s great post on microgrids on Transition Southeast and Deep South, I have my topic for today (although ‘micro,’ as I’m learning, it isn’t.) Relatively cheap electricity makes our society go, so it’s not possible to think about it without considering a number of related factors:  how we use, and abuse, it in our daily lives;  how we respond when power is interrupted — homes, offices, hospitals, schools, etc.– (quite well in the short-term, as stories from famous blackouts show);  and what the future may hold as conventional power sources shrink and renewables keep running into resistance from the, well, powerful. My iPhone 5 now tells me it is not compatible with the solar charger I wrote about so enthusiastically here a couple of weeks ago.  What’s up with that?

In case you need, as did I, a good definition of the microgrid and why we need to pay more attention to this technology, start here (http://whatis.techtarget.com — very useful to decode technical terms of all kinds):

“Any small-scale localized station with its own power resources, generation and loads and definable boundaries qualifies as a microgrid. Microgrids can be intended as back-up power or to bolster the main power grid during periods of heavy demand. Often, microgrids involve multiple energy sources as a way of incorporating renewable power. Other purposes include reducing costs and enhancing reliability…The modular nature of microgrids could make the main grid less susceptible to localized disaster.” (Emphasis mine.)

Localizing is the whole raison d’etre of the Transition movement so it isn’t surprising local power generation is getting a lot of attention in Transition Towns in the U.K.  See this Rough Guide to Community Energy and start your own exploration. The U.S. Military is driving development of microgrids – some 40 bases have their own. In fact, as more municipalities, cities and regions realize the value of decentralized power, the global annual market for microgrid power generation is expected to reach $40B, with North America taking the lead. Last week, the Department of Energy (as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan) launched a competition to award $100,000 to six operational microgrids.  When you consider what is being spent to suppress solar, this doesn’t seem nearly enough money.

As it turns out, Florida is home to a number of utilities that qualify as microgrids, and the trend is surfacing all over the Northeast in the wake of Sandy, including in New York, Connecticut and Maryland (but not so far in my former home state of New Jersey, boo Chris Christie!)   There is a microgrid  in my county of Palm Beach: Lake Worth Utilities.  The rest of the county’s population, some 41 towns and incorporated villages, must rely on Florida Power and Light. We do, however, as I’ve written here before, have some choice or where to source our power while remaining on the FPL grid. Despite some issues with utility rates, local power generation is but one of the eco-assets of Lake Worth that makes it potentially more resilient than many of its neighbors, my town of Palm Beach Gardens included.  I’d love to hear how LWU is working out for you, so Lake Worth residents, weigh in.

One of the best examples of community power generation in Florida is Gainesville Regional Utilities, serving 93,000 customers in Gainesville and environs. Not only does GRU stand out for its emphasis on renewable energy including biomass, solar – the first in the state to offer solar feed-in-tariff program — and landfill gas (that’s methane derived from decomposing organic matter), it does a great job of communicating with its customers on benefits and underlying values. By the end of 2013, Gainesville Regional Utilities drew 21% of its power from renewable sources. Pear Energy, which powers our home and EV, buys energy from GRU. Check out this remarkable company here.

I could go on, and may dig in more deeply in future posts.  In the meantime, let this small sample of an exciting emerging field encourage you to explore it further and give it your support wherever you live.  As we all know, how we make and use energy directly impacts the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (hovering at 400 ppm currently).  Distributed power provides a measure of security as the climate becomes more unstable.  But the microgrid, especially when tapping solar and other renewable resources, is smart energy for the future.  Global warming is a wicked problem.  To quote a buddy of mine: “We need to throw everything we’ve got at it.”

More reading:

Federal Incentives for Renewable Energy (expire December 31, 2016)

Renewable Energy World (much to absorb)

Kill-a-Watt EZ Meters For you DIYers

How Stuff Works – delightful article on microgrids

The End of Suburbia?

Suburbia1 The morning air is filled with the mingled odors of honeysuckle and gas-powered riding mowers as I walk through an upscale neighborhood of old trees, shaded lawns, two- and even three-garage homes, and very few sidewalks, where the Northern branch of my immediate family lives. It is a peaceful village/suburb of Providence, RI, a city of greater economic diversity than you will find here.  This is one feature that makes a city like Providence a more interesting place to live for empty nesters, especially those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, and for the Millennials which, urban planners say, will have smaller and/or very different families, and prefer cities as hubs of creativity and innovation.  There will always be people who prefer big homes and lawns, of course, just fewer of them than there are now.  And even here, a few signs of change coming, as this small act of  food independence in the neighborhood suggests.  Suburban acupuncture?Suburbia 2 tomatoes

We raised our own kids in the similar suburb of Montclair, 11 miles from New York City where we both worked, for similar reasons: good schools and safe neighborhoods, among others.  In our day, doors were locked only at night, you knew your neighbors, and milk, even eggs and butter, were delivered from a local dairy in glass and paper packaging.  Boys AND girls could, in many cases, walk safely to school, and pretty much had the run of the neighborhood.  You always knew where they were by the collection of bicycles and skateboards in the driveway.  Our kids got a very good start here, and express nostalgia for this time in their lives, even recreating it for their own offspring.

As a visitor to my former hometown, I was glad to see the Upper Montclair shopping hub holding its own on this sunny Tuesday.  We worried about how the proximity of Willowbrook Mall and the Outlets in Secaucus would affect business locally.  We shopped at Saunders Hardware and Keil’s Drugs instead of the Big Box chains out of a sense of hometown loyalty.  Climate activism wasn’t on the radar quite yet.

Keeping your local merchants — food growers especially — in business is an even better idea now as community resilience  becomes the new measure of thriving.   It remains possible where relative affluence buys some time and a wider range of life options.  So chances are that the Dariens and Maplewoods may adapt reasonably well to changing demographics that skew urban, plus the energy crunch and other impacts of global warming to come.  Suburbs less well-designed and with fewer advantages, not so much.  They may be the first to falter.

We who were fortunate enough to live in the leafy child-centered suburbs of a great city got through the OPEC crisis of the 70s and kept right on driving.  We know better now.


So Happy Together

Co-housing, a form of communal living launched in Denmark, sans the back-to-the-land 60’s hippie vibe, has interested me for close to 20 years, and it coming up on my radar once again, a combination of my age and my realization of how closely the principles of cohousing – community, shared resources, resilience, environmental values – align with those of the Transition movement. And also because, via Transition, I’m learning about urban planning and even participating in some ‘interventions.’

Suburban sprawl, even as pretty as the lushly-planted, pool-and-tennis-court sprinkled complexes such as the one I live in, doesn’t support a healthy, well-functioning community, let alone enlightened society. A shopping mall is not the village green, although Teens and Tweens do their best to make it so. We became successful as a species because we are social animals, and that may be how we will figure a way out of the mess we’re in now. So I find it puzzling that we have accepted design that expresses a preference for privacy, even anonymity, over community; that values speed and efficiency – cars and service vehicles at the expense of pedestrians or bicycles; that submits to conformity and obedience. (Checked your HOA rules lately?)

Being in my early 70s with an older spouse and many friends in the same age cohort, has sharpened the focus on issues of isolation and loneliness, and what it looks like when the care (cleaning, repairs, financial management, etc.) of a home you once shared becomes your sole responsibility. In cultures (including the one I was born into) where elders are valued, these issues don’t exist.

I never want to wind up in an assisted-living facility or senior residence. These artificial environments are like permanently moored cruise ships, with every need attended to, except the need to feel needed, to contribute to something bigger than yourself, to feel connected.

We have to design for the way people really want to live. And, in many instances we are beginning to.  Senior cohousing, ‘granny’ flats, i.e. moving in with the kids, and NORCs – naturally occurring retirement communities — like the Beacon Hill Village in Boston, to name a few, where people remain not only in their homes, but as contributing members of the larger community. Whenever we can share space and not duplicate infrequently-used possessions, we all benefit, and so does the Planet. For this aging yogi, for all those reasons, an ashram looks good.

On the other end of the age spectrum, it is no accident that the Millennial generation is flocking to walkable cities, inventing ways to live and share space, equipment, work, that seem more inspired by Seinfeld than The Brady Bunch. Think also of AirBnB, and even Couchsurfing (for the truly adventurous traveler), two more recent variations on the sharing theme. For Angelo, a young Italian I was chatting with last night at the Transition meeting, enjoying a year of study in the U.S., courtesy of his host family, is just how things are done back home.   Humans are endlessly creative in response to change, and the evidence of this lifts me whenever the news about climate change, peak resources, and corrupt regimes gets too dire.

As much as I quake at the idea of another move, I find myself thinking more deeply about what would support us better in the next phase of our life. Where to next? And when?

cohousing photoWe discovered cohousing around 1997 while living in Hoboken, NJ, a small town that, in those days, was best known for being the birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra. The town hadn’t completely outgrown its somewhat seedy past and wasn’t without issues. But we loved our 100-year-old redbrick townhouse and the town itself for its walkability – a word yet to be invented – the friendly neighborhoods, the mom and pop stores, and easy access to New York where I had a strong client base. But change was happening fast as long-promised waterfront development began, bringing rising home values and a soaring real estate tax that would soon become unsustainable, even for a two-income couple. Gentrification has its price. A lot of people like us cashed in and moved out, making room for a younger professional crowd.

So that Spring, we attended a cohousing conference at the Liberty Village Cohousing in Libertytown, MD, to learn more about this new way of housing ourselves. A few months later, we had organized visits to four other cohousing communities, including two in Canada. Three of the four were in early stage development; one, a couple of years old. In retrospect, we might have taken the plunge then had we come across an established community. Most take years not months to go from idea to reality, and many enthusiasts claim that it is the process of dealing with whatever comes up – difficult local ordinances or neighbors, a failure of the group to gel, integrating new people – gives a community its particular character. But most important, the consensus-based approach to planning, designing, managing and maintaining your cohousing community requires a lot of patience. Perhaps this time around, we might be ready.

I was able to check up on the four we actually visited, a prerequisite for membership. Cantine’s Island in Saugerties, NY, is a village within a village on the Esopus River. Trillium Hollow, which won a spot in the cue because our married children lived nearby in Portland, Or.  Windsong, in Langley, about 45 minutes outside Vancouver, an architecturally designed cohousing community where we were invited to share a meal and spend the night. The entire community was under glass, a reminder of those cold Canadian winters. Finally, Quayside, a brilliant joining of existing buildings on a corner of a block in North Vancouver. Of all, the best fit: urban, no two spaces alike, a great intergenerational vibe. Glad to say, all are thriving!

Read more:

History of Cohousing

Senior Cohousing

More Techno-Fixes for a Hot Planet?

What’s Good for the Navy * Louis CK, Truth-Teller * In My Own Backyard

OK, I admit it. I squandered the first hour of my Monday writing day on Facebook, and I have my daughter’s post to blame for it. Seems that the US Navy has developed technology to convert seawater into energy. The headline: The U.S. Navy Just Announced the End of Big Oil and No One Noticed.  Because the ‘no one noticed’ resonated, I decided to check out the source of Justin “Filthy Liberal Scum” Rosario’s article. But first, I read the comments. Whoa! If we could only tap the energy of all that misplaced rage.

You won’t be surprised that the Navy’s April 4 press release is anything but emotional, but it made my heart beat a little faster just the same. Here’s the lead:

WASHINGTON (NNS) — Navy researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division, demonstrated proof-of-concept of novel NRL technologies developed for the recovery of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) from seawater and conversion to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

Wow, party on!

Louis CKSo let me put this in the context Louis CK’s recent Oh My God monologue (we’re huge fans of his in my humble abode).  Of course, the Navy’s NRL technology is an energy hog, but maybe no more so than tar sands technology or fracking, when you add back all the externalities like health impacts and clean up costs after accidents, to name just two. Of course, there’s a Plan B for Planet Earth, but maybe we would be better off not counting on business-as-usual. (Not everyone is, incidentally, see IKEA’s big investment in wind energy, snide comments aside.)

This past week, I screened the urban farming documentary, Growing Cities, at my UU congregation and at the successful urban intervention, C’est La Via: Rethinking the Alleyways, as part of my work to get traction for Transition Palm Beaches. (If you’re interested in having me bring it to your organization or school, give me a shout at yogimarika at gmail dot com.) The comment I always make by way of introduction isn’t original with me, but I keep repeating it because it just makes sense: even if climate change wasn’t already disrupting life as we’ve known it, switching to a slower, lower-carbon, localized, community-centered life will make us happier and healthier, and contribute to environmental justice for all. By the same token, even if a techno-fix is just around the corner and we could continue to live our high-powered, fast-paced, mindless, wasteful lives, transitioning offers an alternative that more and more people, by choice or circumstances, hunger for (see Blessed Unrest). That’s the Plan B I am putting my faith in.

Food-forest-garden-1500 × 1125In my own backyard, plans advanced this week for our composting experiment and planting of a mini food forest. Edible landscaping! Bring it!

Here’s what my minister, CJ McGregor, just posted on Facebook:

Imagine growing our own avocados, mangoes, guava, papaya and other tropical fruit…..right here in our congregation’s back yard. Imagine abundance and offering fresh and organic fruit to migrant workers and their families. Imagine children who are hungry when school is not in session being offered a place to help grow and enjoy the literal fruits of their labor. Imagine inspiring the next generation to understand and respond to the real and devastating effects of climate change such as food shortages. Imagine the connections. Imagine vacant spaces on our campus becoming a grove of plenty. Imagine healing a bit of our community.


What the Frack?

Climate Fixes and Plan B’s: The IPCC’s Guide

Cinderella Technologies

The Energy Collective

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