Autumn’s Invitation

GS-Newsletter-Autumn-photoFall has never been my favorite season. Going back to school, shivering in the first snowfall, darker and darker evenings, watching the trees become stripped and gangly… it all seemed so depressing. But as I’ve slowly learned to listen to nature’s patterns, I’m starting to see autumn as a time of precarious abundance, a time when we can live off summer’s bounty as we re-assess our past year and prepare for the cold months.

Sure, I’d rather be biking to work in a t-shirt than a down coat, and I’ll take peaches fresh off the branch over homemade preserves any day. But when I’m surrounded by a culture addicted to perpetual growth, the end of the harvest gives me a much-needed reminder that contraction is just as important as expansion. Indeed, it’s the way all life operates. Without dead leaves rotting on the ground, the soil would eventually be robbed of its nutrients. Without fallen trees, there would be no light on the forest floor for new seedlings to sprout. And without a nightly dose of sleep, our bodies and minds would lose touch with reality and crash.

Still, as an entrepreneur, putting that understanding into practice can be mighty tough. When I’m on a roll with the Wild Green Yonder, I’m almost constantly pushing past my own limits: sending one more email to that awesome contact I just met at a conference, composing one more tweet about a revolutionary gardening technique, promoting my classes in one more place.

To be sure, success in a new venture depends on being ridiculously dedicated and thorough. But paradoxically, I’ve found that my biggest insights, my most creative moments, come when I force myself to unplug. Like fallen leaves breaking down into rich humus, the fertile grounds of innovation are only nurtured when we drop our temporary commitments, take a deep breath, and reflect on the larger picture of which our current situation is a part.

To me, that larger picture would seem to place our cultural zeitgeist in an October of sorts, as well: though we continue to reap the fruits of the great fossil fuel harvest, the first of chills of a different season are here. Does the coming winter of energy descent spell the end of the good times? Certainly not. It merely invites us to use our foresight and maturity to with the roll with the changing season, and preserve the precarious abundance we’ve gathered for the future.

In the meantime, though, there’s still leaves on the trees, and the sun is warm on my shoulders. I’m called to put away my laptop, take a deep breath – and marvel at the bounty.

Why Cityfarming? Because It’s Better Than Lawns

By Adam Brock

Quick: what does a Kohirabi look like? Which greens can you grow through the winter? What do you need to pickle your own veggies? A year ago, questions like these might have been met with blank stares even among the verdy elite. But an interest in personal food production seems to be sprouting up across the urban centers. Urban gardening sites like You Grow Girl, My Urban Farm, and City Dirt have proliferated in the green blogosphere, and last spring in the UK, vegetable seed sales were up 30% while flower seeds declined by the same amount. In other words, gardens are cool again. So cool, in fact, that the corporate cash-in has already begun: hipster apparel chain Urban Outfitters surprised many industry insiders last May with the news that their latest brand wouldn’t be stocking organic jeans or vintage tees, but rather rakes and planters.

Like most verdy activities, backyard gardening has a cornucopia of positive side effects. The stress-relieving potential of nature-starved urbanites getting into the dirt is a given, but it looks like gardening might actually alter our brain chemistry for the better: a UK study released last spring found that Mycobacterium Vaccae, a microorganism commonly found in farm soil and homegrown produce, increases serotonin levels, proving that gardeners are, in fact, more likely to be cheery. And of course, there’s the food itself, which is more tasty and nutritious when it’s grown organically and eaten fresh from the yard.

There seems to be little doubt that that growing our own is healthy for us – but what about the planet? Can this trendy pastime become a viable strategy for food security? History says yes. During World War II, the government’s Victory Gardens campaign urged Americans to grow produce on lawns, windowsills and rooftops to free up food stocks for the war effort. Citizens responded, and the program was a success: at its peak, forty percent of the country’s produce came from these small-scale vegetable gardens.

Today, there’s Victory Gardens 2007+, an initiative to kick-start a movement of home-scale urban agriculture in San Francisco. Developed as a partnership between the city government and the non-profit collective Future Farmers, the program will sell participants discounted supplies for drip irrigation, raised beds and composting, as well as provide a series of workshops on how to plan, build, and maintain their new plots.

So far, Future Farmers have helped plant three demonstration Victory Gardens, with twelve more lined up – although there seems to be far more demand than the staff can handle. “The biggest roadblock has been having enough people to facilitate our needs,” says Amy Franceschini, co-director of the program. “We put this out there, and people are flooding us with emails: ‘I have a garden! I want a start-up kit!’ I suppose it’s a positive roadblock, but it’s been tough to manage.”

San Francisco’s Victory Gardens provide a hopeful template for municipalities across the country, but whether it’s truly scaleable remains to be seen. There’s a sizeable reality gap between a pilot program in one of the country’s greenest cities to 1940s levels of backyard crop production; ways of life have changed drastically in the past six decades, and in an age when many Americans can’t find the time to even cook their own food, it’s hard to picture many willing to grow it. There’s also a steep learning curve to consider – as Brooklynite Manny Howard found out last year, the backyard farm can be a pretty humiliating undertaking for inexperienced city dwellers.

It might be somewhat unrealistic, then, to expect homeowners to become the urban farmers of tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean all those suburban backyards have to go to waste. What if, instead of relying on residents to do the gardening, home-scale food production was framed as a business service? That’s the idea behind the Canadian system of SPIN Farming, which encourages enterprising farmers to rent out other folks’ yards in exchange for a share of the eventual crop. Wally Satzewich, the founder of SPIN, has been making a living for the last decade selling produce that he grows on two dozen backyard plots in Saskatoon, and is working to actively promote his system throughout the lower forty-eight.

Whereas our current food system is built around few sources of production and distribution, it’s becoming clear that 21st-century nutrition will come from a multitude of small sources. Just as centralized power plants will eventually give way to a mix of large- and small-scale renewable energy sources, so too will food systems become much more diverse in their size and location. Backyard gardening, then, is the agricultural equivalent of microgeneration: the diffuse but essential base that eases the load on the heavy hitters. A single rooftop turbine doesn’t look like much, and neither does a patch of turnips. But with the right support and economic conditions, both can be critical bottom-up components of self-sufficient cities.

Meanwhile, the elements are beginning to fall into place to make cityfarming viable beyond the garden level. What would it take to create a full-on agricultural industry in the urban core? It’s to this question that I’ll be turning in the next part of the series.

Image credit: futurefarmers

Three Times the Signs

By Adam Brock

Three recent articles from the New York Times are WGYworthy in their Forest Green implications. Let’s connect the dots:

Tom Friedman, of all people, finally seems to be catching on to the fact that we’ll have to seriously retool the economy to save our species. With Bali more or less a wash thanks to the Bush Administration’s anti-diplomacy, Freidman seems to have decided that market forces are more powerful at raping the planet than any kind of diplomacy can be at saving it:

Indeed, today’s global economy has become like a monster truck with the gas pedal stuck, and we’ve lost the key — so no one can stop it from wiping out more and more of the natural world, no matter what the global plan.

And this from globalization’s prime hype man… perhaps there’s a downside to all that world-flattening, after all.

In the Magazine, meanwhile, Michael Pollan weighs in on the overuse of the term “sustainable” and the inherent fragility of mass-produced monocultures. The MRSA scare and Colony Collapse Disorder, he explains, are symptoms of the same impulse: treating living things like machines in an effort to widen those profit margins just a little bit more. The last couple lines say it all:

…whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

Finally, on a somewhat more encouraging note, consumer critic Rob Walker has a lengthy piece on the revival of craft culture as self-conscious antidote to soulless consumerism. Thanks in large part to Etsy, an ebay of sorts for crafty types, tinkerers worldwide are able to connect, trade entrepreneurial tips and hone their artistic skills.

To sum up: a free-trade cheerleader admits that globalization is destroying the earth, the hero of sustainable agriculture points to signs of the industrial food system nearing collapse, and the internet is being leveraged to launch a mass movement against mass production. Sounds like the first rumblings of a paradigm shift to me.

Waste Bytes. Can We Compute A Solution?

By Nelson Harvey

What if I offered you a free airplane flight with the purchase of a wireless calling plan? That’s precisely what the phone company T-Mobile did over Thanksgiving weekend this year, and it’s just one of the flood of deals that companies are offering this holiday in an attempt to move phones, computers, DVD players, and a host of other electronic devices off the shelves.

Absent from this ad blitz is any discussion of what happens to our increasingly ephemeral electronics when we throw them away, and that’s why it’s encouraging that the New York City Council is considering a new law that would require electronics manufacturers to take back their products for recycling within NYC.

The New York Department of Sanitation picks up 21,840 pounds of electronic waste per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and less than 10 percent of it is currently being recycled. Many electronic devices contain harmful toxins like lead and cadmium, which enter the air and water when the devices are incinerated or landfilled. According to the EPA, some 70 percent of the toxics present in landfills are the result of electronic waste.

The New York law, titled Intro 104, would cover TVs, DVD players, and portable digital music players. It embraces the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility, requiring all manufacturers who sell such devices within New York City to submit e-waste management plans to city government by July 1st, 2008.

A Chinese worker takes apart computers with little more than gloves as protection from their toxic contents.

Seven U.S. states have similar laws, and countries like Japan and the European Union have required companies to take back their waste for years now. The hope behind such programs is that once manufacturers are burdened with the toxic consequences of their own design choices, they will begin to phase toxic ingredients out of their products.

Precise regulatory approaches differ between the bills, but one of the more watched U.S. efforts is California’s 2003 e-waste law, which requires retailers to collect a fee from consumers on covered electronic devices in order to pay for government-sanctioned recycling programs. This effort has grown rapidly since its implementation, raising more than enough money through such fees to cover recycling costs.

The New York law doesn’t require retailers to collect a fee, but relies on companies alone to finance the cost of their recycling programs. This concerns me for a couple of reasons. First, it’s clear that manufacturers will find a way to pass recycling costs on to the consumer through higher prices anyway. Second, allowing each company to establish their own program could undermine the economies of scale inherent in government recycling efforts, which leads to a lower cost per ton recycled.

Margaret Walls, an economist with the group Resources For the Future who has done several economic analyses of Extended Producer Responsibility laws, told me via email that such laws have generally not been shown to spur companies to reduce the toxic content of their products. At a minimum, though, they do require takeback, keeping some goods out of the landfill. In Walls’ view, the most promising approach is a combined tax/subsidy law, like the one in place in California.

Even if the New York plan isn’t ideal from a regulatory perspective, at least its a start. If city government wants to keep pace with ad campaigns like that of T Mobile, they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.

Photo Credit: Alistair Ruff

The Business of Consumption

by Nelson Harvey 

“Is the consumer economy sustainable?” That’s the sort of question that you might expect to see on the website of an environmental group, or hear discussed in a college classroom. But it got a much larger forum last week, as the National Public Radio program Marketplace aired a weeklong series titled “Consumed,” on the underbelly of the consumer economy.

You’ve got to check the series out for yourself; I was genuinely impressed by the breadth and quality of the coverage it included. Whether it’s pointing out that diesel pollution from  container ships shortens the lives of 20,000 people per year, or asking whether greed is itself a mental illness, the work raises a lot of important questions.

What’s significant about this is it’s source: Marketplace is a business news program, even if it is a fairly liberal one. It’s the place where people turn to see how the DOW Index is doing in the morning, and to get advice on their investment portfolios. When the program’s own coverage answers my opening question with a decisive “NO,” it raises the biggest question of all: what the hell are we going to do about it?