Saturday, November 26, 2011

Time, Money, and the “$50 Tomato”

At the end of last summer a friend of mine was telling me about a client of his gardening business who said at one point in the price negotiations, “I hope you’re not going to sell me a $50 tomato.”

The reference, I learned later, was to a book called The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander.  I haven’t read the book, but the reputed high costs of gardening are second only to “I’d love to garden but I haven’t got the time” on the list of reasons people don’t grow their own food.  Another close contender near the top of the list is something that usually comes out as, “I kill whatever I try to grow.”

Each of these arguments has merit, but only as symptoms of the underlying conditions in which they are made.  It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes a worldview and the infrastructure it generates to validate an argument.  For some time now, I’ve been trying to understand a world where it makes no sense to grow food.

My own reflections on the topic started one day when I bought a bunch of radishes at the supermarket.  Radishes, while not exactly a staple food, are arguably one of the easier food plants to grow for most people and in fact are the first crop I was successful with as a child gardener.  As an adult when I looked at the cost and the amount of pre-tax income I’d have to earn to buy the radishes, converted to time, I wondered why I would ever bother growing them.  It made no sense economically: end of story.  Plus, what if I do invest the time and effort, and fail? And that’s where gardening stops for many, many people.

But even then, I felt there was actually more to the story.  And no, I’m not going to write at length on the intrinsic value of having intimate relationships with one’s food plants, a topic I’ve explored elsewhere.  Nor is it my intent to analyze the perversity of market pricing that externalizes costs resulting from fossil fuel use, fertilizer and pesticide runoff, or the abusive working conditions of farm laborers, though this is also worthy of consideration and an important part of the picture.  Instead, what I feel is most important here is the personal time and money equation that results in part through the mechanism of perverse pricing.  It’s on this level that people’s decisions get made.  This is basically how we got to a place where it makes no sense to grow food, or where growing food came to be seen as a kind of luxury activity for the privileged.

Yet the time/money equation that had me pondering my purchase of commercial radishes is changing for many people, and with it the decisions they are making.  My view of the fundamental shift we have seen in the last few years here in the USA is that we are changing from a people who on aggregate had more money than time to a people who on aggregate have more time than money.  When a person has disposable income but little free time, this puts a premium on convenience and speed.  Here in the “developed” world, what this means is that not only do we feel there no time to grow, thresh, mill, and bake grain into bread, we often don’t feel we have time to make our own sandwiches or even to get out of our cars to get them from those who make them for us. 

No doubt there is an economy of scale in operation that makes the livelihood of, for example, a baker viable under fairly broad market conditions.  But let’s be clear about this: bread in itself is a ready-to-eat convenience food, and occupies a place along with butchered meat and apples that are grown and bagged by others on the time vs. money continuum.  

I started seeing the basic economic paradigm shift – from more money than time to more time than money – during the first stage of the most recent economic downturn in 2008-09 when in many instances one or both parents in two-income families lost a job, significantly affecting the market for child day care.  Among the home-based industries that have fallen prey to market forces, childcare is quite a big canary in the contemporary economic coal mine.  It is a prime indicator of the personal time/money decision making process, and little wonder.  Even with the increased “child care productivity” leveraged by stratified age groupings and non-biological adult-to-child ratios, when there’s no money to pay for it and a parent out of work at home, the economic incentive to outsource one’s childrearing with curb-service daycare simply evaporates.

There are many, many aspects of life that change as people get pushed out of the mainstream economy with its productivity treadmill, and families find themselves possessed of relatively more time and less money.  One of the changes is that growing food starts making sense again, if one can find a place to do it. Effective resource stewardship is another aspect.  Call me frugal, but it seems pretty wasteful to buy special bags so that yard leaves can be hauled away in the fall and then buy bagged compost trucked in from elsewhere in the spring. Left alone, the leaves will turn into compost with very little coaxing.  But this presumes a couple things: time and the willingness to use it.  The “$50 tomato” comes down in price very quickly when time is used to grow plants from seed, when developing friendships bring tools and know-how, when a little muscle and a lot of patience turn waste into compost, and, in general when human energy and clever management of time and resources supplant a product-centered, money-driven approach to problem solving.

Another change is, presuming that with less money one can still locate something to eat and strategize a way to stay out of the rain (I’m not suggesting one could live with no money at all), there’s time for the valuable work of connecting with others and educating one’s self on issues, if one has the inclination.  As we’ve seen recently, one might just set up a tent in a park on Wall Street and start asking important questions and demanding real answers from those who work and live in the towers overhead.  Yes, and I’m sure it isn’t lost on those looking down at the colorful tents and personalities that there are important political dimensions to this social shift that goes by the name of unemployment.  After all, to employ is to use.  Unemployed, unused people can definitely find ways of making themselves useful.  Unused people have time to protest, to organize, and to do all kinds of interesting things.

In day-to-day living, the shift to more time than money could mean it makes sense to turn flour into bread, cook for big groups, collectivize living and transportation arrangements, care for one’s own and other people’s children, share, trade, and barter for tools, skills, and basic necessities, read and play instruments rather than pay for entertainment, and talk with the neighbors.

For every one of these activities, the mainstream economy has a product or service that offers a shortcut that costs money.  But if we really look at carpooling, for example, what we’re seeing is people willing to give up a bit of convenience and use a little extra time to save money.  Somewhere another car sits empty to the benefit of its owner, the air we breathe, and the global climate, and to the detriment of the national GDP, which is as much a measurement of waste as of wealth in a society where the two are easily confused.

The irony is, sometimes the products and services being marketed aren’t even much of a shortcut.  Once in the thrall of a money- and product-centered mindset, we will sometimes even endure inconvenience and lower quality to participate in the illusion that the more we pay the more it’s worth, and that when money changes hands something intrinsically good is happening – the shopping culture.  And, while a lot of what we buy is needless, it seems to me that even with necessities like food, it really doesn’t take much more effort to, say, make a better, cheaper, and healthier sandwich at home than run out to buy one because one “deserves a break today.”  Granted, I sometimes gratefully take a cup of coffee from a friendly face at a cafe, but honestly, I can always brew myself a superior and cheaper cup than I can buy.  The “$50 Tomato” has its counterparts in many formerly free or inexpensive but lovely things that emerge from the market as grotesque extravagances like $3.75 cups of coffee.

In the end, an important piece of my hope for the future is that productive people are productive people, and will find ways to use time to add value to their lives directly when sidelined by the mainstream economy’s avenues for value creation.  Spending time instead of money when money is short makes sense, and as we awaken from the idolatry of commerce I see a strong possibility that Americans will paradoxically find themselves possessed of more entrepreneurial drive than ever. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

From Crushing Distance to Opening Space: A Meditation on Speed and Local Consciousness

I drove south on Interstate 75 after dinner last night to help a friend with yard work some 29 miles from my home. We’re in the last days of August here in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and that only gave us a couple hours of useful daylight. However, that was no problem. With a relatively small amount of gasoline, I could use my car to cover that distance in a 40-minute drive, accomplish the tasks, and be home before my wife had fallen asleep.

But as the pavement blurred under my tires and the soft August air howled with hurricane force on the other side of the auto glass, this is the thought that occurred to me: I’m crushing distance with fossil fuel. I was suddenly filled with a sense of awe at what was really going on there, the terrific forces and amazing engineering involved in the feat, and both the exhilaration and the violent hubris of it. I’ve heard about longtime prisoners newly released, and how as car passengers they will sometimes grab the dashboard in a reflexive panic as the vehicle accelerates and the world warps around them with increasing velocity. For most of us, of course, it’s rather mundane. We forget, until we gawk at a twisted heap of metal in the ditch, what it is we’re really doing when we drive. And even then, are we really remembering, or do we just momentarily go dumb as the gears of cognitive dissonance grind in our heads?

With this revelation still fresh in my mind, and so many people in the Peak Oil / Climate Change / Transition community beating the drum of “relocalization,” I think it’s time to review the basics if we are really to awaken from the fossil fuel dream. Some friends and I were joking recently about people jetting in from all over the country to attend a relocalization conference, but underneath the humor is something even more worthy of our attention.

As we approach highway speeds in a motor vehicle, the terrain thus covered flattens out. This flattening happens in several ways, all of which are related in the subjective experience of speed. For one, the physical dimensionality of space itself is squished. The driver’s focus narrows down to a kind of tunnel vision, and the surrounding landscape becomes, in effect, the wall of the tunnel on which play images of things that progressively lose their reality in the mind of the speedy one. Second, the significance of our surroundings undergoes a parallel loss of depth as actual landscape features become mere symbols. Physical objects are actually always rich in meaning, but how could one explore that when one is passing them by at such a clip? With these two forces of compression at work, the net effect is that by crushing distance with fossil fuels, we flatten our experience of inhabiting space.

I am certain there are those who would deny this. There are also those who still argue for the educational value of television. Big picture, though, what we see in societies now several generations into watching screens is that the medium is indeed the message, and it is a physically pacifying one, incompatible in a half-dozen or more important ways with a healthy society. McLuhan’s contribution to discourse on communications media applies also to our various mediums of conveyance; the medium is the message not only for TV’s, but cars and jet aircraft as well.

Now, it’s true that we can open and experience space, and the spacious generosity of significances that flow from the living world, and still drive cars. Such reasoning does little to persuade me that the broad effects I’m seeing are not real. It’s a bit like climate change deniers who take a particular cold winter’s day as refutation of global warming. I would argue that on aggregate, the tradeoff of becoming a society inured to crushing distance with speed is a relentless pressure that flattens human experience in all its dimensions.

The grand experiment in overcoming the tyranny of locality by progressively extending our mobility with motors has landed us in but another kind of provincialism, with new fetters to replace the old, and feelings not of freedom but of frustration, servitude, impatience, and captivity seeming to predominate among motorists. And we don’t need to look to the social stratification and physical impediments that result from our collective motor mania as described by Ivan Illich to reach the conclusion that these things no longer serve their intended purposes, although these observations are persuasive enough. Nor do we have to look to the homogenization of the constructed landscape, as many other observers have noted, to conclude that for all our moving about, we Americans, in particular, seem not to wish to really go anywhere new, preferring the same predictable fast food places, stores, and motels from coast to coast.

But with these contributions to the discussion already logged and accounted for, I would narrow the focus to emphasize this: We do not really cease being drivers when we step from our vehicles. Like television, automobile travel strengthens some of the more pernicious habits of the egoic mind: positioning self as separate from the living environment, seeking to control experience by external means, and generally in many ways reaching for levers, pushing buttons, and forever seeking control. Bottom line: motor travel is addictive, and the effects of the addiction are likely to persist even if we can no longer afford to drive.

Assuming this is true, I would go further and suggest that consciousness shaped by the influence of speed may have difficulty with the very capacity that is most needful in relocalization: the ability to open space, or to put it another way, the ability to open to space, and thus actually inhabit a locality. Flatness becomes a habit of the mind, and so in every way we careen helplessly from image to image and word to word. The world becomes a magazine rack.

For Exhibit A, consider what passes for landscaping in car-centered, suburban USA: the flat expanses of green lawns extending from the street to the foundation plantings of geometrically-trimmed shrubbery, the lollipop trees set off by themselves. What is this, if not a place converted into a symbol, a symbol that moreover always seems to hover on the brink of having the last of its meaning wiped away like a film, leaving nothing at all? No wonder such places are seldom occupied by people – they are practically meaningless, flat, and devoid of experiential content. However, I suppose such designs do have the merit of offering no distractions for drivers whose endless forward plunge carries them by.

In communities with sidewalks and where pedestrian traffic is significant, by contrast, my experience is that the landscaping is almost always richer, more varied, more interesting, and more idiosyncratic in design. Space opens up in such places, and we are invited to slow down even further to appreciate it, thus coaxing yet more opening from it as we do, since as we open, things indeed open up to us. People occupy such spaces because they have meaning, and as they occupy those spaces, dimensions of significance, depths of feeling, and the richness of the physical environment grow in unison, encouraging human occupation, shared experiences, and growth.

All of which is to say something you might hear in any seminar on developing consciousness, whether the topic is Zen meditation, high-level business management, or tantric sex: slowing down matters.

Of course, it is also a little scary for many people to slow down enough to actually occupy and open space, which is perhaps an unacknowledged reason for the challenge of getting relocalizing efforts started while the current paradigm persists. One of the dimensions of experience that suffers in this cultural milieu is that of feeling and emotional depth; to slow down is to reacquaint one’s self with it. I take some comfort, however, in the knowledge that the process of rediscovering space can happen fairly quickly when circumstances slow us down, and what we will find there is likely something many people been feeling the absence of in their experience.

I used to drive a ’74 Volvo with then-new fuel injection technology, and on hot summer days sometimes the car would stall I would have to raise the hood to let the system cool off for a while before I could be on my way again. This happened once on I-94 and the rusty old vehicle happened to roll to a stop just outside my old hometown near a creek. Seeking refuge from the noise and heat of the expressway, I clambered down the embankment some distance away, sat down in the shade and cool soft grasses near the little watercourse, and looked up to see a kingfisher light upon a branch over the creek just overhead. I’d never seen one before. Although I was on my way to the wedding of a childhood friend, more than thirty years later that remains the most memorable event of the day.

So, it’s quite possible for space to start opening up for us, and very quickly, once we stop crushing distances with fuel. And fortunately, we weren’t born this way, so the path to our rehabilitation may be as simple as remembering. Children instinctively know how to open up and occupy space. As parents, we fight it, of course. Mystified by speed, our heads spinning like the wheels so often turning beneath us, we wonder why our children are so difficult to manage when they’re strapped into the car and the world goes by in an inaccessible blur. It really should be kind of obvious: as recent arrivals, children live to occupy and open space, and everything about the experience of motor travel militates against it. That the recent solution to this problem is another bad idea – mounting DVD players in the back seat to pacify the children and distract their minds – simply shows how insane our culture has become.

I have a photograph of my older daughter and niece in our back yard at about age 7. They are peering out from under a forsythia bush whose overgrown and arching branches conceal a hiding place they’ve outfitted with a kitchen and a bedroom, all made from sticks, leaves, and other yard debris, artfully arranged. The little girls had made a world in there—rich in meaning, full of feeling, and open to endless possibility. To the relocalization movement I offer this as an inspiration and a model. We don’t need to fly to a conference or drive ourselves crazy, we just need to slow down and play in our back yards.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reskilling the Peak Oil Conversation

Talk, they say, is cheap. But not not only does this leave my phone bill unexplained, it simply isn’t true. People pay to talk and they pay to listen, and even if money is not involved in the transaction, it takes considerable effort to do either of these things.

What’s worth talking about, though? That’s the real question.

Last weekend hurricane Irene deluged the East Coast of the United States with unimaginable amounts of rain in many places, the storm killing at least a couple dozen people, cutting off power to millions, turning roads into rivers and submerging cities under feet of water. Opening my Yahoo home page, this news competed with a story same size clickable picture of entertainer Beyoncé showing off her “baby bump” at a recent celebrity event.

Which is important? I get to choose.

As for me, I’d been following the Irene story since she was a nameless patch of clouds far beyond the horizon in the equatorial Atlantic. Yes, I know the weather is an old man’s sport, but there are likewise those who have been watching peak oil gather, organize, and strengthen as a force to contend with since it was also far beyond the horizon of public awareness.

What puzzles me is how even now, as the economic skies darken, the wind rises, and the surf of change gets rough and dangerous, those of us pointing out to sea and describing the nature and likely effects of the approaching storm are still competing head to head with stories about, for example, the lifestyle choices and fashions of rich people whom we not know.

Is peak oil an old man’s sport, too, or not to limit it is it just an unpleasant topic for people of any age or gender to irritate others with?  Or is it something more serious, like perhaps the duty of those who see a real danger to share what we can, when we can, however we can, and with whoever will listen?

My sense is, it falls into the latter category. But among those who haven’t missed a meal lately, and even among those who have missed, at least, a mortgage payment, the story still isn’t getting much traction. For a long time now, this has frustrated and perplexed me.

Granted, it’s hard to connect the dots between your son or daughter’s overseas tour in the US military, the price of gasoline, the budget brouhaha, and your recent pink slip. But there’s a reason for that. The problem, as I see it, is that far too many of us have ceded our responsibility as speakers. We’re letting the media be both the starting and ending point of too many conversations, when what’s needed is for us to make the leap into generating our own conversations in our own communities about things that really matter, peak oil among them.

And yes, many of these conversations will fall flat. At least here in the US, where the scope of public discourse has been almost entirely circumscribed by our willing complicity with corporate media, the very concept of peak oil seems outlandish and absurd. Even fairly intelligent people I’ve spoken with take the tautological position that if Peak Oil were real, more people would be talking about it, and since people aren’t talking about it, it must not be real.

That pretty much kills the conversation right there, but we must not give up.

The day before Irene arrived it was pleasant in North Carolina and the winds were picking up – nothing unusual. Then the storm came, as forecast, tracking very close to the path predicted by the weather geeks with their computer models. People died. Yet, and this is the real point here, human suffering and loss in general were undoubtedly less, and probably a lot less, simply because people had started talking about the storm beforehand. And when enough people start talking, talk leads to action.

This is why I’m encouraging those who tell me, for example, that they don’t know how to make goat cheese, or sew a quilt, plant a garden, or do any of the things people in the Transition movement commonly think of as “reskilling” to go ahead and display a Green Hand sign anyway. Particularly now, when for all my efforts there are just a few actual Green Hand signs posted on trees and fence posts in the world, what’s true is that the first and probably most important contribution your sign will make in your community is a conversation about its very significance.

That’s perfectly okay, because in the end talk isn’t cheap; it’s a priceless gift. Let’s share this gift with one another and put it to good use.

For more information on the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative, visit:

Have you posted a Green Hand sign? Please send a photo and/or story to so I can share it with others!

Anyone in SE Michigan who would like to host a Green Hand Sign Painting Workshop, please email Clifford at

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Inner Path to Permaculture

Here as I begin my second paper of the day for a permaculture class I am taking at a Oakland University, I am feeling a bit of the strain imposed by the compressed summer semester schedule as we tackle the multidimensionality of permaculture as a design science. Yet what better time to learn about this subject than during summertime, when we can actually observe and feel the rhythm of natural systems at their most active?

In some ways, I’m grateful. The pressure of the looming end of class is motivating, and as we head into the month of August I often feel an uptick in physical energy as the days grow shorter. Perhaps in this people are no different than squirrels busily fattening up on summer bounty and stashing away the abundance of autumn seeds. Maybe I’m on the same page as my garden leeks, which right about now usually seem to suddenly realize it’s time to get busy and grow after having apparently estivated through much of the summer. We humans have historically worked extra long days to bring in the fall harvest. In the case of my permaculture class, of course, the harvest I busy myself with is a greatly enhanced vision for how to co-creatively participate in the planet’s living systems.

Still, I also feel poignantly the many opportunities I have not been able to adequately capitalize upon. On our tour of the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm, for example, I found myself lagging behind the group as we moved from feature to feature, at one point noticing a classmate lagging also, perhaps as caught up as I was in the little whirlpools of fascination that hide everywhere, getting bigger the longer one participates in them. As a gardener, I am certain I’ve learned as much by absent-mindedly ambling about as by disciplined study. Sitting down in the squash patch or watching the hogs for a half hour might have been an educational experience, but there wasn’t time.

This brings me to a number of thoughts about the deeper aspects of permaculture as a personal journey. I am currently in the last few pages of Sam Keen’s book, A Passionate Life. Keen’s basic idea in my reading is that humanity is in the midst of an erotic crisis, and the conflation of the erotic and the sexual is but one of the many symptoms of a broader cultural crisis. Keen goes back to the original meaning of eros, which to the Greeks was understood as "the prime mover of stars and acorns and the affairs of men." (p. 26)

In other words, eros moves everything, which explains why people, squirrels and leeks all tend to step it up a notch in the fall. However, by relegating our conception of the erotic only to what happens in our bedrooms, there is a tendency in our culture not to see how this same forward-leaning impulse of life moves also in our thoughts and feelings and can be tapped into to build homes, communities, and workplaces. It is easy to forget, in a culture such as the one that currently predominates, how this thing that moves us, call it what you will, also connects us to everything else that moves.

Instead, we separate, and our inner schisms ultimately manifest as an extreme capacity to compartmentalize our lives that is subsequently reflected by the structures and systems we design. Modern agricultural practices show some of the more grisly outcomes: the reproductive power of plants and animals is here commandeered and dominated in a way that would probably make even a diehard BDSM aficionado blush. In our fields, we destroy fertility. I suggest we do so because we have not adequately cared for our own, and more broadly for that thing now beyond the pale of science—perhaps we should just call it life.

Keen writes, "First love and sex, like value and fact and mind and matter, were separated. Love became a private, subjective emotion, a way of feeling about another person. Its cognitive status was denied; it was not considered a way of knowing. Modern philosophies of science rejected as sentimental nonsense Augustine’s conclusion that we can only know what we love." (p.15) Yes, that sounds like science, doesn’t it? Get rid of that fluffy-headed "love" stuff!

But we see where that takes us, right? It brings us exactly to where we are. There are those who would say that it is naive to include feelings in our ways of knowing, or deny even the possibility of connecting with the pulse of life that moves us. Some look at the state of the sciences and say and that what is needed to rectify the absence of these inner connections is a stronger code of ethics. From my perspective, there is no evidence to support the idea that external measures will support life-enhancing action in the field when the inner connections to life are lacking.

Later in the book, Keen elaborates on how we treat the earth precisely as we treat our bodies. This should come as no surprise, because the two are one and the same. The junkie and the industrialist, both under their own kinds of anesthesia, become addicted to spilling toxic substances into living streams, be they blood vessels or rivers, and the CAFO operator is in every sense, dangerously perverted.

In a way, it’s kind of an irony (and perhaps a great moral victory!) to even study permaculture, which seeks to remedy these and other problems, in a college biology department, given the extent to which science has become the handmaiden of industry and a tool for the abstract, symbol-driven world of profit expressed as monetary gain. Take a look at the people who really care about the practice of permaculture and you will see that it’s about making connections, and the deeper motives of these people must align with those of the natural systems in which they are embedded. Thus - and this is really the main insight I’m offering here - there is an important axis of permaculture practice that intersects with the art and science of arranging biological and other elements on the tableau of a given piece of land, and this other axis goes straight to the living heart of the designer.

This is hinted at when we look at the importance, for example, of the principle of observation in the permaculture design process. But what moves the designer’s eyes? What moves our thoughts, and feelings, and what brings forth remembrances that lead to sudden conceptions, ideas, and the creative upwelling of inspiration? In a very real sense, our ideas spring from the soil of our minds as the flora and fauna of that inner terrain. "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," as Dylan Thomas wrote—that too drives us.

So this is not a new idea; it’s been said and known forever, but to merely file away expressions such as we find in Thomas’s famous poem as if they were nothing more than a particular kind of intellectual trope is to entirely miss the point. What is necesary is to make that connection now, now, now, in our actual, subjective, lived experience.

This is why it’s so important when possible to follow those "little whirlpools of fascination," even if it takes a bit of time. Through them, the world looks into us as lovers, touches and dialogs with us, and moves us to its side. When we feel the ancient depth and urgency in the rise and fall of each breath that we take as part of this earth, we will know ourselves and thus also the planetary system that meets and inspires us, breath by breath, with gifts and passion.

A friend of mine once quoted, "I am the Earth walking," and to that I add we must also be Earth’s thought and feeling. This is the consciousness of unity, and as a connecting science, the practice of permaculture – which really means the creation of a sustainable, living culture for everyone – will require nothing less.

Recommended Permaculture Resources:

Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway
Perfect for home gardeners interested in applying permaculture concepts.
Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, by Bill Mollison
A compendious investment, a classic of permaculture practice.
Edible Forest Gardens (Vols 1 & 2) by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier
Permaculture theory and design made into a step-by-step process. Very comprehensive.

also visit:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Intimacy of Food Relationships

Food is central to preparations for post-Peak Oil Transition, and much attention has been focused on developing local food systems that require fewer fossil fuel inputs to enhance food security while supporting local economic relationships.  However, the rapid growth in the number of US farmer’s markets in the last two decades, rising from 1755 in 1994 to 6132 listed on the National Directory of Farmers Markets in 2010(1) was certainly not driven by public concern about the effect of Peak Oil on the availability and affordability of food.  I suspect this phenomenon was driven instead by something else: quality.  Moreover, as a longtime farmer’s market aficionado, I don’t think I’m speculating too wildly to suggest that something besides the quality of the food itself is moving people to these local markets, although this is certainly one factor.  Just as important, my sense is that people want relationships connected with their experience of food.

This should come as no surprise.  Though we seldom think of it as such, food is a remarkably intimate human experience. When we eat, we are taking something into our bodies—what’s more intimate than that?  Sex, perhaps? 

The fact that we have to look to sex to find something comparable to the intimacy of food brings up an important point: food without relationship, like sex without relationship, is fundamentally less satisfying, and probably also less healthy for both individuals and society.  To put it in positive terms: food is best enjoyed in a web of quality relationships, starting with the relationship between growers and soil and extending to all the people and other organisms involved, from production to consumption.

When we look at modern industrial agriculture, however, what we see are breaks in this web of relationships at every stage of the process.  Waiting in the drive-through lane at a fast food restaurant brings all these levels of disconnection into sharp focus.  I have no idea of where the grain is grown, under what conditions the animals were raised, how they were handled, who picked the produce and under what conditions they live, who prepared the food, what engineering processes the food has been subjected to, what it really contains, or where it has been. I know nothing, except that there’s something more or less edible in the bag, plus whatever the advertising has told me about it. 

As we have identified ourselves as “consumers,” we have become inured to this system, but I sense that deep inside many people are feeling that something about this isn’t quite right.  Like anonymous sex, anonymous food starts to feel less satisfying and less nourishing to our subjective experience of it, and most likely to the body also.  Given the inner relationship between our feeling states and the biochemicals involved in successful digestion and assimilation of nutrients, it may turn out that these feelings are worth paying attention to and acting on.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: We’re people.  So, we want there to be actual people connected with our food-as-intimate-physical-experience, people with faces and names, people we can get to know.  And also because we are people, we want places to associate with food—not just a particular aisle in the grocery store or a familiar logo on a sign, but a community, as in the farmer’s market, or, as in the case of many CSA’s, a real farm we visit or at least could conceivably visit, or perhaps even our very own and other people's gardens and kitchens.

There are many ways to start rebuilding one’s food relationships, but most of them that I’ve seen tend to be local in their orientation.  The simplest is to cook more of our own foods from basic ingredients and then share the results.  Even more basic is to plant something we plan to eat.  Growing and/or gathering plants and raising and/or hunting animals are about the most direct relationships we can have with food, and my sense is that the caring and appreciation that goes into the maintenance of these relationships will ultimately show up in the harvest.  Growing our own food nurtures the most primary relationships involved, which span many species and encompass all the manifold layers of a given location. We can also begin to deepen both human and plant relationships by seed saving and the sharing of plant stock, and this opens a whole new level of relatedness and community.

Many people feel overwhelmed as so many systems seem to strain and teeter toward chaos at once.  But the flipside to the feeling of overwhelm of systemic chaos is that, because so many things are broken, there are many opportunities for healing the broken food relationships now common in our experience of nourishing ourselves. Each break in the food relationship web is a point of entrance for significant participation.  We can start right where we are, with our current skill sets, and we can start today.

So in practical terms, even if a person has no interest in tending the soil or caring for animals as a way of developing these primary food relationships, there are many other relationships that can be nurtured.  One could, for example, launch one’s own local farmer’s market, participate in the organizing of one that already exists, or simply shop there.  Alternatively or in addition, one can increase the number of self-prepared meals in one’s household, or even open a restaurant featuring locally-sourced menu items.  Indeed, something as simple as selecting a locally-raised menu item while dining at a local restaurant is a kind of participation that nurtures important relationships.

To give another example, whether one starts a CSA or Farmer's Market, participates in one, or creates an online resource to help people connect with one, one is helping to mend and strengthen the web of food relationships that feed us in all the ways we need to be fed.  I recently attended a community local food breakfast featuring live music.  My feeling, given the ambience of the total experience of dining, was that those musicians were supporting local food and the local food community in a significant way.

What I’ve found is that real participation of any kind is a powerful remedy for the infantile “consumer” mindset and the sense of powerlessness that inevitably follows from it.  By participating in one’s food relationships, food becomes less anonymous, more real, and more satisfying.  The relationships we create through engagement and participation are a fundamental part of the local food recipe, making it nourishing and connecting in this intimate sphere of life.

(1) see:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Leaving the Casino

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, and my experience of gambling casinos is limited to a short visit to a modestly sized casino in Windsor, Ontario. The experience was, however, quite  memorable.  I went in prepared to lose $100 just to have the experience of gambling in a casino.  Surprisingly, I ended up some $121 and change to the good.  But leaving before losing wasn’t the only lesson.  The enlightening moment was walking out the doors of the casino and noticing the difference as the summer glare and the wave of hot humidity hit me in the face and everything shone brilliantly in the sunlight of the northern summer. 

Many observers have pointed out that the artificially illuminated 24-hour world of casinos seems timeless.  What I noticed was that the flashing of the lights brought attention to the slots and the overhead lighting brought the other gaming tables into focus.  Everything else was in a kind of twilight, and the message was clear: What’s important is where the light is.  Of course, in these windowless rooms, the only vote as to what’s important came from those who designed the environment.  The generous impulses of the sun were excluded.  Sunshine is, perhaps, too egalitarian in its deployment for the designers of the casino, playing no favorites by shining on everything alike.

So, there’s a moment of disorientation on leaving the casino environment, and especially on such a blue-sky afternoon in July here in North America, when the contrast between the cave of the casino and the light of day seemed particularly strong.  After only a couple hours in the tight focus and eternal twilight of the casino, jazzed as I was on the juice of momentary gains and losses, natural light and the vivid expansiveness of external reality seemed strange.  Further, after looking at emotionally charged numbers and symbols for a time, encountering outdoors the plain inscrutability of everything, everything, everything . . . right down to the stones shining with traffic wear through their encasement in asphalt, was in a way appalling: What does it all mean?  It means nothing.  I cannot “read” it.  This is no game.  And without the game, there is no meaning.

No wonder people can get used to being in casinos.  They are womblike in their dark constancy, and simultaneously dreamy and intense in their abstractions and symbolism.  The spinning wheels, shuffling cards and rolling dice are their eternally recombining DNA.

People are wonderfully adept at hypnosis via their own abstract dreams and symbol systems.  Seeing this, I work with the assumption that waking up to Peak Oil and preparing for Transition is just a special case of awakening in general, and that waking up requires really looking at the symbols we’ve created and how we relate to them.  The casino is a creation of the mind.  With casinos as with the rest of modern infrastructure, the power of fossil fuels has been applied to the manifestation of an abstract dream, just as the energy available in every previous society has been applied to the creation of symbol systems and their related artifacts--- in a word, culture.  What makes fossil fuels special in a historical sense is that their concentrated energy has allowed for an unprecedentedly rapid expansion of these abstract symbol systems and artifacts, to the point that many people in Western society are predominantly occupied with the maintenance of abstract sign systems and held firmly in their thrall.  Somewhere, it is true, ore is mined, and somewhere the mechanized combines thresh the grain that keeps us going, but these are not immediately present in the lives of many people I know, and even then often seem to become just another layer of abstraction and dream projected upon the body of the earth.  Pork bellies perhaps represent a mortgage payment for the farmer, and for the commodity broker they are even more abstracted as they are traded on paper or in pixilated bytes. 

So the experience of the casino is useful because it epitomizes the human capacity to get lost in our own abstractions and can help us discern what’s going on as this takes place.  We look and we see money changing among nervous hands, all right, but strangely, no work is being accomplished and it is dissociated from external realities to remarkable degree.  Perhaps this is why, for most of the history of the United States, gambling was outlawed as a dangerous and socially corrosive vice.

But there is a yet deeper level on which casinos provide an illuminating glimpse into the challenges of waking up within our entrenched and often tyrannical systems of signs, which is one way of describing the challenge of responding effectively to Peak Oil and Climate Change.  As a mental creation, the casino can also be likened to the mind itself.  While there is creativity and beauty in how our dreams can be projected outwardly to shape our feelings and the world, there is also an awful tendency for humans to be trapped within their symbol systems.  At my blackjack table, as the cards fell and the $5 chips appeared and disappeared, what mattered to all present was the next card, and the next, and the next to fall.  The logic and energy of the symbols within the construct of the game compelled the players to stay, and in fact to stay overlong, while the mathematics intrinsic to the system ensured that on the whole they would lose.  

And here’s the big question that occupies me today: how is sitting at a gaming table any different than when, in our ordinary awareness, we remain ensconced in a habitual series of thoughts? Thoughts have their own internal logic, their own compelling rhythm of signs, and in daily life they tend to follow, for the most part, as card follows card from the familiar deck.  It’s rare, in our thoughts, to turn up the mental equivalent of the Jack of Nasturtiums, or anything else that doesn’t fit into our established patterns.  And, just as with the blackjack table, there is a very strong tendency to stick with our mental games even when their intrinsic structure and logic mean we will come out the loser. 

The fact that this happens in poeple as individuals helps to understand how it can happen in groups. In Jared Diamond’s description of the Easter Islanders in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, the author vividly describes how an entire society can be undone when its abstract dreams collide with the systems within which they are embedded.  Diamond describes the enormous energy and resources devoted in that island’s culture to the quarrying, transport, and erection of their famously gigantic stone statues.  Others have written about it also, wondering what might have been going through the minds of the people who cut Easter’s last trees in this pursuit, thus also cutting off the means to leave the island via the oceangoing canoes that brought them there. 

While the social significance of the statues is still a matter of conjecture, what is clear is that the people did not find the capacity to collectively get up from the blackjack table of culturally determined significances before they bankrupted their environment and endured devastating losses.  And before we are quick to judge them, try, for example, getting by as a pedestrian in modern American infrastructure, or to imagine living without the gigantic corporations that have insinuated themselves into every aspect of our lives.  In most places in the United States, the inner logic of the dream we’ve projected onto the landscape compels us to continue to move 2000 pounds of glass and metal wherever we travel, even as we go broke doing so, even as the environment is paved over and polluted and our communities disintegrate.  The call then goes out to bring gas prices down; within the game we’re playing, that seems the only desireable option. 

Likewise, people in our culture have invested their lives in corporate success through their careers, retirement plans, and general participation in the money economy, and we look daily to these abstract entities to sustain us with the resources they have commandeered through symbol manipulation or brute force, much as the social structure on Easter demanded participation to build ever larger and more numerous statues.  In time, however, I am guessing that people will look back and wonder at the significance of our automobiles and corporations, just as explorers and archeologists wonder today about those statues on that desolated island.  And they may ask: Why did those people drag those things around so long?  Couldn’t they see the staggering losses mounting all around them?

Being human, we’re going to create signs and significances; that’s a given. We’re going to dreamily think and thoughtfully dream, project our dreams onto the world, be at times delighted by and at other times undone by them, and then, if we will, wake up to think and dream again.  Personally, I like the Green Hand and what it has come to represent to me, but there are many many ways of stepping into a new game and finding a new system, perhaps more in harmony with the larger systems in which we are embedded.  Maybe you can try putting your hand out, too.  

I’ll see you outside; I believe the sun is shining!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Growing Berries and Cultivating Abundant Relationships

A fine drizzly rain was falling this morning when a neighbor couple came over to help me dig a dozen raspberry canes out of our garden.  Our raspberry patch started with only five canes a few years ago and they are now uncountable.  They propagated quickly through our sandy soil covered with a thick layer of mulch I'd obtained by flagging down a truck filled with wood chips after utility contractors came through to clear tree limbs from the power lines.

This is it; this is how the Green Hand Initiative works for me.  When the couple arrived they saw the results I’d obtained with the raspberry plants, and how the free mulch had encouraged their abundant multiplication.  They also got a lot of strong plant stock for free, and I shared information on how to transplant them and what to expect when moving the canes after they had already leafed out.  Plus, they had a up-close view of how I garden generally, and I cut them a couple heads of lettuce.  We probably have more than we can eat this spring.

For me, the first practical benefit was that removing the raspberry plants cleared a pathway connecting two garden sections that had gotten nearly impassable because of the thorny canes.  As a side effect, I’m also willing to guess that through this interaction also I earned some gardening “garden cred” (“street cred” hardly makes sense in this context), and my experience is that this often leads to some paid gardening work, which can be very satisfying.  Plus, later this summer when the strawberries take a turn expressing their overspreading exuberance, maybe I’ll have some folks to whom I will be able to give them so I won’t have to fill a wheelbarrow and compost viable plants just to keep the size of the strawberry patch in check, as I did a couple years ago.

A deeper, systemic benefit to me is that now I have neighbors with more food production going on in their yards.  Personally, I would rather not be the only one around here growing food.  The more growers, the better. 

There are a number of clear benefits of living in a community of growers rather than as a lone nut devoted to helping the planet to transform dirt and waste into food.  What I’ve found over the years is that the most successful gardeners are those who cultivate their human relationships with the same enthusiasm that they cultivate their plants.  The way botanical abundance keeps expanding, it takes an expanding network just to keep up with it!  By building a gardening network, I’ve both given and received many new plants, and had plenty of enjoyable interactions such as this morning’s misty homage to the raspberry . . . and indeed it was a great day for transplanting here.  If you’re going to have the audacity to move bareroot plants in full leaf, conditions could not have been better than the misty drizzle alternating with downpours we had in SE Michigan today.

But finally, and probably most importantly, there was a wonderful feeling of shared gratitude in the whole interaction, and I could feel added depth in the relationship I already had with this couple.  Such sweetness!

How easy all of this is, how natural, and how mutually beneficial.  It’s relationship-guided and natural-process-driven, so everyone comes out the winner.  Sometime soon, I am expecting another neighborhood couple to visit who also recently expressed interest in growing their own raspberries, and I’ll be happy to share more.  But if ever such interest ever exceeds my supply or my willingness to share (which it never has), I’ll just tell people to wait until next year.  No biggie.  It’s free, after all, a true gift, and practically nobody will complain about a gift, even one in the future.

I’m hoping this story inspires others to design their participation in the Green Hand Initiative in ways that work for them.  I can easily imagine a person with a lot of tomatoes to preserve teaching canning procedures to a much-appreciated friendly neighborhood helper who, in addition to the skills, might also be lucky enough to take a few quarts of tomatoes home to be enjoyed like bottled sunshine some January evening.  In my household we have done something similar for years with our annual pesto freezing parties.  It’s amazing how many basil leaves can get plucked and washed after some wine has been uncorked, and with the promise of a great meal following the effort. 

It was also interesting to observe the role my Green Hand sign played in today’s sharing.  I’d already agreed to give the plants before my neighbors saw the Green Hand or knew of its significance.  However, once we were digging, I had a chance to explain the sign and tell my neighbors about the Green Hands website where they could learn how Transition and anticipated economic shifts are part of what motivates me to continue to build capacity and share skills for home-based food production.  So in this case, the communication value of the sign will follow rather than precede our practical sharing.  I’m guessing that until Green Hand signs become more widely recognized and understood, this will likely often be the case.

Well, bravo then!  That works for me!  Besides, the most important outcome as far as I’m concerned is that my neighbors enjoy success with these amazing and generous plants.  If understanding the other layers of my motivation also leads to more sharing in the future, so much the better.  One way or the other, I’m sure those berries are going to taste just fine.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Lens of Metaphor in Social Discourse

As a teacher in a girls’ lockup treatment facility in the 1990’s, I read about a US Supreme Court case argued during the previous decade in which the “inculcative role” of schools played a part in the legal opinions about the constitutional rights of local school officials to include or remove materials in school libraries.

I found something unsettling about the words “inculcative role,” so I looked up the word inculcate in an etymological reference book.  There I found the source of my discomfort.  While various references will describe the derivation somewhat differently, the basic idea is that inculcate comes from the Latin root calx, or heel, and suggests “to drive in,” as with the heel.

Well, call me an old softie, but I didn’t like that metaphor as a description of the role I was to play in these girls’ lives.  I felt my students had been stomped on enough, some of them probably quite literally, and I sensed that more stomping, even with the best of intentions, was not likely to be well received.  In fact, I don’t really like the idea of inculcating anyone with anything.

Besides, the writer in me winced; the word inculcative is an awkward and seldom-used variation on inculcate, yet some highly educated seated justices decided to use it.  The only reason I can think of is that the word expressed exactly what they were trying to say. 

Fortunately, a few years earlier a scholarly acquaintance of mine had encouraged me to read the works of Jacques Derrida.  While I do not pretend to have understood much of what I read, one idea I did glean from my time holding Of Grammatology in my hands is that much of our language consists of dead metaphors, of which the word inculcate is a fine example. Derrida says words are like coins that have circulated so long that the markings denoting their metaphorical implications have been effaced.  Thus it could come to pass that educated people in the highest court in the land could write about schools stomping values and ideas into children, and do so apparently without the slightest sense of queasiness. 

Such metaphors, however, can be extremely powerful.  Like a transparent lens through which we view the world, metaphors can shift our focus at a subconscious level, shaping our perceptions and with them the thinkable range of our practical options.  And, let us not forget, our feelings and the emotional content of language are heavily involved in the idea-building process.  Even without knowing, for example, the brutal metaphor hiding in the word inculcate, consider how different it would feel to discuss sharing values, or perhaps cultivating, promoting, or introducing them to children. The feeling tone of inculcate casts a particular emotional light on things, with real consequences in the actions that follow.

I believe such invisible metaphors are at least part of the reason why so many of us in the environmental movement now find ourselves in the midst of a multilayered challenge that also embraces the areas of psychology, economics, peace, and social justice.  For example, we may be horrified by agricultural practices that appear very much like chemical warfare, replete with insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. The incidental exposure of agricultural workers to these chemical agents is a hazard like that of soldiers at war, and the contamination of soil, air, water and the general population constitutes what in military euphemism is called “collateral damage.”  Fundamentally, however, the problem is that in the thought processes of those who are creating this system and operating within it, effective action is conflated with killing enemies.  War is in effect the guiding metaphor.  For those who think poetry has no real effect on the world, consider this: the practical upshot of the metaphor of “agricultural warfare” is that millions of tons of poisonous materials flow into the ecosphere, and options available to produce food and fiber without them seem to vanish. 

At the same time, we wonder how to promote international peace.  But how can we do that when the way we “wage peace” is so very like the way we wage war?  Given that killing, warfare, and brutality are central metaphorical constructs that consciously or subconsciously govern the discourse, it doesn’t matter to what field they are applied, be it education, medicine, agriculture, economics, or international affairs.  Since everything connects, sooner or later real (not metaphorical) tanks will roll, and actual toxins will be introduced into the environment by the ton.  Thus we find ourselves behaving in ways that are unfeeling precisely when the exigencies of these times call for us to gather all of our sensibilties: to feel more comprehensively and to think more fully in order to successfully engage with our current circumstances.

With both economic and natural systems in upheaval and big changes both ongoing and immanent, clearly the time for practical action has arrived.  Yet to discover new ways of relating to others and the planet, we will need new lenses on the world.  This is precisely why the development and conscious choosing of new metaphors is needed in the discourse on peak oil, climate change, transition, environmental stewardship, and international peace.  The Green Hand Reskilling icon, the promotion of which is one of the purposes of the blog where perhaps you are reading this, suggests one possibility for such a metaphorical construct.  It is a hand.  It is, hopefully, your hand, reaching out, open, suitable for lending, and connoting all an open hand implies in terms of connecting, creating, giving, receiving, and the all-important quality of willingness to engage with others and the world.  Posting a Green Hand sign is an invitation, a way of saying to the world that you, personally, are willing to step forward, dream up wonderful new ideas, dialog with others, and share visions, information, and practical skills that can make a difference.

Like other powerful metaphors, the Green Hand connects to and draws energy from a host of related cultural signifiers, such as a handshake.  In addition, the idiomatic expressions and words of many languages (such as, in English, “lend a hand” and “handy”) will work synergistically to help extend, define and add emotional color the Green Hand icon’s metaphorical domain.  My hope is that these observations will offer a useful framework for those who would like to offer up their own guiding metaphors to the flow of social discourse.  Upcoming blog posts will introduce more.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Self-Inflicted Injury of Emotional Callousness

I’m drinking a cup of coffee right now, having boiled the water with natural gas.  I’m not exactly sure where the fuel I used comes from, but my guess is that natural gas from various sources gets marketed and distributed together.  Therefore as I enjoy my coffee this morning, people in shale gas states now may have combustible household tap water and carcinogenic bathroom showers as a thank you for my convenience.
One of the hazards of environmental inquiry is to see horrors like this hiding behind pretty much everything I do and much of what I own, right down to the cotton socks on my feet.  And my question today is: How did I get to be so callous about it?  And what should be done?
My most recent answer to the first part of this quandary is this:
Step One is to see that I was born into a culture in which emotional callousness is a fundamental coping strategy. 
Step Two is to notice that approaches to solving the basic problems of living that would be unthinkable if we were not so callous are then baked into successive generations of technology, social norms, and institutions.
Step Three (and it’s a short one) is seeing that it’s nearly impossible for an individual to live in a culture thus designed without also becoming callous.
Step Four puts the whole thing on wheels: as conditions get worse and nearly every aspect of our culture holds in its shadow some kind of hell, the motivators are in place for yet more callousness leading to yet greater violations of sensibility in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
So that explains a lot about how we got where we are and why it’s so difficult to change: we’re living a callous morality, and we’re doing it on a global scale. Callous corporate ruthlessness has been part of the mix since these entities were first invented.  Ships bearing cargoes of slaves, tea, and spices started the ball rolling, then coal, petroleum, tobacco and “unsafe-at-any-speed” car companies came to rule; when talking about profits before people, it’s nothing new.  Callous government has been with us even longer than callous corporations.  Consequently, as these entities have come to dominate our lives, we have in response become callous as well.  What’s also becoming apparent is that there are consequences to this trend, and that they are serious ones.
“It’s the law of the jungle! It’s a matter of survival!” I hear.
Yes, this is true.  Cultures that are ruthlessly efficient in extracting resources and developing weapons have overrun and exterminated all others.
And now, I would argue, that game has played out. The idea that power naturally accrues to those who are most ruthless and myopic in the pursuit of their own short-term gain, and that this is the best way to run human society, is about to hit a wall. 
In the long run, callousness and consciousness do not support one another.  Although a certain toughness is required of everyone to meet the rigors of life, the tolerance for and even idealization of loss of feeling is not compatible with any sustainable form of human intelligence, since loss of feeling is a kind of loss of consciousness.  Because of this, callousness and power are also ultimately at odds with one another. 
The emotional callousness currently endemic on the global corporate and political scene, as well as in our consumer culture, works a bit like leprosy.  Contrary to popular belief, leprosy does not cause limbs to fall off.  What happens is that the disease attacks the nerves, resulting in a loss of feeling.  Without the conscious feedback loop of feeling and physical sensation, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result.  Chronic infection and continuous scarring further the process, until disfigurement and deformity occur.
I would argue that emotional callousness does pretty much the same thing, and although the inner disfigurement is more easily hidden, at least among others who are similarly afflicted and who thus have difficulty feeling what’s going on, the consequences of it are visible everywhere.  I believe we are fooling ourselves in the often unexamined belief that loss of the feeling sense and the inner connection to reality it can provide would have any better practical outcomes for effective action in the world than loss of physical sensation does for the human body. 
Of course, an unfeeling approach seems to work so well at first.  Then again, so perhaps does heroin.  However, the complications that loss of feelings so efficiently eliminates are, in fact, information.  Feelings are an irreplaceable mechanism for inner guidance and course correction.  To the extent that we allow ourselves to become callous, we lose the holistic perspective feelings would otherwise provide.  So, while emotional callousness can be compared to a kind of numbness, it also results in a kind of blindness.  Either way, depending on the degree of the emotional impairment, nearly constant unintentional self-inflicted injuries result.
If my supposition is correct, it seems likely that the erosion and deformity of the emotional potential of humanity would generate other self-reinforcing feedback loops.  On an individual level, disfiguring inner pain often results in further retraction from the feeling sense that would reveal its true nature and extent.  The typical judgment is that it is simply too much.  On aggregate, social pressures mount not to feel much, since one person’s emotions are likely to trigger and thus reveal another’s.  Fortunately, we have the distractions, drugs, and prisons to handle it, or we wait until body systems fail under the stress and then treat the problem in the form of diseases.  A rather reliable indicator of numbness is the level of stimulation required to generate a response.  Here our culture seems to up the ante with every passing year. 
News flash: Callousness, glamorized by many images in the media as strong and “macho,” is actually form of cowardice.  To choose to be unfeeling on a consistent basis is to choose unconsciousness and death.  When the people of a nation governed by democratic institutions embrace callousness as a coping strategy, that nation will be led by those who mirror this tendency.  In time, and often rather quickly, leaders who embody callousness as an ideal will destroy their nations.  The law of leprous self-inflicted injury will work systemically to debilitate the nation and its capacity to respond effectively to emerging conditions.  This is exactly what we’re seeing.  If we cannot change course at this moment, it is because not enough people can feel what’s going on.  Without feeling, there is neither information nor motivation. 
So, it’s not resource depletion, peak oil, climate change, rising population, corporatocracy or environmental devastation that will be the cause of our demise. Nor is the problem a political stalemate or the stranded costs of our investments in useless, outmoded or destructive technology.  These are the not the problems, really: they are the symptoms.
Our callousness plays a causal role here, empowering all of these immanent threats to humanity.  Change that and we start to change everything.  And the beautiful thing is, we can change that.  We can begin right now by bravely choosing a path of feeling, promoting values and institutions that are consistent with the development of feeling, loudly and clearly proclaiming ourselves to be people of feeling, and recognizing that being a person of feeling requires living a life of profound integrity.  
In consequence, as I continue my inner work to open the doors to the deeply informative world of feeling, I must also for example begin to divest myself my participation in forms of agriculture that poison the land and abuse those who work it, and I must shift away from forms of transportation that ruin the air and pollute land and sea.  The reason is, as I open those inner doorways, I feel my connection with all of these things. As incrementally as necessary and always compassionately, a person of feeling is required to connect precisely where the callous approach to living would disconnect.  This is how we heal the planet by healing ourselves, and this is also the wellspring from which we will draw our strength, our inspiration, and our motivation to continue our work in the world.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The True Protest is Beauty

Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs

            In the spring of 2010 I was working part-time as a tour guide and environmental educator at the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center in Oxford, Michigan.  The headquarters is a 1970’s-vintage earth-bermed passive solar structure with a green roof, solar hot water, and a grid-tied photovoltaic array and wind turbine, among other features.
For several years running, teachers from a local middle school had been bringing their sixth graders to tour the Center as a year-end field trip.  During my tenure at the Center, I’d taught dozens of school groups like this and toured thousands of people young and old though the facility, and based on this experience I anticipated an instant murmur of Wow!’s and a quick barrage of questions about our modern, dual-axis tracking photovoltaic array, an eye-catching landscape feature and one of the principal attractions of the tour.  
That’s not what happened, however, with our local sixth graders last year. 
To my complete surprise, upon their arrival they ignored the solar setup that dominated the landscape and focused their Wow!’s on the nearby living roof.  They moved directly to the split-rail fence that keeps foot traffic off the roof and began pointing at the plants growing there as though they had seen animals hidden in a zoo exhibit.  This was unprecedented.
As a teacher, I prefer to ride the flow of attention rather than oppose it, so I immediately decided to shift the usual order of my presentation and instead begin with the green roof.  As I observed the children’s expressions and listened to their comments, I realized that what drew them to the roof was the same aspect that had made it my favorite part of the tours: it is, quite simply, beautiful.  In response, I decided to try something really different. First, I affirmed what I sensed going on in them by saying, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” 
Thinking about this later, I wondered how often teachers emphasize the perception and value of beauty in a child’s educational experience.  Generally, it seems, teachers lay stress on correctness, accuracy, measurable quantity, and sometimes creativity.  Beauty?  Well, it’s not on the standardized tests, is it?  Sadly, when I was teaching high school language arts full time and brought the word beauty into the discussion, many of my students associated it with an aisle at the drugstore—in short, as product.  Bringing beauty as a value back into education has been an interest of mine ever since grad school.
So I shared with the sixth-graders that the green roof was my favorite part of the tour.  I told them that in a few weeks’ time many of the plants they were looking at would be flowering, ablaze with color.  And, I said, while there are energy efficiency and other environmental advantages to green roofs, what I particularly liked about the idea is that the design achieves these benefits in a beautiful way.
 Does it matter? Yes, it does.
Most people find green soothing, and experience the colors and forms of flowers as bringing cheer and hopeful feelings.  We now know that relaxation and positive emotions are central to good health, and conversely that stress reduces immune response and puts body systems at risk. Psychologically, whether our moods are predominantly light-hearted or depressed also affects our relationships, our productivity, and our quality of life.  A beautiful environment supports the health and well-being of individuals and society.
The green roof  is an example of a design where beauty counts.  I invited the children to imagine building a world where it always does.
            As I reflected recently on these events, I began extending my thoughts about how the principles of permaculture and natural systems could apply to human communities, which is the principal theme of my current writings.   One of the remarkable things about the diverse and interconnected plant and animal communities of natural and permaculture-inspired landscapes is that they are both highly productive and lovely to behold. 
Granted, beauty is to a very large extent culturally defined, so much so that perhaps the only thing that’s clear is that there is no clear standard.  Nonetheless, I feel it’s worth bringing an aesthetic perspective not only to landscapes and architecture but also to organizations and social movements.  Given that the Green Hand concept is really about signs, I’ve been thinking about some of the signs I’ve seen carried in recent protest marches in US cities, and about the last time I carried such a sign on the eve of the Iraq war.  I have also thought about the aesthetic of the nonviolent US civil rights movement led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and what I’ve read about Gandhi’s methods to achieve social change.  Recently, a friend of mine told me about Estonia’s Singing Revolution, in which up to 300,000 Estonians gathered at once to courageously sing forbidden songs as part of that country’s successful effort to gain independence from the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.
Conversely, there are slogans of hate, burnings of flags and effigies, and mob violence.  I would not say that direct opposition is never called for or axiomatically ugly  -Estonians also reportedly formed human barricades against Soviet tanks to protect radio stations.  But I’m wary of patterns of discourse where the prevailing motifs are characterized by garish contrasts.  Even the chanting at rallies feels like pounding, a tactic resorted to by those who feel they aren’t getting through.  Pounding anything is almost guaranteed to generate resistance and opposition.  But how would one oppose a melody?  With noise, I guess.  Nonetheless, even in the face of noise, it’s still worth singing.
So, the observation Phil Ochs made during the turbulent 1960’s is worthy of consideration today: when faced with ugliness, perhaps the true protest really is beauty.  Part of what keeps me talking, writing, teaching, and otherwise promoting the Green Hands concept is that I like the way it feels.  Although I see value in participating in various organizations, I also like the aesthetic of self-regulating and self-reproducing signs, and I celebrate unmediated person-to-person connection as a fundamental lever of social change.  I know this initiative is a long shot, but I feel it’s a better direction than the destructive, divisive rhetoric that dominates the airwaves and the halls of power.  I particularly like the way audacity and humility combine in the act of public reaching out through signs, and I find the wild, out-of-control economy of the concept both elegant and charming. 
The interesting thing is, while such aesthetic considerations are not particularly rational, it seems to me that, especially today, these factors may ultimately trump reason and thus help break through the logjam of human argumentation.  After all, the green plants that cover the earth and make the planet inhabitable are not reasonable, eitherthey’re more of a miracle, really!  Look at them growing everywhere, doing their thing, and breathing out oxygen!  Aren’t we lucky to have them?
Someone I met at a conference once asked me if I’d registered the “Green Hand” as a trademark.  No, I replied, it’s YOUR hand you’re putting out there!  This is a true and personal reaching out.  I see the Green Hand sign, perhaps with a phone number or email address on it, as an invitation that in effect says, and quite publicly: “I acknowledge that the current economic system is no longer viable. I want to create something else. I’m willing to talk, and I’m willing to share what I know with others to help make that happen together.”
Of course, other people’s signs may mean somewhat different things, but this is what I mean by mine.  Most importantly, like those children walking toward the green roof that day last spring, I am drawn in this direction because it feels like a beautiful place to stand.