Archive for March, 2009


From Learned Helplessness to Empowered Entrepreneur in Six Steps

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Dave Pollard, author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, wants to help you take control of your worklife. In this article he published in Ode Magazine he argues that this recession is exactly the right time to make that leap into your post-employee life. He suggests we confront and combat the “learned helplessness” that we’ve adopted as employees in this society.

He explains in the article:

This perception of helplessness is reinforced by our society for all sorts of reasons. Employers want their employees to be loyal and obedient; schools and universities teach us we have to find a job or career working for someone else. Government programs to “combat unemployment” generally entail giving money and tax breaks to corporations in the naive belief that this will “trickle down” to the rest of us. So, conditioned by learned helplessness, we perceive ourselves as passive consumers, passive citizens and passive employees. The key to overcoming learned helplessness is realizing that we aren’t helpless, that we have more control over our situations and destinies than we’ve been led to believe.

Entrepreneurship need not be stressful, risky, expensive, lonely, exhausting or require great skills, ideas or self-confidence—a perception that’s reinforced by the mainstream media. Right now, when the economy is falling apart, is the best possible time to start your own enterprise, and doing so could propel you into work that’s more responsible, sustainable and joyful than what you’re doing now.

Dave then goes on to list the six differences between entrepreneurs who find their businesses to be “stress-prone, boom-and-bust, struggling” and their “natural entrepreneur” counterparts who enjoy their work every day. Read them, and the rest of the article, here at Ode.

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Do the Secret Bush Memos Amount to Treason? Yes!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Naomi Wolf, author of our New York Times bestseller The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, posted an article this morning to one of our favorite news outlets, Alternet. As we all know, Obama’s administration recently released terrifying secret memos that circulated through the Bush camp. They revealed that Naomi Wolf’s most dire warnings were spot on. Bush and cronies planned the collapse of America as we know it. So why is there no press coverage?

In the following article, Naomi gets some legal clarification from Michael Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of Guantanamo: What the World Should Know.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

The memos are a confession. The memos could not be clearer: This was the legal groundwork of an attempted coup. I expected massive front page headlines from the revelation that these memos exited. Almost nothing. I was shocked.

As a non-lawyer, was I completely off base in my reading of what this meant, I wondered? Was I hallucinating?

Astonished, I sought a reality check — and a formal legal read — from one of the nation’s top constitutional scholars (and most steadfast patriots), Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been at the forefront of defending the detainees and our own liberties.

Here is our conversation:

Naomi Wolf: Michael, can you explain to a layperson what the Yoo memos actually mean?’

Michael Ratner: What they mean is that your book looks moderate in respect to those issues now. This — what is in the memos — is law by fiat.

I call it “Fuhrer’s law.” What those memos lay out means the end of the system of checks and balances in this country. It means the end of the system in which the courts, legislature and executive each had a function and they could check each other.

What the memos set out is a system in which the president’s word is law, and Yoo is very clear about that: the president’s word is not only law according to these memos, but no law or constitutional right or treaty can restrict the president’s authority.

What Yoo says is that the president’s authority as commander in chief in the so-called war on terror is not bound by any law passed by Congress, any treaty, or the protections of free speech, due process and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The First, Fourth and Fifth amendments — gone.

What this actually means is that the president can order the military to operate in the U.S. and to operate without constitutional restrictions. They — the military –  can pick you or me up in the U.S. for any reason and without any legal process. They would not have any restrictions on entering your house to search it, or to seize you. They can put you into a brig without any due process or going to court. (That’s the Fourth and Fifth amendments.)

The military can disregard the Posse Comitatus law, which restricts the military from acting as police in the the United States. And the president can, in the name of wartime restrictions, limit free speech. There it is in black and white: we are looking at one-person rule without any checks and balances — a lawless state. Law by fiat.

Who has suspended the law this way in the past? It is like a Caesar’s law in Rome; a Mussolini’s law in Italy; a Fuhrer’s law in Germany; a Stalin’s law in the Soviet Union. It is right down the line. It is enforcing the will of the dictator through the military.

Please read the full fascinating discussion here.

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Oil Has Peaked: Now Begins the Transition

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

As The Oil Drum pointed out last week, oil has peaked. We have officially entered the post-oil age in which the transition to lower energy lives is inevitable. (No doubt, pundits and policy wonks will debate this ad nauseum for the far too long, and to them I say, “AAAAAAAAAAAARGH!”)

This energy transition can happen gracefully with fore-thought and planning, or, if we continue to consume energy at our current rate, the transition will be brought about faster and meaner than home redecoration by Blackwater. Shaun Chamberlin, author of The Transition Timeline: For a Local, Resilient Future, explores the implication of peak oil.

The following is an excerpt from Transition Timeline:

A 2005 report commissioned by the US Department of Energy concluded that,

“the peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem,”

and that without timely mitigation the economic, social and political impacts will be

“abrupt, revolutionary and not temporary”.

The reasons for this are detailed and complex, but ultimately it comes down to this – energy is the ability to do work of any kind, and oil is our most useful and most heavily used source of net energy. The implications of both increasing (and increasingly volatile) prices and actual oil supply shortages will be profound.

The sheer usefulness of oil can perhaps best be summed up with a stunning statistic. A 40-litre fill-up of petrol represents the energy equivalent of four years of manual labour by a person (as peak oil educator Richard Heinberg says, compare the effortlessness of driving fuelled by oil with the amount of muscle power it takes to push a car just to the side of the road). Yet in the UK we currently pay only around £45 for that amount of energy (and in the US they pay less than half that)—we would be hard-pressed to find someone willing to work for us for four years for that sum!

Each 42-gallon barrel of oil yields around 20 gallons of petrol. We have seen that the world currently produces around 87 million barrels a day, so roughly speaking this works out at the energy equivalent of over 240 billion person-days of work contained in the world’s daily petrol supply (quite apart from the diesel, jet fuel, heating oil etc. that we also produce from that oil). Our current global petrol supply can do approximately 35 times as much physical work as every person on the planet put together.

We take this available energy for granted much of the time in our everyday lives, but it is as though we had dozens of ‘energy slaves’ working for us day and night. It has been calculated that this energy input from oil allows the UK economy to be between 70 and 100 times more productive than would be possible on human muscle power alone.

And in addition to being an abundant, reliable, cheap, super-concentrated form of energy, oil is also a liquid, making it far easier to transport, store and use than solid fuels. There are relatively few options for replacement liquid fuels, and since our vehicles and infrastructure are designed for oil, it would require technical innovation, a large investment of energy and other resources and a timeframe of at least twenty years to create an alternative system.

This incredible energy source fuelled the rapid developments of the 20th century, whether in technology, industry, food yield or transport, and is also the source of the plastics and many synthetic materials that are everywhere around us. Ninety-five percent of all goods in shops involve the use of oil, and ninety-five percent of the UK’s food is now oil-dependent. Just to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires six barrels of oil, enough to drive a car from New York to Los Angeles.

As oil becomes more expensive and less available it affects the price and availability of the products and services throughout the economy that are dependent on it, as well as the jobs tied into these products and services. And since oil features in the supply chain of almost every company, the health of the national and global economy is also threatened as they all find their costs increasing within an economy whose total productive capacity is decreasing.

In other words, the growth of our economy is dependent on a growing net energy supply, and for the first time in centuries it is unlikely to have it. A real cause for concern is that our economic system as currently designed fails without continued growth, leading to bankruptcies, defaults on loans and mortgages, mass unemployment, homelessness and a myriad of other unpleasant consequences.

At this point, however, it seems appropriate to remember the insight of the science fiction writer William Gibson that:

“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Peak oil is no longer simply a future problem. While richer countries have been able to pay the increasing prices demanded for oil globally, those with less money have been struggling to afford the supplies they rely on.

In early 2007, a U.N. report found that:

“Recent oil price increases have had devastating effects on many of the world’s
poor countries, some of which now spend as much as six times as much on fuel as they do on health. Others spend twice the money on fuel as they do on poverty alleviation. And in still others, the foreign exchange drain from higher oil prices is five times the gain from recent debt relief.

Of the world’s 50 poorest countries, 38 are net importers of oil and 25 import all of their oil requirements.”

When the report was published the oil price stood at $60/barrel, but over the next 18 months it proceeded up to over $140 a barrel. If the effects on the poorest countries were “devastating” at $60/barrel, they became yet more so.

The possible future America was warned of in that 2005 Department of Energy report, with its abrupt and revolutionary economic, social and political impacts, has already been unfolding elsewhere. Outright energy shortages and deadly fuel riots have been seen across the world, and the peak oil predicament underlying them is only worsening as time goes by.

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Riki Ott: These Big Corporations Prey on People’s Trust

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Riki Ott appeared today on BuzzFlash.com in an interview with Meg White. They speak about the lasting devastation the Exxon Valdez oil spill has had on the people along the Prince William Sound. Often, when we talk about the 20-year-old disaster, we focus too closely on the environmental devastation and forget to consider that thousands upon thousands of people’s lives were destroyed in the course of a morning. Exxon never made ammends, and in fact, only intensified the trauma by dragging the victims through a two-decade court battle for the future that Exxon had stolen from them.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

BuzzFlash: It almost seems like Exxon learned the art of deception in its experience in Cordova and in Alaska, and that the whole disaster almost created an opportunity for Exxon to try out this culture of deception that it uses today. Do you think that it worked overall? Do you think that’s an accurate way to portray it?

Riki Ott: Here’s what I’ve actually come to believe, that these big corporations prey on people’s trust. I think people in general are trusting. We were wired to connect with each other. Trust is the basic element of relationships, whether it’s in a marriage, or whether it’s between friends, working together in businesses. Trust is the basic element. And of course, that grows over time and working together. But I think people are basically trusting. And we saw that with the media coming in. If the media spoke with us in the community of Cordova first, the articles tended to be spun in favor of our story. If the media spoke with Exxon people first, and then came to us, we would find ourselves having to disprove what Exxon had already said, instead of just being able to tell our own story. And the stories were always spun toward Exxon. So I think it’s a game of media capture. I think these big corporations — I’m not going to limit it to Exxon — I think all these big corporations have the public relations angle completely down, a tool that they use to control damage and ultimately to minimize liability in court.

BuzzFlash: On the trust issue, I wanted to ask if you think the majority of Cordovans have permanently lost their trust in government, industry and the judiciary through this process.

Riki Ott: I think yes. I mean, I’m just flashing over 20 years. I’ve heard in our town, “Don’t expect us to trust you because we’ve lost all trust.” And I know we haven’t got it back, and here’s why. The Prince William Sound Regional Citizen Oversight Council was created through the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. That gave us citizens the opportunity to work with the industry and the government very consistently, ever since it was created in 1991.

It has been one constant fight for 20 years. The industry has consistently tried to minimize expenditures to protect Prince William Sound. And we saw the inside workings of this by being with the Citizen Oversight Council. It’s always about money — always. For example: the fights over tractor tugs. Tractor tugs are much more efficient, state-of-the-art tugs than the more conventional push-me, pull-you tug. Tractor tugs can push and pull with equal ease in 360 degrees. They were in use in England before the [Exxon Valdez] oil spill. And we had to fight to get them over in Prince William Sound.

And the disabled tanker towing study! The industry maintained, “Oh, we have a towing package. It works.” And we said, “Prove it.” And it didn’t work. These big supertankers weren’t supposed to come into the Sound. It was one of the early promises from the 1970s. And here we were: a supertanker. And the towing packages were totally insufficient. There was this big fight to get towing packages that actually worked.

The classic example is the double-hull tankers. The Oil Pollution Act was a compromise, of course, as all federal legislation is. One of the compromises was that citizens wanted a much shorter window; we wanted double-hull tankers now. They’re not due until 2015, [according to the The Oil Pollution Act] passed in 1990. So that was a 25-year window. That’s a lot of presidential administrations and a lot of opportunity for the industry to try to undermine that legislation. And that’s exactly what they tried to do several times. And it was only through the Citizen Oversight Council alerting the rest of us to this and going and testifying in Congress, that we still to this day have that standard intact. And the industry is slowly complying. Exxon, of course, is the last company to comply.

 Read the full interview here.

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WATCH: Riki Ott Explains the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill on Democracy Now!

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Dr. Riki Ott, an Exxon Valdez survivor, marine toxicologist, fisherma’am, and author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill sits with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! to discuss the significance of the Exxon Valdez twenty years after the disaster.

Here is a partial transcript:

Amy: Where were you March 24th, 1989?

Riki: I was in bed! I heard this knocking on my door at seven o’clock in the morning, and I thought, “What in the world?!” because I live half a mile up and people actually had to hike in. And I went rushing down and there was the acting director of the fisherman’s union and he just said, “We’ve had the big one.” …I knew exactly what he meant.

Amy: What were you doing then? What was your job?

Riki: I was working, I was on the board of the fisherman’s union, and I was assigned the oil issues.

Amy: …And you were in Cordova?

Riki: I was in Cordova.

Amy: So what did you see when you went outside?

Riki:  I flew. I had to fly over it. It was about 70 miles away. And we flew in this plane and it was a surreal scene. It was just drop-dead gorgeous. March sunrise. Pink mountains glistening with the sunrise, and all of a sudden we come on this scene where there’s this red deck of an oil tanker that’s three-football-fields long in flat, calm water, dark blue. And there’s this inky black stain that’s just stretching with the tide.

Amy: What did you do?

Riki: We did a marine mammal survey right off the bat. We knew it wouldn’t be calm weather very long. We went to Valdez to refuel, and that’s when it hit me: What am I gonna do about this? And I remember this question popped into my mind, “I know enough to make a difference. Do I care enough?”

And I decided that yes, I did care. This was my home. I’d lived there for four years now already, and I’d totally fallen in love with the area, the people, the lifestyle. And I decided to step up and make a difference….

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The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez: On the 20th Anniversary of the Spill (Video)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The following is an op-ed from Dr. Riki Ott—marine toxicologist, Exxon Valdez survivor, and author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Cordova, Alaska. The loud, urgent banging on my door early on the morning of March 24, 1989, signaled an emergency. I raced downstairs and flung open the door to find a fisherman bearing news of “the big one.” The Exxon Valdez was aground in Prince William Sound and had already spilled at least 11 million gallons of crude oil.

The Big One was the stuff of nightmares in Cordova, a fishing town that thrived on the bounty of the sea. Within the hour, I was flying out over the Sound with instructions to report back to the waiting fishermen.

The low angle of the rising sun tinged the snow-covered mountains a soft pink. Down on the calm water lay the blood red tanker sitting in an inky black stain. A bluish fog of toxic oil vapors swirled at the sea surface. The promised oil spill response equipment was nowhere in sight.

Stopping in the tanker port of Valdez to refuel, I stepped out on the tarmac to try to process my feelings of grief, anger, shock, and horror. A question popped into my mind: I know enough to make a difference. Do I care enough? I saw how my life had stacked up to be in this place at this time with knowledge that was needed—before falling in love with Cordova and becoming a commercial fisher, I had earned master’s and doctorate degrees in marine pollution. I decided I did care about my adopted hometown. That single act of commitment is still what drives my work to this day, 20 years later.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was, and remains, the biggest spill in the history of the United States. Somewhere between 11 and 38 millions of gallons of crude oil flooded the environment, blackening 3,200 miles of coastline. Imagine the East coast with slick oil stretched from New York to Cape Canaveral. The spill killed more wildlife than any other spill to this day, but the killing did not stop in 1989.

Roughly half of the spilled oil stranded and was buried on the beaches of Prince William Sound, according to scientists with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2003, the NOAA scientists mapped the buried oil and reported 21,000 gallons of toxic crude oil are still there-and they say it will remain there, possibly, for centuries more.

The latest studies in 2007 show the buried oil is still entering the food web as predators, such as harlequin ducks and sea otters, forage on oil-contaminated shellfish. Two-thirds of the species injured by the spill and selected for study have not fully recovered, according to federal and state officials charged with restoration studies. This includes species like herring, the basic forage fish of the ecosystem. The remaining population of herring is now miniscule, barely sustaining the ecosystem—and the once highly lucrative herring fisheries are closed indefinitely.

Exxon’s oil spill pushed the vibrant, thriving fishing town of Cordova—once ranked among the top ten seaports in the nation—into a dark depression. For many fishermen and spill survivors, the debt on their assets (fishing permits) exceeds the value. Herring fishermen, for example, owe a mountain of debt on devalued permits, and, with no revenue from fisheries to support annual permit payments, many face bankruptcy. Years of financial uncertainty stemming from collapsed fisheries, oiled beaches, and mounting debt, have plagued Cordova. There were spikes in domestic violence, substance abuse, divorces, and suicides for years after the spill, and the litigation over spill losses contributed to the anxiety and dysfunction.

For the past twenty years, it hasn’t been the state or federal government, the legal system or lawyers—and certainly not ExxonMobil—that has helped rebuild Cordova. It has been the residents themselves. We now have mostly double-hull tankers, a state-of-the-art vessel traffic control system, tractor tugs that can push or pull effectively in 360 degrees, and disabled-tanker towing packages that have been proven to work with supertankers. Citizen advocacy groups pushed each of these improvements against strong objections from the industry.

In my travels of the last three years, I witnessed people all over America of all ages taking action to reduce our oil dependency and build self-reliant communities with regional food, energy, and banking. It’s the same “can do” attitude that rebuilt Cordova—and that built our country. If we want to transition off of oil, the change starts with us. It’s about focusing on what we have in common: a very basic human desire to pass a livable planet on to future generations. It’s about setting aside our differences so that we can work together to achieve that goal. Just ask the people of Prince William Sound.

Get the full story. Watch the Black Wave movie trailer:

The End of Sexuality and Other Apocalyptic Scenarios

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Katz. It has been adapted for the web.

Can any action avert humanity’s technological downfall? I try to remain hopeful and cast my lot with the possibility of change, but our situation and prospects both appear rather bleak. So many nightmare scenarios have been imagined for us. Science fiction anticipated genetic tinkering generations before the technology existed to actually do it. The dangers I have just briefly described are very real. Yet I find that every new revelation seems strangely familiar, as if we had been expecting it. Each sensational news report seems like it must have come from science fiction.

For instance, on October 6, 2005, the Washington Post reported, “It has recently become clear that a few offspring of cloned pigs and cows are already trickling into the food supply.”73 Though the meat and milk industries have mostly observed a voluntary moratorium on producing food from cloned animals while the FDA formulates rules, some cloned animal products have entered the supply chain. The FDA is expected to rule that milk from cloned animals and meat from their offspring are safe to eat. “The FDA has made clear it won’t require labels on clone products,” wrote the Post, “which may leave meat-eaters who want to avoid them little practical way to do so.”

This is surreal and scary. Our food supply is increasingly divorced from natural processes. Reproducing flocks of animals, like selected, saved, and replanted seeds, generate diversity in decentralized processes. Biotechnology creates uniformity. It seeks to control nature. But as we are seeing in the world around us, efforts to control nature typically have unpredictable repercussions, making us exceedingly vulnerable. The best protection of our food supply against disease and crop failures lies in the diversity of traditional decentralized agricultural practices. Unfortunately, decentralized systems of community food sovereignty are not high on the agendas of the multinational corporations vying for control of our food.

Toward what cataclysmic climax the path of biotechnology may eventually lead us, we can only speculate. The futuristic dystopian image I often think of comes from the 1973 film Soylent Green. Set only a couple of decades beyond our own time, the film envisions massive environmental collapse. The only foods available are processed food bars of undisclosed origin. One day a week people receive special green high-protein bars. “Tuesday is Soylent Green Day.” The character of the cranky old man, Sol Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson), refuses when a young friend offers him a bar of Soylent Green:

Tasteless, odorless crud. . . . You don’t know any better. When I was a kid food was food. Before our scientific magicians polluted the water and soil and decimated plant and animal life. . . . Why in my day you could buy meat anywhere, eggs they had, real butter, fresh lettuce in the stores….

Soylent Green turns out to be made of people, a not unreasonable source of nutrients in the absence of any others. But what generally conjures up this image in my mind is the fact that so much of what we consume already consists of mystery ingredients that the law requires not to be included on labels. These include not only actual GM ingredients but also many ingredients manufactured through processes that utilize enzymes produced by GM microbes.

My personal paranoid fantasy of where biotechnology industries are headed involves human reproduction. Isn’t that the next frontier after plant reproduction and animal reproduction have been fully commercialized? There are already plenty of signs that human reproductive abilities are on the wane: decreasing fertility rates; reduced levels of sperm vitality and viability; the massive use of drugs by women to increase fertility and by men to overcome erectile dysfunction; and diminishing penis size linked to exposure to chemicals called phthalates, which are commonly found in plastics, cosmetics, and perfumes. It’s not just us. “Animals throughout the world are undergoing unnatural sexual changes in response to environmental pollution,” reports National Geographic.

The biotech industry, composed of many of the same corporations that gave us the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the first place, are well positioned to take over the complex mechanics of human reproduction. The flaw with life processes, from the point of view of capital, is that by their self-regenerating qualities they resist commodification. “If life is to be commodified,” writes Vandana Shiva, “its renewability must be interrupted and arrested.”75 Biotechnology corporations profit by halting the continuous, endlessly cycling and regenerating spiral of life and requiring corporate products to accomplish various biological reproductive processes-from plant seeds to babies.

Already human reproductive processes have become medicalized, drawn into the realm of experts with an ever-expanding array of specialized technology. Will we come to accept that human reproduction requires technological intervention, as we seem to be accepting for the food we eat? If we do not reclaim natural reproductive processes for the food we eat, we risk our disconnection growing to encompass the remaining natural processes-such as human sexual reproduction- that are still considered the province of generalists. Retaining our biological power to share and exchange our own seeds (and related pleasures) may depend upon the outcome of political struggles happening now, upon farmers and gardeners asserting their inalienable natural rights by continuing the ancient tradition of saving and replanting seeds.

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The Making of the “Food Not Lawns” Movement

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

The following is an excerpt from Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community by Heather Flores. It has been adapted for the web.

As my personal health and eating habits improved I became convinced that food-the source of our energy and, often, the root of consumerism- was also at the core of personal and community empowerment. It is extremely difficult to build an organic life on an empty stomach. When we are well nourished with good local food, we can work hard, get along, and build beautiful, ecological communities.

Healthy food is a basic right for everyone, but geographic, social, and economic boundaries often limit or deny access, both to food itself and to the land needed to grow it. Most people I talk to want to eat healthy, organic food and live in harmony with the earth and one another, yet they don’t know how turn these ecological ethics into a real, daily lifestyle.

Often the primary problem is not supply but distribution. Through cooking with Food Not Bombs, I learned that in every city in North America, truckloads of nutritious food go to waste every day. Much of this food is organic, and diverting the flow into the mouths of community- minded people is like sending water into a dry garden: It makes everything grow and bloom.

Further, food is only one of the deep diversity of resources found in the waste stream-and recycling the waste stream is the key to longterm urban sustainability. Beyond food, shelter, clothing, building materials, plants, seeds, tools, and of course many acres of fertile soil sit idle in every town in America.

As I began to realize this, I continued to cook and serve free meals in the park but changed my focus from providing resources to teaching others how to find them on their own. The old adage still rings true: Give a person a fish and feed her for a day; teach her to fish and feed her for a lifetime.

It was with this in mind that a few of us founded Food Not Lawns, a grassroots gardening project geared toward using waste resources to grow organic gardens and encouraging others to share their space, surplus, and ideas toward the betterment of the whole community. Why Food Not Lawns? Most obviously, the name was a natural evolution from Food Not Bombs. But more importantly, we called ourselves Food Not Lawns because the more we learned about food, agriculture, and land use, the more the lawns around suburban Eugene began to reek of gross waste and mindless affluence.

While looking for a garden site, we asked our landlord to let us grow a garden in the grassy front yard of our rented house. He refused, saying he wanted to keep the lawn intact, and while I tried to see his point, to me it was absurd. In a world where so many lack access to basic needs such as food and shelter, and where a lawn of a thousand square feet could grow more than a hundred edible and beneficial plant species, becoming a lush perennial “food forest” within three years, mowed grass seems an arrogant and negligent indulgence.

We did eventually find a nice spot in an abandoned section of a local park, where we grew a diverse organic garden. We ate some of what we grew and gave the rest away. We grew starts and seeds and gave them away, and we hosted workshops in the garden space. The produce nourished us, the starts and seeds inspired gardens around the neighborhood, and the workshops helped spread the knowledge gained from our experience.

The garden flourished, and other activists in the neighborhood became intrigued. All summer long people dropped by with plants, seeds, or tools to donate, or to volunteer for an hour or three, chatting and sharing ideas within our peaceful oasis. It was so easy and so much fun, and the positive effects were exponentially obvious as the neighborhood got greener and the people got more educated about organic food and urban sustainability. Our neighbors and their gardens bloomed with an abundance of food, goodwill, and inspiration.

Food Not Lawns started several more gardens and circulated seeds, plants, and information. We planted food all over town-vegetables and fruit trees in public parks, berries along the bike path, squash down by the river-anywhere that looked like it would get water and sunshine. Over the next several years we organized dozens of events, including seed swaps, farm tours, resource exchanges, and workshops on a wide range of topics, such as natural building, composting, organic orchard care, self-education, and community organizing.

In the spring of 2000 I helped put on a weeklong community gardening festival during which a small affinity group planted a vegetable garden in a vacant lot around the corner from our house. Several months later, just before the juicy tomatoes and giant zucchini were ready to harvest, the landowner sold the lot to a developer who wanted to build an apartment complex.

The locals protested, saying there was ample vacant housing in Eugene (true). One neighbor locked himself to the bulldozer, with a sign saying SQUASH THE STATE! to prevent the garden from being destroyed, but he was arrested and the apartments were built. We lost that garden, but the event spurred a new flow of local and national interest, and ten more gardens popped up in other places around town.

Local and national media caught on, and we gave several interviews about sharing land and resources to promote peace and sustainability. Soon e-mails and letters flowed in encouraging our work, asking for more information, and telling of new chapters of Food Not Lawns in Washington, California, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. We soon connected with a global community of like-minded people-activists, some, but mostly a diversity of working-class people: healers, midwives, single moms, artists, musicians, lawyers, teachers, librarians, and plenty of organic farmers and gardeners. Apparently organic gardening with the larger goal of community sustainability appeals to people across many cultural and economic boundaries and unites activists, apathists, and many in between.

My own political views changed profoundly as the gardens taught me their lessons. I had lived and worked in a radical, anarchist/activist community for years and was inspired by finding a beautiful, positive way to manifest these philosophies. Notions of violent revolution dimmed next to visions of multicolored paradise and peaceful abundance. Dreams of industrial collapse became prayers for communities feeding and healing themselves.

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The Importance of Community Values and Natural Work

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

The following is the foreword to Dave Pollard’s Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work by Dave Smith—and entrepreneur and co-founder of Smith & Hawken’s. It has been adapted for the web.

During the seventies—when high unemployment and energy shortages were a daily fact of life—some friends and I started and ran a very successful natural food cooperative in Menlo Park, California, called Briarpatch Natural Foods. It was created to fill a real community need, following the age-old business adage of “find a need and fill it.” People had time on their hands, and natural foods were expensive, so by working eight hours every three months, members were able to purchase healthy foods for at least 30 percent less. Three of us co-managed the store, and the work of unloading trucks, stocking shelves, buying fresh produce at the produce terminal, running the cash registers, and everything else needed to operate a small grocery store was done by members. At one point, there were more than 350 families on the waiting list. Because labor is, by far, the largest expense of doing business, taking most of that cost out of the expense statement created not only cheaper food but also an enormous forgiveness for the obvious inefficiencies of volunteer, untrained labor and the lack of basic business skills by its enthusiastic and smart, but woefully unskilled management. Oh, but what fun we had playing store!

It eventually proved to be unsustainable in the long term for the simple fact that business is cyclical and when Silicon Valley exploded into runaway growth and success, no one had time to play store, and the store didn’t adapt quickly enough to the rapidly changing times that did it in. All vendors were fully paid, all member investments were fully returned, and the graceful ending left us only fond memories. By our current business standards, it was a failure because it didn’t grow and make its “investors” a ton of money. For those of us most intimately involved in the daily business of running a community cooperative, it was one of our most beautiful, successful business experiences.

On the other hand, Smith & Hawken, the $100 million garden company I cofounded, is considered an enduring entrepreneurial success. I disagree, and here’s why.

Smith & Hawken’s original mission was to supply sturdy, well-made tools to very serious craftsmen (and women). We started with legendary garden tools made by a two-hundred-year-old company in England and sold them to small organic farmers and serious organic gardeners.

Because they were priced at four times the price of the poorly made, throwaway garden tools at the local hardware store, we thought there was a very limited market that would require us to work only part-time, leaving us room to do more important things. When we tried to branch out into woodworking tools, the customer base we had built the brand name on asked us what the hell we were doing. We told them we were a tool company and we wanted to sell other well-made tools. They let us know that we were not a tool company, we were an organic garden company, and they were uninterested in Japanese carpentry tools. All well and good, as our own personal values coincided with the altered company mission, and the company became a very successful garden company that listened to its customers and doubled in sales for many years, requiring typical entrepreneurial sacrifice and dedication.

But now, long after the founders have moved on to other pursuits, and the company has changed hands several times, it has been purchased by the largest home pesticide distributor in the United States, betraying the fundamental values of the brand, its founders, and many of its customers. A brand standing for good values will now be used as a halo around a company that stands in opposition to those values. For me, that’s a failure.

You may say “big freaking deal, get on with your life” and that I have done. But values have always been what I wanted my life to be about, and what I consider anti-values are now associated with my name. A lesson learned.

Values are also what Dave Pollard and his book, Finding the Sweet Spot, are ultimately about. As practical and groundbreaking as this book is, always lurking in the background is a question of values. Dave not only shows us how important it is to thoroughly research the real business opportunities that need filling, and teaches us how to do it, but also asks us to explore what it is we love doing and what we’re good at as equally important to fulfill our yearnings to be useful and make the world a better place.

Yet this is not a warm and fuzzy “do-it-and-the-money-will-come” wish book. What you’ll find here is an excellent, nonacademic, no-nonsense, down-to-earth, hands-on, “insight-full” working guidebook, led by an innovative, caring, and extremely bright man who may not know all the answers, but, much better, shows us how to go about finding them. However you may define business success and meaning for yourself, this will become one of those books you often turn to for idea sparks and troubleshooting; a manual that stays close by after you’ve dog-eared, starred, and underlined the pages most useful to you.

It is, most importantly, a timely book. I’m convinced that the coming changes will be a time that requires the most from each of us. As “big-corporate” and “big-government” failures to negotiate the transition to decentralized renewable energy and sustainable living become increasingly apparent, it will be up to each of us, especially those of us involved in small community business, to step up to the responsibility of meeting real local needs. Opportunities abound in cultural transitions, especially those that are potentially devastating if creative answers are not found and implemented.

It will be the combination of independent can-do spirit, entrepreneurial innovation, collaborative teamwork, the sense of service, and deep reverence for nature’s ways that bring us safely to a renewable standard of living. Temperate needs, slower growth, and appropriate scale, coupled with modest returns on investment, will become the responsible means of doing business when nature becomes a partner rather than just a “resource” to exploit.

Grab Finding the Sweet Spot and a friend or two, and head to the woods for a few days of study, hiking, and brainstorming. Explore what you are good at, what you love doing, who you love and want to work with, and then come back ready to make it happen no matter what.

If necessity,
mother of invention,
begs for creative release,
but doesn’t know how . . .
the book is here and your time is now . . .

Have at it!
Dave Smith

New Species and The Progeny of Elephants

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Lynn Margulis, author of Luminous Fish: Tales of Science and Love and Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time, recently sat for an interview with Suzan Mazur at Scoop, an independent news site from New Zealand. Here’s an excerpt.

Suzan Mazur: Can you shed some light on what’s going on regarding the status and meaning of natural selection?

Lynn Margulis: I think I see the problem clearly. There is absolutely no doubt that natural selection itself can be measured every minute of the day in every population of organisms. Darwin was brilliant to make “natural selection” a sort of godlike term, an expression that could replace “God”, who did it — created life forms. However, what is “natural selection” really? It is the failure of biotic potential to be reached. And it’s quantitative.

Biotic potential is the intrinsic ability of any population to overgrow its environment by production of too many offspring. Whether born, hatched, budded or sporulated, all organisms potentially produce more offspring than can survive to reproduce themselves. Natural selection is intrinsically an elimination process. I’ll give you some specific examples.

My favorite one – I show this in a film and people just gasp. An ordinary bacterium – Proteus vulgaris – divides at the rate of every 15 minutes.

I have a time-lapse view of Proteus vulgaris where I show two hours of growth – 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc., until it fills the screen. I explain that if Proteus vulgaris continued to grow at this rate, not once a minute or once every 10 seconds, but once every 15 or 20 minutes, i.e., the way it really grows when it’s not limited, this bacterium would reach the mass of the Earth over a weekend.

It’s easy to show that the biotic potential measured as “number of offspring per unit time” (convertible of course into its equivalent “number of offspring per generation”) is never reached. Ever.

Darwin said the whole Earth could be covered by the progeny of a single pair of elephants.

Read the full article here.


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