Category Archives: Diversity

One weird trick to fix farms forever

As always I’m skeptical of silver bullets, but mimicing Mother Nature is not a silver bullet. It’s a complex interaction of diverse species and cycling nutrients the way the earth was made (or has evolved) to. It’s only a “weird trick” because we’ve done it the wrong way for so long.

“Our cover crops work together like a community – you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.

But Brandt’s not trying to go organic – he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food – even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

One weird trick to fix farms forever.

Your Garden Matters

bk beyond organics.jpgOne of the last books I read while living in Bolivia was Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future by Helen Cushing, which is available for FREE from the Soil and Health Library online. As should be expected of books on the cutting edge of agriculture, organics and gardening the author is Australian. While many of the examples in the book are from the Australian context and therefore not as relevant to a North American audience, the overall principles are easily translatable to whatever context you find yourself in.

Probably because of their particular climate and the problems they have had to face long before the rest of us related to changes in climate, drought and other agricultural issues, Australia, the birthplace of permaculture, is often way ahead of the rest of the world in ideas about sustainable agriculture. Beyond Organics is no exception.

It isn’t until the end of the book that Cushing lays out some of the facts about how we treat our yards, but it’s worth sharing up front.

According to the EPA ‘almost 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used on US lawns annually’. Also astonishing are these statistics from the US National Wildlife Federation:

  • 30 percent of water consumed on the US East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60 percent on the US West Coast.
  • The average suburban lawn receives 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
  • More than 70 million tons of fertilisers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually.
  • A motorised lawnmower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as an average car; a brushcutter emits 21 times more; and a leafblower 34 times more.
  • Where pesticides are used on lawns, 60-90 percent of earthworms are killed. (196)

These statistics seem much more dire after reading the preceding 195 pages of her book in which she explains what gardens have become and casts her vision for what gardens can be. Cushing takes on the concept of the isolated backyard garden and expands it into a network of havens for species, plants and life to thrive. Her concept is an environmental garden that stretches underneath, around and over the garden fence.

250px-European_honey_bee_extracts_nectar.jpgShe takes us through the history of organics and gardening showing how gardens evolved into what they are and how we can reorient our ideas around abetter way of thinking and gardening. It’s also a very empowering book as she reminds over and over again that these gardens in our backyards matter. She paints a portrait of the unseen and unnoticed world of our gardens.

There is a whole society of birds, insects, reptiles, mammals who come here to wash, drink, feed, each attracted by the water and also by each other, with some becoming the meals of others. Plus there are the unseen millions, billions, of micro-organisms – the politics of ecology requires that this silent majority are not forgotten. (38)

It is easy to miss the life teeming around us whether we live in the suburbs or the inner city. We tend to focus on what we have been taught to see, the large animals, flowers and aesthetics of our gardens. What we miss is the web of life that makes the whole thing work. The other thing that tricks our minds into thinking badly about our gardens is fences.

The boundaries exist only in the minds of the property owners, where they allow that owner to limit his or her sense of responsibility to the space within those fences. It is easy to think that we don’t have much impact, because our land or garden is not so big. But the biosphere is fenceless, and time is long, longer than the river. The effect on the environment beyond our fence is the combined effect of many individuals over many years, many generations. In the same way, our concept of ecosystem is generally flawed, because it packages them into neat concepts that satisfy our desire to contain and present our understanding, as though ecosystems also have fences. But they don’t. (41)

Maybe your desire for a garden is simply to please your eye (or your neighbor’s eye). Perhaps instead it is to produce more of your food and be a good steward of the environment. Either way we still tend to think of our small gardens in isolation. Cushing pushes us to realize that this is not the reality of the world of biology and ecosystems. Life does not recognize fences or borders. This goes both ways.

Permaculture Garden.jpg

There are things we do in our yards that are harmful, using chemicals, planting non-native (or invasive) species or selecting plants for our own aesthetics. Chemicals and seeds do not respect the fences we build. They find their way into other places, our neighbor’s yard and waterways. Our gardens can do great damage, not just by themselves, but along with all the other gardens and gardeners contributing an excess of water and chemicals to our shared environment.

On the other hand, if our garden considers the world beyond our fence and provides habitat for birds and animals, plants for pollinators, insect and other life, then it becomes one strand in an ecological web providing sanctuary for species rapidly losing habitat in many places and food for pollinators, insects and animals that need it. Our gardens can be a force for sustainability, not only as isolated plots trying to carve out an organic, sustainable niche, but as part of an interlocking network of gardens . Cushing describes the environmental garden like this,

The more the plants give in terms of food, shelter, habitat, nutrient cycling, soil stabilising and so on, the more they maximize the garden’s environmental positives. They are a resource for the environment, rather than a sink. If these same plants are low need, that is, virtually independent of you, the ecological profits go up even more. Ecology is based on the economics of nature. The words ecology and economics even have the same Greek root, which is oikos, meaning household. (171)

I was delighted when the author made this connection between economics and ecology. This way of thinking about our little plots of dirt connects them to the greater whole and makes them more important than just “keeping up with the Joneses”. So, as you think about what to do with that plot of dirt, no matter how small, wherever you live, remember that your garden matters. It is part of the web of life and can be a vehicle for transforming our environment.

Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!

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The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”

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So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

Toward A Living Economy: From Here To There

In this series I have been considering the idea of a living economy in an article by David Korten. He points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. In this last post I want to explore some ideas about how to get from here to there. Some of these thoughts are influenced by E.F. Schumacher and an article from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) “NWF adopts Key Element of Steady State Thinking” by Eric Zencey.

The first thing that must change is our obsession with GDP to some measurements of economic activity that more accurately describe and account for the totality of human life.

Every economics textbook warns that GDP is a poor measure of well-being, and yet by default it continues to be the indicator that economic policy seeks to maximize. GDP doesn’t measure well-being at all, but simply tries to tally the dollar value of final goods and services produced in the U.S. …By design, GDP also leaves out ecosystem services; if you hang your laundry out to dry, the sun and wind do the job, but if you throw it in the dryer you use electricity, increase your carbon footprint, and give GDP a bit of a bump. Ecological economists identify a dozen categories of ecosystem services, including climate stability, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, maintenance of a library of genetic diversity, pollination, purification and transport of water by the solar-powered hydrological cycle, flood protection services of marshlands and forests, and so on.

In some ways, this is a more radical shift than it appears. It’s not just that we should replace GDP with a better number and continue relying on only one measurement. At some point economics came to be commonly understood as a discipline that dealt with business and finance, which while certainly being important was not the totality of human life and existence. The reality is that economics is not somehow compartmentalized and segregated from those parts of our lives that economics accounts for and those it doesn’t.

GDP fails to measure things that concern well-being such as volunteer work and domestic production, ecosystem services, defensive and remedial expenditures. According to Zencey, “By some estimates, as much as one-quarter to one-third of our GDP consists of such expenditures.” On the other hand there are some interesting examples of things GDP counts as economic positives that most people would not.

GDP also misreads our level of well-being by treating defensive and remedial expenditures as positive economic activity. Remedial: the $12 billion that British Petroleum alone has spent (so far) in its efforts to clean up the catastrophic oil release in the Gulf of Mexico counts as an increase in GDP, though the expenditure comes nowhere close to putting things back to their pre-Deepwater state. Defensive: if someone breaks into a neighbor’s house and you decide to buy a burglar alarm, GDP goes up—but you probably don’t feel as secure as you did before the break-in.

There is an dark underbelly to the economics of our current incarnation of capitalism that depends heavily on defense spending and fancy accounting to make oil spills economically positive activities. I do see a lot of hope that economists (what little I read) seem to be moving away from the previous dependence on this one measurement. However, without a larger shift in thinking toward holistic approaches, I believe we will continue to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our society. Zencey goes on to describe what he sees as the primary problem in our current economic understanding.

The root cause of our environmental problems—our ecological crisis—is infinite planet economic theory, the rules and axioms of a discipline that tells us that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet…You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Economic production is, at bottom and unalterably, a process that relies on physical inputs. No amount of human ingenuity will ever let us make something from nothing or nothing from something. No amount of ingenuity will let us create energy out of nothing or recycle it to use it again.

In other words, economics must become more of a hard science than the soft science that it continues to be (regardless of what the mathematical geniuses that brought us the financial crisis tell you). Economics must have as its foundation in the science that is the basis for our understanding of how the world works, what is possible and what is not. If economics contradicts science in its assumptions, which one should we rely on? Should we alter the laws of thermodynamics to fit our economic theories? Sounds silly, but that’s the current state of our economic theory.

So, what’s the alternative to our current system?

The National Wildlife Federation did not specifically sign on to the steady-state vision; but by calling for an accurate measurement of the costs of economic growth, it has officially joined us on a path that can lead nowhere else.

Obviously the article comes from proponents of a steady-state economy. So, perhaps this kind of hyperbole is to be expected. I still think stating this “can lead nowhere else” is an exercise in the same narrow thinking that led us to bow down to the almighty GDP. For those not familiar with the idea of steady-state economics, it is perhaps most easily understood in contrast with the idea of a growth economy. My understanding is that a steady-state economy is not based on the growth of economic activity, but the health and sustainability of economic activity. In other words, if the economy is able to support all its members then there is no need for growth. There is a kind of recycling of funds as dollars circulate through many hands.

The main criticism that I have heard of steady-state economics is that is not a dynamic system (like an ecosystem) which is able to be flexible and adapt to a constantly changing environment. If a steady-state system simply fixes the amount of resources available to the economy at some predetermined (sustainable” level then it is not in reality the kind of living system that a living economy would demand in response to the living dynamics of the ecosystems on which all life is based.

Here are my three main conclusions from this thought exercise about what is necessary to move in the direction of a living economy:

  1. Moving from narrow measures like GDP to more complex and holistic understandings of economics
  2. Basing economics on science in two ways: First, acknowledging the implications of thermodynamics on the means of production. Second, returning to an understanding of economics as a discipline concerned with understanding human behavior and interactions more than how to do business, make money or simply understand the complicated system we have developed.
  3. Find ways to experiment with other possibilities on local and regional scales, including steady-state principles and/or the idea of a living economy explored in this series. This can be done in small groups within churches or as congregations.

To expand slightly on #2, it seems that much of the energy of economists is spent on defining, studying, analyzing and understanding the complexities of the current system we have created. With complex financial instruments like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities it’s clear that just trying to understand the economic system as it exists and functions today can easily take up all the time, energy and brainpower of even the brightest economists (and it does). The problem is that this narrow approach to the field of economics is not capable of solving the economic and ecological problems that face us. Economics must return, as stated above, to its roots as a discipline that seeks to understand human behavior and interactions.

The origin of the word economics is the Greek word oikos, meaning “household”, which incidentally is also the root for the word ecology. In other words, these concepts of economics and ecology encompass all of life. Therefore if economics doesn’t account for a more holistic picture of human life and activity, particularly as it relates to the ecosystems on which we depend, then it has ceased to have an authentic relationship to its roots. Instead of segregating these fields of economy and ecology we must recognize their fundamental relatedness. With a broader scope environmentalism and business would no longer need to be mortal enemies, because both will recognize that they are kindred spirits and both are interdependent.

I tried to be as practical as I could, but this still seems somewhat abstract and theoretical. I’d appreciate any suggestions for practical application of these thoughts.