Category Archives: Energy

Alternative Housing: Tiny Houses, Campers, and the Road Less Traveled

For an increasing number of Americans, especially those under 30, the “American Dream” is an absolute joke. For those of us in our 30’s, like me, its still a joke, but a harsh one because lot of us got sucked into believing in this dream and buying houses and such just before things crashed down in 2008. Of course, the joke’s on us, I suppose. Even for college graduates (or those with graduate degrees) finding a way to make a decent living and support a family, much less buy a house or anything else, is a fantasy. Those in the trades that I talk to often also don’t have any work. Many friends of mine in their 20’s are still living at home because its too expensive to be on their own, the job opportunities aren’t there, or the bills are too much to consider moving out. Or, they are like Sage, who I described in a post about meaningful work last year–they work several jobs to pay the bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, having no free time or energy to do anything else. Two days ago a new article described most Americans as being one paycheck away from the street.  And some are already halfway there–I have numerous friends living in homes in Detroit without heating for the winter, running water, and more–because they can’t afford it. So…this begs the question–what can be done and who is doing it? This blog post explores just that.

Freedom!

Freedom!

 

From a sustainable perspective, American Dream, with its white picket fences and perfect sprawling lawns, is one of the most destructive ways of living that there is. Especially when that American dream resides in large, suburban homes far away from workplaces. Now, I got sucked into this too before I had my great sustainable/permie awakening and bought a much larger house than I needed (about 2600 square feet). I’ve since been working with what I have to make my impact as little as possible (the subject of many posts in this blog), given the present circumstances in which I find myself. I’ve made several serious attempts in the last two years to turn my large rural home on 3 acres into a kind of hippy commune/small sustainable community, with the idea that more people in a smaller space = less waste, more opportunity, lots of fun experiences, lots of veggies from the garden, but thus far, its not really been successful–hardworking hippies are surprisingly hard to find, especially long-term, and I’m rethinking the whole plan at present.  I even had a few friends living in a trailer behind my house for a while last summer. And I do think that model can work–provided you find the right people.

 

But today I’d like to explore another solution, one that a dear friend of mine has been working towards for the last six or so months. In less than a year, my friend went from renting, working two jobs and barely making ends meet to downsizing her life, owning her own residence, and supporting herself with what she loves the most–her art.  She has no mortgage, no property or school taxes, no nagging boss, no rigid schedule, and few of the other problems that life presents most of us, even those of us like myself trying to live as sustainably as possible. And yet, despite her current status (homeowner, debt-free, mobile, self-supporting, with savings) nearly everyone that she knows thinks she’s crazy and have been trying to talk her out of her “insanity.”

 

What has my friend and her husband done? They have sold 90% of their possessions, purchased a van and a camper, quit their jobs, and have decided to live in in their camper. Why do people think she’s crazy? Because her and her husband have decided, frankly, that they aren’t drinking the Koolaid anymore. They aren’t playing the game. The idea that you could just quit the rat race, that you could find more happiness and fulfillment by not working full time, by not taking on a big mortgage, and so on, isn’t an idea that can even be conceived of by most Americans.

 

My friend’s husband is keeping a vlog (check it out here) where he’s showing off their setup, describing sustainable projects (like the composting toilet) and documenting their journey. In a recent update, her husband (the Earth Bison on Youtube) describes working the insanity of retail over the holiday season and finally getting ready to head out on their adventure. Today marks my friends’ journey from Michigan (where it has gotten quite cold and their little camper has had some winterizing challenges) to warm and sunny Arizona for the remainder of the winter.  I am so proud of them for making such a choice.

 

I want to step back a bit and investigate some of the negative reactions to my friend and her husband’s choice:

If you want to be free...you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

If you want to be free…you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

 

1. It comes down to stuff. A big part of it, I think, is that you can’t take all that stuff with you. But really how much stuff does one person need? I’ve given away about 25% of my stuff in 2014, and I intend on downsizing another 25% in 2015. Things can be hard to part with at first (and at first, I literally had to take the boxes into a room, mourn the loss of it, and then eventually after a few weeks, let it go). The more that I gave away, the better and lighter I felt. I found places to give my stuff away that mattered–expensive musical instruments I haven’t played in 10 years to an after school program (a community partner for a course I teach), clothing and household goods to a place that gives them away for free to those in need, books to friends who are interested in them, art supplies to fellow artists, and so on.  I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but each time I do, I feel better, lighter. The stuff weighs on us, it really does, and we don’t realize it until we start giving it away. Its so easy in our culture to accumulate it–even if we don’t buy stuff, people buy and bring stuff for us, often without our consent.

 

2. Space. Another issue–and a valid one–is space.  We are used to living big and luxurious…but again, if one doesn’t have all the stuff, does one need all the space? The space requires heating (usually inefficiently via fossil fuel), money and time to upkeep, time to clean, and so on.  I’ve been really challenged in this regard with my current living situation.  I do host big events (like our monthly permaculture meetings) in my huge greatroom, and do a lot of other good with the land, but I still feel like I’m taking up way to much space.  I do think, given my introverted ways, I might have difficulty living with a person in such a living situation–but I’ve done it before (dorms in my undergrad years) and seemed to be fine.

 

3. Convenience. I think convenience is another huge issue. Many of us are used to so many modern conveniences and living in a small space sustainably forces you to give up some of those (think about the work involved in a composing toilet, or in hauling your water each day).  To give some perspective, last weekend, I had some unexpected guests, including a number of small children, and they kept asking me why I did things “the old way.”  I didn’t really consciously think about what I did, but they were really intrigued by me and my old ways.  I made them popcorn on the stove with popcorn from my garden in olive oil.  I built them a fire to keep them warm (they all slept next to it).  They made art and watched the fire since I don’t have a TV (give away during last year’s great giveaway).  We played games on the floor (pick up sticks, which they loved). We cooked on the stove since I don’t have a microwave (again, by choice, also given away in last year’s great giveaway). Since I’ve made shifts slowly away from modern conveniences slowly and integrated them into my life fully, I guess didn’t realize how different I now live than others.  But children have a way of pointing out things in ways adults won’t.  I think about my friends–they have made many more shifts than I have–living on solar power and limiting energy use, composting toilets, greywater systems….these are shifts that I’m also planning, but I haven’t yet gotten there!

 

4. Fear. Ultimately, a lot of resistance to my friend’s plan came down to one thing–fear.  Fear of the unknown. And its a big risk, quitting one’s job, leaving a roof over your head, and going off into the great beyond. Others have done it, and many others plan to do it–and as they become the trailblazers for their generation and document their experiences, still others will muster up the courage.

 

But given the economic circumstances that so many of my generation and those younger than me face, I do think this path–tiny houses, campers, and other smaller spaces–is a really viable one. The choice and what it offer can be summed up in one word: freedom. I think many more of us, myself included, are thinking about how to escape at least some of this rat race, how to live sustainably and meaningfully, how do meaningful work in the world. The yurt living movement and tiny house movement is gaining steam rapidly–more and more people are seeking alternative living that is debt-free, sustainable, and fulfilling.  I’d love to hear from others who are considering the same choice or who are enacting it. I have some big life changes ahead for me as well–I might join them one day.  It certainly is a tempting proposition.

 

Living the Wheel of the Year: Spiritual and Sustainable Practices for the Winter Solstice

As the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, we find ourselves once more in the time of darkness and cold; the time of the brown and the gray; the time of the Winter Solstice.  The Winter Solstice, happening around the 21st of December, represents the longest night and shortest day for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.  It marks the real start of winter, which continues until the Spring Equinox.  And while this is a time of challenge and struggle for many, I like to think of this time, like all times, represents an opportunity to turn inward, to examine our inner worlds and our inner home lives, and to again seek methods of sustainable practice and action.  So here are some spiritual and sustainable practices that you can practice around the Winter Solstice:

Frozen Lake Walking

Frozen Lake Walking

 

Winter walking.  I think that one of the challenges we face as a culture in terms of sustainable action is a disconnection with the natural world–especially the natural world in all her forms and in all of her seasons. One of the best ways of reconnecting is to see the beauty and mystery in each day, regardless of the weather.  Because of this, I have worked hard to spend a little time outside each day and an extended period of time at least once a week outdoors, regardless of the weather.  I make it a point to go on “winter walks” in different types of weather.  If you plan on engaging in this practice, invest in some good cold-weather gear.  Good wool socks, sweaters, and long-johns, good hats and gloves, and multiple layers of warm clothing will make walks outside enjoyable for you and any others who choose to join you.  The key, especially when exposing others who are maybe not used to the winter cold, is to encourage them to dress warm.

I find the time around the Winter Solstice strikingly beautiful–the grasses have died back but are still gorgeous in shades of brown, the landscape shows things hidden with summer foliage.  Usually here, its usually too early for snow before the solstice, so the browns and deep reds and grays dominate the landscape.  The conifers hold the promise of spring in their greenery.   If there is snow, the patterns of animals, usually invisible in the summer, are now revealed.  Once the deeper cold of January sets in and our lakes freeze over, I also very much enjoy lake walking (see photo above).  You get to commune with the water in a different way.

Regardless of how you choose to winter walk, experiencing this beauty, and sharing it with others, can help us build a deeper awareness and connection to the world (and I think that gives us the underlying impetus for sacred and sustainable action).

 

Candlemaking - another great skill!

Candlemaking – another great skill!

Make some winter crafts, medicine, and ritual objects. The Winter Solstice and the dark times provide us excellent time to practice various bardic arts, especially those of a physical nature.  The Winter Solstice is my favorite for finishing up my tinctures created earlier in the season and making medicinal salves for use for the upcoming year. I also like to make big batches of laundry soap and candles.  I’m making time also to make my own bars of regular soap after having some fantastic lessons this past year. This is also the time when I make smudges and incense.  The idea here is that the more you can make and provide yourself, the more energetically connected you are, the more fulfilled you are (because you are providing some of your own needs), and the less drain you are creating on the system as a whole.  This is especially true if you mindfully source anything you don’t have to make your various home goods and crafts.

 

Alternative gift giving. I wrote about thinking for meaningful alternatives to typical consumerist holiday practices before; it is presented in more detail here.  But I again want to encourage readers to think carefully about what needs to be bought, and what can be repurposed; to see the holidays not as a time of excess and spending, as so many now do, but one where we can use creative thinking for meaningful change. For my friends and extended family, I’ve taken to giving people things from my garden–a small bag of sundried tomatoes or a wonderful rhubarb-orange summer solstice jam really is a gift from the heart.  One of the things my family has been conscious of doing for some time now is engaging in a “secret santa” gift exchange.  Each person gets one other person’s name and a list of things they would like; only $50 can be spend total on the gifts, but any handmade/repurposed gifts are welcome in addition.  We also use either re-usable wrapping paper or junk mail/papers to wrap all gifts. This alternative gift giving does a few things–it allows everyone to buy and gain less stuff, and the stuff that is purchased is purchased to fill a need.  The gifts are meaningful because they are heartfelt and useful because they are some of what was requested.

 

Exploring alternative lighting and have “candlelight evenings.” It is possible for nearly everyone to explore alternatives to electric lighting during this dark time.  I like to have what I call “electricity free” days where I live more naturally and in rhythm with the earth (and use a lot less resources).  I do keep the power on for running my refrigerator, flushing the toilet, and making sure my pipes don’t freeze.  But other that, I switch to oil lamps and candles and explore activities that can be done without computers, phones, televisions, and electric lighting. I like to have candlelit evenings when spending time with my family members around the holidays if at all possible–doing this as a group makes a candlelit evening all the more special. We can play games, tell stories, entertain each other. We might even do some woodstove cooking rather than turn on the range.  This is a nice addition to the “meaningful gifts” idea above for family time while engaging in more meaningful and mindful living.

Oil lamps can be found fairly cheaply at antiques sales and the like, they are easy to use, and they make wonderful lighting (you can even read by them); you do want to be careful what kind of oil you purchase for them (mine were kerosine when I bought them, but now I switched out the wicks and have most of mine burning vegetable oil.  Kerosine is very smelly and is a fossil fuel). A single oil lamp is worth about three good candles in terms of light and they are extremely efficient. You can also make your own oil lamps (see instructions on the web here).  Beeswax candles are much longer-lasting and sustainable than paraffin ones, although any candle will put out light.

 

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Spinach greens started from seed saved from last year

Garden planning and seed starting. One of the other wonderful activities you can do this time of year is to take stock in your seeds, to order or trade for new seeds that are needed, and to plan the garden for the next season. Even if this is your first year, now is a great time to think about what you might do when you can break ground in the spring, or put in a few pots of herbs, or plan your dream growing space. If you want to start all of your own seeds, this also requires some planning and foresight…in my bioregion, I usually start the first of my seeds as early as January.  I have a few good posts to help you get started: Seed Starting and Garden Planning: Reasons to Start Seed, Seed Research, and Seed Starting Setups; Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Spiritual Insights on Seed Starting and Growth; Seed Saving, Heirloom Seeds, and Sustainability.

 

Finished worm castings from vermicompost--awesome!

Finished worm castings from vermicompost–awesome!

Indoor composting (vermicomposting).  Another thing you can do to build more sustainable practices is start an indoor composting bin and start creating some great soil and getting to know earthworms and their activity in the process.  I have instructions on how to start such a bin and some spiritual insights from the vermicomposting process.

 

Home energy audits and actions to seal up the home. Because the cold is blowing in, you might take this time to do an energy audit of your house/apartment and find ways to make your home more airtight and more efficient.  The EPA suggests that anywhere from 5-30% of energy can be saved with a home energy audit and taking action.  This is a perfect thing to do in the dark months, and the colder it gets out, the easier it is to figure out where the cold spots are.  There are lots of instructions online about how to seal up your home better–here’s one that I used to do my own energy audit.  But you don’t need anything fancy to do such an audit.

I am working on my own home energy audit this winter–I have several rooms that I don’t heat in winter because they currently aren’t in use, and I’ve been working to seal them up, insulate uninsulated lightswitches, and prevent heat loss from under/near doors and windows.  I’m also working to add throw carpets to my cold floors that sit on the slab foundation in my house to help with my cold feet.  I can already see a difference in the warmth of my home from these small changes.

 

Introspection and meditation. A final suggestion for winter solstice activities–take the opportunity to spend some time in introspection and meditation.  Daily meditation on various themes can lead to amazing insights–I do discursive meditation daily as part of my AODA practice, and often find myself meditating on phrases or concepts from herbalism, nature-based writers like Wendell Berry, or permauclture designers.  Spending time with yourself during the winter months can lead to a blossoming of light and life within.

Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Update – Restoration Planning at Strawbale Studio

Site of decomissioned earlier pipeline

Site of decommissioned earlier pipeline; next to where the new pipeline is being dug.

The question of how to respond to events beyond our control, the broader events and decisions that continue shape the world, is an important one. So much destructive and exploitative human activity is taking place (fracking, mountain top mining, tar sands oil) and its hard to respond when we feel so powerless. Its even harder to respond when we know that we are complicit in these events’ creation–by driving cars, heating our homes with gas, and so on, we are shaping the events that take place.

 

The kinds of responses we generate in the face of such events is an issue well worth pursuing.  Each area has its own local challenges, my area being no exception. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the area in South-East Michigan where I live (less than 3 miles north of my house) has a tar sands oil pipeline being put in (this line is an alternative to Keystone XL, which has generated substantial attention in the media).  While there is nothing that the citizens can do here to prevent the pipeline from being completed due to the history of this particular pipeline and previous permission being granted, we can certainly decide how we respond, how we work with the land, and what we do after the pipeline crews leave.  How we choose to respond can shape conversations about these activities for decades to come, and can demonstrate that there are many ways to work with the land and address change.

 

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Last fall, I discussed the Enbridge Oil Pipeline digging project that was going through my good friend Deanne’s land at Strawbale Studio. In the fall, I went and worked with the trees and documented what was happening on her land.  At this point, the land has been cleared for the crews, and the pipeline will be dug within the next few weeks.  Those of us involved with Strawbale Studio been thinking about what to do when the crews leave, how we might encourage sustainable thinking and practices.

 

Last night, 35 members of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup spent time looking at the site in its current form and brainstorming ideas for restoration once the pipeline project is done. I wanted to post an update about some of our ideas and suggestions to A) document the progress of this project and our response and B) share the ideas if others are facing a similar challenge in their communities.

Exploring Strawbale Studio

Exploring Strawbale Studio

 

We began with a tour of the Strawbale Studio property, ending at the pipeline.  Using principles of permaculture design (observe and interact) we examined the site, explored the margins, noted the existing flows of energy (like a wetland area on the western part of the pipeline and a rising slope on the eastern part of the pipeline).  Deanne also pointed out the existing resources, including a huge pile of mulched wood chips from the trees that were cut (which will likely become a compost water heater in the fall) and numerous logs and stone piles which could be used for various natural building projects. After reviewing the site, we went back to the house for discussion about possibilities. We also noted the distance from the house (about a 3-5 min walk) and noted the severity of last winter would mean that the site might not be accessible year round.  We also noted which areas needed to remain clear of large trees (where the pipeline is) and which areas could be “anything goes” areas (the staging areas where they cleared to have their equipment move in and out around the area where the pipeline is being dug).

 

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Its incredible what happens when you get 35 people in a room who want to make change.  We came up with a number of good and worthy suggestions–short term and long term. I’m not sure yet which ones we’ll decide to move forward with, but I think a number of these are worthy of consideration.

 

Short term suggestions:

Our short term suggestions focused on the immediate needs to restore the land and how to make use of any resources the pipeline company might be willing to provide:

  • Seeing if the construction crews would create swales for water trapping and the like, be willing to shape the landscape so we could more effectively catch and store energy (this would be a first response)
  • Seeing what kinds of resources for restoration the company offers (they are required to offer some, based on Michigan Department of Natural Resources and EPA guidelines).
  • Once the crews leave, we need to immediately get something immediately planted in the bare soil to help restore the land and rebuild the soil ecology.  Ideas ranged from  a cover crop of rye, clover, alfalfa to something with a tap root.  This suggestion is particularly important because the soil ecology has been largely destroyed and now the soil will have substantial amounts of compaction due to the heavy machinery going over the site.  A tap rooted crop will help break up compaction and add nitrogen and other minerals back into the soil.

These three areas are the first we will address in the action plan.  Once we see what resources we have, what, if anything, we can do to shape the land, and how to get something in the soil to restore it, the longer-term projects can get underway.

 

Group discussion indoors about site

Group discussion indoors about site

Long-Term Potential Projects:

The long-term projects ranged substantially, and many have a lot of merit!  Which projects end up taking place depends on the community, the resources, and Deanne’s vision for the site.

  • A camping area (perhaps combined with a yearly gathering) where interns or visitors can camp.
  • A pollinator sanctuary with native wild grasses, plants, flowers, etc., as well as beehives for honey and a cob beehive for wild bees (like mason bees).  We like this idea a lot because it doesn’t require a lot of daily maintenance (like animals would, see below), and it contributes back to the land.
  • The use of the land for natural building materials for other strawbale projects–establishing trees for coppicing (hazels, willows), perhaps other materials
  • Some kind of co-op: wine/grapes, orchard/fruit; goat/sheep; chicken/egg; or herbs.  The idea is that the community would contribute to the work of the co-op and reap some of the rewards.
  • An education area for children/school groups to come and learn about energy and restoration–it would have signs about oil pipelines, what was done and how the oil is used, encouraging reduction of fossil fuel use and teaching about sustainability (this could be done with any number of our ideas)
  • Orchards of fruit and nut trees (Hazels and Apples were specifically discussed)
  • A grazing area for chickens, goats, horses, or the like (we decided that if this were to be, someone would need to be down there in a little cob building as a caretaker!)
  • Alfalfa as a cash crop that can be baled and sold to nearby farmers (to bring in steady income for other projects)

These are just some of the ideas the community came up with.  This was a wonderful meeting, to see so many people invested in planning for the future, in reclaiming the land and in working to put something in that encourages a different worldview.

 

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Final Thoughts

Throughout our country and world, there are a lot of bad things being done to the land in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel energy.  Any of us who participates in modern consumerist society (myself included) is contributing to the problem of the exploitation of our lands for oil.  And most of us live near some kind of activity–from mountaintop removal to fracking to oil pipelines (and many of us live in areas were multiple kinds of activity are taking place).

 

While we can reduce our fossil fuel use and look for alternatives (as many of us are doing), how we respond to these kinds of issues, especially when we are directly confronted with them can empower us and bring about broader change in the world.  That we will turn the oil pipeline site into a sustainable, model site for other kind of restorative work is empowering–and its something we *have* the power to do, while stopping the oil pipeline is something that we really don’t have the power to do (this one was leased in the 1960’s, so its a done deal as far as any of us can tell).  I’d be interested in hearing of any other communities’ responses to these kinds of issues.

Strawbale Studio and Tar Sands Oil Pipelines – The Clash of Worldviews, Part I

Staked out pipeline

Staked out pipeline

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, we have an oil pipeline going through our immediate area in South East Michigan. The first “phase” of the project went 1/2 mile north of my home in 2012-2013. This was “Line 6B, phase I” according to Enbridge’s site, and was an upgrade/replacement project for one that they originally put in in the 1960’s to send oil from Canada to refineries in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The 2nd phase of the project began a few months ago and will continue into 2013-2014; it will create a new, much higher volume pipeline and decommission the old pipeline currently in that area. One of my goals with this blog, as I have done in the past, is to document such issues and their spiritual and environmental consequences (and long-term readers might recall my coverage of some North Dakota fracking last year).  I’m going to start with an overview about the larger oil pipeline and some environmental consequences–then I’ll get into details about how its affecting one local place, Strawbale Studio.

Tar Sands Oil and Environmental Impacts: This is a short (5 minute) video that provides a good overview of the pipeline in the Great Lakes region, specifically, at Mackinac Bridge (where it crosses the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan).  Mackinac is about 4 hours north of here. Its worth the watch:

 

 

I also have mentioned in an earlier post that this same pipeline was responsible for the Kalamazoo Oil spill in 2010, which put somewhere around 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamzoo river. The pipeline spill is still not entirely cleaned up and just a few months ago the EPA ordered Enbridge back to clean up more of the oil still in the river and surrounding areas. Given Enbridge’s history of environmental ethics in this state, the fact that they are making a larger volume pipeline now is particularly concerning.  One of my colleagues, who has the Line 6B coming through his property on my road, has been blogging about a lot of this at his Line 6B Blog.

 

Also of concern is the source of the oil–the Alberta (Canada) oil sands. This oil sands methods of extraction are particularly damaging to the peat bogs and boreal forests that make up much of Alberta. Water usage, and the release of oil-tainted water, very harmful to wildlife, occurs with tar sands oil extraction. Substantial carbon dioxide emissions are also on the rise (which have increased Canada’s emissions in the last 20 years rather than decreasing them, as per the Kyoto Protocol). In all, these oil sands, and the resulting pipelines, represent serious environmental and ethical challenges.

 

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Going after tar sands oil is an indicator of the fact that oil is a finite and quickly depleting resource, past its peak of production.  Companies wouldn’t have considered mining these patches for oil years ago when other oil fields were still easy to access and full of oil.  These tar sands oil fields are now mined, despite their environmental consequences, because few other options exist to keep oil flowing at the rate of demand. The energy returned on investment (EROI) on tar sands oil is somewhere between 2.9 to 5.1 by more liberal estimates (so for every 1 energy unit we put into the process of mining, we extract 2.9-5.1 units of oil). (Some have suggested its closer to 1:1 if one considers the whole lifecycle of the production of tar sands oil, and things like the upkeep of pipelines). Compare this to conventional oil fields, which today offer a 25:1 EROI (fields of years past offered much higher EROI). In other words, this tar sands oil cruising through pipelines in South East Michigan isn’t even worth much investing in from an EROI, even if one were to overlook the substantial environmental impacts.

One example of strawbale studio's work!  Here is a living roof/wood shed

One example of strawbale studio’s work! Here is a living roof/wood shed

Strawbale Studio in the path…..Back to the matter at hand. Endbridge is now moving onto their 2nd phase of the pipeline project, and this is very unfortunately intersecting with a place near and dear to my heart–Strawbale Studio and Sustainable Living Center (run by Deanne Bednar). Strawbale Studio is a place that, from a sustainability perspective, is doing everything right: teaching and empowering people who want to learn how to live more sustainably, building community, and sharing skills. I’ve been honored to take numerous workshops there and have learned a great deal of information on more sustainable living skills, such as cob building and artwork, strawbale construction and natural building, growing mushrooms, barn raising, rocket stoves, composting, food preservation, candle making, and so much more.  I’ve also been excited to meet so many people from around the world who are interning or taking classes at Strawbale Studio.

Another example of Strawbale Studio's work - A composting toilet!

Another example of Strawbale Studio’s work – A spiral chamber!

On the back part of the Strawbale Studio property spans the old oil pipeline that Enbridge built in the 1960’s; now they are decommissioning the old line and destroying more land for their larger, new pipeline.  A few months ago, we got the word that Enbridge would be clearing the trees near the existing pipeline–about 80 or so feet of trees, 4 acres long. They also required Deanne to dismantle one of the natural buildings that was nearly finished–it was an amazing, quirky guest house. I hate to think how many thousands of hours of labor went into building that guest house.

 

A few weeks ago, Deanne got word that the tree clearing would be occurring at a rate of 1 mile per day, and that it would be occurring soon at Strawbale Studio. I went out to the property to honor the trees and document what was occurring before the crews were to come through. Here are some photos of this patch of lovely forest, thick with many kinds of sacred trees and plants: hawthorn, apple, oak, maple, cherry, brambles, and so much more.

Guest house taken down before logging

Guest house taken down by volunteers before logging

Tree line happy and vibrant

Tree line happy and vibrant; these trees are all gone now

Path through the woods

Path through the woods; most of these trees are gone too

Hawthorn and Apple

Hawthorn and Apple; these trees are no more

I must say, that this was one of the hardest visits I ever had made to a forest.  Why? Because I knew it was doomed and had no hope of survival.  Nothing that any of us could do would permanently stop the great wave of oil that would wash through its path. The trees knew it was coming and had already accepted their fate with a dignity that few humans can ever achieve. They waved at me in the gentle breeze, knowing that they were experiencing their last sunsets, their last ever fall equinox.  When I arrived, I immediately noticed that the workers, in marking up their areas for clearing, had knocked over a small living hawthorn tree, a very sacred tree; we gathered up the berries and will dry them and use them this winter.

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

There is another part to this visit though, the darker part.  This visit was also very hard because I drove there, using fossil fuels that very well could have been extracted and sent down that same pipeline, and I was contributing to the problem even in order to make my visit.  The contradictions were rooted deep within me as I spent time there with the trees.  I’ve been seriously reading on how to reduce my dependence on fossil fuels in an efficient and cost-effective way, but I haven’t yet come up with a solution that I can afford and enact.  So knowing that I was using the oil that is driving this project was particularly difficult.

 

Enbridge clear cuts: A week and a half later, Enbridge did their initial “clearing” of the trees in order to make room for their pipeline. We weren’t sure when exactly was happening when (Deanne was out of town) but when I came back later that week, I was able to document what had occurred this far. Here are a number of photos:

Former oak

Former oak

Machinery clearing "brush"

Machinery clearing “brush”

Former life....

Former life….

Trailer tracks

Trailer tracks

Devastation

Devastation where life once stood

Giant pile of brush

Giant pile of brush

Patch of cleared land

Patch of cleared land with stumps and logs

Where do we go from here? There are ways to be reactive to what is happening and there are ways to be proactive.  This is not just the story just of destruction.  I’ll continue to document what is happening at Strawbale Studio, and talk to some of the people there about the “clash of worldviews” as I am calling it; the sustainable living skills that are attempting to be taught while the heavy machinery rolls ever onward and oil pipeline is built within earshot of our workshops.

 

What this story will hopefully be, however, is a story of what we do with this space after they clear out.  How this space is transformed into something new; how the wood is used, how the land is regrown, and how we all grow in the process.  As they continue to put this pipeline in for the next year or so–and as we brainstorm our next moves in producing something amazing in this space that has now seen such suffering. I hope you’ll follow us and see what happens next.

Book review and Personal Response to John Michael Greer’s “Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress”

In today’s blog post, I’m going to review John Michael Greer’s newest book, Not the Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, and the Myth of Progress. To review this book, I am going to start with an extended personal example from my own family, through demonstrating this example, I can describe how meaningfully accurate Greer’s insights are, and how much they already apply to those living in the USA Rust Belt areas (and by extension, eventually to the rest of industrial society).

 

The city of Johnstown, PA, a rust belt city that has been in decline for decades.

I grew up in a rural area south western Pennsylvania, in a region littered by coal mining towns with names like “Mine 42” that long ago stopped mining coal. The nearest city, Johnstown, was a steel mill town that lost the last of its mill jobs in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Both of my grandfathers worked in the mine and mill industries, but by my parents’ generation, those “good mill jobs” were gone. The skeletal remains of these mine and mill operations litter the countryside, abandoned and rusting away, and give the “rust belt” its characteristic name.

 

My parents decided to take a different route (mostly by necessity) and pursued degrees in graphic design and visual communications from a technical college in Pittsburgh. They eventually left promising careers in the big city to come back to Johnstown and start a family. They started their own business and for a number of years, experienced success, eventually building a home with dedicated office space when I was seven. Their clients mainly consisted of small and large businesses in the area, such as the regional electric company and regional dairy, that needed graphic design services but were not large enough for in-house designers.

 

Throughout the course of my life, however, I watched my parents struggle more and more as time went on, as the late 1980’s moved into the 90’s and then into the new millennium. They did not struggle because they were lazy—they are the hardest workers that I know—but because of larger factors beyond their control. We were living in an area that was experiencing significant economic contraction.  As I grew up, I watched my parents comment on how each and every one of their larger clients either closed up shop or were bought out and relocated to a different part of the country or even overseas. My mother describes this as a “downward spiral” that they tried everything to continue their business, to bring in new clients, but no matter what they did and how hard they worked, the spiral continued. In the late 1990’s, business had gotten so bad that my father had to look for other work to make ends meet. Work was incredibly hard to find anywhere in the region, and even when my father found it, sometimes in his field and sometimes out of it, layoffs were common.

 

I think about conversations with my parents, and how they often wondered what was going on, what they had done wrong, and I watched them internalize those failures and, at points, slip into despair and depression. They would then redouble their efforts and work even harder to make ends meet, only to continue to struggle. They recognized the decline in the economy, but even now, when I speak to them about their businesses and lives, I sense that they feel the fault lies somehow with them. The cultural narrative, of course, would suggest that their struggles were completely due to their own personal shortcomings or inability to work hard (and this continues to be a dominant narrative of our time for any people who struggle and/or are of the lowest socioeconomic classes).

 

But this is very much not the case, as John Michael Greer’s newest title, Not the Future We Ordered, describes. Greer begins his book by describing historical examples where public challenges or ethical issues (such as slaves’ repeated attempts at escaping to freedom) become reframed as individual psychological problems, thereby mitigating any collective responsibility or call to action (p. 1-3).  So while my parents and those around them, who also struggled financially, would blame themselves, the truth is that we were living in an age of industrial and economic decline in the rust belt that started in the 1970’s and continued to this day. These struggles on their part are a microcosm for the larger macrocosm of industrial decline. What Greer’s book has done for me, then, is to help me understand my own family’s challenges in helpful and psychologically understandable terms.

Not the Future We Ordered Book

 

Greer’s The Long Descent provides an overview of industrial decline in the age of peak oil (an outline of his arguments and a video to his talk in Detroit was in my blog post earlier this week); he provides a brief version of this in Not the Future We Ordered in the 1st chapter. The focus of this book, however, is not on demonstrating the efficacy of the concept of Peak Oil but rather examining the psychology behind reactions to industrial decline and how those in the helping professions (and other interested parties) might begin to personally and culturally deal with such challenges.

 

Greer opens the book with a discussion of “drapetomania” and the “50’s housewife syndrome,” wherein cultural problems, like slavery, were shifted by medical practitioners to individual pathology.  In the case of slaves who attempted to escape to freedom to avoid their horrible life circumstances, doctors of the age invented “drapetomania,” a psychological disease that compelled a slave to attempt to escape.  This effectively shifted the issue of escaping slaves onto the individual slave, and provided a convenient way for society to ignore the causes behind attempted and successful escapes.  Greer argues that this is very much what we have today–the collective pathology of the progress narrative, our inability to rationally discuss and enact change concerning peak oil, etc, is framed as individual sickness (oh, she’s just weird because she believes that stuff).  I saw this manifested so clearly in my parents’ coping with the failure of their business growing up.  Everyone looked at them and thought they must be doing something wrong, they must be incompetent, their problems were attributed solely to their individual abilities.  But the truth of the matter was that the area was in substantial and measurable decline, but we didn’t talk about the decline, we only talked about individual challenges.  It was like the elephant in the room–nobody really wanted to address what was all around us.

 

Greer spends quite a bit of time explaining and examining the “myth of progress” of our modern industrial era, which he describes as follows, “the belief that all human history is a linear trajectory that has risen up from squalor and misery of the prehistoric past through ever-ascending stages of increased knowledge, prosperity, enlightenment, and technological sophistication, and will inevitability do so into a limitless future” (p. 30).  He argues that the myth of progress has become a cultural religion and the most important driving myth in industrialized nations.  This cultural religion, along with underlying psychological factors such as the psychology of previous investment (p. 55), is what has caused America and other industrialized nations to continue to plow on while ignoring mounting evidence of decline and natural limits.  The bulk of his book is devoted to understanding why this process is occurring. I think about my own parents’ struggles, and how they were forever living in a state of cognitive dissonance where the progress myth was perpetuating in our larger culture, but where it was very much not visible in our daily lives.

 

In the last two chapters, having set the stage for the psychological challenges we face, he sets up the concept of the five stages of peak oil, which require letting go of said religion requires one to pass through a process akin to the stages of grief (p. 101).  Although he admittedly uses no empirical data on how the stages of grief might be applied to the broader concept of industrial decline (as at the time of the writing no such data exists), the concepts are drawn upon his own experience in the Peak Oil community for over a decade (p. 110).  Although this section is less well-researched than the rest of his text due to limitations in the data itself, I see it as performing a critical function in the Peak Oil discussion—that is, opening the door for discussing—and researching—how we might better understand this process.  Greer’s final chapter concludes with a call to action—for those in the helping professions to understand and overcome their own grief, and for the rest of us to embrace the idea of hope (not unfounded optimism, but realistic hope) (p. 135).   I wonder if some of Greer’s suggestions might also be found in any literature on the decline of the rust belt and the psychology experienced there.

 

One of the things Greer does really well, in this book and in his other peak oil titles, is to blend historical facts and evidence of similar problems and apply them to today’s challenges.  For example, in describing the “psychology of previous investment” which is one reason that we continue to hold onto the myth of progress despite growing evidence, he uses the aftermath of the failed prophecy of Dorothy Martin, a housewife who, in the 1950’s convinced a group of followers that extraterrestrials were going to destroy the world.  Despite Martin’s failures, her followers continued to believe her for quite some time; this same kind of thing is happening with the so-called economic recovery, which hasn’t actually happened from the bulk of the American people.  This kind of approach is used throughout his book (and many of his other works), and this expert blending of historical facts, logical connections and examples to present times, and psychological concepts makes for a engaging read.

 

Although I have read his other works on Peak Oil, I found his newest title a bit more deeply personal because it gave me the tools not only to understand what was happening, but to investigate my own relationship to industrial decline and peak oil in a meaningful way.  When I finished the Long Descent, I felt ready to go out and continue to pursue a lot of what I talk about on this blog (rocket stoves, organic gardening, etc.) but I was (and still am) very much coping with my own understanding of industrial decline. It also, very unexpectedly, allowed me to investigate my own family’s personal history as it related to decline.  So really, what this book did was give me some of the tools to psychologically adapt to what is occurring, and just as importantly, allowed me to understand that my concerns, nor the struggles of my family, are not merely part of a personal psychosis but as a broader cultural phenomena.  In other words, this book is empowering and is, in itself, a glimmer of hope and a light on a path into an unknown, and in Greer’s terms, unwelcome future. I’m planning on buying copies of this book for a number of friends and family, and recommend it without hesitation to my blog readers. If any of you have had the opportunity to read Not the Future We Ordered or have comments, I would love to hear from you!

Review, Video, and Discussion of John Michael Greer’s Detroit Community Lecture, “Not the Future We Ordered”

Recently, our druid grove brought John Michael Greer to Michigan, where he did a book signing and gave a talk on the fall of industrial civilization.  If you are interested in either druidry or sustainability, John Michael’s works (on druidry, esoteri wisdom, and peak oil) are some of the very best you can read (and I’ve recommended some of them before on this blog). I should also add that beyond his books on peak oil, you can read his blog, the Archdruid Report.

 

I wanted to spend a little bit of time today outlining some of his major arguments on Peak Oil/Industrial Decline, posting the video from his community lecture he gave in Detroit, and providing a personal response.  While the arguments and information that John Michael presents  are not easy messages for anyone in the industrialized world to hear, they are necessary discussions that need to take place.

 

Video of John Michael Greer’s Community Lecture in Detroit: “Not the Future We Ordered.” 

This is about the first hour and 15 minutes of his talk, which includes a few Q&A questions (but the discussion continued long after my memory card ran out of space!)

 

Overview of JMG’s Talk – Peak Oil and Industrial Decline.  In a nutshell, John Michael presents evidence and research through his books, blog, and talk that indicates that the world is running out of fossil fuels (our cheapest and most abundant energy supply in human history) and that this will invariably put our modern industrial society into decline. This decline will not be quick, but rather will likely take the path of most societies in the past—what Greer calls a “long descent” over a period of centuries, with smaller crises and upswings, but a general downward pattern.

 

As Greer demonstrates, back in the 1950’s, Hubbert (a geologist who worked for Shell Oil) demonstrated that oil production in an individual field works a lot like a statistical bell curve due to geology—the oil, which can only be pumped out of the ground so quickly—comes out more and more quickly until it reaches its peak, then it slowly declines in production until there is no oil left. Hubbert’s argument (which was proven right in the 1970’s) suggested that just like an individual oil field, the US oil production would reach a peak and then decline. And that’s exactly what happened in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s, Hubbert’s data also indicated that there would be a global peak in oil production (as we do live on a planet with finite resources, a fact that much of industrial society seems to have forgotten). Most researchers who are studying peak oil agree that we’ve already reached our peak of production (somewhere around 2005).

 

Industrial society, built upon cheap oil, cannot be sustained at its current rate of consumption nor standard of living without the influx of said cheap oil.  Since the world has reached its peak already in 2005, we will continue to see oil prices skyrocket.  We’ll also continue to see our government’s ability to provide for its citizens, and people, over time, will be forced to provide for more of their own needs, grow their own food, and learn to live and make do with less. We also see, as John Michael argues in his new book Not the Future We Ordered, industrial society sticking its head in the sand and working hard to ignore the problem, because the idea that progress will happen no matter what (the “myth of progress” as JMG calls it) is our “civic religion.” This means that people believe in progress so strongly, they hold onto this like a kind of religious belief, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will dissuade them.

 

One more important thing—civilizations don’t rise or fall within a day.  Charting human history, John Michael suggests in the Long Descent that this fall of industrial civilization will take time, likely several centuries. We are seeing the start of it now—walk around New Orleans or Detroit and you’ll see the crumbling buildings, the areas that have already been abandoned. In Detroit, however, you’ll also see a thriving Eastern Market where people are shifting to local eating, using pedal power to deliver vegetables, putting up hoop houses, and converting abandoned lots into vegetable gardens. The future, JMG argues, is here in the rust belt.

 

Where do druids fit in all of this? From my perspective, if we accept these arguments as valid (and by all means, watch his talk and read his books yourself to make up your own mind), and we want to do something about it, we have a long, hard road before us. Most individuals living in industrial society haven’t yet even considered this as a problem (and you may recall my earlier post on Stasis Theory and before policies can be enacted to facilitate change, we first must agree that there is a problem and that it is serious). I try not to think about the larger forces that are continuing to drive us on as though our limits to growth aren’t quickly approaching, because that mindset depresses and overwhelms me, especially insofar as it demonstrates my own powerlessness on that national/international level. Rather, I think about what I can do, individually and in my local community, that will make a difference.  And most importantly–I move from thought to action, to doing things rather than just talking, and its in the act of doing things that I feel empowered.

 

JMG suggests, and I fully agree, that if we want to enact such change, Druids can have a special place in this transition. As the potential holders of “oak knowledge,” (to reach back to the ancient etymology of the word “druid”), we can think about what the knowledge of the oaks is all about. The ancient druids held oak knowledge, in the sense that the oak tree was rooted in their survival. We can think about what modern “oak” knowledge means–literally, things like how we might use all those lovely acorns that drop each year to the ground to being resources for others who need help. While we still have access to cheap, abundant oil, we can work to reskill, to learn things that will be helpful in the future, and to preserve basic technologies for future generations (like JMG’s suggestions in his talk for HAM radio, wind turbines, basic printing press technology, etc). We can work to make sure that when things really begin to shift, we are mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to that we can help others (which is the subject of his new book, which I’ll discuss further in an upcoming blog).

 

And I think that JMG’s arguments and talk further demonstrate why things like reskilling, organic gardening, permaculture, and so forth are so important—its not just about sustainability but about survival in a post-peak oil world.

Reducing Your Impact on the Planet: Ten Tips to Get Started

As we quickly approach the most consumptive season of the year, I wanted to post about ways that you can reduce your overall impact on the planet.  I think its critically important that we, as druids and other earth-centered spiritual people, set an example for others to follow.  So when people ask, “what do you believe” you can instead respond with “this is what I believe and here’s how I enact it in my daily life.”  Without changing our own behaviors and practices, we can’t be that example for others to follow. So with that said, this blog post will detail ten ways that you can start reducing your impact.

 

1) Reduce your overall buying, and if you have to buy, buy used. I posted about this some time ago–and its critically important that we carefully monitor what we buy and how we buy it.  Each time we buy a product, we are sending a message to that company that says, “Hey make more of these, cause people want them.” So reduce demand not buying, or if you have to buy, buying used.  This creates less strain and demand on the whole system.

 

We all need space to grow!

We all need space to grow!

2) When you buy, pay attention to who you buy it from and what they stand for.  Each time we buy a product, we also inadvertently fund that company’s political initiatives, which after Citizens United, can be seriously ethically questionable.  Think of your dollars like a vote–each time you spend, you are voting in favor or against certain viewpoints.  In the last election, California’s GM-Labeling proposition was defeated by millions in dollars in spending from food companies.  We also have oil companies actively lobbying and writing their own policies, restaurants openly attacking gay rights, and phone companies supporting extremist tea-party candidates who are anti-environmental and anti-science.  If we stop buying from these companies, this sends a clear message and erodes their financial ability to support such environmentally and socially destructive policies.  A few years ago, after learning about AT&T’s funding of tea party candidates, we switched to Credo Mobile, a progressive company who openly and actively funds environmental and humanitarian groups. We also buy everything that we need locally, so that we keep money within our local area, rather than going to businesses that might not even be paying taxes in the USA.

 

3) Drive less.  When you have to drive, combine trips. Use public transportation if available. Unlike phone companies where switching to a different one is relatively straightforward, its quite hard (although not impossible) to avoid supporting big oil’s anti-environmental agenda.  To combat this, we carpool, combine trips, and drive a very fuel-efficient hybrid car.  But even these activities hardly seem like enough, although they are something.  We have virtually no public transportation in our area, unfortunately (Detroit, being “motor city” and all, has none), so we decided to invest in a very fuel efficient car to offset this lack.

 

4) Eat locally and seasonally.  I’ve also blogged about this before, and suggested six principles for local eating. The further your food has to travel, the more fossil fuels are burnt to create it.  Furthermore, when you purchase food from big agriculture, rather than from small farms, you are buying food that has been produced using fossil fuel fertilizers, fossil fuel machines, genetically modified crops, and various pesticides.  By shifting to a local, seasonal diet that is purchased locally from small, independent, organic farmers, you are reducing the amount of fossil fuel to get your food from farm to plate.  You are also supporting sustainable agriculture and a new generation of farmers.  Its a really good thing :).

 

5) Grow your own food.  You should also seriously consider starting your own garden.  I’ve provided numerous techniques on this blog for starting gardens, extending the growing season, and preserving food.  If you use organic methods, saving seeds from year to year and building your soil with what is on your property,  you can have lovely and delicious vegetables with virtually no carbon footprint.  If you are living in an apartment, you should check out R&DIY, which is a great site for window gardening in small spaces.

 

6) Reduce your meat (especially beef) consumption.  Beef (and other meat consumption) is very environmentally destructive.  Even if you don’t shift to a completely vegetarian diet, reducing your beef consumption (especially imported beef, from places like Brazil who are losing rainforest at an alarming rate to support the American Beef industry).  While this takes some shifting of your eating habits, you will find that there are many wonderful alternatives out there!  The other issue with meat is that it takes double or more the amount of corn/grains to produce a pound of beef–and those grains could be used for feeding people or using less available farmland.

 

Convert your lawn for wildlife!

Convert your lawn for wildlife!

7) Avoid other foods that are environmentally destructive. Foods you might not suspect also have a substantial environmental toll.  Most dairy (cheese, milk, butter) is tied up with the cattle industry, which also is responsible for alarming rates of CO2 as well as unethical treatment of animals. Fish farming has been demonstrated to cause substantial problems with coastal areas.   Palm oil is another food that is very environmentally destructive.

 

8) Reduce your energy consumption. Have an energy audit done in your home.  Reduce your thermometer by 3 degrees in the winter, and raise it by 3 degrees in the summer (or forgo AC entirely).  Wear layers of clothing, and focus on heating areas of your house rather than the whole house.  Turn off the lights when they are not in use.  Make sure that machines are unplugged when not in use.  If you have to buy new appliances, buy Energy Star rated appliances. There are lots of ways to reduce your energy consumption!

 

9) Convert your lawn to edible, wildlife-friendly gardens. The typical green American lawn is a huge site of environmental pollution and waste. Mowing the lawn requires heavy equipment and fossil fuels, more fossil fuels are dumped on it to keep it green and free of weeds, and the space is not habitat or food production for most wildlife or human life.  Not to mention the water stress that’s involved in watering the lawn to keep it looking nice. When we purchased our house, we had about 2 acres of lawn (of three acres, the rest was a pond and a bit of forest and the house itself).  I quickly took to only mowing paths through 2/3 of it and letting it grow as it saw fit.  I still did mow select areas in the front.  But over the last two years, I’ve been converting it to productive space one area at a time: a butterfly garden and stone path now takes up a sunny spot facing the south of the house; a huge vegetable garden now takes up much of the center area; and numerous fruit and nut trees have been planted and mulched. The next projects include a sunflower and sunchoke bed, a golden raspberry planting area, and an edible and walkable labyrinth.

 

Baby robins will thank you for your efforts!

Baby robins will thank you for your efforts!

10) Reduce your waste and start composting. Recycling is often the first thing that people think of concerning environmentally-friendly behaviors.  And yes, its a great start!  The problem with recycling, however, is that most of the waste in your products is not the products themselves, but the waste from producing the products (The Story of Stuff explains this quite nicely).  This is why #1 and #2 are so important on my list (and are #1 and #2, rather than #10).  Recycling and composting are excellent activities, but should be supplemented with other earth-friendly behaviors.

While this list is not exhaustive, I think this list can help get you in the mindset of reducing your environmental impact.  And getting in the mindset is key–once you have made that shift away from the status quo, its amazing how many things you can find to do each day that can help build a better world.

Moving Sustainability from the Fringe to the Mainstream: The Case of One University

One of the greatest challenges we, as a culture, face is transitioning to sustainable practices and making those practices mainstream rather than fringe activities.  In some parts of the country, even access to local foods is not possible; in others, like my own, we have a number of knowledgeable experts that deal in sustainability and interest in sustainability, however, our sustainable activities are not mainstream.  The one mainstream activity that I can think of is going to a farmer’s market, which nearly everyone knows about and lots of people enjoy doing.  But what about other sustainable activities, like converting your lawn into edibles, edible forest gardening, driving a biodiesel car, not purchasing new items, or eating a 100 mile diet?  These seem to be more “fringe” activities that only a select few who are in the “know” are able to do.  And I won’t even mention the huge number of people who do not see sustainability as necessary at all.  So in this post, I want to tell the story of my own campus, and the critical importance of making “invisible” activities visible.  I tell this story because I think the story of my campus is not just a story of my campus, its a story of what is happening all throughout the United States, in that sustainable activities are in the fringe and we need to move these activities to the center.

Converted lawn - from consumption to production!

Converted lawn – from consumption to production!

Let me start by telling you a bit about my campus.  My campus is not a small one–its a suburban public university with 20,000 students.  In terms of unsustainable practices, we’ll start with the recycling program, which is just shameful.  Most of the time, if you want to recycle, you can’t.  Recycle bins are so few and far between that you have to seek them out, sometimes even in a different building.  One recycle bin is shared between three floors of a building, so you never know where its going to be–and it only takes paper products when you can find it.  Its impossible to recycle anything that isn’t paper–the only bottle/can recycle bin I have found on campus is always overflowing.  Since people are in a hurry and the system has not empowered them to recycle, they don’t recycle and so much is wasted.  Other features of my campus that are important to note: there is a “main” part of campus and then a ton of other land with other things that aren’t part of the academic campus (like, say, unsustainable golf courses). My campus also doesn’t have a good bus system that goes to non-academic parts of campus (well, ok, it doesn’t have a good bus system, period).

One of the things I am doing this fall is teaching an undergraduate course in interdisciplinary research methods with a theme of globalization and sustainability.  As part of this course, I’m taking my students on field trips to various places on campus that are engaging in sustainable practices–and let me tell you, they were not easy to find! On the 1st day of my class, we did a “sustainability” walk through campus and looked at the massive lawns free of dandelions and being over-watered, the lack of recycle bins, the overflowing trash bins, the overfull parking lots (because our campus is in “overshoot” mode with the growing number of students, to use a term from the Limits to Growth) and our new building on campus that hopefully will get a LEED platinum green rating.  The new building is an interesting case; the building’s “greenness” is circulated like juicy gossip among the faculty and student body where nobody can tell you anything specific, just that its “green.”  But beyond the nebulously green building, it looks like our campus is doing literally nothing sustainable.  But looks can be deceiving.

When you go to the fringes of the campus, suddenly, a wealth of sustainable practices emerge. Three or so miles from main campus is the student organic farm.  Its not accessible by anything but car from campus (someone who tried to walk would have to walk through the golf course and would encounter a 8′ fence with barbed wire). The Student Organic Farm is a great place, it has knowledgeable students and faculty engaging in sustainable agricultural practices, re-purposing old buildings, and educating and empowering the campus community (…at least those who are able to find it).  So here, tucked into an invisible corner of the campus is a wealth of sustainable activity happening–and nobody can see it.  Nobody even knows where on campus it is located.  We learned from the director of the farm that she tried to have it established somewhere near main campus….but administrators wouldn’t hear of it because they felt it was going to be an “eyesore.”  They put her in the worst spot possible–on what had been a sandy playground, with no actual dirt to speak of, and a bunch of trees south of the garden.  Their reasoning was that the trees would block the garden a bit….so it wasn’t able to be seen.  Unfortunately, they also block the light, but since the farm has expanded, that original plot became the shady flower and greens garden.  They also had to haul in a ton of  When I took my students to visit the farm, the farm was in the process of

Harvesting veggies is a great activity to introduce people to sustainability!

Harvesting veggies is a great activity to introduce people to sustainability!

shutting down for the year.  My students and I learned about the farm and then, later, dug some potatoes.  In my students’ responses to their visit, several noted how they had never harvested a vegetable before and hadn’t realized that potatoes came “from the ground.”  How disconnected we have become from our food supply!

I think its important to note one more thing about sustainability as a fringe vs. mainstream practice as it relates to the farm.  At one time, the organic farm’s goal was to grow food for campus dining services so that students could have locally sourced food and organic food.  But they found that campus dining services, apparently, doesn’t want real food grown locally.  They are a large corporation whose services the university pays for, and they use large corporate practices.  They want cheap food, food that has various industrial certifications, and won’t pay a fair price for the farm’s food.  So the student farmers, instead, started a campus farm stand to provide more access to real food.   So in three ways: accessibility of location, visibility of farm, and impact on students’ eating practices, we see that this wonderful bastion of sustainability is still a fringe activity.
I’m going to give one more example to demonstrate the fringe vs. mainstream concept and how it is happening on my campus. The second place that we visited was a new Clean Energy Research Center. I only discovered the center because my husband served on a committee with someone who knew about it, and I was asking him if he knew of other places my students and I could visit on campus.  Like the farm, the clean energy research center must be accessed via car (it also is about 1.5 miles away, with no sidewalks and very dangerous turn in the road).  But again, once we arrived, we were able to see a wealth of amazing activities–biodiesel production, geothermal heating, biomass heating and experimentation on biomass pellet production, solar grid systems, solar PV systems, various projects converting normal cars into something more sustainable, etc.  The whole building was retrofitted with a highly efficient automated wood chip boiler (which heats using wood chips from dead ash trees all over campus).  There, we also learned about other clean energy projects, including a clear

Converted lawn - now beautiful path with chickens!

Converted lawn – now beautiful path with chickens!

articulation of the green features of the new building, tests for wind power, and plans for biomass central heating plants on campus.

After our first walk, my students and I concluded that our campus was a very 20th century unsustainable campus with a new and already floundering public transportation system and seriously embarrassing recycling program.  But by examining activities on the fringes, rather than at the center, we found out that this is not the case.  Some really cutting edge things are happening on campus with organic gardening and clean energy.  And almost nobody knows about it.

I’d like to return from the microcosm of my campus to the macrocosm of present-day America.  The idea of sustainability being on the fringes, being something that hippies and other social outcasts participate in, I think is really still dominant.  Its not that we don’t have sustainable activities and things happening.  Lots of stuff, important stuff, is happening.  The problem is that its happening on the fringes.  Its happening in places that people can’t see it happen, and because of that, it remains elusive and inaccessible to the bulk of the American populace.  To give an example of this: I’ve talked quite a bit about the problems inherent in the typical green front lawn in terms of unsustainable practices.  Part of the problem in overcoming the lawn issue is that people don’t realize there are alternatives or that their current lawn is a problem.  They go to big box stores to buy their products for their lawn and that reinforces their behaviors; they haven’t ever been exposed to different ways of tending their property.  That’s because people like me who get rid of our lawns are still in the fringes; its not a mainstream practice.

So I think as a community concerned with sustainability, we must start thinking about not only engaging in our practices, but bringing those practices to the masses.  Its not enough to do stuff for yourself and improve our own lives; we have to reach out.  To educate and empower people and move sustainability into the mainstream.