Untangling the ridiculously obvious yet alarmingly complex ideas behind sustainability
By Davina Baum and Sara Bir
It's mind boggling, like taking apart a Rubik's Cube--the pieces just don't mean anything by themselves. Breaking down the idea of sustainability is just not possible, because the very nature of sustainability is interwoven, each piece inextricably linked to the other in so many ways. Food issues lead to water issues lead to land-use issues lead to shelter issues, and every combination thereof. So breaking down the sections below is both an academic exercise and an attempt to present the issue simply and clearly.
Green living is all the rage. Even San Francisco magazine, that bastion of Bay Area commercialism, tackled it in a recent issue. Although every week the Bohemian highlights people and groups doing good things for our communities, take this as a primer of sorts, and consider these pages--this week and the following weeks--an ongoing conversation about living mindfully.
The information in these pages may be new and interesting to you; it may be (yawn) another commercially minded publication trying to ring the green-trend bell. The issues laid forth below are a dramatic simplification of everything that sustainability encompasses. We encourage you to read more, talk more, and learn more; the answers will only be found collectively.
There are so many people in our communities that can serve as amazing role models. See the Voices sidebars for a few of them (thank you to Starhawk, Brock Dolman, trathen heckman, Wendy Krupnick, Ann Hancock, and Joseph Kennedy for offering their wise words), and check out the resources listings for even more.
If you take one thing from this issue, let it be this: This is the way we need to live, in order to continue living. We think about what we consume. We are mindful of others. We tread lightly and respect the earth. There is so much more to learn, and this is a step in the right direction.
Where did your dinner come from? Can its pedigree be traced? If it came from a box, what store did the box come from, and its contents before that, and what went into the growing of those ingredients? What chemicals were used in their manufacture and growth? How far were the ingredients shipped to get to the production plant, and then how far were they shipped to get to the store?
Food doesn't just grow on trees--well, it does, but the methods employed to get it to us are not nearly so simple and have caused increasing damage to our water, soil, and air. But we're the ones hurting, too. Changes in eating habits have made us a fat society with little sense of liability about what we choose to nourish ourselves with. What's more, families don't eat together as often, and an important tradition of equating food with companionship, relaxation, socializing, and personal history is fading into a background of prepackaged salads, yogurt in squeezable tubes, and energy bars in place of actual meals.
Once there is value for eating food, there can be value for its origins. We're fortunate. The Bay Area has for decades been a hotbed of culinary luminaries, inspired farmers, and just concerned folks singing the hymn of "fresh and local," a return to basics and an appreciation and concern for how our foods are grown. As restaurants like Manka's Inverness Lodge prove, it is possible to only serve foods grown, caught, or raised within a "15-minute radius."
But not everyone has foragers out combing the hills for them. How can those principles be modeled for the general population? It's never been more important to stop and think of the previous life of whatever you're putting into your mouth, before it was your dinner.
Growing the food we eat accounts for over 70 percent of consumer water use. Eating less meat can make a big difference, as meat production is harder on the environment than any other food (chew on that, all you Atkins dieters). Try to think of meat as a special treat rather than a dietary staple. Have a filet mignon once a month instead of ground beef five times a month. And when you do buy meat, make an effort to find out where it came from and how it was raised (and how it was treated). What that chicken ate is now what you eat.
And while it is true that small efforts can add up to a big difference, there's a lot more to conscious eating than just buying organic Fritos. Supporting local farms means that you are buying a product that's fresher, and your money is going right back into the local economy. It also takes fewer resources to transport the food, and it keeps our strong North Bay agricultural heritage alive.
Food grown with concern and care tastes better and is more vivid and alive. A summer tomato pulls its flavor from the characteristics of the soil, and its juicy texture hasn't succumbed to a mealy mush through poking and prodding. That's why we enjoy eating in the first place, isn't it? We eat not just to stay fed, but because it is pleasurable. Why fight nature when you can embrace it?
It's 5pm, and Highway 101 traffic is jammed again. The sun pounds down on the windshield, the car's interior is an oven, and all around, exhaust vomits into the air.
Until we can learn how to teleport at will, our society's embrace of the automobile won't be relaxing. A recently released survey claims that while Californians agree that pollution is a problem, they don't count their cars as part of the equation. As it is now, our daily driving accounts for over 40 percent of the air pollution attributable to consumers. But it's true that some cars are worse than others; although developments in technology can't guarantee that traffic jams will go away, they can curtail the pollution.
Constructing modes of mass transit--like a North Bay BART--may sound like dream scenarios, but they are mightily cost-prohibitive, not to mention time-intensive. We can't be holding our breath for the state to step in and hook us up. The sad fact is that Sonoma, Napa, and Marin are all counties full of commuters. Unless radical changes are made to where and how we live and work, simply not driving, as obvious as it may sound, is not a viable option for most people.
Changes in fuel consumption, for the time being, don't look like changes that will happen automatically. So it's up to us to take matters into our own hands. We are all guilty. Rather than throwing hateful glances from economy cars toward Humvee drivers, one of the most immediate ways to make progress is to focus on ways you can decrease your own personal fuel use. Take the shuttle to the airport, enjoy the opportunity to walk to the video store, lighten up on the gas pedal and drive under 55 mph. It's all stuff we've heard before, and quite possibly not listened to. Now is the time.
Go beyond conserving petroleum-based fuels to choosing alternative fuels. The Bay Area has an active network of groups and co-ops whose American-made biodiesel and straight vegetable oil burn cleaner and are surprisingly easy to convert engines to run on. Naft Gas in Fairfax recently became the first gas station in the North Bay to offer biodiesel at the pump, taking one step toward making this fuel much more convenient for the consumer.
Still, choosing to drive less, driving fuel-efficient cars, and reducing the number of cars per household--while contributing to lessening the amount of emissions in the air--are not solutions, but remedies. They don't significantly reduce the number of cars out on the road, and they don't keep the bottlenecking of 101 from exploding into a six-lane bonanza that cuts into the landscape that drew people to the North Bay in the first place. It's important not to overlook the value of encouraging the use of existing transit options like buses, carpooling, and bicycles. Or, even more basic, feet. As long as there's progress being made, we're all moving toward a less smoggy and congested future.
Look down, look at your feet. Look under your feet. That's land. It may be concrete or carpet or linoleum or dirt, but somewhere down there, there's land. It's what we live on, and there's precious little of it.
California was once the last frontier and mythic land of plenty. Long after the state joined the Union, it was marked by wide open spaces and small towns. Things have changed radically in the past half century, and there is little that is wild and free anymore in California. The land we walk upon, if it's not privately owned, has been bought up by local, state, or federal agencies--the same agencies that allow logging, hunting, and those beastly all-terrain vehicles to dominate.
But the issue is not whether land is owned or not; it's how it's treated. In Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties, much of our land is agricultural, for better or for worse. Industrial farms have swallowed and destroyed parts of that land, polluting the watershed with pesticides and animal waste while removing the natural habitats of native animals. The land trust programs in Sonoma, Napa, and Marin have been integral to the effort to keep land in the hands of family farms, but monocropping has allowed the possibility of widespread economic and agricultural devastation.
Although the wide open spaces of the North Bay inspire and sustain us, they also make the land that is inhabitable ever more expensive. Planning and zoning have given us the sprawl of Santa Rosa and the 101 corridor, as well as the prohibitively expensive agricultural land of the Napa Valley.
Proponents of "smart growth" advocate for urban density within defined boundaries. The idea is that we should live in areas where we can walk to the local market or park, send our kids to school nearby, and hop on a train, bus, or a bicycle to get to work. It's community, basically--something that by and large has escaped many who live in walled-off minimansions and drive to work for hours a day in their SUVs.
Those communities can be created anywhere, even in the far reaches of West Marin or West Sonoma. If zoning were to allow for multiple families to share land, grow food, and recycle waste on a plot of land, community would spring up everywhere. It's not a hippie vision; it's just common sense.
Within urban growth boundaries, there should be little need for cars (and if there were, carpooling or hitchhiking should be eminently accessible). If I live in downtown Santa Rosa, I should be able to walk to a store and buy organic fruit and vegetables, or stock up once or twice a week at a year-round farmer's market, where the kids can sample fresh fruit and play, where neighbors can catch up. I could even have a local farm deliver a box of produce (Laguna Farms delivers theirs by biodiesel trucks) once a week, and share it with neighbors if it's too much food.
The answers are simple, but the process is not, and as always, it depends heavily on politics. Land use and its related issues--affordable housing, sustainable agriculture, urban growth, to name a few--are some of the most pressing issues facing our growing population.
Many would say that the way we live today has a lot to do with the societal problems that keep cropping up in all the wrong places. Not just the way we live, but the way we live; that is, the roofs we live under, the fences we live behind, the floors we tread upon.
Our homes are our refuge, and as much as they shelter us, they can also be poisonous to us and to the environment. Modern building materials are, for the most part, toxic in one way or another. Thanks to the wonders of the industrial revolution and the dramatic globalization that has made our world a very small, very McDonald's-heavy place, we have the ability to expend precious energy in the endless quest for the bigger and the better.
Synthetic materials that produce toxic offgassing are trucked, shipped, and flown thousands of miles to line the floors of a dream house, when nontoxic, environmentally sustainable, and beautiful materials like rammed earth, adobe, or bamboo are available, nearby and inexpensive. A solar self-reliant house is a beautiful thing, aesthetically and morally--and eminently attainable.
There are sustainable alternatives to almost anything, it just takes a little research and a lot of determination, because, after all, our world is set up at the moment so that the unsustainable choice is most likely the more obvious and easier to obtain.
In addition to building homes that are less damaging to the environment and to our bodies, sustainability requires that we build homes that are less damaging to society as a whole. Certainly not least of our societal wounds is the fact that only the top percentage of our population can afford to buy a house in the North Bay. Shelter is a basic human right, and making housing affordable and available to everyone--by changing the way we build, zone, and conceptualize communities--should be happening. It's not.
Architects are looking to vernacular styles to create more livable environments, and the alternatives are endless. Small houses, shared housing, housing that fits in with its environment are wonderful, affordable, and sustainable ways to live but are mostly anathema to modern standards, in which the dream house is a single-family, 2,000-square-foot behemoth set on its fenced-in plot of land.
Cohousing, a movement that began in Europe and spread to the States in the 1980s, is experiencing greater and greater acceptance and is an example of a progressive solution to the twin dilemmas of land use and housing. The concept is that intentional communities are, in effect, a microcosm of the ideas behind smart growth in cities.
Cohousing communities, which are in various stages of completion all over the Bay Area, are basically cooperative eighborhoods--private dwellings built on a plot of land with an ample common area, which may include dining facilities, a kitchen, meeting rooms, and children's play spaces. Cohousing communities are designed and managed by the residents cooperatively.
Remember what it's like when the electricity goes out--how you feel helpless yet empowered all at once? You light candles, and it's almost like camping indoors--until the milk sours and it's too dark to read and you miss your favorite show. Yeah, it's a great reminder for most of us that energy isn't so much a resource as it is a dependence, a teat we suck from and cry over once it runs dry.
We're running out of decomposed prehistoric plants and dinosaurs to burn up--and it's about time, too. Instead of continuing to rape the earth and get mired in all sorts of political quagmires in order to extract our remaining fossil fuels, all of that work could be going into further developing renewable energy sources. Because if we continue going on the way we have been, it'll be our carrion compressing over eons into the fossil fuels of a very distant and unpopulated future.
The logic behind renewable energy is pretty brainless: The sun shines, the wind blows, the water flows, and the earth moves, all on their own accord. So heck, why not get in on the action? Wind was possibly the first renewable resource harnessed by humans to convert into usable energy. It's clean and breezy, and wind farms--which currently furnish 1 percent of the state's electricity--look cool.
Solar energy, a very viable option for private homeowners who'd like to ease off the grid, is seducing more and more people. But it's an expensive initial investment, and you have to first own a home on which to put all of those panels. Geothermal energy, producing 5 percent of the state's electricity, is a little larger scale in scale and doesn't require damming up rivers as hydroelectricity does. All it takes is the heat of the earth and a big ol' power plant, and the only thing it releases into the air is steam.
Fuel cells have generated a great deal of talk. It's estimated that they'll provide electricity for smaller businesses and homes in the near future. The battery-like devices convert hydrogen and oxygen into water vapor and obtain direct current electricity from the reaction. Any fuel with hydrogen and oxygen--natural gas, methane, butane, propane, or water--can supply the fuel cell.
Methane and ethanol are emitted as waste gasses from landfills and agricultural operations, and harvesting these gasses for fuel cells prevents them from being burned off or released into the atmosphere. Biomass-- energy drawn from combusting or decomposing organic waste--also harnesses these gasses. How renewable is that? As long as humans walk the earth, there will always be an ample supply of organic waste.
Our methods for harnessing these resources are hardly perfect. Stinky and hazardous hog manure from factory farms is slurried and piped into covered lagoons for biomass generation, while the production of methanol and ethanol is not always earth-friendly. Even the methods for isolating hydrogen at this point use fossil fuels. But these are still important steps.
In the meantime, what better way to flip PG&E the bird than to do everything you can to reduce your bill? And the California Energy Commission offers tax rebates for installing eligible electric generating systems. So until the majority of corporate America catches on, every private step we take with renewable energy weans us away from the fossil-fuels teat.
We drink it, lawns drink it, wine grapes drink it. The right to abundant and clean water seems so basic and simple that the very concrete facts of its misuse, and our society's acceptance of it, seems preposterous. In any case, if we don't watch it, that goofy movie The Ice Pirates--set in the distant, outer-space future when water is so precious that it's smuggled across the universe like drugs--won't seem so far-fetched. In fact, it's been happening very slowly right under our noses.
Water's all over the place, so it's easy to take it for granted. Turn on the faucet, and--whoosh!--there it is. Go to the beach, there's a bunch more of it. The summer sun's bearing down, and the lawn is turning yellow? Never fear, the sprinkler is here.
The problem is having water in the right form in the right place at the right time. Growing cities clamor for water. Southern California has been scrambling for it, and other places who have water to sell don't want to give it up. And it's not just car washes and laundromats and dishwashers and decorative fountains that need the water; it's also all of those crops in the Central Valley, the lettuce and almonds and oranges and tomatoes that feed an entire nation. There's only so much drinkable water to go around. So who gets it?
Apparently, water is a very popular item, because walking down the sidewalk or going to yoga class, half of the people around will have bottles of it (and even though staying hydrated is a healthful choice, bottled water is often just fancy tap water, anyway--and less than half of those bottles get recycled). So why don't we treat it with respect?
Then there are people who look at our water and see a glittering sea of gold, like the water in the Gualala River, which was looking pretty sexy to a corporation who wanted to export North Coast water in giant water bags to sell to San Diego.
It's not always an issue of one area tapping into another area's water, either. Sometimes people will come along and not take water, just mess it up. The community of Jenner has had to fight to keep their watershed protected from the commercial interests of companies who own nearby logging land.
The primary cause of water pollution is runoff, and that doesn't just mean from the farmers out in the Central Valley. Every time you do laundry with tons of bleach or wash your car outside as the soapy bubbles go into the drain that goes into the creek, you're altering the quality of the water. Even the medications we take can wind up in our water, which is a very scary thought. A number of wells in south Sebastopol had such unsafe levels of the cancer-causing chemicals PCE and TCE that they are now unsafe to drink from.
As Brock Dolman says, "We must learn to think like a watershed and understand how human development impacts the water cycle." We have to use it wisely and keep it flowing clean and clear--before we all turn into ice pirates.
If you think about it, education is the ultimate renewable resource--that whole "give a man a fish/teach a man to fish" thing. All those good deeds done to get bonus points from the sustainability gods, like composting or recycling or using cloth bags at the store, don't instigate changes for the better on their own. Individual actions mean a lot, but as wee insignificant ants in the grand scheme of things, one person's actions don't amount to a hill of shade-grown beans. It's the sharing of knowledge on scales small and large, formal and informal that really makes an impact.
Education assumes many guises in a sustainable world. It can be as casual as picking up a magazine and as elaborate as a graduate-school seminar. But one of the best ways to get some learning is to get friendly with someone who's into something you'd like to learn more about, if it's driving on veggie oil or cultivating herbs or building with straw bales. Practitioners of sustainability are like born-again Christians in that they simply can't seem to get enough of witnessing and spreading the word.
For those wishing to become more sustainability-savvy, you can't live in a better place. You can hardly swing a cat in the North Bay without swatting an opportunity to saturate the mind. The granddaddy of them all, the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, has been offering long- and short-term classes and retreats on everything from carpentry to permaculture design. There's also Point Reyes' Permaculture Institute of Northern California, the leading permaculture school in the country, and New College, whose innovative and eclectic programs are breeding evangelists spreading the sustainability gospel.
Becoming active in a group you believe in is a great launching pad. There's strength in numbers, and it's amazing how one super-knowledgeable person will be able to tell you about five other people you should talk to.
You can even sit on your butt watching videos, being entertained while getting educated. The Sustainable Petaluma Network has been enlightening minds with its film series of indie documentaries. Or you can flit around all weekend long in raver getup at the Health and Harmony Festival, and soak in all the EcoVillage has to offer.
Making changes isn't so daunting when they are presented as small adjustments rather than major undertakings in our everyday routines. Think of the mind as a funnel rather than a sieve, and glean from all the good and bad stuff out there. And somehow, the people teaching you come out learning things too. Education works both ways like that.
Resources and Media
There are endless local and national resources for action, education, and community. Here are a few:
Sonoma County Climate Protection: www.skymetrics.us
Cohousing Association of the United States: www.cohousing.org/usdetails.html
Land Trust of Napa County: www.napanet.net/~nclt
Sonoma Land Trust: www.sonomalandtrust.org
Marin Agricultural Land Trust: www.malt.org
Green building: www.nativesystems.com; www.hammondfinehomes.com; www.greenbuildersofmarin.com
U.S. Green Building Council: www.usgbc.org
California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture: www.calearth.org
Town Hall Coalition: www.townhallcoalition.org
Sustainable Sonoma County: www.sustainablesonoma.org
Sustainable Petaluma Network: www.sustainablepetaluma.net
Sustainable Mill Valley: www.sustainablemillvalley.org/index.html
Sonoma County Conservation Action: www.conservationaction.org
Friends of the Russian River: www.envirocentersoco.org/forr
Greenbelt Alliance: www.greenbelt.org
Permaculture Institute of Northern California: www.permacultureinstitute.com
Agriculture/natural resources classes at SRJC: www.santarosa.edu. Click link to "Schedule of Classes" under the "Academics" heading, then choose "Agriculture" in the scrolling Departments menu, or call program director Laura Mendes at 707.527.4649 or the garden at 707.887.0740.
Occidental Arts and Ecology Center: www.oaec.org
New College of California: www.newcollege.edu
Environmental Center of Sonoma County: www.envirocentersoco.org
Sonoma State's Environmental Technology Center: www.sonoma.edu/ensp/etc
Real Goods: www.realgoods.com
Sonoma County Herb Association: www.altrue.net/site/scha
California School of Herbal Studies: www.cshs.com
Health and Harmony Festival: www.harmonyfestival.com
Reading and learning as much as you can--and sharing what you learn--is key to the continuing conversation. There are countless things to read to keep the brain noshing.
Ripples: Available at local bookstores, Whole Foods, and Oliver's.
Mother Jones: Available at newstands. www.motherjones.com.
Yes!: Available at newstands. www.futurenet.org.
Utne Reader: Available at newstands. www.utne.com.
Mother Earth News: Available at newstands. www.motherearthnews.com.
E magazine: Available at newstands. www.emagazine.com.
Grist Magazine: Online only: www.gristmagazine.com.
Fatal Harvest: A seminal book busting the bubble of industrial agriculture. Available at local bookstores. www.fatalharvest.org.
To create a sustainable culture and society, we need to change our understanding of how the world works. The mechanistic model of the world that underlies many of our most unsustainable practices sees the world as a fixed, static thing made up of isolated parts that interact in simple, cause-and-effect relationships. To create not just sustainability but ongoing abundance, we need to understand that the world is a web of dynamic relationships, that everything exists in communities, and nothing stands alone.
We can't benefit one part of a community at the expense of another and expect that community to last. We can't orient our economy, our agriculture, our forestry, and our science to produce profits for the few, and expect our system to survive. But if we consider how to create beneficial relationships among all aspects of a community, the health and abundance of the entire system will increase.
A forest is not just a factory for producing Douglas firs--it's a community of plants, animals, birds, insects, soil microorganisms, mycorrhizal fungi, and human beings. A business is a community that includes the whole biological community that creates the resources used, those who do the work and make decisions and ultimately use what is created.
In my home and gardens, I practice permaculture, the art of designing beneficial relationships to produce systems modeled on natural systems, and find it a useful lens for looking at any system. I also practice magic, "the art of changing consciousness at will." One tool I find useful for thinking about sustainability is the magic circle of the four elements--air, fire, water, and earth--with spirit in the center. When making a decision, we can ask, how will this affect the air, the climate? The birds and insects? Will it bring inspiration and refreshment?
How much energy will this use, and where will it come from? Will it use more energy than we take in? How much human energy will it require? Will it energize or drain us?
How will this affect the water? The fish, sea life, and water creatures? Will it use more water than we have? How do we feel about it?
How will this affect the earth? The health of the soil? The microorganisms and soil bacteria? The plants and animals? The forests?
How does this affect our human community? Will it benefit the poorest and least advantaged among us? Does this reflect and further our deepest values? Will it feed our spirit?
Sustainable abundance is a goal we can move toward. No one in this society can lead a totally sustainable life today, but if we ask the right questions, we will begin to move in the right direction.
Starhawk, committed Global Justice activist and organizer, is the author or coauthor of nine books, including The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. She is a veteran of progressive movements, from antiwar to antinukes, is a highly influential voice in the revival of Goddess religion, and has brought many innovative techniques of spirituality and magic to her political work. She teaches at Earth Activist Training, which combines permaculture design, activism skills, and earth-based spirituality, and also works with the RANT collective, providing training and organizing support for the global justice movements. www.starhawk.org.
For me the question of sustainability is about supporting the systems that sustain all life. As a biologist--by definition, one who studies life--my interest in sustainability is a lifelong quest toward becoming an ecologically literate agent of social change in the service of sustaining life.
So what of this idea, this mantra, this expanding marketing ploy called sustainability? Sustain what, for whom, and why? I find it helpful to cut the word sustainability exactly in half, reverse the order of the two resulting words, then pose the question, "What are you trying to have the ability to sustain?" Fundamentally, the answer must be "cycles."
Human behavior patterns that demonstrate the ability to ensure the integrity, resiliency, and continuity of the cycles that sustain all life are what I start with as a benchmark to judge sustainability. What cycles, you say? I mean here basic elemental hydrological, chemical, and biological cycles. The water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, fire cycle, human life cycle, and salmon cycle.
Cycles are intrinsic to a spherical rotating earth orbiting the sun. All life forms that have demonstrated the ability to sustain continuity of tenure on this planet have done so by living within the confines and carrying capacity of such cycles. The evolution of life has not had a choice to do otherwise, and nor do we, although finite fossil carbon has fueled a pathology that believes otherwise.
Sustainability is a vision of a reciprocal relationship where humans are regenerative earth healers, soil builders, and water purifiers. True sustainability is a question of will. Do we collectively have the probiotic will, and will we behave accordingly? Or will we bequeath our inheritors an antibiotic, thrown-away planet? On a finite planet there is no "away"; you can't just throw plastic and plutonium away.
Cycles-based sustainability must become the defining platform of participatory democracy, such as the Iroquois philosophy of seven generations. We must vote for ourselves as leaders who affirm a positive life-cycle analysis with a regenerative vision that sees human communities as a solution, not a problem. To get there from here, sustainability must start at home--in our watersheds, in the humble heart of deeply held ethical interdependence. We each must become bountiful headwaters nourishing this watershed event called sustainability.
Brock Dolman is a biologist and cofounder of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and the Sowing Circle Intentional Community. He is the director of OAEC's Basins of Relations, Permaculture and Ecological Design, and Wildlands Restoration programs. Brock is a Sonoma County Fish and Wildlife commissioner, and an active member of the Dutch Bill Creek Watershed Group, the West County Watershed Network, and the Russian River Watershed Council.
When it comes to sustainable, eco-groovy, and green, healthy relations form the foundation. Yep, it's you, me, and the collective "we" that shape the fruitfully potent potential in our common daily actions. Of course, don't forget nature.
To ask why, I look to the wisdom in how rivers meander in the same way as the wrinkles in our guts and brain. With wiggle-waggling pathways, more fits into a small space, whether it's your belly, head, or a watershed. Increasing the meander increases surface area, decreases flow, and aids in absorption. Ahhhh, the intelligent design of natural systems.
Unfortunately, this is far from how our lives are lived, bringing us to the problem of choosing the shortest distance between point A and B--there is no why. Zooooom, there we go, all jacked on caffeine and electro-gadgetry things, somehow forgetting that a newer this and shinier that won't get us there.
It's true, we've lost our why. But don't cringe or fear, just look to realationships. By reclaiming what we do, buy, and take for granted, we increase the quality and quantity of relations in our lives, the way meanders increase surface area and all sorts else in rivers. When rushing straight from A to B, we experience and absorb less, lacking flow and connection.
Is Highway 101 your model for life, or is the fecund, riparian habitat of an ambling stream? I mean, we already eat, drink, and breathe, why not reap more from it? Our food, clothing, and common details speak volumes about our relationships with the living world, each other, and the future generations we impact thru each act.
Reclaim and steward the interdependent-luvfully-abundant pile of relations that is your life. Buy local, organic, and Fair Trade. Grow food. Tend your friends. Compost apathy. Become the media. Write, record, and seek to share. Shake yer booty with yer hands in the air. Start a good-living file with images, quotes, and articles that help you live better while bettering life.
Now tumble into the streets with mindful masses, inoculating indifference with inspired acts, connection, and cups of tea, for these are the bits of bliss in how we live.
All right, let's close with a collective incantation, all together now: "Owning this awareness is my confession that I'm ready for the life connection needed to heal this systemic infection. I'm ready to acknowledge, relish, and bathe in the fine print holding us together."
trathen heckman is the founder of Daily Acts and publisher of Ripples, a seasonal sustainability journal. To co-conspire or say hi, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. This fall, he will be teaching a class on empowering our daily actions through permaculture, tai chi, and more. Contact New College of California in Santa Rosa for details.
Living green will not save the world. To prove this for yourself, take five minutes, go online to www.myfootprint.org, answer 15 multiple-choice questions, and calculate your personal ecological footprint. Then imagine without any illusions what it's really going to take to save the world.
Don't get me wrong. It's imperative that we each lighten our individual impact on earth--eat less meat, use a clothesline, drive less, have fewer children. Such actions are essential, but they are not sufficient.
What most people discover by calculating their footprint is that they exceed nature's limits, and not just by a little. In my case, it would take three and a half planets if everyone lived like I do, based on the size of my footprint. I am dedicated to living lightly on the earth, dedicated to leaving a legacy for future generations, and still I'm a flagrant consumer compared with what's required to live sustainably. Even if I rode my bicycle everywhere, canned my own tomatoes, and never used a dryer, it wouldn't be enough by a long shot.
Conclusion: We've got to radically change the system in which we live.
What does this mean? First, it means rethinking environmentalism. Most environmentalists embrace the directive "think globally, act locally." But focusing exclusively on local creeks, wetlands, tiger salamanders, and open space misses the big picture.
The big picture shows us that global economic forces trump the most valiant and brilliant local efforts. Look at the unrelenting political press for economic growth. Observe the cause-and-effect connection between the faltering economy, lowered interest rates, rising housing prices, rising equity, widespread refinancing, and sustained high consumption levels.
We export most of the impacts of our consumption to other parts of the nation and the world. And we pass one of the most dangerous impacts--global climate change from greenhouse gas emissions--on to future generations.
According to Bill Moyers, if you really care about the environment, "Don't hug a tree--hug an economist." Clinton's strategists reached the same conclusion when they said, "It's the economy, stupid."
If we want to save the earth, we've got to use the price system, the most potent and underutilized tool available to us. For example, the price of fossil fuel currently is low relative to its real cost because of huge government subsidies. If fossil fuel's price reflected its true cost--including all the costs of global climate change--it would skyrocket. Consumers would respond by seeking cheaper alternatives. Renewable energy would become much more economically attractive, and the system would shift dramatically in a sustainable direction.
Using the price system entails being politically adept. Let's take a cue from the corporations wielding influence in Sacramento and Washington. They understand that real power lies in designing the economic rules.
When we make saving money and saving the planet synonymous, living green will be second nature.
Ann Hancock is a Graton resident and coordinator of the Climate Protection Campaign (www.skymetrics.us).
When I was very young, I took to heart the quotation, "All things to all things connected are, so one cannot touch a leaf without the trembling of a star." And credit to my childhood--growing up with the folk songs of the '50s and activism of the '60s, in a true community where we practiced cooperation and cared for each other and the land. With this background, I've always believed that the gifts of nature were to be honored, and that how we choose to live makes a difference in the quality of life, for ourselves and for all the other creatures in our ecosystem, now and in the future.
So "living lightly"--reducing, reusing, and recycling, in that order--and valuing friendship, arts, and values over "stuff," came naturally to me. Choosing to live in small spaces--to grow my own food organically, to not go shopping, and to drive as little as possible--were never conscious decisions or deprivations. It just made sense and was more comfortable and easier.
Sustainability has to do with what is necessary for life to not just continue, but to thrive. It has to do with a net increase in energy rather than depletion. This can be seen in an agriculture that produces more in food value and soil-enhancing biomass than it takes in resources to produce. I've spent much of my life's work and focus on organic agriculture because it is such a tangible--and delicious--way to do good work in the world. Nurturing the health of the soil and our bodies simultaneously, and sharing the abundance with others, is a pleasure and a profound miracle to experience.
Sustainability can be seen in human systems when people come together to collectively problem-solve. There is a synergistic effect--more energy, strength, and security in community than in a collection of individuals--that I find exciting. Having grown up with community, I have always sought community by joining organizations where people who have similar passions and concerns have the desire to work together for change.
And sustainability has to do with finding balance in our lives--restoring and resting our bodies and spirits at least as much as we are giving to others and the world. Like many who are concerned that the world is on an unsustainable path, creating sustainability in my daily life can be a challenge. My daily yoga and exercise, eating nourishing food that I have helped grow, spending time in nature, and making space for quiet time, help recharge my desire and ability to do more.
Wendy Krupnick is the garden coordinator at Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm, a four-acre production and educational garden that uses organic techniques.
I have been musing lately on our local landscape, and have found myself imagining what Sonoma County might be like in a hundred years. Sometimes this is a dark vision, influenced by the current era of political madness, climate change, and unremitting growth. But more often it is a positive imagining based on decisions, large and small, that I hope we have the wisdom and foresight to make.
As an architect, I find myself dreaming about how our built landscape might change for the better, but I also know that shifts in the invisible landscapes of lifestyle and politics are necessary as well. When I imagine the future, I see many of us embracing a lifestyle of elegant simplicity, having exhausted the dubious benefits of rampant consumerism. We will reengage with our communities, with our land, and with ourselves in such a way that our common wisdom may shine forth, so that we can restructure our communities for ecological health, societal fairness, community vitality, and individual joy.
I envision our towns made denser, yet more humane, by transforming our relationship with the automobile and through designing buildings for human conviviality and connection with the sun. Our older, historic neighborhoods will serve as a template for new development, serviced by convenient, comfortable, and fun transit options like streetcars and light rail.
I can envision a pedestrian district spanning from Railroad Square to Courthouse Square. The Santa Rosa Mall will have been radically reconfigured. Fourth Street would once again join the east and west sides, and perhaps the 101 freeway could go underground (it is hard to imagine it going away) to help join these currently divorced parts of the city.
We would live bioregionally. As a political entity, I could see Sonoma County itself replaced by watershed-based political districts. At a smaller scale, decision-making would be radically democratized, and centered in the neighborhood, with political decisions made in service to the whole community, not to corporate interests. We will joyfully engage in civic life. We will, for example, happily go to a building and planning department transformed into a place where homeowners get the best information on how to live in harmony with the planet and ourselves.
I see neighborhoods with small plazas and gardens built by residents, where we take down our fences to create green havens that can be shared by all. As for suburban developments, the most egregious may be carefully deconstructed, and the land placed back into more suitable agricultural uses, or returned to nature.
Construction of modest and elegant self-sufficient homes tucked into currently underutilized pockets of our towns and cities would be of local materials such as straw, sustainably harvested wood, earth, and stone, as well as recycled building materials (using those deconstructed suburban McMansions for good purpose!). We will recycle our wastes and grow a good part of our own food on the fertile soil that currently underlies our lawns. We will be happy.
This is all now a dream. I work toward the time when it may come true.
--Joseph F. Kennedy
Joseph F. Kennedy is the co-editor of The Art of Natural Building, cofounder of Builders without Borders, and a teacher in the ecodwelling program at New College, North Bay. Contact him at email@example.com.
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From the July 17-23, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.