Archive for May, 2008

The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents Hunger

Sharon May 28th, 2008

“I am worried about the decline of farming communities of all kinds because I think that among the practical consequences of that decline will sooner or later be hunger.” - Wendell Berry

I was struck yesterday by this news report about the problems food pantries are having with new needs and fewer donations.  Although the whole thing is disturbing the most disturbing part to me was this passage:

 ”‘If gas keeps going up, it’s going to be catastrophic in every possible way,’ said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America’s Second Harvest.

Food banks sometimes have to move food 150 miles to a food pantry, he said.

‘You’re going to get to the point where they are going to have to decide whether it’s cheaper to just give a food pantry a check,’ he said. ‘The price of gasoline is going to drive the price of everything else.’”

This is troubling not just because of its wider truth, but because the problem being articulated was precisely the difficulty in the Great Depression.  There was again, plenty of food to be hand, but most people were too poor to buy it, and producers couldn’t get enough to make it worth bringing to market.  I recently included this in _A Nation of Farmers_ and was chilled by how strong the echoes were.

Oscar Emeringer, testifying before a Congressional subcommittee in 1932 described the paradox of “appalling overconsumption on one side and the staggering underconsumption on the other side…” and described wheat in Montana left unharvested because of low prices, thousands of bushels of apples rotting beside the road in Oregon, an Illinois farmer who killed 3,000 of his sheep in a fall, and threw their bodies into a canyon because the cost of shipping the sheep was greater than the cost of sale. In Chicago, men picked for rotting meat scraps through garbage cans.  He goes on to add, 

“The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of industrial population and the industrial populations are being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers.  Neither has the money to buy the product of the other, hence we have overproduction and underconsumption at the same time and in the same country.”

But I might just as easily have begun with the pleas of a Chicago school Superintendent, who begged Congress for funding for schools.  11,000  school children had no food at all at home, and were being kept alive by a collection taken up by teachers and parents.  But the teachers had not been paid for 3 months, and their ability to keep their students alive was fading.  As summer approached, William J. Bogan pleaded with the Illinois Governor,
“For God’s sake, help us feed these children during the summer.”

We are not there yet, but this passage of the above article seems an early harbinger:

” In Baton Rouge, La., the public school system has found students hoarding their free and reduced-price lunches so they can bring them home and have something to eat at night.”

The nutritional value of school lunches has already declined due to the rising cost of food.  Now we stand on the cusp of the summer months, in which millions of American schoolchildren who used to be assured of a free breakfast and lunch will now have access only to park lunch programs that can feed a tiny percentage of them. 

The way market forces and economies of scale prevent producers and consumers from connecting in hard times may well be the single best argument for a relocalized agriculture.  The scale of industrial production, in which food is transmitted long distances, advanced purchased on contract and unavailable to million and billions of poor people is destructive all the time - but it is acutely destructive in times of energy shortage and high prices. 

If we can bring food production into the cities and suburbs, getting as many lawns as possible covered with gardens, as many balconies and rooftops covered with containers, if we can bring food production back to the near areas of those regions, there is hope for those who eat and those who grow to come together in ways that are mutually beneficial.  If not, as energy prices rise and food prices move out of reach of more and more people, things, as they say, fall apart.  As they already are for the poor.



My Favorite Post Week: The Theory of Anyway

Sharon May 27th, 2008

Not going to be much new posted here until Sunday, when blessedly, the book push ends.   But I thought this would be a good chance to repost some of my favorite pieces for readers who haven’t seen them before.  This one might be my all-time favorite, because Pat’s idea is so wonderful and she was generous enough to share it with me.  Be sure to read her terrific piece on the same subject here: #2007/01/theory-of-anyway.html#links


My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this - she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crisis in energy depletion, or climate change, or whatever is what we should do anyway, and when in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

This is, I think, a deeply powerful way of thinking because it is a deeply moral way of thinking - we would like to think of ourselves as moral people, but we tend to think of moral questions as the obvious ones “should I steal or pay?” “Should I hit or talk?” But the real and most essential moral questions of our lives are the questions we rarely ask of the things we do every day, “Should I eat this?” “Where should I live and how?” “What should I wear?” “How should I keep warm/cool?” We think of these questions as foregone conclusions - I should keep warm X way because that’s the kind of furnace I have, or I should eat this because that’s what’s in the grocery store. Pat’s Theory of Anyway turns this around, and points out that what we do, the way we live, must pass ethical muster first - we must always ask the question “Is this contributing to the repair of the world, or its destruction.”

So if you told me that tomorrow, peak oil had been resolved, I’d still keep gardening, hanging my laundry, cutting back and trying to find a way to make do with less. Because even if we found enough oil to power our society for a thousand years, there would still be climate change, and it would be *wrong* of me to choose my own convenience over the security and safety of my children and other people’s children. And if you told me tomorrow that we’d fixed climate change, that we could power our lives forever with renewables, I would still keep gardening and living frugally. Because our agriculture is premised on depleted soil and aquifers, and we’re facing a future in which many people don’t have enough food and water if we keep eating this way. To allow that to happen would be a betrayal of what I believe is right. And if you told me that we’d fixed that problem too, that we were no longer depleting our aquifers and expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I’d still keep gardening and telling others to do the same, because our reliance on food from other nations, and our economy impoverishes and starves millions, even billions of poor people and creates massive economic inequities that do tremendous harm. And if you told me that globalization was over, and that we were going to create a just economic system, and we’d fixed all the other problems, and that I didn’t have to worry anymore, would I then stop gardening?

No. Because the nurture of my piece of land would still be the right thing to do. Doing things with no more waste than is absolutely necessary would still be the right thing to do. The creation of a fertile, sustainable, lasting place of beauty would still be my right work in the world. I would still be a Jew, obligated by G-d to Tikkun Olam, to “the repair of the world.” I would still be obligated to live in way that prevented wildlife from being run to extinction and poisons contaminating the earth. I would still be obligated to make the most of what I have and reduce my needs so they represent a fair share of what the earth has to offer. I would still be obligated to treat poor people as my siblings, and you do not live comfortably when your siblings suffer or have less. I am obligated to live rightly, in part because of what living rightly gives me - integrity, honor, joy, a better relationship with my diety of choice, peace.

There are people out there who are prepared to step forward and give up their cars, start growing their own food, stop consuming so much and stop burning fossil fuels…just as soon as peak oil, or climate change, or government rationing, or some external force makes them. But that, I believe is the wrong way to think about this. We can’t wait for others to tell us, or the disaster to befall us. We have to do now, do today, do with all our hearts, the things we should have been doing “Anyway” all along.



7 Million Americans May Have Died of Hunger in the Great Depression

Sharon May 25th, 2008

I have not been able to find the original Wikipedia article or any of the critiques mentioned in the article.  But it does answer a question I’ve had for a long time at least in one way - because we know people died of starvation during the Depression in the US.  Hoover told us “at least no one has starved” and then they started pulling bodies out of Chicago tenements.  There was a minimum of a 25% malnutrition rate in urban schools in many places.  So yes, we know people died.  But I’ve located no full scale investigation until now.

And again, just as we saw in Gaidar’s analysis of the fall of the Soviet Union, we begin to realize that moving rural populations off the land can devastate whole nations.  Preserving farmers isn’t just about preserving rural landscapes.  Without food and the people who grow it, we don’t eat - period. 

 How many people may starve this time?  And how many will we know about, even as it happens? 

“The researcher, Boris Borisov, in his article titled “The American Famine” estimated the victims of the financial crisis in the US at over seven million people. The researcher also directly compared the US events of 1932-1933 with Holodomor, or Famine, in the USSR during 1932-1933.

In the article, Borisov used the official data of the US Census Bureau. Having revised the number of the US population, birth and date rates, immigration and emigration, the researcher came to conclusion that the United States lost over seven million people during the famine of 1932-1933.

“According to the US statistics, the US lost not less than 8 million 553 thousand people from 1931 to 1940. Afterwards, population growth indices change twice instantly exactly between 1930-1931: the indices drop and stay on the same level for ten years. There can no explanation to this phenomenon found in the extensive text of the report by the US Department of Commerce “Statistical Abstract of the United States,” the author wrote. “


Expecting the Unexpected

Sharon May 25th, 2008

In case I needed a clearer reminder that I should not, shall we say, expect things to go as  planned in my life, there are 14 sheep and a donkey on my front porch.

My reaction to this oddly calm.  ”Ok, now I have to go out and yell “Get off the freakin’ porch you stupid walking sweaters”…again - or I could just ignore them and hose the porch later.”  Hmmm…laziness and amusement win.

I would actually have bet anything that you couldn’t get 14 sheep and a donkey (and my 8 year old in his pajamas) on my porch.  Oh, and I probably should have taken down the laundry before the donkey started helping me with it.  Well, it is down. 

You see, we have some sheep, and the world’s cutest guard donkey, Xote.  They don’t belong to me, but to my friend Elaine.  She brought over the sheep, set up the electric fencing on our main pasture, and then went on vacation to visit family in Minnesota for two weeks.  And now there’s something wrong with the fence - it doesn’t seem to be a problem of vegetation on the circuit, and we’re not really clear on what it is, and are somewhat hampered by the fact that Eric had minor surgery a couple of days ago (he’s fine, no big deal) and isn’t supposed to be doing too much hiking or chasing of sheep, and I’ve got a week to finish a book that is ummm…not finished.   

So after fixing the fence once and then having it go down again, and with a slew of sheep roaming my backyard and worries about the coyotes that den across the road (9 of the sheep are cute little lambs),  it occurred to me that we have a safe area for them - the 1/4 acre of fenced front yard with the playset, a large chunk of my neglected garden and an 8 foot fence to keep my oldest son from roaming.  So, I lured the critters in, and they are now trimming our overgrown lawn (push mowing is off Eric’s agenda for a few days too), eating my garden (this would be a problem except that I’ve planted so little that everything can be easily replaced, and if they trim back the thistles and dandelions, this might even be a net good), and playing in the sandbox (the lambs like to jump in it).  Oh, and they like to stand on the front porch and look in the window while I type.

Well, the kids are thrilled, and I’m more amused than annoyed - plus, suddenly I have an excuse for not gardening - yay - it is all the sheep’s fault.  There’s really nothing like a scapesheep ;-).  It is tough on the early lettuce, and on the dogs, who feel strongly that sheep do not belong on the playset, but, well, life goes on.  We’re trying to be adaptable.

And I’m going to say that adaptability pretty much is what is wanted in the coming days.  For example, check out this post at The Automatic Earth: besides the regular old bad news, the fact that the city of Santa Barbara is now alloting parking lots to middle class homeless people living in their cars does seem to be one of those stark things.  Just in case you didn’t get that link, it is over at The Automatic Earth.  (Ilargi recently complained that I stole his links and didn’t send people to his site, so I wish to make it up to you by mentioning that this information is available at The Automatic Earth enough times that he’ll forgive me ;-)). 

Things are umm…deteriorating.  That doesn’t mean the end of the world is immediately at hand, just, that well, as the poem goes, things fall apart.  But don’t you fall apart - there’s still plenty to do and plenty to laugh about.  For example, I could loan you some sheep for your porch.  They are the very latest thing!

One thing you can laugh about is this article.  My first reaction to it was real annoyance.  You see, the author interviewed me for it, and I was the one who passed her on to the wonderful Kathy Breault.  But the problem is neither the paper nor the author can see what is in front of their eyes - creative adaptation and community awareness.  They just see “survivalism.”  The idea that Kathy, who is deeply community oriented, and focusing on making her region sustainable is a “survivalist” in the sense that most people mean it is, about as accurate as saying I’m a Republican.  But the truth is, sometimes you can only see things through the lenses you’ve been given.  And the appropriate reaction to that is probably laughter. 

Or maybe the problem is this - there’s still a lot of denial about the PO problem.  And if we can shoehorn the problem into a box that makes sense to us “this is the province of the bunker and ammo crowd” we can put off the recognition that PO is going to change our lives whether we want it to or not, that all of us, are actually “survivalists” in the sense that we want to survive and go on, and create something worth keeping - and laughing about.



Independence Days Update: HELP!!!

Sharon May 24th, 2008

Ok, that’s weird - there were words when I posted this - where’d they go?  Apparently I need more help than I know.

 My request for help was this - I’m being kept in a cage by my evil computer that says I can’t come out and play or write anything new until ANOF is done (8…more…days).  So please, post your updates and give everyone something to read!

 Sharon, filled with self-pity,  who is told this is going to be the perfectest, most beautifullest gardening weekend ever…and she’s going to miss it.  Whine. ;-) 

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