Christmas, 2016–Not Bad

 

NOT BAD

Jesus and the disciples lived in a world where there was no electricity and hence no nuclear waste, where there were no nuclear weapons and hence no threat of annihilation; where there were no coal and oil fired industries, no fossil driven automobiles, and hence no major carbon footprint; no air pollution; no light pollution; you could see the stars at night; no two hour commutes with angry drivers on crowded highways; no mass extinction of the other members of Creation; no cell phones and texting or computers with their toxic components; no chemical food additives; no plastic (hence no trashed landscapes or the Pacific gyre); no overharvesting and drastically declining populations of fish, only a few million other humans on the earth; no need for an array of complex kitchen appliances; no chemically polluted water or eutrophic lakes and rivers from farm run-off of agricultural chemicals; no televisions to be discarded when “obsolete”; food was organic and local; No obesity or tooth decay from highly refined sugars and flours; no crowded cities of a million or twenty million; no chemical smog; no impending climate change with more intensive storms. No streams of airliners streaking through the sky burning oxygen and polluting the upper atmosphere. Most people were farmers and herders. Most life was centered in small villages.                 Not bad.

 

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The Planetary Emergency

“We may live in the strangest, most thoroughly different moment since human beings took up farming, 10,000 years ago, and time more or less commenced.”[i] Bill McKibben

“In effect, the human race has entered into a great wager. We are, so to speak, betting the planet.” [ii] Charles C. Mann

We are facing a planetary emergency that involves much more than the disastrous effects of unchecked global warming; we are on the brink of a comprehensive environmental and hence a social catastrophe. The history of life on Earth is eons old—probably three billion eight hundred million years. In that long, long time span, the basic building blocks of life, the cell, and then complicated organisms and complex ecosystems developed in response to their surroundings, creating the living planet on which civilizations rests, on which it depends for its life support.   We are now threatening all of that.

In a brief geological moment, the last 200 years, our species has radically altered and simplified these planetary ecosystems by creating Hypercivilization. Hypercivilization is a powerfully destructive way of interacting with nature. It is characterized by an unprecedented overreach in population, energy capture and dispersion, rapid urbanization, and a chemical revolution all leading to the toxification of the biosphere, massive habitat loss, extinctions, desertification, environmental diseases, food shortages and climate change. We have changed the conditions in which life evolved and upon which it is dependent. We are in uncharted waters. Neither we humans nor the Earth has ever been here before.

Hypercivilization is a greatly exaggerated, globalized, and intensified form of civilization. It is without precedent. It represents a radical discontinuity with both the evolutionary and the cultural past. It began to emerge first in the mind with a revolution in beliefs and values around 1600 A.D. and then materialized in a first wave of new institutions and the technologies of industrialization. This revolution was firmly entrenched in Western Europe by 1900 A.D., and by the twentieth century, it spread like a tidal wave over the rest of the Earth. It continues to spread and intensify with the onset of the second wave, the new technologies of nuclear fission and biogenics.

Hypercivilization’s main impact on Earth’s life support system is destructive. In Hypercivilization, the good life is defined as acquiring ever more material things called “goods,” by a process called “economic growth” and measured as Gross National Product. Most negative impacts on humans and nature are externalized from its economic system. They will be assessed against our children for generations to come. Pollution, deforestation, drought, erosion, extinctions, overpopulation, a deteriorating climate, and consequent social ills such as modern war and extreme poverty became normative. Seen in historical perspective, Hypercivilization burst upon the earth and trashed it in a comparatively few moments of evolutionary time.

[i] Bill McKibben, “A Special Moment In History,” Atlantic Monthly, May 1998, p. 55.

[ii] Peter Menzel, Material World: A Global Family Portrait Text by Charles Mann, (San    Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994), p. 9.

 

The Cross Roads Of History

 We stand at one of the great cross roads of history. We face a fateful choice between one of two paths into the future. Some say the answer is to do more of what got us here. But the civilization we have created, which is based on the relentless extraction of minerals, the creation of thousands of toxic materials, the pollution of the air, soil and water, the deterioration of the climate, permanent warfare and the rapid extinction of half of nature’s species, and a culture of shallow materialism, is unsustainable. It will collapse from exhaustion and from too high a price forced on the natural world, a world that must remain healthy because it is the base on which all civilizations rest. Here is how the end looks to me, if we stay on our current course.

A MAN ON A HORSE

From where I sit I can see the end

Of this mad, frenetic dance.

Driven by our addictions

We will lose our chance

To help the world mend.

The butterflies are gone,

And the polar bear,

Birds no longer give us cheering song,

But the politicians do not care.

Glaciers melt and Himalaya’s rivers

All run dry,

Ice sheets slide into the rising sea.

Summer bakes, the forests burn

And winter storms invade the land.

Coastal cities sink and islands disappear

While those who flee pile up before the guns.

The doors of empty Walmart’s flutter in the wind,

The ships that filled them once

Drift derelict on acid seas

Where all the fish have died.

In one last grab to keep it all

We built a thousand Fukushimas on the land.

Now a strong man riding on a horse,

Whip and sword at side, watches

While a few survivors plant weak seeds

In contaminated lands

And curse their father’s fathers

Who let slip paradise from out their hands.

This does not have to be our end. Many are working to bring into being a different world based on renewable energy, cradle to cradle manufacturing, legal protection of clean air and water as a human right, ecological restoration, social justice and peace. These are all of a piece, part of a new, sustainable civilization. It is in the womb. Our job is to nurture it, to follow these leaders so that, as the Bible says, “that you and your children may live.”

 

The Perfect Farm/The Perfect Farm Community

The Perfect Farm/The Perfect Farm Community

The perfect farm is one that is resilient; it can survive storms both economic and those thrown at it by Mother Nature. Resilience means independence. It is energy independent, free from the control of giant agricultural corporations and from reliance on distant markets over which it has no control. Energy independence is achieved by renewables. The perfect farm house and buildings are designed, or retrofitted, to derive as much energy as possible from passive solar. That includes south facing triple pane windows, the addition of mass for storing the incoming solar, and high value insulation. It means active solar panels and a wind generator to supply off the grid electricity, and when that production is inhibited by cloud and calm, the farm burns wood from its own woodlot or some other renewable fuel. The farm machinery runs on electricity and/or on methane from a methane generator operation, which brings us to the mix of plants and animals. As we mentioned, it will have a mixed species woodlot. Then an animal operation to maximize manure for the generator and for replenishing the soils. The perfect farm is no till. Green manure is also used to replenish the soil and that includes agro-ecology practices such as cover cropping with dozens of carefully chosen plant varieties.  Nothing is wasted on the perfect farm. The perfect farm is organic. It is a mixed farm with a variety of crops and animals. The perfect farm practices animal husbandry and major gardening. It has hogs, dairy cattle, chickens, goats, et alia. The perfect farm is self-sufficient in necessary foods including proteins, starches and fruits and nuts. It has a small orchard. The perfect farm is designed and run according to the principles of permaculture, meaning that its array of crops and animals is fitted to what the land knows is best which means that the farmer must know the land, the climate, and the seasons intimately, as well as the history of the place. What was done here before? What mistakes were made? What was done right? What is sustainable over generations? The perfect farm protects the soil from erosion and chemical poisoning. It protects the surface waters and the ground water. It protects pollinators and other forms of wildlife. A major portion of it is managed for meadow and hedgerow. The perfect farm maximizes perennial crops to the degree possible. The perfect farm generates more income than outgo—it is profitable, but we must understand that profit is not measured only in dollars paid selling for crops, animals and animal products such as milk and eggs. Farm income also includes the food and fuel it produces for itself, and the money saved by not buying fossil fuels and fertilizers, by not being in debt and having to pay interest, and the value of bartered goods. The perfect farm also engages in agro-tourism and internships for young people, creating both cash income, help with the work, and new insights into how nature works for urbanites.

Is there such a thing as the perfect farm? Probably not. No farm can do everything. So we must think further in terms of the perfect farm community. Some farms must specialize if only because of the requirements of the land. But no farm should be producing just a single product: grain, or apples, or steers. The good farm is a mixed farm to the greatest degree possible. Then it relies on its neighbors (and we can define the extent of neighborhood variously), for that which it doesn’t produce, bartering with them for what it does produce: apples for goat cheese, bread grains for meat, etc. Furthermore the good farm does not need to own every piece of equipment necessary to a farm; it can be part of an equipment coop with its neighbors and it can also rely on help from them with the farm labor. The good farm is much more labor intensive than today’s mechanized operations. After all, what is wrong with more people on the land? More people on the land means more eyes and minds to know it intimately so as not to make mistakes, to say nothing of the joy of being out in nature. We need to repopulate our rural areas. The perfect farm community supplies most of its own food and fiber needs, locally or at least regionally. The farm family at the dinner table does not have to rely entirely on food that has been transported a thousand miles and then processed in some factory. Farmer’s markets and CSAs thrive in the perfect farm community, and here we extend the boundaries of community. The villages and even our great cities can be surrounded by farms like this that supply them with the necessities so that food arrives fresh from a trip that id only dozens of miles instead of hundreds or even thousands. Here is where the farmers will earn the cash they might want to buy a banana at the grocery, since in the U.S. at any rate, no one in the community will be growing them. And this raises the question of how much and what are enough for the good life? Do we need the 50 inch flat screen TV and the latest I-phone in order to be happy and fulfilled? Or do we need meaningful work, families, making our own music, and living a thriving, active community life? Have we not gone far off course in agriculture—gigantism, dependence, erosion, water pollution, debt, loneliness on the land, bad food and the other ills of modern agri-business? Let’s get back to real farming and real communities.

The perfect farm community is a two-way street. It requires not only healthy and sustainable changes on our farms, but the same is required for consumers. It requires them to know what is in the food they buy, including at the Farmer’s Market. It requires them to know where that food comes from, how much energy was wasted in transport. And it requires all of us to ask if we really need to eat avocados every night, and grapefruit every morning. We need to return to the joy of eating seasonally, so that when certain fruits and vegetables are in season, we can relish them.

In the perfect farm community—and here we are extending the boundaries of that community to the entire nation including its big cities for we all depend of farms in order to live—more and more we garden. The urban gardening movement is thriving today. And more and more we cook our own food AND we preserve it through canning and freezing. This is what makes us free and healthy. The two-way street also requires us as consumers in the perfect farm community to support CSAs. It requires us to participate in our democracy by making sure the federal government allocates subsidies, if it is going to allocate them, to the small organic farms and the local processing plants, the local dairy, the local mill for making bread grains, and so forth. We need to urge the government to break up the big agri-business monopolies that arrogantly think they can control what we eat and how it’s produced.

One path to that end is for all of us to contribute through the tax system to young would- be farmers, to make it possible for them to learn about sustainable farming and then to buy a farm. As the big farms come on the market, the government can buy them, break them up, and sell them at a discount to young aspiring farmers. Local governments can support internships for high school and college age kids to work on local organic farms. The schools can be a big part of a program to revivify our food system. Every school can offer classes in gardening and sustainable agriculture, and not just theory, but courses grounded (literally) in a school garden. And such courses would include not just planting and harvesting but food prep and preservation and, in addition, instruction about the politics and economics of the food system.

There is much we can do locally and nationally. Let’s rebuild agriculture. Let’s save our food system, our rural communities, our urban landscapes, and our health before it’s too late.