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.


Have the alternatives been exhausted? (After being exhaustively explored?)

Xcel Energy has one reasonable rationale for their proposed high-voltage power line through South Minneapolis, specifically the Phillips neighborhood, near Lake Street, at first glance: there has been growth, especially in institutions such as hospitals that use large amounts of energy and indisputably require reliable energy. Blackouts in hospitals are obviously a bad thing.

However, is putting through a new power line that’s just a continuation of the current energy-production regime the only option to provide reliable energy? In the face of climate change and fossil fuel depletion and economic challenges, is that the best system to perpetuate? What about being able to use less energy through efficiency measures, many of which are relatively easy, inexpensive and can be done by the large organizations as well as by individual households all around the area? What if there were a few solar panels on homes and small businesses? These options aren’t impossible, are they?

This might not provide all of the community’s energy, but could it possibly be a method in which the energy demand gap could be made up – and provide a basis so that more of the community’s energy could be produced in such manners in the future? Could it engage the community in working individually and collectively on their own energy? Are families,panaderias, groceries, hospitals, banks, churches, mosques, YWCAs and Scandinavian gift shops limited to being consumers of energy, disconnected from its mysterious production? Or, could they be a part of taking ownership of even a small part of what daily powers their homes and places of business, recreation and worship?

More fundamentally, what are the details of the increase in energy usage? What do the various individuals and organizations in the community think about their energy usage? Are some of them already employing energy efficiency materials? Is there any hidden interest in more energy efficiency and renewables that just haven’t found the opportunity to manifest itself? Could this be that opportunity?

Essentially, do we really know if the new power line is necessary if all these questions haven’t been answered? Can we find answers to a lot of these questions? What might those answers tell us about the necessity of the transmission line?

Looking into the Future: A Fireside Chat with Timothy and Matt

Over the past two weeks, I’ve gotten particularly excited about looking ahead to where we’re going. My eyes are always both here in now and endlessly on horizons. The past few weeks for me have been about thinking bigger about where we’re going, and about exploring how to share this moment of possibility with everyone …

Fellow national coordinator Matt Kazinka and I pulled together this firesdie chat on Thursday night with the help of camera-woman Abbie Plouff and editor Ruby Levine. Its basically an explanation of some of the things going on in the bigger national picture and an invitation to start the process of dreaming with us as we go forward.

Part 1: Welcome, what’s up, and why we’re talking:

Part 2: The big things happening, and next steps on collaboration:

We’ll be checking in, first with Summer of Solutions program planners, and then with partners, participants, and other supporters over the coming weeks.

Keep up the solutions!