Changing Policy to Reflect Changing Times

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

– William Arthur Ward

From rapid deforestation to vast species extinction, heavily contaminated soil, water, and air, and anthropogenic climate change, we are living in an era of global quickening.  Changing weather patterns are occurring faster, to extreme degrees, shocking plant and animal species with unusual events, to the extent that now even the most uneducated layperson can visually and experientially understand what scientists have been warning of for several decades.  Regardless of why these changes are occurring, the fact is the Earth is changing, and if we have learned anything from the past lessons gleaned from fossils and glacial analysis of past climate change and mass species extinction it is imperative that we must adapt to these changes if we expect to survive.  With such rapid changes, we need to move beyond rhetorical questions of “is climate change real” and away from the optimistic apathy of “it will all work itself out” to active participation in physical solutions and adaptive behavior.  We need a shift in awareness of our own unconscious individual choices that result in actions that contribute to these problems to conscious decision making and action.  We need a shift in our collective community awareness that is translated into social and environmental policies that protect all living systems and reflect inherent value in Life itself.  We need policies on all levels, local, national, and global, immune to corporate pressures and financial temptation, policies that stand strong with integrity for the wellbeing for all, and not just those who can afford it.

Current approaches to addressing the complex web of environmental, social, and economic problems facing us today includes fining businesses and individuals, lodging complaints in public records, or filing lawsuits, but these don’t solve the root of the behavior that caused the problem in the first place.  It’s like swatting flies without removing the garbage they are breeding in.  True solutions to these anthropogenic problems are rooted in whole system thinking.  Here are just 2 examples of solutions that take a “whole system approach”:

 Problem:  Heavy industry polluting air and water supplies while producing excessive amounts of unrecycled materials that end up in vast landfills.

Solution:  Investment is needed in the innovation of scientists and systems designers to design a “soft” industrial model founded on recycling of all materials including cycling “wastes” back into the system, creating a net zero carbon footprint modeled off of the principles of nature itself.  Materials must biodegrade. Policies are needed that regulate the production of material items, assessing the true value of an item based upon its total environmental cost and benefit to humanity, resulting in the reduction of needless garbage and ecosystem degradation.  Policies are needed that place industries accountable for the garbage found in landfills and on sides of roads; it is this current system of industry whose name is littered across the highway.

 We live in an age of incredible technological knowledge and skill and the common person now walks around with powerful gadgets that are connected to satellites in space that enable them to communicate with anyone around the world.  We need to harness that innovation towards the development of technological systems that allow humans to enjoy the goods they want without sacrificing the rest of the Earth for them.  Innovation is needed in material engineering, to find low-cost options of degradable materials for items that are not intended to last a lifetime (a quick survey of national landfills would provide us with enough information as to which brands/companies need this innovation most).  Innovation is needed in mechanical engineering, to design filtration and production facilities that are manmade “green machines” that harness nature’s powerful tendencies to produce materials without emitting toxic wastes and chemicals.  We need innovation in architectural design that builds using natural patterns of stability and structural integrity, while installing internal systems that regulate the interior climate much like the body regulates its internal organs.  We need investment in education to make these innovations a national priority.

But before we can even do that, we need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions as a society.  Are the “goods” industries create even worth the “bad” they produce?  Do we really need these things?  What is the measure of worth we are basing value upon?  Why don’t we have any “checks and balances” for the inevitable quality of human greed?  If government is set up to protect its citizens, than these questions must be at the top of the list to consider, regardless of political fears of campaign finance monies being pulled.  Many government reforms need to be made, to bring the political process back to a state of transparency too seldom seen on The Hill.  To finance these critical investments in national innovation, we need to shift political priorities from where they currently stand, and invest in education and innovation to solve these great problems facing humanity.

Currently, for every tax dollar from 2011:

–  27% goes to fund military operations

–  21.4% goes to Medicare and Healthcare

–  14.5% goes to paying off our national debt

–  2.2% goes to social security, unemployment, and labor

–  4.5% goes to the government

–  4.4% goes to veteran’s benefits

4.3% goes to food & agriculture

– 3.9% goes to housing and community

–  2.5% goes to Education: Energy and Environment

–  1.3% goes to Transportation

–  1.2% goes to International Affairs

–  1% goes to Science  (www.nationalpriorities.org)

National security is rooted in the ability of a nation to protect and provide for itself.  Our security is at greatest risk with polluted water sources, artificial food sources, and ecosystem destruction, dangers we are doing to ourselves.  National security is at risk when our nation no longer invests in domestic jobs and local businesses.  By consolidating our understanding of “security” into terms that genuinely reflect the dangers facing humanity, and reforming the political process that allows for campaign finance contributions from powerful corporations (whose own self interests and profit margins are not in line with the greater good for the ecosystems they reap from), we can put national taxes to work on domestic innovations that serve multi-functions:  1) create long-term jobs, 2) restores ecosystems and reverses pollution, 3) produces perennial crops for food, fuel, fiber, pharmacopoeia, and animal fodder, 4) funds environmental education grounded in ecological science, 5) national security is secured by reduction of international conglomerate corporations exploiting international peoples and territories and by the domestic investment of all of the above.

Problem:  Massive corporate-owned mono-agriculture is depleting biodiversity with genetically modified organisms, and poisoning local water sources with contaminated soil erosion and agrochemicals, while local economies falter.

Solution:  Support local organic farmers who provide local employment, fresh food, and cultural nourishment to their communities as they support biodiversity of local wildlife and reduce carbon emissions through reduced transport of their goods and services; invest in the “crop insurance” of heirloom varieties that provide viable seeds for the following season; invest in perennial crops that can withstand fluxes in climate; invest in the education of new farmers that focuses on regenerative methods of agricultural production and ecosystem restoration.

The new 2012 Farm Bill was recently passed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  This five-year, $500 billion Farm Bill would eliminate direct payments to farmers, slash subsidies, bolster crop insurance, and consolidate conservation programs.  Committee chariwoman, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) commented, “By eliminating duplication, and streamlining and consolidating programs, we were able to continue investing in initiatives that help farmers and small businesses create jobs.”  As noted on the United States Committee for Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry newsroom, among the bill’s benefits are the following:

  • Eliminates direct payments. Farmers will no longer be paid for crops they are not growing, will not be paid for acres that are not actually planted, and will not receive support absent a drop in price or yields.
  • Consolidates two remaining farm programs into one, and will give farmers the ability to tailor risk management coverage—meaning better protection against real risks beyond a farmer’s control.
  • Strengthens crop insurance and expands access so farmers are not wiped out by a few days of bad weather.
  • Expanding export opportunities and helping farmers develop new markets for their goods.
  • Investing in research to help commercialize new agricultural innovations.
  • Growing bio-based manufacturing (businesses producing goods in America from raw agricultural products grown in America) by allowing bio-manufacturers to participate in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture loan programs, expanding the BioPreferred labeling initiative, and strengthening a procurement preference so the U.S. government will select bio-based products when purchasing needed goods.
  • Spurring advancements in bio-energy production, supporting advanced biomass energy production such as cellulosic ethanol and pellets from woody biomass for power.
  • Helping family farmers sell locally by increasing support for farmers’ markets and spurring the creation of food hubs to connect farmers to schools and other community-based consumers.
  • Extending rural development initiatives to help rural communities upgrade infrastructure and create an environment for small businesses to grow (Stabenow 2012).

As positive as many of these changes are, many believe that this important bill missed an opportunity to truly address the systems of agriculture in theUnited States.  Craig Cox, Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Environmental Working Group said, “The 2012 farm bill should do more to support family farmers, protect the environment, promote healthy diets and support working families…It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses” (Folimer 2012).  Indeed, with so much influence from lobbying agribusinesses in Washington D.C., the voices of the local farmer who is struggling to keep the farm that was passed down for generations is often lost.  The concern is too much emphasis is being placed on “crop insurance” while GMO seeds with “suicide genes” engineered into their DNA is used in large, conventional agriculture.  As farmers have always known, true crop insurance comes with carefully selecting hardy seeds year after year, feeding the soil with organic composts and green manures, and diversifying species in the agro-ecological system.  Just as U.S. health insurance companies have profited from poor American diets that are largely comprised of hydrogenated corn syrups and artificial flavorings, so too would agricultural insurers benefit from the continued destruction of viable seed banks through the spread of GMO seeds and anthropogenic climate change.  True insurance comes from the prevention of such things.

In addition, funding has not been mobilized for programs designed to support new farmers as they begin the process of starting their own farm.  New farmers need incentive and support to start family farms before wealthy developers can scoop up prime agricultural land for housing projects that neglect to look longer than immediate profits.  We need policies to promote and protect our next generation of family farmers.

The complex interweave of problems facing us today requires an equally innovative approach to solving them.  Responsibility falls both on the individual to shift awareness of unconscious individual choices that result in actions that contribute to these problems to conscious decision making and action, and in our collective community awareness that is translated into social and environmental policies that protect all living systems and reflect inherent value in Life itself.  For this to happen, reforms in a broken political system must be made, and pressure by individuals must be placed on the democratic representatives bound to protect its citizens.

References

Folimer, Max.  “Massive Farm Bill Clears Senate Committee” April 26, 2012.  http://www.takepart.com/article/2012/04/26/massive-farm-bill-clears-senate

Stabenow, Senator Debbie.  “Chairwoman’s summary of the 2012 Farm Bill Committee Print.”  April 20, 2012.  United StatesCommittee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  http://www.ag.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/2012-farm-bill-committee-print

Advertisements

A Bright Future for Smart Cities

“We talk about civilization as though it’s a static state. There are no civilized people yet, it’s a process that’s constantly going on…”

– Jacque Fresco, The Venus Project

(Image Courtesy of zeitgeist-ny.com)

With human populations surpassing 7 billion in 2012, and nearly 3 billion now living in urban areas, it is being estimated that by 2025 approximately 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities (PRB 2010).  Such staggering numbers of people living closely in urban areas currently requires consumer goods such as food and material possessions to be produced in high volume from natural resources found all around the world, then transported into cities using vast quantities of fossil fuels.  Take the recent decline in ahi tuna markets experienced in restaurants across the U.S.:  what is really happening?

Massive fishing fleets spread extensive nets into the oceans at night, catching everything in their path.  Such mass-harvesting depletes sensitive fisheries and disrupts the food chain for other species relying upon the same nutrient source.  As fish populations decrease, local mangrove ecosystems are cut down to create man-made fish farms to support the demand for fresh fish.  When disease strikes the mono-aquaculture, the farms pump hormones and antibiotics into the fish.  Once harvested, the fish are placed on the backs of diesel trucks that drive to capital cities and then on to port towns where they are shipped as cargo on massive barges (fueled by coal or diesel), then  transported again on diesel trucks or trains where it is distributed to restaurants throughout urban areas.  Urbanites have become accustomed to consuming on an infinite scale, without thought to seasonal availability.  Indeed, the appetite for ahi tuna around the Great Lakes region is a result of the depletion of fresh fish along the shores of the Great Lakes.  The regional traditional diet of Lake Perch has been thwarted for many years by heavy industrial and waste water contamination, which remains to be adequately addressed.  This lack of local fish resulted in outsourcing to international waters for delicious fish such as ahi tuna, and the unconscious cycle of depletion and destruction continues.

By many estimates, the carbon footprint of the average American in the United States would require the equivalent of 6-8 Earths if all 7 billion humans on Earth were to consume like Americans.  As urban dwellers relate to the human made environments around them and are shielded from the realities and consequences of their choices, the disconnect between what urban dwellers consume and the resources they deplete is increasingly evident.  Indeed, many people who live in the city rarely make it out to spend time in rural areas to see the damage their craving whims create.  Is this really the peak of our human potential?

 One solution to this blinded urban design, is to design our urban spaces to become more productive.  Aquaponics, a method of growing both vegetables hydroponically and market fish by circulating the fish waste through grow beds, stacks the needs and functions of food production with fish production and is based upon the natural patterns and tendencies of riparian zones (areas along streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans).  The herbs and vegetables growing in aquaponics beds utilize the nutrients in the waste from the fish, and at the same time aerate and filter the water for the fish.  In urban areas found along riparian zones, aquaponics could provide the necessary first step towards addressing increasing food demands while remediating ecological degradation, and at the same time reduce the amount of water needed to produce valuable edible resources.  When pumps are powered by renewable energies such as solar and wind, aquaponics is an ideal solution to a multifaceted problem. Organizations such as Growing Power (www.growingpower.org) and Sweet Water Organics (www.sweetwater-organic.com) in Milwaukee, WI, have brought this technology to the common table.  Together with UWM’s Institute for Fresh Water Studies, Growing Power is working to analyze the needs of fresh water Perch as a way of incorporating the reincorporation of the depleted perch populations into aquaponics food production systems as they reach out to disadvantaged individuals and communities in the heart of the urban jungle.

Other cities have turned urban problems such as high energy consumption and air pollution into local political solutions.  Green roofs, aka living roofs, use hardy plants to create a barrier between the sun’s rays and the tiles or shingles of the building’s roof.  In 2000, led by Mayor Daley, the City of Chicago put a “38,300 square foot green roof on a 12 story skyscraper…Twelve years later, that building now saves $5000 annually on utility bills” (Buczinsky 2012).  New York City has also seen a boom in green roofs installed on their buildings:  In Queens, a green roof installed on the Con Edison Learning Centre has seen a 34% reduction of heat loss in the winter months, and summer temperatures inside the building have been reduced by 84%, saving on air-conditioning costs and fuel.  Inspired, the City of Toronto has become the first north american city to mandate “all residential, commercial and institutional buildings over 2,000 square meters to have between 20 and 60 percent living roofs”, beginning April 30, 2012.

Canada Green Roof

Schools are getting on board as well, as they see educational opportunity that addresses budget crunches.  In Denver, CO, a public school converted their one-acre athletic field by turning it into an organic garden, and in just eight months it has been so successful that they have “harvested over 3,000 pounds of produce….salad greens and root vegetables, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers” for their school cafeteria (Huff 2012).  Other schools throughout California enjoy the efforts of Common Vision (www.commonvision.org), an organization that has planted thousands of fruit and nut trees at schools, traveling via biodiesel school buses converted into theatrical caravans that teach urban students through african drumming, dance, and theatrical presentations the importance and beauty of stewarding a future of fruit trees.

Still more community organizations, such as The Victory Garden Initiative (“Move Grass, Plant Food”) and the Fruity Nutty Group in Milwaukee, WI, are also turning to urban agroecology for edible solutions (www.victorygardeninitiative.org).  Planting “fruit tree guilds” in urban areas allows urban and suburban dwellers to plant edible perennials such as fruit and nut trees that are vertically stacked together like pieces in an ecological puzzle, in ways that mutually benefit the soils shared between species and attract beneficial insects and pollinators, and are also aesthetically pleasing and lead to the redevelopment of urban food forests.  Imagine walking down the street, and every plant you see is edible, medicinal, used for fuel or fibers or animal fodder!  How nice it would be to stop along an urban street, chatting with others as you stop to pick an apple or peach or plum.  All the nicer, say, if those cars we use sputtered out water vapor instead of carbon dioxides.

The Future of Design is a documentary highlighting structural and industrial engineer, Jacque Fresco’s work with The Venus Project, a project whose aim is to improve society through the worldwide utilization of a theoretical design that it calls a “resource-based economy”. The model aims to incorporate sustainable cities and valuesenergy efficiencycollective farmsnatural resource management and advanced automationinto a global socio-economic system based on social cooperation and scientific methodology (The Venus Project, 2012).  Though Fresco’s work was considered “futuristic” in earlier eras, today we are seeing many of his ideas sprout into action.  Urban CSAs (community supported agriculture) work collectively with local farmer cooperatives to provide fresh local organic produce to urban and suburban homes in the form of market baskets that the consumer can take home each week.  Even RSAs (restaurant supported agriculture) have developed, as restaurants saavy to the need for balance between consumption and ecological production seek to support local organic farmers and highlight their flavors in seasonal dishes (http://www.braiselocalfood.com).

With so many daunting issues caused by unconscious decision in urban and rural areas alike, it is inspiring to see so many conscious urban dwellers make positive changes that have multifaceted benefits to their urban communities.  Many are seeing the future that renowned architect, designer, and futurist Jacque Fresco has been seeing over his 96 years, and share his sage perspective:

“I have no notions of a perfect society, I don’t know what that means. I know we can do much better than what we’ve got.   I’m no utopian, I’m not a humanist that would like to see everybody living in warmth and harmony: I know that if we don’t live that way, we’ll kill each other and destroy the Earth.” (Jacque Fresco, The Venus Project).

References

Buczynski, Beth.  “Toronto Becomes First City to Mandate Green Roofs,” 2012.   http://crispgreen.com/2012/03/toronto-becomes-first-city-to-mandate-green-roofs/

Common Vision.  Oakland, CA.  www.commonvision.org

Fresco, Jacque.  The Venus Project.  Venus, FL.  www.thevenusproject.com

Growing Power.  Milwaukee, WI.  www.growingpower.org

Huff, Ethan A.  “School turns abandoned athletic field into organic garden that grows thousands of pounds of produce to serve in cafeteria,” 2011.  Natural News.  http://www.naturalnews.com/034319_school_food_fresh_produce_garden.html

Population Reference Bureau. 2010.  http://www.prb.org/educators/teachersguides/humanpopulation/urbanization.aspx

Sweet Water Organics.  Bay View, WI.  www.sweetwater-organic.ocom

The Victory Garden Initiative/Fruitty Nutty Group. Milwaukee, WI.  www.victorygardeninitiative.org