Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Sense of Home and a Sense of Place

Louisiana leaders have not only been voicing the anger and frustration of their constituents over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but late last week they began to mourn the place they call home.

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D–Napoleonville), who represents much of the coastal area directly affected by the oil spill, broke down in tears while delivering his remarks at the May 27 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

“Everything that I know and love is at risk,” he said.

Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, desperately called on BP and the government to do more “multi-tasking,” not only on plugging the gushing underwater oil pipe but by attending to the spill as it enters the wetlands and threatens wildlife and people’s livelihoods.

He added that residents and officials in Plaquemines Parish did not sit idly by when the brown pelicans’ (the state bird) nesting grounds were threatened by the spill. They used their own boats to lay protective booms around a bird sanctuary on Cat Island.

Meanwhile, James Carville, political consultant and New Orleans resident, told CNN that what people feared most was the government abandoning them just as it had after Hurricane Katrina. There was even public discussion of deserting the city instead of rebuilding it.

So as this catastrophe in the Gulf continues, it is fitting and necessary for the American people to reflect on how we consistently expose our country’s lands, seas, wildlife, ecosystems—and ourselves and our progeny—to unwarranted risk and environmental danger to suit our own selfish ends.

Deepwater oil drilling isn’t bad enough, we are now set to drill in the Arctic and we have been squeezing oil out of oil shales. We blow the tops off mountains for coal and dam up or divert river waters for desert cities. These dazzling engineering feats benefit our comfort and convenience as we cavalierly contend that we have a right to use the resources of our earth—regardless of how we leave it.

However, these actions reveal not only our fundamental disconnection from Nature but our lack of a sense of place.

In my own state of Michigan, Asian carp threaten our precious Great Lakes. The carp came from China in the 1970s to be used by Gulf area catfish farmers to eat up algae in their ponds. The four-foot-long, 70-pound fish with a voracious appetite and fast breeding time has slowly escaped from the wild and traveled up the Mississippi River to the Illinois River and through the man-made Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. If it reaches Lake Michigan, the whole region will forever be changed and the $4.5 billion Michigan fishing industry ruined.

The Great Lakes mean a lot to Michiganders. Besides giving us our unique shape with 3,288 miles of coastline, they provide an agricultural diversity (over 150 crops second only to California), small quirky towns, bountiful forests, sweet-smelling wood-burning fireplaces, plaid jackets and a vibrant year-round outdoor culture. We go “Up North” to cottages and cabins to enjoy swimming, hunting, fishing and boating. For Detroiters, hot summer evenings means cooling off by the river to watch the boats pass by. So for Michiganders, losing our lakes would be akin to losing a part of ourselves.

That’s what I imagine Louisianans must be feeling now with this second environmental disaster in less than five years—and I feel very badly for them.

In April, just one week before the oil spill, I visited New Orleans for the first time to attend the American Planning Association’s annual conference and fell in love with the city, its people and its culture.

I met survivors of Katrina who evacuated to places far away and then returned to the city to rebuild their homes and their lives. I met city officials and engineers who were responsible for the recovery effort and worked day and night to bring back the city and make it safe from flooding. I heard amazing stories of people who just started clearing the debris—and then inspired their neighbors to follow suit. I met musicians who used their talents to re-generate people’s spirits for music was all the people had left after Katrina. I also met young people who chose to stay in New Orleans after volunteering time there in the clean-up. The city captured their hearts. Of course, I discovered the delicious local cuisine like oysters (raw, baked and chargrilled), jambalaya, beans and rice, muffeletta, po boy sandwiches and beignets. I walked around the jaunty French Quarter, took an awesome airboat ride on the bayou and indulged myself in the free jazz festival on the RiverWalk. There’s absolutely nothing like New Orleans!

As this oil spill spreads in size on Gulf waters and reaches the Louisiana shore and wetlands, its devastation is unmatched and unfathomable compared to the destruction of Katrina, as terrible as that was.

However, our response to this catastrophe, begs the question: Do we have the capacity to understand the environmental damage being done?

Sadly, I’m not sure we do—but we must try.

Look at photos of the oil spill’s victims and allow yourself to be sickened by the sights.

Recognize that 300,000 fishermen are facing a precarious future and that 30 percent of U.S. seafood production, a $2.4 billion enterprise, comes from the Gulf region. Where will these people go? What will they do? What will seafood cost with these decreasing supplies?

Hear the response of Louisianans like Mary Richert who grew up in Sulphur, LA, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. As blasphemous as it sounds, she is now committed to reducing her use of oil.

Listen to Gisele Perez, a native New Orleanian who proudly defends and celebrates her city for its vibrant culture, lively music, wonderful cuisine, deeply rooted religious tradition, language, customs and values that place family and community above anything else.

Read Kathy Riodan’s essay. Proud daughter of a oil roughneck, she acknowledges the need for change from “our dependence on oil, our dependence on foreign oil, our responsibility for the resource, our responsibility for the environment, our regulation of the industry, our stewardship of the planet.”

Today, preserving the environment is really the only relevant issue before us. Given the damage we have done, we are called to change our lives completely to respond to the unspoken and unrecognized reality that the industrial age is over because the costs of obtaining cheap resources to run it are too great.

This oil spill is a tragedy of ecology and culture that will surely mark this second decade of the 21st century. It also represents the consequences of our belief that we have no limits to growth and that consumerism is good. This is a hangover of 20th century industrialization that led us not only to build one of the world’s great civilizations but now to oversee its very dismantling.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Blue Bayou

It’s morbidly painful to see ecological disaster strike at southern Louisiana—again. At risk now are the wetlands—the bayous.

Just last month I took an amazing airboat ride in the Barataria Preserve of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, just 38 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and saw alligators, fish, turtles, nutria, birds, Spanish moss, bald cypress (which can live to be 1,000 years old) and live oaks (that live hundreds of years, too). The guide, a Cajun who grew up in the area, discussed how these living things all were interconnected to make the bayou what it is. The air was sweet and clean and I could understand why people have loved this place and made a living of hunting, fishing and trapping. The bayou isn’t just a swamp. It is a way of life!

The bayou is a French word meaning slow-moving waterway. It is an offshoot of the Mississippi River and forms a delta at the river’s mouth. It took a thousand years of annual spring flooding for the silt and sediments to develop this unique region. But it’s taken only the past 60 years of human activity to endanger it.

Saltwater intrusion and erosion threaten to destroy 60 percent of the bayou by 2040, said Richard Campanella, associate director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University. He spoke recently at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in New Orleans.

The reason this is happening is due in part to the activities of the oil and gas industry. This oil spill will surely speed up the process.

The threat to the bayou didn’t happen last month with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Oil rigs began to appear in the brackish coastal areas of the Gulf in the early 1930s when the Texas Company (Texaco) developed the first mobile steel barges for drilling. After World War II, other companies began to build fixed off-shore platforms near southern Louisiana. Today the Gulf hosts about 4,000 platforms.

Since 1950, an 8,000-mile system of canals has been constructed in the bayous— with channels 15 to 25-feet wide and six to seven-feet deep—to accommodate the transport of oil-related equipment.

Many people in Louisiana have been concerned about the disappearing bayous, whose loss each day is equivalent to the size of a football field. Among them are musicians like the jazz singer/songwriter known as Dr. John who wrote “Black Gold” (included in his Grammy Award-winning 2007 album, The City That Care Forgot). The song points out how canals make the area more vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. The wetlands provide protection to the mainland, one reason why Hurricane Katrina was so destructive.

“Thirty years ago we had a plan to build new wetlands,” said Dr. John, “but corruption in the state made the money go elsewhere.” He also spoke at the APA conference.

Today, the world consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day. The United States is the top guzzler at almost 23 percent. The European Union comes in second at 14 percent, China at 9 percent and India at 3 percent.

Nearly half of each barrel of oil is made into gasoline while the rest is used in agriculture, cosmetics, soaps and cleaning supplies, textiles, plastics, recreational equipment, auto parts, kitchen appliances—practically everything, according to the Ranken Energy Corporation.

Our desire for oil makes us willing to do whatever it takes to get it. This self-destructive drive and over-reliance on oil is bad for four reasons.

First, oil is a non-renewable resource and its supply is limited. We have already extracted about half of the cheap and easy-to-obtain oil in the world. What’s left is more difficult to extract—some of which is available through the deep-water off-shore rigs!

Second, as we all know, carbon-based fuels are choking our planet’s atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, earth had 270 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. Today, it is at 390 ppm. Climate change is linked to the increasing intensity of storms and directly responsible for rising seas due to melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Third, accidents like the oil spill demonstrate how dangerous oil drilling can be to the environment and to the livelihoods of people living in coastal areas.

Fourth, our reliance on imported oil has led to an aggressive foreign and military policy in the world’s oil-producing regions.

For example, we first exposed our desperation for oil on January 23, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter initiated the Carter Doctrine, which declared that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend our national interests in the Persian Gulf.

In 2001 the overt fight for oil began with the invasion of Afghanistan.

Why Afghanistan? We were told it was retaliation against the 9/11 Osama bin Laden-inspired terrorists, but it was really about oil. In the late 1990s several oil companies proposed that a Trans-Afghanistan Gas Pipeline be built to transport oil from the rich fields of Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Pakistan or India. Another thousand-mile pipeline was proposed to run between Türkmenabat (former Chardzou), Turkmenistan, to Pakistan's Arabian Sea Coast. Operatives dismissed these projects because of political and security instability in the region.

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq, which just happens to be the world’s second largest proven oil reserve.

We are still at war in both these countries with no end in sight. So far these wars have cost 4,402 dead Americans in Iraq and 1,060 in Afghanistan, a combined wounded of 37,641 and nearly $1 trillion, which is borrowed money from China. About one million Iraqis have also lost their lives and no one is counting dead Afghanis.

Oil has been a problem for the United States over the past 40 years, said David Cohen, author of Decline of Empire who notes that the nation peaked in its domestic oil production in 1970. That led to us importing more oil, which then left us less self-sufficient and extremely vulnerable to the politics of other countries, including those who hate us.

“And now we're paying the tragic consequences,” said Cohen. “Our civilization has been and continues to be built on fossil energy. As a consequence of that mindless development, humans have trashed their environment.”

America has a 36,000-mile cross-country network of pipelines that fuels 250 million vehicles. So while the media focus on BP and government regulators, we must recognize that our demand for oil makes all of us Americans responsible for the oil spill, too.

As the oil spill continues to grow from its current size of 46,000 square miles (an area about the size of Pennsylvania) and endanger not only Louisiana bayous and the Gulf of Mexico but Florida and the Atlantic coast, let us take time to reflect seriously on our relationship to oil:

·Should we continue our insatiable thirst for oil even though we are threatening ourselves, future generations and Nature itself?

·Should we send more troops and spend more money to fight these oil wars?

·Is oil really worth all the death and destruction it foists on people and the environment?

The only way out of our oil addiction is for individuals, families and communities to reduce our dependence on oil. We have long learned that we cannot expect such a commitment from government or corporations who engage in finger pointing, which is really just another dodge from addressing the problem.

Neither are the answers to our oil problem just about finding technological alternatives designed to keep up our current lifestyles.

If there’s a lesson in this oil spill it is that we must change our way of life to one that is less centered around fossil fuels.

As a start, we can prefer to walk and bike; use public transportation; support train travel and transport; eat local food or grow our own; turn down the heat; cut the air conditioning; resist using plastic products; retire gas-powered lawn equipment and other vehicles.

It is imperative that we get ourselves off oil or we will sacrifice not only our precious bayous, its wildlife, our coastal cities and businesses but eventually our planet.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Economics of Organic Farming

Growing local organic food may be the best path toward economic recovery. It may also be key to building stronger and healthier communities.

“Our [struggling] economy is making a compelling case that we shift toward more local food,” said Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis. “The current system fails on all counts and it’s very efficient at taking wealth out of our communities.”

Meter spoke at the annual conference of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) held recently in La Crosse, Wisc.

The bank bailouts have stabilized the crisis but they haven’t addressed wealth in local communities, he said. It’s likely that change may come through food because it is the third largest household expense (12.4 percent or $6,133) and $1 trillion nationally. The average consumer spends $49,638 per year with housing the largest expense (34 percent or $16,900), transportation number three (17.6 percent or $8,753) and insurance number four (10.8 percent or $5,336.

“Everyone needs to eat and a local food economy forces us to think differently,” said Meter.

Meter shared figures from his study of southwestern Wisconsin where 106,000 residents earn a total income of $2.7 billion. However, 30 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Out of 6,804 farms, 586 farmers sell less than $10,000 per year while 11 percent sell more than $100,000. Only 382 farms sell directly to consumers and 133 farms are organic. Such disparities result in lop-sided and unfair policies that need to be changed to meet everyone’s needs, Meter pointed out.

The past 40 years have seen rising sales and new markets for farm products, he said, but the expense of running these operations is mounting faster than the income. In fact, there has been a steady decline in income every year since 1969 except during the OPEC crisis in 1973-74. That’s the year former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz ramped up production and sold wheat to the Soviet Union.

However, overproduction eventually led to the farm credit crisis in the 1980s, which resulted in much pain over family farm foreclosures including over 913 farmer suicides in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. For example, since 1969, farmers in southwestern Wisconsin made $166 million less despite the fact that they doubled their productivity. Meanwhile, they spent $429 million more equipment and chemical inputs.

“A community-based system of agriculture is all about relationships,” said Meter who predicts that “over time, communities will choose organic food...because they know the farmer is taking care of the land.”

Meter believes that in general, community-based organic farms make four major contributions: good health and nutrition for the population; a fair distribution of wealth among farmers; connections between people since food is so central to American and ethnic cultures; and the capacity for farmers, not corporations, to decide what foods to produce.

Government subsidies keep the industrial food system afloat because farmers are paid to produce below cost, said Meter. In southwestern Wisconsin, it took $434 million to raise $404 million in produce per year. Subsidies amounted to $21 million, which left a $10 million loss. Farmers made up this loss in off-farm income (89 percent of farm family income), renting out land, and other money-making ventures. Since 2002, 53 percent of farmers reported losses after subsidies, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“This is not a healthy farm economy especially since $135 million in food is purchased outside the region,” said Meter. “We need to cut down that $135 million by sourcing food locally.”

As it is, the national average of buying local is only .8 percent and the effect is insidious. Wisconsin made $2 billion less on its farm products than it did in 1969. In 2009, it made the same income—adjusted for inflation—as it did in 1932.

“This is a startling reality the general public is not thinking about because it is so far removed from farms,” said Meter. “These are losses in the breadbasket of America! This is not a lucrative way to farm.”

Meter believes that if buyers commit themselves to invest in organic and locally-grown agricultural products, farm income would change. However, people would have to understand how such a strategy would benefit them and their community at the same time. It would require a sense of community or ownership over a place where people were unified on the basis of trust, mutuality, and support and not just a shared geography.

For example, if people in southwestern Wisconsin bought just 25 percent of their food from local sources, all production costs would be offset and create $33 million in new farm income.

“It is not a trivial thing to source food through local people,” said Meter. “That helps fund communities and their schools.”

Meter cited several examples where farmers have been able to invest in local and organic production AND make a difference in their communities.

Organic Valley started out in 1988 with $0 in sales and last year it made $532 million.

“This is a stellar example of a farmers cooperative where the price is fair and farmers work to make it good for all” said Meter. “It is strong, sensible thinking.”

Black Hawk, Iowa, created 475 new jobs in fruits and vegetables totaling $6.3 million in income for the community.

Will Allen started out with earthworm compost and has reduced Milwaukee’s cost of garbage dumping significantly.

A factory shut down in Viroqua, Wisc. and moved its operations to another state. City leaders confronted the company and asked what it would do for the community. In response, the company ended up selling its 100,000 square foot building, which allowed the city to create a regional food processing center, a fitness center, a bakery and cafeteria. The building is now 96 percent occupied.

In Eau Claire, Wisc., farmers, the hospital food service, distributors, and truckers teamed up to create the Food Buyers Co-op.

In Burlington, Vermont, a bakery-to-school program was developed where 2,000 extra artisan loaves were sold for $4 with $2 going to the bakery and $2 going to the school. It created a new profit margin for the bakery.

Such arrangements break down self-interest motives to help move everyone in the community forward, said Meter.

In Northfield, Minn., Home on the Range Poultry created a Latino/Anglo cooperative on quarter-acre sites where they raise chickens. There are 30 to 40 sites and the company owns its own processing center.

“The food systems of the future will also involve rethinking our habits of getting our food cheaply,” concluded Meter. “Such change can build wealth in our communities.”