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. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Scanning the horizon from the ground

In an inherently unpredictable world, trying to sense the future is both impossible and of continual interest. Complexity sciences in use frequently encourage horizon scanning. The Institute of Development Studies, especially 'post' financial crisis, agrees. Everyone's got a horizon, but they may be different; one person's horizon is another person's past. And what better place to look for up and coming trends rather than dPhil students?  Unquestionably, capturing 'complexity' is key.
Some themes arose in a recent discussion of dPhil student's spaces: peer to peer democracy, subsidies' impact on poverty; multiple shocks; ethno-politics of wellbeing; politics of life; and capturing complexity. 

One young man is working with indigenous people in a mountainous portion of Mexico where there is strong group membership and close identities. He is focusing on the power relationships between indigenous and non-indiegnous population around discourses of well-being.  How are different mechanisms of resistance appearing in the region?  They influence at the micro level but not the macro environment. The status quo is re-produced at the macro level.  IDS hasn't paid much attention to Latin America - in Great Britain in general, Latin American studies institutes have been closing recently. 

Another is focusing on peer to peer democracy in Egypt. How are ICTs impacting the post-Arab Spring setting? Obviously they were key for the revolution. But how are they now enabling the emergence of citizenship and the shaping of new forms of identity?  Social and technological phenomenan are becoming increasingly interlinked. The emerging social-technical environments do not fit our current paradigms of power and participation. 

How do social systems behave like complex systems? Can one bring greater rigour to what is often an experiment with metaphors? Eric Kasper is going to be working with PRIYA in India to carry out action research with the urban power to look at how they are acting as agents of their own development. He will be using a diversity of methods including an agent based model and a participatory methodology to understand rapid urbanisation and urban poverty. How do the structure of social networks impact what is possible in terms of social change?  Mixing methodologies becomes increasingly important. 

Maybe new horizons are less about finding new things so much as finding new ways of seeing.  One lady used participatory film, digital mapping, relationships and bodies to find new ways of seeing the politics of life. AIDS, women, clinics, messiness and being personally and socially challenged: what's actually going on and how are we opening up the Latour's 'black boxes'.

Multiple shocks - from famines to financial crises - share many dynamics. It's all political, of course - and context specific. The differences of crises, multiple sectors, mixed methods and all the other ways we have of dividing the world often only come together within the lived experience of the human person, the household, and the networked enterprise over time.  In the end, it comes back to people: what is the real experience of the people 'on the ground' wherever that ground might be? From horizons to ground - work: some opportunity for development.