Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Big, important people tell us stories about the future, and we have to take them seriously. Here’s George Soros talking to Newsweek:
“I am not here to cheer you up. The situation is about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career. We are facing an extremely difficult time, comparable in many ways to the 1930s, the Great Depression. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system.”
The Transition model and the Dark Mountain Project, two movements that come out of England, are both essentially based on storytelling. Transition, being about the creation of a post-carbon economy, places emphasis on the positive alternative to global capitalism--local, neighborly communities, efficient local food systems, efficiency and clean energy. Bring it on! is the only fair response. Dark Mountain can serve as a contrasting refuge for that inner voice that says “but seriously...collapse will be fun?”
Should we really tell stories about the future? I don’t question the value of referencing history; as we look ahead to climate change and peak oil, the response to the Nazi threat often seems particularly relevant--everything from the underground resistance in Europe, to Churchill’s heroic leadership out of the depth of personal depression, to the Victory Garden movement in the US. We can take heart, and also cues, from the defeat of slavery in this country. Rebecca Solnit writes about the positive human response to disaster. Jared Diamond’s studies of cultures in collapse may be particularly instructive. But in the absence of anything literally parallel to global resource depletion on every level, we have no real historical examples. What we have are forecasts, sci-fi, stories.
I have two concerns about storytelling. One is obvious: We couldn’t possibly get it right, and so we risk indulging in magical thinking (if the stories are positive), or apocalyptic forecasting (often accompanied by heated ranting--in my experience no one likes this much). The other is that all forms of future-storytelling, including prediction and planning, are contraindicated in much spiritual practice, where it is seen as dwelling in the future, when the only appropriate place to reside is the present.
I run up against this in my community organizing work (around climate change and the transition to a post-carbon economy). Storytelling, envisioning a positive future despite it all, is what we do to draw people in. Many of our best projects model stories of a better future--think of the urban agriculture movement, and local foods. I struggle with the niggling sense that the best spiritual wisdom we have advocates a firm stance in the here and now as the recipe for both sanity and happiness. Empirical evidence in my own life seems to bear this out: I have been insane with worry over many things in my life, and what is worry if not a dark story about the future?
There are stories of resilience (Victory Gardens), 11th-hour heroism (Churchill), and also of social fabric decay in times of crisis (I think of the snipers of Bosnia). What if we just didn't tell any stories about the future right now? It's contrary to much organizing theory, and certainly to Transition culture, but then basic to mystical and direct-religious experience--just live in the present and be aware, do what seems relevant and right for now.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
The trend of the 1960s and 1970s that involved many young people choosing to create a degree of self-sufficiency in rural areas--farming, homesteading, communal living--is almost always described as a “failed movement”. I suspect our corporate overlords of promoting this vague pejorative. Let’s not argue whether these are real entities with real power, or simply the naysaying voice of popular culture in our minds; we are both attracted and repelled by the idea of a gritty life close to nature, on the edge of financial viability, stripped of familiar comforts. It scares us, and we love it at the same time.
I just finished Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life is in Your Hands, of her childhood on a Maine homestead. She is exactly my age (43), and although her prose varies, the book naturally grips those of us born in the 1960s and 1970s. Our parents could have been Melissa’s parents--Eliot and Sue Coleman. Inspired by the Nearings, they bought land on the coast of Maine, and set to farming with strict organic principles, vegetarian diets, and no indoor plumbing or electricity. And yes, things went badly.
Helen and Scott Nearing had a famous formula that’s really appealing: put in four hours a day of hard manual labor, devote another four to intellectual pursuits, and then give four hours to community time, or social life. They ate like mice, cheated a bit here and there (trips to Florida in the winter), but basically it worked for them.
The Nearing formula collapses when you add children. Two people can maintain a homestead with such a relatively leisurely pace, as long as they have modest needs, but children, especially when they’re little, represent a full-time job for one person. And especially when you’re out in the woods with no Pampers. This immutable fact was proved ruinous for Melissa’s baby sister, and for the mental health of their mother. Eliot Coleman, however, has gone on to a brilliant career as a pioneer in organic farming and four-season growing in New England.
There’s a good little article on Grist right now, called “Not one more winter in the tipi, honey”, that describes the homesteader meltdowns that the author has seen in rural Colorado. Gender issues, division of labor, the unpaid work of childcare are taking down relationships, the dreams of young homesteaders. Are we surprised at this? These are the unresolved problems of the larger culture that we take with us onto our little farms. Parenting is service; we live in a product-oriented consumer culture. On many homesteads, although the work is evenly divided, it’s the men who build the houses, till the land, produce the food. As inglorious as their products may be, they are products. In contrast the homesteading parent hand washes dirty diapers while singing “The Wheels on the Bus” after 3 hours of broken sleep.
Is the lesson that we need to move to a condo, buy a washing machine, find and excellent daycare and put on heels to go to work? For some of us, this will never be a solution. Let’s instead check in with the capitalist overlords of the mind, to see whether placing the nuclear family on a lonely homestead, with two tired adults trying to make it all work, wasn’t actually their idea. No wonder it “failed”. (But if it actually failed, why are is it so clearly coming back?) There are other models of family, community and work to be tried.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Our very-indulged dog, Canyon, gets walked three times/day. This means I have ample time for trash-picking. The abundance of plantable-objects being left out for trash inspired me to start a container garden. I think many of us are intimidated into thinking that containers are those expensive terra-cotta pots from the nursery. Here I have $13 worth of containers -- the old Pepsi crate and the orange teakettle were purchased at a yard sale, and everything else was found. Drawers from old chests make an instant raised-bed., for example.
When I find a container, I bring it home and right away make sure it has drainage (either I put a plastic pot in it, or drill holes in the bottom) and then fill it with a mixture of soil and compost, and add seeds. This little array was started about a month ago, and features mesclun lettuces, radishes, a tomato plant, and some zinnias that haven't sprouted yet. I plan to continue until I fill up all our paved and sunny areas.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
We all know it was a strange and disturbing week. The assassination of Osama Bin Ladin provided "closure" (whatever that is), and it also rekindled horrible memories of 9/11. Those of us who take our religious precepts of nonviolence seriously had to wrestle with our emotions, and the public reaction as well.
In my life it was the Week Of Rage, with several colliding incidents reminding me at every turn that anger is dangerous, that it's unavoidable, and that we must be aware of our own and other's reactions to it. I had a blow-out with my 13-year-old niece and both of her parents over her rudeness; a neighbor verbally assaulted me when my dog peed on his lawn; a motorists swore at me and tried to run me off the road on my bike; another bike was stolen from our yard; and I had several nasty arguments with my 12-year-old son about his treatment of his brother.
If I were to guess, I'd say that collective rage is running high. I expect there are sociologists confirming this in their ways, but I just take it from my everyday encounters. It has occurred to me that the very public nature of my life makes me vulnerable.
My ex-husband arrived today to pick up the boys in a brand-new Volvo SUV, and I had to sigh at the discrepancy in our values. But I also get it: The most natural thing to do in difficult times is build a castle with a moat. Fortify. If I drove a large Volvo instead of riding a bike I wouldn't be the target of angry young men in cars. If I had a suburban house with a large yard my dog, and my kids, would be safe from wackos and bike thieves. Seemingly.
I got on Craigslist to browse options for replacing Simon's stolen bike. Five bikes, and two scooters, have been stolen from our yard this year. Naturally, this has left me suspicious of my neighbors, feeling like everything must be nailed down or will be carried off. But then today the pretty, tatooed young woman selling the bike I picked out online threw in a u-lock and brought the bike from Marlborough to my door when she heard what had happened. "Karma comes back around," she said, explaining.
It's a lovely little red Schwinn.
I periodically revise our household budget, and in the process, I encounter the ironies of our times. My growing passion for growing has me convinced I could save perhaps 50% of our food budget by dedicating myself to freezing and preserving what the garden produces. The problem is, our food budget is negligible compared to other spending categories. (Americans typically spend 10% of their income on food; Europeans 30%.)
Meanwhile, the cost of health, life and homeowners insurance is now $600/month, with the majority of that being health insurance. I work pretty hard to maintain my health, because I dislike most doctors and I'm afraid of hospitals. My first line of defense when ever anything needs to be treated is acupuncture (which is not covered and so another expense). So that means I'm really just paying for "catastrophic health insurance". (I have considered not carrying health insurance for myself--keeping it for my kids, of course--but in doing so I would risk bankrupting my family if anything serious happened to me.)
The other budget item that's almost intractable is transportation. I've gone on here at some length about my adventures in car-free living, and I stand by the choice not to own an automobile for many reasons. Alas, the financial benefit has been the least of them. I am spending about $400/month on the total cost of transport, including car rentals (mainly Zipcar), subway pass, and bike maintenance. This is about the same as it would cost to drive an old beater.
My final accounting is that between housing, insurance and transportation (and admittedly other miscellany, like utilities and camping trips and ice-hockey fees) it would cost us about 50k/year to live in Boston even if we DID NOT EAT.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Then someone offered her a yard. Kate quickly put up a website, and within a week she had 25 more offers of suburban plots to farm in Needham.
Kate and her wife Jude now farm 1.25 acres of suburbia, using organic methods and selling the produce at farmers markets in Dedham and Roslindale. (The deal with the yard-owners involves an exchange of some produce for use of the land and water.) The Neighborhood Farm is offered new yards all the time, though many of them are unsuitable for reasons ranging from an abundance of mature shade trees, to unfortunate locations downhill from chemically-treated lawns.
Kate an Jude maintain part-time jobs at Whole Foods and Starbucks for extra income and benefits--a detail that seems fitting to a venture wedged squarely between corporate America and the post-carbon economy. Kate explains the financial predicament familiar to all small farmers: She cannot afford to pay help without tripling the prices of her produce, and so expansion is not an option right now. Should Neighborhood Farm become a nonprofit and seek grants? Or find startup capital to finance machinery?
"I can't tell if this is really viable financially," Kate mulls. "My goal is really to teach people to feed themselves," she says. "Anyone can grow their own carrots. That way farmers could concentrate on the hard stuff like meat and grains."
Viable for whom? Kate and Jude's farm is one of many innovative models pointing the way towards food security in the cities. They won't get rich, but if they succeed, we may all still eat when the lights go out.
Learn more at TheNeighborhoodFarm.com
We've all been following the recent kerfluffle over the closing of Hi-Lo Foods and the news that Whole Foods is coming to JP. If you live in Jamaica Plain and eat food, your shopping options are complex and full of moral and culinary quandaries.
This synopsis is meant to help guide your choices.
Harvest Coop is known for member-ownership, organic produce, and the rudeness of its staff. Nearest parking space: Your driveway. Roche Bros (W, Rox) is a pleasant local chain owned by good old-fashioned Irish-Americans who give money to sports leagues and the Salvation Army. Approximate number of organic items in store: 14. Hi-Lo Food (RIP) has been a bastion of Spanish delectables for fifty years. Chance of food poisoning: 35% Trader Joe's (Brookline): Great prices on over-packaged foods. Shrink-wrapped broccoli. Be sure to figure the cost of the parking ticket into your visit. City Feed and Supply: The prices of their wholesome foodstuffs may be driven up by their fancy fonts, Whole Foods (opening April, 2011): Sinfully fine selection of all you could ever want in a market, but comes complete with union-busting and greenwashing. Pervasive smell of evil can cause you to loose your appetite. Local Farmers Markets: Absolutely fab for those who have 20 extra hours in their week to devote to canning and preserving. Also, unfortunate lack of options in the mac n' cheese department for those of us with kids.
The upshot of all this? Perfection eludes us, even in Jamaica Plain.
These days people seem to frequently say things like "We're heading for tough times" or "It's gonna be a bumpy ride!"
My particular situation seems to be this: I'm walking down a long icy road to catch a smelly bus in order to get to an event at which kale will be served. Car-free Green Mama walks 3-5 miles a day in this new global-warming inspired weather, and with one bad knee. While I deeply admire the seven people in Boston who are still biking in this weather, I have a goal to live to see my children grow up, so I stomp around, briskly but carefully.
I rarely promote anything other than myself, but I'm about to go all huckster on you. Urban crampons are not just a hot new fashion accessory for the elderly, they're a necessity for the serious urban ice-walker.
Everyone raves about YakTrax. Don't buy them. They are made from rubber-bands and paper clips. I went through three pairs in January. After some online browsing, I found lots of neat ice-climbing gear suitable for medieval torture, but not for stepping into someone's foyer. Then I found my new best friends: Icetrekkers. Beautiful! They have chains on the bottoms, just like the good old days of snow-chains for tires. Not cheap but try Ebay.
And walk on...