Desert in Bloom

Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve, CA

from flickr/lkunarsky 



Check out the lovely little spirals on this Colorado Blue Spruce flower…

from flickr/starwillowstudio 

WGY Enters Hibernation

By Adam Brock

I love blogging. Since I started WGY last January, its been instrumental in helping me clarify my thoughts on the regeneration and get them out to a broad (and growing) audience. But part of that same process has been the dawning realization that, like most of us in the overdeveloped world, I spend far too much time indoors, tethered to electronix. Writing a sustainability blog is one of the most justifiable reasons for being plugged in that I can think of – but at the moment, I’m obligated to spend my daily allotment of computer time on my academic and activist commitments.

And so I’m making the difficult decision to set my blogging duties aside for the time being, in order to concentrate on my last semester of college (and live the Forest Green lifestyle that so many of us now strive for). I’m sure I’ll post sporadically in the next few months, but not as much as you might be used to.

If all goes as planned, I’ll be back in May with a fresh perspective and a whole lot more mental space. In the meantime, you can get your green read on by checking out any of the wonderful sites on the blogroll, or browsing through some of WGY’s greatest hits, listed below.

Three Shades of Green – my framework for answering the difficult question: what, exactly are we trying to sustain?

Bioplastics Rundown – a summary of the different kinds of bioplastic on the market, and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The Obligatory WGY Earth Day Top Ten – 10 not-so-inconsequential things we can do to green up our act.

Arcologies from the Bottom Up – are Paolo Soleri’s self-sufficient megacities the habitat of the regeneration?

Has Sustainability Sold Out? – on the perils of green consumerism.

Broken Robots: Technology Reconsidered – why we need to take a critical look at the technologies that sustain our industrial lifestyle – and not just cutting-edge ones, either.

How Local? – is trying to eat only out of your own yard heroic, or just a gimmick?

Burning Bright: The Black Rock City Experiment – the story behind the innovative city planning features of Burning Man.

The Real Food Summit: A Campus Movement Takes Shape – how on earth will we make college dining halls sustainable?

Cracks in the Foundation: Green Business Encounters its Paradoxes – the pushback on corporate greening begins.

Tax or Trade? The Debate Heats Up – a panel of lawyers and policy wonks takes on the confounding issue of carbon legislation.

Grounded – why I don’t fly.

Why Cityfarming? Because It’s Fair – the intersection of urban agriculture and social justice.

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

The Roots of Freeganism Part I: Food Waste

By Nelson Harvey

Freeganism, the philosophy of non-participation in the capitalist economy through minimization of what one buys, has been getting heaps of press lately, with outlets as high-rolling as the New York Times and the Washington Post running pieces on the subject. But while much recent media coverage focuses on what it’s like to live as a freegan, I’m interested in the forces that freegans are reacting to, and the realities that allow them to sustain their lifestyles. In this four part series, I’ll be examining these questions by looking at food waste, disposable culture, modern work, and the state of community in America. 

New York Freegan Janet Kalish salvages pastries from the garbage in front of Le Pain Quotidien.

One night in late November, in the courtyard of a community center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a bread mountain was constructed. It measured about four feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, the product of a few nights of dumpster diving throughout New York City. Hundreds of rolls, pumpernickel loaves and baguettes lay stacked in various states of edibility, but like so much wasted food in New York City, they would never make it to the people that needed them most.

In 2003, the most recent year for which data is available, businesses in New York generated over three million tons of organic waste. Although it isn’t known how much of this was food waste, the much-publicized success of freeganism in the city suggests that most dumpsters contain much more than just coffee grounds and banana peels. Indeed, on the same evening that I came upon the bread mountain in Brooklyn, the community center hosted a freegan benefit party, with a buffet spread featuring chili, vegetables and dip, and various breads and cookies, all of which had been scavenged from the trash.

There’s no way to tell precisely how much edible food winds up in New York trash cans, particularly since the term “edible” is so subjective. Nevertheless, it’s clear that much more would go to waste if not for the organization City Harvest, which uses a fleet of 16 trucks to rescue over 2 million pounds of wasted food in New York City annually, and transfers it to community centers and homeless shelters. According to the organization’s website, there are over 1 million people in the city who do not get enough food to meet their basic needs.

For Jesus Ortiz, who has been driving a City Harvest donation truck for more than 5 years, such figures are all too familiar. “We get up to 1300 pounds of food per day on city routes, and our base in Brooklyn gets up to 6000 pounds,” he told me, as we set out on his route one recent morning.


Whole Foods gave these bananas to City Harvest for donation.

From the perspective of a restaurant or grocery store, wasting food is effectively throwing away money. So how can there be so much waste? One stop on Ortiz’s route is the Institute of Culinary Education, where we picked up extra cilantro, carrots, and several other vegetables. “This is food that is not quite high enough in quality for the students who pay $25-30,000 per year to go here,” said the chef who gave Ortiz his load. “But it’s still all perfectly good.

I heard similar explanations from at several food providers we visited. Indeed, it seems that for many of them, appearance has replaced abundance as the main food-related concern. There are some businesses with inefficient ordering systems, and for them, working with City Harvest can provide a much-needed wakeup call.”When organizations sign up with City Harvest, they often start to realize that they’ve got a problem, which makes them ask ‘Who’s ordering all this stuff?’” said Ortiz.

Still, a single organization can only do so much. Jennifer McLean, City Harvest’s Director of Program Operations, noted that liability prevents the group from accepting any food that has been damaged or previously served, including things like restaurant hot bars or leftovers from corporate lunches. “Many of us go into a bodega near the end of the day and think of what a shame it is that all that food will be wasted, but unfortunately, we can’t take it,” she said.

NYU students dumpster dive outside of a Gristedes supermarket in Greenwich Village.

A recent evening out with a couple of New York City freegans reinforced McLean’s point that even a well-run organization like City Harvest can have only a limited impact on reducing food waste. We traversed several markets and eateries throughout Greenwich Village, and one of our greatest hauls came at Gristedes, a New York supermarket chain that doesn’t donate any food to City Harvest at all. We pulled everything from frozen pies to iceberg lettuce from their trash bags, but we also did quite well at several restaurants that actively donate to the organization. At the French Bistro Le Pain Quotidien, we salvaged bags full of muffins and croissants. The Sullivan Street Bakery, which is also a City Harvest partner, is notorious among freegans for its remarkable quantities of wasted bread.

“Most stores always order more than they need,” said Janet Kalish, a freegan and high school Spanish teacher. “They do it to perpetuate the myth of abundance, the idea that there is always more than enough.”

You won’t find this in the mission statement of any grocery store, many of which feature sophisticated computerized systems that strive to match supply with demand by re-ordering items automatically when they are sold at the register. “Why would we waste?” asked Norbert Jones, the assistant manager of a Dagostino’s supermarket in Greenwich Village, when I inquired what the store threw away most often. “It’s bad for business!”

Nevertheless, the huge volumes of food involved in the modern grocery business make it all but inevitable that some inefficiency will surface. And it’s hard to ignore the lengths that many businesses will go to in order to create the illusion of a cornucopia. Bakeries advertise bread “baked fresh, all day,” while grocers heap exotic produce in precarious piles and lay out epic spreads of prepared food. Unless appearance becomes less vital or stores become much smaller, it’s likely that freegans will continue to live off of our food supply system for a long time to come.

And for now, they’re enjoying it. As student and freegan Arthur Crosman told me, “Sometimes I go inside the stores where I’ve been dumpster diving and see how much the stuff costs that I’ve been getting for free!”

WGY is on Flickr!

Fellow Econauts on the Green Brick Road,

The authors of the Wild Green Yonder are proud to announce that we now have a group page on Flickr. We’ll be posting our photos on different aspects of the regeneration, and we invite you to join our group and/or show us your own photographic creations.

Here’s an idea of what we’re shooting for, from the page itself:

This group is about the emergence of a new way of relating to nature – one that’s holistic, humble and restorative to the psyche as well as the environment.

See you in the darkroom!

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