Within our indigenous community of Xoxocotla, we continue to hold the ancestral values we inherited. It never crosses our mind to leave them behind. Because in daily life we are always in contact with nature, with our lands, with our water, with our air. We live in harmony with nature because we dont like the way that modernity is advancing, destroying our territory and our environment. We believe technological modernity is better named a death threat.We still watch our children chase the butterflies and the birds. We see the harmony between the crops and the land. Above all, we respect our water and we continue to perform ceremonies that give thanks for the water.
The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.
Sustainability is one of those words in our culture that have been so thoroughly abused as to almost lose all meaning. Like the words “green”, “organic”, “natural” or “eco-”, sustainable is often appended to a wide variety of terms such as “sustainable growth”, “sustainable development”, “sustainable design”, “sustainable travel”, “sustainable style” or even “sustainable websites”. This is particularly unfortunate as it is one of the words we most desperately need to understand, if we hope to have a viable future for the continuation of our species. Sustainability, most simply, is the state in which a process or system is able to continue indefinitely without depleting the resources on which the system or process depends.
Many of our problems related to sustainability stem from some basic assumptions about who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Most of us in the Western world have been enculturated into some powerful myths that continue to prevent us from understanding sustainability and our place in the world. The myth of human difference, the myth of control, the myth of technological salvation and the myth of scarcity all conspire to keep us committed to a framework that has set us on a trajectory toward ecological disaster. In this chapter we will explore these myths and their impact on how we think about sustainability, who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Continue reading
One 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.
She 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.
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.
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.”
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.
This is a continuation of a series exploring some ideas about what a living economy based on the rules of nature might look like. David Korten 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. This post will consider the third.
The third rule is “Managed Boundaries”which recognizes the exchanges at work in the interdependence of a healthy ecosystem.
Because of the way life manages energy, each living entity must maintain an active flow of energy within itself and in continuous exchange with its neighbors. Life requires permeable managed membranes at every level of organization—the cell, the organ, the multi-celled organism, and the multi-species ecosystem—to manage these flows and as a defense against parasitic predators. If the membrane of the cell or organism is breached, the continuously flowing embodied energy that sustains its living internal structures dissipates into the surrounding environment, and it dies. It also dies, however, if the membrane becomes impermeable, thus isolating the entity and cutting off its needed energy exchange with its neighbors. Managed boundaries are not only essential to life’s good health; they are essential to its very existence.
This is exactly what the current economic system cannot account for, energy flows. We can’t see what resources are flowing out of our bioregion and into others and likewise we don’t see the flows from other bioregions into our own in the form of food, products, labor, etc. The current system masks these flows with layers of trade, corporate entities, regulation, nation-states and various governing authorities. You can look at most products and find a “Made in…” label, but how much does that really tell you?
Reorganizing our human economies to function as locally self-reliant subsystems of our local ecosystems will require segmenting the borderless global economy into a planetary system of interlinked self-reliant regional economies. This does not mean shutting out the world. Vital living economies exchange their surplus goods for the surplus goods of their neighbors and freely share ideas, technology, and culture in a spirit of mutual respect for the needs and values of all players.
When I mentioned in the last post that this might sound like a scary form of tribalism to some, this point is what I had in mind. It’s as if our imaginations are held captive to two possibilities, which ultimately keeps us captive to one possibility for organizing the world, either some form of strong central control (which includes both capitalism, marxism, socialism, communism, etc.) or isolationist groups fighting with each other in a neo-tribalism or balkanization of the world. It seems to me that the problems we face are usually created in some part by our lack of ability to get outside of the status quo and paradigm that shapes our picture of the world and how it works. This exercise in imagining a living economy is an attempt to imagine an alternative beyond the two possibilities mentioned above, strong central control or tribalism.
Korten helpfully points out that the living economy he imagines is not local and regional tribes that isolate themselves from each other (Has this ever really been the case entirely?). He isn’t ranting about dismantling the global economy. Instead he seems to envision a global economy that more closely mirrors the global ecology. There are global exchanges that take place but not the kind of top-down centrally managed enterprise that currently exists with asymmetrical power relationships between nations, peoples and sectors within economies of nations and regions.
Ecological health does not depend on global institutions to regulate it. There is no IMF that lends some energy, trees, animals or pollinators to an ecosystem to maintain its health. If a species goes extinct (whether naturally or because of human intervention), there is no way to take out a loan with structural adjustments from a hypothetical institution of ecological resources that will somehow correct the health of the ecosystem. A greater degree of autonomy for local and regional economies would be necessary to mimic the health of ecosystems.
It also means that local and regional economies would have to be primarily based on their bioregions and then negotiate the management of the boundaries of that bioregion in terms of exchange with other localities. This seems to imply that the global system which makes it normal to have high-need and short season crops, like asparagus, and crops with a very small growing region, like quinoa, out of season in regions far from the point of production may no longer be feasible. Producing non-agriculture products in overseas factories may likewise also be less desirable with a shift in focus toward regional sufficiency and dependency on the local bioregion.
Each of the elements of Korten’s suggestions for a living economy shift the primary economic focus from a system abstracted from the natural resources on which it depends to one that begins with the soil that sustains us and only gradually, and in a limited way, expands from there. The question that looms over the act of imagining such a system is how in the world we could ever get there from here. I hope to explore some thoughts about that question in the final post in this series.