For the past few days, my younger brother has been reading a book for school called The Fate of the Earth. If the title weren’t depressing enough, the book primarily consists of an account of the hysteria over the rise of nuclear arms, the resulting existentialism, and what those arms mean for…well, The Fate of the Earth. Supposedly, with the development of these weapons in the 1940s, humans officially became the first species in history with the potential to devastate not only our own population, but every other species, and quite literally the entire planet. Even today, nuclear annihilation is on the world’s mind as the greatest potential manmade disaster.

The truth is that humankind developed destructive potential long before the rise of nuclear arms, and the greatest threat to our extinction today is not a nuclear threat, but an ecological and environmental one. We are the only species that is knowingly and voluntarily causing its own demise…literally. Okay, so I know we all know the story. Everyone and their mother has seen An Inconvenient Truth, heard politicians use catchphrases like “green energy” and “sustainability,” and thrown things at Glenn Beck. But too many of us, like me, are used to sitting on our butts at home, preaching from a high horse about turning the tap off while brushing our teeth.

The most difficult part of “environmentalism,” from my point of view, anyway, is internalizing it. Learning to see it as a movement that is not foreign or outside of oneself is difficult. When we watch the news, we are passive creatures, mentally absorbing oil spills, holes in the ozone, floating piles of garbage by the Great Barrier Reef, and distancing ourselves from them. But when we encounter those things up close and personal, and when we can physically see the differences our personal choices make, we realize how big and important this whole thing is. And it becomes most evident on a local/community level. I know it all sounds cliché, but it’s true.  And that is why I have decided to spend my summer in Highland Park, Michigan as part of the Green Economy Leadership Training.

Until now, I have been a hypocrite in many ways. I’ve never been particularly involved in “The Movement,” and always held this mindset that being “environmentally conscious,” that is, aware of my impending death and The Fate of the Earth, was enough. I can pretend to be “liberal,” whatever that word means today, but like most Americans, I am extremely resistant to change. And I guess some of us have just become dismissive and nihilistic about the whole issue. But fortunately, it’s not all gloom and doom. The good news is that there actually are people in the field everyday, researching, implementing, organizing, and working towards solutions.

Why did I decide to spend the summer in Detroit? As someone that wasn’t born here, this city has always seemed like a fascinating study in urban decay. Maybe I felt that way because the only times I’ve actually been here were on my way to Canada. I’ve passed abandoned buildings and neighborhoods like silent skeletons, and found it difficult to imagine that this was once the center of the Midwest. But in reality many of these communities are still teeming with energy and filled with people of all ages that are eager to participate.

For the first few days of GELT, we have been learning about something called permaculture design, which includes an understanding of everything from the importance of soil to water catchment systems to replicating natural patterns from nearby ecosystems. So…uh, what exactly is permaculture? (A week ago I would have given you a blank stare.)  Fair enough; it’s a term that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize. It’s short for permanent agriculture, and it’s more of a paradigm shift than anything else, one that involves developing permanent, sustainable methods of growing food and living in community.

The way I understand it, permaculture offers one of many possible solutions to the triangular problem of peak oil, climate change and economic instability and is one that is particularly well-suited to urban and suburban environments. It’s a different way of seeing the world, using existing patterns in nature and working with nature, rather than seeing it as an obstacle as humans tend to do. To some degree, it involves seeing things that “aren’t there”: noticing how the wind blows, how the water flows, how the ecosystem functions, and incorporating these elements into living and garden designs.

The overall idea of the work we are doing involves using a bottom-up approach to change the system, working at the community level to affect change on a small but potent scale. And with permaculture, we are truly starting from the grassroots.  I’ve found that sticking my hands in dirt not only satisfies my craving for hands-on experience, but is kind of spiritual in a way, and it’s not just because I’m sharing my blood with a massive colony of mosquitoes. I’m learning to appreciate life at it’s most basic level – the soil.

I was raised in a pretty religious Jain family, and taught at an early age to “live and let live,” respect all beings, and all that jazz. But most of my family never considers the consequences of their own actions, especially the deceptively little things. When the results don’t have a clear dollar sign in front of them, then it’s out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, humans are very visual creatures: we need to see results, cause and effect. And in Highland Park, we’re trying to produce results that people can see, and reproduce in their own homes, by implementing ecologically conscious permaculture techniques and allowing the public to help and learn during the process.

We’re working with some local homeowners, properties, and vacant lots, to create “community spaces,” which can range from playgrounds and daycare centers to urban gardens and educational facilities. The nature of the properties we are working with allows us to work with a tabula rasa when it comes to design: because many of the internal structures of the buildings have been destroyed, it’s easier for us to start from scratch. And, from there, the idea is that we can design whatever we want…so far, we are trying to be as ambitious with our plans as possible. There’s been talk of greenhouses, basketball courts, and large urban gardens, among other things.

But obviously, one “sector” we need to take into account is the neighborhood, and we must also bear in mind the needs and desires of the people living in the area. Making nearby residents a part of the process is essential for the success and longevity of these projects, because, in the end, it is their space to maintain and pass on. While the scale of the visions of the different members of SwOT may vary, the general consensus seems to be that we want Grove Street, our current workspace, to develop into a model green neighborhood for the city, state, and country. Hopefully, through our efforts and the support of the community, we can make that kind of positive change.

Penned by Monika Kothari, a student at Michigan State University and GELT-er for life

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