Reclaiming prosperity

“…it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer…”

James E. McWilliams “Food that Travels Well” The New York Times August 6, 2007

Say what?  I thought better of you, NYT.  While McWilliams does raise some valid points, this mentality falls short in two major ways.  His assumptions mirror outlooks about sustainability I have often encountered which also apply to clothing, building practices, transportation and more.  Good thing there are Solutionaries on the case.

1)      This view doesn’t look far enough back.  Transportation of food over long distances is a relatively recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of things.  There was a time when everyone ate food that was more or less local.  Then refrigerated transportation happened, and the industrial revolution and agri-business squeezing out small farmers and before you know it, local is a novelty.  This all happened in the course of a century or two.  Is inertia so strong we can’t get back to this way of living? Judging from past moments in history, such as WWII when many Americans started Victory gardens, I beg to differ.

2)      It doesn’t look far enough ahead.  Oil is what fuels our transportation system and alternatives like corn ethanol aren’t looking so hot.  Oil is running out, and fast.  Since 1968, the world has been using more oil than it has discovered.  Just this month after a cabinet meeting, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah answered a Zawya Dow Jones Newswires reporter’s question: “I told them [the cabinet] that I have ordered a halt to all oil explorations so part of this wealth is left for our sons and successors, God willing.”[1]

One projection of peak oil from

McWilliams doesn’t think about all the subsidies that have made oranges and coffee beans in New York City cheaper than swiss chard from a Hudson Valley farmer. The subsidies and the artificially suppressed cost of gas for transportation all create a false sense of economy in far-flung production.  When the U.S. starts paying an arm and a leg for the last dregs of oil fields, local won’t look so much like a “choice”.

A big part of being solutionary to me is a type of long-term thinking that McWilliams sorely lacks.  I’m not just in this for my generation.  If I were I might focus on R & D of energy resource extraction.  And I’m not just in it for my kid’s generation.  I’m in it to figure out a way that humans can co-exist on this earth alongside all the other species we haven’t wiped out yet, indefinitely.  This takes looking way back in the past before looking too far into the future.  Humans have lived without fossil fuels for all of our history except the tiny blip of the last two centuries.  I’m not saying we have to go back to the Stone Age, just that the Earth can support a human population that doesn’t suck it dry.

One of my neighbors kept apples and potatoes all through last winter in her basement, no fossil fuels required.  Local apples in a Minnesota February; it can be done, no science degree required.  I’ve spun and knitted wool from Maryland sheep into hats and mittens that never left their state of origin in production or use.  I joined St Paul high school youth, the Lily Springs Farm crew and other Solutionaries working on a natural fence in Wisconsin this past weekend.  Just pine trees, brush and some hard labor will keep rabbits out of the crops.   Summer of Solutions is helping Sibley Bike Depot get bikes to people so they can get around without fossil fuels.

Natural building at Lily Springs Farm

And what’s so beautiful to me is these changes feel like anything but sacrifices.  It’s taking our future out of the hands of corporations, institutions and bureaucrats and into our own hands.  To me, being Solutionary means transforming the world so my life is more prosperous than it ever could be in our current, broken and unjust system.


The next step for environmental justice.

I love eating fresh veggies and fruits when I know where they grew and who grew them.  There is a large assortment of photos of me at various ages crouched in a strawberry field with my hands and face stained red.  I’ve got some tomatoes and peppers and herbs going in the backyard here.

So it might be disconcerting to hear I’ve felt a lot of resentment for the local food movement.  As the “eat local” push was gaining momentum the enormity of climate change was consuming me.  The local food movement I experienced up to this summer was mostly white, relatively privileged and, as I perceived it, somewhat self-indulgent.  Modern agriculture isn’t the only root of climate change, so why pour all your effort into an alternative only a few people can afford?

I got off the phone last night with Annie Young, an Environmental Justice (EJ) organizer for the Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA).  I had written the start of this post and then taken a break for dinner when she called.  While my opinions on local food have evolved significantly in my weeks here, that conversation with Annie put the last nail in the coffin of my previous views.

Planting in Process on Logan Ave

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In an Entrepreneurial State of Mind

I’ve always had a lot of hobbies, and loved learning new skills. Knitting, spinning, gardening, biking, journal-making you name it. But they were always just that: hobbies. The world I grew up in told me I could have as many hobbies as I want, but at some point you get a career. Most likely in an office. Most likely in front of a computer.

And because ever since seventh grade when I stood up for monarch butterflies in a science class discussion of GMOs I have been labeled as a do-gooder and environmentalist, I sort of imagined my fate in the office of a non-profit, getting paid meager wages to do tasks I cared about theoretically. Recently I have felt that because I have no idea what the world will be like in three years, I can’t really know what I’ll be doing. While I still believe this, Summer of Solutions is opening my eyes to the potential to make a job out of the things I love.

One of my favorite organizations of all time is Books for America in DC, where I volunteered for awhile and now always make a point to stop by when I’m in town. It was started by a guy who collected books in his apartment to donate to schools, shelters and prisons. His collection grew so large he started an organization out of it, which now has a warehouse of books that teachers and others can choose from. All the books that can’t be donated are sold in the store in Dupont Circle at bottom dollar. The proceeds are donated to the same institutions that get the books. So it’s a non-profit that consistently makes money. The recession year of 2009? Biggest profit margin ever. Why is this so revolutionary?

The non-profit sector has been at it for a while, but something’s not working. Not for our schools, our health, our natural world or our workers. Relying on grants and donations to fund “good work” only gets us so far. If we’re trying to change the system that created these problems why remove ourselves from competition with it? Innovation drives change. Books for America can compete as a bookstore while sustaining its charitable mission. That changes the rules of the game, instead of operating in the margins.

So what am I going to innovate?

I spend a lot of time thinking about waste and overconsumption in America. The amount of stuff that’s sitting out there in someone’s basement or attic or garage. Books, bicycles, lampshades, birdcages, futons. The fossil fuels poured into all this stuff. And then the number of people who wake up in the morning needing something desperately. How do we bridge that gap? How, like Books for America, do you turn that exchange into something more than charity, into something mutually beneficial?

Books for America. 22nd and P if you find yourself in DC.

I want to ride my bicycle.

Earlier in June, I took the 21 bus along with four others to University in St Paul and then caught the 16 headed east. We arrived at Sibley Bike Depot, tucked in a strip mall past the “Sugar Rush” donut shop. Chocolate and sugar wafts down the hall into the bike shop. Inside the walls are lined with drawers of varying heights and sizes with bike parts and tools hanging above. The shop floor has several bike stands to work on and tools. There are also bikes for sale on display- Schwinns and Huffys and Raleighs and more.

We got a peek into the bike storage room which is usually locked up. A pile of bikes at least a dozen feet high and 30 feet long dominates the room. The bikes are layered one on top of the other; handle bars jammed into back wheels and seats knocking into pedals. All of them are donations.

Signboard at Sibley

Sibley Bike Depot is a non-profit community bike shop that Summer of Solutions is partnering with. It has gone through several incarnations as an organization, one of them being the Yellow Bike Collective, which inspired the Yellow Bikes of Hampshire College (where I go and occasionally have a go on a Yellow Bike). Recognizing how many opportunities bikes open up, Sibley’s current mission is to increase bike access in the Twin Cities. People donate bikes to Sibley, then volunteers and staff fix them up for sale. People who come into the shop and work on a bike can earn it to keep.
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