Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of ReImagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.

“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.”[1] With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?

To read the rest of this article please see: “Towards An Imaginal Ecology

Imaginal Ecology

[1] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007), 91.

Dreaming the Future Forward: “The Transition Handbook”

Peak oil and climate change: twin crises that our science and calculations point towards, but which must be prepared for well in advance if the truly disastrous effects are not to make a devastating impact. Rob Hopkins’ guidebook, The Transition Handbook, seeks to address these intertwined problems not by painting a grim picture of a ruined future and a civilization in freefall, but by demonstrating an alternative vision of localized, resilient communities planning for a post-oil world. The book is divided into three sections: “The Head: Why Peak Oil and Climate Change Mean That Small Is Inevitable,” “The Heart: Why Having a Positive Vision Is Crucial,” and “The Hands: Exploring the Transition Model For Inspiring Local Resilience-Building.” It so happened that I took one day to read each of these sections, and thus was able to experience them each in a qualitatively different way.

The Transition HandbookEven though much of the material presented in Part 1, “The Head,” was familiar to me, I still found this new presentation of the global ecological crisis and industrial society’s addiction to oil to have a powerful emotional impact. In my own studies I have focused so much more of late on climate change that encountering again the concept of peak oil felt like an echo of the past. And indeed, Hopkins’ book was published in 2008, and many of his predictions for when the harsh impacts of peak oil would hit have already passed—although we have gone through an economic recession in that time and seen oil prices both soar and decline. He drove home well the point that we cannot reenvision a future without taking both peak oil and climate change into account (and I would argue many other inseparable factors such from social justice to the fresh water crisis), but I realized that while it is important to argue from the facts we have they are also not sufficient to make truly accurate, date-specific predictions. For example, the peak oil crisis has not hit within the timeline Hopkins laid out, but the impacts of climate change are being felt far sooner than the most pessimistic climate models predicted. The importance of this is that if we predict the crisis too soon and it does not happen within that timeframe, there is the potential for the public to dismiss the possibility it will happen at all, which can cause mitigation efforts potentially to be abandoned. All that being said, when I finished the first part of The Transition Handbook I found that the content effected me deeply, to the point that I was actually laying awake in the middle of the night worrying about what the world will look like in the very near future.

The most important aspect of the second section, “The Heart,” I felt was when the psychological impacts of receiving such dire information were addressed: Hopkins calls it “post-petroleum stress disorder.” The way in which such information is presented will profoundly effect how and if it is taken in by the recipient, and whether it will be acted upon in a meaningful and transformative way. The concepts of envisioning the future in this section were also important, but at times I did feel the methods of looking back from a post-petroleum future onto the time of transition were somewhat kitsch, especially the fictional newspaper articles. It was strange to read an article dated “Wednesday, April 18, 2015” just weeks after that date had past—especially knowing that April 18 this year had been on a Saturday. We may as well imagine the future accurately.

The most inspiring for me was the last section, Part 3, “The Hands.” Here I could actually learn how to take the steps to transition a community toward a more resilient future. Many of the exercises for community organizing were ones with which I would want to engage. Before long, I found myself looking at the website for Transition Berkeley to see what initiatives are already being taken in my area.

When I was eighteen and nineteen I learned to grow food on a biodynamic farm in Covelo, California and the experience changed my life. It is tremendously empowering to know how to grow one’s own food. And while this knowledge is latent in me at the moment, as I prepare the ground to grow a small garden at my new Berkeley home, I also know that there will very likely come a time in the future—but I would not want to predict when—that this knowledge will probably be applied daily once again. In the meantime, when I bike or walk around my new home streets in Berkeley I am making a mental map of all the fruit-bearing trees in the neighborhood, noting which are coming ripe now and tracking when others will be ready over the summer season. It is empowering to feel engaged by the challenges of one’s world, even when those challenges cannot be undertaken alone. As terrifying as our moment in history is, it is also exciting and inspiring. As Hopkins writes to conclude his book, “May it keep you awake at night, but this time for all the right reasons.”[1]

Work Cited

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.

[1] Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), 213.

The Individual and the Collective in “Global Environmental Politics”

How does one begin to take action on behalf of the ecological crisis once one has awakened to its existence? This is the question addressed in the eighth section of Global Environmental Politics, titled “Thinking Strategically.” The editors selected essays to illustrate two different approaches, one at the level of individual lifestyle change, the other at the level of large-scale systemic change. The essays argue from different perspectives, some saying that the individual actions of planting a tree or riding a bicycle will not effect the level of change needed to address the problem, while others argue that by relying on the larger political, economic, and social systems to shift without making individual changes is what “helped get us into this mess in the first place,”[1] as Michael Pollan puts it. Yet by putting together both sets of essays and perspectives, this section of the book points to what I also feel is also an optimal approach: individual and systemic changes must be enacted simultaneously.

Global Environmental PoliticsMichael Pollan concludes his short essay entitled “Why Bother?” by encouraging each person reading this to start their own garden or to participate in a community agricultural plot. Knowing how to grow one’s own food is a skill that may indeed prove essential in the future, and the immediate benefits are innumerable, from being able to connect with soil and plants, to using one’s body for meaningful work, to sharing produce and tools with neighbors and friends, thus potentially inspiring others to do the same.

A few months ago I moved to Berkeley where I now live in a little cottage. I have been dreaming of ways to lighten my personal footprint, while at the same time educating myself on how to help instigate systemic change as well. This weekend we will finally be putting in garden beds out behind our cottage, getting fresh compost from the city of Berkeley, and starting our own little garden. Even if individual changes do not have as far-reaching an impact as we might wish, they at least empower individuals to know that there is something we each can do, while at the same time nourishing the community ties needed to make real changes at a higher level.

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Michael Pollan, “Why Bother?” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 291.

It’s True: “This Changes Everything”

This book made me cry, multiple times. I cried, I was shocked, I was angered and horrified. And I also felt the first real sense of ambitious hope ignited in me since I started reading climate change literature when I was a senior in high school. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything really does change everything: she has shifted the winds on the climate change debate, addressing head on that the ideology of unregulated free market capitalism is standing directly in the way of any meaningful action that could be taken to keep human beings—and particularly the fossil fuel industry—from making Earth uninhabitable for the human species and most complex forms of life.

This Changes EverythingThe nearly five hundred page book lays out the parallel histories of the climate movement and the globalization of free market capitalism, showing how in the last two decades—in which we knew that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was anthropogenic—we not only failed to address the issue but accelerated the rates of our emissions in the name of profit for multinational corporations. Indeed, I find it particularly significant that the Rio Earth Summit was held in 1992, the same year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law. Again and again, efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change have been directly challenged, and defeated by, the unregulated capitalist model whose agenda is being pushed by the minority corporate-political elites who are concentrating the world’s wealth into their own pockets.

The clarity, precision, and nuance of Klein’s book is staggering, and I feel gives it tremendous credibility. She seems to have left no stone unturned, and addresses the light and shadow of every situation, presenting the moral issues at stake without moralizing. I devoured this book, taking it in over the course of about four days, so the energy and tone completely shaped my waking and breathing mind and body as I read it. Klein brings together a huge range of interconnected issues—from the conservative denialist reaction, to the extractivist mentality that treats Earth as resource without the need to reciprocate, the unholy alliance of Big Green environmental groups and corporate powers, the terrifying hubristic possibility of geoengineering, and the micro-movements she refers to as Blockadia that are fighting extractivism, exploitation, and toxicity in local communities worldwide. I came to understand that the work Indigenous communities are doing to save their lands and ways of life, because they have the rights but not the power to enforce them, are perhaps our last best chance to overthrow the corporate stranglehold on our planet. As Klein writes,

Their heroic battles are not just their people’s best chance of a healthy future . . . they could very well be the best chance for the rest of us to continue enjoying a climate that is hospitable to human life. That is a huge burden to bear and that these communities are bearing it with shockingly little support from the rest of us is an unspeakable social injustice.[1]

Again and again, I felt affirmed that there was something I could do, something we each could do, that would make a tangible difference in whether humanity—and many of our fellow species—will have a future on this beautiful planet. It is simply, or not so simply, a matter of daring to challenge the status quo that has left us a world of inequality, exploitation, and injustice. As Klein writes, “It is slowly dawning on a great many of us that no one is going to step in and fix this crisis; that if change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.”[2]

The next time a major disaster hits, such as Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy—as is becoming all the more frequent with climate change—will be the moment to seize when we can indeed change everything:

Because these moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. That means more must be made of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe.[3]

One criticism I have heard of Klein’s book is that it is too idealistic. In a way, this could be true. But I have come to realize that we do not have the time not to be idealistic. In Klein’s words, “The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.”[4]

 

Work Cited

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

 

[1] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 379.

[2] Klein, This Changes Everything, 465.

[3] Ibid, 466.

[4] Ibid.

Engaging with “Reason in a Dark Time”

In the first few pages of his book, Dale Jamieson situates his perspective as coming from a generally Western point of view, saying that although he lived through many of the events he details in the book he was not at the center of the action. I appreciated this nod to recognizing his position in relation to the material he was addressing, although I wished he had continued to do so more throughout the book—and had addressed other influences on perspective such as gender, race, class, and so forth. Jamieson acknowledges at the outset that he is coming from the perspective of an analytical philosopher, but that very position seems to blind him to the multiplicity of perspectives that can be taken in relation to the issue of climate change.

Reason in a Dark TimeReason in a Dark Time, simply put, is a pessimistic book. Jamieson shows his readers how globally we have failed to address climate change. The outlook feels bleak, and his concluding seven priorities for action do not seem to carry much hope considering he has spent the previous 200 hundred pages demonstrating how dysfunctionally the international negotiation system operates. The core of the book focuses on what Jamieson identifies as the most powerful motivators for addressing climate change: economics and ethics—before showing the limits and barriers in each of these arenas. The most telling sentence in the whole book, for me, that reveals Jamieson’s perspective and its influence on his pessimistic view, is when he writes: “We live in a post-Nietschean world in which the gods are not available to give meaning to our lives, nor can nature provide transcendental grounding in a human-dominated world.”[1] For a book that is addressing global climate change and the effects it will have on the world population now and into the future, the unsituated “we” that opens this sentence is particularly revealing. Rather, Jamieson and his colleagues live in this post-Nietschean world and it is from this place that this book on economics and ethics is written. Part of the opportunity with which the global ecological crisis provides us is the potential to forge a way through the dark postmodern underworld where the gods are dead and nature is a backgrounded resource to a new world view that has room for intelligence and meaning to exist beyond the locus of the human being.

Where is the room in Jamieson’s approach to climate change for emotion, feeling, a sense of interconnection and, perhaps most importantly, grief at the loss and destruction? Ethics cannot be broken down into a series of equations like economics can—something deeper must be appealed to. At times this depth is almost reached by Jamieson, momentarily making appeals to “love, sympathy, and empathy”[2] and to an understanding of humanity as being a part of the natural world. Indeed, he writes that “we find meaning in our lives in the context of our relationship to humans, other animals, the rest of nature, and the world generally.”[3] However, just a few pages later he once again reduces the value of this relationship into economic terms, writing “The idea of nature as a partner in a valuable relationship makes itself felt in economic language when people talk about ‘natural capital’ or ‘ecosystem services.’ On this view protecting nature returns monetized benefits. Damaging nature damages ourselves.”[4] The appeals to meaning found in relationship feel hollow if they can simply be reduced into monetary terms.

Jamieson concludes his book by saying, “Despite the unprecedented nature of the challenge, human life will have meaning as long as there are people to take up the burden.”[5] Yes, I agree that great meaning can be found in taking on the work of defending the Earth and its countless species, as well as the multitude of human beings whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the rapacious capitalist economy. But the meaning is not made simply by the work of human actions—the work is what reconnects our sense of value to that ground of meaning inherent in every creature, in every corner of the vast cosmos within which we are awakening to our integral part.

Work Cited

Jamieson, Dale. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[1] Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 200.

[2] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, 100.

[3] Ibid, 184.

[4] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, 190.

[5] Ibid, 238.

Further Musings on “Global Environmental Politics”

The discussion in the fifth section of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s book is entirely on the economic system and its impact and influence on the global environment. The section is titled simply “Economy,” but really it should be titled “Capitalism” for that is the only economic system that is actually addressed. The three chapters of the section present gradations from greening the industrial growth economy to addressing the hard truth that capitalism and human greed are the heart of the problem. While reading Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister’s chapter on “The Promise of Corporate Environmentalism” I found myself feeling the hollowness of those promises. Big brand corporations making non-binding commitments of vague outcomes such as “delivering sustainable growth” and “performance without compromising sustainability”[1] in order to preserve their image, while still increasing the total destructive impact upon the planet, actually seems like a greater hindrance to the cause because it obscures where the real problems lie: in a model of trade that depends on exponential growth, exploitation, and limitless greed.

Global Environmental PoliticsPaul Krugman’s chapter, “Environmental Economics 101: Overcoming Market Failures” addresses more realistically the ways in which the free market cannot address global ecological issues such as climate change. Yet ultimately his solutions also return to the altar of capitalism, simply relying on regulations and taxes to mitigate the crisis. An economic solution inherently calculates all loss in terms of monetary value alone, something that cannot account for the great suffering climate change will unleash—indeed, it has already begun—upon humans, animal and plant species, and entire ecosystems.

Finally, Naomi Klein’s piece, “Capitalism vs. Climate” dared to question the ideology of capitalism itself. In reading her portrayal of the climate change deniers of the conservative right in the US—who go to great lengths to prove global warming is a hoax, at times even sending death threats to climate scientists—I could not help but be curious at the psychology behind such actions. Clearly fear is a powerful motivator, but fear of what? Is it really fear of dismantling the capitalist system? Fear of freedoms being taken away? Or is there also a deep-seated existential fear of climate change itself? Allowing oneself to feel the true losses climate change will wreak across the globe—to a greater or lesser extent no matter what action is taken—is not central to the ideologies of right or left. What does fear of these losses blind us to? And what, on the opposite end of the spectrum, do they awaken in us?

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Peter Dauverge & Jane Lister, “The Promise of Corporate Environmentalism,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 157.

Continuing Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics”

The fourth section of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s anthology deals with the international state system, and its ability, or lack thereof, to deal with global ecological issues, particularly climate change and mass species loss. The section opens with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, drafted in 1992. I was both struck that this document was drafted over twenty years ago, and found myself questioning the validity of many of the principles in face of the reality of the ecological problems before us. For example, the continued emphasis on sustainable development made me question whether sustainability is really the emphasis, or is it rather a mere “green-washing” of development as usual? What would happen if the term were reversed, and instead we created “developmental sustainability,” or some other means of prioritizing resilience over exponential growth? Overall, the declaration does not examine the underlying assumption that the economic growth model is the only way forward, or consider that it may inherently have a dire ecological cost.

Global Environmental PoliticsMoving forward to the next chapter by Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne, entitled “Brief History of International Environmental Cooperation,” I was repeatedly discouraged by the numerous ecologically-oriented political gatherings that have been held over the last fifty or so years that have had relatively minimal impact compared to the scale of the ecological issues we face globally. Why has so much effort been put into agreements if very few of them are legally binding? Why are there seemingly no immediate social consequences when agreed upon goals are not met by various countries? Is there a way to make international state agreements more effective and binding or, like the ecological crises themselves, must they be both borderless and bioregional in order make a real impact?

Sitting with “The Sixth Extinction”

“If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book in your lap.”[1] In this one sentence, in the final chapter of her book, Elizabeth Kolbert implicates you, the reader, as the cause of the sixth mass extinction of species on this planet. When reading of the human impact upon Earth, upon the other species with whom we share—or do not know how to share—this planet, it can become so easy to want to seek the source of blame outside oneself, to charge other humans with responsibility for the ecological crisis. But we have been “othering” for far too long, and it is time to take that responsibility within ourselves. So I am sitting here with this book on my lap, I am writing these words on my computer screen, and I know that this crisis is my fault. What, then, do I do with this deeply personal recognition, a recognition that must break afresh upon us again and again if we are to move forward honestly in this field?

The Sixth ExtinctionMy response to Kolbert’s book was wholly positive, a response I do not take lightly. I felt that she was undertaking a task similar to Bruno Latour’s Science in Action in which she opens the mysterious black boxes that create our scientific knowledge to reveal the specific and all-too-human processes of knowledge creation about our planet’s geological and biological history. Her research undertaking in itself was highly impressive; to make it so accessible to a wide audience in such an intelligible way I find even more so. Somehow this volume on mass extinction was not written in a depressing tone, as so much environmental literature is, but rather in an empathic human tone, taking in the emotional reality that we hold many responses to this material and cannot remain in one emotional state for long. The human response is ever changing, and the tone of this book reflected that. Yet I did grieve too: for the loss of the amphibians, the calcites, the rhinos, the coral reefs, the rainforests, as well as the ancient losses of mastodons and the other great megafauna, the ammonites, the auks, the Neanderthals. Of course, I cannot name them all here. No one has ever named all the species we have lost from Earth, nor will we ever be able to name all those who we are bringing to extinction now. But as we wake up to the reality we have created, cannot we remember Aldo Leopold’s words and recognize how far we have come as a species as well: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.”

Work Cited

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York, NY: Picador, 2014.

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York, NY: Picador, 2014), 266.

Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics”

Upon reading the first three sections of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s new anthology on the current state of the planet, I was struck by how succinct and compelling each of the short articles were that comprise the book. The volume is clearly made for a classroom setting, and I felt the content was accessible to a wide range of readers. What was particularly striking though was the continual interweaving of both hope and despair carried by the various authors’ voices. For example, Alex Steffen’s chapter “Humanity’s Potential,” while not naïvely optimistic, still gave me the sense that if we lose ourselves to pessimism we will actually be in a worse situation than if we engaged the crisis with some sense of hope. Hope is not certainty of outcome; I feel hope is something deeper, perhaps more akin to faith.

Global Environmental PoliticsOn the other hand, Stephen Meyer’s essay “End of the Wild” carries within it a true and necessary sense of mourning of the inevitable extinction of species accelerating on the planet due to the activities of our own singularly prolific species. Meyer makes the distinction that while there is nothing we can do to save the loss of the wild this is no reason to not do anything. He concludes:

The end of the wild does not mean a barren world. There will be plenty of life. It will just be different: much less diverse, much less exotic, far more predictable, and—given the dominance of weedy species—probably far more annoying. We have lost the wild. Perhaps in 5 to 10 million years it will return.[1]

His final note is clearly one of despair and grief, deep emotions we must allow ourselves to feel if we are to engage with this crisis in any realistic way.

The book opens with two essays that both address the name of the new geologic epoch into which humanity has ushered the planet: the Anthropocene. Elizabeth Kolbert and Charles Mann both speak to the meaning and uses of this term: whether to use it ironically or seriously, what the impact of naming the epoch might be, when one might date the beginning of the Anthropocene—whether from the invention of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, or even further into the future when the effects of climate change are absolutely undeniable. The question that continued to arise for me in relation to the term Anthropocene is, will it awaken humanity to the fact we have become a force of planet Earth as powerful as the geologic and hydrologic cycles and that we must take responsibility for this power, or will it reinforce the anthropocentric hubris that led us to this crisis in the first place?

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Stephen Meyer, “End of the Wild,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 57.

Campaign for Farm Service: Empower You(th), Feed A Nation

When I was eighteen years old my life was changed by a profound yet simple experience: I learned how to grow my own food. Working on a biodynamic farm in Northern California I learned how to build healthy compost piles, prepare beds for planting, nurture lettuce, garlic, cucumbers, melons, and an abundance of other crops until they ripened to maturity, to prune and train tomato plants to maximize their fullest succulent potential, to feed and care for cows who produce milk, sheep who produce wool, chickens who produce eggs, and draft horses who worked the land with us. Perhaps most importantly I learned how to work hard in the hot sun over long days, and to take responsibility for my own ecological footprint upon this planet.

Lettuce

Photo by Becca Tarnas.

The majority of food grown in the United States is not produced in the manner I have described above. The current food production system is dominated by industrialized commercial agriculture, which produces a small number of crops on large tracts of land cultivated as monocultures, fertilized with petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers, and continuously sprayed with deadly chemical pesticides and herbicides. The bulk of these uniformly-produced crops are distributed by a minimal number of multi-national corporations. Both the number of farms and the number of corporations are rapidly decreasing as all aspects of the food system are consolidated into a few large organizations. When few corporations are allowed to amass such a monopoly on trade, smaller scale producers, such as the farmers with whom I worked, can no longer compete in the market, and consumers are given less choice in what kinds of food they can purchase.

Over the last half century the number of farmers has decreased while the size of farms has increased. In the 1960s, government policies pushed for fewer farmers working larger tracts of land because technological advances in farming equipment could make farms more efficient than human labor alone.[1] As of 1997, 61% of agricultural products grown in the United States were produced on only 163,000 farms. Of these farms 63% were contracted to larger corporations which processed and distributed their products.[2] Today the number of farms is continuing to decrease because the same policies have been pushing for greater economic efficiency on farms. The current U.S. farm system, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, could not survive if it were not for the support of government policies.[3] Changing government policy in regards to food production is key to decentralizing and reforming the system to make it more sustainable and resilient for both the land and its farmers.

The governing laws, policies, and world view of the United States is oriented entirely toward the health and well-being of the economy, not the ecosystems or even the human population who give the nation its substance and meaning. If the United States, along with the rest of Earth’s nations, is to survive the current ecological crises—climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, pollution, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, and a host of other issues—policies will have to be changed to recognize not only human and corporate rights, but rights that acknowledge the entirety of the Earth community as well. Such a shift to Earth-based governance is recognized as Earth Law or Earth Jurisprudence, a movement inspired by the work of the geologian Thomas Berry, and promoted by Cormac Cullinan,[4] Linda Sheehan, and others involved with the Earth Law Center.[5] Earth Law is slowly entering the legal world through the discussion of Earth Rights, and the writing of such historical documents as the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, released on Earth Day in 2010.[6] The Earth-centric perspective inherent to Earth Law gives ecosystems the right to be healthy, which translates to the right to exist, persist, and sustain itself. The importance of recognizing the rights of “Earth Others,” as the ecofeminist Val Plumwood calls nonhuman beings of the Earth community, is to begin to move away from the anthropocentric perspective that is currently degrading the health of our planet.[7] Currently all of our laws serve, first and foremost, human interests.

Food is a particularly compelling issue on which to focus because it is a symbol and daily reminder of our dependence upon a healthy Earth. The food we put into our bodies is comprised entirely of other species, whether plant, fungus, or animal, and is nourished by the complex interactions of solar radiation, the hydrologic cycle, bacteria, minerals, insects, and many other factors. The quality of our food determines the quality of our health, and in the long run our ability to survive. In terms of Earth Law and questions of the rights of Earth Others, how might food be produced if the plants, animals, soils, and waters on which we depend each had their own right to health? What if agricultural land had rights? For example, the right of soil not to be eroded, of aquifers and ground water not to be depleted and contaminated, or of land to be free of contamination by pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? What if human beings were given the right to always have access to healthy, uncontaminated food with higher nutritional value?

There are many different ways these issues might be addressed, but it seems that implementing some kind of shift to universal production of organic agriculture would be necessary in order to grant the right of health to agricultural land, and the right for human beings to have access to clean food. Organic agriculture can be a sustainable endeavor when it is designed to mimic a natural ecosystem on a small scale.[8] Examples of such biomimicry techniques include animal husbandry—using composted animal manure to fertilize fields—and intercropping—in which multiple plant species are grown together in harmonious symbiotic relationship—among many other practices employed on organic and biodynamic farms. Usually the costs of transitioning to organic production, and of acquiring organic or biodynamic certification status, are born by the producer, which can be a barrier for many small-scale farmers and open the door for large corporations to come in and take over the organic niche market.[9] Scale is an important factor because the larger the farm the less likely it is that the farm will be able to maintain ethical and sustainable practices in the long term. Land cannot be cared for if efficiency is the bottom line, and large-scale farming production tend to prioritize short-term efficiency over long-term attention and care.

In a world governed by these ideals of capitalist efficiency, the initial costs of converting a conventional farm to organic production can be quite high and discourage farmers from changing. One major drawback to organic agriculture is the need for more human labor if the practice is to be sustainable. Organic farms that try to remain competitive in a corporate market usually rely on machines to till large tracts of land and suppress weed growth.[10] To decrease fossil fuel use and implement sustainable practices, farmers would either have to pay their workers a higher salary for more labor or employ more farm hands, both of which would be a high increase in expenditure.

Tomatoes

Photo by Becca Tarnas.

Unavailability of arable land is another obstacle to organic farming, but this can partially be overcome with the use of urban plots and green roofing on city buildings. Green roofing is a method of covering the roofs of urban buildings with gardens. It is a simple and effective idea that keeps cities cooler in summer by converting much of the cities’ carbon dioxide emissions back into oxygen, and helping clean the air of other pollutants. The gardens also contribute to the food consumed by urban dwellers, which otherwise would have to be transported across the country. Green roofing would cut transportation costs and energy usage.[11]

Food is essential to all human beings in a way that no other commodity is. Therefore, reconnecting people to food production is vital to changing attitudes toward farmers and the cost of food. In order to overcome the shortage of farm workers necessary to convert conventional industrialized farms to organic agriculture, I am proposing a required civil service system that could be implemented in the United States for all young people when they graduate from high school. This plan is not dissimilar to European civil service policies, called Zivildienst, in such countries as Germany and Austria, where conscientious objectors to the required military service can opt to do community service instead. Such a solution is radical and would require a fundamental change in values, but it could also bring about the kind of change needed to fix the food system in the United States.

Under this policy, when a U.S. citizen turns eighteen she or he would be required to submit a form demonstrating eligibility for farm service. She or he would work either on a farm in a rural area, or on a green roof plot in a city. On the service form citizens would indicate their future plans, such as whether they would be attending college or university, or working at a job outside of their farm work. They would also be able to show preference for an urban or rural working environment. Distribution would be based on state, so that people would not have to be taken far from their families. If someone wished to work out of state that could also be arranged.

Each citizen would serve the equivalent of at least two years, with the time distributed according to one’s school and work schedules. A person could work full-time on a farm project and complete his or her required service in two years. Those who chose this method would receive a salary based on the income of an average job in their living area. This money would be provided by the government from the funds currently spent on crop and fossil fuel subsidies. If the farm workers already had employment to which they would be returning after their service was complete, they might also opt to be on a sabbatical salary at those jobs to secure their positions.

A part-time arrangement could be made for those currently holding half-time civilian jobs, so that they would not need to leave their work positions. On the other hand, full-time students would be able to work every summer for four years, or every other summer for eight. Those who chose to work in a rural area would usually work full-time, whereas those working in urban areas could work either full or part-time depending on their preferences and skills. If a person wished, he or she could serve one year and then spend their second year training new farm hands. After two years, those who wished to continue farming could do so on a full-time salary.

Living arrangements would be made according to each person’s lifestyle, work, familial situation, and marital status. Those who farmed in a rural area would live on or near the farms. Those who farmed in the city would have the option of living anywhere in or near that city. If possible, it could be arranged for workers to live in the building under their allotted green roof. Persons or families who have houses with green roofs or personal vegetable gardens could have the possibility of exemption from the farm service if they fulfilled a certain quota of food production.

According to Lewis Mumford, the benefits of smaller-scale agriculture, in the hands of more people, brings diversity and stability:

The small scale method of production, resting mainly on human skill . . . [while] remaining under active direction of the craftsman or farmer, each group developing its own gifts, through appropriate arts and social ceremonies, as well as making discreet use of wide diffusion and its modest demands . . . [These methods have] great powers of adaptation and recuperation.[12]

An increase in gardens and workers would make U.S. cities into partially self-contained ecosystems able to provide much of their own food. A larger proportion of the carbon dioxide and pollution in city air would be converted to oxygen or decreased, and more green spaces would be available for citizens to enjoy. Furthermore, the universal availability of organic produce would start to make the overall population healthier, and undermine the corporate control of the majority of our current food system. The generations of young farm workers would be given the same opportunity I was at age eighteen, of learning to use the skills of my body, mind, and heart in service of the Earth and a healthier humanity, connecting not only with plants and animals, but with soil, water, and weather as well.

Corn

Photo by Becca Tarnas.

A number of changes such as these over the next few decades could make the United States a country with partially self-sustaining cities and small-scale rural farms that produce organic food that is both less expensive and safer to eat. This plan would not be easy to implement within the current world system, and would have to be adjusted in many ways to fit the diversity of this country. However, major, radical changes do need to be made to change the practices of food production and the education of most citizens in regards to their food. I believe that the education provided to youth by working on farms will begin to foster a more Earth-centric world view that will help nurture in young individuals the love of our planet so greatly needed at this time.

Currently there are no policies in motion to introduce a plan such as this in the United States. However, it possible to begin to implement it on a smaller scale to test out how it works in certain areas. The San Francisco Bay Area might be an ideal location in which to attempt such an experiment, not only because the Northern California climate is ideal for growing many kinds of produce but also because San Francisco has been called “the place where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance.”[13] Furthermore, several organizations in the Bay Area are already doing work in this field, and likely would be open to experimenting with such a program: for example, the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point, a project of Literacy for Environmental Justice,[14] or the Food First organization in Oakland.[15] At a different level, the farm service proposal could supplement the work already being done by such programs as Americore or Teach for America. The slogan for such a campaign could possibly be “Empower You(th), Feed A Nation!”

Ultimately, the goal of instituting a youth farm service program would be to change the way Americans are interacting with the Earth. Food is an issue that affects every single person, indeed every organism, and indicates the interconnection between all beings on planet Earth. Introducing every young person in a country to the means by which their nourishment is created would empower them to be self-sustaining and to know that their survival is in their own hands. The education provided by such a program could literally be life-saving. But it would also foster a care for other species, for the plants and animals with which these youth would interact daily for at least two years. Learning to farm would also fundamentally change the human relationship to waste, teaching that there is no such place as “away” to which waste can be thrown. Rather it would bring ideas such as composting and reuse into the everyday rhythm of life. After a few generations of such a program I can imagine that the policies passed by the adults who have learned to grow their own food would be far more Earth-centered than our current policies today.

Biodynamic Produce

Photo by Becca Tarnas.

 

Works Cited

Cullinan, Cormac. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011.

Earth Law Center. Accessed May 8, 2014. http://earthlawcenter.org/.

“Food First.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://foodfirst.org/.

Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://therightsofnature.org/universal-declaration/.

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. “Green Roof Benefits.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://www.greenroofs.org/index.php/about/greenroofbenefits.

Kirschenmann, Frederick. “The Current State of Agriculture.” In The Essential Agrarian Reader, edited by Norman Wirzba, 101-119. Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.

Literacy for Environmental Justice. “EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://ecocenterheronshead.blogspot.com/.

Newsham, Brad. “The Spiritual Center of the Earth.” SF Gate, November 23, 1999. Accessed May 8, 2014. http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/The-Spiritual-Center-Of-the-Earth-2894518.php.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006.

Raynolds, Laura. “Organic and Fair Trade Movements in the Global Food Networks.” In Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System. Edited by Stephanie Barrientos & Catherine Dolan, 49-61. Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2006.

 

 

[1] Frederick Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), 101.

[2] Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 102.

[3] Ibid, 117.

[4] Cormac Cullinan, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011).

[5] “Earth Law Center, accessed May 8, 2014, http://earthlawcenter.org/.

[6] “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth,” Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, accessed May 8, 2014, http://therightsofnature.org/universal-declaration/.

[7] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 146.

[8] Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 113.

[9] Laura Raynolds, “Organic and Fair Trade Movements in the Global Food Networks,” in Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System, ed. Stephanie Barrientos & Catherine Dolan (Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2006), 52, 57.

[10] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 159-60.

[11] “Green Roof Benefits,” Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.greenroofs.org/index.php/about/greenroofbenefits.

[12] Lewis Mumford, qtd. in Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 108.

[13] Brad Newsham, “The Spiritual Center of the Earth,” SF Gate, November 23, 1999, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/The-Spiritual-Center-Of-the-Earth-2894518.php.

[14] “EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park,” Literacy for Environmental Justice, accessed May 8, 2014, http://ecocenterheronshead.blogspot.com/.

[15] “Food First,” accessed May 8, 2014, http://foodfirst.org/.