Category Archives: activism

Homegrown subversive plots to feed the hungry and save the world!

It is passing strange to think that growing your own food in your own garden can be considered a subversive act! How did we come to this state, especially in the developed world, but also many cities in the developed world, that we are so alienated from the food on our own tables? Roger Doiron (see his TEDx talk below), founder of Kitchen Gardens International is correct though, in asserting that in our current industrialized global food production system, growing your own fruits and vegetables in your yard or balcony garden has become a subversive act. Because in doing so, we can take back some of the power over our own foods and lives that we have ceded to multinational corporations who control most aspects of global food production now: the policies, the money, much of the land, and the means of food production.

It is remarkable that we have lost power over something so fundamental as the food we must consume daily to survive. It was a mere 10,000 years or so ago that we invented agriculture, a huge step in humanity’s gaining power and control over our foods, and therefore our lives, by freeing ourselves from the vagaries of nature. That initial revolution fueled much of the growth of civilization and has brought us to where we are now – heavily dependent upon the industrial food production and supply system, and often with very little control over the quality of what we can put on our plates or how it is produced, or at what environmental and social costs. Yet this is one area where it should not be too hard for most of us to take back some of this power, some of the means of production: by growing our own little subversive garden plots! Doiron explains how we can do this and what we stand to gain through this subversion:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezuz_-eZTMI&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0]

via ted.com

Hard to think of a downside to this, isn’t it? We need not stop with just our own little gardens in the small bits of urban space we may control – we can, and must, also work collectively to subvert public spaces towards food production, converting vacant lots and even lawns in public parks into edible landscapes that can feed the thousands of urban dwellers who may not have the space or the means to grow their own gardens. The city of Irvine in southern California (yes, the city in conservative Orange County) has done just that: opened up some effectively vacant land to growing vegetables, which apparently feed up to 200,000 people! Here’s a video tour:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXLx0D9YkKA?wmode=transparent]

To put it in terms of the activist metaphor of the moment, gardening for food is an effective way to occupy the global food system, begin to wrest it back from the corporations (even though they still control it through the sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and all the other paraphernalia that goes with gardening) – while simultaneously improving our health and building community. In the process, we may even begin to help heal some of the wounds we have caused in natural ecosystems, and restore some parts of local biodiversity, as is being shown by recent work on the ecology of urban gardens.

So – how would you like a little healthy homegrown subversion on your dinner plate? Give me a double helping, please!

How do we get our global economy off the endless “growth” express and on to a human-scale path of plenitude?

An image I found and shared on Facebook this week, featuring a quote from the Dalai Lama, seems to have hit a nerve among my circle of friends there:

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I’m not surprised, given the kinds of circles I hang out in, that this thought had such resonance. Most of us concerned about what we are doing to our environment and our own wellbeing and future appreciate and find much to ponder in that observation. Of course, it is nice of the Lama to share his profound insight from on high (so to speak) in his role as spiritual leader and a monk observing the rest of humanity with his cultivated sense of detachment. Would that the rest of us could also detach ourselves from the daily grind and engage in more meaningful quests for our lives. Most of us, of course, don’t really have that luxury—or have a terrible time finding a way towards that serenity. So we pause, briefly, at this poster, and share it among our friends (stepping lightly over the irony of doing so on these hyper-social online networks which may seem the very antithesis of what the Lama is talking about), file it away for contemplation, and hope we get the chance to do something about it in some small way in our own lives. And for that, we must be grateful to the Dalai Lama, for pulling us up short in our headlong rush of a life, even if for a brief moment of contemplation.

A bigger question, though, is how do we—those uf us not able to immediately extricate ourselves from the larger economy which pushes us into the endless pursuit of ever elusive wealth—begin to challenge and change the system? The dominant economic paradigm of our time is completely wedded to this pursuit of wealth, for individuals, corporations, and entire nations chasing endless growth. Even people who talk about sustainability within this paradigm talk about “sustainable growth“, an oxymoronic concept if there ever was one, given the natural resource constraints on this only planet we inhabit. More radical environmentalists and leftists have a deeper critique (e.g., read John Bellamy Foster’s “The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth“) of the growth economy paradigm—but reading them often leads to more despair at the scale of the revolution we seemingly need to overthrow that paradigm.
The growth paradigm so dominates our entire public discourse that even moderately centre-leaning right-wing capitalists like Obama get labelled as communists who want to socialize everything! How then can we push the system onto a completely different path, one that may actually be sustainable in a truer sense of the word?
The burgeoning movement to Occupy Wall Street seems to have lit a spark across the US, creating opportunities to challenge at least parts of the capitalist finance-driven system. Breaking through the media narrative about how we must only “grow” our way out of the current economic crises, is an accomplishment worthy of note. The real challenge for this excitingly amorphous movement though is to present not only a coherent set of demands but actually offer alternative models (e.g. at steadystate.org) for recovering the economy, alternatives which can redress the vast social inequities of the present as well as begin healing our ecosystems. We also need models that don’t call for radical / violent overthrow of the system with alternatives that are also imposed from the top-down (putting environmentalists and ecological economists in charge, for example)—but offer instead more distributed, diverse, grassroots alternatives that have a better chance of sustaining us in the long haul; models that build upon stuff many of us are already doing in our daily lives to break free of the dominant growth paradigm and take control of our lives in more meaningful ways.

One such alternative is seen in this video from the Center for a New American Dream, visualizing economist Juliet Schor’s alternative model of a Plenitude Economy:

What I particularly like about this vision is that it draws its strengths from stuff we ordinary people are already doing in the US (and elsewhere) to find our own ways out of the ravages of the collapsed economy during this current great depression. Unlike the last great depression of the 1930s in the US, this time around we don’t have the political leadership or will to create and offer solutions from above, unfortunately. That does not mean, however, that people are simply standing still in despair (although there is plenty of that to go around), waiting for handouts from the government or from charities. We are, in small ways, taking charge of some of the means of production (urban farming and homesteading being great examples) and creating/reviving alternative means of sharing what we produce, away from the globalized economic mainstream. These smaller scale actions offer a good antidote against despair at the ever increasingly gloomy global picture. This is how we can really start rebuilding our world, one garden, one rooftop, one school, one swap-meet, one community at a time, each with its own local adaptation to find its own unique solution. Who needs a world revolution from above when we can have a multitude of these smaller revolutions growing from below?

Life on this planet has always thrived on diversity and local adaptation; it is time for us environmentalists to also truly embrace that truth, and participate in these many movements within our own neighborhoods, even as we seek to change the overarching paradigm globally. As that seemingly forgotten early prophet of ecological economics, E. F. Schumacher, observed a few decades ago: Small is Beautiful, after all! It is useful to remember that.

As a friend remarked upon reading the Dalai Lama’s words: not all of us sacrifice our health in order to make money; some of us do so in pursuit of environmental and human justice, to help create a better world. But maybe, just maybe, we don’t have to sacrifice our health for that either: instead, let us find the time and space to sink our hands into the soil, get dirt under our fingernails as we grow our own food and create habitats for other species amid our urban sprawl; to chat with our neighbors as we exchange vegetables from each other’s yards or balcony container gardens; to rebuild the social fabric that we worry is fraying under globalization; and take that time to also breathe in the air and simply enjoy living in the present.

I’m sure the Dalai Lama would approve of that (even if we choose to talk about it online)!

Sorry Desert Tortoise. No room for you in Google’s Earth Day paradise.

Today is Earth Day, a once grassroots movement seeking to remind people to pay attention to the earth which has now grown to become a global event apparently “celebrated” by over a billion people – much of it courtesy of your neighborhood multinational corporations who have co-opted the day to urge you to buy more products at special discounts to “celebrate Earth Day”. They must mean “celebrate our collective destruction of this earth for profit and a few fun consumer products and gadgets”. Why, instead of actually going out and planting a tree today, you can enjoy playing Lorax Garden” on your iPhone! Download for free today!! After all, why bother getting your hands dirty in an actual garden when you can get virtual karma playing it on your smartphone. Surely that’s what the Lorax wanted us to do, no?

As part of these corporate celebrations of the once-grassroots movement, Google sports this image of an impossibly idyllic edenic paradise as their doodle for the day:

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Lovely, isn’t it? Pandas and penguins and tigers living in harmony with the corporate logo tastefully hidden amid the verdant scenery!

Unfortunately, Google’s vision of paradise has no room for the Desert Tortoise, the Joshua Tree, or the ancient mesquites and all the other poor denizens of the Mojave Desert, just a few hundred miles outside Google’s corporate office windows. You see, just last week, Google upped their investment in the “green” solar energy company Brightsource, pouring in another $168 million to support that company’s massive solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Never mind that the project is already killing endangered tortoises, destroying their habitat along with that of all the other denizens of the Mojave’s unique biodiversity. And never mind that this kind of concentrated power generation with associated transmission costs and losses is an outdated model for this century. After all, combating global warming by switching to non-fossil-fuel energy sources is the be-all and end-all of environmental movements these days, we are told. By none other than the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who thinks conserving land is just “boring” compared to using exciting new “green” technologies to destroy habitats! This massive solar power generation technology is so exciting, it seems, that even Science Friday invited Madrigal to celebrate it on their Earth Day broadcast – where Ira Flatow forgot to ask any questions about the ecological impact of putting massive solar plants in the Mojave:

What’s doubly sad this Earth Day is that Madrigal is not alone. Too many environmentalist nonprofits and activists have bought into this model of green technology. One that merely substitutes one kind of power generation for another “greener” one without questioning the whole model! Why must we generate power at such massive scales, entailing land degradation, transmission losses, and a host of other problems, rather than developing smaller-scale technologies for distributed power generation from rooftops and parking lots? Whatever happened to “small is beautiful“? And why not put larger plants, if they’re needed, in brownfields and other land that we’ve already severely degraded through our other uses instead of bulldozing tortoise habitat? After all, there is plenty of such land within California’s urban/agriculture matrix which already covers more of the state than the remaining desert patches. If Germany, not known for its bright sun, can generate a significant amount of its power from rooftops in a distributed model, why must the US have to destroy remnant habitats still containing biodiversity? And why is Google, a company once at the cutting edge of innovation, with a motto “don’t be evil“, a supposed champion of the open-source internet as a force for democracy, i.e., distributed power, now investing in concentrated large-scale power projects mired in the old models of centralized production and distribution?!

Why aren’t more environmental groups raising these questions? Why is it left to a handful of “useful idiots” like Chris Clarke and Solar Done Right?

More importantly, why are we not asking the more fundamental question: WHY ON EARTH DO WE NEED TO KEEP USING SO MUCH DAMN ENERGY??!! Why can’t we cut down on the energy we currently waste, become more efficient, and work on reducing our massive ecological footprint by using less power-hungry products?

Oh, I forgot… how can we ask these questions, when the corporations are dangling all that shiny new magical technology in front of us all the time? Bright shiny smart phones where we can go play the Lorax game… what were you going on about the environment for, mate?

Sorry Lorax. Sorry Desert Tortoise. Sorry Mesquite. And Sorry Earth. We’ve sold you all out for a few shiny baubles. Happy Earth Day.

On the economics and growing pains of farming and consuming organic foods

I had the radio on while on a prolonged cleaning mission at home yesterday afternoon (having run out of the usual podcasts I listen to under such circs). I had what seems like a small moment of cognitive disssonance when, while jumping back from, and then stomping out a nest of Black Widow spiders hiding behind a trashcan in a dark corner of the laundry room, I caught fragments of a conversation on the radio about earth- and biodiversity-friendly organic farming practices.

The show was a world of possibilities, something I hadn’t heard before on our local NPR station. The fragments of conversation I caught were interesting enough that I had to go look for the whole hour online. And it turned out to be an hour well-spent, as I think you may agree too. Its about the growing pains of organic farming, especially in the current economic recession.

The second half of the program is particularly interesting when two organic dairy farmer from Northern California are interviewed. Fascinating if (like us) you try to consume organic foods as much as possible (or as much as the wallet permits), and even more so if you dabble in organic farming. We’ve been enjoying quite a harvest of veggies from our own, and several neighbors’ urban backyard farms – which has definitely eased the pressure on our furloughed bank balance this summer.

The dairy farmers raise one important question in response to complaints about how expensive organic produce is: why do consumers never complain about the ridiculously high prices of the latest iPhone/Droid/Wii or other gadgets they line up to purchase on the first day, but don’t want to pay a buck or two extra for food they actually put in their bodies? In a country where conventional industrial farming has been subsidised heavily to keep supermarket prices low low low, it has become rather hard for us to imagine – and pay for – the real costs of farming organically. The same advertising driven marketplace that plies us with cheap unhealthy foods also mesmerizes us with the shiny tech baubles to the point where our family budgets have become strangely skewed, with food eaten at home – which should be the very core of our lives – taking up a mere 7% of our paychecks on average, which is less than half what we pay to drive around our farflung suburbs! Take a look at this graphic of where the average US household paycheck is spent:

wheredidthemoneygo
Where does the money go?
Click on the image (or here) for a larger version, courtesy of Visual Economics 

The other interesting question to ponder (and hope about) is whether the recession is changing people’s priorities in ways that might actually lead to healthier eating! I raised a related question in my reconciliation ecology class when I last taught it two years ago, thus: will the recession encourage more people to start growing their own vegetables in their gardens? I think, tentatively, that we have the answer now in the growing urban farming movement around the US, with more and more people like us growing our own veggies, and more often organically than not. I think the scale problem of organic farming – that it doesn’t scale up very well when you think of the mass market – actually works in our favor here, because we are scaling down to small yards where it is easier, and cheaper, to grow a healthy crop organically.

The recession may also give us some pause before plonking down the credit card for the latest non-food consumer items or gadgets. Although mainstream economists do not like that because they tell us we have to keep buying stuff in order to keep the economy running and growing again! And the sales figures of the new iPhone 4 (for example) don’t suggest that such discretionary consumer spending is down all that much even now. But, if you do cut down on this part of your budget, is it likely that some of the savings may actually go towards healthier organic foods? After all, healthier eating should also lead to lower healthcare costs in the longer run. Is there any evidence that people are changing their spending patterns, especially on food, in this more rational direction? Or are our brains too irrational and too severely manipulated by advertising and farm subsidies to be swayed away from all the shiny and “cheap” unhealthy highly processed/industrial edible food-like substances (to borrow Michael Pollan’s phrase) filling the supermarket aisles and food courts of America?

I’ll stop rambling now and let you listen to the conversation on the show. Let me know what your thoughts are too.

Organic agriculture has grown up.  A once-marginal movement of plucky and slightly eccentric home gardeners has bloomed into mega-farms that ship around the world selling at premium prices.  In this program we’ll examine both ends of the organic industry food chain — a mid-size organic farming family and the world’s largest organic food retailer.  We’ll see what growing mainstream has done for – and to — organic farmers, and what remains to be done to give farmers and consumers the sustainable food system we urgently need.
This program is funded by listeners like you.

Guests: 
Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, Alexandre  Family Dairies
Walter Robb,  Co-CEO,Whole Foods
Credits: 
Host: Mark Sommer
Senior Producer: Gregg McVicar
Associate Producers: Naihma Deady, Matt Fidler
Production Engineer: Michael Schwartz
Music in this program: “The Sinking Ship” – Jerry Douglas – Sugarhill Records; “A United Earth I” – Alan Stivell and Youssou N’Dour – Putumayo World Music; “The Bounty Of The County” – David Gans – Perfectible Recordings; “Commodity Cheese Blues” – Wade Fernandez – SBW; “One More Cowboy” – Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks – Surfdog Records.
Duration: 55 Minutes
Original airdate: 
Tue, 2010-08-10

Collateral damage in our ongoing war against wildlife

It just astounds me how much, and how cavalierly, we continue to poison our wildlife and ecosystems, in ways that often also harm us, just to maximize perceived profit from ranching, farming, or other industry. Why do we do this to ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our homes on this planet?

Here’s an example: casualties of so-called “predator control” poisoning programs run by a US govt. agency, apparently at the behest of ranchers (more likely some ranching/farming lobbies), to control “predators” that may cause some harm to whatever product is being ranched/farmed. Is there any science behind these management decisions?! Or is it ok to just drop these poison-baited mines all over the landscape based on a perception of threat?

The video offers a link at the end to the website of Predator Defense where you can get more information, and even join the effort to have at least these two poisons banned, even if it takes longer to minimize these predator control programs.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2N3K8aWMzM&hl=en&fs=1]

Unite Arizona: harnessing the power of maps to fight back against the new anti-immigrant law!

Maps can be powerful tools for social change, and I sure hope this new one plays its part in beating back Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law. My friends who founded and run NiJeL.org which has developed a number of interesting crowdsourced community mapping projects (including some work on the Fresno Bird Count), have come up with a good response to the new Arizona law requiring police to stop and demand citizenship/immigration papers from anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. While many of my friends from other states are thinking of boycotting Arizona (in their summer travel plans, among other things) and others living in the state are angry and upset about their state’s legislature, NiJeL now offers a novel way to take action if you spot any incidents of harassment or victimization under the new law, or are subject to such yourself – read on for more about what you can do through Unite Arizona in this email they sent me today:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

With the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, global media, politicians, human rights groups, and concerned individuals have turned their attention toward Arizona, rightfully concerned about the negative impacts of this new law. Minority groups in Arizona have been and will continue to be subject to verbal and physical harassment and intimidation from organized hate groups, some members of law enforcement and xenophobic Arizonans. Moreover, many more victims will likely cease to report crimes out of fear of detention and deportation due to this law.

NiJeL created Unite Arizona (www.ImmigrantHarassment.com) to provide both a way for Arizonans to anonymously report harassment, intimidation, raids/sweeps, and an outlet for unreported criminal activity via SMS (text message), Twitter, email, or the web. These incidents will be filtered by the type of incident and visualized on a participatory map and a timeline for the community to see. This project was the subject of a recent NewTimes story (http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/valleyfever/2010/05/immigrantharassmentcom_to_crow.php) and you may follow the project’s updates on Twitter (@immigrantharass) or at our Facebook Fan page (http://www.facebook.com/lrpeck#!/pages/Unite-Arizona/114811748558349?ref=ts).

Unite Arizona uses the Ushahidi Platform: free and open source software designed to gather real-time, crowdsourced data for crisis response. Unite Arizona is currently live and accepting SMS data at 602-824-TALK (8255), Twitter updates with the hashtag #MHRSAZ, and emails at report@immigrantharassment.com.

Incoming data can be tagged by location, category, date and time, and each report can include references to news items, photos and video. Trusted site administrators are charged with mapping and coding incoming messages, approving and verifying each incident, scoring the reliability of the source and indicating the probability that the event is real. Users of the site can also rate the importance of incidents, promoting those that are particularly egregious. Finally, anyone can sign up to receive alerts of approved incidents, filtered by location. With this system we intend to provide a powerful reporting platform for victims and activists, an alert system for crisis responders, and a compelling visualization of the scale and scope of harassment, intimidation and unreported crime in Arizona.

We would be very interested in partnering with your organization for several purposes. First, we could use your help in disseminating the SMS or text message number (602-824-8255 or 602-824-TALK)), the Twitter hashtag #MHRSAZ and the email address, report@immigrantharassment.com, that people can use to report incidents. We would very much appreciate your help in disseminating this information to your networks. Thanks!!

There are a number of other ways to help us with this project:

Moderation Volunteering
If you would like to help us moderate reports of harassment, intimidation and unreported crime and comments from the public, please contact our volunteer coordinator, Layal Rabat, at lrabat@nijel.org. You will need to go though a background check process and attend a training session to learn how to use the internal moderation tools. Thank you!

Organizational Support
If your organization would like to show support for this effort and would like more information about how to get involved, you may contact me at jd@nijel.org. Thank you!

Donations
We are also accepting donations to help us support our volunteer coordinators, train new moderators, disseminate SMS and other site information, and improve the site technology among other items. Any amount would be much appreciated. Please follow the PayPal link below to donate, and thank you so much for your support of Unite Arizona!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_donations&business=T44QBNQGGRRJQ&lc=US&item_name=NiJeL%20%2d%20Community%20Impact%20Through%20Mapping&item_number=ImmigrantHarassment%2ecom&currency_code=USD&bn=PP%2dDonationsBF%3abtn_donate_SM%2egif%3aNonHosted

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Is that Antarctica’s delegate to the Copenhagen negotiations?

If so, I’m afraid they may be a bit too late, as they are moving rather slowly, and are also apparently lacking in GPS technology, being headed towards Australia rather than Denmark!! And that’s a real pity. Because the world’s leaders gathered in Copenhagen this week to collectively twiddle their thumbs about global warming could really use a frakking 115 square kilometer (that’s 44 sq. miles for you Americans) iceberg shoved into their midst just about now! Don’t you think?

What a way to crash a party that would be, eh? A real ice-breaker, even, perhaps, between the global warming activists and the denialists! Much more effective than poor old Al Gore. Quite the message from the ice continent, indeed the planet itself, that would be, to its human children gone astray!

But as so often happens with politicians (and indeed the rest of us), this ‘berg too seem to have lost its enthusiasm for the cause. deciding instead to head for the beaches of Australia! I can hear its growing murmur, “Aw… fuck it, I’ve been freezing my ass off here for centuries, stuck between the penguins and the krill, so why shouldn’t I make a break for it? Why can’t I just spend one last glorious summer on the beach? I hear the surfing can be quite something around Australia this time of year… so watch out: SURF’S UP!!!”

Hat-tip to the Bad Astronomer, who has more on the incredible voyage of freedom for this little iceberg!

Are the arguments more important than the solutions?

That’s the question, really, isn’t it, that we should be asking ourselves and our so-called leaders as they continue to talk in Copenhagen on our behalf. Regardless of how much you believe human activities have contributed or not to global warming (and regardless of the empirical evidence supporting said warming which is still questioned by denialists), why would you not want to take the precautionary principle and make some changes in the way we do business? Just so we can at least try reduce our ecological footprints, breathe easier, and generally make life more amenable to our own future generations and those of many other species sharing our world? Al Gore challenged the world leaders in Copenhagen yesterday on behalf of said future generations, who might wonder why our generation is putting the arguments ahead of the solutions right now!

While raising the questions our grandkids might well ask, it seems Gore was also channeling (and I’m not helping his cred with the denialist crowd any by bringing this name up!) Karl Marx, who famously wrote, The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. You can sit around all day arguing about your interpretations of climate data, or you can go out and do something to address the real problems we all face. What’ll it be, world leaders?

Oh, the perils of a multi-cultural classroom!

Thankfully, Danae is on a roll this week, taking on the evils of my profession in her inimitable style, in the surprisingly sequential Non Sequitur:

dim

That was on Monday – not too long after someone named Patrick left a comment on slideshare in response to my posting of Eugenie Scott’s talk on that site, chastising us scientists for allowing our beliefs to be shaken by new information!! I guess we do tend to do that, don’t we? Guilty as charged, sir! And I suppose science and faith are therefore very different cultures indeed!

But let us follow Danae’s spirited fight against such cultural bias in the classroom some more, shall we?

dim

I just hate when that happens – when the cultural bias of my profession (teaching) towards imparting new information shows up in the classroom impinging upon the poor students like that! Whatever shall I do?

dim

Uh-oh – looks like I shall really reap a whirlwind now, from the ACLU!! Stay tuned