Archive for September, 2009

Find your tribe

By David Parkinson

Fennel seeds and sky

Seed to Sky

We will not live to see the work of the new age, we shall fight in the darkness; we must prepare ourselves to endure this life without too much sadness, by doing our duty. Let us help one another, call to one another in the gloom, and practice justice wherever opportunity offers.
(Pierre-Joseph Proudhon)

I spent this past weekend in Chehalis at the annual gathering of the BC Food Systems Network (BCFSN), this being my second consecutive year attending this event. The gathering brings people together from all around the province who work in food security in the broad sense: from the grassroots organizers working at the local level to develop community gardens, community kitchens. cooperatives, and other projects, on up to people working at the regional and provincial level to develop policy and strengthen our ability to create a strong and equitable food system in BC and beyond. It’s an opportunity for folks working in small and isolated communities to come together with the folks from the big-city hotbeds of food security work (the entire Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, especially the Victoria-Nanaimo corridor). Opportunities such as this are really valuable to front-line activists, since it is enormously reassuring and empowering to know that you are not alone out there, that others all around the province share your perceptions and your passions, and that there is a big picture taking shape out of the constellation of tiny efforts everywhere.

This year’s gathering was the tenth and the theme was Bioregionalism. From the website:

A bioregion is an area defined by naturally occurring boundaries such as watersheds, terrain and soil. It is also cultural in nature and thus includes healthy associations between people, plants, animals and nature. These bioregions or eco-regions, could generally be self-sufficient with respect to local food systems and land use. When the local population makes choices that support the local ecology, economy and culture a bioregional consciousness is created. Promoting this sense of place enhances many of the principles the BC Food System Network values. Sustainable land use, enhanced Indigenous land interactions, empowered local communities and reduced carbon footprints are some examples of the benefits of healthy bioregionalism.

We spent some time during the gathering breaking out into bioregional discussions and then coming back together to report back and synthesize the information being discussed in the breakout groups. I was the only representative from the Upper Sunshine Coast, and there were two people from the Lower Sunshine Coast: Eleonora Molnar, a community developer with Vancouver Coastal Health, and Dave Ryan, one of the main growers for the Gumboot Restaurant in Roberts Creek. We weren’t sure what the borders were of our bioregion, so we chose to consider the entire Sunshine Coast as a bioregion, separate from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. I can’t say how much sense that makes, but the conversation will continue as we refine our ideas about what makes a bioregion and how we can work within and among the various bioregions in BC.

Some friends were asking me a couple of nights ago what we did at the gathering, and I was a little hard-pressed to say. Much of the real ‘work’ of a gathering like this one lies in forging new connections between individuals and groups. I attended one discussion session on setting up cooperatives, and out of that came a potential new working group under the auspices of the BCFSN to share information and resources about how groups can use the cooperative structure of corporate governance to create pieces of a local food economy. I hope to use this working group as a way of investigating the possibility of using a cooperative to take on some of the projects that people keep talking about, especially the collective purchase of tools and equipment such as a rototiller, a crusher and cider press, a commercial dehydrator, and so on. There is a gang in Salmon Arm, which I named the Salmon Army, doing precisely this: instead of forming a standard non-profit society as an umbrella organization for pulling together the various food-security projects in the area, they are creating a cooperative. It seems like a perfect fit when part of the aim of an organization is to foment public engagment and involvement.

But the gathering is really about talking with all kinds of people from all corners of the multi-front struggle to create an abundant and just food system. And all of that meeting and talking and sharing takes place within the context of an institutional culture which has much to admire. For one thing, people in the BCFSN work very hard to create an egalitarian and respectful dialogue between indigenous populations and the settler community. First Nations folks are central in all discussions and traditional food systems are put on an equal footing with imported agricultural techniques. Another aspect which was mentioned by one attendee during one of the plenary sessions is the ‘culture of gratitude’ cultivated by the BCFSN: people within the network take time to honour everyone’s contributions and make sure that all the work that might otherwise go unnoticed is gratefully and respectfully acknowledged. That might sound like a trivial thing, but it is not. I see a lot of people in my community whose hard work and dedication takes place in obscurity, while others are ready to put themselves in the spotlight at every chance. A huge part of building a resilient community is honouring the people who do the work, especially the ones on the front lines who sometimes get overlooked.

More than just recognizing and acknowledging each other’s contributions, we need to start understanding how our social networks hang together. We need to know which forces strengthen them and which ones weaken them. We need to pay attention to the subtle but very real signals which draw us closer to some projects and some people, and learn to recognize the warning signals which caution us against wasting our time or getting involved with people who put their own personal interests before those of the community. We need to learn the simple but neglected art of showing gratitude to each other, of listening attentively, of respecting the differences among us, of including the ones who are easy to forget about.

In other words, we need to create a tribe for ourselves. A tribe consisting not simply of the like-minded — that’s a cult not a tribe. But a tribe of the people we can work with, the ones who share the more important pieces of our worldview and (even more importantly) are willing and able to work collectively, with gratitude and respect, even when there are differences.

The Chehalis gathering drew together a geographically far-flung but otherwise tightly-knit tribe of people from around the province who are all dedicated to the creation of a network of food-secure communities. So, what’s your tribe?

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History

By Tom Read

Clarence Wood (left) and Dan Read discuss Texada history at an undisclosed old mine site on Texada Island.

Clarence Wood (left) and Dan Read discuss Texada history at an undisclosed old mine site on Texada Island.

Texada Island is generally known to possess a rich history, and yesterday I thoroughly enjoyed a brief, guided sojourn into our island’s past. Thanks to the generosity of local historian Clarence Wood, my father (visiting from St. Augustine, Florida) and I toured four old mine sites with Clarence, who provided a running commentary on each. Clarence also thoughtfully provided copies of old photos showing the very same mine sites as they appeared about a century ago.

We found remains of long-abandoned mining equipment and collected a few bits of colourful pyrite and iron-rich rock extracted long ago from various mines, and we used our imaginations to peer inside darkened old mine shafts that reach hundreds of feet underground. In the cool, bright sunshine of a late September morning, I felt the presence of all those working men who once built and operated these mines.

Human history on Texada goes back a lot further than its many old mines, of course. And mining wasn’t the only industry here a hundred years ago; forestry and agriculture also played important roles in the building of modern Texada. When I think about the history of this place, it helps me understand how much our island community today reflects the decisions and efforts of those who came before us. We have inherited a valuable infrastructure of buildings and transportation facilities from our history as a mining and forestry district, but we also still carry with us a less-obvious and not-so-beneficial status as a resource colony.

It’s true that a few local families, particularly the Beale family, built and operated mines on Texada. However, just as the provinces of ancient Rome were systematically exploited solely for the benefit of Roman aristocrats, Texada, and British Columbia itself, have a history of economic colonization by foreigners. For example, the mines we visited yesterday were originally built by Americans primarily to serve the American market. The metal ores and quick lime were shipped to the USA for further processing into what we now call “value-added products.”

Among the photos Clarence showed us yesterday was a posed shot of two well-dressed gentlemen standing in front of a recently-exposed rock face. These were the mine owners, come for a visit to their holdings on Texada Island. Locals provided the labour, and ultimately created a proud and strong community here, but they did it on an economic foundation provided by off-island capital investment and business management expertise, such as represented by the men in that photo.

Are there any lessons from our history that we might contemplate for our own future? Of the three quarries now operating on Texada, only one is effectively a local business. Very little value-added manufacturing occurs on Texada today, even compared to the early days of mining here. We might be grateful that the cement plants are located elsewhere, but what about other opportunities for making something useful from local resources? Do we have access to capital and business expertise locally, so that we might create a truly local economy?

History is not just about the past; it gives us our present and helps us think about our future.

Politics in two dimensions (and beyond)

By David Parkinson

Old stump, new tree. A composition in chiaroscuro.

Old stump, new tree. A composition in chiaroscuro.

Recent events have made me more conscious of how our political system works. It came to me not long ago that the way we talk about politics is very one-dimensional and that there are other dimensions we should be trying to hold in mind as we think about where we are and what lies ahead.

We often think of large-scale politics in terms of left and right. To strip away a lot of rhetoric and vast amounts of detail, the left-right dimension is a continuum along which we battle over the division of the spoils: left means using the power of the state to redistribute wealth and create social programs and a safety net for the less fortunate; right means allowing the individual to decide how to use her or his wealth free from heavy-handed interference by the state.

The real world is obviously much more complex than this simple picture; for example, the right no longer pushes for a minimal state but instead uses state power to redistribute wealth away from the public sector and the commons and towards those who are already wealthy. The last few years have seen a giddy and fast-paced smash-and-grab operation by and on behalf of the economic élite, with the clear intention of destroying the state’s ability to provide a baseline of social services to all. This program seems to be reaching a sort of culmination with the recent project of using the common wealth of the population to ‘bail out’ the élite. When the dust settles from this amazing one-time-only offer — and as we start to face the consequences of spending our capital and destroying the resource base on which all wealth is built — political battles over the allocation of our dwindling wealth will become increasingly desperate.

What’s left of the left meanwhile fights a series of rear-guard battles in a losing war to reserve some share of the common wealth for the poor and less fortunate. As the screws tighten, as the lifeboat shrinks, these battles are only going to become more desperate. Who has the ear of governments? Not the poor.

And all of this wealth, the spoils of reckless capitalism, that we fight over — it’s based on the idea that there are no limits on our ability to continue pulling minerals and fossil fuels from the earth’s crust and food from our fields. Once you have a population which believes that we can keep on creating false wealth forever, then you end up with a political system which is really little more than a stock market. Or a Ponzi scheme.

So rather than a one-dimensional political system which turns every decision into a question of who gets the money, we need to start looking at some of the other less visible dimensions of how we make decisions about how to create, store, and (re-)distribute wealth. Until we start doing that, the language we use for talking about the economy is not rich enough to capture what is really going on. Like a poorly-ground lens, this impoverished language distorts the world around us, accentuating some aspects and diminishing others. We owe it to ourselves to get our heads out of the phony and constricting box of left-vs-right and start thinking about all of the factors that shape the way we interact with one another as individuals, with other groups of people, and with our society as a whole.

It’s important to remember that politics is not just about the ballot box and the talking heads on the television machine. Politics is present whenever people wrangle over who gets what. It’s in the boardroom, the bedroom, around the dinner table, in the meetings we attend, the way we choose to use our time and energy and money. I have seen, lately, a few examples of how bad politics can poison well-meaning non-profit enterprises. Even with the best intentions, if decisions are made in an undemocratic fashion, or if information is not freely shared, or if one person or a small group takes control for their own personal benefit, then the group’s solidarity will suffer.

I believe that we are entering a period in which the community is going to have to step up more and more. I am very uncertain about the prospects for the economy, and if I’m right to be worried then there will be less money flowing around for capital-based solutions to the problems we face. Likewise, we are already seeing sweeping cuts to social spending programs, especially at the provincial level. Many of the social support programs for low-income folks and other less powerful constituencies are going to disappear over the next few years, leaving a huge burden on local communities to find workarounds and patches. How this is going to play out against a backdrop of an extremely disaffected and slothful populace is anyone’s guess; but it’s going to be a rough transition at first. To the extent that we can employ a politics of decency, the rough ride will be less horrible for those of us at the bottom. To the extent that we continue to approach every problem as though it’s just a niche for some new corporate venture, we will blunder and fail.

I want to throw around a few dimensions along which it’s useful to think about how we approach the problems we hope to solve. I’d like to return to these and some others in the future, and spend some time elaborating them. For now, it’s only a skeletal outline of how I believe we should be talking and thinking about the work of renewing and reinventing our communities. Much of this points outward to existing theory and practice, but for now I’m just putting up hasty signposts.

(I’m using the word ‘venture’ below because it allows me not to choose among ‘business’ and ‘non-profit’ and ‘project’ and so on.)

Public vs. private

How is the public involved? As shareholders? Spectators? Make-believe beneficiaries of fraudulent trickle-down effects? Do members of the public have any say in how this venture is run? Phony consultation? Do we have to wait a few years to vote it out? Are we the hapless victims of decisions made in a boardroom to which we were not invited?

Open vs. closed

Similar to the previous dimension, but more about how the real decision-making happens. Even in a supposedly public venture, there are many ways to marginalize members of the community. Cliquishness, secrecy, and any number of needless hurdles can be put in place to keep power concentrated in the hands of the ‘right people’. Are we telling the truth? Is everyone able to ask tough questions without being shouted down or shunned? Are we actively encouraging more public involvement?

Intrusive vs. free

Can people opt out of the venture or its effects on them or their community? Must they be constantly alert to potential damage, pollution, or other ill effects? Are people coerced into either participation or resistance? Are people allowed to opt out, but at the risk of falling behind in some important way? Does this venture create more choice? Or less?

Community vs. individual

Is this venture about satisfying individual needs or wants? Is it about providing some resilience at the community level? Is it doing one when it should be doing the other? How does it strengthen community or reinforce individualism? Are we overlooking some way we can use this venture to create or strengthen community?

Paid vs. free

This is a really important and largely invisible dimension.This society trains us to see everything through a money-coloured filter. When we look through a red filter, we can no longer really see red, because everything and nothing is coloured red. Money is the same way. We do not even see the extent to which we create ventures which are born addicted to the money economy. Could we have done it  otherwise? Who is excluded? Who is advantaged? Have we asked ourselves how far we could have got without taking that first hit of corporate sponsorship?

That’s enough for now. As I say, I’ll try to come back to these and try to have something more illuminating to say about them. I do feel that those of us who want to work on making our communities more resilient need to spend as much time interrogating our methods as we spend considering our goals. It is possible to have admirable goals but undermine their success by hitching them to working methods which enshrine the very things we pretend to be getting away from. It’s maddening and all too common.

The agricultural potential of Texada Island

By Tom Read

This former hayfield on Texada Island is a small pocket of rich bottomland awaiting a new agricultural enterprise

This former hayfield on Texada Island is a small pocket of rich bottomland awaiting a new agricultural enterprise

The Powell River Agriculture Plan, subtitled “Economic Development Discussion Paper,” by Gary Rolston, has just been released. Texada Islanders and ratepayers throughout the Powell River Regional District paid for this study so I was eager to see what it has to say about farming on our island.

Alas, Texada is largely invisible in the report (the author tended to lump us together with Lasqueti Island or to simply ignore us, unfortunately).  Still, the report contains useful information about the region as a whole and some good discussion questions that are relevant to Texadans interested in farming and in eating locally produced food.

Of particular interest to me is the report’s “SWOT” analysis for local agriculture, where “SWOT” stands for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.”  Here are the agricultural “Strengths” of the region as quoted from Rolston’s report along with my comments from a Texada perspective in italic type:

Strengths:

1)  Climate and soils that are suitable for a wide range of agricultural production

That’s true for Texada, as well. The widespread limestone deposits on our island give us a more alkaline soil than in Powell River, generally speaking, and our climate is usually a little warmer and drier, too. Texada has pockets of really good soil, but most often the soil here tends toward rocky and thin.

2)  Availability of irrigation water

Yes, we’ve got lots of water on Texada, too, unlike most other local islands

3)  Captive market – the local community supports local farmers.

“Captive market” is not how I’d describe the Texada food shopper today. In spite of our fine local grocery stores, many islanders like to buy most of their groceries at supermarkets in Powell River or at Costco (and the like) on Vancouver Island. This is likely to change as the cost of transportation rises.

4)  Land Prices are somewhat lower than other areas with similar coastal climates – the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.

This is true for Texada, too, but land prices are still quite high relative to the income a farmer can expect to earn solely from conventional farming. Possible solutions: There are agricultural land leasing opportunities on Texada, and a potential farmer here would also be advised to focus on value-added products or services to raise one’s income potential.

5)  Small scale – this could be a benefit if the industry can work together. Everyone knows everyone.

This is also quite true of Texada, which has only about 1/20th the population of Powell River. We should be able to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit because that’s what we do in many other endeavours on Texada.

6)  Isolation. This causes a few problems …. However, it is a strength that could be converted to opportunities albeit with some work. The “moat” that surrounds Powell River has some benefits in terms of protecting it from introduction of diseases and pests that may be affecting agricultural enterprises elsewhere.

Texada Island is surrounded by population centres that collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on food and other agricultural products. So we’re not that isolated, really. Yet, as an island that’s NOT on BC Ferries’ Circle Tour, we enjoy relative freedom from hordes of tourists, from urban land-use regulations, from crime and from population pressures in general. We’re ideally situated geographically to serve the communities around us, so I wholeheartedly agree that developing new agricultural enterprises and repopulating abandoned farms should be high priorities for Texada. ]

Yes, there are some potential strengths for agriculture on Texada Island, and they lead directly to real opportunities for those with entreprenurial vision and energy. That’ll be my focus in future posts.

What’s wrong with capitalism?

By David Moore

Capitalism is the economic system on which our society is based. The basic principles underlying capitalism such as free market, profit motive, and supply & demand are the powerful driving forces of commerce we wake up to and interact with every day. It can be demonstrated that this capitalist economy has provided masses of people with an abundant food supply, a comfortable standard of living and even led directly to modern miracles like medical breakthroughs, humans in space, computers, TVs and washing machines in every home.

Yet, there is a dark side too. The longer I live and the more I read and learn about how the world works, the clearer it becomes that this system brings with it some very harmful and negative effects on people and the world. Therefore, I believe that right thinking people have a responsibility to study the problems, identify how this economic system is flawed and work hard toward fixing or reforming our chosen system of commerce for the greatest good for humans and all living things. So, what’s wrong with capitalism? I’ll describe four basic areas.

1. First and Worst

The result of capitalism on our society is that it concentrates wealth in the hands of a relative few. Something like 80% of wealth is held by 15% of the population. Therefore a wealthy elite actually controls and exerts power over the majority of citizens. It produces a society with wealthy people in a privileged class. With enough money, one doesn’t actually have to work or contribute anything because money generates more money through capitalist investments – that’s right, money for nothing. At the same time there is an underclass of people who live, and are even trapped in poverty. And although governments have developed vast bureaucracies of ‘social programs’, the poverty persists. Our capitalist system breeds inequality and exploitation. This problem is first and worst because it is a profound contradiction by our economic system of what our political system of democracy proclaims as its highest ideals – equality and freedom. It has brought us to our current situation where leaders like former president George Bush and our Stephen Harper can take our nations to war in foreign countries and say they want to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think they are using the word democracy as a code word for capitalism, because our leaders seem to be driven more by the power and influence of commerce than peace and well-being for other countries. The cost of these wars could end world hunger and cure preventable disease.

2. Second and Scary

Capitalism in the modern era has given rise to the corporation as the organizing structure which runs big business. The film and the book The Corporation describes in clear detail and example the dark side and fatal flaws inherent in the corporate structure. Corporations, by law, are required to do only one thing – deliver profits to shareholders. Corporations do not have a conscience or a moral imperative. And so it is not surprising that our fast paced industrial society, in the process of performing the modern miracles of capitalism for the masses, has caused irreparable harm to the environment and poisoned the planet with pollution. We now
have global warming, species extinctions, famines and cancer epidemics to face because corporations are able to call the sources of these problems ‘externalities’ and write them out of the corporate equation. The corporate world has harnessed the power of mass media in a way that would surely shock George Orwell. Billions are spent on propaganda (advertising) which effectively creates a demand for useless goods that fuels the consumer society which is destroying the balance of nature.

3. Thirdly and Dirty

Wealth is power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. These are clichés we’ve all heard, but they are still around because they continue to ring true. We have governments, politicians and elections with regularity, but the forces of corruption behind the power of wealth has the tail wagging the dog. Big business says ‘jump’ and big government says ‘how high’. Year after year the charade is enacted for the consumption of the media and the public masses. Politicians perform their roles and act as if their decisions are for the public good while all along they know who and what is running the show and running the world. The Republicans and the Democrats in the U.S. and the Conservatives and the Liberals in Canada are all in on the charade and it makes modern elections into a rigged crap game. The groups that actually have the most power never run for election – the banks, the cartels, think-tanks, organized crime and the ‘security’ agencies. This dirty deception has spawned the awful and frightful nightmare of the military – industrial – intelligence complex which is a virtual hidden government. It operates far and wide in a manner that is the antithesis of an open democracy.

4. 2 Much of a Good Thing is Bad 4 U.

Capitalism, if it had to choose one word as its symbol, would choose GROWTH. Grow the economy, watch the Dow-Jones trading average go up, predict the ever rising GNP (gross national product) and keep flooding the consumer market with goods that people don’t need but can be hypnotised by advertising into wanting, then buying. The ever increasing consumption of the world’s resources and ever increasing quantity of waste, garbage and destruction of the environment can lead to only one final outcome: planetary systems collapse from climate change, disease epidemics and starving masses, then hysterical leaders waging nuclear wars. But you won’t see much repetition of that prognosis on TV or coming out of politicians’ mouths. Responsible citizens making objective observations of simple inevitable facts who are not under the influence of metaphysical fantasies can probably agree on one conclusion: the world soon may reach, or has already exceeded, its carrying capacity for humans. The warning signs are cropping up, don’t you think? That means that the wise need to promote and support the opposite of growth.

CONCLUSION

That’s my shortlist of fatal flaws. Libraries could be filled with all the books written on these various topics and their spin-offs. This is my attempt to put into a few words some of the thoughts that go through my mind while lying in bed at night, reading a newspaper or listening to the nightly news. I’ll get back to you with the solution as soon as I’ve got it figured out.

The trouble with growth is that it keeps growing

By David Parkinson

Fall-bearing golden raspberries; a gift from Robin Wheeler, now a gift from the garden

Fall-bearing golden raspberries; a gift from Robin Wheeler, now a gift from the garden

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.
(E.F. Schumacher)

As the 50-mile eat-local challenge winds down and we come closer to the annual Fall Fair, the end of summer looms on the horizon. Soon we will be in the thick of the wintertime: short wet days and long evenings and nights. Many people complain about the winters here on the coast, but I find it to be a good time of the year. The gardening and food preservation are done, everything is mulched, cover-cropped, or protected by a row cover from the relentless rains and cold winds. All the visiting and traveling slows down. It’s the time of year for retreating to the home, to the fireside, for the season of contemplation. Sometimes the summers here seem almost too frenzied, although once they start to fade into cooler and shorter days, you start to realize how many projects you somehow failed to get to. Oh well, you think, there’s always next year.

This summer felt like another watershed year for the local food movement. There was so much interest in the Edible Garden Tour that I’m already thinking about how to make it just that much bigger and better next year — without turning it into an unmanageable behemoth, just using it as a better way to bring people together around a shared interest in small-scale food growing. And my impression is that the Fruit Tree Project has grown considerably again this year: more fruit preserved; more people fed; less food wasted; and fewer bears led into temptation. The seed-saving pilot project sponsored by the Farmers’ Institute is coming to an end for this year, and it looks as though we’ll have plenty of carefully-raised local seed to share with the community at next year’s Seedy Saturday. The Garden to Table workshop series being sponsored through the Community Resource Centre in Powell River has been attracting good numbers of participants.

Recently, I was talking with someone about the upsurge in small-scale food production which is taking place not just here but all over North America. We were wondering to what extent this is motivated by awareness of peak oil or the frailty of the global food system; or by the economic downturn; or by less tangible motivations, such as a growing need to take control over parts of our lives which have been outsourced to corporations and gigantic impersonal systems. I’m not even sure that many of us could articulate our reasons for wanting to become more self-reliant. There’s a sense in which it’s just out there in the air we breathe these days: a feeling that the huge institutions which have taken care of our needs and wants are starting to fall into disrepair, joined with a fear that we have no clear Plan B for any of these, should they happen to fail. And the prospect of failure of the food supply is something that gets people moving pretty early.

I have noticed that there is a pretty rigid code of silence around the discussion of topics such as this. Even when you’re surrounded by like-minded people, it can be awkward to acknowledge that you are growing or storing food because you do not have complete faith in the future of the food supply. The urge to say nothing stems in large part from the power of the great myths which underlie the workings of the world we live in. One of the central ones for us is the myth of eternal growth. Somehow, against all rationality and in the face of everything we know about the natural world, we have come to believe that we can continue to keep growth going forever. Even when we accept we are pushed to the limit and we acknowledge that eternal growth is a fiction, we simply cannot see beyond the point where growth stops and becomes contraction. Nor can we imagine a society constructed around the idea of sufficiency or limit or moderation. A belief that there are limits to growth, and acting on that belief, are uncomfortable heresies best kept private.

In the domain of our food supply, this ethos of growth has led to a large and intricate system of production, processing, and transportation capable of managing the production of unimaginably huge quantities of staple foods around the world, getting them into a transportable and consumable form, and getting them to consumers. It’s a miracle of efficiency and productivity, so long as you don’t notice the waste and destruction hidden underneath the surface. There are real human and environmental costs associated with this system, costs which we mostly ignore — or, if forced to recognize them, we chalk them up to the usual minor inefficiencies that any large system will produce. And anyway, it’s not like we can see any real alternatives. Things grow. If something is good to begin with, then when it grows it’s better… right?

The goodness of Growth has become an almost unquestionable assumption at the base of our economy. Our economy is built on top of resource extraction and the production of goods carried out in the most rapacious and destructive manner, because to take anything less than everything is a sin against Growth. We cannot see how to get away from total resource extraction; if one company holds back in the interests of the environment, another will gladly step in and finish the job. The system of laws, norms, and social rules which define this culture have no way to express “less than everything”. And it’s not at all clear how, from within a culture of totalizing extraction and consumption, we can evolve a culture of sufficiency — one which can recognize limits and respect them in the interests of all people and other species. Some of us know we need to get there, but we can’t figure out how to get there from here.

I know that this doesn’t sound cheery. And this is another reason why we all find it hard to talk about these difficult truths. Who wants to be the ghost at the banquet? Not I. Not you. So we trundle onward, doing our best to question the foundational myths of a culture which shows every sign of heading off the rails, while trying not to question the small palliative measures which are acceptable enough to be rolled out in public (e.g., the “green economy”, “sustainable growth”, and so on), and feeling more and more alienated from a world built on top of what are intolerable and unsustainable practices.

It occurred to me recently, as I passed by one of our lovely local clearcuts, that one way we can more easily see the destruction caused by the normal workings of the growth economy is to ask the question: “If someone were doing this for free, what would we think of it?” Imagine that a community group sprang up whose purpose was to go out every weekend and cut down huge swathes of the forest in our back country. Would you join a social club which went out and dammed rivers just for the hell of it? How about raising funds so that we can contaminate the water supplies of First Nations communities with toxic chemicals? Maybe a telethon to send chemical fertilizers into the ocean where they will create an algae bloom visible from space? These are all repugnant ideas, aren’t they? Now if you imagine that these activities are carried out for the direct profit of a relatively small and élite group, then we are expected to accept them, to reward them, and to honour the men and women who do them. Our elected governments will use their full force to protect the right to engage in these activities. For now they are creating “economic development” and are beyond questioning. In fact, they are the fundamental activities — the rituals, if you like — around which we construct our world. We may acknowledge their ill effects, but when we put those in the scale and balance them against the unquestioned — unquestionable — benefits they bring to our economy, we have nothing to say.

Destruction redeemed by so-called economic benefits is a bad enough bargain when times are good and the limits to extraction are not in sight. But we now live in a time when those limits are slowly becoming visible. Despite some lingering controversy over the mathematical models, it is clear that we face the end of cheap petrochemicals by mid-century. The list of other endangered natural resources grows daily. It would have been good if we could have recognized natural limits to growth before hitting the crisis point, but there you have it. As a species, we have failed to exchange long-term crisis for short-term discomfort. We haven’t even been able to understand the terms of the exchange, and a lot of that is because we are in under the spell of Growth. Without growth, nothing makes any sense to us, so we choose not to think about the world beyond it.

So long as we remain stuck on the idea that there is no alternative to eternal growth; so long as we excuse the failings of corporatized large-scale production as minor glitches in an otherwise functional system; so long as we refuse to even imagine a steady-state economy which produces meaningful work and a reasonably fair distribution of good things; above all, so long as we allow ourselves to be silenced by the church of eternal growth — then there is not going to be a way out of the difficulties we find ourselves in. I’m going to take this up in future posts, since there are people out there beginning to talk about what a ‘de-growthed’ economy might look like, and how we can get there from here.

Of apples and alders, of gleaners and poison

By Tom Read

Gleaned apples and an alder branch symbolize the food-versus-herbicide conflict that’s common elsewhere, and now could come to Texada Island if spraying goes unchallenged.

Gleaned apples and an alder branch symbolize the food-versus-herbicide conflict that’s common elsewhere, and now could come to Texada Island if spraying goes unchallenged.

Yesterday I missed my self-imposed posting deadline because Linda and I were out gleaning apples and pears. Texada Islanders are fortunate to have inherited a legacy of a few dozen century-old farms and orchards, some of which lie abandoned today. Typically, the farm buildings have vanished, and formerly productive fields now lie quietly under a canopy of alder and Douglas fir.  You have to know where to look to find these old farm sites.

But the orchards remain.  Sometimes they’re engulfed amid towering Douglas firs and thus rarely bear much fruit, but yesterday we were fortunate to find a bounty of heavily-laden heritage apple trees ready for picking, and so we gleaned. In some cases permission is required to glean, and in other cases the old orchards are publically accessible.

We obtained permission as needed, and took home fruit that otherwise would have fed a few deer or rotted on the ground. Today, we’re busy making apple and pear sauce, jam, and fruit leathers. There’s a delectable aroma in the house today, and a feeling of well-being as we prepare a supply of locally-grown goodies to last until next summer.

Alas, today — even as I write these words — something quite different is happening to about 20 acres of young alders which happen to grow under the 500-kilovolt power lines that cross Texada’s midriff. This is the day those young alders will begin to die, as they are girdled with a herbicide, sprayed one “stem” (tree) at a time. This is the doing of British Columbia Transmission Corporation (BCTC), a spin-off of BC Hydro that’s now responsible for maintenance of high-voltage transmission lines, among other things.

The herbicide, a poison that targets only broadleaf trees, is advertised by BCTC as harmless to other plants, animals and ground water. It is being applied by an off-island contractor, supposedly all in one day. BCTC claims that it will not be necessary to apply further herbicides on this acreage for up to 30 years, except for some minor touch-ups next spring.

Something had to be done to those alders now because they were growing too close under the powerlines. BCTC acknowledged that Texada’s Official Community Plan (OCP) contains language opposed to spraying herbicides or pesticides on this island. Most other organizations that regularly engage in maintenance of roads, gas pipelines and the like have respected Texada’s OCP.

After some prodding by our regional district, BCTC seemed at first to respect local opinion on this issue when it belatedly invited proposals for alternatives to spraying, such as manual and machine removal of the trees. The corporation actually received just such a seriously thought-out proposal last week from a local logging contractor qualified and willing to do the work. And local loggers sure do need the work, with logging itself at a near stand-still.

Obviously, the corporation chose spraying instead, albeit very targeted spraying in an out-of-the-way location that most Texadans won’t ever see. But there is a connection, in my opinion, between what is happening to those alders and our island’s gleaning tradition. I knew, as I picked apples, that nobody had sprayed any poisons anywhere nearby. If we let BCTC and others start spraying here unchallenged, will we still find it possible to grow clean and healthy food on our island a few years from now?

We need to do better in the future.


Post facto

September 2009
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