Following in Cuba’s footsteps!

San Francisco Leads the Way in Urban Agriculture

Looks like we have an answer as to whether or not the United States can begin to implement Urban Agriculture into our cities…this could also be an opportunity to create a lot more jobs for people living in cities.

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Show me what democracy looks like!

A few weeks ago, on the weekend of April 15-18, I attended PowerShift in Washington, DC with a group of about 35 other Dickinson students. PowerShift is a climate action conference, and almost 10,000 youth and college students from across the nation attended this year. As you can probably guess from the name, PowerShift is about shifting the power; in this case, away from the hands (and money) of gigantic companies and into the hands of the people. It was a weekend full of inspiring speakers, informative workshops, training in grassroots organizing, and on Monday, a march from Lafayette Square to Capitol Hill, followed by lobbying.

Some of the keynote speakers included Al Gore, Van Jones, Tim Dechristopher, Josh Fox, and Lisa Jackson. Of these, I thought that the most inspiring speaker was Tim Dechristopher, so his is the video I’ll share (it may take a few minutes to load, but it’s well worth it).
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Beyond just listening to amazing speakers, there were over 100 different workshops to attend. These included things like: “Getting Banks to Stop Funding Dirty Energy,” “Community Solutions for Climate Justice,” “The Clean Air Act,” and “Winning the Climate Argument.” This is just a small sampling of the wide range of available workshops. Students from the Dickinson group, one of the largest groups there despite the size of our school, went to many different workshops and then shared information with each other.

The march on Monday was really incredible. It was very high energy, optimistic, a bit of venting frustration. People carried signs that said things like climate justice, clean energy = green jobs, and more. We had lots of different chants, one of which a call and response that the title of this post is from: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” Other popular ones were “People, not profits!” or “Hey hey, ho ho, dirty coal has go to go!” We marched through the streets of Washington, and some people even joined us. Then we had a day of lobbying, where we got to speak with the staff of Senators Toomey and Casey, as well as several Representatives. The point of lobbying was to ask our reps to support the Clean Air Act,  stop giving handouts to dirty energy and support clean energy instead, and to stand up to dirty energy money in politics. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, we had little luck with Pennsylvania’s reps, but we have contact information to keep in touch with them.

A big component of this year’s PowerShift was a focus on grassroots organizing, and training us to build movements that could sustain the energy of PowerShift past the weekend and into our homes. Post-PowerShift, many of us that went have begun reorganizing SAVES, a Dickinson sustainability group which is meant to be an umbrella organization. We’re planning major changes to the group for next year, and everyone is looking forward to not being idle after the energy of the weekend. Part of the organizing was also networking with other students from the state, and we’ve all made friends with several students from other schools in PA with whom we’ll continue to work in the coming months.

Overall, it was one of the most exciting and empowering weekends of this semester. I know that all of us Dickinson students are really excited to keep the momentum going. I’m including some links for anyone who might be interested in getting involved in anything we talked about at PowerShift, though these are just a few things that I picked up in my workshops and by no means cover everything.

PowerShift This is the post-PowerShift area, and a lot of people are posting their stories. It’s really interesting.

Food and Water Watch These guys cover a lot. In the workshop they sponsored, we talked about the Fair Farm Bill.

Peaceful Uprising In case anyone found Tim Dechristopher as inspiring as I did.

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Earth Issues

 Yesterday evening, I attended the Earth Issues internship presentations of all the people who completed internship under the biology and other departments this semester. The very first presentation was by none other than the guy we met cooking bacon at the farm last week, who spoke about his biogas project in more detail. It was interesting to hear how much trial and error went into his work, and how much data had to be collected and analyzed to get an understanding of the implications of the project.  Since biogas production, though sucessful in terms of what has been accomplished so far, is still relatively modest, the extent of its usefulness for Dickinson is still unclear, but the intern thinks at the very least it might be able to help power the greenhouses, should they go large scale.
  Among the other presentations, one of the more fascinating ones had to do with painted turtle populations. One girl researched the nesting habits of painted turtles, with specific interest in what determined the survival rates of hatchlings. Like crocodiles and other reptiles, the genders of painted turtle hatchlings are determined by temperature, and in an interesting suggestion, it was speculated in the presentation that global warming might bring about the eradication of male turtles altogether. The hypothesis that was tested however, concerned the “over-wintering” of hatchlings in their nests (waiting to emerge until spring) and the behaviour being impacted by predation. Their hypothesis did not end up being supported by the evidence, though in the process a lot was discovered about the diversity of wildlife in the area studied.
  Finally, relating somewhat to urban agriculture, there was a study done about lead concentrations in plants. The study is ongoing, but some of the results that I remember were that soil in urban areas, especially around sidewalks and buildings (that may have once had lead paint) lead concentrations were typically higher than average. Also, different types of plants and different sized plants had different uptakes of lead. This kind of study raises interesting new questions on the subject of urban agriculture and its plausibility. The best conditions for growing food in urban areas were found to be in raised beds, but those are more expensive and time-consuming to create, putting new constraints that may not have been considered on the potential of urban agriculture.
 Of the presentations I saw, those were the three I thought most worth sharing. I know that even as the last week of classes comes to a close and we enter finals, your thoughts will never be far from issues of sustainability, communism, and the environment, so enjoy!
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Green Capitalism

We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks, now, about whether or not capitalism can be green, or if there are alternatives that might, at the very least, be greener. So, I thought you might find this article/post by Tom Philpott interesting, as he argues that Coca-Cola’s “green” initiatives expose the limits of capitalism’s ability to be environmentally friendly, absent significant regulation.

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Technology, energy and the environment

No, this isn’t about the Royal Wedding. A fascinating article in the Toronto Star discusses wind turbines, bats, and the environmental impact. Apparently, wind turbines kill large numbers of bats each year, which has a negative environmental impact, as bats are crucially important as a source of insect control. Insect-control from bats is worth as much as $54 billion per year for U.S. agriculture, according to Science magazine.

Wildarodo Wind Farm, Texas (image: Wikimedia Commons)

So are wind turbines negative, environmentally? Not so fast. They produce electricity with few greenhouse gas emissions, and are an important part of the transition to renewable energy. There are also tests in the works for new technology that will deter bats from flying near wind turbines, a technological solution to a technological problem, I suppose.

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Supermarket Pastoral

Our visit to the Dickinson College farm on Monday helped me to anchor my own intellectual journey into the world of American agriculture. There, it seemed that something tangible was being accomplished; a life sized example of the pastoral ideal that industry had all but completely separated farming from. As we surveyed the beautiful landscape that enclosed us on all sides, a quiet spark of idyllic belief took hold of me. Maybe this was the answer, perhaps the monster born by the modern marriage of industry and agriculture could be overcome, one Dickinson College Farm at a time. But as we made our way around the farm, from the methane fueled cook out to the climate controlled greenhouse to the local growth garden, I began to feel like I was touring something more like a 4-H science fair than a serious agricultural operation. A question began to form in my mind, suppressed somewhat by the acute knowledge and enthusiasm of our guide, that I now regret not asking: how could a farm like this compete with a supermarket?

The obvious answer may be that the produce is simply better. The techniques used to cultivate the land are less invasive, less mechanical, and more natural than those seen on the average farm. As a consequence, the food that is produced is free of harsh chemical controls, genetic tampering, or artificial enhancement that now keeps supermarket shelves stocked year-round with produce of every variety. This was food as it was meant to be, but how much would that mean to the average consumer? In chapter 9 of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, industrial organic farmer Gene Kahn describes his own struggle with that question as he found his organic mentality absorbed by the industrial machine “…I wanted to leverage that position to redefine the way we grow food-not what people want to eat or how we distribute it. That sure as hell isn’t going to change.” The ultimate end goal of all farming, of all production, in our American capitalist society is profit. Why should the average consumer, who is used to a wide variety of cheap, sufficiently nourishing and tasty food, give up the supermarket shelf for the neighborhood farm?

Especially when they can feel as if they are getting the best of both worlds. Enter industrial organic farms- massive operations that bear the government seal of organic while utilizing ironically unnatural techniques. Selling their products through the same channels as standard industrial farms, these corporate owned organic farms work to fulfill the suggestion that “If the consumer wants an organic Twinkie, then we should give it to him.” While the foods that these farms produce may technically be healthier than their non-organic counterparts, the narrative of the “supermarket pastoral” into which they are placed inevitably distorts their value. Organic produce becomes just another marketing ploy, presenting customers with a perceived alternative to industrial farm products in the same comfortable setting of their local grocery store.

However, as Kahn says, it was not his purpose to change the way that food was sold, only how it was produced. When taken as an alternative to standard industrial farming, organic industrial farming can still be seen as an improvement, if still somewhat disingenuous. In reality, or at least in my opinion, local, natural farming like that seen at the Dickinson College farm represents an ideal to be strived for, but not currently a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. Organic industrial farms could be a compromise that works, or at least the first step on an admittedly long road to sustainable, healthy agriculture.

  • Is industrial organic farming a good thing or a bad thing?
  • How can small farms like Dickinson’s compete with larger industrial operations?
  • How does capitalism factor into the development of modern organic foods? Could the concept of organic as it is understood in this reading have developed in a Marxist society?
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Chernobyl – 25 years later

I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, but just wanted to point to The Guardian, which has a series of articles related to the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, including a great photo essay of photographer Igor Kostin’s photos. Kostin risked extreme radiation to document the disaster in the days, weeks, and months after April 26, 1986.

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Crisis of Capitalism — David Harvey

This video is an animation of a lecture by Marxist academic David Harvey. Worthwhile!

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma

After a long and characteristically miserable Carlisle winter, the first few days of warmth and sun initiated a process of campus-wide catharsis as reliable as the changing of seasons. Trapped inside of cinder block dorms lit by droning florescent lights for months, students arrayed themselves across the rolling green grass of Morgan field, finally able to enjoy the simplicity of a nice day. There seems to be an instinctive desire for natural beauty in every human being, a desire that can sometimes place us at odds with the more artificial aspects of our modern civilization.

It is with this thought in my head that I enjoyed this week’s reading- exerpts from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author, after detailing the physical discomforts of producing hay, describes the “…scene of almost classical pastoral beauty” that he encounters on Polyface farm: a 550-acre experiment in sustainable agriculture. Looking out on the idyllic landscape, the author muses that “Our culture, perhaps even our biology, disposes us to respond to just such a grassy middle landscape, suspended as it is halfway between the wilderness of forest and the artifice of civilization.” In a way similar to Polyface farm, Morgan field represented a respectful balance between civilization and nature that simply felt better than our artificially lit and heated winter days. The balance between man and nature found at Polyface is, as Pollan explains, not only a pleasant reminder of days gone by, but also a necessary part of the agricultural experience that has been neglected by modern industrial farming.

Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface, seems to truly grasp the importance of this balance. Polyface’s considerable output is not accomplished by dominating the land with harsh fertilizers or dirty machinery; on the contrary, it is achieved by working with the natural roles that each organism on his farm fills. Salatin is not an exploiter but an enabler: by enhancing the complex relationships that shape the natural world, he is likewise able to enhance production. The most interesting thing about Polyface, however, might be the way that it challenges both the government definition and popular perception of the word “organic”. Surprisingly, Polyface is not licensed as an organic farm; nevertheless, it is more sustainable, more natural, than most organic farms. As Pollan explains, many organic farms are still industrial operations that function much like other, non-organic industrial farms. Additionally, these farms are not locally oriented, using resources shipped from distant places and likewise shipping their products to places all over the world. This lack of a local focus ignores the natural cycles and relationships that Salatin- as a truly sustainable farmer-relies on.

I never really understood the benefits of locally based food production until I read this excerpt. Having a local focus encourages farmers to work with nature as it exists rather than forcing it to change. These forced changes, such as monoculture, chemical use, and energy intensive logistics, bluntly ignore the delicate balances that must be maintained in order for the natural world to remain healthy. I feel that the model of sustainable farming at Polyface has many eco-socialist elements, and as such offers an interesting window into what a real world implementation of that society might look like.

  • Do you think that a locally oriented agricultural system is a viable alternative to modern industrial farming? Can such a system be realized in a capitalist society?
  • What are some of the unique challenges faced by farmers who choose to “opt out” of the industrial agriculture complex?
  • Is the way in which people perceive their relationship with the natural world a factor in the development of industrial farming? How might living in a for-profit capitalist or Marxist society affect this perception?
  • Do labels such as “organic” or “locally produced” affect your shopping decisions? Which is ultimately more beneficial to society: a greater quantity of agricultural production or a higher quality product? Do you think it is possible to achieve both?
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Earth Day: Links

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I would post some links to interesting articles about the environment that appear today. Happy Earth Day!

Feel free to suggest other links in the “comments,” below.

Unofficial Earth Day Flag: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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