The End of the Known World?

Tipping point:  “The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”

Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, tipping point, like the Chinese characters for crisis that combine danger and opportunity, describes where we are as a species. On the one hand, our climate is approaching a point of no return where it tips from ‘change’ — which is already evident, particularly in South Florida where I live — to ‘chaos’ about which we can only offer educated guesses, none of them good.  On the other hand, we have unprecedented opportunities to reverse the damage caused by capitalism gone rogue, and see the fruits of our effort in our lifetime, and/or in the lives of our children and theirs.

boiling-waterDon’t expect to find guidance in political promises that continue to insist we can have infinite growth on a finite planet. Generally, scientific papers do a better job in framing the problem than in pointing to solutions.  For some — my spouse and I, for example — the thing we can do is right under our feet: soil to be healed, food to be grown, and forests to be started.  We are enrolled in an introductory permaculture course this month at the renowned Mounts Botanical Garden, about which more later.

In Soil Not Oil, physicist/environmental activist/author, Vandana Shiva, builds a clear relationship between healthy soil and our survival as a species.  Could it really be that simple?   “Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step toward both mitigating and adapting to climate change,” she writes.   James Hansen makes a similar urgent argument for sequestering carbon in the soil.  And Rodale Institute’s White Paper on regenerative agriculture points out:

Excess carbon in the atmosphere is surely toxic to life, but we are, after all, carbon-based life forms, and returning stable carbon to the soil is a tonic that can support ecological abundance.

What if we reject options like geothermal engineering or methods of extracting fuels from photosynthesis or seawater for the risky business they are.  What if enough of us put our attention on reclaiming land to plant trees and grow food? Where’s the downside?

As the documentary, Growing Cities, points out, Americans have reverted to this simple idea in times of crisis.  The Victory Gardens of World War II come to mind, and Michelle Obama’s anti-0besity campaign that includes a vegetable plot on the grounds of The White House.  Then, when ‘happy days are here again,’ we ‘forget’ how powerful these choices make us and surrender to the ease of supermarket shopping and Big Ag dominated food system.  The good news: skills may lie dormant, but they don’t go away.

One of the projects of Transition Totnes, the UK’s first Transition Town,  was to interview elders about their life experiences of an earlier, slower time.  People who grew up during the Depression and World War II are an ever-shrinking group now, but there are plenty of 70- and 80-somethings with good memories of growing up on a farm or living in small towns where everyone knew each other by name and often worked together in some common enterprise.

I am thinking about the series of interviews FAU professor and performance artist, Sherryl Muriente, conducted with elders in the Italian town of Artena, subject Regeneration City, a documentary about The International Society of Biourbanism summer school in July 2013.  She uncovered among the nonnas of Artena a tradition of bread baking that had all but disappeared, and was able to revive it in an inspiring local festival.  (A second screening of the film was held in Lake Worth last weekend.) This could be a great project for any Transition Town in the making, and, nonna that I am, feel ready to work both ends of the interview.

Degrowth is far from a popular idea in my circles (yet), but it could be that better days are ahead if we can let go of the world we’ve been conditioned to accept and open ourselves to the one that is possible, and possibly superior, to this one. Samuel Alexander, founder of The Simplicity Collective, thinks so.  He makes a persuasive case for a degrowth economy, one that achieves a steady state within the Earth’s biophysical limits:  “Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.”  This is also at the heart of Transition’s energy descent philosophy.

Self-identified ‘degrowth activist,’ Charles Eisenstein is eloquent on the subject. From The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible: “When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small-scale, is therefore a political act.”



Seeds of Change

Garden Song
Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
Gonna mulch it deep and low,
Gonna make it fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row,
Please bless these seeds I sow.
Please keep them safe below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down.
~ Pete Seeger

With this chorus still ringing in my ears, I spent Mother’s Day weekend in Sarasota with my spouse/best buddy, meeting up with Don Hall, executive director of Transition Sarasota, to learn how he built the group through “experimenting with many things and seeing what stuck.”  Sounds familiar.  Don came to Florida from Boulder, CO, site of the first Transition Town in the U.S. He is a Transition trainer and running the nonprofit organization is his full-time job and his passion.  Sarasota proved to be fertile soil for the ideas of Transition, and today it’s hard to know what came first: the active farm to school program, an established Saturday farmers market, a gleaning group whose members include Transition volunteers, restaurants — even those at the local hotels, Indigo, where we stayed and the nearby Hyatt — that proudly display their

Fresh Local Sarasotasupport of local food.  Of course, none of this would be possible without the interest and support of local chefs, growers, purveyors and the population.  Sarasota’s Saturday farmers market is a happy mob of people bearing cloth and string bags!

This cultural shift around food has been building for some 40 years, and is often credited to Alice Waters, a pioneer of the organic food movement that argues “cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally.”  Chez Panisse, her Berkeley, California, restaurant still caters to a  knowledgeable, well-heeled crowd of ‘foodies’ while her foundation takes the message (and funding) into schools.  Waters is also a Slow Food vice-president.  Although there remains just a hint of elitism in the movement — Van Jones calls it  Whole Foods, whole paycheck —  the good news is, the idea that good tasting, healthy food as a right is beginning to sink in with the general public.  You could call it a democratizing process that will benefit us all.  Food is where Transition often begins in a community because it is easy to make the case that local grown is good not only for taste and health, but can lead to a healthier, sustainable local economy and lower carbon footprint.   

For me, it was both inspiring and a little daunting to see how the movement is coming alive on Florida’s West Coast in partnership with Transition.  One of the first successful Transition Sarasota projects was the Eat Local Guide, a directory to farmers markets, buyers clubs, groceries featuring local foods,  restaurants, and community gardens, that Transition Palm Beaches would do well to emulate.  The Guide also offers a changing menu of relevant articles gleaned from around the country that capture the strength of the shift to sustainable agriculture.   Transition Sarasota also spearheaded the 10% local food shift challenge, inviting people to switch just 10% of their food purchases to local growers and purveyors.  The impact speaks for itself:

While a 2006 study found that only 0.7% of the $797 million Sarasota County residents were spending every year on food was purchased directly from a local farmer, a shift of just 10% in this direction would add $80 million a year to our local economy, potentially creating thousands of new green jobs.

Came home to find more news that feeds my optimism about local food growing, including today’s New York Times article on the topic.  From Lincoln, NB, yoga student and friend, Betsey Shipley, enclosed an article from the Journal Star about the explosion of community gardens thanks to a program not only to support local farms and farmers, but to train new ones.  Over 170 people signed up for the Growing Farmers Program that began in 2005, and 35 have started farming.

Earth Day Tree PlantingBut it’s a 2014 initiative in the Lincoln community that really got my attention:  a partnership with a local church to create Nebraska’s first food forest, “a woodland eco-system that yields food for people.”  If there is one thing I love more than trees, it is trees that bear fruit!  As it turns out, First UU of the Palm Beaches is already well on our way.  On Earth Day, this small, multi-generational team, including our minister, CJ McGregor, launched our own food forest with donated trees along strip of land on church property.  A growing (!) Tree Fund promises there will be more planting parties like the one pictured here.  Inch by inch.






Eat Local and Fresh, Help the Planet (and Yourself)

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating is the kind of book that induces humility in even the most ardent enthusiast of local foods and all the environmental reasons this choice makes sense (i.e. the high cost of food miles, for one). I speak from experience. Mea culpa, I find it really difficult to give up tea (Assam, Ceylon), coffee (Costa Rica) and even papayas – although why Publix and Costco keep importing these from Belize when they grow in our backyards is a question for another blog post.

So I was really happy to see that Don Hall of Transition Sarasota is doing well with his local food guide and festival – Greater Sarasota’s Eat Local Resource Guide and Directory, now in its third year. Imagine! A whole week dedicated to exploring what’s in season and available locally. It is exactly the kind of action that engages people, climate politics – and even politics – aside. For me, signing the 10% Local Food Challenge was a no-brainer. It’s a little step everyone can take that leads to bigger steps.

Farmers Markets make sourcing locally relatively easy year round here in South Florida where I live, although be aware that not every vendor is offering 100% local produce. You have to ask the question. I am totally crazy about Diane Cordeau and Karl Frost of Kai-Kai Farms for their dedication to growing sustainably and delivering a box of beautiful food to us and other CSA members at the market every two weeks. On off-weeks, I can also pick up whatever I need to fill in at a discounted price. No, it isn’t ‘cheap’ food and it certainly isn’t fast, um, you have to actually cook it. The truth is, cheap and fast are inaccurate because the long-range effects of the processed food industry will be calculated in poor health, obesity and lives foreshortened.

To that point, I was surfing around today and came across Stephen Colbert’s interview with Dr. Robert Lustig a few weeks ago. You really need to watch it. Kudos and deep gratitude to our comedians for having the courage few politicians do!

Speaking Up

Public speaking doesn’t terrify or immobilize me, but it’s not my favorite pastime by a long shot. I greatly admire those who can speak extemporaneously, precisely and with passion. I’ll add it to my bucket list. In the meantime, I look for and respond to any opportunities to speak about Transition because I figure the more I do of it, the easier it will become and the better at it I will be. But it’s not easy to strike a balance between reminding people of how bad things really are and inviting them to engage in a movement that, at the very least, suggests a softer, more resilient impact could be possible. So, now I’m gathering my energy for a presentation at my Unitarian Universalist congregation next week, and wrestling to get the words I want to say down on paper.

I dislike grandiosity in others and try to scour it from my own writing or speech. Yet I could not resist using quotes on the environment from President Obama’s inaugural speech. After all, his words are a major breakthrough in acknowledging the threats posed to civilization by climate change. They represent to me an intention, a direction, even if I have reservations about just exactly how ‘we will respond’ when his administration is also committed to supporting conventional energy production, fracking included. (And there’s the rub. As Einstein famously said: “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”)

What resonated with me was the phrase ‘We the People’ which Obama repeated several times. So, in the context of climate change, the word ‘we’ seems less about reassuring us that the government (and technology) will handle it, and more of a challenge to us all to take responsibility for how we have been, and may still be, contributing to a worsening environment, and where we can change our behavior. That is essentially what the Transition movement aims at: behavior change, one individual, household, neighborhood, town at a time, so that it will all add up to cultural shift from — as the saying goes — ‘Me’ to ‘We.’ That it may just work is what keeps me hanging in there, one blog post, speech, email or conversation at a time.