Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sustainable(r) Living

I'm a pretty big believer in putting my money where my mouth is and walking the talk, and so on. Fortunately, for me, I have been blessed with parental units who think the same way (and have the skills to make it happen). My mom and her husband, Wayne, came to visit me last week, and the "honey-do" list was long. We made it all the way through it, and then some. I can't thank them enough. I feel so lucky and blessed and loved.

Wayne is about as handy a man as you'll find, and he isn't happy unless there is a project or two to finish, followed by lunch, a nap another project, and a beer. So, we started each day of their 10 day "vacation" with a new project, followed by a trip to Lowes (or two). As promised earlier in this column, we got the insulating blinds on the wall of windows (on the *southwest* side of my house) hung first thing. I think this might have been self-preservation on their part--to ward off the heat of Georgia that was already thinning their Minnesota blood. The blinds make a HUGE difference. In years past my house would have been a airless oven in the afternoon, even as early as April. Now--even after a couple of 90 degree days I come home to a cool, shaded haven. They set me back $70 each from and will likely pay for themselves in a few months. And, they are beautiful. Do it.

Next up was removing and replacing the old kitchen countertop, which I must say I *hated*. While not a sustainable living improvement, it sure improves my mood in the kitchen, which is sort of essential to the kind of sustainable living I chose to do. I observed that all the improvements I have made to my house and yard are all about food. Um, yeah. I choose to believe that I do *not* have an unhealthy obsession with food, rather a unusually consistent theme in work, life and play... Anyway, my new beautiful kitchen, which includes a new sink, a new energy-efficient light fixture, a fixed dishwasher and a gorgeous tiled backsplash, has made even more joy out of being in my favorite place in the house. Is it even possible? Yes.

A new raised bed, a potato tower and two rain barrels came next (and a clothesline, which I have yet to use because I lack the necessary accoutrement--clothespins!). Mom and I tackled the wood-working while Wayne got to work with the rain barrels. Watching Wayne work, I realized that it was an unbelievably easy exercise to trim the downspouts and install a few new elbows to direct the rain into the barrels. Even though I am mostly a novice with tools, I am going to tackle installing three more on the remaining downspouts on my house. That night, the 50 gallon barrels filled up in less than 5 minutes in one of Georgia's famous downpours. Water that would ordinarily have been redirected god knows where through the storm sewer now makes watering my food forest a breeze. Incidentally, I use on average, 50-100 gallons of water/day, so it's a nice visual reminder of my actual impact on the water world. They cost me $50 each + a few dollars for the downspout attachments. It's hard to assess the savings that accrue from "free" water, but this will surely save me a lot of money this summer since I have amped up my gardening a great deal from years past.

The raised beds and potato tower (of which I could use about 5 more!) have yet to see much action (more later!), but the chickens have taken to roosting on the edge of the raised bed at night, and are helpfully fertilizing the garden while they sleep. This pregnant lady sure appreciates this little favor from them. On the last day of their trip, after the wonderful baby shower organized by my dear friends, Mom painted the nursery while I put my feet up. I can't think of a better couple of people to help me through this thing called life. Thanks to them, and following their example, I can live life a little better, and bring this baby into a world of love, mutual aid, right living and closed loops.

Live, love and work for each other--we're all we've got.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Blueberry Jam

No, this is not another apocalyptic manifesto; just a little (slightly ranty) observation about how we really have to buy a lot less stuff than we think.

I had a bunch of blueberries from 2009 in my freezer that I needed to deal with because they were getting a bit too stale to eat. After cleaning out the last jar of purchased jelly, I thought, hmmm...I prattle on a lot of about food sovereignty but I still buy a lot of stuff that I eat. Maybe it's time to make jam. I've made jam in the past, but being a lazy bum, I got out of the habit. And I *try* not to eat jam because it's not so good for my health, but I eat it anyway, so why not do it myself and make it low or no-sugar?

This past weekend I bought some jars and some pectin and some organic unrefined cane sugar--about $10 bucks worth of stuff, half of which can be reused. And on my lunch break today--feeling a bit inspired to do something other than answer emails, read proposals and revise papers, I found my canner, got out my blueberries and washed up the jars. The rest went a bit like this: heat blueberries, add sugar, boil, put in a jar, walk away. The acid in the blueberries and the sugar is more than enough to preserve the jam, and the jars seal themselves as they cool.

Making a year's worth of jam (at the rate I eat it anyway--about 1 pint/month) took approximately 20 minutes, and cost me less than a dollar a jar (the blueberries were free). My jam tastes like heaven (I must say) and only has 3 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon--4-5 times less than many store bought varieties, and has no corn syrup or other nasty additives. I'm going to try it with honey and without pectin when the honey harvest comes in June. I am surprised (again) at how easy this whole DIY thing is---and that kind of makes me mad.

WHY on earth do we buy stuff? Who has hoodwinked us into believing that we can't do this ourselves, and in the process takes our money, robs us of our health and leaves us without the skills we need to fend for ourselves? It's time to take it all back!

Food sovereignty now!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The People's Socialism

I don't know about you, but I am rapidly losing faith in our government to do anything at all, much less cope with the impending social, economic and environmental crises looming large in our future. I've been thinking and talking about privilege and equity a lot this semester with the awesome students in my Gender and Geography class. We often arrive at a point where we see capitalism and the monetary exchange of everything as the source of a lot of inequities. We get stuck here and feel helpless, so one day I asked them (and me) to do an exercise where we do one of three things: 1) undermine capitalism, 2) undo privilege or 3) create something new.

This challenge stumped all of us, and required us to generate possibilities for things that don't yet exist. I liken this process to the end scene of the Truman show, where Truman sails his boat through the bubble he has lived in all his life. The mast of his ship breaks the skin of the "sky" and the light of another possible world breaks though and floods onto him. (Another example of this is Plato's Allegory of The Cave. Check it out.) We remain in a paralyzed state because the things we need to live better and more fairly don't exist anymore. We need to find them and remake them through shifting our ontology--which just means we have to dream, envision and create the groundwork for a future that doesn't exist right now.

In the case of my students and myself, everywhere we turned we had to buy something. It was virtually impossible to undermine capitalism--even by bartering or home-based crafts. One student observed that she felt as though the exercise required her to give away some of her privilege--and this includes the privilege to buy whatever we need. We discussed this at length. How did we acquire privilege? How much do we actually have? How do we continue to accrue it? In most cases, capitalism and our physical and social locations afford us the lion's share of our privilege. But how would we give it away? Or stop it from accruing? These are thorny, epistemological problems that require the overhaul of entire systems.

Evening the playing field and redistributing wealth (one kind of privilege) is one of the basic premises of socialism, or at least one of its functions. Even if we wanted a socialist democracy, like those in Norway or Sweden, we are going to have to wait a long durn time for it in the United States. I, for one, am not holding my breath. I am, however, trying to think about how I can redistribute resources without having to create an entire political-economic system. What if I just used less water, less energy? In some ways this is making a socialist system possible already--voluntarily and without a lot of bureaucratic waste of time and money. As Utah Phillips famously says, "if you want something done, don't come to me to do it for you. You got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves".

The Global North (that's us) is only about 6% of the world's population, but uses almost half of its resources. There are two scenarios that are likely to evolve from this precarious situation: The first is that the other 94% of the world is eventually going to cut off our heads, a la Roman, French, Russian, etc, revolutions. Extreme inequality doesn't usually find a bloodless resolution, and I'm pretty sure this is already underway. The other possibility (already underway) is that the rest of the world is going to want to live like us. We don't have enough Earths for that. (Take the Ecological Footprint quiz to see how you stack up: See China eclipse the U.S. as the largest emitter of CO2. See everyone in the Indian middle class buy a car. See world food prices rise as more people start eating meat.

See Amy install solar panels. And rain barrels, insulating blinds and a clothesline.

I assigned the ecological footprint to my students in my lower-division class, and the average number of planets we need for everyone to live like us is about 5 planets. I retook the quiz, changing the parameters, until I could get it below 1 earth. This involved installing the above amendments to my house, reducing the miles I drive by taking the bus, biking etc; *never* flying ever again, purchasing carbon offsets (and/or doing it myself by planting trees) and going local and vegetarian (although there is no option for grass-fed vegetarian, so I'm sticking to that for now). These are tall orders, and it will take some time, money and patience to get there. I started thinking about this by examining my daily water and energy consumption in my house--easy enough to do by looking at your bill.

I currently use 377KwH/month or about 13 KwH/day. There is a fair bit of math involved with figuring out what that means in terms of solar panels, but I'll keep you posted! I also currently use about 82 gallons of water/day. My first goal is to reduce these numbers and see how low I can comfortably go--washing clothes 2x month, drying clothes outside, keeping the AC to a minimum, taking bucket showers...hmmmmmmmm. This seems a lot like life in India last summer on the farm. I survived. And thrived. You will too.

Examine your power bill. Think about your privilege. Have a breakthrough. Get together and do it yourselves.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thinking Pre-Seasonally

This is not my usual thing, but I think it's worth blogging about because I feel change is a coming, and not in a good way. Those of you who know me will find this sudden turn toward apparent pessimism a bit disturbing, but I see it as an opportunity to anticipate and prepare for what is heading down the pike toward us. If you have a feeling that things are just not quite right, don't ignore it. This is not just fear-mongering, doomsaying or 2012-apocalyps- hysteria--I'm saying that if you look at history, we've got it coming. I'm writing about this here, because I have an audience, (thanks for reading and sharing), and dealing with what is coming has everything to do with food and community.

A bit of backstory:

A few years ago my Dad (AKA Dr. Doom) shared with me a book by the name of the 4th Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Around page three the authors (writing in 1997) predicted September 11th--roughly the time-frame, the method, and the aftermath. This got my attention. I read most of the rest of the book, and the jist of it is this: every hundred years or so, western societies go through a convulsive change, known as the 4th Turning, which ushers in a new era, also known as the 1st Turning. This is largely driven by cycles of history (social theorists will recognize shades of Wallerstein here), and the generations of people who are born and come of age during various periods of history. They refer to these cycles as seasons of history, and according to them we are now entering a "saecular winter". I am of the Nomad generation (called Thirteeners by Strauss and Howe) that will (with the Boomers) have to take leadership through this seasonal change. So, here, in the way that I can, I am going to start leading.

Strauss and Howe could see the 4th Turning beginning in 2005, give or take a few years. I would argue that 9/11 and the 2008 economic crash are highly related, and manifestations of a system in trouble seeking change and equilibrium. I believe we are well on our way into the 4th Turning, which lasts about 20 years, on average. Strauss and Howe call it a "crisis", which I think is just a slowly unfolding global set of events that will be more or less horrific depending on where you are when these crisis events erupt. There are economic, social, political and ecological dimensions of this, and every place will have its own unique manifestations. How we react to, lead and organize through this crisis will determine how we end up on the other side of it. Forget about American exceptionalism (if you ever believed it). The 4th Turning levels the playing field. I highly recommend that you read the book yourself, so I won't narrate much more about it here, other than what I see coming and how we can deal with it.

Here in Athens, we have economic problems with poverty that are clearly related to racial inequalities, past and present. This is related to our social problems that leave our communities deeply divided, both within and between. We have political problems that are related to our economic problems--corruption in government and tax/spending priorities that privilege the super rich. Our ecological problems relate to climate change and our susceptibility to drought, which will limit our primary economy activities (agriculture and forestry) from providing capital to the economy. Case in point, wildfires in SE GA, today. The 4th turning is, of course a social, not an ecological phenomena, but climate change and the crises this generates will only exacerbate the challenges of the 4th Turning. In Athens these will be the deepening of poverty and eruptions of violence not unlike what just happened here with the shooting of a police officer. The state, in an attempt to gain control, will increase its powers, and this never bodes well for human or civil rights. Inflation is likely to increase (and/or the devaluing of currency) and the fragile and flimsy basis of our economy will continue to falter. Investments may soon be meaningless, so we need to think about real material security through food and real social security through community.

Strauss and Howe suggest that we can best weather the 4th Turning if we start thinking now--what they call pre-seasonal thinking--about how we will have to live during the crisis, and what we want life to look like on the other side. As for me, I am saying adios (to the degree that I can) to the infrastructures that I depend on for food, water and energy. I believe these infrastructures will fail (or will fail to meet the needs of most people), and our manifest vulnerability to corporations and governments will be laid bare. I also believe that this crisis will be manifested by inflation and further contractions of our economy, which will limit our ability to consume (and make our consumer-based economy shrivel). We need to learn new habits that reflect our limited choices in the coming year. I will blog about this and more as these efforts get underway.

The second general area of preparation is linked to our dependence on institutions and our lack of inter-dependence as a community. I have eggs to share (and soon lots of other produce), so I am going to start using them to build community in my neighborhood. We'll have to stand together, or we all will fail. I have to say that I know precious few of my neighbors, but I aim to get to know them, and make the food forest of my yard a resource for our whole community. I also intend to reach out to the wider community in Athens through a community kitchen in one of the poorest, but most historic, neighborhoods in Athens.

Showing up is 90% of life, and I intend to show up for peace, community and self-sufficiency in the coming years.

Show up with me, y'all.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Toward a Reciprocal Social Economy of Food

It's been a good week for the traffic in banned foods. I bartered my illegal backyard eggs for illegal backyard honey from the Normaltown Beekeeper and I lucked into a source of raw m__. (Woohooo! Let the cheesemaking begin!) In the wake of the supreme satisfaction I got from both of these transactions, I decided three things.

1) the banning of backyard, homescale, out-of-the-system food production is not only unethical, it's a violation of human rights. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3, I have the right to life, liberty and security of person. Given that waterboarding is legal and article 5 guarantees the right to be free of torture, I understand that I won't get much traction with this argument. Having said that, somewhere, I am guaranteed the right to provide for myself (i.e., life) when it doesn't hurt anybody else (chickens don't, bees don't, raw m__ doesn't). I have a right to liberty, which means I am free to do what I wish on my private property (as long as I don't hurt others), and I have a right to liberty in my economic transactions. Suck it, neoliberals. Last, salmonella-contaminated eggs and the like, threaten the security of my person, *from the inside*, and I have a right to alternatives that don't threaten my health, or the health of my unborn baby. (Just try it, Bobby Franklin).

2) the participation in the purchase and sale of food is the stupidest thing humans have ever done. (don't feel offended...I have been doing this for 35 years...and it's not too late to get smart). Buying and selling food not only stripped us of useful skills that could be exchanged for food (for more on this, see K. Marx, Capital, vol 1), it also handed over all of our rights in the food system to the brokers who buy and sell. For the most part those jokers who make money on transactions don't give a damn what goes into your body. The only reason they pretend to care is because, legally, they have to. This means that as long as they don't get caught, they will encourage (even demand) the farming practices that get the salmonella in your egg and the e. coli in your milk. Technical fixes, like pasteurization, are unnecessary when proper farming practices are followed, but they funnel a lot of profit toward the processors (oh, right the jokers who profit from transactions...). Let's get out of this system. Now. Here's how.

3) instead of a transactional system based on money, we need to have a reciprocal exchange system based on calories. I am borrowing this partly from the solar economy literature, but I also appreciate the beauty of it's logic. First, commodities like coffee that usually come at great cost to human and ecological life, would be worth nothing since they have no calories. Therefore there would be no incentive to ship it halfway across the world. (Coffee addicts, I don't envy you the headache you will have when you wake up from the dream of global capitalism. In the meantime, sleep well and dream of large cups of coffee). Second, calorie dense foods like meat would be very expensive, thus, limiting their consumption. I am a carnivore (see the 1 chicken, 10 meals blog post), but I do recognize the incredible waste, ecological devastation and animal cruelty caused by conventional meat production. Third, low calorie, nutrient-dense foods, like kale, would be widely available (a bit like 1 dollar bills are ubiquitous) and easy to get, which is not the case now. They are incredibly easy to grow as well, so they may even disappear from circulation eventually, as we get smarter. Fourth, grains and sweeteners would be very expensive, and would force us to figure out ways to grow our own, barter for them, grow them cooperatively or find substitutes, like potatoes and honey.

I could go on, but you get the picture. We need to move toward a steady-state food system in which the inputs are equal to the outputs. One way to do this, is to start increasing our awareness of the calories in our food and use this as a basis of exchange. We can all become growers of something and exchange this on the basis of calories. Or we can examine the kind of work we do, and the calories we expend doing it, and exchange food on the basis of this. Physical labor has sustained us for millennia and should be the basis of our health and vitality of our society and economy.

So, if I follow my own logic, I owe the Normaltown Beekeeper a dozen eggs. I exchanged a dozen eggs for a pint of honey this week. I should have given the beekeeper two dozen eggs if we follow the calorie math. A dozen eggs has about 1000 calories, while a pint of honey has 2000 calories. Now that I know, I'll catch up with him next time. I had to pay for my raw m__, only because I don't have anything to give the farmers that they don't already have. I've traded skills for money, and, I realize now, that that's a real shame. But...maybe they would like some ricotta cheese...

Make cheese, make a difference.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Superfood Sunday

Tonight for supper I ate baked wild salmon, mashed sweet potatoes and sauteed kale with blueberries and yogurt for desert, topped off with tea. I am literally bursting with micro-nutrients. All these foods just happened to be what I was craving for supper, and they all just happen to be available locally. (More on how the salmon is local in a minute.)

All these foods have also been identified as "superfoods" by one dietetic association or another. This just means that these foods will cure what ails you, namely cancer. Crammed full of quaint (or scary) sounding nutrients like "flavonoids" and "carotenoids" these foods have everything you need to live forever. Eating well never tasted so good. This food is "good to think" too, to borrow from anthropologist Levi-Strauss, because it's come from local, organic sources.

I know, I know, you're saying, I get the sweet potatoes, but wild salmon, in Georgia? Come on. Well, climate change has not brought salmon to Georgia, but Athens Locally Grown has. A local family goes up to salmon country in Alaska and brings back the catch to sell here through ALG. While it's not local in the strict sense of the word, it does a lot of the work that "local" consumption/production does.

We buy local because it completes the three legged stool of justice--social, economic and environmental--in sustainability. It is a complete and functional system within which people are compensated fairly, social capital is built through direct connections, and the ecology of the environment is protected to the greatest extent that it can be. Buying direct is almost as good as buying local when it provides income to a family business and doesn't exploit workers or treat animals inhumanely. And let's face it, the salmon I just ate wasn't going to live a long peaceful life into its reclining years. It was likely heading directly to death after spawning in the river in which it was caught. The ecological piece is obviously lacking in this purchase, since this food came from more than a thousand miles away from here. That part troubles me enough to keep this food a luxury, not a staple. (This also makes me want to cry, or move to Alaska).

As I have found in my research on fair trade and organic food products, the interference of middle-people creates a lot of the problems in our current food system. (And the minor detail that we have to *buy* food.) When food is for sale, and lots of people get a cut, the least powerful actors take the biggest hit. In the case of organic bananas, these are Haitian workers who have little more than the shirt on their back. In the case of organic produce in the United States it is migrant workers in the same situation, who often work for less than minimum wage.

The best way I see to work out this food puzzle is that I have to eat healthy, and I have to eat righteously, which means eating with ethics and with an eye to justice. This means, that I can't place animal lives above human ones. No way. I'll eat a lot of animals before I knowingly consume something (like a banana) that puts workers lives at risk and permanently erodes their life chances in the same way that slavery has and still does. Fortunately there are some good options for eating healthy food that doesn't come at the expense of human lives. Even if it happens to come from across the continent, I'll take it.

The beauty of all this lies in the fact that these locally produced and directly traded foods are *the healthiest* foods on the planet! I didn't buy any of these things because I knew they were good for me. I bought them because they were delicious and righteous. The fact that they will make me live forever is just the blueberry on my yogurt.

Live, eat and love righteous.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Back to Local Chow

Hi Friends and Followers!
Now that I am home for awhile in Georgia and eating locally, I'm going to start posting to my other blog. You can find it at
See you there, and thanks for following!