Archive for the 'solutions' Category

Can we make a difference?

By David Parkinson

Fennel seeds maturing on the plant, bathed in the cool light of an October afternoon

We’ll already be well on the road to victory when we realize we can build the kind of society we want right here and now without permission, instead of waiting for some bureaucratic committee to spend a hundred thousand man-hours getting everybody on the same page.
(Kevin Carson, “Civic Engagement is for Suckers“, Center for a Stateless Society)

If this blog has a theme, it’s probably my musings on the subject of how to get from here to there, wherever there is. Change is afoot; things are shifting; and meanwhile the systems within which we organize ourselves socially to get things done are becoming ever less appropriate for the challenges ahead. The whole of society feels paralyzed, stuck in inactivity or futile pretend activity when the real action is elsewhere in places we’ve stopped looking in or have forgotten exist.

What are we supposed to do if we look straight into the blinding void of the collapse of the current economic arrangements which, for better or worse, produce everything we need and provide the jobs that allow us to pay for those things? If we acknowledge that we’re coming to the end of cheap fossil fuels, what are we supposed to be doing to prepare, especially when almost every aspect of our lives has evolved symbiotically with the era of cheap fossil fuels? Worst of all, if the climate is indeed changing too quickly for our slow-moving adaptations to keep up, where will that leave us?

It’s no wonder that so many people feel paralyzed, unable to fix their minds on these questions. The mass media, with their perfect instinct for the Zeitgeist, contrive at all costs to keep us diverted. Our so-called leaders are no less implicated in this mass hypnosis; since their positions depend on keeping the myths alive and kicking, they’re not leading the way towards any new arrangements. And most people are just trying to make it through the day, unable to make much sense of things, maybe feeling that all is not right but seeing no clear alternatives.

Even those who feel impelled to act in some way to prepare for a worsening economy and more austere living conditions can get caught up in counterproductive narratives that end up by blunting the possibility of creating real meaningful change. One of the most paralyzing of these stories we tell ourselves is that we need to effect massive change at higher levels. All other things being equal, of course, if you can make widespread change that will affect large numbers of people or a big system, that’s a better use of your time than messing around on a small scale.

But all other things never are equal. The larger the system you try to intervene in, the greater the chances that it will overwhelm you, wear you down, or subtly cause you to alter your goals. The myth of ‘changing the system from within’ is a myth for the simple reason that more often the system will change you from within. This process is so slow and gentle that you might not know it’s happening — this is how social systems maintain their integrity through generations: by absorbing and digesting all reformist and radical tendencies, rendering them harmless by pressuring dissenters into adapting themselves to the system (often while still believing themselves to be in opposition to it).

To my thinking, the most powerful form of change-making is the type which is idiosyncratic to a local community but connected to broader trends. This type of action draws its strength from its rootedness in those struggles or efforts in the local scene which resonate with one’s family, friends, and neighbours; and from its relevance to and engagement with the global.

The flip-side of getting neutralized by taking on a huge system applies here, and it is the possibility of frittering away one’s time on tiny high-maintenance projects which affect only a handful of people or make change in a very small corner of the world. This fear of engaging in futile actions or of looking like an ineffectual fool undoubtedly gets in the way of huge amounts of amazing projects and stifles more human creativity than we can ever know about.

David Korten is a critic of the current economic system who writes and speaks about alternatives to globalization and large-scale economies. He was a recent speaker on Radio Ecoshock, a weekly radio program from Vancouver Co-op Radio. After listening to his speech on Radio Ecoshock, I found an older article by him, titled “The Big Picture: 5 Ways to Know if You’re Making a Difference”. Korten says that “successful social movements are emergent, evolving, radically self-organizing, and involve the dedicated efforts of many people, each finding the role that best uses his or her gifts and passions.” He rejects the idea that real change has to come from top-down managed social programs, and argues in favour of a diversity of approaches, an exuberance of tactics and methods, some of which might fail while others succeed.

He claims that the following are five characteristics of successful social change, any one of which indicates an approach which has a chance of effecting broad change while working at the grassroots, at least initially:

  1. Does [your work] help discredit a false cultural story fabricated to legitimize relationships of domination and exploitation and to replace it with a true story describing unrealized possibilities for growing the real wealth of healthy communities?
  2. Is it connecting others of the movement’s millions of leaders who didn’t previously know one another, helping them find common cause and build relationships of mutual trust that allow them to speak honestly from their hearts and to know that they can call on one another for support when needed?
  3. Is it creating and expanding liberated social spaces in which people experience the freedom and support to experiment with living the creative, cooperative, self-organizing relationships of the new story they seek to bring into the larger culture?
  4. Is it providing a public demonstration of the possibilities of a real-wealth economy?
  5. Is it mobilizing support for a rule change that will shift the balance of power from the people and institutions of the Wall Street phantom-wealth economy to the people and institutions of living-wealth Main Street economies?

Next time around I’ll unpack this and apply it to a local project which I believe has huge potential to create vast amounts of positive energy in the region while connecting our efforts to others elsewhere.

Texada’s solid waste conundrum

By Tom Read

Texada’s forests, streams and lakes are notably pollution-free, and I hope we keep ‘em that way by dealing responsibly with our solid waste. Here's a 2007 photo I took of Case Lake, which feeds Rumbottle Creek, which in turn empties into the sea at Raven Bay.

Texada’s forests, streams and lakes are notably pollution-free, and I hope we keep ‘em that way by dealing responsibly with our solid waste. Here's a 2007 photo I took of Case Lake, which feeds Rumbottle Creek, which in turn empties into the sea at Raven Bay.

On Monday evening, Linda and I and about 20 other Texadans attended a presentation in Gillies Bay about the future of solid waste in our region. Officially it’s called the draft Powell River Regional District Solid Waste Management Plan and its duration is 2009 to 2019. Now, I know that’s not a sexy topic for many readers, but it has serious implications for Texada Island and the Powell River region. So I hope you’ll bear with me for at least a few paragraphs.

The plan’s goal is “working toward zero waste,” a realistic recognition that eliminating waste is desirable but not easy to achieve. Just so you know what we’re talking about here, the term “solid waste” refers to lots of things, including household garbage and trash, construction debris, all sorts of recyclable materials, and organic matter, especially food waste. In fact, food waste alone accounts for about 30% of our region’s total solid waste, and it is fairly shocking to realize that this is the single largest category of waste that we produce.

The presentation didn’t break out food waste for Texada, but I doubt that the 30% regional figure applies to us. My sense, based on being an active member of the community here for nearly 10 years, is that Texadans do a lot of composting and feeding of kitchen scraps to domestic animals. So I believe that the amount of food waste is less here than in “urban” Powell River. Since the plan’s overall goal is to eliminate waste, and since food waste is the single biggest category of waste in the region, it should come as no surprise that the plan recommends more backyard composting if it can be done without attracting bears (not a Texada problem, since we don’t have bears here), along with possible construction of a centralized $2.6 million composting facility.

Texadans will be expected to help pay for the feasibility study for this regional facility, since it’s claimed that Texada could benefit. How? Well, the consultant on Monday evening proposed that Texada, since it has no bears, might be a good location for the region’s centralized composting facility, “transportation notwithstanding.”

Ah, yes, transportation. Leaving aside the question of whether Texada makes sense as a possible location for a regional composting centre, there’s no denying that our island is quite dependent on ferry transportation for nearly everything, including moving our waste off the island. And that’s where the plan worries me. During the next 10 years, the plan calls for greatly reducing export of waste from the region as a whole, but it assumes that Texada will continue to export its solid waste to Powell River. Given what we’ve heard from Texada’s Ferry Advisory Committee members about potential increases in ferry fares during the next few years, let alone by 2019, we islanders could see a significant increase in our waste disposal costs.  More illegal dumping could be the result.

Ferry fares, and transportation costs in general, tend to parallel the price of oil. It’s way beyond my expertise to forecast the next oil price spike, but I think we’ll need an on-island solution for processing our solid waste sometime in the next 10 years.  Why? Because oil can increase in price much faster than new, strictly regulated solid waste management solutions can be implemented. This poses a conundrum for Texada and likely the region, too.

Fortunately, Texadans have a long history of creative problem-solving. I can envision a cooperative effort whereby Texadans consolidate our transport of solid waste to Powell River, perhaps starting informally among immediate neighbours. Just to be clear, I’m fully aware that Sunshine Disposal runs a reliable and affordable household waste collection service for Texadans who happen to live along its route. But the waste volume any one household can put in the tagged bags is limited, and there are times when a special trip to the Powell River transfer station (aka “the dump”) becomes necessary.

Some of us live off the beaten path altogether, so our only legal choices are to burn our waste or take it to Powell River. I tried burning household waste years ago and found it a smelly, polluting and time-consuming experience, so now we make the dump run to Powell River a couple times a year. There’s no reason islanders couldn’t cut transport costs by coordinating trips with friends and neighbours, which is now easier than before thanks to this website recently created by a Texada community volunteer, Tom Scott. Cooperation builds community and avoids raising our taxes to pay for consultant-driven solutions.

We might also learn something from our neighbour, Lasqueti Island.

Lasqueti already has a landfill exclusively for its local residents. Unfortunately, that landfill wasn’t built to present BC standards, and it might be prohibitively costly for upgrades to conform with provincial regulations. I’m told by our Regional District staff, however, that a new solid waste management plan for Lasqueti is pending but not yet ready for public release. Texada is considerably larger than Lasqueti in population, transportation services and physical size, but we might benefit by observing how our neigbours resolve their waste disposal problem.

The transportation issue remains my overall reservation about the plan, even though as noted above there are potential ways we could cope with it. I’ve also got a few quibbles regarding the plan’s treatment of illegal dumping and its view of glass as mere trash. But on the whole, the proposed plan looks quite positive. I like its emphasis on reducing waste in the first place, especially from over-packaging. In our household we’re already starting to do that by removing excess packaging in the store in Powell River, taking home only the product. Another positive approach is to reuse containers, such as re-filling our pharmaceutical prescriptions in the same bottle (adding a new label each time).  One of the reasons we support Pharmasave in Powell River is because its owner, Wanda, encourages such re-use and recycling wherever possible.

Solid waste is a constant fact of modern life. Thus, the plan’s provision for an ongoing volunteer monitoring committee staffed by a part-time “waste coordinator” will keep this un-sexy but vital topic continuously visible in our region and allow new solutions to be developed more quickly. Maybe it’ll even help solve the Texada solid waste conundrum.

The challenges of a 50-mile diet

By David Parkinson

Seeds of the red orach, one of the surprise hits of the Edible Garden Tour

Seeds of red orach, one of the surprise hits of our garden during the Edible Garden Tour

We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?
(Wendell Berry)

We’re just about halfway through the 50 days of this year’s 50-mile eat-local challenge, which goes from Sunday August 9 until Sunday September 27. On August 9 we held the first ever Edible Garden Tour, which showcased thirteen gardens from Lund down to Lang Bay where people are using a variety of techniques to grow food in a variety of conditions. From backyard lasagna gardening experiments to a demonstration garden and a community garden, and with all kinds of gardens in between, it was a really good opportunity for gardeners and would-be gardeners to see how other people are tackling the eat-local challenge by eating as locally as possible.

This is the third year that I’ve been involved in organizing the eat-local challenge; in fact, the famous ’50-mile diet’ was one of the first things I knew about Powell River before I moved up here in late 2006. And one thing I’ve noticed is that there are far more people eating locally than you might know from the number of people who sign up. In fact, quite a lot of people, when asked if they want to sign themselves up for the eat-local challenge, say something along the lines of, “But I eat locally all the time!” I’m sure that many people out there reading this can understand that response, since the idea of eating locally is really a part of the culture here, at least for a significant chunk of the regional population who have homesteading in their personal or their family’s history — or for those like me who moved here with the intent of getting closer to the sources of our food.

Another theme which has really jumped out at me this year is the number of people who feel that the eat-local challenge needs to be kicked up a notch. After all, just about anyone can go 50 days in the height of summer eating something like half of their daily food from sources within 50 miles of where they live; this is not entirely without some challenges and a certain amount of effort, but it can be done and it’s not a terrible hardship. But just try doing it in the winter! In the summertime, you can go to the Open Air Market, to numerous farmgates, and you can find local food at the fruit truck and at some of the grocery stores. In the winter, though, if you haven’t taken steps to put food by, you’re going to have a hard time finding local produce at any price. The upshot is that a wintertime eat-local challenge has to start in the summertime, while fresh food is abundant and while there’s time to plan and plant a winter garden. Of course, many people are busy right now canning, freezing, drying, and pickling, which are age-old techniques for preserving the harvest for leaner times. But if we were serious about eating local food year round, we’d all have to be doing this, and in serious quantities. Instead, we rely on the grocery stores to get us through the winter.

And this doesn’t even touch on all the foods that we don’t grow here, or grow in such small quantities that it barely counts:

  • Meat, dairy, poultry: I’m putting these at the top of the list, because — although we can obviously produce them here and in pretty serious quantities if need be — the government in its wisdom has seen fit to clamp down on small-scale production of animal products. This situation is still unresolved, and constitutes on of the most serious obstacles to a local food economy. What are we supposed to be doing about this situation? Will the grocery stores always supply our needs?
  • Grains: Imagine the amount of wheat, corn, oats, and other grains consumed here every day. Should we even be trying to grow these here? Many people are interested, and I am seeing some interest in a local grain CSA. Is it feasible? Can we produce these grains at anything like a reasonable cost?
  • Beans: A similar situation, except that beans are pretty easy to grow here. Although the amounts required are enormous. How can we approach the sort of commercial scale required to make a real farming enterprise out of this? Again, can it ever be economically realistic to do so?
  • Oils: Sunflowers certainly grow well here, and of course animals can provide oils for some uses. But again, imagine the amount of production needed to supply the needs of the region. How did people handle this in the days before importation of almost all food? I’m guessing that lard and other animal fats were pretty much a staple.
  • Spices, tropical/sub-tropical fruits & cocoa, coffee, etc.: There are some foods that we cannot grow here. That’s always been the case and always will be. We can try to find substitutes, or we can accept that no region can ever be completely self-reliant.

When you take a look at a list like this, imagine the amount of food passing through the tills of the grocery stores in the region, and then contrast that with the puny amounts of food produced locally, it’s enough to make your head spin. Are we even producing 1% of our local consumption? I’m not sure it adds up to even that minuscule percentage. But just because the task ahead of us looks Herculean, that’s no reason not to tackle it. The question you have to ask yourself is: why should we care? Why not continue to rely on the amazing global food industry, which brings us food from around the world at all times of the year?

What motivates the people who commit to eating locally, whether for 50 days at the height of the summer or all year round? I believe that for many of the people who make a commitment to local food, it’s worth growing, preserving, and hunting down local food for many reasons. But not the least of these reasons is the pure satisfaction — which is at heart an aesthetic pleasure — of connecting in the most primeval way possible with our surroundings. A strawberry from the garden certainly tastes more delicious than a strawberry from the grocery store, protected during its world travels by a pathetic plastic clamshell. But the strawberry also tastes better, and pleases us on a deeper level, because it is the fruit of our very own soil. It is as much a part of the place we live in and care for as we are. There is something genuinely spiritual about this connection to our food, and sadly this is a connection that many people have lost or have never had. The fight to save local food (and it is a fight, make no mistake) comes from the desire to save something whose passing from the world can never be replaced: the wonder of bringing our food into being, caring for it, harvesting it and preserving it, and creating meals that sustain our bodies and our spirits. The cultural importance of these activities is huge, but like so many things in our world, they get swamped in discussions of economics and efficiency.

Eating locally is an act of cultural preservation. And I think that most of the people who are drawn to the eat-local challenge understand this on some level, even if they’re not easily able to express it. And that’s why it is not going to stop growing, getting a little bigger and more visible each year. It’s a long game, but we have nothing to lose but the best food in the world.

I will never own a car (ask me why!)

By David Parkinson

One of the places in the bike's drive train where radial energy is translated into linear energy.

One of the places in the bike's drive train where linear motion is translated into radial motion (or vice versa). Elegant and efficient.

I’ve got a bike,
You can ride it if you like,
It’s got a basket, a bell that rings
And things to make it look good.
I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it.
(Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett [1946-2006])

Sometimes I wonder what percentage of the North American population makes it to the age of 47 without ever having owned a car. 10%? 5%? 2%? I have no idea. Certainly not many, although the number may be about to start rising and never stop.

I got my driver’s license as quickly as I could once I turned 16. I loved having the use of the parental car to get around and see friends, since many of my high-school friends lived all over Toronto. As a boy, I was pretty fascinated by cars of all kinds, and I expected that — like any normal person — I would soon have a car of my own. And then I left home.

For many years, I was too poor to think about buying and maintaining a car. And luckily during those lean years I was living in Ottawa and Montréal, cities which both have excellent public-transit systems which I used extensively. Shortly after I moved to Montréal in 1986, I bought myself a bicycle, an 18-speed Peugeot which cost more than I could easily afford, but I used it a lot to get from Pointe St-Charles, the down-and-out working class neighbourhood between the Canal Lachine and the Fleuve St-Laurent, all the way up to Côte-des-Neiges, where I worked, and then up to l’Université de Montréal, pretty much at the top of the city. I loved that bike. And then it was stolen during some hockey-related mayhem in 1989 (I think after the Canadiens lost the Stanley Cup to the Calgary Flames).

Among my circle of friends and acquaintances who lived in Montréal at that time, I can think of only one who owned a car. For the most part, people were able to walk or take a bus or the Métro just about anywhere and at any time. For longer trips there was the Greyhound buses and trains. I cannot remember one time when I really wished I owned a car. I especially rejoiced in not owning a car when I would hear the sounds of a vehicle being towed away for being on the wrong side of the street and preventing street-cleaning or snow removal.

I bought another bike not long after losing my Peugeot, a very slick Bianchi mountain bike with Biopace chainwheel, which was the newest geeky hardware. Not long after that, I moved to Ithaca, New York, where I lived down in the town and had to get to campus every day up a long hill. Much of the time, though, I ended up walking in snow and rain. But when the weather was nice and not too hellaciously hot, I would slog up that hill in the morning and then get to sail home downhill all the way.

Six years later, I moved to Seattle and for some reason put my bike into storage. There was a moment, right before I made the move, when I was seriously considering buying a car, because I expected that I would need one to commute from home to work. But by that time I was beginning to enjoy the challenge of non-car-ownership: I was becoming more conscious at that time of the serious environmental downsides to widespread car use, and willing to put effort into going without a car so long as that was feasible. So I commuted by bus for a number of months, and then discovered the joys of vanpooling and carpooling. We were lucky to have friends whose cars we could borrow if we needed to do errands requiring something bigger than a backpack. Otherwise, we walked a lot in that very walkable city.

Still, I was not using my bike at all. I tried to bike to work a couple times, but that was about 28 miles and required me to get on the road at an ungodly hour. So that experiment didn’t work out.

And now I live in Powell River, a very small city with very large potential for bikeability. I use my bike to get around everywhere, mainly but not exclusively within city limits. There are some aspects of biking around here that I am not so happy about, one of them being the sometimes inexplicable reaction from car (and truck) drivers. Some of them come up so close beside me that I wonder if they see me at all. Others pull this really irritating stunt where they hang back in my blind spot — or so they think, but I have a rearview mirror and I can see what they’re up to — and then wait for the right moment when they can pull way over to the left, sometimes right into the oncoming lane, pound on the gas pedal, and roar by me. Hey, thanks!

Sometimes I’ll walk into a store or office and someone will say something like, “Good for you, biking on a day like today.” (I usually get this in the wintertime, or during other periods of crummy weather.) But I don’t feel particularly virtuous about riding my bike, since I don’t have much choice. The thing I do feel virtuous about is not having a car. And even that, to be honest, I don’t really congratulate myself for. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to choose not to own a car. It would be different if I had children, or a job which I needed to commute to, or a physical disability, or any number of good reasons to need to use a car frequently. There are real disadvantages to not owning a car, and I simply need to live with those. I believe that for my situation and physical abilities, I have no need to own a car. I don’t expect to own a car, although I might end up owning a piece of a shared vehicle at some point in the future when I can no longer bike everywhere I need to go.

Car ownership provides certain obvious benefits. But the costs are very real too, and assuming that the cost of oil will continue to rise into the foreseeable future, these costs will take a larger bite out of an ever-shrinking average household budget. For some people, the cost of car ownership already exceeds the benefits. I believe that this is going to be the case for more and more people over the next months and years. But not many of those people are ready, able, or willing to use a bike to get around. Ditching the car in a world built for cars is hard. Some can do that, and more will be giving it a go.

I expect to see much more interest in bikes, conventional and electric, over the next few years. A bicycle is far and away the best way of traveling short distances. The drawbacks come from weather, road conditions, aggressive drivers, and people’s physical limitations. But these can be overcome to a large extent. The problem is that all of our attention goes to making the roads car-ready, and very little goes to making the roads ready for alternative, low-cost, healthy modes of transportation.

Some of the infrastructure we’ll need to put in place:

  • Dedicated bike lanes;
  • More places to buy and repair bikes;
  • A community cooperative workshop with parts, tools, and skilled technicians;
  • More and better ways of integrating bikes and buses, cars, light rail, etc., so that longer journeys are feasible;
  • Incentives for shared car ownership and/or regular bike use.

A good place to start would be a regional bike club. Anyone want to start one?

As car ownership becomes less feasible for more people, they will be looking for alternatives. Increased bicycle use is one of many likely avenues worth exploring. The days of single ownership of fossil-fuel-burning vehicles are numbered. And we’ll be doing well to start investigating the options which will allow people to get around, work, and take care of their families. It will be a slow transition, but a steady one, and we’re not ready yet.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This recent podcast from Vancouver Cooperative Radio‘s Redeye program has an interview with one of the curators of the Velo-City show at the Museum of Vancouver, which runs until September 7, 2009. Worth a listen, and the show sounds worth seeing if you’re in Vancouver.

The elements of resilience

By David Parkinson
(Updated April 16, 2009 & April 20, 2009)

Western Skunk Cabbage: spreads underground, produces heat to melt away the snow, uses its odour to attract pollinators in order to ensure its reproduction. Edible, useful, and beautiful.

Western Skunk Cabbage: spreads underground, produces heat to melt away the snow, uses its odour to attract pollinators in order to ensure its reproduction. Edible, useful, and beautiful.

The future — the sustainable future where we survive will not be created by those who invented the world we have just lost and are reluctantly giving it up, while salvaging as much of their privilege from the ruins as they can. It will be invented by people who have only each other to lose and understand that, in the coming era of chaos, collapse, and reconstruction, we will find support, security, comfort, and solutions within the context of communities — on the ground, online, overlapping, and emerging.
(Chip Ward, from the introduction to “After the Green Economy, Green Security: How to Build Resilient Communities in a Chaotic World“)

In an earlier post, I talked a little bit about resilience and why I see this as an even more important goal than sustainability. I believe that the work that lies ahead of us consists of finding ways to grow back some of the resilience we have lost over the past half-century or so.

The economy we have right now is very fragile. We can see this in the collapse of some of its largest institutions and sectors: banks, insurers, real estate, car manufacturers, and the stock market. Closer to home, we see the slow and steady collapse of the forestry industry. We keep hearing that these sectors are “too big to fail” when what we should be saying is “too big to be allowed to fail”. And the solution to these failures? Throw more money at the problems and hope that that will somehow fix the underlying sickness causing supposedly robust and central pillars of the economy to fall apart. If you think that we can pay or pray our way out of systemic failure, then I envy you. I don’t think it’s going to be so easy.

I think a lot about this “too big to fail” syndrome in the context of our food system. Thanks to cheap fossil fuels and centralized production, processing, and distribution, we in North America have a food system which is the envy of the rest of the world. Our supermarket shelves are piled high with products of all kinds from everywhere on the planet. We can eat just about anything we want at any time. Obesity is more of a problem than starvation.

But the hidden downside of this abundance is an increasingly fragile system dependent on a continuing supply of fossil fuels for fertilizer, machinery, transportation, processing, refrigeration, and more transportation to the nearest supermarket. None of this would be possible without an ever-shrinking number of players in the food game: huge multinational conglomerates which control many steps in the food chain from seed supply to packaging. These corporations are becoming “too big to fail”, but there is no reason to think that their growth can be sustained for very much longer.

I believe, as a matter of principle, that control over our food supply should be in the people’s hands as much as possible. And I believe that we have surrendered too much control to corporations which do not have our interests at heart. Before the situation becomes an emergency, we need to take back as much control as possible.

Luckily, many people here and elsewhere are working hard to rebuild local food economies in communities all around the world, and to push back gently but firmly against total corporate control of the food supply. There are all kinds of efforts around here, from the Open Air Market to the 50-mile diet challenge to backyard gardening to canning, mixed farming, permaculture, and plenty of other good and important work. Everyone involved in these little efforts will admit that we have a long way to go before we have a truly resilient local food economy, but they are doing their part towards that goal.

So, what I’d like to do is think a little about some of the features of a resilient system, using a local food economy as an example. These are some of the goals we should be aiming for in the region; the details of how we achieve these goals are less important than keeping the image of resilience in mind as we start to develop new projects and new ways of producing, processing, preserving, preparing, and sharing food locally. (These aspects of resilience are in no particular order.)

Diversity

The local food economy contains many parts and performs many functions.
Example: Food is being produced in backyard gardens, neighbourhood gardens, community gardens, cooperative kitchens and canning facilities, market gardeners, mixed farmers, and specialized operations (greenhouses, orchards, vineyards, livestock, etc.). Knowledge about producing, processing, and preparing healthy locally-available food is widespread throughout the region.
Result: The local food economy provides adequately for local needs and is able to withstand serious shocks and disruptions without immediately leading to panic, hoarding, and hunger. People can afford to eat very well under normal circumstances, and can continue to eat under adverse circumstances.

Dispersion

The parts of the local food economy are spread around geographically and permeate many sectors of the community.
Example: Every neighbourhood has resources which supply people with local food, whether it’s a farm gate, cooperative, food store, community kitchen, or whatever. Specialized sectors of the community such as churches, schools, social clubs, etc. have their own pieces of the local food economy which serve the needs of that sector. All ages, ethnicities, and people with special dietary needs or wants are well served.
Result: Everyone is woven into the local food economy and can easily access the food and information they need to eat well.

Redundancy

Each function of the local food economy is performed by more than one part of the system.
Example: Canning happens in the home, in neighbourhood groups, commercially on the small scale as well as on the larger scale (possibly for export outside the region).
Result: If one part of the food economy gets knocked out, there are many others still performing its functions.

Multifunctionality

Each part of the local food economy performs more than one function.
Example: Neighbourhood groups can come together to exchange knowledge; pool resources to purchase, produce, or process food in bulk; create cooperative business opportunities; provide healthy meals for low-income people; tend each other’s gardens; and so on.
Result: No parts of the local food economy are putting all their eggs in one basket, and can easily adapt to changes in local needs, productive capacity, and shifts in the market.

Adaptability

Parts of the local food economy are able to change their functions and goals quickly.
Example: Small, inexpensive, easily replicated experiments proliferate throughout the region, testing out new methods in food production, processing, and preservation. Growers and processors are more easily able to shift their output towards the more lucrative or necessary ones.
Result: The local food economy is cushioned against disruption or rapid shifts in supply or demand; fewer business failures.

Non-hierarchy

As much as possible, parts of the local food economy connect to each other as equals.
Example: Producers’ cooperatives and other less formal groups work together to  maximize productive output and ensure a fair price for goods; consumers’ cooperatives work to support local producers and provide high-quality food at affordable prices. Barter among and within these cooperatives takes the form of food, labour, or other goods or services.
Result: People have a high degree of control over the local food economy. Every part of the local food economy succeeds to some extent when one part succeeds; no one player becomes “too big to fail”.

Openness

Information circulates quickly and freely among the parts of the local food economy.
Example: New techniques and labour- or cost-saving devices are shared or bartered. The common good is respected and recognized as an essential part of a resilient regional economy. Anyone can involve themselves where their skills or interest are most needed.
Result: Everyone can understand how their food is produced and prepared and how it gets to the table. The local food system is not a mystery.

This fairly abstract overview just scratches the surface of resilience and how it might play out in our local food economy. The bottom line is that we need to shift our whole way of thinking, talking, and planning for the future of this region. Continuing to rely on a relatively small number of producers and retailers is dangerous; the danger may not be acute now, but the global food supply shows no signs of becoming more resilient — and how can it? It’s another top-heavy, centralized, hierarchical system consisting of a huge number of highly specialized companies hooked together in a non-flexible way. We need to be doing what we can now to move away from reliance on that system. As E.F. Schumacher famously said, “Small is beautiful“.

Unfortunately, we tend to seek a privatized market solution to every problem we recognize. And that works in some cases, but not in all. We need to create more opportunities for non-corporatized solutions based on barter, local currencies, and the free exchange of goods and services in a gift economy. These may sound like crazy ideas right now, but large-scale capitalism itself is looking increasingly like a crazy idea. A system based on giving profit to private corporations and individuals while sticking the public with the risks and the consequences of pollution and environmental devastation can only go on for so long. It’s brittle and top-heavy and prone to catastrophic and widespread failures. As it winds down we’re going to need proper working models to take over its functions and provide for human needs and desires. These models will naturally be more resilient and we can work hard to design even more resilience into them. In future posts I’ll look at local seeds of resilience that we can expand and connect to other parts of the economy, and at real-world models of resilience that we could adapt to our needs in this region.

Update (April 16, 2009): This post from John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog discusses another characteristic of resilience, which he calls scale invariance:

Essentially, scale invariance means that across all scaling factors (large, medium, small, tiny, etc.), the properties that define the whole are conserved (intelligence, mobility, form, productivity, etc.).

This is the missing piece in the argument that resilience needs to be built up at every level: not just that of the region, in our case, but from the individual on up through the household/family, peer group, neighbourhood, and so on. Only by having resilient individuals and families and other smaller groupings can you achieve genuine resilience at the higher levels we usually think of as most important (because those are the levels at which we elect people who we pretend are fully responsible for our well-being).

Update (April 20, 2009): Jamais Cascio, of the Open the Future blog, has a little article in the May/June 2009 issue of Foreign Policy magazine in which he lays out some of the differences between sustainability and resilience.

Block at a Glance

By Giovanni Spezzacatena

Community is a series of repeating elements, with differences.

Community is a series of repeating elements, with differences.

A look at Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging:

Overall Premise: Build the social fabric and transform the isolation within our community into connectedness and caring for the whole. Shift our conversations from the problems of the community to the possibility of community. Commit to create a future distinct from the past.

The Context for a Restorative Community: The existing community context is one that markets fear, assigns fault, and worships self-interest. This context supports the belief that the future will be improved with new laws, more oversight, and stronger leadership. The new context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, rather than one of fear, mistakes and self-interest. Citizens become powerful when they choose to shift the context within which they act in the world. Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness are created through associational life, where citizens are unpaid and show up by choice, rather than in large systems where professionals are paid and show up by contractual agreement.

Audiophiles: here is a 15-minute audio excerpt from Block’s book., and a more substantial 1 hour interview (mind the interviewer).

Block’s book and interviews discuss many aspects of community and leadership that focus on “possibilities”: the possibility of sustainability, of a society that cares for itself and others, of full employment of people’s talents and skills, to create stronger communities.  One very practical focus is on how our meetings can be conducted to create meaningful outcomes. Some of these seem to make so much sense, that I have become really suspicious as to why meetings are generally not held this way. Then again — looking around at all sorts of disabling infrastructure we’ve built for ourselves on every level — it does seem that the ‘full-steam-ahead’ approach has been favored over thoughtful purposefulness.

So, here are some tips on meetings in very short form that I have gathered and paraphrased from Block’s book:

  • Level the playing field: avoid the stage/audience separation. Everyone on the same level, literally. Leaders cannot allow themselves to be part of an elite group: their job is to convene and engage the community. Elevating themselves as paternalistic forces for good does them and the community a disservice.
  • Meet in a room with windows and natural light (preferably on 2 sides), with a view, with plants (real or plastic), art on the walls, swivel chairs for all, and a round table (no more than 8 ft in diameter), or similar arrangement of chairs. Make sure people can be heard (use microphones if needed).
  • Even in a large group, have small meetings with 12 people or so in each group, producing a ‘network of networks’. This way, individuals feel they can have their say, and that what they say matters.
  • Each group is facilitated by a ‘leader’, but the leader is there to keep things on track and provide a literal and allegorical “space” and not to provide a vision or example. The leader provides the space and the good question.  No one knows what the other groups have as their question.
  • Late arrivals must be acknowledged, and early departures as well– departures are a loss to the group, and as such they have to be taken seriously. Ask all participants to not sneak out but to voice their reasons for leaving. Remove their empty chair once they are gone to reduce real underlying feelings of loss.
  • Have the members of these smaller groups introduce themselves, their gifts, and why they are there to do deal with a good question. The Good Question deals with possibility and gifts: what would we like to see/do and what can I give toward this goal in terms of my gifts & commitment?
  • Think of the gathering as a work of community art; ask at the beginning of the meeting if anyone would like to recite or share a song/ joke/ poem… If the meeting concludes with a ‘document’ that can be held up or preserved, even better.
  • Provide good food at your gatherings– sharing food is so primal, and actual food (i.e. raw fruit/vegetables, pure water, juice, as local as possible) as opposed to donuts and coffee sets up a crucial aspect of community gathering. Pot-lucks are great ideas, as long as nobody feels they are excluded if they can’t cook or afford to bring food.
  • Welcome the participants with a clear presentation of why you are all there: the possibility you wish to pursue.
  • The important thing is to not dwell on the problems of the community, but on the possibility of community. The idea here is that if the community is strong, this will in itself solve what seem to be the insurmountable problems of the community. This reminds me of the fact that only weak garden plants attract the attention of damaging bugs. The creation of community through each and every meeting/gathering/association is the ultimate goal. The community’s strength and vitality will attract only good things.
  • Leave room for dissent, and handle it carefully, but avoid trying to control the world. If a person has a problem with an issue, then that should be out in the open, and accepted. Saying no to a stance is as useful as commitment. Lip service is the opposite of commitment.
  • We have as a 21st century Western society, a sort of “Expertitis” (my pseudo-word): we give up our control to experts in whatever field (and usually from outside our community), to tell us what to do.  We outsource our problems and hope for ‘big daddy/mama’ to take care of them. When ‘big daddy/mama’ invariably fails, we think that changing government will fix that problem. How about if we change and develop a community that ‘big daddy/mama’ will support… and they will, too. because it makes them look good, and maybe because they also want to be part of a bigger movement.
  • Nurture compassion. A commitment to empathy is the only way community will heal itself and survive.

I think that the points above will help facilitate a gathering that goes somewhere valuable.

We’re all community developers now

By David Parkinson

The apricot tree in our backyard is blossoming already... and we're back on Daylight Savings Time... spring is surely here.

The apricot tree in our backyard is blossoming already, we're back on Daylight Savings Time, and Seedy Saturday is coming. Yes, spring is surely here!

What do you do? Nowadays, if people ask me what I do — which mainly happens when I go back to Toronto, where I was born and grew up — the closest I can come to a coherent response is to say, “I’m a community developer.” And since I’m still very new to this sort of work, I can still feel the gulf between those two words and the reality of what it is that I am trying to do in my two paid gigs (food security, literacy) and the many unpaid littler gigs and games I’m involved in around the community. But somehow “community developer” sounds about right.

Why do we need community developers? As with so many things in our society, we have taken a bundle of capacities that were once widely shared around, and we have ‘professionalized’ this by converting it into expert knowledge that comes from formal education or from having a job title attached to you because of what you do for your money. And so we suggest that regular folks no longer have that skill — that only professionals do. That sends the message that this is not the sort of work one does for free; it’s someone else’s job to take care of it. And so it goes… all the little things that used to keep a community together have been done away with, outsourced, or turned into problems that only experts can solve. So we have special people like me, called “community developers”, and maybe we think that that means that no one else needs to do that work.

We all need to become community developers. Everything I see going on around me makes me certain that this funny, ill-defined job of community developer is about to start becoming much more widespread. After many years of allowing our communities to slide away from us, there is a renewed interest in rebuilding what has been lost — and maybe to start building some of the things we never had. So right now we have people in the community whose job it is to try to ‘develop’ the community; but more and more we’re going to have people doing this work because it’s the only way to get things done. We won’t be developing the community because we are ‘community developers’, but because the natural result of the work we do and the way we get it done will be stronger community.

Why now? I’ll tell you what I think is going on. (Your mileage may vary.) The market and other major systems at the centre of our society are failing — and they’re failing fast. We have some huge problems staring us in the face which are now starting to cause trouble for our economy and our political structures: namely, climate chaos and resource depletion (peak oil and peak everything-else). And underneath these problems are more basic problems like overpopulation, the failure of Western governments to regulate the financial sector, and rapacious globalized capitalism. And underneath those problems are even more basic ones, and so on and so on until we get down to your choice for Ultimate Source of All the World’s Problems (USAWP). (We won’t go there now, but let’s go there in some future post.)

It’s problems all the way down. I don’t really have one chosen USAWP. And for now the real question is: OK, so we have all of these problems, and we can talk about them or explain them on many levels, from the concrete and superficial all the way down to the very profound and abstract. So what? Aren’t we at the point where it’s just not enough to talk about this or that problem? They’re getting to be a dime a dozen in this best of all possible worlds.

What about solutions? Well, no surprise here: it’s solutions all the way down too. And, like problems, solutions come in different flavours: from the more superficial, quick-fix kind of solutions down to the really fundamental solutions. I’m much more interested in long-term, deep solutions; the kind of solutions that we can call radical (from the Latin word radix, meaning ‘root’), since they go to the root of the matter. Our leaders — both the elected kind and the self-selected kind — tend to think in terms of superficial solutions. (They can’t help themselves; it’s part of the game of leadership that radical solutions are off the table.) But I believe that our culture’s resistance to radical solutions is weakening, because the usual stopgaps are no longer working and everyone knows it. Get ready for the shake-up!

What’s a good radical solution? Getting back to this talk of community development, I believe that one really good place to put a lot of effort is in rebuilding the informal networks of family, friends, neighbours, and associations that go to make up community. One of the reasons my husband and I moved to Powell River was because we could see some of these changes coming and we wanted to be in a place with stronger existing community networks. And we found that here. But we all still need to rebuild and strengthen the fabric of the community. I have some ideas about how to do that; probably you have some ideas too. So how can we rub our ideas together to produce sparks? The trick is to create opportunities for us to come together to have free-flowing conversations about the future we want to build together. We need common efforts, small-scale and low-overhead ones, simple and resilient ones, which bring people together around common goals and create ties of friendship and mutual aid. I see a lot of this going on now, and we need more and more of it.

Developing community is a radical solution. And that is because it is a precondition to many other solutions to various problems we face: without a strong and supportive community, it’s going to be tough to start and sustain projects like regional composting, backyard-sharing, car cooperatives, co-housing, community kitchens, and many of the other good ideas that are out there. I believe that we need to do the deeper work at the level of the community before we can expect success in more specific efforts. This is not to say that we should not work on these specific projects, but we need to make sure that each one of them has a community-building component built into them. Projects that strengthen community networks are more likely to keep going, because they will be continually rebuilding and refreshing the community networks they depend on. Projects ‘airlifted in’ without the full consent and cooperation of the community will not succeed in the long run, because they will not automatically create a community of supporters and champions to keep the project running no matter what. This may sound very basic and obvious, but it is not.

How can we develop community? I don’t have the answer to that. This is a question that we need to work out a common answer to. But I can say that I see a lot of effort percolating around the region, some of it in the area of local food production, but also in other areas that directly respond to the challenges of climate chaos, resource depletion, and an uncertain global economy. I am optimistic that these small efforts and networks are going to start getting bigger, stronger, more ambitious and more successful over the next few years. We all need to involve more people in what we’re doing. Start a little project and hope it grows. Talk to more people. Spread the word. Hold potlucks. Teach somebody something. Keep learning. Find ways to start a conversation in the community — about the community. Never give up the right to imagine a future different from the one presented to us by our leaders. Demand more choices. Keep telling our leaders what we want to see. We need to get rid of the notion that community is something that happens by itself once every individual’s problems have been solved. The opposite is closer to the truth: when we work on community, we solve individuals’ problems: the desire for meaning; the desire to be working and playing with other people; the desire to be contributing to something larger than what one person can accomplish alone.

What are we up against? One of the strongest forces we are up against is the mindset that expects every problem to have a ‘free-market’ or privatized solution. That has become such an entrenched way of thinking about everything we do that to suggest a cooperative or non-profit way of getting things done seems almost laughable. We need to work continually to open up spaces in the conversation for ideas that may seem on the fringe, but which are ideas that have served humans well for hundreds or thousands of years and are still working just fine outside the totally marketized Western world. If power means anything, it means the capacity to control the decision-making processes that determine who gets what. And so we need to keep demanding to be part of the decision-making. No one will let us have that; we need to take it — because it is ours. Remember: it gets harder to marginalize non-mainstream ideas in a time when mainstream ideas are being exposed as fraudulent and destructive. Now it’s time to see who can tell better stories about who we really are and where we’re all headed together.

Whew! I know. That’s a lot to process. But this a kind of high-altitude précis of some of the topics I intend to cover in my weekly ramblings, along with some more down-to-earth coverage of local events and initiatives. As we move into uncharted economic waters, we’re all going to have to learn new skills, connect with new people, and start new projects. And bubbling underneath all of that activity is going to be a rebirth of community and the development of a more resilient regional social network. We’re going to need that in the coming months and years, and it’s everyone’s job to work towards it — whether you call yourself a community developer or not.


Post facto

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