Friday, July 4, 2008

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!

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