Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fine time to be alive

This is supposed to be the season of good cheer, right? I don't mean to dwell on doom and gloom, though i have every reason to. Having always been of the half-full glass persuasion, i consider the present age the most wonderful time to be alive, and see this crisis, the likes of which has never been seen, as an opportunity to clear the decks and set things up right for once.

The election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency is a great start but all the President's horses and all the President's men cannot put Humpty back together again. All the money in the world thrown at the problem will not solve it. It requires nothing short of a transformation in the way each person thinks and acts. Those in the West, and others aspiring to a Western lifestyle, will need to reduce consumption, conserve resources and live simply, building relationships instead of portfolios. Many in developing and undeveloped countries who manage to subsist on what they can produce without the convenience of electricity and petrochemicals are by the irony of divine justice more prepared to withstand the tsunami of change once they have a secure water supply.

As a memory hook, i used my birthdate this year to call the first meeting of EcolocityDC to begin the discourse along these lines and get the city that i now call home prepared for powerdown. How does a Chiny-boy from Brown's Town have the gall to try and influence the capital of the Western world? I suppose it's my sappy need to be of service and to make a difference and the fact that i've been through the calamities of natural disasters, political upheaval and exile. Being on the periphery has an advantage in affording one a wider perspective and better view of the centre. There is also the Jamaican proverb which says that when fish comes from the river bottom to say alligator is down there, believe him. I've been there and am here to say leviathans await us if we do not change course.

Our message seems to be picking up momentum as we take part in community activities and programs. Barely six months old, our membership is over 300 and growing every day. We have politicians, students, teachers, architects, planners, writers, activists, young mothers, folks from all walks of life but with a common interest in bringing about sustainability. We've tabled at the Pathways Expo, GreenFestival and the monthly Eco/Justice Cafe at the University of the District of Columbia. We're actively supporting the petition for an organic farm to be put in at The White House and we will be part of an Inauguration weekend event when a song written in honor of the new president will be released. You can sign the petition online.

Our next major foray will be to stimulate the creation of a local community exchange with its own currency to cushion the shocks of the economic meltdown and build local resiliency. Folks who know me from the days of SPECTRUM 20-odd years ago will remember we considered the idea of setting up LETS (Local Economic Trading System) even then. I'm in communication with Dr Edgar Cahn, originator of time banking, who happens to live in DC. That's one advantage of living here, besides the excellent public transport system, there are so many resources available.

I encourage you to make a difference, right where you are, in your home, village or community. The Transition model provides Twelve Steps that any group can follow. In a spirit of sharing, cooperation, collaboration and synthesis, which are all necessary to see us through to survival and sustainability, information and resources are available to everyone. Through our outreach and our connection to the US Transition network. we are fostering the spread of the movement to Bethesda and Brunswick in Maryland, and to Brookland, a DC community with its own identity and strong activist tradition.

If you own a car, consider trading it in for a more energy-efficient model and drive less. I take transit or walk and i've bought a bicycle though i don't trust myself enough yet to hit DC streets on it. If you must shop, consider trading something with someone or buying used. Thrift stores and yard sales offer many wonderful surprises, even new brand-name, at low cost but you will also be utilizing the embedded energy in the product all over again. Homes and buildings use up an inordinate amount of energy, so check on your HVAC system, install energy-saving appliances, solar and geothermal if available. Plant an edible garden and share the harvest with neighbors. Eat locally and low on the food chain, meaning less meat and less processed food. You'll be happier and healthier for it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cuban lessons

I'm going to venture a prediction that we will look back at this year as the last normal one, despite the challenges and tribulations that beset us. It may not seem so now, but we will look back at 2008 with nostalgia and longing. We've had a few intimations of what's to come but i daresay most people don't realize just how much life as we know it will change. It doesn't matter whether you're in Kingston, Karachi or Kalamazoo, globalization has seen to it that you will be affected.

Friends in Jamaica were complacently reassuring themselves that they were out of the loop so it would be business as usual. The pundits there said the financial market and economy would be minimally affected, nothing more than the usual fluctuations that could be accommodated, some stock market losses and a few tourist cancellations, that's all. Now we see the Golding government has announced a bailout package, for what it's worth. When Golding paid a visit to DC in August or thereabouts, i thought of going to the town hall meeting at the Embassy to ask him what plans he had to deal with the coming crisis. I didn't bother to attend since i doubted that my input would have made any difference, especially as the PM has abjured advice from homosexuals.

The suggestion i would have put forward had i gone was that he should immediately create a Task Force comprising the Office of Disaster Preparedness, and the Ministries representing Energy, Labour, Transport and Agriculture to devise a plan to deal with the end of cheap oil. The adjustments that Cuba made in the Special Period when their oil supply was cut off overnight following the collapse of the Soviet Union holds many lessons for Jamaica.

Take an hour to watch this video The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

I was gratified that Agriculture Minister Tufton visited Cuba and shortly after made his cassava proposal and promotion of backyard gardening. It was a small gesture but headed in the right direction, but doesn't go far enough. Food security becomes an increasingly critical issue as Jamaicans depend on imports for most of their food and the Jamaican dollar is grovelling at 80 to 1. Middle class consumers, let alone the poor, will be faced with nutritional deficits and starvation. Having lived through the 70s and experienced rice, flour and cooking oil shortages and the supermarket riots these engendered, i shudder to think what the coming deprivations will spawn.

The developed countries are not much better off as they depend on oil-based inputs and food imports in a globalized economy where the price of oil and commodities is increasing along with the temperature, salinization, desertification and inundation. The present US industrial agricultural situation in which the average meal travels 2000 miles from farm to plate and takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy is patently unsustainable and on its way to join finance, manufacturing and housing in sequential collapse.

For a better grasp of all this, i recommend you read The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, one of the most important books around. There was a proposal that author Michael Pollan should be chosen as US Secretary of Agriculture. He has modestly declined but remains at the forefront of those demanding reforms in agriculture.

Monday, June 02, 2008

One Swell Foop

Why not right here in DC?

Taking to heart the wisdom i've collected in my book Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennium of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing, start where you are with what you have. Ok, i'm here and what do i have? The will, the vision and some skills. I've discovered there are already some in the DC area who are interested in the idea of an intentional community, in permaculture, in finding solutions to cope with peak oil and other crises that increasingly beset us. It will be only a matter of time before we'll get to critical mass and something will happen.

The main aims of the community i envision:
Creation - To imagine, design and construct a permacultural center within the District
Organization - To model alternative governance structure, relationships and behavior
Energy - To revert to primary energy sources, becoming free of petroleum-based energy
Food - To eat low on the food chain, producing organic fruits and vegetables to meet community needs with surplus to trade

If nothing else, DC has more than enough lawyers, planners and grant writers to get a non-profit up and going in short order. The necessary architects, designers, engineers, farmers, artisans and community members will emerge and become part of the project as it grows. Financing and support will come from governmental, philanthropic and volunteer sources.

First, we'll have to identify and select sites from properties that are ruinate, abandoned or otherwise up for grabs. These would be acquired through usufruct, lease, grant, land trust, whatever form or combination the legal and regulatory heads come up with. A single large or complex of buildings with surrounding land space would be needed for the main campus or hub of the community. Here would be located fields, administration offices, residences, shared facilities, food processing, storage and retail. Buildings would be retrofitted to be solar passive, toilets would be composting and water would be recycled. Automobiles would be restricted to the periphery and transport within the community would be solar-, human- and animal-powered.

No animals would be slaughtered but honored as working members of the community contributing their companionship, energy, waste and by-products in exchange for protection, propagation and food. Animals could be rented out to fulfill tasks for others: rent a pair of goats instead of a power mower from Home Depot; they fertilize organically as they go. This could be basis for a community-run business, or private enterprise of a community member. In addition to food production and processing, including a
piculture, viticulture and mycoculture, other income-generating activities would entail salvaging and recycling of goods and materials, environmental education, training and consultancy. Professionals, practitioners and artists could pursue their own businesses or operate under the community banner. The production of fresh fruits and vegetables would be the mainstay of the community, supplying nearby restaurants, food stores and retailing to consumers.

Some things that recommend this approach:
Intentional communities and eco-villages have tended to locate themselves in previously undeveloped or under-developed areas, increasing carbon footprint and cutting themselves off from existing communities. What they do is important and necessary but done in splendid isolation. The majority of the world's population live in urban areas which contain underutilized resources and degraded spaces. Our approach could be considered the green alternative to gentrification which tends to displace existing residents. We would encourage and assist homeowners in upgrading and retrofitting their homes to be greener. The elderly would be supported to age-in-place by health and
social workers delivering services in their homes, working out of decentralized facilities based in the community. Disaffected youth and the jobless would be trained in green-collar work and support services, the demand for which will increase and not likely outsourced.

The coincidence of global warming, peak oil, food shortages, environmental and social degradation demands drastic measures carried out with urgency and pointed efficiency. An intentional community whose members self-select will commit to a common vision and work with a sense of purpose and dedication to achieving it. We can learn much from Transition towns but much will be exploratory, ad hoc and experimental in creating an urban model that other cities can follow. For this reason, research, documentation, analysis, publication and dissemination are critical aspects of the project.

Washington DC is the capital of the world's single greatest power, the virtual capital of the world, despite declining influence. A solution worked out within it will have tremendous impact on the world-at-large, promoting the adoption of best practices in the shortest possible time. Our project should hold great appeal and potential for Mayor Fenty in his attempts to green the city.

New jobs will be created as there will be a demand for old skills such as sheep-shearing, spinning, dyeing and weaving, bee-keeping, brewing and bottling, canning and food preservation, animal husbandry and veterinary, wheeled vehicle construction and maintenance, building construction, restoration and maintenance, landscaping and plant propagation, etc. New skills required will be retrofitting existing structures, green roofing, water conservation, treatment and recycling, solid waste cycling, materials testing and analysis, micro-climate modification, manpower- and horsepower-based logistics, etc.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Warming to peak oil and rising food costs

Many experts have figured that supplies of readily accessible oil will soon no longer be available. The cost of gasolene continues to rise without any relief in sight. There is a scramble to substitute bio-fuels, mostly ethanol derived from corn, which has diverted production away from food for human and animal consumption, thus driving up the price of grains. Along with global warming and its ensuing environmental effects, a crisis the magnitude of which the world has not known is imminent. Sure there have been natural disasters, drought, famine and the Black Death, but those have been localized. The inter-relatedness and pervasiveness of the current challenges have never before been encountered. All of modern life and technology is based on petroleum-derived energy. No one, from Dakar to Durham, will be untouched.

Slowly an environmental concern is beginning to seep into the awareness of the average consumer and we have seen responses ranging from driving less, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, demanding more green products, etc. The range of organic stuff available from mainstream outlets such as Walmart, Costco, Safeway and Giant has grown exponentially in the past few years. These are all steps in the right direction but represent what many critics have dubbed the greenwashing of commerce. The current and growing situation, whether tagged recession, market adjustment, global crisis or temporary hiccups, demands more immediate and drastic coordinated response than these tinkerings can provide.

One approach that suggests itself to my mind is permaculture, which i was pleasantly surprised to discover is being implemented on community-wide scales in Cuba and some British, Irish, Australian and US towns. These are being referred to as Transition Towns and a book about this movement will be released in the US in September.

The thinking behind permaculture is basically using what resources are at hand to design systems that are sustainable and site-appropriate, taking into consideration geography, climate, natural history and culture. Growing bananas in the most certifiably organic and sustainable way, then shipping them to a consumer 2000 miles away would not be permacultural. Growing bananas and other crops that would feed the local population and their immediate neighbors would.

This is not to promote a return to primitivism and pre-industrial subsistence, but would entail the application of leading edge green technology to tap into non-petroleum energy sources and feed populations sustainably. It will require a degree of voluntary simplicity on the part of residents of the developed world but this is the paradigmatic shift that is required if the future of humans is to be assured. It's not the earth that needs saving, it'll take care of itself; it's our own skins. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the world's peoples already live in involuntary simplicity, so the elite would only be reducing their exploitation of finite resources, their carbon footprint and toxic waste.

My garden at Mango Walk, Trelawny, Jamaica, circa 2000, after about 6 months work. Much of the yard is concrete as cement was mixed on the ground during construction; a patch of bare concrete can be seen in the mid-distance. Raised beds were built on top of this hard surface using newspaper and compost. Paths were determined by natural traffic flow and surfaced in left-over tile chips. Foreground left, rockery with bird bath made from top of oil drum, clothes lines and compost heap at right.

The first of the tomatoes from my garden, the sweetest i've ever tasted. The seedlings were left back from the previous tenant. I never had to buy tomatoes for the rest of the time i was there.


A confluence of factors have influenced me into thinking about acquiring my own home. I was granted permanent residence in the US a couple months ago and thought it might be good to put down some roots now that the spectre of being rudely shipped out is that much less likely. In the current housing crunch, the ads have very convincingly said i could be paying much less for a house than i'm paying for rent. Who would not want to save some money while building equity?

There are lots of properties on the market within striking distance of my resources, many very desirable or with great potential for fixing-up, and the number increases with each passing day as more folks go into foreclosure. The irony is that the financial institutions are also tightening up their criteria for lending in direct proportion to the sub-prime mortgage crash as i discovered on tentative attempts to secure the wherewithal. Having owned a home before, i did not think i needed to go that route again, but the opportunities offered by foreclosures seem too good to pass up -- and i love a bargain.

See NY Times article on the conversion of one renter into buyer.

Spring has brought a profusion of forms and colors as the plants regenerate themselves after a mild but seemingly unending winter. I note with envy and admiration the dooryard gardens i pass each day on walks through the city, though there are just as many that are unremarkable or unkempt and overgrown. Living in a fifth-floor efficiency, i have to make do with a few houseplants and herbs on the window sill. But i have my memories of gardens past.

Datura and pentas in my garden at Mango Walk, Trelawny, Jamaica, circa 2000. More intense pink peeping out on the left is the ground orchid spathoglottis plicata.

Though i'm fast approaching retirement age, i have no plans to ever retire, but i've had this idea of living in community ever since i read about and visited the Findhorn Community in Scotland some 30-odd years ago. They have demonstrated a wonderful way to live together and with nature, growing much of their own food organically and creating educational programs and various business enterprises to support the community and teach others their approach. I've visited a few communities in Virginia and New York but i haven't found one that calls me to join them.

The pull back to the soil, combined with the food and energy crises, global warming and my need for community are urging me to revisit a vision i documented for an intentional community in Jamaica, dust it off and recast it for my present urban situation.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Person of the year

Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again.
~ Herman Hesse, 1877-1962 ~

Fun and joke aside, we have a lot to be thankful for. Just to get up this morning and see another day is gift enough. The prospect of seeing another year, infinitesimal as it in the cosmic scheme of things, should be of monumental significance, let alone that each of us is a singularity, never to be repeated. Even if you subscribe to a life beyond death in the Elysian fields or someplace inside pearly gates, or as some reincarnated entity, it will not be you as you are now. You are, as Kent Davy has put it, the "momentary concatenation of the dependently arising streams of factors that have eventuated" as the person known as you. It cannot, and it won't, happen again, ever. Appreciate yourself then, even if, especially if, no one else does.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is transformed through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expression … It is your business to keep the channel open.
Martha Graham, 1894-1991
Time magazine is right on the button to name You as the Person of the Year for your control of the information age. Each of us is at the leading edge of evolution, with more access to power and information than any pope, king or potentate heretofore. We might not individually be capable of launching armadas and conquering hordes, nor should we want to, but Rameses, Genghis, Alexander, Plato, Charlemagne, Galileo and Napoleon would give their eye-teeth to know and do a fraction of what we are capable of now. Civilization has progressed through the stages of hunting/gathering, agriculture, and manufacturing, each with its hierarchies, oppressions and divisions of labor. For the first time, each individual, albeit some more apt than others, is a centre of production and consumption of the world's current and future wealth: information.
Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories ... I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there ... I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.
~ Dave Eggers ~
The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel , 2006
in Francine Prose, "Lost Boy," The New York Times, 2006/12/24
So how are we making the most of this opportunity that is our life? Are we spending it in drudgery, enduring each passing day, year, cast from one contingency to another, being swept along by the current, deferring our dreams until? Or are we awakened to our power, making a choice and seeing it through? Until recently i used to say i still didn't know what i wanted to be when i grew up. This may have changed as this publishing business seems to be the right fit; I get to write, draw, play, create, perform, pontificate - and get paid doing it. But then previous reinventions of myself seemed right at the time ...

Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him. He has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion. He is like a ship in a river; he runs against obstructions on every side but one; on that side all obstruction is taken away, and he sweeps serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea. This talent and this call depend on his organization, or the mode in which the general soul incarnates itself in him. He inclines to do something which is easy to him, and good when it is done, but which no other man can do. He has no rival. For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers. The height of the pinnacle is determined by the breadth of the base. Every man has this call of the power to do somewhat unique, and no man has any other call ... By doing his work, he makes the need felt which he can supply, and creates the taste by which he is enjoyed. By doing his own work, he unfolds himself.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ~

As we begin a New Year, let us do so with passion and vision that we can be and do all that we are capable of. Right here, right now, you are and have all you need to proceed; this is the entry point; begin now. I have no warm, florid feel-good wish for you. It is only for you to choose. Then i will celebrate with you your courage, your greater idea of yourself and the inevitable and subsequent expansion beyond your present limitations.

Do not look back. And do not dream about the future, either. It will neither give you back the past, nor satisfy your other daydreams. Your duty, your reward – your destiny – are here and now.
~ Dag Hammarskjöld, 1905-1961 ~