Saturday, October 6, 2012

From London to Chennai: when comparisons are impossible

‘How does Pakkam compare to London?’ the young professor at Hindu College asked me. We were walking over a bridge in Pakkam, which means ‘garden’ in Tamil. In the night darkness a small light lit the outline of a reed-hut beneath a large tree on the edge of the river below us. Like most of the rivers around the city,  a sharp smell of urine and shit rose to greet us.  I had a flash of a walk across River Ouse in Lewes, the small town which housed me for over three years in England.  I sighed.


‘You can not compare the two,’ I said.


‘It must be much better where you are from, right? Cleaner.’  As we walked we moved into the centre of the road to avoid the uneven pavement of the sidewalk. 


‘Cleaner, yes,’ I said. At this point my feet automatically step around the cow dung, random sandals that are no longer useful and general garbage – small paper cups once used for tea, bits of paper, plastic bags, and the rest of the debris that most of London puts in trash cans that are, in general, removed by garbage collectors. 


‘But not better.’ His mother had just fed me. A friend had noted that I hadn’t had dinner. He gave me three choices. Later I realized that each of these choices was related to a different house in the area – he happened to know what each of them were having for dinner – and based on my selection (dosa) we went to the small house in Pakkam, a 10 minute walk from the Farm.  His mother had welcomed me with a large smile and a small laugh, brought me one of the few chairs in the house and fed and watered me; her chief concern was for me.


‘Can you compare an apple and an orange?” I asked him. ‘Sometimes you might want an orange, and sometimes an apple. But you can’t compare them. So it is with Chennai and London; Lewes and Pakkam.’


Indeed, I am increasingly moving away from comparisons that might have any notation of ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It is simply different.  The history of Chennai and its surrounding areas is so different from that of London and its surrounding areas  that I almost don’t want to do any kind of comparison at all. Let them each exist: separate and equal and interconnected.


And yet comparisons are intrinsic to the human mind. During the beginning stages of the development of consciousness they are probably impossible to escape from. We say ‘oh yes this is familiar, this is different’.  In some ways yes, in some ways no.  We seek patterns to gain understanding and to respond appropriately.


So: what is the best use of our inherent capacity to compare?  Comparing to the past  brings with it the risk of assuming that what was is what will be. And that, I am daily reminded, is inherently inaccurate.  Climate change is only the latest aspect that requires intense awareness to a continually changing environment (including people). I think of the ideal state as being poised, waiting even while moving, fully awake and alert. The martial arts master who is ready for anything even as he is still; the daoist master whose action never disturbs his meditation.


Pattern recognition remains important – more so now, perhaps, than ever. Pattern recognition arises, in part, from comparisons. So what is the appropriate use of comparisons? And without comparing, what can I say? Well what’s the point of my writing?


I write to an American, English, European, Indian, Asian and African friendship group. I write to give images and questions and something that resembles answers to the questions that you keep asking me about my life –what is it like out there, on the other side of the world? I can offer images between these cultures, strung together like a many different colored beads, or like suras, mixing and matching patterns, in hopes that something beautiful may arise.


Here people string their laundry on strings between palmtrees; sit on benches painted blue under trees at train stations,  look bored as they wait for their train – the great british train system that runs across this hot sub-continent   is, unquestionably, one of the better reminants of the Empire. (Though had the brits not come, perhaps they would nowhave the high speed rail systems that are popular in Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities that, I am told,  make San Francisco look old and falling apart.)


‘It’s quieter there’, the young professor said.


 I remembered my first complaints about Chennai: the incredible noise. Even in my hotel room the  honking and beeping and talking and  engines  of the city never was quiet. In the farm, you can still hear the highway and the honking and the motorcycles. It does not have the deep quiet that Lewes did. Even so, most nights the crickets, bats, small foxes and misquitos can easily be heard in an area that still resembles ‘rural’.  Yes, I said. It is quieter there.


But we humans can get used to almost anything, for better or for worse, from traffic noise to debris to colorful saris to composting (what do you mean you don’t compost, I asked someone recently, then shook my head in self-amusement – she lived on a college campus in the city) to corruption.  Our capacity for habit is both one of our saving graces (I don’t have to think about how to eat with my hands anymore – at least not most of the time), one of the major defining aspects of any culture (the habit of putting on the bindi, the habit of harvesting rain water, the habit of driving a car, the habit of waking early enough to do meditation), and one of our greatest challenges in being fully alive in the world.


I have grown used to the noise.  When I get down at the Central Train Station in Chennai – a great red colonial building with white trimmings and the perpetual tea stands that sell bottled water, cheap coffee laden with sugar and small packets of tobacco, fried food and sweets, I can’t help but smile as I enter the hoards of people exiting the station and the immense perpetual traffic jam outside of the building.  Dusty crowded buses, bright yellow autos (small 3 wheel cars that we don’t have the likes of in the States or the UK) that offer me tourist deals designed to take my money and leave me in some dark tourist shop,  hundereds of two-wheelers driven by bulky men in button down shirts, black pants and, sometimes, helmets, women dressed in perfectly pressed, brightly colored saris and churies, hair adorned with white jasmine; faces with gold earings and nose rings and bindis.  


In the past two months that I’ve been living in India, I’ve been in Delhi, Andrah Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Pune – that’s four states and multiple cities. I’ve stayed in hotels and apartments, YWCA and village huts, houses in town and, of course, the farm. I’ve taken tea in roadside huts with massive lorries streaming past and at the home of a rich politician. My favorite tea, though, isn’t tea at all, but herbal drinks - mixtures of ginger, lemon grass, garlic and lemonjuice. Mostly I watch, listen and absorb, filing what I see and hear away for some unknown purpose.


At the moment I am based on the farm. It was nearly 7 months ago that I first discovered the joy of living on the farm – working in the morning, going to the office where I did intellectual work, coming back in the evening and having philosophical discussion with a new-found group of friends.  I had never had such a beautiful experience of living fully since I was 21, living at Quaker Centre, serving my faith community.  (Yup, that was a comparison! With some judgement!) Some similarities: a life of service to the earth and the community, working with my body in touch with the earth, having a strong sense of fellowship with other people, doing work that tested my mind and deepened my spiritual skills, and constantly feeling that my life was an unfolding adventurous locus flower.


The farm ‘house’ is, I feel, a farm platform. A large open room greets me. At night the bats fly through chasing misquitos (for which I am endlessly grateful – the misquitos seem to prefer me to everyone else).  There are three rooms: a kitchen that doubles as a library and a bedroom for a small family; a meditation room; and an office/sleeping space/meeting room which is slightly more protected from misquitos than the rest of the place. Upstairs is a small ‘hut’ and an open roof where I occaisionally go to make private calls or enjoy the moon. Sometimes after a day in the office, the roof of the farm, where one can almost always hear somebody’s stereo playing music that sounds bollywoodish to me, feels like several lifetimes away, though in reality the commute is less than 2 hours.


‘How long will you stay’, the professor asks.  It is a question I am asked often.  I give different answers. I explain I have a 1 year work permit. Sometimes I admit I would like to stay for 3-5 years; 1 year is too short.  Sometimes I say that really, once India has taken hold of one’s soul, there is no going back.  To him I say, ‘As long as I’m still learning, and still needed here more than elsewhere.’ Which is another way of saying – I really don’t know.


‘You are most welcome.’ He said in response. My uncertainty did not bother him. Life is uncertain.


Yes, I thought, I know.

 Here, in this country where I speak the language of the colonizer, I am most welcome.  In writing that I am tempted to compare. Did I feel welcomed in England? Tolerated, sometimes with amusement. But welcomed? On occasion – but not with the generosity and honesty that I experience here.  This hot, sticky sub-continent, with its (over?) dependency on rice and far more complicated power divisions than I  understand and flute music that sings to my soul, this country is endlessly welcoming.

I nod my head and smile. We don't say anything for a while. Sometimes, regardless of what country one is in, there just is no need to say anything at all.

Eating, Giving


It’s one of the first phrases I have come to understand, probably because it is asked to me all the time.

Have you eaten?  

The look in their eyes is always the same: great concern. Let me feed you. Here, let me give you all that I have to offer. And then I will somehow find more to give to you. They call me by my name: stranger, friend, sister, auntie, daughter. You are most welcome here. Eat.

This morning it was a woman who works on the Farm where I currently sleep (and occaisionally work myself). She dresses in a bright yellow sari with silver flowers, her hair twisted into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, her eyes bright as if she is always laughing at the twists and turns of the world. This morning I was running late and had not eaten, figuring I’d grab something on the way, but her eyes compelled me to sit, stay, eat. She gave me rice and a bit of (spicy!) onion-gravy that passed for samba. Tonight, I ended up going to her place, a little house with three rooms and a kitchen, all painted green.  She gave me dosa – fresh, hot, thick dosa - and bananas.


I am given so much here. A place to sleep: a mat and blankets on a floor that is, as my host said, always open to me.  Food  - in homes, in villages, in the fields, in offices, constantly people offer me food. Rice, dosa, idli.Water, chai, coffee, sweet milk, baddam-milk. Bananas. Not always ‘rich’ food. Not always food I prefer to eat (I would prefer millets to rice any day – not easy in this part of the world), but hot and fresh and served with love. Friends – a community of change-makers who seek to love one another and society so much through their actions that others are inspired. Even, at times, misquito repellent. To me are given the basics of life: food, water, shelter, friendship-belonging.


I also have what we need to make a difference:  friends with connections, passion, and sharp intellects who will listen to my ideas and refine them and tease them and encourage them and test them against their own experience. And the internet.  And enough money in the bank to do some traveling.


In returning to India, I enter a life filled with gifts.


Every day I walk past people who do not have even the most basics of these things. Every day I encounter more stories of injustice, corruption, violence, death, sickness, depression. Every day I smell polluted waters and severe sanitation issues and cracked pavements that flood with every rainfall and questionable drinking water and women whose wisdom is in danger of dying with them.


For whatever reason, I am given gifts here.My cup overflows. I ask myself: Do I only receive? Am I only a mere consumer – which surely must be the bottom of the pecking order of good living? Or am I also giving?


At work I wonder if I am giving anything back of real value. A friend here asked, so you are doing research. How will your research benefit society? I said, oh, I doubt it will. That was probably said too fast and without enough respect to what Im actually doing. In this particular project, it’s hard to say. Right now the impact feels, at best, minimal – an article in a semi-scholarly journal, a report, a conference that someone else will attend, a seminar in Delhi.  I know all of it is cumulative. I know it is making a ‘contribution’ to the overarching literature, spreading knowledge, giving the voices and perspectives of a group largely under-heard and under-seen health service providers.


But here, surrounded by thousands of people every day, people on two-wheelers spilling dust into my eyes and people pushing coconuts and women selling fish on the side of the road….. ‘contributions to the literature’ in this particular incident feels highly insufficient.


 I am restless.


What am I giving today?


We  (Story of Stuff; QIF; IDS; and many progressive think tanks and action groups) speak of an economy that moves beyond consumption and production and into modes of ‘citizenship’. I am not always sure the ‘citizenship’ model is the one I must adhere to – too many people are not citizens, and the ‘rights’ of citizens - in this country at least - are poorly upheld by courts that barely function. Some people speak of pro-sumers, as ways of integrating the two. Those who take (consume) vs those who make (produce) is a sharper distinction, though of course many of us do both.   But in a situation where I am being freely given all that I need, I ask not about ‘producing’ but about giving.


How am I giving?


I give my gratitude as often as possible. I give my love as freely and generously as I can. I give small gifts – pineapple and sweets to people’s homes, flowers, greens from the farm. I give connections. I write. I tell stories. I sing for people whenever I am asked. I open my address book and give whatever contact I can think of. I listen to people’s stories and their struggles. I listen to peoples dreams. I reflect these back to them. I give them the blessing of a stranger, which can, at times, be more significant than a friend. I do some farm work - weeding, hoeing, harvesting mostly - I give my mind to initiatives I see as worthwhile.  Last night I sat and supported a friend on his business plan for his social enterprise. Tonight I listened to a semi-colleague think through his business plans for his social enterprise. Tomorrow I will listen to a friend who quite his job without knowing what to do next because he could no longer do it with integrity. I buy fruit for my colleagues. Tomorrow I shall bring organic greens to the office. 


People tell me that I have blessed their home. People tell me that because of me they are changing certain parts of their lives. They say I don’t need to give them anything. My mere presence is enough.


In that last one, I struggle to accept. I feel I am not giving enough. This is not enough, these small things. Surely there is more, so much more, that I can be giving back to life here. I feel at times like a cat in a cage, looking for a way out. Let me do something…. Significant…. I have spent too long behind desks and books and computers. Let me use my skills and my talents; my ignorance and my broken heart to give more, more.

But too often - at least recently - the yearning leads to nothing but spinning.

I begin to consider that part of what keeps me spinning is not accepting that actually it is enough just as it is. To slow down the mind long enough to take in what is without trying to change anything, to come into full acceptance of reality and the deeper Presence that is there even though – especially! – when it does not meet my expectations.  The gifts I am being given are being given without expectation. For me to give freely - also without expectation - I must fully accept what is.  Only then can life move freely between us, and the webs of serendipity and love bring us closer together, so that our gifts given by a Spirit to this earth through our finite bodies may come into being.


In a world with so much to do and learn, it seems that I need to slow down just enough so that life itself can work through us and we can be like empty vessels receiving and overflowing. And may that which overflows be even sweeter than that which came in for having swirled around in our imperfect but still beautifully shaped Selves!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Turning to nature to build peace in Israel

Nature has no borders.

Israel is a land of borders.

Dr. Gonen Sagy works on putting nature back into humanity via education. He works with the Arava Institute in Israel, a programme/initiative that brings together arabs and jewish schools around environmental studies. Jewish and Arab teachers go into the high-schools and teach teenagers about sustainability. For the students to just walk into the room and see Jewish and Arabic teachers working together is, itself, a shock.

The first element of the programme is compassion.

Research shows that the first encounter bringing people who have a predisposition not to like one another  often does not go very well. Their peace education work attempts to build positive encounters. They do it slowly. People walk in not wanting to work with one another.  People play games. Gradually they come to recognise that they are working with and dealing with people.

There is a level of thoroughness to what they are developing that is remarkable. They made profiles of each student and planned to the smallest detail to make it work for those people. They plan to follow the people they are working with, including the teachers. They paid attention to, is this the right thing for this group at this time, more than anything else. Having ongoing mentors to work with the students were essential.  After a while, the headmasters became friendly to the programme, and they did inter-visitations between the schools.  Their multiple schools are spreading, and they hope in the next few years to reach 5% of the population.  Looking at the map of Israel, the task seems tremendously large. But then again, why not?

He says that after spending a year at the institute, we understand the news differently. We need to work towards following the vision more paying attention to what is going on around you.  As we build trust, we build it within ourselves and between ourselves. And in this way the porous boundaries within nature come to enter our social selves and we come to gain greater security. 

Some on the Ground Solutions

The collection of young people at the conference on Sustainability want real change, and they want it now - which for many, has led to engagement or creation of on-the-ground, community-based solutions. I highlight a few of them below.

In Baja California, Mexico, Costasalva, WildCoast has been doing community-based work to protect the coasts. This includes engaging with waste, environmental education, and conserving sea turtles. The beautiful area has been able to make a significant difference.

We heard a presentation about eco-villages, long an alternative form of living in the USA.

Ecovillages such as Village Homes in Davis, California, to minimise environmental impacts and energy consumption and to encourage social interaction and participation. Sustainable urban forms are enabled through narrow streets, small lots and village homes which create a sense of community with a strong sense of ownership. Most people know about 40 neighbours and the residents are involved in the design process.  The ecovillage in Ithaca uses a co-housing model and integrate energy efficiency. In Cincinnatti, attempt at creating the ecovillage did not succeed because the people living there were not fully engaged and did not share the principles.  More recently, in 2004, a collection of residents declared their street an ecovillage and fostered a sustainable urban neighborhood. Urban ecovillages face the challenges of working within existing urban constraints - but as this is where most people live and thus where it becomes essential to do more of them. All of them try to engage in some kind of outreach.

It didn't sound like eco-villages are really taking off. Parks, however, have to be changed - there are legislative incentives and historical pathways that continue to make parks an integral part of California design. We heard a presentation about parks in Orange County, CA, which are facing economic constrictions and finding that creating sustainable parks that use a lot less water and even help treat water are good solutions. They are not yet incorporating food systems into these parks - but the designers I talked to thought it was only a matter of time before public park spaces might become spaces for growing food.

Because food really matters. Debjeet from Living Farms  shared about what is happening with food sovereignty issues with indigenous populations in India.  Observing that food is a critical part of life and should not exist as a mere commodity, Debjeet  Currently, FAO says that population is not actually outstripping food supply, which is the common assumption.   Industrial agriculture, which feeds less than 40% of the population, is damaging environment.  Despite a climate action plan, the Indian government continues to promote unsustainable agricultural initiatives.  Agriculture has been replaced with agribusiness. Some parts of the Indian government say that small farmers should not exist and that small-farmers are no longer of use to the economy. He said, if you want development, first give us back our seeds and our land.  He shares the story of a wise fool:
A man was walking home when he saw the mullah searching on hands and knees for something on the ground. He says, what have you lost. The key to my house. Where did you drop it? Over there near my house. So why are you looking for it here? Because there is more light here.

And so it goes.

We look in the familiar framework for what we know here and what we know there. We know how to change the world outside but do we really know how to work on the inside? There seems to be much less light in there. A major impediment to sustainability isn't just the external world, but the internal constraints. We need to take the inner psychological landscape into account.  We can be so eager to find a solution that we rush into the first solution that comes to mind.  So what is needed?

Securing local food systems become essential. Decentralised food systems that bring together producers and consumers can contribute towards a sustainable planet.  He discussed having a very high level of crop diversity to make this happen. He argued for an enabling policy environment to support diverse crops. Food production needs to be re-orientated to local markets as a way of dealing with the climate crisis.

Food is essential - but so too is energy. In the small, densely populated country of Barbados, sustainable energy is critical.  Felicia Cox, who describes herself as an engineer who 'likes to make things happen', wondered why the UNCHE in Stockholm in 1972 was never taken seriously. In Barbados, solar water heating companies have been growing since the 1970s. The sugar cane industry has been using windmills to generate energy for them for quite some time. Barbados has very few buffers and is dramatically impacted by other parts of the world. After reviewing some of the challenges of sewage (need for more plants) and energy and the need to connect the two, she said that the single biggest thing she wanted was for donor countries to ask what the people wanted, to listen to what they said, and to keep their promises.  They have an abundance of energy, but the grid is not designed in such a way that  it is solved. She sees solutions in community outreach to shift the energy costs.  She sees a host of small solutions, from time of use tariffs to renewable energy riders. strong electric utility and ways to bring together waste and energy. (

Monday, July 23, 2012

From waste to energy to poverty reduction

Technology makes a difference. And we are in a paradigm shift with renewable technology that are happening so fast that it is hard to keep up.  Is it fast enough?

400 pounds of oxygen are consumed with every tank of gasoline.

Paradigm shifts are needed in transportation, electirc power, building design, conservation and community design. There is a chance to re-engineer the entire society  How can we do it better in the next 100 years than we did in the past?  I knew this question was important, but I had not appreciated how far the technology and the early market conditions were moving in this direction.

Fuel cell power is making tremendous gains in transportation and electrical power. California is one of the leading areas for this change; it has agreed to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2020, and an additional 80% by 2050.  Stationary fuel cells - with 20 years of commercisalisination behind it and a wide portfolio of applications makes it a proven technology. The market demand is growing. There is growth of interest in Korea, Bloom Energy, and nearly all of the major electrical companies. Google, EBay and some of the major tech industries have been paying attention and the overarching cost of the technology is decreasing as the market becomes more competitive.  There are increasing numbers of automobile companies - Nissan, Toyota, General Motors - who are investing in automobiles with fuel cell technologies.  They say they are committed to this as the technology of the future. The World Bank is paying close attention. It might not be long before developing countries can take up these technologies with greater velocity.  Korea is also showing the way in terms of visionary policy.

He discussed having renewable energy stations - providing 0 carbon as human waste would be used to produce the fuel.  Going from waste (sludge) to 'digesters'. The new technology would lead to 'bio-hydrogen.  Human waste to produce electricity? Sounds too good to be true. But it is already in operation in the Orange County Sanitation district.

How are the oil companies taking this shift? They aren't too happy. But the past few years, even the past few months, a lot has shifted. He feels that we are going through a tipping point to accelerate the markets of the future in terms of overcoming past resistance - including legal constraints.

UCI can do a fair amount of experimentation. A large University with a fair amount of on-site housing, they are able to have a 'smart grid demonstration' where they can experiment with demonstration sites that enable better utility and consumer use.  The smart grid allows a far, far greater level of interaction with the grid than one might normally have.

Questions from Fellows from developing countries tended to focus on cost, price and key places in the system to enable change.  Water is necessary for fuel-cells; in CA, that comes to about 1% of water in the California aquaducts - not a tremendous amount. In water-scarce regions, this might be more problematic.

I found myself thinking of communities around the world who do not currently have any reliable energy, much less fuel cells. How much can fuel cell technology reduce poverty and enable greater community empowerment? In a lot of ways this feels like a technology shift more than the deep level of sustainability.  Especially when I look at the big players quickly moving into this space: I'm not sure how much I trust the interests of major automobile companies. When I think 'sustainable future' I like to think that we won't have so many highways - and I won't call something 'sustainable' if it can't reduce poverty and enhance well-being.

Or so I thought until I had some follow-up discussions with Dr Scott Samudien. Was it true that this technology requires a high level of expertise?  No, not for maintenance. The bigger issue is getting the fuel behind the fuel. In situations with natural gas, that's easy. However, not all countries - much less communities - have that. Which is where the waste-to-energy plant described above can make such a difference.

Which leads us to a natural solution: put stationary fuel-cells into slum communities that are fueled by human waste from those communities. Sanitation is generally recognised as one of the biggest challenges for slum communities. So is the lack of energy.  This could solve two of challenges facing slum communities: energy and waste - through a solution that enables greater sustainability.

Creating a legal system for climate change

(This blog is part of a live-blogging series on Empowering Sustainability on Earth at UC Irvine)

The legal system: the structures that provide the frameworks for us to live our lives.

But what if part of the challenge of adapting to climate change is that the very aspects of the system designed to protect and support us - the legal system - is actually making adaptation harder than ever?
Across all sectors impacted by climate change, one theme is clear: climate change requires collective learning. But the current legal system is not suited to enable learning.  Alejandro Camacho argues that US law is not suited to foster adaptation because it promotes a static view of nature. There is no connecting framework in a situation that demands greater coordination than ever previously attempted. Agencies are slow to adapt to new information and changed circumstances. I'd say, it does not take the reality of complexity sciences into account.

Camacho argued that procedural and substantive issues are related to one another, with neither one being adept at dealing with the inherent challenge of uncertainty at both local and national levels. He argues that the most important aspect are those that seek to reduce uncertainty and promote learning. Current decentralised regimes are unhelpful; they lack the capacity to get more information into inherently uncertain spaces. There is not enough connection between successful solutions.

The most common response to fragmentation is centralisation. But this has two problems. One, it decreases the ability to respond effectively to local conditions. Two, centralisation does not help us manage uncertainty.

Camacho explained that natural resource law tends to be grounded in and focused in 'wildness preservation' which relies on a human-nature dualism.  Keep humans and nature separate. The second law is about minimising non-native and keeping the native. The way we figure out the goal is by looking at what was before and keep it the way it was. We can understand this as historical preservation.

However, climate change shows us the limits of both of these types of approaches. Any attempt to protect nature as untouched is both belated and artificial. Humans have touched and interacted with every eco system in the world. Climate change itself inherently impacts these ecosystems. The importance of keeping the humans and nature separate becomes impossible. In regard to the second goal, we know that there is little ecological foundation for saying that we can focus on what occured before the european history.  it might be actually impossible to keep it the way it was. And really, why would we do that? It might even make it worse. Reserves might become inhospitable to the very areas they are designed to protect.   As conditions shift as a result ofclimate change, it becomes impossible to both keep things the way they are and to leave them alone. To keep them the way they are, active intervention becomes necessary.   What links these two things together? Existing law is based on stasis. Static and fixed models of decision making and nature are problematic.

Law comes form an attempt to provide certainty and stability - a place of fixed rules. But climate change makes the rigidity we see in the law particularly obvious and difficult to defend. We can recognise that procedural and substantive issues are related.  Most agencies put their resources in the front-end process. The premise and the assumption behind this is that that things will stay the same. But they do not. Historical preservationsiam requires stasis.   If the natural system is asssumed to be static, then emphasis on front-end processes makes sense. Historical preservation is only possible if the land is segmented from others. But natural systems move, crossing jurisdicial boundaries.  Creatures, people, pollution cross boundaries. Ecological systems will need to shift in order to adapt to climate change. So we need to either depart from this notion of stasis or we need to accept it won't work

The dualism between nature and humans has really influenced and contributed to regulatory segmentation. Human systems impact non-human systems. Of course we know that cities effect natural areas. But our legal regime is designed to keep them separate. We don't let them interact.

So what do we do about this?

Substantitve side: the goals should not be to leave nature alone or to restore it to some ideal past state. It should, instead, be about  how to maange in ways that promote desired future conditions: ensure health of ecosystems.

But then what do we mean by health? Does it mean to maximise productivity?  These are disputed arguements.  What about distributive impact?  Future ecological conditions and analyasis. The law is still focused on keeping things the way they were or keeping humans out of it.

What we do know about these sorts of questions is that they should not be left solely to experts.  These kinds of goals should not solely be left to these.  What a regulatory process - adaptive governance framework to incentivise regulation and a shared public information network to link different jurisidictions together to learn from the mistakes and successes to one another; they would be required to do so.It would help them adjust and respond to one another.

The citizenry comes to have an increasingly important role. My friends at Story of Stuff talk about this as flexing our 'citizen muscle' in engaging with the rules that shape our lives. The arguments for adaptive governance fit in well with Elinor Ostrom's analysis about governing the Commons and the insights coming out of complexity sciences.

In the US, the goal is to keep nature and humans separate. Maybe the goal of the law can change: to ensure the wellbeing of both the earth and her people by enabling them to live together. Which is, really, what the law is supposed to be about: flourishing well being. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Growing corn and justice in West Oakland

I knew I arrived in the right place when I saw a crowd of what looked to be local West Oaklanders playing music, eating locally grown fresh corn on the cob, barbqued sandwiches and beans spilling into the side walk of one of the busier corners in West Oakland.  At the edge of the freeway, The People’s Grocery was having a celebration of the completion of a very impressive mural (alas, I forgot my camera - but some local journalists did not) that celebrated food justice, grassroots efforts, art, and healthy communities.

People’s Grocery has been on the forefront of sustainability solutions since its founding – and it now looks they are once again pushing boundaries into what it means to create real change.
Over a decade ago, back when ‘food justice’ was far more of an idea than anything that resembled reality, a few young social entrepeneurs/change makers decided to tackle one of the chief challenges of sustainability (people-led, planet-centered, profit-making) challenges head on.   The people of west Oakland – a neighborhood in California known for its drug dealing, violence, low education levels and general poverty – had no local stores to buy fresh vegetables and fruits. Agricutlural markets did not exist. In most of West Oakland, the only ‘food’ stores are liquor stores.  Local knowledge about making yummy, nutritious meals for young families on small budgets was minimal.  KFC, French fries, potato chips, coca-cola and liquor dominated people’s food-choices in areas with few trees, flowers, gardens or other signs of life outside of pavement, cars and run down ware houses.
The original model entailed producing organic food for community-led enterprises. Marketing of enterprises was done through nutrition and food education, including cooking classes.  These urban agricultural programs developed three pieces of land in the City, including a three-acre peri-urban farm. Their ‘Grub box’ is a modified Community Development Agriculture programme, and their Mobile Market was a unique program that has since been copied elsewhere.  Their nutrition education programmes collaborate with public hospitals and health clinics, meaning that they can reach vulnerable communities with what one might call ‘specific cultural needs’.  Much of their work is non-profit, but they also have always run a for-profit grocery store. Both have expanded: the People’s Community Market should open a 15,000 square ft store in the midst of West Oakland in 2012. They kept good records on what they were doing, meaning that their data has been able to inform the broader discussions on the need for diverse food systems for low-income communities.
Now that they’ve done the work of creating  a successful model that has been nationally recognized, they are working on larger issues of community development and systemic change while keeping the focus on food. It’s always a tricky question: how does one create systemic change, and get to the real needs of the community, which are many and diverse? How get to the root of the problem while addressing ongoing crises and ‘superficial’ but very real challenges? Their recent move closer to the more centralized parts of West Oakland (right off the highways), not so far from downtown, may be seen as a symbol of this effort of growing and deepening their already substantial network. They are calling their academy a ‘Growing Justice Institute’: for leaders who are seeking community-led issues to food insecurity.  Over two years, local leaders get mixed forms of support to develop projects that enable income-generating, local food security.   Doing so collectively builds overall social network capacity and what we in international development describe as ‘social capital’ that is critical for learning for social change.

To be selected for the programme, they had to answer not only why their proposed project was worthwhile, but how it dealt with some of the ‘deeper issues’ of food injustice. Browsing the website gives some insights into how local leaders are conceptualizing the deeper challenges. These include, eating habits, breakdown of person-to-person exchange and racial oppression and injustice.  Projects range from setting up sliding-scale restaurants to increasing nutrition classes. 

From my research, there is little doubt that setting up learning communities is a key element of enabling systemic change.  Some of these are political; some are not. They raise questions about how much the projects get to the ‘root causes’ of injustice that are far larger than a small community in California. I wonder, as they go forward, how much the participants in these programs will themselves change their analysis and praxis. Like others in the wider global community of food justice and sustainability in the midst of a changing climate, they face the same challenges of siloization even as they are aware of and trying to become more connected to the inter-related dynamics behind poverty in order to enhance health and wellbeing. 

After chatting, mural-admiring and eating an excellent mixture of beans, salsa and tortilla chips, I helped build a raised bed. Shoveling some ‘local’ manure (cow, horse and something else I didn’t recognize) with wood chips and layering it with various forms of dirt, I was struck by how high the beds were: nearly up to my thigh.  Was the soil on which we stood really poor enough that it needed such high quality dirt?  

We were building on soil that has been long-impacted by heavy metal.  Being right next to the freeway, they’ve gotten deposits of lead in the soil. There’s some concern about air pollution getting onto the leaves – or the heads of different vegetables. The constant movement of cars and trucks creates additional levels of wind. But it’s got good sun exposure.  Raised beds are accessible to everyone.  There’s talk of growing flowers. Personally, I hope they grow beets, corn, squash and beans. – a colorful, nutritious and ancient mixture of some hardy vegetables in an area and a community that needs the health and beauty of such food as much as it needs leadership that can take the promise of growing food and bring it to the people who hunger for real change.