Being The Change

As something between Thompson’s Fear and Loathing and Sartre’s Nausea seeps into our collective psyche we must consciously pursue a more active approach.  A few days ago I posted -after a long hiatus- about my fears for the future.  I was then presented with comments from three of my respected blogging peers –Bart, FGLB, and Kory.  Again -all are in a similar malaise.  But more interesting is that many of them are similarly struggling with communicating it.  We’re bloggers – all of us are churning out 50k+ words annually regardless of what we have to say is poignant or if anyone reads it or not.  And if we -the verbose- can’t bring ourselves to write, that really is concerning.  

But we’re better than that.  FGLB shares a similar situation as me -working in The Real World while walking around like Roddy Piper in They Live -seeing the actual world for what it is.  Like him, I don’t talk about It too much at work – I don’t want to be That Guy either, instead sticking to more practical diatribes on gardening and hybrids and such.  But on our Blogs we can get the release we need to keep going, and much, much more importantly: we generate a ton of ideas & solutions while fostering a critical community of engaged problem solvers.   I write this blog to, in large part, help create the world I want to see for my children.  That world is still possible.  Here are some things that I think are critical to Our Future and areas that I challenge us all to think/write/expirement in as much as we can:

  • Local Food
  • Local Energy
  • Community Building
  • Local Finance
  • Hope, Love, & Laughter

We know the problems -even if they are more daunting and real now than before.  My challenge to myself and all of us is to find more solutions and small victories -and write about them!- for all our sakes.  Being the Change we want to see is the world is critical and becoming much less of a academic exercise by the day.  I’m confident to the point of arrogance in much of my life – and I know that we have the ability to literally change our communities with the skills and ideas at our disposal.   Read more, Think more, DO more.  And tell us about it.  

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

We have much to do, and little time to do it in.  Let’s get to work.

Be The Change.

-Rob

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Lifeboats, The Id, and Me

In case you hadn’t heard the times, they are a changing.  I just reread a piece I had written a few weeks ago at the beginning of the Economic Turmoil.  Since then I, like all of us, have spent a lot of time talking to my co workers and neighbors about it.  Those groups run the gamut from sound advice (don’t sell now!) to indifference to emotional reactions of rage and frustration.  Very few people are doing anything other than a few tightening up their belts.  I contrast that with what happens when I talk to my sustainability minded friends.  They still have the rage -actually alot more- but dammit many of us are getting busy.  And we really don’t even realize it.  

First clue was last week at my first Community Supported Energy (CSE) meeting.  We’ve talked about this for a year now, and the simple act of calling it can be attributed to recent events, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I had expected 4 people and I got over 15, many of whom I didn’t know until then but had heard about it through friends -and these people are motivated and energetic.  We reach consensus quickly and volunteers for action items are easy to find -very, very different than 3 months ago. The next clue was when I kept bumping into my farmer friend on odd corners of his land -we were tilling under fallow land and sowing cover crop like mad.  Then a day later I started getting calls to hire my tractor to help other friends till more land under.  Granted, my eco-peer group are a bunch of doers; 501C3’s and CSA’s don’t start themselves. But we are doing ALOT these days.  Certainly there is some psychological coping mechanisms going on here -we feel helpless and are trying to just do something.  But I also think it is more than that.

We have spent the last 2 years in educating mode – getting the word out, holding study groups on The Natural Step, going to Village Meetings, and holding talks at conventions and rallies.  Our group has put over 250 people through the study groups, and as we “train the trainers” we have contributed to another 500-750 more going through Natural Step training in SE Wisconsin.  Our little group has seeded much larger areas like the Greater Milwaukee Area with Big Ideas. At MREA we talked to thousands and are still getting call backs, and have held breakouts at several other events.  We have made real progress in Being The Change.  But in the past month, I have heard less of us talking about educating – we have made a steady, inexorable change to spend our time doing.

Without even discussing it, my farming mentor and I had decided to double our tilled land -even if we don’t plant it this year we had both decided to get it under cover crop to start stunting the perennial weeds.  We both have the strong suspicion that we may need those extra acres.  The CSE project went from esoteric musings to talks about business plans and zoning in less than 2 weeks as the DOW tanked and Iceland neared bankruptcy.  Talks of community sized root cellars began to happen as did shared conversations of harvestable stands of timber in our collective’s property.  As Paulson was talking bailout, we had begun thinking in terms of “lifeboats” and directing resources accordingly.  

“Lifeboat” is a great term to describe what we are doing.  Our guts are telling us the “ship” is sinking – we spent the last two years bailing and trying to patch the hull by building grassroots support and spreading skills in Systems Thinking like Permaculture and The Natural Step and the Earth Victory Garden.  Now we are shifting resources to swinging the boats over to the side in case we need ot cut loose when the ship falters.  We are actively building infrastructure to keep us afloat: Roots Cellars, Energy Production Systems, tillable acres of living soils, harvestable timber plots to be managed, partnerships with grain farmers to work in oilseed crops in their rotations.  We put in for our first grant today from Google.  For $2,000,000.  That much would let us build a CSE in every county in Southern WI and run them for 3 years.  Crazy -damn straight!  But ideas that make alot less sense than this have gotten more money.

If the ship stays afloat, even if only to falter to shore, all the time we put into our lifeboats will not be wasted.  Root Cellars for year round eating of locally produced food, producing hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel from local waste products while producing dozens of tons of fish protien make sense no matter what size boat you’re on.  The Funnel is still closing, we are still using resources faster than they can be replenished – even if we stop the Economic Leg of the Sustainability Stool from wobbling, the other two need some serious help.  

I guess psychologically I am still in a twilight phase right now -but am hopeful enough still that it is dawn and not dusk.  Or maybe I am somewhere between Billy Oceans “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and Margaret Mead’s “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” with a healthy dose of Emersonian “Self Reliance” thrown in for good measure.   Americans are fantastic about rising to a challenge, we just need help seeing the challenge.  This time I just hope it doesn’t take Pearl Harbor. 

Be the Change.

-Rob

It’s Hitting the Fan… now what?

I have said repeatedly in this space that our generation will live through historic times, and it appears those times are here.  Those of us that are sustainability minded often decry the ecological and sociological destruction of over-consumption.  But as the summer has unfolded, it is undeniable that we should be more specifically focused on the third leg of the proverbial “Sustainability Stool” -economic aspects of our society.  Unlike virtually every economy before us, the American Economy post Regan was founded on consumption and greed rather than manufacturing and the creation of goods and services.  Even in today’s global economy we are rather unique -Europe still makes things to a large extent, basing their economy on exports of everything from fine cheese and wines, to automobiles and wind turbines. Certainly the Pacific Rim economies are export orientated in everything from high tech electronics to tech support knowledge, to cheap plastic crap. 

For years we have been reading that Cheap Oil, that universal whipping horse, was to blame. And it is -shipping raw materials from Africa to Europe or China to be turned into goods to be shipped to America to be sold is insanely wasteful and only possible when the true costs of the practice are not accounted for. But what the majority of people have missed is that this was still only possible if America had ludicrous amounts of purchasing power.  We all know about economic “bubbles” – tech stocks, real estate, etc.  But what we are now living through is the burst of the “American Finance” bubble.  And its a flippin doozy.  

The rampant consumerism that fueled the global economy aided and abbetted by cheap oil, was funded by incredibly cheap credit for everyone from consumers to major corporations and banks.  We, the consumer, funded this incredible growth through credit cards and home equity borrowing to the extent that our interest payments were hundreds of percent greater than our principle payments, and even our homes, the traditional safe haven of American Saving, were a liability as we owed more than they were worth.  To encourage us to dig ever deeper the Financiers, helped by a deregulation crazy Republican Congress allowed unheard of liberties like zero down mortgages, 120% home equity loans, and  credit card limits to the tune that the typical American consumer now had rotating credit in excess of $75,000.  Thanks to the lobbyists and the ready ear of the Republicans (and many Dems too) the American Economy now had over $15,000,000,000,000 in “money” to spend just on the consumer side.  And due to this we called ourselves the strongest economy in the world.  

Of course it was a house of cards – the truth of this was what made Bush encourage us all to “go shopping” after 9/11 to save the country, and that was why we all got $600 this past Spring to “help the economy”.  Now that house is falling.  

I had not imagined that the Economy would be the first leg to cause the stool to really start rockin’.  So much of the literature I read is spent on the ecologic destruction and the sheer number of resources coming to Peak (oil, water, soil, species diversity) that I have focused on that aspect and figured that the food riots of last year were the coming of the second leg, the social aspects, starting to rock too.  And I think that was true.  But neither of these has yet to have the impacts that the failure of the finance markets will have.  Those failures might be felt immediately by you and me, but it will certainly be felt by us in the recent future when the money need to prop up the other two legs is simply gone.  We need massive funding to get us off of oil and into the grail-like Green Economy,  and social programs like the New Deal will be needed to offset the price shocks in food production that are coming.  My fear is that we have blown our chance by dumping our wad into Wall Street.  Its hitting the fan.

So now what?  Luckily, those of us that have been working to offset the first two legs (resource/ecology and social) may lend us some aid as this leg wobbles wildly.  The Global Economy only matters to the degree that you are plugged into it.  If you are living on a 100 Mile Diet, growing more of your food, living within your means, and making some of your own fuel you are far less exposed than those that aren’t.  Long term thinking: building fertility (even if its on your balcony), cutting consumption, and building relationships with your community will be critical to staying afloat regardless of which leg tilts us off kilter.

These times are scary – especially to those who believe they can see down the pike that the other legs are teetering too.   The receipe for weathering the storm as still the same: 

  • Build Skills -agriculture, welding, energy production, carpentry, car repair, network building
  • Gather Knowledge -Permaculture, Community Building, Psychology, History
  • Cut Resource Use – “Do we really NEED this?”
  • Develop more Community/Self Reliance – “Lean on me, when your not strong…”
  • Recognize Beauty -Play music, write poetry/journal/blog, create art -we need to relearn to laugh and sing!
Am I concerned, scared even?  Hell yes.  We are waaaaay to exposed for my liking.  But compared to where we were three years ago we have cut our debt in half, but more importantly we can now grow much of our food, we have built incredible community (both locally and through the web) with others on this path, and soon will be producing much of our own fuel and energy through biodiesel and wood chip gasification.  As/if it gets ugly, our skills will be in demand – “with great knowledge comes great responsibility”  Permaculture’s goal is to create a surplus -the goal is not to just protect your family, but to protect your community too.  Without them you can’t stand.
 
Be The Change.

Sustainability lays a (goose) Egg

We ran out of eggs this weekend.  Eggs and Soy Milk seem to be the two casualties of our reduced trips to Madison (60 miles roundtrip) for decent chemical free food.  But on the egg side at least it is utterly ludicrous that we drive that far when I know a half dozen farmers with chickens in the county that I meet with weekly.  Duh.

This Monday I was meeting with one, so I called him up to see if he had a dozen or so extra, and he was very apologetic -a possum had gotten into the coop and tore up most of the eggs on hand… but the geese were laying.  I blinked for second or two and then said sure -so he brought 4 or 5 out.  Turns out, not only are geese eggs HUGE (they practically fill our skillet!), but the yolks are firm and the size of a small baseball and are much subtler and creamier than a chicken egg

I guess I am sharing this, not only because of the novelty of eating goose eggs at breakfast in today’s world, but also to stress the points of connection in our lives that we may be overlooking.  In the core of Sustainability is shifting our mindset concerning consumption and waste, but perhaps even more important is rekindling the relationships with our neighbors so that we may mutually support one another in our journey to Tomorrow.  I got 5 goose eggs, my friend got money for feed and of course, we can continue to enjoy the gaggle of honking geese at his farm.  Both are better for it.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Blessed Unrest, Moving Forward

Continuing the Community theme on One Straw this week I would like to chat through some of my reaction to Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest. The underlying premise of the entire book is summed up in the subtitle How the largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One saw it Coming.

bookcover_blessed_6001.jpg

The book spends very little time regaling the reader with the Doom and Gloom, just enough to bring you up to speed if you aren’t in The Choir. Most of the book is spent making the case that the current Sustainability Movement is the largest movement in the history of human society. Hawken lumps both environmental and social justice organizations into the same movement because he believes, and I agree, that the coming crisis of this century indisputably links the two. The results are astounding: over 1,000,000 organizations currently fit this bill. We are part of something, very, very, large.

What is now needed is the inter joining of these groups into a combined and more overt mission of Saving The World. Hyperbole? Maybe. So lets start smaller in a local example of the potential gains of network leveraging. In our community we have a fairly large local organization set up as a watchdog of the Rock River. They are well organized, adequately funded and preform a very valuable service in tracking waterway health and advocating for water issues. Now we also have an active organization in Madison focused on Slow Food that encouraging citizens to savor the culture inherent in, and environmental impacts of, our meals. Dialing in a third organization we have the ubiquitous Master Gardeners- agents of horticultural goodness and often espousing organic ideals. Each is Being the Change and following their mission. They also will most likely never cross paths. But what if?

Take my Victory Garden idea. The Master Gardeners are the most likely sponsors of this plan since it brings more people into gardening and composting. They also have very limited marketing capabilities in most communities and typically work on near zero budgets. But adding the rain barrel brings in the mission of the River Group to connect the (literal) downstream impacts of water use and bring along with their strong ties to local and state governments. Growing local heirlooms and adding monthly cooking classes and newsletter recipes covering whats in season in the garden easily loops in the Slow Foodies with their more urbane following and marketing savvy. Combine the 3 groups and this program shares the strengths of all (better rain barrels, great soil, wicked good meals) and becomes very, very powerful by adding in the marketing muscle and diverse followings of all of them. Local Media is suddenly more interested, local business starts to take notice, and regional grant organizations see Big Potential. Suddenly a program that would have affected a few dozen affects hundreds or thousands -even in rural Wisconsin. This isn’t Pie in the Sky. This is my Spring.

We each are members of separate and numerous groups as varied as our own interests. How may each of them better strengthen each other?

My dream? Imagine if the Nature Conservancy, Christian Children’s Fund, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Union for Concerned Scientists joined forces in a multi faceted media and political campaign on the current, available, solutions to Global Warming? Suddenly we have a conglomerate big enough to stand a chance to fight the lobbyists, to fight Big Oil, to win back the hearts and minds of the American Public before it is too late. Most of the root causes of the missions of these organizations are rooted in the current economic theory that places the focus on maximizing markets over optimizing quality of life. They share much common ground.

All the pieces are in place, but they must be assembled to create the finished puzzle that will allow us to survive this most critical century. All major technologies needed to avert the Doom and Gloom exist. The only things lacking are Political (or Societal) Will …and time. The latter is fixed, but we can change the former.

Be that Change!

-Rob

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