By Adam Brock

In a society obsessed with efficiency, the miracle of crisscrossing the planet in a matter of hours has become mundane. Every day, from Duluth to Dubai, millions of people shuffle through metal detectors, pack themselves into cramped metal tubes, doze off, distractedly watch a movie or two, and disembark, sore, bleary, and suddenly somewhere else. All in all, it’s a pretty depressing cultural dance: like so much else in the overdeveloped world, our contemporary paradigm of transporation is high on quantity and short on quality. We might be able to travel between any major city in a matter of hours, but that freedom comes at a dear cost – not only to our climate, but also our mental health and our sense of place.

This summer, I made the decision to stop flying altogether. When I explain my decision to people, I think most assume that I’m caught up in footprint mania, on some kind quest for carbon martyrdom. But while the emissions thing is indeed a part of my decision to stick to the ground, what’s more important is my desire to make long-distance transportation something that nourishes rather than drains me. I want to experience what it really feels like to get from place to place, to travel in a way that’s as much about process as product. Being able to take note of the subtle shifts in culture and landscape on the way from A to B gives me much richer sense of place when I get to my destination. What’s more, moving at a more human speed allows me the time to reflect on where I’m coming from and where I’m going – something I hardly ever get to do in my supersaturated life.

I’ve been practicing this philosophy of “slow travel” for a few years now, but I hadn’t made the explicit decision to avoid the airplane until this winter break, when I convinced a few friends from my hometown of Denver to take the train back from New York with me. I went into the ride expecting a certain dose of adventure, and there were certainly some hitches: a snowstorm on the way to Chicago stretched what should have been an 18-hour ride into a 23-hour one, and the circa-1981 seats were much better to look at than sleep in. But I also enjoyed great conversation, met some fascinating folks, and saw with fresh eyes a part of the country I’d long written off.

I’m fortunate that the trip I wanted to take was relatively simple and cheap to make on the ground. Of course, it won’t always be that easy: trains might be an underrated way to traverse the USA, but much of the travel we’re accustomed to can’t practically happen without the miracle of flight. From volunteering in remote African villages to attending business meetings thousands of miles away, the fact of cheap and easy air travel has opened up all kinds of doors for citizens of the overdeveloped world, and few people (myself included) would like to see those doors shut.

But whether the remarkable ease of mobility that aviation creates is a good thing or not, the reality is that it natural limits, filtered through policy and economics, won’t allow it to exist for much longer. Carbon legislation and ever-climbing fuel prices are all but certain to make air travel a luxury in the near future – and an un-PC one at that, like wearing a fur coat.

The implications, as they say, are vast, for the way we get around shapes our experience of the world. The successive transportation revolutions of the fossil fuel era laid the groundwork for a global society, enabling unprecedented migration and cross-cultural dialogue. The regeneration, in contrast, will bring about a rediscovery of the art of inhabitance. Grist reader naught101 made a good case for staying put in a comment a few weeks back:

I’d like to point out that it’s quite possible to spend decades in one place, and still not discover everything that’s within walking distance. And the biodiversity in your local ecosystems (assuming they’re not completely destroyed) is more complex than anything you’ll ever learn from travelling for a short period to any other ecosystem.

The fundamental answer to this question is another question: why travel?

Naught101’s question might be overdoing it slightly; I still believe in the value of experiencing a place fundamentally different from the one you’re used to. But his point remains: the end of easy aviation will challenge us to rethink what it means to explore the world around us. Perhaps we’ll a have a smaller menu of destinations to choose from, but we’ll be afforded the time to enjoy the journey – and the opportunity to rediscover the wonders that lie a bit closer to home.

photo credit: flickr/cjelli

Growth is Madness hosts Hopfenberg

By Adam Brock

What with finals and all, Nelson and I have had less time to spend at the WGY helm as of late. Don’t worry, we’ll be back in a big way in a week or so; in the meantime we’d like to use this opportunity to direct you to some of the other excellent verdy blogs hanging out on these inter nets.

Today’s blog namedrop is John Feeney’s Growth is Madness, which covers the much-needed beat of explaining the earth’s carrying capacity. The official description:

GIM addresses humanity’s most urgent challenge: the need to confront our continued irrational push for unending growth on a finite earth. The emphasis is on population growth and corporate economic growth as they interact with resource consumption rates and our reliance on fossil energy, pushing us toward global ecological collapse.

GIM’s most recent post is a reader Q+A (good idea!) with Dr. Russell Hopfenberg, who has hypothesized a direct correlation between total food production and population growth. According to Hopfenberg, our population explosion and all its attendant ecological devastation won’t let up until we stop increasing the amount of food we grow.

It’s a touchy topic, to be sure – which is exactly why it’s good to see experts and curious readers engaged in open discussion on Feeney’s blog. For better or worse, we could be finding out pretty soon whether the Hopfenberg Hypothesis is correct: a peak in energy supply will probably mean a peak in food supply, as well. After all, what’s the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s without all those petroleum-based fertilizers?

Best, then, to read up on it now… so go check it out!

Loose and Local: NYC’s Niche Green Networks

By Adam Brock

At Just Food’s Good Food Now! summit on Saturday, I attended a workshop session held by members of the Green Edge Collaborative, a newish organization that facilitates potlucks and eco-eatery tours around the city. Listening to the participants brainstorm ideas for future events, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of deja vu – Green Edge seemed to be aiming for a cross between Green Drinks and Green Arch, with a little bit of Green Maps thrown in.

The experience keyed me into a trend in the New York environmental movement that seems both entirely obvious and completely novel: thanks in large part to the adhesive powers of the internet, the regeneration is creating a proliferation of loose, local communities centered around increasingly specific themes. These mini-networks exist half online, half in the real world, and are usually managed by one or two people in their free time. They’re multiplying at a dizzying pace, but it would be silly to think of them as competing with each other: as Annie noted the other day, maintaining diversity in the movement is key. Here’s a rundown of the NYCentric green collectives I’m hip to (it’s by no means comprehensive – please add your own in the comments):

Perhaps the best known verdy social networks in NYC are the two local chapters of Green Drinks, which host monthly gatherings at bars in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each meetup usually brings a few hundred young greensters to eco-conscious locales around town, though I can’t say they’re really my scene: the crowd tends towards the lime and profesh.

Another network that’s been getting some hype of a different stripe is These folks are best known for their propensity to dumpster dive, but there’s far more to the freegan philosophy than that: drawing wealth from the abundance of other peoples’ waste is just one strategy in their fight to extract themselves from the global capitalist system. On the site, you’ll find the scoop on upcoming bike workshops, wild food foraging walks – and, yes, trash tours.

On a slightly more entertaining tip is nonsense, a weekly email of hipster happenings curated by Williamsurg resident Jeff Stark (also a co-host of the biweekly freegan feast grub). While many of the nonsense events don’t have a lick of greenness about them, the ones that do make it well worth the occasional read – this week’s email included a benefit auction for food security in Nicaragua, a gathering of the “trash worship society” and a holiday fair of local crafts.

Eating Liberally is an NYC sustainable food network run by Greenwich Village residents Kerry Trueman and Matthew Rosenberg. Eating Liberally hosts and promotes potlucks, food-related parties, and movie screenings, and the site’s got a terrific blog on sustainable ag.

The NYC chapter of the Peak Oil Meetup group has been hosting some thought-provoking talks as of late: see my posts on recent lectures by peak oilers Albert Bates and Daniel Lerch.

Finally, there’s the Green Arch Initiative, a google group managed by yours truly that promotes verdy activities around NYU and NYC at large. Green Arch was founded a few years ago as a student club, but is now largely an online presence that caters to NYU students and New Yorkers alike.

On Agriculture, Permaculture and Primitivism: What is Truly Sustainable?

Today’s guest post, a response to Nelson’s post on the farm bill yesterday, comes to us from primitivist Rob Archangel, an NYU alum and current employee of the NYU recycling shop.

Yesterday, Nelson posted an article about a panel discussing the 2007 Farm Bill, held at NYU’s Wagner School of public Policy. He pointed out that the farms hit hardest by the Farm Bill’s ill-conceived subsidization standard are actually not small farmers (those defined as cultivating between 1 and 50 acres) nor the super-size farms of over 500 acres, but the mid-sized farms between that. The small farmers are able to feasibly load up a truck and come to green markets, while the massive farms are receiving the subsidies, for the most part. The argument was that there was a need for local wholesale markets to make these farms viable.

In comments, Adam cautioned that he’s concerned about how sustainable farms beyond 50 acres really are, and Annie Meyers suggested that there’s no inherent reason for mid-sized farms to be unsustainable, and that there in any event are many layers of ‘sustainable.’ In her estimation a farm using organic methods, practicing crop rotation and selling locally is doing quite well. All of this got me thinking…

I tend to agree with Adam; crop rotation and an absence of poisons is good, but that characterized just about ALL agriculture before the mid-twentieth century when chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides came into vogue, and we have deserts across the world to thank for it, not to mention the growth of empire, the enslavement of populations, and the destruction of ecological integrity everywhere agriculturally-based civilization has spread. These are not casual claims, but the evidence is there, and numerous commentators have pointed it out.

Jared Diamond of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ fame argued that agriculture is ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race‘, pointing out that our health declined, inequality (including gender inequity) rose, we began working harder and longer hours, and our food supply actually became less, rather than more stable, since we now relied on a handful of crops, rather than hundreds of wild species, increasing the likelihood of a blight wiping us out (Irish potato famine, anyone?). Not only that, we increased our population, forcing us to cultivate more, which facilitated an increase in population, which in turn demanded more cultivation; this continues to this day, in what Daniel Quinn, author of ‘Ishmael’ famously calls the ‘food race.’ This expansion was not always done benevolently, and thus the birth of imperial conquest.

On the note of empire, food grown is kept under lock and key, which meant there were key-holders who held the fate of the rest of the population in their hands, which allowed deep systemic class divisions to develop where hunter-gatherers had none. Plus, with the burgeoining population of people in permanent settlements, we became a more viable resource to pathogenic microbes, and infectious disease for the first time really took hold. Meanwhile, integrated ecological landscapes are transformed into farms, where the biological productivity of a given bit of land is monopolized for human use, squeezing out biodiversity, and the topsoil, the land’s accumulated nutrient reserve
and basis for all ecosystemic life, is continually eroded (for more, see A Short History of Western Civilization, by the Anthropik Network). All of this coming from agricultultural practices which didn’t require mechanization or chemical additives of any sort, farms which by and large rotated crops and were ‘organic’ in the ways many allegedly ‘sustainable’ organic crops are today. Thus, I have my doubts about agriculture.

Permaculture/horticulture I think is a different stripe, and works in conjunction with succession, rather than against it, as agriculture does (by which I mean monocropping, since that’s what the vast majority of agriculture worldwide is). In my mind, the crucial difference is this: permaculture takes a temporally long look at the ecology, and acts now in such a way as to lead nature to take over and finish the job of creating the desired outcome, allowing wildness, the path of least resistence, to simply switch paths, but remain flowing. Agriculture, however, with its weeding and continual fight against succession (tilling the soil every year, and ideally having nothing at all grow except for what we plant) is a battle against wildness, and thus against the path of least resistance. That’s why agriculturalists the world over work hours and hours more per day than foragers and horticulturalists.

When you’ve got your back against the wall, fighting the tides of nature, you have to work damn hard to stay afloat. But if you’re instead riding the currents, and just choosing one over another route in the river, your workload is not nearly so great. No wonder indigenous, old-growth culture humans the world over continually described their land as ‘paradise’!

All of which is not to say that I don’t support local food economies, nor that I don’t have in many cases probably a great deal of respect for these mid-sized farms trying to compete. But we need truly local economies, on the scale of you and me and a dozen of our friends procuring our own food, whether by hunting, gathering or gardening it. These local wholesale depots for nearby mid-sized farmers are a step in the right direction, and insofar as they inspire people to know personally what they eat, they’re good. But I don’t have much patience for the abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ so prevalent in green discussion these days (no offense to Annie).

Sustainable doesn’t just mean doing less awful shit. It means, really, giving more back to your ecology so that your niche remains intact and the ecology depends upon you in the same way you depend on it. It means having no foreseeable future (not by 2020, not by 2100, not by 3000) when your landbase is fully depleted and you’re no longer able to live as you once did. It means sustaining, and really, it means thriving as a dynamic member of a living community, as is our birthright. And for me, that’s where the discussion of primitivism begins.

Three Shades of Green

By Adam Brock

Soon after starting WGY, I developed the “Three Shades of Green” to describe what I saw as the main approaches to sustainability. The framework has been useful shorthand for identifying different sets of verdy values, and it’s become an integral part of my thinking about the regeneration.

But, like any metaphor, the original Three Shades didn’t quite capture the way things really work: by positing them as a hierarchy, I’d fallen into that perilous and outdated trap of linear thinking. What follows is an update of the Lime, Grass and Forest spiel with a slightly more integrative perspective.

Sustainability is shaping up to be the buzzword of the decade. Global warming is now an acknowledged crisis – one that seems to be happening more swiftly than any scientist could have anticipated – and we’ve finally begun a public discussion about how (and how much) to cut our greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.

Still, a fundamental question remains unanswered: what, exactly, are we trying to sustain? A growing economy? General human happiness? Biodiversity? Ask ten different environmentalists and you’ll get ten different answers. But while there’s hardly a consensus on the kind of sustainable society we’re trying to build, there do exist certain patterns in the way environmental thinkers tend to group themselves. I’ve identified three such patterns, given them cute names, and called them the Three Shades of Green. Here goes:

First up is Lime Green – or, if you prefer, “sustainability lite.” The Lime Greens, whatever their conventional political affiliation, can be considered the conservatives of the regeneration: they’re trying to sustain as much as possible of the world we currently live in. You can count most corporations and national governments in the Lime camp, as well as everyday citizens just becoming exposed to environmentalism. Lime is the color of institutions going green for the brownie points, as in this recent ad touting Chevrolet’s green cred: “The environment and your commute. Can’t we all just get along? It’s as simple as driving a more fuel-efficient car.”

Ahh… if only it were that simple. But while Lime-colored solutions like hybrids and carbon offsets can provide crucial gateways into greener ways of living, most sustainability thinkers contend that these solutions simply won’t be enough to avert the planetary devastation we’re currently experiencing. Instead, creating an ecologically integrated society will demand much more fundamental shifts: in our politics, in our systems of production and consumption, and in our attitudes towards nature.

Enter Grass Green, the middle shade. Grassies are trying to sustain the best parts of our current way of life – material prosperity, personal freedom – while reinventing the institutions that have led to our current social and environmental devastation. They embrace zero-waste production systems, open-source technologies, innovative new materials and progressive government initiatives: think Cradle to Cradle, nanotubes, and carbon taxes. Compared to the Lime mantra of “more of the same, only greener,” the Grass approach offers something truly substantive: a marriage of industry and ecology, one that promises to provide us with ever-rising standards of living while simultaneously healing the planet.

Yet there are many environmentalists who would call even this vision nothing more than a deranged fairytale. Our pursuit of technology and economic growth, these folks claim, are themselves a product of our dominating attitude towards nature, and we can’t achieve sustainability until we leave them in the dust. These are the Forest Greens – the revolutionaries. Instead of dealing with climate change, social inequality, and peak energy one by one, say the Foresters, we need to cut to the root of our problems and “solve for pattern.” This means leaving behind our current mechanistic, rational way of thinking, and beginning to see ourselves as part of an infinitely complex, ever-changing system. Oh, and we’ll also need to localize our economies and drastically reduce our levels of consumption in the process. In short, the Forest Greens want to sustain the web of life – and they’re willing to rethink some of the basic assumptions of human civilization in order to do so.

As the most radical shade, Forest Green isn’t without some serious limitations of its own. For one thing, its purism often renders it utopian and unrealistic: whatever you happen to think of Forest Green theory, at the moment it’s pretty hard to put into practice outside of ecovillages and backyard gardens. Also, it’s traditionally been a rural movement, and therefore not very applicable to the cities in which most of us live.

It’s tempting to see these three shades as a competition, with each one vying for their place in the sustainable future. But thinking about which shade is “better” is like asking which species of frog is “supposed” to be in the rainforest. The truth is, the Three Shades of Green are as interdependent as anything else in nature, and we’ll need all of them to get us through the next few decades.

Sure, green consumerism might ultimately be a dead end – but right now, it’s the only force that can start shifting attitudes on a society-wide scale. Sure, the Grassies might have a misplaced faith in technological progress – but they’re bound to come up with some truly worldchanging stuff in the process. And sure, the ecocentric outlook of Forest Green might not work for most of us as a way of life. But it can provide valuable guidance as we move away from our 20th-century consumerist habits, and towards something better for ourselves and the planet.

So don’t fret too much if you think you’re not “green enough” – the fact that you’re even wondering if you’re green enough means you’re on the right track. Instead, pick a shade, any shade, and get to work. We’ve got a lot to accomplish together.

Photo credit: flickr/shakkai

Druid Dunnit

By Adam Brock

Leave it to the modern-day leader of an ancient religious order to come up with some of the most penetrating social commentary on the big issues of our time. John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report is something of an anomaly of the green blogosphere, foregoing the usual rapid-fire approach in favor of lengthy, incisive essays on such topics as the dangers of technocentrism and human development as seen through the lens of ecological succession – heady stuff, but well worth the few minutes they take to read. As the name implies, Greer is the leader of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, an ecospiritual group inspired by medieval Celtic traditions. But, somehow, that seems to be beside the point; Greer’s essays betray far more influence from thinkers like James Howard Kuntzler and Derek Jensen than new age spirituality.

The latest Archdruid Report, titled “The Age of Scarcity Industrialism”, draws an extended and compelling analogy between our culture’s response to the energy crisis and the five stages of dealing with death posited by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in the 70s. According to Greer, we’ve passed through the stages of denial and anger, and are now entering the period of bargaining; I’ll leave his predictions of how this period will play out for you to read. Like any futurism, it’s necessarily full of lofty, unsubstantiated statements, but Greer’s writing makes it seem sensible enough – at least if you’re not already convinced that technology’s gonna save us.

Bioneering in Baltimore

By Adam Brock

Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons are the mixtape DJs of the sustainability movement: just below the radar of the mainstream, but with impeccable taste for what’s next. Since 1990 the pair have been responsible for running the Bioneers conference, an annual gathering of the verdiest thinkers in everything from ecodesign to indigenous wisdom, in San Rafael, California. I’ve long been a fan of their lecture archive and book series, and this weekend I get to participate in the real thing – if only slightly vicariously – from Cultivating Change, the satellite conference in Baltimore.

If the proceedings so far are any indication of what’s to come, it’s sure to be a weekend packed with fresh ideas, inspiring stories.. and pickled eggplant (wtf?) at the locally-sourced lunch table. To be sure, there’s a good deal of familiar, if well-presented, territory being covered here – the financial benefits of building green aren’t really a revelation at this point. But the presenters that have made the Chinatown bus ride from NYC worth it are the ones covering new ground, elaborating on concepts only just now getting the attention they deserve.

Like, for instance, local living economies: regional networks of locally-owned, triple-bottom-line businesses. A talk by Judy Wicks, owner of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia and cofounder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, turned the Forest Green aversion to moneymaking on its head: with the right approach, Wicks asserted, entrepreneurship can be a medium for reconnecting communities to nature and each other. The amiable Massachusetts green contractor John Abrams concurred, relating the story of growing his one-man business, South Mountain Company, into a thriving employee-owned corporation.

Another hot concept this year is the emerging congruence of the sustainability and social justice movements under the banner of “green-collar jobs”. Van Jones, one of the most sought-after activists in the country at the moment, gave a keynote address from California that managed to be both electrifying and stand-up-comedian funny. Now that environmentalism is moving to the center of politics, Jones told us, we have the responsibility to make it a tide that lifts all boats. This will happen by “connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs doing” – an idea that everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Thomas Friedman seem to be getting on board with.

Van’s talk was only the last of several jaw-dropping speeches during the day, and even though half of the presentations at Bioneers are telecasted, it’s been hard not to get riled up. Bioneers makes me feel like part of a culture-changing movement at its peak – and I’m only a third of the way through. I wonder if they’re putting something in that pickled eggplant.