Archive for the 'citizenship' Category

Palin's Face, Klein's Language and the Problem of Self-Diagnosis

Sharon August 5th, 2009

I don’t like Sarah Palin, and I do very much admire Naomi Klein, whose book _The Shock Doctrine_ was one of the most important books of the decade.  Had you asked me a few days ago whether I’d write an essay criticizing Naomi Klein for, among other things, her representation of Sarah Palin, I would have suggested that the odds were, to say the least, extremely low.  And yet I find myself doing precisely that, which just, as they say in the song, just ”goes to show you never can tell.”

The problem with Naomi Klein’s essay, originally given as a speech, is not that we disagree about many of her basic observations about the problems we face, but rather that I think she’s allowing a cheap shot, and a false description of a moment to blind her to the scope of the real problem, and to throw up barriers to what needs doing.  In the end, Klein and I agree about a lot – but the devil is always in the details, and in this case, her use of details troubles me.

Klein begins her essay using Sarah Palin as the embodiment of a moment in time, as the human version of the idea that our culture can go on as it is forever.  She writes:

“I usually talk about the bailout in speeches these days. We all need to understand it because it is a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary history. But today I’d like to take a different approach: What if the bailout actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is that what we want? And what would that world look like?The answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin. Hear me out, this is not a joke. I don’t think we have given sufficient consideration to the meaning of the Palin moment. Think about it: Sarah Palin stepped onto the world stage as Vice Presidential candidate on August 29 at a McCain campaign rally, to much fanfare. Exactly two weeks later, on September 14, Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial meltdown.

So in a way, Palin was the last clear expression of capitalism-as-usual before everything went south. That’s quite helpful because she showed us—in that plainspoken, down-homey way of hers—the trajectory the U.S. economy was on before its current meltdown. By offering us this glimpse of a future, one narrowly avoided, Palin provides us with an opportunity to ask a core question: Do we want to go there? Do we want to save that pre-crisis system, get it back to where it was last September? Or do we want to use this crisis, and the electoral mandate for serious change delivered by the last election, to radically transform that system? We need to get clear on our answer now because we haven’t had the potent combination of a serious crisis and a clear progressive democratic mandate for change since the 1930s. We use this opportunity, or we lose it.

So what was Sarah Palin telling us about capitalism-as-usual before she was so rudely interrupted by the meltdown? Let’s first recall that before she came along, the U.S. public, at long last, was starting to come to grips with the urgency of the climate crisis, with the fact that our economic activity is at war with the planet, that radical change is needed immediately. We were actually having that conversation: Polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And then in walked Sarah Palin. The core of her message was this: Those environmentalists, those liberals, those do-gooders are all wrong. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to rethink anything. Keep driving your gas-guzzling car, keep going to Wal-Mart and shop all you want. The reason for that is a magical place called Alaska. Just come up here and take all you want. “Americans,” she said at the Republican National Convention, “we need to produce more of our own oil and gas. Take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska, we’ve got lots of both.”‘

And to a degree, all of this is true.  But the problem with holding Sarah Palin up as the embodiment of business as usual, is that it is a cheap shot.  I don’t like Sarah Palin, and I sure as heck don’t want her to be in charge of anything bigger than the local Elks Club.  But if we are going to use Sarah Palin as the embodiment of our failure, to imply that our doom comes from the right, we need to ask what alternatives the left has proposed?   That is, who isn’t Sarah Palin?  Is there someone out there who stands up as the essence of this new, progressive movement that Klein claims is in progress, and that undermines our situation?

The logical candidate, of course, would be Obama.  And while I am always a fan of the lesser of two evils, and give Obama sincere credit for some of his actions, I think an attempt to imply that our disaster comes from an ignorant right is a deeply false and troubling one.  The contrasting figure, Obama, was a senator from the midwest, fully complicit in the massive ethanol boondoggle that helped create a new starving class worldwide, as cars competed with people for food.  He is and was an advocate of so-called “clean coal” – despite the fact that there is no such thing, despite the fact that carbon capture and storage is a non-starter.  He is certainly an advocate of continued economic growth, and I find myself queasily forced to admit (since I like George W. Bush a whole lot less than Sarah Palin) that I think Bush’s stimulus package, which at least put money in the hands of ordinary people who needed it, was more populist, more successful and more humane than Obama’s funding of the auto industry and a whole lot of re-paving and highways projects. 

It would be just as accurate, and far less petty for Klein to state that the figure that represents business as usual, going on as we are, is Barack Obama.  And in giving a speech to a group of people at a celebration of _The Progressive_ it would have been a whole heck of a lot more honest and more just.  That is, the problem is not just the world vision embodied by the people you already don’t like, it is the problem embodied by the people you do, and in fact, by the people you are. 

Klein claims that last August, we were actually “having that conversation” about the urgency of dealing with our ecological crisis.  After all, polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek.  I’m casting my memory back to last summer, and trying to recall a sense of invigorated national dialogue on the subject of climate change.   I’m not finding it.  If the subject was coming up in discussion more, which it probably was, although not nearly as much as Obama’s birth certificate or McCain’s fits of temper, or who would be VP, well,  great.   But the terms in which the discussion was occurring were still completely unrelated to the scale of action that we must function on to address climate change – and they still are.  Yeah, there were polar bears on the cover of a national magazine – why not, they are cute, and as long as the issue is framed in terms of how much we care about fuzzy bears, it is conveniently placed outside of our own future and our own survival.

Now Klein goes on to frame our discussion in precisely necessary terms – she turns us to the basic idea that we have to end growth, that we can’t live on a planet that engages in the kind of rapine, endless growth modern capitalism that we have.  I’m thrilled that she did so, and I think this is the important essence of the discussion – and Klein’s use of her platform to have it matters a great deal.  She says,

“The President tells us he wants to look forward, not backwards. But in order to confront the lie of perpetual growth and limitless abundance that is at the center of both the ecological and financial crises, we have to look backwards. And we have to look way backwards, not just to the past eight years of Bush and Cheney, but to the very founding of this country, to the whole idea of the settler state.Modern capitalism was born with the so-called discovery of the Americas. It was the pillage of the incredible natural resources of the Americas that generated the excess capital that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Early explorers spoke of this land as a New Jerusalem, a land of such bottomless abundance, there for the taking, so vast that the pillage would never have to end. This mythology is in our biblical stories—of floods and fresh starts, of raptures and rescues—and it is at the center of the American Dream of constant reinvention. What this myth tells us is that we don’t have to live with our pasts, with the consequences of our actions. We can always escape, start over.

These stories were always dangerous, of course, to the people who were already living on the “discovered” lands, to the people who worked them through forced labor. But now the planet itself is telling us that we cannot afford these stories of endless new beginnings anymore. That is why it is so significant that at the very moment when some kind of human survival instinct kicked in, and we seemed finally to be coming to grips with the Earth’s natural limits, along came Palin, the new and shiny incarnation of the colonial frontierswoman, saying: Come on up to Alaska. There is always more. Don’t think, just take.

This is not about Sarah Palin. It’s about the meaning of that myth of constant “discovery,” and what it tells us about the economic system that they’re spending trillions of dollars to save. What it tells us is that capitalism, left to its own devices, will push us past the point from which the climate can recover. And capitalism will avoid a serious accounting—whether of its financial debts or its ecological debts—at all costs. Because there’s always more. A new quick fix. A new frontier.”

Why on earth am I quibbling with someone who gets so much right in this speech?  She goes on to call our modern economic models a leaky pirate ship, and suggests we need to destroy the ship and buid a whole new vessel.  And she’s absolutely right – that is, our economic models, our whole way of life, our assumptions that there are always more resources, have to change – they will change, one way or another, by virtue of climate change and energy limitations.  Our only choice for a softish landing is to change them voluntarily, before we have no other options, and our window for doing so is getting very, very, very narrow.  And the only possible option is to change as we must – that is, not as we want to, not as we are comfortable with, not as would be easy for us, but as the facts demand.  And that change is going to be quite profound.

Klein gets the problem right.  She gets that we can’t continue to live this way.  But she still is attached to old enlightenment political categories that simply do not function well in the face of our crisis.  She imagines a rapine right, selling the Business As Usual model, and a at least partially critical left.  There is some truth in this analysis (and there is often some truth in the criticisms of the left from the right) - but not enough to take us where we need to go.  Because the left has been complicit in creating other myths, just as false.  It is the left who created the idea that we could buy our way out of this, simply because we want to retain our identity as consumers.  It is the affluent left that has told us that if we just buy better products, if we just recycle more, it will be enough. 

 It is leftist environmentalists who have understated the scope of the problem, and who have told us over and over again that our economy will grow again, this time with plenty of green jobs for everyone, that sacrifice is not necessary. But when you look closely at the studies that support this idea, they all involve radically lower emissions cuts than those that are necessary, radically longer time frames, the viability of technologies that do not presently fully exist and the assumption that we have all the energy in the ground and all the money in the world to do it.  All of those assumptions are fundamentally false – they are still working with old numbers, often with 450 ppm rather than 350 ppm, and without acknowledging that many of the things we thought we had a lot of time for – the melting or arctic ice, the leaking of methane out of the permafrost – are happening now, decades or centuries before even the IPCC reports expected them.

Left and right, working together, have conspired to create a culture of denial, have declined, for the most part, to offer clear terms to the general public.  The right has claimed that we can drill our way out, the left that we can build solar panels in the desert and capture our coal emissions.  Neither one has a remote handle on climate change, much less climate change intersecting with peak oil and economic crisis.

And this is why her talk bothers me so much – she gets the answers right.  But until you frame the discussion correctly, we’re back to banging on the same old drums – back to arguing over who is better, Obama or McCain.  Sure there’s a difference, and an important one, but that’s not the central question – the central question is how do we get to a leader who will actually deal with realities.  Sarah Palin is one face of our disaster.  Barack Obama is another one.  And all of us wear that face too – every one of us who does not want the solutions to be too hard, too extreme, and thus, declines to fully understand the evidence in front of our faces; every one of us who desperately wants the solutions offered on both sides to be true, and thus, chooses lies over truth.

We do have to end growth.  We do have to sink the pirate ship and build again.  We also have to acknowledge the true state of our ability to do that – the pressing limitations on our capacity to rebuild.  We do have to acknowledge what that actually means, and find a way to make it politically palatable to people on both sides of the aisle, because it is the vast middle, those people who are mostly neither left nor right, but who move with our political tides towards where they think their future lies, that matter most. As a leftist, of course, I’d prefer that wasn’t true – but we don’t have the time to change the world in every respect before we deal with the impending crisis.  So the question becomes this – in what terms do we speak?  How do we move the majority in the direction of the painful and necessary alterations that we face?  And I don’t think we do it by making Sarah Palin the rhetorical face of our failure. Not when that wears so many other familiar faces.

 Sharon

Ready…Aim…

Sharon July 29th, 2009

Note: Yes, another re-run.  Today’s project is to re-do the Table of Contents and Book Proposal for my next book, which is now a one-author (me) project.  So yes, re-play, but this one, I think is even more important as time passes.

Barbara Ehrenreich has a wonderful essay on the way we’re turning on ourselves in response to the financial crisis – and how we should be turning our anger outwards.  She’s right – and it isn’t just suicide.  Depression, domestic violence, child abuse – all of these are on the rise, and in large part due to the fact that people are poorer, scared and frustrated.  Ehrenreich writes of the move to respond to the financial bad news by destroying yourself that we’re aiming in the wrong direction:

“Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition — like an ever-rising number of Americans — you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

The alternative is to value yourself more than any amount of money and turn the guns, metaphorically speaking, in the other direction. It wasn’t God, or some abstract economic climate change, that caused the credit crisis. Actual humans — often masked as financial institutions — did that, (and you can find a convenient list of names in Nomi Prins’s article in the current issue of Mother Jones.) Most of them, except for a tiny few facing trials, are still high rollers, fattening themselves on the blood and tears of ordinary debtors. I know it’s so 1930s, but may I suggest a march on Wall Street?”

And may I hear an amen?  I’m with Ehrenreich here – we’ve all been taught to be ashamed of poverty, that we’re in charge of our own destiny, and thus, if we are poor, we’ve failed.  This, of course is a lie – but a terribly potent one, one with the power to hurt us very badly – as long as we let it.

It is time and past time to stop buying that lie, to get angry and turn our anger towards the places we can make a difference.  For example, right now, our future is being stolen from us as the Fed and other government agencies pour billions of dollars – billions that might have been spent on food aid, hunger relief, reinsulation of millions of homes, renewable energy applications for schools and hospitals – into Wall Street, into an economy that is collapsing anyway.  Our money, and our future is being treated as so much garbage.  And we are permitting it.

In his book _The People’s History of the Twentieth Century_, Howard Zinn speculates that in fact, the New Deal wasn’t so much a response to the desperation of the American people during the Depression, but a response to the sheer success of collective action by ordinary people.  Labor Unions and organized resistance to foreclosures and evictions became so powerful, so dangerous to institutional powers, that government response was in part motivated by the recognition that their power was *GOING TO GO AWAY PERMANENTLY* because people realized – oh wait, we don’t have to let them take our homes away, or treat us like slaves.  That is, the Depression brought great suffering – but it also brought the recognition that the only solution to that suffering lay in the hands of ordinary people.  This is no less true now than then, although it is sometimes hard to see or remember.

Or think, for example, about the tremendous energies used by Southern slave owners to prevent slave rebellions.  The prohibitions against reading and writing, the hideous punishments of failed ones, all of this was used to convince slaves that they could not win – even though there’s an excellent chance they could have, had enough rebelled.  Deep at the heart of slavery and every kind of repression is the knowledge that if enough people care enough, are angry enough, are willing enough to sacrifice for something better, all the slave owners and entrenched powers are doomed.  All it takes is enough “no”s.

On the same day I read Ehrenreich’s article, I got an email from a man who said:

 ”I’m getting ready for climate change and peak oil. I’m working with my community.  I’m preparing personally. I know I’m doing the right thing by reading and learning and teaching others.  But I can’t shake this feeling of sadness.  When my daughter was born, 6 years ago, I was so excited, so filled with hopes and dreams for her.  Now, as I learn more about the world, I feel like all my dreams have died, and my hopes are being reduced to ‘I hope my daughter gets to live in a world that isn’t too brutal and inhumane’ or ‘I hope even though there might not be enough resources to go around that she gets some.’  I don’t like the dreamless person I’m becoming.  How do I find something to hope for, to dream of, that isn’t the bare minimum of survival?”

It was an email I didn’t quite know how to answer when I first got it, and the gentleman kindly gave me permission to think about it and print an answer here.  But now, I think I do have a kind of an answer. 

One of the criticisms levelled at my end of (the relocalizers, permaculturists, sustainability crew) is that we’re unrealistic, utopian, that we don’t fully grasp how hard it will be to simply keep alive, and now we’re shooting at making things better?!?  And there’s almost certainly some truth to that criticism – as there is to all potent critiques.  And lord knows, as a recent Onion Headline (”Small, Dedicated Group of Concerned Citizens Fails to Change World”) points up, it is easy to get a little too fuzzy and cute about empowerment and imagine that simply by reducing the scale of some things while fundraising and putting up the right bumperstickers that we’ll magically make all the entrenched powers go away.

But while they are pretty good at ignoring or subverting small groups of concerned citizens, the old adage about coyotes (that they are more scared of you than you are of them) rather applies to politicians, corporations and other entrenched powers when faced with big groups of pissed off people.  Want proof?  Look at history – at the number of times angry groups of people have changed societies quite rapidly and radically.  It happens all the time.  It isn’t happening yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. 

So as I cast about for answers to what my correspondent can dream for his children, and I for mine,  I found this – a dream of anger, used wisely.  A world in which today’s parents,  and all today’s grownups have the courage to get angry, and use the power they have.  In which they have the ability to see what is possible, and to take in a host of ways as much power as they can for ordinary people.  As institutions and politicians and corporations are more and more proved utterly unequal to the task of meeting our needs, we can open our eyes and see that we can meet them – or we can withdraw our support and tolerance from those institutions until serve us, rather than forcing us to serve them.  Anger is a dangerous tool – but it is a tool, and one we cannot put down entirely, because if those of who us know the truth put it down, it will be wielded by those who tell lies.

I can dream of two things for my boys, and for my reader’s daughter.  First, that they will grow up uncowed by those powers – aware that they only seem distant and immovable.  And also that they will know that their anger and passion are powerful enough to take an imperfect, warmer, depleted world, and find a kind of sufficiency within it – with enough left over for dreams for the next generation.

 Sharon
 

 

My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live

Sharon June 22nd, 2009

My friend, Permaculturist Keith Johnson’s site pointed me to this excellent article
(there’s a direct link to the whole original there), in which ecologist and ecological footprint inventor William Rees makes the case that cities (and really, not just cities, all people in the developed world) are rather like human feedlots, disconnected from the acreage on which they really “live” – ie, the acreage that supplies their food, energy and other needs.

Rees writes,

 “What eco-footprinting shows is that, in ecological terms, the Dutch don’t live in
Holland. Similarly, urban dwellers don’t “live” in their cities; urbanization simply
separates us from the productive ecosystems that sustain us but lie far beyond
the urban boundary. An apt analogy is “the city as human feedlot.” Like the city,
a livestock feedlot is an area with an extraordinarily high density of consumer
animals and a corresponding major waste management problem. Cities and
feedlots are incomplete ecosystems – the productive land component is some
distance away.”

Now I think this is an acute assessment – but I hope it will not be taken simply as the sort of indictment of city life that many rural dwellers, who do not like city life, are inclined to make.  Before I was a rural dweller, I lived in a number of cities, and I do like them.  I do not think that cities will disappear, or that living in one is inevitably disastrous.  Nor do I think that the above statement is inaccurate if you substitute the terms “suburban” or “rural” in most of the developed world – even in places where one potentially can meet most of one’s needs from the agricultural and natural resources readily available, few people do.  But I think this is a tremendously useful way of thinking about this issue – to say that we truly live where our needs are met forces us to ask the question – if our lives are not in the places we reside, where are they?  Where should they be?

Now to some degree, as long as there has been human trade, there have been “shadow acres” – that land that supplied needs that could not be locally met.  It is a very ancient reality – there has been trade almost as long as there have been humans.   And yet, there is a real and qualitative difference between societies that provide much of their own needs, and those that do not.  Among other things, distance makes us willing to be exploitative – that is, we do not feel we have an incentive to preserve the acres of other people, far away, even if that land feeds or clothes us. 

For cities, historically the surrounding outlands provided their food – often in literally reciprocal relationship.  Rees mentions the enormous waste-management problem caused by urban population density – in much of the world, the reciprocity of that relationship was direct, food was brought in to the cities from the outlying countryside, while human wastes were brought out, to be applied back to the fields.  While the direct application of human manures to the fields is not desirable, this relationship is almost certainly one that will have to be re-established – but one made difficult by the fact that our growing land is quite distant from most of our largest cities – the transmission of municipal manures would be enormously energy intensive, and the surrounding suburbs, densely populated themselves, cannot absorb them.  That is, without large quantities of fossil fuels, there’s really no way to set up a truly sustainable system, in which waste becomes not a problem, but a benefit.

All cities, indeed, all non-indigenous societies involve some deferral in where we live, with some resources coming from elsewhere, but we have taken this to new and problematic heights.  For example, the Indian historian Dharampal has demonstrated that before British colonialism, 80-90 percent of India’s resources were utilized at the local level for the local economy, resources and well being.  Less than 20% – often much less, depending on the region, went to serve leaders or central authority.  Colonialism completely reversed this economy - taking 90% of produced resources for export or to serve the empire and its landlords and central authorities, leaving only 10% for general populace – with a corresponding destruction in wellbeing and personal economies. 

Ecological footprinting shows that the results of globalization, which is colonialism’s ugly step-sister, are similar – where local resources once were “wasted” on the populace, now they concentrate wealth and serve mostly people who are already affluent.  For example, research demonstrates that the vast majority of green revolution grain increases went not into the mouths of the poor and hungry who they supposedly were meant to serve, but into livestock and processed foods that fed people who were never hungry and were already affluent.  At the same time, places that once fed themselves shifted to export crops, and were made vulnerable to fluctuating markets, dumping and ecological destruction. 

Do we live where our food is grown?  After all, most of us eat 3 times a day.  So look around you and ask this question – where does our food come from?  If our relationship with that place means that part of us “lives” there, how is our citizenship within that place?  That is, do we treat it as a place to extract resources from, at minimal return, as a colony to provide for our needs, or as a place we are citizens of, with an investment in its well-being and future?  For most of us, it is the former – and from this, I would argue, stems much of the deep hostility of rural places to those who consume their food, and much of the deep political divide in this country.

Do we live where our water comes from?  We know that similar hostilities exist in places where the water comes from far away – my own region supplies part of the watershed for New York City, and at times, conflicts.  But this is nothing compared to water-poor areas of the country – the conflicts between Northern and Southern California, say or Georgia and northern Florida, much less across the US/Mexican border.  If we cannot grow food, or even live without water from somewhere else, what is our relationship to that place?  What happens when both parties need the water?

Do we live where our goods come from?  We are finally beginning to ask this question – Sir Nicholas Stern has opened the door to considering whether China’s emissions, for example, belong only to it, if it provides goods that are mostly used in the rich world?  Can we blame China for its coal use entirely if we absorb the products of that use, if Chinese factories replace our own, and allow us to claim a reduction in emissions? 

Do we live where our energy comes from?  To this question, we might answer a resounding yes – we know for a fact that the Iraq war was about oil, that it followed in the footsteps of the Carter doctrine, which observes that since inconveniently, “our” oil is under their sand, our military and political agendas must always center on the Middle East.  But we live their not as citizens, but as a military presence, building more and more resentment and anger.

Do we live where our waste goes?  Do we float in the Dead Zone off the gulf of Mexico?  Do we live where our old computers contaminate the soil and poison children in Africa? Most of us do live where our own feces contaminates our water, those things we imagine being whisked magically “away” that inevitably, somehow, come back, floating on the water at the beach, until we pour chlorine in and try hard to pretend it never happened.

Do we live where the primary work, once done mostly by us, is now done by others?  If we eat meat, do we live where the great slaughterhouses are, where migrant laborers are hurt and killed to provide us with our clean, packaged foods?  If we wear t-shirts with clever sayings on them, do we live where Vietnamese teenagers sew 12 hours a day in unventilated rooms?  If we use toilets, do we live where they are cleaned by poorer people than we?

We are not good global citizens – we know that.  We are devourers of the world.  But is it even possible to be a decent and honorable global citizen?  Certainly, in some measure.  Certainly, it is possible to be better global citizens of the places that we live than we are now, and if we are to draw resources from somewhere, we are going to have to work on this.   We will need to work on building those connections, on finding those means of honest internationalism.   The world is not going to go away, we will not be instantly reduced to a kind of isolated localism that needs have no truck with other nations – truck with other nations long preceeded fossil fuels and modernity, and will be even more essential in warming world, full of migrants and refugees escaping rapidly changing economies, ecologies and war.

But there’s a measure in which being a true citizen of a far distant place is not fully feasible.  I cannot honestly know whether my rice, grown on the Indian coast, was grown by someone who loves to grow rice, who does it well, or who is coerced by the large corporation that uses them as slave labor.  I cannot know how they use their land.  I can learn a little about their place and time, their needs and wants and hopes for the future, particularly if their rice is my primary indulgence.  But I cannot be a part-time citizen of India for rice, Bolivia for flowers, China for electronics, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for oil, etc….ad infinitum.  I cannot.  All I can be in that case is a consumer.

And not only is a consumer an ugly, faint thing to be, a pale imitation of an engaged and fully human citizen-participant, but because a consumer only eats and by necessity, excretes their waste where they are, the relationship is destructive in two ways – not only do I take away soil nutrients or oil or wood or water and participate in the exploitation of distant places in my country and others when I consume their resources, but because all of us make our waste where we live, I then foul my own nest.

I do this because it is not possible, in such an expansive world, to transform the outputs of our consumption into anything but waste.  Consider the difficulty of human excrement now – even sterilized and dehydrated, it is tremendously energy intensive to even consider returning human manures from, say, Boston to the places where most of its food comes from in Iowa or Nebraska.  And human outputs are not the only kind of waste that could managed on a smaller scale – historically the end points of human cloth making became paper, animals were fed on scraps and bones that are now transported into landfills.  The problem of scale, the problem of taking and excreting always seem to defeat us.  We can do much to ameliorate them, but the first and most important amelioration would be to live where we live.

Of course, that’s a difficult proposition.  The suburbs of even midwestern cities like Chicago are often filled, not with farmland, but with suburban landscapes of the densities of small cities of the past.  Even if they can harness their land base to grow food, they are unlikely to have much to export, and they have plenty of their own manures and wastes.   One must go much further afield, and expend more energy to get food, and to find a sustainable way of turning wastes into valuable inputs.  To some degree, dependence for water, goods and food is written into every large city – and indeed, has been overinscribed by our investment in fossil fueled agriculture into the developed world as a whole.  Our project now is to uninscribe it as best we can.

Obviously, the proportion to which we are able to actually live where we live is going to vary by where we are.  For urban dwellers, there is absolutely no doubt that the proportion is vastly higher than is conventional in developed world cities, and a small number of urban community gardens is merely scratching the surface.  We know that this is true – we know from the examples of Havana, the Jewish ghetto gardens during WWII, from Harare and Kampala how urgently necessary urban food production is – that it can sustain far larger populations than anyone would expect in a crisis, whether a war or simply poverty.

But cities are not going to feed themselves, and they are not going to provide their own water in the whole – many cities could probably produce 25-50% of their meat and produce, but they will never provide most of their own staple crops.  Which means that urban-rural ties must be strengthened – that those who are citizens of a city must also be partly citizens of the rural towns that supply their dinners, the rural areas that collect their water.  But this is not a one way transaction – cities as centers of trade, and renewed (we hope) centers of manufacture will have their own rural and suburban citizens – the customers who rely on urban areas to meet their need for goods will have to end their contempt for city life and city dwellers, since their hammers and clothing come from those cities.

If we cannot eliminate shadow acres, we must find ways to narrow them, to mostly get our goods and services from our bioregion, or as near to it as we possibly can.  Aaron and I have called this “the bullseye diet” – but it doesn’t apply just to food.  And in order to do this, we are going to have to build reciprocal economies, and reciprocal senses of citizenship.  Some of this is in its nascent stages, as city dwellers come out to “their” farm to pick up their CSA share, or to pick the cherry tomatoes or strawberries, or volunteer, or as rural and suburban dwellers come into “their” cities, to enjoy art and music, culture and diversity not available to them, and then bring those things in small measure back to their own places.  But we are still at a beginning point.

I often speak of these issues in terms of the practical imperatives for doing so – we must, for example, reduce fossil fuel usage because of climate change and peak energy, or we must build local food systems because we may not fully be able to access distant ones.  But I like very much the idea of asking ourselves the moral and aesthetic question “where do I want to live?”  I think for most of us, this is not a complex question.  If we have a choice, most of us want to live where we chose to live – we would like, in the abstract, to live there as fully and wholly, as well and honestly as we can.  We would like to be good citizens, in a place with a lively and vital civic life.  If we live in other places, we would like to live there kindly and lightly, as participants and welcome members, even part-time, rather than hated colonizers or bad neighbors.  We would like, in short, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We simply do not know how.

Viewed through this question of how and where we wish to live, the choices we make in localization, conservation and consumption, in our acts of citizenship and participation take on a new weight.  We are not merely eating, we are travelling to a distant land, or a neighboring state, taking part in their bounty, and incurring some obligation to reciprocation.  How shall we reciprocate?  What can we offer them in return?  We are not merely excreting, and flushing our wastes away – there is no place called “away.”  Instead, we are contaminating those downstream – or we are returning our outputs to the place that fed us, or to some neighboring place that can be enriched.

Most of us give considerable thought to this question of where to reside – we consider schools and neighborhoods, climates and soils, family and friends. Our new project is to give as much attention to the question of where we live – where our needs are met.  None of us will ever live without some shadow acreage, without some resources from far away, but the quantities can be great or small, the relationship civic and civic or colonial and hostile, the result contamination and waste or reciprocity and fertility.  It all depends on where we choose to live.

Sharon