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.

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!

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.

Grounded

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