Friday, July 4, 2008

I posted some stuff...

From Sitten in the Mitten #3. This certainly isn't all of it, but I thought to post the entire thing would be overwhelming. I may post some more another time. Write me if you'd like a hard copy of the zine which is more aestically pleasing than this text and with a lot more articles.

Self Preservation is not a fruit of the Spirit

This was originally written and posted on MLK Jr. Day of this year

One of the conclusions made in Darwin's Origin of the Species is the idea of "the survival of the fittest". Essentially, the idea is that the strongest species will prevail against the weaker species and will continue to remain in its natural community, while the other species will cease to exist. As we live out our life in the "real world", we see much evidence of this being true. We see this in nature and we see it within our society. The kid who wins the fight at school receives a certain amount of respect and rises on the social ladder. The corporation that takes out the small business will take over the customers and money of the "weaker" company. From here on out, this is where all will shop. The world superpower nations take the culture, capital, and natural resources of the "weaker" nations. "From here on out, they will make our products, speak our language, and 'share' their natural resources with us," says the empire.

I just listened to MLK Jr's "I've been to the mountain top" speech. It ended up being the last speech that Dr. King ever gave, as he was assassinated soon after. About half way through, he exhorts his listeners of the importance and urgency of their actions. He tells them to skip their jobs to go to the marches. He then launches into a sermon about the Good Samaritan. Why did the Levite and the Priest walk past the man who had been beaten and robbed? King says he imagines that perhaps the Priest and Levite were not being apathetic or cruel; rather, they were afraid. That particular road was known as a place for bandits and robbers. Maybe the robbers were hiding out nearby, ready to prey upon whomever might stop. Or maybe the man lying on the ground was himself a bandit, pretending to be hurt so that he could take advantage of the benevolence of a stranger. Surely this is a valid concern, to look out for our own self-interest. Fleeing danger seems to just be common sense. If we don't look out for ourselves, who will?

I'd like to propose that self-preservation and the laws of natural selection are incongruent with the teachings of Jesus, insofar as it relates to how the individual and the corporate people of God conduct life in the world. Perhaps the clearest teaching on this, is one that can be found in all 3 of the synoptic gospels: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"

The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength- and to love ones neighbor as their self. It was when Jesus was asked, "who is my neighbor?" that he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Dr. King continued in saying that the Priest and Levite's concern may have been, "what will happen if I stop?" The Samaritan on the other hand, who modeled the true love of one's neighbor (and true obedience, for that matter) asked himself "what will happen to this man if I don't stop?" King goes on to tell of the joy and pleasures that the small victories of the civil rights movement along the way had given him. Though beaten, jailed, and faced with constant death threats, in his final speech he said, "I'm not concerned with [the threats on my life] now, I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land…I'm not fearing any man, because my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." These words sent chills up my spine and brought tears to my eyes as I recalled the way history played out a short time later.

Perhaps, as Christians, we've forgotten what a cross really is. Somehow, we've interpreted "taking up your cross" to mean burdens or hardships in life. Are we unaware that the cross was a tool of the empire used to humiliate any that second-guess their ways and offer an alternative way of life? Was Jesus' death upon the cross just a metaphor for carrying burdens, or did he live a life contrary to the ways of the world, for which he was publicly shamed and brutally killed? Why, then, do we reduce the most powerful example of discipleship, self-sacrificial love and non-violent resistance to a mere metaphor? May I suggest that there is something extremely backward about the way Christians and churches in America live out their faith?

Christian pacifist Stanely Hauwerwas does well in pointing out the beauty of war. For some reason, Christians seem to be among the most militaristic people in our culture. One of the reasons (though there are many to be sure) for this is that war gives our lives meaning and purpose. Self-sacrificial love is in our soul, and often war is the only place in our culture where we can fully exercise this deepest of longings of our spirit. As much as we may want to believe that wars are good and necessary to protect our freedom and to spread democracy, we (Christians) are ignoring the message of the gospel and following the ways of the world. A good indicator of your priorities may be to know whom you associate yourself with when you talk about "we". If your "we" is white people, black people, republicans, democrats or most probable of all, Americans, then your "we" is not the global body of Christ. And "we" are called not to kill, but to lay down our lives for others.

Aside from war, there is a great myriad of other problems in the world today. Global economics have taken over the world through corporate Darwinism. Cultures are gone, Children are making our products in sweatshops for pennies, we've wrecked ecosystems and raped the planet with our greed, and we've marred the image of God inside of each person by the blasphemous practice of reducing them to mere "consumers". If the people of God are to have any integrity in their meager claims to "follow Jesus", then they must embrace the teachings and life of Jesus. It's time to stop aligning ourselves with the powers of the world that protect our way of life, and instead seek peace, justice, love and truth for all of God's creatures. No doubt, if this is taken seriously, our economy may collapse, for its is dependent upon war and exploitative economics. Life might get hard. America may even be replaced by an even more brutal and oppressive empire. Perhaps we (the church) might not even seem "relevant" to our culture anymore. Perhaps people will really start hating us. Perhaps we'll lose our tax write-offs or our freedoms. Who knows, maybe we'll be beaten or killed. We should not fear these things. We must take up our cross and follow Jesus. That may mean being a social rights martyr, it might mean living in a radical simplicity, it might mean going home empty-handed because there is nothing in the whole store not made in China. It might mean going to the Middle East to be a human shield to die for those whom the nation that you live in has labeled "enemy". Heck, it might even be as simple as working less so you can volunteer at an after-school program, or a soup kitchen or an old folks home. For me today, it meant riding to school on my bike in the frigid cold instead of driving. This is not a call for heroic piety, but a call for the church in America to come out of America and be the church. May we follow the example of Jesus, MLK jr, and all the saints and martyrs through the ages. If the people of God don't take up the cause of the oppressed, the hurting, the poor and destitute, the widows and orphans, or the prisoners and the least of these, then who will? Let us not worry of the consequence to ourselves as we seek to love with all that we have. Thanks be to God.

Winter Biking in the 'Burbs

About 3 years ago I sold my car. I haven't owned one since. Bicycles have taken the place of cars in my life, which isn't really all that hard when you're living in cities. I've ridden through the past 3 winters; 2 in Minneapolis and 1 in Philly/Camden. I love winter biking! Admittedly, some of my reasons are shallow and vain. I like showing up somewhere on a day with -12 windchill, all bundled up, with "beardsicles" hanging off of my face. "Did you bike here!? Man, I like biking, but I'm not nearly that hardcore!" Internal satisfaction overcomes me, and through it all I'm mostly self aware of my boastful pride. I'm not proud of this, but it is the truth. But even if there were nobody else to impress, I think I would still bike through the winter. The daily ritual of checking the weather, getting all bundled up and then going out to face nature and traffic brings me much joy.

This winter was going to be different, though. I was going to be in the suburbs of Detroit, with near 10-mile round-trip commute to school each day. My main artery of transportation was a road called Groesbeck, with a 50 mph speed limit, no shoulder, and curbs on the road's edge for most of the way. Gone for me were the days of bike lanes, sympathetic drivers (okay, those don't seem to exist anywhere), and slow moving, congested traffic. This would be a new battle. Every ride seems like life and death. My experience can be best summed up by something I wrote in my journal when I sat down in my 8 a.m. class on January 23rd, while waiting for the professor to show up: "Upon arriving at school this morning after a grueling ride across snow and ice, I licked my lips and tasted the salt sprayed from the cars and smiled for the savory satisfaction of knowing that my commute this morning did not take one drop of oil". Okay, okay. I know what you're probably thinking. Yes, this was a totally sensationalized account. To be fair, there were many days when I would ask myself, "Why in the world am I doing this!?" There were many occasions when friends would offer me rides, and I would accept... despite the feeling of "selling out".

The first part of winter was probably the worst. I hadn't gotten a bike of my own up and running yet, so I was borrowing one from my friend David. It was a wonderful Free Spirit...complete with a derailleur that failed, brakes that seldom worked, and the worst geometry of a frame that I have ever seen or had the discomfort of riding. I might also mention that it had one of those huge grandma seats, with the word "hi" affectionately spray painted on it. I shouldn't complain quite so much, though. I didn't show up late once for class while I was riding that hunk of junk that was so generously loaned to me. In fact we became quite close, me and that ol' Free Spirit. That is, until the ice came. I forgot to mention that there was zero tread on the tires. We laid down on the ice together quite a few times, staring at the winter night sky and wishing I were home. I was afraid to ride the Free Spirit in the street, and my lovely road to the homestead is an industrial highway, so it had no sidewalk. I think my body had to invent new muscles- or at least utilize ones that had never been used in order to stabilize that awkward bike as I rode across the snow, ice, and super-bumpy frozen ground. It took every ounce of my concentration to make it home each night.

Once I got my new bike mostly functional, riding became a little less treacherous and a lot more fun. For starters, it was a fixed gear, which I hadn't had the pleasure of riding since my own was stolen for the second time in Philly last Fall. Fixies are especially fun in the winter, because you can kinda control your sliding all over, and you're not really dependent on wet/icy brakes or rims to control your speed. I picked up some slightly wide, knobby treaded tires at the recommendation of a popular bike co-op in Minneapolis while I was in town visiting for New Years. The guy said they were awesome in the snow as he showed them to me on his bike, convincing me he wasn't just being a crafty salesman. They were definitely good in the snow. They were definitely not good on the ice. I'm not quite sure how many times I totally ate it, but I know that I don't have enough fingers on both hands to count them. It was mostly my fault though, as I had been fooling around and trying to see how far I could skid on the ice. Apparently that doesn't really work out so hot. May I also recommend to the readers out there, two hands on the handle bars at all times when riding over slippery spots? Take my word, this is good advice! I think my favorite wreck was when I was trying to ride up a curb head on that had some snow piled up. I was totally set on riding through a little opening I saw between two huge mounds created by the plow trucks. I sped up a bit, and to this day I'm not sure how I got stuck on that initial pile by the curb. Final result: face first over the handle bars and into the giant snow still "under" me, though at that point it was actually laying on top of me.

While living in Philly, I got into the good habit of wearing a helmet when I ride, at the forceful insistence of a friend. I am grateful to him for it. Wearing a helmet often looks lame, this I won't deny. When you think about it though, it makes almost no sense not to wear a helmet. We invest so much time and money into our brains: whether it's the high price of tuition for school, the amount of time we spend reading books and learning skills, or all the time we've spent making memories with those dearest to us. What are we without our minds, our memories... or without the ability to think critically? If a $40 piece of Styrofoam and plastic can better my chances of preserving what's inside of it, in the midst of the inevitable run in with a motorized vehicle that I've been so blessed to escape so far, why should I worry about not looking totally fashionable? I've also become a big fan of lights and reflective tape/clothing. I've had way too many close calls, and I sure as heck want cars on the road to see me. If I had gotten hit in Philly by a car going 20 mph, it would have really hurt and probably wrecked my bike. If I get hit by a car out here going 50 over, man.

All in all riding through the winter in the suburbs has been both fun and miserable. It has had the same shock value here as everywhere, though with less satisfaction. People here don't think that you're cool for riding your bike in the winter... they think you are probably poor, and most likely stupid. Just goes to show you, you shouldn't live your life to please or impress people, but to live by the standards you feel convicted to live by. I have greatly enjoyed all the parts mentioned early on in this article and found a certain amount of hope in it. This is the land of TINA...There Is No Alternative!... in the sense of transportation. No one here can imagine life without a car. It has served as a reoccurring reinforcement of my own ideals in a land where alternate ideals aren't welcome, as well as a springboard for conversation about a lifestyle of simplicity.

Now I'd like to tell you that since the snow melted, everything has gotten so much better. Ya know...the roads are smooth, the drivers friendly, life is dreamy...etc. Well, unfortunately, this is not the case. The 3 feet between the cars and the curbs is full of gravel, misc. sharp objects, sewer grates, and huge pot holes. I often have to swerve into traffic to avoid these things. Cars officially hate me, but I don't mind that too much. I now have two road bikes up and running and I've been rotating them almost every other day, because I've been averaging about one flat tire per day for the last week. The puncture proof tires I wanted were out of stock, so now I wait patiently for them to come in next week. I'm getting really good at patching tubes, but I'll admit that lately I dread the prospect of getting another flat. Such is life for the suburban bike commuter I suppose.

Eating Garbage and Eating Shit!

Alright, so occasionally my family and a few friends like to tease me about different lifestyle choices I make, or the things that I value. This is especially true with some of my thoughts toward food. This is meant to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek response to that, and not meant to be taken too seriously. If you happened to read issue #2 of this zine, then you probably read my piece on humanure. A common joke is that when I start a farm one day, we're all going to go out and poop on our crops. The neighbors will look out the window and say... "there goes those crazy hippies again... pooping on their crops." Obviously this is friendly teasing, and it usually makes me laugh a lot. The idea of "eating poop" (via humanure) is so far outside of cultural acceptance that it is quite shocking to most people. The same could be said about rescuing food from the dumpster. In fact, one day my family was sitting around the dinner table enjoying a nice meal when my sister decided to share with the family that I eat out of dumpsters all the time. At first my parents thought she was joking, and then my dad said "no... really?" I kinda just smiled and said "well..." My mom left the table crying, thinking that she had failed as a mom because I was so poor that I was salvaging food from dumpsters. Yikes!

Our country has a food crisis. You are probably aware of it. Since the early 90's, obesity has skyrocketed. *In fact, I recently read that it is soon expected that obesity will soon be a larger global problem in our our world than hunger and starvation, even in the developing world. One of the most common health problems associated with obesity is diabetes, which has also become the norm for millions of Americans. Information about the causes of cancer are constantly changing, but a bad diet is definitely one of the most accepted sources. Heart Disease is on the rise as well. Everywhere you look, you hear about new ways to get fit and lose weight. Aside from our addictions to superficial beauty, we are also addicted to convenience and addicted to oil. While most people would frown upon dumpstered food and humanure, these same people don't think twice about processed foods. All processed foods are stocked full of corn and soy derivatives that come from the enormous surpluses created by the industrial food chain. This includes our favorite villians: High Fructose Corn Syrup and Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil. Fast food doesn't really do the body good either, and I'm sure theres some crazy stats on how many people eat fast food. Ever seen the film Supersize Me? Of course, all of the industrial food is sprayed with harmful chemicals (many of which are made directly from fossil fuels) that are engineered to kill other plants and insects- so why should we assume that it's safe for us to ingest? In addition, most of these crops are genetically modified, and it's unknown what kind of effect that that will have on us.

And we can't forget the good ol' meat and dairy industry. How about all of those hormones given to the animals to make them grow, produce eggs, and produce milk at unnatural exponential rates? Mmmm... rBGH, does a body good! If you're ever bored, check out the effects it has on young girls. Or perhaps all the antibiotics that are given to the animals so they don't get sick and die being in such close quarters with all the other animals. And yet, I recently saw a huge recall of meat. The reason: a video was released where the "ranchers" were pushing and even carrying the livestock around with a fork lift because the were too diseased to walk. Unfortunately all the meat from those sickly cows had already been consumed, mostly in school cafeterias. School cafeterias could be a case study on their own really, as they generally get the surpluses that have no use elsewhere. The correlation between nutrition and A.D.D. is another fun study if you get bored sometime. One of my personal favorites, though, is the common practice of enriching the livestock feed with fats and proteins. The source of this fat and protein comes from leftover scraps produced by the meat industry. Cows eating cows (this is actually illegal now in most places), chickens eating chickens, pigs eating pigs. Hooray for cannibalistic meat products! Hooray for mad cow disease!

Dumpstering has been good to me. I've never gotten sick off of anything that I've eaten out of a dumpster (okay, that salmon sushi made me feel a little queasy once, but at least I didnt barf). That's not to say you should eat anything that comes out of the dumpster, though (I knew better than eating that sushi!). I can't begin to tell you about the smorgasbord of goodness that I've gotten from dumpsters! Cases of Odwalla and Naked Juice, garbage bags full of Ezekiel and other organic breads, $1000's worth of organic produce with imperfections, organic cereals, organic yogurts and cheeses, and tons of other super healthy foods. Okay... to be fair, I also have a real knack for stumbling across pizza and donuts, which probably dont help the case I'm making for health; but we can set that aside. Perhaps riding a bike instead of driving makes up for that dirty laundry? Haha. Oh, and as for the humanure thing... it's some of the richest fertilizer money can't buy (yet?). Better than the crap thats made from fossil fuels and other synthetic garbage.

And so, friends, I'll let you be the judges... who today is really eating garbage? Who are the ones eating shit?

Easy Essays by Peter Maurin

Institutions and Corporations

Jean Jacques-Rousseau says:
“Man is naturally good,
but institutions make him bad,
so let us
overthrow institutions.”
I say: Man is partly good
And partly bad,
But corporations,
Not institutions,
Make him worse.
“An institution,” says Emerson
“is the extension
of the soul of a man.”
Institutions are founded
To foster the welfare
of the masses,
Corporations are orgainized
To promote wealth
For the few.
So let us found
Smaller and better
Institutionsand not promote
Bigger and better

Go Local!

The world that we live in is quite an interesting place. We are dependent on an economy that is dependent on exploitation; exploitation of land, exploitation of people's souls, and exploitation of whole nations. Neither socialism, communism, nor consumer capitalism has been able to fix these problems. Is injustice and exploitation inevitable? Surely we have to use natural resources in order to survive, but isn't there some way that we can live more in balance with one another and the planet? I’m not an economist, and I don't know the answers, but I do believe that we can do things different.

The predominate economic system in the world today is democratic "free market" capitalism, which is largerly controlled by American and Multi-national Corporations. Corporations set out to colonize the globe long ago, and with each new development of technology their impact and control has gotten stronger and stronger. Their presence is felt all around me in advertisements for things like Coke, McDonald's and Nike, but also throughout the poor nations that produce everything (in factories that have lax laws about labor and pollution) sold in the United States these days. Seriously, do you check the tags on the things that you buy? I'm not one to buy lots of things anyway, but since I've started to take notice I've found it next to impossible to find things not made in China. Sometimes I get the surprise of 'hecho en Mexico' and occasionally its made in Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Guatemala, Korea, and once in a great while things are made here in the good 'ol U.S. of A. At the same time, we are in economic recession, and each day more and more people are losing jobs and houses. We also hear about being "green" everywhere I look. What should we do in response to all of these probelms? Again, I don't claim to understand all the intircate innerworkings of economics, ecology, or geopolitics, but I have gotten past the stage of being "aware" of the problems, and I'm ready to stop complaining and start working toward tangible solutions.

Go Green!
"There is considerable danger that the Environmental Movement will have the same nature [of the civil rights and peace movements]: that it will be a public case, served by organizations that will self-righteously criticize and condemn other organizations, inflated for a little while by a lot of public talk in the media, only to replaced in its turn by another fashionable crisis." Wendell Berry, Think Little, 1970
If you have read any of the previous issues of this zine, you probably have the sense that I'm not exactly a patriotic, flag waving proud-to-be-an-American sorta guy. Where I'm going with this less of a nationalistic manifesto to support America and more of what seems to me a better way to do things. It seems a lot of the proposed changes we hear about most seem to have the priorities out of order. These days you can't go anywhere without hearing about being "green" in response to the recent mainstream attention given to global climate change. Put a brick in your toilet to conserve these new "green friendly" light bulbs for more efficiency...carpool or better yet ride a bike to work instead of drive...and the list can go on and on with both good and silly suggestions. While they're not bad ideas, most of them serve more to make you feel better about yourself than to actually "save the planet". I mean... even Wal-mart is "Going Green" these days. A friend told me that they had signs and large displays about saving the planet. I laughed. I guess it makes about as much sense as Al Gore flying all over the world in a jumbo jet (which is one the worst carbon polluters and one of the least efficient forms of transportation) to tell the whole world about the dangers of carbon emissions in the Earth's atmosphere. I can't help but wonder where all these new "green" products will be manufactured. I have a suspicion they'll have the same label as everything else in the store these days. Does the massive amount of fuel it takes to ship all these products here from China or elsewhere really make any sense to all these trendy green conscious folks (or the rivers ruined and coal burned to power the factories that aren't really enviornmentally regulated)? And do we really need to look into the amounts of fossil fuels used in the current war in Iraq (or since this is a essay about economics, the $2 trillion we've spent so far)? Didn't I say I was ready to stop complaining? Forgive me.And so finally we can begin talking about alternatives. I just recently read Michael Shuman's The Small-mart Revolution and Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. To be quite frank I'm not much of an economist, mostly because its so complicated and I'm not a big fan of dealing with money in general. Those prejudices aside, I decided to give these guys a chance, and while I had my fair share of critiques, I really feel strongly that they're both really onto something good. They talk a great deal about all of the benefits of supporting small business and keeping dollars as local as possible. We shall talk about these soon, but first I feel we need to do battle with the sometimes over talked about subject of consumption, which Shuman didn't really address to my satisfaction.We are fortunate enough to live in a land that does have a lot of great natural resources and decent weather. Unfortunately we have been convinced that we ought to turn those gifts into raw materials, which should then be converted as quickly as possible into as much wealth as possible in the name of the deity of "Economic Growth". David Korten (and many others) have called this living like cowboys in a spaceship. Cowboys are constantly moving to new frontiers and expanding their territory. A spaceship is a place that has very finite resources (including air) that cannot be replaced. The gist of it is that we cannot live forever in this mind set of constant economic growth, because eventually we're either going to run out of resources or ruin the balance of the ones that we have.

Who are you...and where are you at?
We must acknowledge that our social and ecological problems are really cultural problems. We go to parks to be connected with nature, and yet we are completely disconnected from the creation. We use email and myspace and cell phones to connect with one another, and yet it seems we are more lonely and isolated from those around us than any people in known history. Perhaps we love the romance of traveling, but how many of us even know about where we live? What is the average last frost date of the year in your town, and when is the first? What is the annual precipitation? What trees and vegetation grow naturally in your backyards and local forests or swamps? What minerals and rocks can you find there? What are the native animal species, and who are the nearby invasive species? Who founded the city or town in which you live, and what has been the history since that time that has made it the place that you live today? Though I'm learning, I don't know the answers to most of these questions and I'd like to guess you may not know either. Unless you live near friends or out in the country, its very likely that you don't know many of the people on your street, past a superficial hello every now and then. Do you really know how to identify with where you are?

Perhaps this lack of community with our human and non-human neighbors, or the planet in general is a source of what we're missing in life. The salesmen and marketers just may be clever enough to see this. And it just might be possible that they are smart enough to invent thousands upon thousands of things to fill those voids in our life, beautifully packaged for a price that we just cannot refuse. But perhaps its costing us more than we realize. Perhaps its costing us the contentment that comes with having a right relationship with one another, the creation, and most importantly the Creator. Perhaps.

In addition to not really knowing the natural cycles and our local communities, most of don't know where the things we have or consume come from or go. Where did all the ingredients for your dinner come from last night (hint:The grocery store is the wrong answer!)? Did you at least know the grocer that you bought it from? Do you think the grocer knew the farmer whom (s)he got it from? The same goes for anything else in your house. What the heck are all those things even made of anyway? Plastic isn't really something you find in nature, so what is that made of (hint: its black and comes from the ground)? And once we've eaten our food and flushed it down the toilet, or used whatever it is we have in our house to the point that its useless or broken...what happens to it? There's an interesting animated film I saw online called The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard that comes off a little childish at first, but lays it down very well. Check it out sometime.

Local Economies
One of the main discussions in Shuman's book is what he calls LOIS vs. TINA. LOIS stands for Locally Owned, Import Substituting, while TINA is a word coined by Margaret Thatcher and stands for There Is No Alternative. LOIS would be a small mom & pop type shop or even a factory that's locally owned and operated, processing local materials. TINA would be all of our favorite "box stores", as well as national and increasingly multinational corporations. Right now I'm living in the state of Michigan where everyday more layoffs are announced, houses go up for foreclosure, and the state slips deeper into recession. I've also noticed that here, more than other places that I've lived, people have no imagination for an alternative. TINA has controlled everyone's mind here for so long that anything outside of the world of chain stores, supermarkets, shopping malls, and big box store deals is seen as peculiar at best and blasphemy at worst. As the car factories have moved out of state and out of country, so have all the parts suppliers, creating a major collapse. Obviously this is an overly simplistic rendering of history, but as my geography professor says, "All cities were formed because they have a job. When their job becomes obsolete, their survival depends on them finding a new job." Michigan's economy is centered around Detroit, a city that lost its job long ago and has not found a new one.

Now there could be interesting discussions about anti-civilization or why cities are bad...and many other fascinating topics, but I'm going to avoid that and focus on the problems we currently face locally and globally. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, the only way we can really start to work on these massive global issues is to think locally. Its thinking globally that's got us into all these messes to begin with.

We're currently in an election year, and that seems to be all the news wants to talk about. Americans take pride in their democratic right to vote, and indeed many have put their hope in elections to fix our problems. While I think policy issues are very important, we still have major cultural issues that are perhaps even more important to deal with. As Stanley Hauerwas says, the reason that America has corrupt politicians is because the American people are corrupt. I like to believe that every dollar that I spend is a vote. A lot of social scientists rightly view this negatively, because it means with more wealth comes more power. The thing is though, with every dollar that I spend, I am either supporting LOIS or TINA. When I buy a shirt from Wal-mart I am voting for sweet shops in Asia. I'm voting for huge oil expenditures that require war to protect (which paradoxically uses even more oil). I'm voting for CEOs and store managers that probably don't live or spend their money in my community. I'm voting for poor treatment of workers, that ironically costs over a billion dollars per year in welfare because of how little the employees are paid. I'm voting for the disintegration of culture in small towns, both here in the US and in the Chinese towns where mindless factory work replaces agriculture and skilled trades. The same can be said about food, products, services, banking, entertainment, and just about everything else that you use money for (or abstain from using money for). Conversely, if I were to buy a shirt from a locally owned shop, that was made of fair trade organic cotton...or better yet local or recycled materials...I would be voting for something very different.

One of the concepts in Small Mart Revolution is what he calls local multipliers. The theory is that when you spend your money at a locally owned business, that business owner is much more likely to spend the money locally (because he or she lives locally) and deal with other local small businesses and suppliers, who will in turn do the same. That way the dollars keep circulating within the community. Money after all has no intrinsic value, but is only meant to compensate us for the work that we do. When we spend money at a chain store, some of that money goes to pay local employees, but the big profits go to owners and managers that do not live nearby, and often spend their money outside of the community...taking away from the local economy. Of course, a chain store owner can be ethical and community conscience and there's no guarantee that a local business will be. Another important point though, is that someone who lives and does business locally will also be held accountable by those he lives amongst. If I own a factory in the neighborhood that I live, I'm going to want it to do as little to hurt the neighborhood as possible. This is because my neighbors will probably do their best to make my life miserable (if they happen to know me, a previously stated problem) if I'm polluting it, and I also want my kids to grow up where they won't get asthma because of air pollution. If I'm invested in my community and I'm hiring a local workforce, I'm not going to move my factory to Mexico or China because I know it will hurt my community in the long run. Of course this is all hypothetical, because I don't have to face the difficulties of owning a small business and competing with big companies. This gives me empathy for those that are trying, and makes me happier to pay and extra couple bucks at Paul's Bike Depot or the Hub of Detroit, rather than the Trek or Schwinn shop. It makes me happier to pay 60 cents extra per pound (which is still much cheaper than the packaged version) for the locally grown organic oats I get from Hampshire Farm over at the Eastern Market here in Detroit.

You are what you eat...
Once upon a time farmers didn't have huge tracts of land, or big machines, or fancy seeds, or expensive fertilizers, or an arsenal of chemical weaponry to battle against the ferocious foes known as weeds and insects. All of the energy inputs that went into producing dinner came either directly from the sun through photosynthesis and natural cycles, or indirectly from human and animal work, which were powered by the food they ate...grown by the sun. Of course, this was really hard work and left little time for entertainment or any of the other activities that we fill our days with, and I don't want to over-romanticize this time period too much. I'm sure it truly was a hard existence, and Im sure they had their own sets of problems to deal with. Hard does not mean bad though.

The way we get our food today is quite different from that. Have you ever heard that old saying, "You are what you eat"? Well, its probably good that its not literally true. According to Dale Allen Pfeiffer's essay, Eating Fossil Fuels, we have quite the crisis looming in our future. While weather was always a potential disaster with the old way of doing agriculture, no one ever really worried about the sun running out. The conventional agriculture of today is completely dependent upon fossil fuels. Without them, we would not eat.

Lets start at the beginning of the process. The first thing that we need to do is till the soil. To do this we'll use giant tractors that cost upwards of ____ and of course use lots diesel fuel to drive over the thousands of acres. After the soil is prepped, we'll need seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to make sure we get that good harvest. We'll get the seeds from our friends over at Monsanto who have genetically modified them to produce higher yields. Of course they also have a terminator gene in them, so don't plan on saving seed for next years crop. Besides, they own the plants and they have the patent to prove it! Fortunately for us Dow Chemical and Monsanto have teamed up to create some of the most high-tech seeds on the market. They are specifically designed to not die when sprayed with Monsanto and Dow's herbicides. (Spraying them will of course take more energy). Our friends also manufacture fertilizer for us, made from natural gas, also specially designed seeds need to grow. They also have specially formulated pesticides made from oil to kill off all those nasty bugs. Of course each year a few bugs are resistant to the chemicals and survive to reproduce a whole fleet of resistant soldiers. Our friends will develop new chemicals to fight off these super bugs for us soon. And yes our special seeds and all of our chemical allies will need to be shipped to us on trucks using more diesel fuel. When they arrive we will need to bust our our tractor again and other giant machines to plant our seeds and spray the chemicals. Lets hope nothing bad happens to those chemicals while they are in root. That could be very bad.

So now that we've planted, we need to water these things, which according to Pfeifer uses hydrocarbon fuel. We may divert a stream or deplete an aquifer in this process too, but we won't get too into that topic. I suppose this is a good time to mention that irrigation adds a lot of salt to the soil as the water evaporates, eventually leaving unusable for the majority of crops. At the end of the season we get to pull out our huge combines once again and harvest the fruits of our labor. Fill them tanks up with diesel again. After that we can truck them over to the mill for processing. This time we get to use electricity, which here in Michigan most likely comes from a coal fired power plant. Its quite possible that they removed a whole mountain top somewhere in Appalachia to get the coal, and then stuck it on a train to get here. As the coal burns it fills our air and eventually our wonderful lakes with Mercury. If I go fishing, I probably shouldn't eat the fish because of this. Anyway, after the corn or soy is processed we will put it on trucks once again and send it to cattle feed lots or maybe to use as one of the many corn or soy derived food additives.

I am a big believer in organic agriculture. Like many things though, with growing popularity, the message and practice has become watered down. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have popped up everywhere. Big chain grocery stores now carry their own organic brands for just a little more than the conventional food pn the shelf next to them. You can even find organic Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, Doritos and Cheetos snacks, and lots of other things I would never have imagined organic. I’ve heard many people say that when people buy organic instead of conventional, the market will respond by producing more organic products. The thought is that organic farms will replace conventional farms, which is more “green” and healthier for you. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. For starters, we still have done nothing to correct our earlier mentioned cultural problems, but merely adapted a good idea for a corrupt culture. We still aren’t connected to the land, the people who grow our food, or the people that sell it to us. Additionally, these farms are just as far away, and often farther, perpetuating the high reliance on fossil fuels. Organic apples from New Zealand? Organic grapes and asparagus from Chile? Organic bananas from someplace where they had to clear-cut the rain forest, and where the workers were essentially enslaved? Is this really better? Not only that, but since Cargill, General Mills, Con-Agra and all the other huge food companies entered the organic market, they’ve lobbied hard to get certification standards lowered so that organic agribusiness could flourish, pushing more small farmers to the fringes. And that “free-range” organic label on your eggs simply means that there is a little door with a small patch of grass outside of it that the chickens could go if they weren’t completely stationary and too terrified to go outside. This whole industry is probably better for you and the planet, but its far from ideal. It’s hard not to like $2 organic peanut butter and $1.50 organic ketchup though.

I have never worked on a large industrial farm, and I’m not here to condemn those who practice this type of agriculture, whether it be organic or conventional. Often farmers are relatively poor, in debt, and a bit isolated. My hope is that we can begin to imagine and to practice something else besides supermarkets and restaurants. In fact we don’t have to imagine this, because there is a food revolution going on as we speak. Farmer’s Markets are popping up everywhere. Each year there are new CSA farms. These are probably the two most powerful ways things are improving. Farmers markets are great, because it connects the farmer directly with people who want his or her product. At the farmer’s market here in Detroit I was apple to find local apples, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, oats, flours, eggs, and many other things all winter. Some are organic (or “sustainably grown” for the uncertified farms) while others are grown conventionally. The point is, farmers get a fair price for the food, I get a local food for an affordable price, and those dollars circulate in my area. Community Supported Agriculture is another brilliant way to get local food. Customers are called shareholders, and normally pay around $500-700 for a full season (this can vary greatly depending on where you are and what they are offering) share. Each week they either come out to the farm or go to pick up site not far from them to pick up the bushel of produce that comes each week. The farmers generally want input on what they grow each year, and the shareholder can get the variety of each food that they want. Many CSA farms also have a decreased rate for working shares. Working shares are when you come and help out with weeding, harvest, and farm chores for about 8 hours per month. Increasingly, CSA’s also offer eggs, honey, milk and other products (sometimes even meat) for an additional cost. All these things offer great ways to be connected to your food chain, which is healthier for your body, your cultural stability, the local economy, and for the earth in general. Not a bad deal!

One final thought about local food. It’s a commonly perceived that healthy organic food is for the rich and privileged. Indeed, the poorest people in our society seem to be the most likely to suffer from obesity and cardio vascular disease. This number is rising steadily, too. Do people in the developing world need our corn and soybeans grown on huge farms? As we face food crisis after food crisis, should we move away from large farms? Well, yes, I do believe we should. Many of the folks in china, in Africa, in south America and many other places would do much better to grow their own food, rather than growing cash crops for export…giving them money to buy food that they could grow themselves. Organic agricultural methods are improving greatly, and many studies have found that small sustainable farms have considerably higher yield, with far less costs and chemical inputs. People who are dependent on their land for sustenance, must take good care of the land if they are to survive. This also gives them a certain amount of independence from the forces of the global economy, which will give them a certain amount of cultural stability. Trade is still a good thing, and I’ve yet to find Michigan grown brown rice, tea, coffee, bananas, or grapefruits, but perhaps these things can be special treats, rather than daily staples. I’m still not sure if I will ever find a local substitute for brown rice. Who knows?

A new vision

I find it extremely easy to demonize governments and corporations for all of what’s wrong in the world. Indeed, they are often the ones doing the bulk of the exploitation and conscious evil. But within these institutions it is relatively easy to also find compassionate and ethical family oriented people that disconnect what they do with some of the bigger social problems. Likewise, if its someone’s job is to be a slave driver at a sweatshop, or someone else’s job to blow off the top off a mountain to get coal…we are paying that person’s salary as long as we participate in the global economy. Right now I’m sitting down typing this up on a computer, listening to music. We use coal-fired plants here in Michigan, and so I’m contributing to the problems as I write against them. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid. Sometimes we need shoes, and so payless or wal-mart is the only option that we can afford. Perhaps the single mom working two jobs needs to get fast food and microwave dinners for her kids. Perhaps we just want to enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend we haven’t seen in years, and he is dead set on Starbucks. My thinking is that we should do our best to keep our dollars as local as possible. We should avoid creating another pretentious subculture though. I try to go out of my way to have positive interactions with waitress at the diner as she fills my cup with non-fair trade coffee. My friends are there, and its so meaningful to me. I like to talk to the people in line at Aldi’s and I especially try to brighten the cashier’s day. Retail and service jobs in general really suck! I’ve worked them, and we should try to break up that monotony the rare times we do go there. Maybe this is an extension of what it means to bring light into darkness?

As a Christian, I personally don’t put great faith in “systems” or large institutions. The reason why governments and corporations are corrupt is because people run them, and people are corrupt. I don’t put faith in some perfect utopian society that we can create here on earth, because I am well aware of all the simple disciplines in my life that I fail to live up to everyday. It seems that every movement has brought certain advances and a certain set of new problems, and I’m not really sure if we are positively progressing as humans. My hope is that we can live lives that seek justice and peace with those around us. That we can stop oppressing the poor, and stop destroying God’s earth. As I mentioned earlier, what we have is a cultural problem. As people, we need a cultural shift away from disconnect and toward a nurturing relationship with the land and with the people around us. As Peter Maurin would say, we need to build a new society in the shell of the old. A place where its easier for people to be good. By no means will this place be perfect, but for those of us that await the Kingdom of God, we must imitate what we anticipate God to eventually inaugurate. This will very often involve those from a variety of faiths (including no faith) that may not share the same eschatological hope. I think that’s totally okay as long as we remember the object of our hope. The work is plentiful, but the laborers are few!

A day on a Catholic Worker Homestead

The sun beamed through the curtains and raced across the room, hitting me in the face, telling me that it was time to begin my day. This would be my first full day ever spent at a Catholic Worker. I've been to quite a few CW houses, mostly in the urban setting. I looked out the window, and the landscape was not painted with urban decay. Instead, I saw a pond. I could hear the dogs running around. Just as I looked out, a rooster crowed. A train whistled. This was no urban ghetto. This was the beautiful countryside of the land they call Appalachia.

I crawled out of bed to deliver my deposit to the community compost bin. Sounds a bit less crass than taking a morning dump, eh? A bit. I came into the kitchen to join Eric for a nice cup of coffee and a couple pieces of 'monk's bread'- a delicious cinnamon-raisin bread made by some Trappist monks somewhere in upstate New York. We chatted for a bit, and commented about how if you've been to one Catholic Worker, in a sense, you've been to them all. The walls were decorated with religious relics, icons of Dorothy Day and other heroes of the movement. There were random pieces of art, and of course many revolutionary posters. On the floor there were a few signs that were just waiting to be held in protest of the state's anti-immigration laws. We talked theology for a bit, and before you knew it, the house was bustling with life. The aroma of farm-fresh eggs, toast, coffee, and oatmeal soon filled the air. A man and woman grabbed the signs from the floor and headed down to the governor's mansion to have their voices heard. We were recruited to turn over a green manure crop in the garden early in the day, and go chop firewood in the afternoon.

It wasn't time for work in the garden yet, so we took a walk around the area. Jake finally crawled out of bed to join us. Eric took us on a route that he used to take everyday when he lived there. We passed old country churches with little graveyards. One even had a school with kids outside playing, disturbing the serenity of it all with their shouts of joy. This brought us joy as well, and we waved to them as we walked on by. The warm air was quite refreshing; one can't help but find hope in children and budding leaves, our minds leaving behind the graveyards and the dead of the Michigan winter.

Finally, we reached the end of our road, so to speak. We arrived at a large grassy pasture, not yet brought back from its winter slumber. In the background were the old, worn down Appalachian Mountains, covered in deciduous forest. Mountains aren't a part of my every day experience, or any of ours for that matter. We sat and enjoyed them for awhile, talking about life.

Upon returning, we began to work in the garden. While this was certainly no farm in the agricultural sense of the word, it did indeed have a pretty sizable garden. There were many small beds- some simple, and some decorated with logs ands signs that signified the crops grown there last year. We each grabbed shovels from the shed, and got to digging. We turned over the cover crop of nitrogen-fixing legumes into the soil. What joy I get from the simple act of getting my hands in the soil and being in touch with God's green earth! I think Eric and Jake shared my sentiments.

It was now almost the afternoon, and the hunger was setting in. We voted Eric as our lunch chef, while our host, Jake, and I finished the remaining beds. Lunch was a hodge-podge of delectable genius! It was some sort of spicy vegetable and mushroom concoction, mixed with peanut butter, and served over rice. Right after lunch finished up, our comrades that had gone to the protest that morning returned to the farm. Once again the kitchen was bustling with activity! These particular folk were the ones we planned to get firewood with. They were both on their cell phones (which I thought a little strange at the time), so one of the short-term guests took me up stairs to show me his collection of books related to alternative economics and the origins of the green anarchist movement. Very fascinating stuff. He himself was not a person of faith; rather, he was more interested in being a part of an intentional community involved with radical non-violent direct action. He was probably in his late 20's and had moved to the farm last fall with his dog, Banjo, from somewhere in Louisiana. Though he was feeling a bit under the weather, he did show us much kindness.

I came back downstairs to find that our afternoon of wood-chopping had been cancelled. Apparently some immigration raid was going on as we spoke, and our comrades were off in their trucks to go shut it down or something. These are no fair-weather protesters that go to a rally hear and there! They are seasoned veterans, and the movers-and-shakers within the radical activist scene. The government organization carrying out the raid was called ICE. I hadn't heard of that one before, so I asked asked our host what ICE was. He confessed that he wasn't really sure, but it was "sorta like the INS; just another one of the empire's three-letter abbreviations for oppression". I grinned. Fair enough.

Since firewood was no longer an option, our host gave us a tour of his family's "cabin" on the property. The cabin turned out to be an immaculate 3-story straw bale house. It was absolutely gorgeous! The walls were made from local clay, and it had red metal siding instead of shingles on the roof. The gutters led to rainwater collection barrels. The inside was very nice as well. It was definitely a living space, but not too messy. There were large windows and tile and mosaic floors. Mosaics were actually a theme amongst all of the buildings on the property. The main house had a giant sunflower mosaic that said "love" at the bottom. On another wall was one of a pond and cattails. Anyway, back to the straw bale house. One of my personal favorite things was the giant bookshelf from floor to ceiling. Our host just happened to be a Thomas Merton guru of sorts, (who happens to be my all time favorite spiritual writer.) I was amazed, because he had every single Merton book ever written... and he had read them all! I mean, I have probably over a dozen Merton books, but I've read 4 of them cover-to-cover. He probably had somewhere around 100 Merton books! It was really great to have him show us all the books that had changed his life. Each one had its own story. Some were transformational ideas, while others reminded him of the earlier days of the movement. We sat and listened like little children to stories about the Berrigan Brothers, Oscar Romero, and several others. Eric and I are both at a time in our life in which we are totally consumed by books. We were so enthralled by all of the books, and all of the stories that went along with them.

Before you knew it, it was time for dinner. Once again the kitchen in the small main house was bustling with life. Everyone seemed to be there for different reasons, and almost no two people looked alike. There was a woman there with her daughter. They were preparing for a WWOOF trip to Japan. It sounded like a dream trip. Our friends had returned to tell us of the ICE raid, and how, within only a few hours of everything going down, they managed to organize and have a meeting with 20 different people. We have a group of 6 people here in Detroit, and we have the hardest time coming up with a scheduled day to meet where all of us can make it. I must admit, I was impressed, inspired, and even convicted by the sense of urgency that they served with. It was clear that they had a fervor for the least of these in the world. Their work also seemed to be effective, which is encouraging. The cost appeared to be frequent jail time and and family dysfunction... but, I suppose, such is the life for a Catholic Worker.

Another guest at the table was a local organic CSA farmer named Tony. He was a large man, with a ponytail and a dirty white Johnny Seeds ball cap. I've had the pleasure of meeting many, many people in my day, but I don't think any of them were as crass or as vulgar as Tony. Profanity flowed from this man's tongue like a gushing mountain stream during the spring thaw. He used F-bombs like commas, and found creative uses for everything else profane in between his "commas". He had a deep, bellowing laugh that would get even the most pious prude laughing, smiling, or maybe crying. I mostly laughed, though I didn't fully enjoy his humor. After a few beers, he mysteriously developed an Irish accent. The madness continued. Strangely, I really admired this man. Though crass, he was a man of principles. He was a share-cropping CSA farmer that lived by a fairly strict 100-mile diet. He even joked about only dumpstering locally. I laughed.

The sun was now set. It was a pretty wild day, filled with people, adventure, and fun. We were going to go check out some local diner, but when we got there we found that it was closed. Nothing was open apart from a single gas station. We talked in the car about the day and all the excitement that we had. We lamented the fact that, though we very much admired everything they were doing here, the Christ-centeredness that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin envisioned didn't seem to exist. We talked about the kids that were raised there without ever being told what to do. While they weren't forced to believe or do anything, they truly seemed misguided... or maybe even unguided. They seemed apathetic and didn't really value anyone or anything. We wondered what it could look like to have a healthy family and raise kids in this atmosphere. These are deep questions that I don't really know the answer to. Regardless, it was a wonderful day and left me full of both inspiration and deeper questions as I try to understand how to live life in this crazy, crazy world.