Report: the Crash Course Seminars

This post comes to us from the blog of Don Hall. I attended the Crash Course Seminars last weekend along with Don, and share his enthusiasm for the Crash Course as a tool for spreading awareness and understanding about peak oil and economic instability.

This past week, I had the good fortune to be able to participate in “The Crash Course Seminars: Thriving in Any Future” in Denver with Chris and Becca Martenson. The organization I work for, Transition Colorado, invited Chris to come here to forge an important alliance with the Transition Movement and raise greater awareness about the future of our economy, energy, and environment.

In case you haven’t seen it, The Crash Course is an online video series that has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. With chapters on “Exponential Growth,” “Money Creation,” “Debt,” “A National Failure to Save,” “Peak Oil,” “Environmental Data,” and others, The Crash Course makes an extremely clear and compelling case that “The next twenty years will be completely unlike the last.”

While this data may or may not be new to you, the genius of The Crash Course is in its presentation. Unlike many other presenters, Chris does not beat you over the head with his beliefs, but rather lets the facts speak loudly for themselves. He avoids alienating others by setting aside his politics and religion. And his matter-of-fact tone and sense of humor help to balance out the heaviness of the material, so that people are not paralyzed by fear, but instead are inspired to action.
In the final chapter of The Crash Course, “What Should I Do?” Chris provides a “Framework for Action”: a four-step process by which individuals can assess their strengths and weaknesses and create what I have begun calling a personal resilience plan. While this model is not perfect, and could be redesigned, it does provide a process that anyone can use to move from simple awareness into individual and community action. Until we have our own house in order, we cannot be of much help to others.

There are many ways that the Crash Course can be used as a powerful tool for Transition in your community, and I will cover several of these in the Deepening Community Leadership course this fall. In fact, on the final day of the seminars, Chris and Becca assembled an entire Crash Course Toolbox for participants. While Chris offered primarily left-brain tools, like tips for reading between the lines of the mainstream media, Becca guided us through right-brain exercises and breakout sessions. This pairing of male and female energies, of practical information with heart and soul, worked beautifully throughout the weekend.

I share all this with you not only to encourage you to take The Crash Course to learn more about our collective future, but also to study Chris as one example of a truly exceptional leader. Five years ago, Chris quit his position as Vice President of a Fortune 300 company to create this valuable resource and share it freely with as many people as possible. Please use it to your advantage and help to spread the word!


Metropolitan Green and the Regeneration of Urban Space

By Adam Brock

Is all the good space left in New York gone? With construction cranes and scaffolding as ubiquitous as taxis these days, it’s easy to think that within a few years every square foot of space that can be built on will be. A closer look, though, reveals that even after a decade of manic development, New York’s urban space is vastly underutilized. While condos and office towers continue to rise all over town, vacant lots with no sign of impending construction still abound in all but the densest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile, there are great opportunities for utilizing street space more intelligently, and thousands of acres lie untapped on city roofs.

And it’s a good thing, too: the way we reinvent these underutilized spaces will be crucial in determining the long-term resilience of New York City. We don’t need more condos for rich people from other countries. We need more trees, more green spaces to get away from the daily grind. We need to start growing more of our own food. We need to provide jobs for the working class that will lift them out of poverty while restoring the quality of the air, soil and water. In short, we need to figure out how to pastoralize the city as thoroughly as we’ve already urbanized the countryside.

The difficulty with making New York City greener is not a lack of space. Rather, it’s a lack of control over the space that’s available. In a city of dense, highly-prized real estate, decisions about how we manipulate our space are left in the hands of those who can afford to pay for it. The fate of the urban environment is determined by developers: entities which, constrained by the need for short-term returns, simply aren’t designed to think about the longer-term social and environmental consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the people that do care about these things – the people that actually live in urban neighborhoods – are rarely given more than a token voice in the planning process, and they rarely have the tools to envision how development might work better than it currently does. Even city governments, which used to guide the urban form through zoning, civic beautification, and urban renewal projects, have largely ceded control of the urban environment to the free market due to ever-tightening budgets and the lure of tax revenue from big-ticket properties.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that there’s no grand plan for how our cities are evolving: design from the bottom up can have its merits. It might not grow the economy as much as luxury lofts and big-box stores, but elements like small businesses and owner-built houses bring vitality to a place that modernist monuments and slick corporate megastructures lack. On the other hand, only city governments have the ability to create and maintain the critical infrastructure necessary to keep a city functioning, and only government and business have the money to transform our cities on the scale that’s necessary. The challenge for the 21st century, then, is to figure out a synthesis of top-down guidance and bottom-up authenticity, applying the knowledge and capital of government and business to the desires of the community.

It’s a massively different process than the one that occurs today, and the transition will probably outlast our own lives. But while we’re waiting, I think it’s worthwhile to start imagining ways that we might, if given the chance, start to redesign our own communities. I began doing just that last semester with The Living Domino, an ecological concept plan for a vacant factory complex down the street from my house. My most recent design challenge, Metropolitan Green, takes the same values and shows how they can be applied on a somewhat smaller scale.

A few blocks south of the Bedford Ave L stop, there’s a little triangular block where the slightly diagonal Metropolitan meets up with North 3rd street. Small and awkwardly shaped, the lot contains a mostly empty private parking lot and an overgrown triangle of a garden, and has thus far resisted development. The street to the north contains a bagel store, a lumber store and a laundromat, and sees hardly any traffic besides deliveries to these retail establishments. The result is a block of wasted space, an unsightly agglomeration of pavement, cars, and chain link fence in a space that’s ideally suited for a public plaza. Currently, more than half of the surface area of the triangle is taken up by sidewalk and asphalt, neither of which get much use.

Metropolitan Green proposes an arrangement would combine biology and architecture, while giving Williamsburg residents some much-needed public green space in the process. The design integrates the block with the buildings to the north, erasing the street that divides them except for a small access driveway for the lumber store. A greenhouse would emerge from the south side of the bagel store, collecting heat to help keep the building warm and providing a pleasant space for eating outdoors and growing a small amount of food year-round. Just to the east of the greenhouse, a small pond and intentional wetland process the organic waste from the bagel store and lofts above it, while providing a home for several types of edible fish. A matrix of raised beds allow vegetables and herbs to be grown outdoors nine months of the year, while the southernmost portion of the block is left as an open park.

For all the recent excitement around the idea of sustainability, designs such as the Living Domino or Metropolitan Green are still considered too radical to be feasible – but that’s no reason not to keep working at them. There’s no doubt in my mind that the end of cheap oil and need to mitigate global warming will demand a reinvention of the built environment far beyond what’s currently deemed politically feasible, and the more we can start to envision that eventual metamorphosis the better. Indeed, that metamorphosis might just happen sooner than we think: the economic climate seems to be changing even faster than the meteorological one, and it may not be long before crops begin to take the place of condos as the newest member of the urban fabric.

Why Cityfarming? To Earn a Living

By Adam Brock

Dig deep enough into the history of urban agriculture and you’re bound to come around to the story of Havana. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its only real trading partner, Cuba went through the economic equivalent of peak oil, and during the “special period” of the early nineties, was forced to relocalize. Fidel Castro began an aggressive program of local food production, and today, Havana sports government-supported community gardens and backyard vegetable plots that provide half of the city’s produce.

Cuba’s path from famine to self-sufficiency has become legendary among Forest Greens. But try and tell it to a city policymaker, and you’ll be politely shown the door: examples borne of deprivation don’t tend to be considered best practices. Instead, mobilizing urban agriculture on a large scale will take the rhetoric of optimism, and perhaps more importantly, a solid grounding in economic reality. Forget food miles and nutrition studies – farming won’t get urban in a serious way until it can turn a profit.

Fortunately, with cereal prices on the rise and the demand for local and organic food growing, there just might be a business model hiding in there amongst all those celery stalks. One of the most promising incubators for successful cityfarm strategies is Intervale, a 350-acre conglomeration of a dozen or so organic farms and natural areas just outside Burlington, Vermont. The land, owned by the Intervale Center, is leased to first-time farmers, who receive training and start-up funds for the first couple years. While the Intervale Center itself obtains its funding from grants and donors, it has birthed many agricultural endeavors that are on the path to financial self-sufficiency. Intervale Compost Products is the most successful, which processes 20,000 tons of organic waste into $750,000 of revenue.

Burlington was fortunate to have a large area of arable land so near the urban core, but most cities won’t be so lucky. The manic pace of development over the past fifteen years has made vacant land a precious commodity, and many urban centers will have to get creative about squeezing in the space for crops. Enter Philadelphia’s Somerton Tanks Farm, a prototype for the economic viability of small-scale urban ag.

Somerton Tanks developed as a collaboration between Roxanne Christiansen, a marketing specialist and urban agriculture advocate, and an unlikely ally: the Philadelphia Water Department. PWD owns about a hundred acres of vacant land around its storage and treatment facilities, and had been looking for ways to cut down on maintenance costs while preserving the land’s ecological integrity – a perfect fit for Christiansiansen’s vision of a test case for profit-generating urban farm.

In 2001 Christiansen’s non-profit, the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, began leasing a half-acre plot next to the Somerton water tanks for a dollar a month.
Working with Wally Satzewich, the founder of SPIN Farming, she worked out a design that would cut down on overhead and maximizing production. This meant installing a drip-irrigation system, focusing on high-value crops like exotic salad greens, and figuring out how to grow three crops per year. To run the operation, Christiansen hired two full-time farmers and opted for hand tools over costly mechanical equipment. Four years later, Somerton Tanks was grossing $68,000 a year from CSA and farmer’s market sales – 20% more than even Christiansen had anticipated.

IILF is currently working on a state-funded study that will use Somerton Tanks’ business model to outline the prospects for creating an agriculture industry within Philadelphia’s city limits. But before Somerton Tanks is replicated citywide, zoning codes will need to change, as well as cultural attitudes about growing food in the city. And few landowners are likely to be as generous with their land as Philadelphia Water Department.

To be sure, cityfarming as an industry is just getting off the ground – but with Intervale and Somerton Tanks, the bar has been set. Urban agriculture can turn a profit, but every city will need to devise urban ag models that fit with the cultural attitudes, land availability, political will, and, of course, climate. But the commodification of city-grown food comes with a caveat: it runs the risk of disenfranchising those who need it the most. It’s the issue of cityfarms and food justice that I’ll be exploring in the final installment of the series.

Systems at Risk

By Adam Brock

A couple recent posts from the Oil Drum warrant a quick read:

Systems thinkers like to talk about how emergent, bottom-up systems are generally more resilient than top-down, hierarchical ones, because power and innovation is distributed more evenly. But TOD contributor Aeldric’s post on the Failure of Networked Systems points out that even these are prone to collapse under certain conditions. His analysis shows when systems aren’t responding to the proper feedback, and when their components are too tightly interconnected, a failure in one part of the system will be temporarily postponed by shifting new input to another part, until the entire structure collapses from overload.

Actuary Gail Tverberg applies this analysis to our current economic system with Peak Oil and The Financial Markets: A Forecast for 2008. She starts from the premise, fundamental to peak oil theory, that the current economic downturn we’re experiencing is not a short-term aberration but rather the first sign of the long, slow energy descent. While this in itself might sound like a radical proposition to some, her predictions for the coming year aren’t actually all that off base from what many other conventional economists are forecasting: a tightening of the credit market, a deepening recession, and a falling dollar. None of these predictions, of course, are very cheery, but Tverberg’s position is that they’re more or less inevitable – and the sooner we recognize their root cause as the decreasing availability of fossil fuels, the better.

The Roots of Freeganism Part IV: Community in America

By Nelson Harvey

“Could you please turn it down, just a little bit?!” Janet Kalish turned away from me and yelled across the room, to the group of neighborhood kids bunched around the community center’s single computer. They were blasting rap music as loud as the speakers would go, and some of the boys, dressed in black puffy jackets and jeans, mimicked the rapper whose music video played on the screen. The kids looked up, and one of them turned the volume down. Or seemed too. A minute later, the noise was back again, and Janet and I couldn’t hear ourselves talk.

We were at a party to raise rent for the 123 Community Space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The space, founded by four grassroots organizations focused on anarchism and freeganism, was conceived as a neighborhood gathering-place for young people and community members interested in starting creative projects. Kalish, a middle-aged Spanish teacher and an active member of the New York freegan community, was collecting admission fees that night. She began asking newcomers for donations, but the kids continued to brush past her, in and out, avoiding eye contact. As word of the admission fee began to spread, they slowly dissipated.

New York City’s freegans place a high premium on community, and the success of the 123 Community Space is a case in point. The space now hosts programs every day of the week, from a bike repair workshop to a screen-printing class. It hasn’t always been easy, and the space’s website describes some of the challenges that have come up along the way. The center was founded by a group of mostly white young people in what has long been a predominantly black neighborhood. As the rap music incident demonstrates, building community in a diverse environment isn’t always an easy process.

Nevertheless, New York City freegans still pursue it rather doggedly, holding regular group meetings and ‘trash tours,’ and organizing potlucks with the loot from their dumpster-diving expeditions. Whatever benefits these rituals provide, they are also a reaction against what many perceive as the decline of community in the broader culture.
“I do think people work too hard chasing the almighty dollar and spend too little time doing what is meaningful in life, such as sharing time with loved ones, being artistic, creative, and active within a community,” said Kalish in an email message. She pointed to obesity and the rise of third-party childcare as evidence that today, many people are too busy to exercise or even raise their own children.

This is more than just abstract philosophizing: in recent years, social scientists and critics have documented the decline of community in America rather exhaustively. In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, he described how social networks generate social capital by facilitating information flows between people and encouraging reciprocity among community members. Putnam also introduced a mountain of data showing that social capital in the U.S. has been declining over the past 25 years. For instance, surveys conducted during that period have shown a 50 percent drop in attendance of club meetings, a 43 percent drop in family dinners, and a 35 percent drop in “having friends over.”

The likely forces behind these shifts are familiar to anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last decade. Technological innovation has certainly played a role, with the advent of devices like the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) rendering every spare moment a potential working moment. The increasingly global nature of economic life may be another culprit. In his 2005 book American Mania: When More is Not Enough, UCLA neurobiologist Peter Whybrow points out that in the model of capitalism concieved by Adam Smith, devotion to the market was balanced by the demands of community. “With globalization,” as one reviewer for the New York Times put it, “the idea of doing business with neighbors one must face the next day is a quaint memory, and all bets are off.”

Arthur Crosman, a student and freegan who teaches bike repair at the 123 Community Space, agreed. “There’s something about working for a gigantic company where people become removed from the consequences of their work,’ he said. “Globalization makes us forget the local.”

Freegans try to combat this isolation by emphasizing interdependence wherever they can. Many have qualms about modern capitalism, but they still believe in the division of labor. As freegan Cindy Rosin told a group of students at New York University recently, one dumpster diver can often support several hungry people. “I know a lot of people who are the food provider for their household,” she said.

Technology and globalization aside, the decline of some American communities may have a far more unlikely source: diversity. According to conventional liberal gospel, diversity breeds greater tolerance and understanding. But new social science research from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam shows that in the short run, increased immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social capital and solidarity. At the same time, his research points to the importance of efforts like the 123 Community Space in trying to rebuild these things.

“New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down,’” he writes. “Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” But Putnam goes on to say that with time, as members of different communities adapt to one another, diversity actually increases social capital by “creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.” This is intuitively obvious to many of us; it explains the allure of places like New York City. And it is precisely what the founders of the 123 Community Space are going for. If they can get there, it’ll be to the tune of rap music.

Photo credit: Flickr, Listentoreason ,Chrisjfry