Saturday, November 28, 2009

Rays on a Bleak Economy

By Bob Ferris

During the early 1980s I had a professor in California named Ray Dasmann who was an eminent wildlife biologist. Ray evolved a lot during his career and eventually morphed into a sustainable development expert. Because our intellectual pathways seemed to click, Ray and I used to have long discussions about various things. And one of those things we used to talk about was globalization and the US’s switch from living within our own ecosystems to exhausting ours and exploiting the ecosystems of others. As a result of those discussions, I often speculate about what it would take to become what he called “ecosystem people” again.

Flash forward a quarter of a century and we are seeing other folks thinking and acting along these lines. Where, you ask? Well, farmer’s markets and the localvore movement are certainly steps forward in the process of living within one’s ecosystem. But distributed power generation via solar panels, small wind turbines, and micro-hydro is as well. The same is true for localized investment such as the slow money movement advocated by Woody Tasch, community supported agriculture, and many credit unions. (I like to think of the latter as investing within arm’s length where you can actually see your money at work.)

But I couldn’t possibly live without my Brazilian coffee, Italian shoes, Russian caviar, and New Zealand apples, you argue. My answer to that is that I once did a radio interview with a nearly ninety year-old state senator from a rural area in Vermont. It was a rambling discussion about a number of topics but eventually we started talking about sustainability and the economy. And that line of interchange led to his view of life during the Great Depression. The bottom line being that he could not understand what all the hoopla was about because life did not change much for him in his isolated valley. They ate what they always ate. Wore what they always wore and were happy. They did import certain items so they were not living absolutely within the carrying capacity of their ecosystem, but they were a lot closer to that ideal state than most other places in the US.

Was it all good in the valley ecosystem during the Depression? Certainly not. Folks did not manage wastes like garbage and sewage very responsibly. Pesticides, oil, and fuel were casually dumped on the ground and made their way into wells and ground water. And diets got a little monotonous towards the end of winter when the root cellar contents were mostly straw and sand. But at the same time, tin cans were often used for roof or barn repairs and machines and appliances were fixed rather than discarded. They were also very cautious in their purchases and often made do without.

Our challenge, therefore, in our quest for movement towards an ecosystem existence is to learn from our past and present to build the future. Part of this would be building more diversity into our local systems so we are less vulnerable to external fluctuations. That means bringing home more manufacturing jobs and developing stronger relationships with the folks who bring you goods and services. But it also means not throwing the baby out with the bath water in that imports are and will be a necessity but common sense should dictate that tea might be a better import from China than sheetrock and baby toys.

I would also argue that a movement towards localized production and consumption—under today’s lens of environmental awareness—might lead to greener product stewardship and decreased waste. Making something in your own backyard will also cut down on environmental injustice and start the process of breaking our habit of importing goods and exporting the impact of products and our lifestyles—though we are already getting some karmic feedback in terms of Asiatic air pollution in California.

Ray has been gone and missed for many years, but his ideas live on. And in the time honored tradition of teacher and student I have tried to absorb what I could of Ray’s wisdom, add my own spin, and pass it on to a new generation (or two). Ray certainly did this too as he was Starker Leopold’s last student at Berkeley and Starker assumedly passed on much from his father Aldo Leopold who wrote the seminal conservation work A Sand County Almanac and actually developed the concept of an ecosystem’s carrying capacity.

Ray’s early recognition that a drift back towards an ecosystem type of existence might be advisable was critical—directly and indirectly—to many of us who now work for hopeful resolution of our current set of economic, environmental, and social crises. Hopefully, the logic of this idea and the associated actions will continue to spread. The trends are positive and the results are very promising—little rays of sunlight on the backdrop our sketchy economy. Let there be more.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Scrap Wood Wonders

By Bob Ferris

When my wife and I lived in Vermont a local fellow built a house on the slope across from our abode. As he was nearing completion of his dwelling he started a fire and was burning many of the odds and ends of wood he had laying about the construction site. I grimaced a little when I first saw him doing this because the burning of trash in our Valley is illegal and it was also a huge waste of wood in a land often starved for heat.

The second time I looked across the field I saw a tiny figure sitting by the roaring fire. It took me a while to figure out what was going on and then I realized the person was roasting marshmallows over the open fire. Mystery solved: It was my wife who will generally use any excuse to make s ‘mores. And why waste a good fire?

The incident made me once again respect my wife’s boldness and resourcefulness, but it also drove home my feelings about wood and waste. I simply love wood and rarely throw it away until I have squeezed out the last project and all that remains is sawdust which I then burn for heat or compost if it is not plywood. I am not a great craftsman but wood often speaks to me. And luckily my wife puts up with my well-meant but primitive creations like my night stand made from old chicken coop boards or cooking spoons carved out of wooden pallet scraps or wood harvested by local beavers.

Found wood in the forest or salvaged scrap from construction sites or by the side of the road, it does not matter much to me as long as it is rot and pest-free. I learned my lesson on the latter when I made a set of bookshelves and speaker stands out of found wood in winter only to find termite frass (poop) all over the floor when the wood warmed. My wife supports my scavenging as she dabbles in rustic furniture making and the perfect combination seems to be a co-creation marrying her art and architecture background and my sketchy woodworking and problem solving skills. These collaborations are not without their challenges, but the end results have been wonderful and cherished.

My hope is that others start looking to squeeze all they can out of scrap and found wood. I am encouraged in this regard whenever I see floors or cutting boards made of 2X4 ends or hear about architects developing designs to minimize cutting and wood waste. All good stuff and hopefully more and more folks will take the time to do more with wood that otherwise would go to waste. Good luck and have some fun.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Up-Cycle Detroit

By Bob Ferris

I am becoming more and more intrigued by the opportunities offered by this current economy to re-sculpt America from our toenails to our hairline in a manner that works for the greatest good. And by this I mean to really think about what we are doing this time around rather than being pushed in shortsighted directions by forceful yet unsustainable players on the economic landscape. In this process I have great faith that those who are most impacted by the current economic storm will be forced to find a set of solutions that will illuminate a path that will lead us all out of this wilderness. In other words, let’s look for hope in the sea of deepest turmoil. Let’s look to Detroit.

Detroit is certainly in crisis. With a quarter of its population out of work, one in five Motor City houses foreclosed or facing foreclosure, and City coffers gasping for relief, things are really tough, but there is the hint of a quiet Phoenix being born—a sort of anti-growth, right-sizing movement which I think is promising. One of the actions being taken is in the form of the Neighborhood Stabilization Plan which is currently under review and comment. The plan is basically a $47 million punt which looks to focus efforts where synergy can be created with existing or planned efforts. All that makes sense, but what I really like about the plan is that it looks to create a linked system of open space and community gardens from a combination of public, vacant, and abandoned properties and is looking to the public to help maintain and manage the transition and the system.

I am sure there are many who view the fact of this as the ultimate tragedy. For me, I see the potential birth of urban communities made vibrant by localized food and financial systems as well as other elements of what is being termed as the new economy such as time and care banks, local currencies, community caning enterprises, fabrication laboratories and on and on. All good stuff and exciting stuff.

I am sure that it is not lost on some that the collapse of Detroit is symbolic of a more fundamental failure of our entire “growth over everything” style of economics. And given our plight with climate change, the fall of a city so inextricably tied to fossil-fuels seems right in some manner, but I would argue that should also make it the target of a kind of restoration renaissance as well. Perhaps this burg should become the site of a new organic farming or permaculture institute. Or the Transition Town movement could take it on as huge class project. My point here is that Detroit might just be the large-scale experimental venue for us to try out our ideas. Let’s up-cycle Detroit. Could be fun.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Finding Happiness Within

By Bob Ferris

I was looking at a state-by-state happiness index this morning . The measures they used for happiness included non-mortgage debt to income ratios, unemployment, and foreclosure rates. Seems logical. Using these metrics they concluded that the Dakotas were great places to live if you were seeking happiness and that Florida and California were the least happy and more filled with misery. But before we all pack our bags and migrate to Pierre, Bismarck, or Fargo, maybe we ought to stop and take a breath. And maybe we ought to think for a little bit about happiness and how much of it is really linked to economic measures.

I am sure these folks worked hard to put this study together and are extremely confident that their results are defensible to the fullest extent of their analyses, but their assumptions and conclusions simply do not concur with my experience. Through the course of my life I have had an opportunity to travel and meet a huge spectrum of people in the fullest splendor of circumstances. I have hobnobbed with the supper-rich and hobbled with the poorest of the economically challenged. I have seen both unbridled joy and crushing depression on Indian reservations wracked with 80% unemployment and similar extremes in the maid-maintained halls of the mansions and retreats of our country’s fiscally anointed. All of this has led me to conclude that our search for happiness is not inextricably linked at the hip with our relative financial well-being.

So what should the measures of happiness be? The most honest answer I have is that I do not know. I suspect that we start with people and relationships. The number of close friends and the nature of your support network might be wonderful places to begin. Number of laughs per day and amount of time for contemplation and reflection might be other good measures. And studies have shown that satisfaction and happiness are also associated with doing meaningful work. In fact, Buddhist monks who are pretty low on the bling and income quotients have been shown to be really, really high in terms of overall happiness. My sense from all of this is that happiness is much more a product of quality of life than it is of standard of living.

As one of my favorite professors used to say at the end of a particularly long and deep discussion: So what? The “so what” here is that our current economic hiccup might be a great time to look at the calculus of our lives. How can we travel though and emerge on the other side of this economic trial with a smile and in a position to be happier in the future? My sense is that we do that by investing in relationships and community rather than in stuff and complicated or distant gambles in the stock market. We do this by looking for ways to share our lives and our wealth rather than expending efforts to isolate ourselves from our fellow travelers and protect that which does not really give us value or pleasure.

For many of us contemplating a life that is not built on a keeping up with the Joneses—whoever they might be—kind of schema is a little scary. Will our friends still like us if we have a smaller house and an older car? Will our children still love us if we do not have stressful and mind-numbing present orgies at the holidays or other celebrations? Many of us are betting that these relationships will not only remain but flourish when the commodity of trade is face-time and fun rather than over-orchestrated consumption rituals. And maybe, just maybe, you will find your own state of happiness within your own lives and communities by adopting this change. Seems a lot more feasible path to happiness than moving to a place because of the findings of an economically biased happiness poll.