SEEING THE LIGHT IN DARK TIMES

8 01 2011

Sometimes, when you have an inspiration or a vision or a premonition, there are parts of it that don’t quite make sense at first.  It’s only later, as you start to realize (as in, bring into reality) your vision, or as your premonition takes shape in your daily life, that you understand its full import.

That’s what happened with “bioregionalism,”  which  emerged as a vision and a movement in the late sixties and early seventies, when many of us abandoned mainstream culture to go “back to the land” and found ourselves in intimate relationship with trees and forests, hills and mountain ranges, waterways and watersheds, and all the animal life (including the humans) who co-existed in our local ecosystem.  Some of us began to relate with our environment in much the same way as the native people our predecessors had displaced, and to sense the logic of a political organization that recognized communities based on organic boundaries, rather than lines drawn on a map.

This emerging vision was nourished by the first shocks of the possibility of resource depletion in the late 70’s, when OPEC first exhibited its control over the world’s oil supply.  But then, but then….North Sea oil and North Slope oil, among other factors, fed a borrowing and spending binge that all but erased the idea that there might be “limits to growth,” as the Club of Rome famously warned.  The idea that one’s watershed might be the de facto limits of one’s world seemed like a quaint hippie anachronism.

Now, nearly forty years after “Limits to Growth” and the first stirrings of bioregionalism, the full import of that early vision is starting to come into focus.  New oil discoveries are not keeping pace with increasing demand for petroleum products.  An increasing number of the commodities our culture depends on, from coal to uranium to rare earths, are  showing signs of depletion.

–C’mon, you say, there’s new oil discoveries being made all the time–they just found twenty freakin’ billion barrels under the Caspian Sea!  Peak oil, shmeak oil!

–Twenty billion sounds impressive, but current world consumption is thirty-one billion barrels a year, and demand is increasing–so that’s an eight-month supply.  Whoop-de-do.  New oil finds are increasingly small, difficult to access, as in a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, or difficult to process, like Canada’s tar sands.  What new oil we are finding is expensive to pump and/or expensive to process, and the environmental risks involved are costly, as well.  The price of oil is going nowhere but up, even as our ability to pay for it (at least in this country) is going down.

And I haven’t even mentioned the CO2/global warming factor…

Moreover,the “global marketplace” is coming unglued.  In order to lower labor costs, the US government and big business colluded to demolish our country’s industrial infrastructure, promising the average American that this would mean lower prices.  Most people didn’t buy this, but the government (can you say “Bill Clinton,” boys and girls?) went ahead and did it anyway, and sure enough those lower prices didn’t matter much because most people’s’ wages were lowered, too, if they were even lucky enough to keep their jobs…I’m getting ahead of myself.  More on that in the next segment!

Back to the topic–bioregionalism.  So, after the idea of bioregionalism was first floated in the late seventies and early eighties, and then buried under a heap of transnational trading trinkets, it’s coming back up out of the ground like grass in the cracks of the sidewalk, like the return of deer and woodland in Detroit, which I predict will soon be occurring in many more formerly urban locations around the country.

I think “bioregionalism 2.0” is a change for the better. While earlier bioregionalists tended to wrestle with big philosophical issues, the reborn bioregional movement has a more practical, from-the-ground-up focus–quite literally.  It tends to crop up most often in the form of local food activism, as people comprehend the insecurity of eating a diet that depends on “the kindness of strangers” in far-away places, and decide that they would rather grow their own, or at least know the person who grows for them.   This familiarity allows feedback, and thus control.  From this “seedling” of concern, as it were, it’s easy to see how other sprouts could soon begin to arise:  can we relocalize, and thus reclaim control over,  the production of our clothing and other household goods? What about the energy that heats and lights those households?

It is increasingly the case in this country that, despite the rhetoric, national and even most state politicians don’t serve the people, but the highest bidder, and it’s truly a shame that the corporate-funded Tea Party has, at least for the time being, stampeded many into supporting a movement that will only make that situation worse.  With the government increasingly divorced from and unresponsive to the needs of real people, the local food movement is, I believe, the kernel of a from-the-bottom-up regrowth of genuine democracy in this country.

Speaking of genuine democracy, it’s hard to talk about the history of bioregionalism without a shoutout to the Green Party of the United States, which was born out of a desire by some in the North American Bioregional Congress to bring the bioregional agenda into the political arena.  While perhaps most famous for nominating Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney as Presidential candidates, the  party has met with the most success at the local level, electing Mayors, City Council members, and other local officials whose ability to translate the party’s ideals of sustainability and participatory democracy into practical solutions to everyday problems has won them the hearts of the citizens they serve.

OK, enough self-congratulation for now.

The national situation, in which the North American Bioregional Council begat the Green Party, replicated itself here in Tennessee, where we have a small but active Green Party that is, to a certain extent, a subset of a larger Bioregional Council, and this is where I get down to, as they say, “brass tacks.”

“The Cumberland-Green (River) Bioregional Council” has been convening regularly here in middle Tennessee for nearly thirty years, and our winter gathering is coming up at the end of this month, from the 28th through the 30th of January.  And yeah, I know what happened last month with the local food potluck (which, alas, still hasn’t been rescheduled)–the Bioregional Council’s “snow date” is the following weekend.

Reflecting the continuing economic downturn and the wave of reactionary (not “conservative” at all!) politics that is sweeping the country, the gathering is entitled “Seeing the Light in Dark Times.”  Crisis and opportunity…you know.

Friday night, there will be a party, and all day Saturday, at Brookmeade Congregational Church on Davidson Road on the West side of Nashville, there will be events, starting with an introductory circle that’s a kind of open mike for attendees to introduce themselves or catch their old friends up on their year’s activities–summing up the highlights of your year in 2-3 minutes is a very interesting exercise!

In the afternoon, there will be workshops on a variety of subjects, from solar hot water to conflict resolution.  I’d tell you more, but the details are still being figured out.

Saturday night, another party–the Green Party ain’t the only party that came out of the bioregional council!  The whole thing is very informal–it’s at least as much about personal connections as it is about any kind of formal subject matter or agenda.

Sunday starts with a morning meditation, followed by a business meeting.  Does that sound like an odd combination?  I think most business meetings should be preceded by a meditation session.  I believe it would change the tone of this country.  The business meeting is followed by a potluck brunch and….another party–kind of a wrap-up.

There is no charge for this event–expenses are covered by a fund-raising auction that takes place around the Saturday potluck lunch.  Some people attend all of it, some only come for whatever part of it fits their schedule or their fancy.  You’re invited–go to the Cumberland-Green Bioregional Council’s meetup.com site for details, and get involved.

music:  The Indigo Girls, “The Wood Song”





AS IF THERE WILL BE NO DELUGE…

10 05 2009

A number of bits of local news and commentary have come to my attention lately:  Mayor Dean’s “State of the City” address, the report of the Green Ribbon Committee for a Sustainable Nashville, news that the “reform” of Tennessee’s waste management policies is not only a shambles but a sham, and the renewed push for construction of Maytown Center, along with the howls of misguided (or intentionally misleading) protest that accompanied my characterization of its neo-feudal potential last month.

Hizzoner the Mayor used his moment in the spotlight to push for a new Nashville Convention Center, a sort of “build it and they will come,” Hail Mary pass proposal that has been so thoroughly excoriated by the Nashville Scene that I hardly need to go into detail here, except to answer their “what are they smoking?” question with, “must be crack, ’cause any self-respecting pot smoker would see through this welfare-for-developers proposal in a minute.”  I would also add that anybody who thinks any kind of tourism is going to make a comeback is inhaling the wrong kind of smoke.  The only big influx that I see in Nashville’s, or America’s, future, is Chinese and various Middle Easterners coming to repossess whatever they can in consideration of America’s unrepayable debt to them.  The “T” in “T-bills” is gonna stand for “toilet paper,” boys and girls.  Can you say “Confederate money”?

And, speaking of smoking crack, I have to repeat and re-emphasize that anyone who thinks Maytown Center is going to be good for Nashville is still living in the delusionary world of the Bush era.  Growth is over.  If it is built, Maytown will either rapidly turn into a ghost town or suck the air out of the rest of the city and become a gated version of downtown, so the upper crust doesn’t have to cross paths with the homeless.

We would be much better off using the energy that the city’s movers and shakers are putting into these mirages to fast-track and expand some of the proposals in the Green Ribbon Committee’s report, which is at least well-intentioned, if woefully under-ambitious.  I feel bad about having to say that.  I know some of the people on the Committee, and I trust their good will. I went to one of their public meetings, and I think the document they have produced is radical and edgy–for 1975.  At this point, it is too little, too late.    Can we create a sustainable local economy that will support our current population?  Can we produce enough hoes and digging forks for everybody to turn up the ground it will take to keep ourselves in potatoes, let alone manufacture  our own shoes and clothing? Ain’t none of that happening here in Nashvegas any more, — how many weavers and cobblers are there in this town?  We sold our industrial capacity to the Chinese for a mess of profit, and we are about to find out that money is nothing but funny-looking paper once everybody agrees it’s worthless.

The landfill proposals that so outrage my friends at BURNT (Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today) are another head-shaker, another high-stakes poker game, played with a marked deck, in the tilting first-class lounge of the Titanic.  Of course, as James Howard Kunstler points out in World Made By Hand, all the recyclables we stick in landfills now are a kind of savings account that we will be able to mine in coming decades, when we will be out of natural resources and the ability to acquire them through commerce, and will have nothing better to do than dig up old city dumps, straighten bent nails, melt down and recast plastic and metal, and treasure the one or two chemists in our city who figure out how to make matches from local materials–because all those disposable lighters we take for granted are gonna be a thing of the past in the future, folks.  Do I have to remind you that you are going to have to cook with a wood fire, unless you’re lucky enough to have a solar cooker and a sunny day? And where will you be gathering your firewood?

Oh, and speaking of rigged poker games on the Titanic, our newly-Republican legislature is attempting to make sure that we don’t switch to optical-scan voting machines in time for the next election, presumably so they can rig it more easily, since they are doing such a patently bad job of running the state that they know they won’t be able to win an honest election…not that the Dims would be much better, it’s just a question of who controls what’s left of the state’s treasury.   Well, OK…the Dims would be doing nothing instead of forbidding local living wage laws, allowing people to carry guns everywhere and restricting abortion rights. “Respect for human life”? HELLO?

As all the various antics listed above indicate, either both parties are clueless about the scope of what we’re in for in this country, or they are figuring the best way to survive is to cut as many people out of the loop as possible.  If national politics are any guide, I would say the Repuglyicans are trying to cut as many of us out of the loop as they can (leaving more goodies for themselves), and the Dim-ocrats are simply clueless.  In this state, most seem to think the best strategy is to try and be as conservative as the Repugs, but since they lack the intense commitment to self-aggrandizement that characterizes so many Repugs, they end up coming across as clueless namby-pambys, which is one reason (besides ignorance and its bastard child, racism) they have been fluffing so many elections lately–like, it wasn’t just that Harold Ford is black, it’s that he’s barely to the left of Bob Corker. Not only is Harold no Jesse Jackson, he’s not even a Barack Obama.

Let me make something clear here–I  am as threatened as anyone by the future I foresee.  Western civilization as we know it needs to end for the planetary ecosystem (including humans) to continue, and I, an aging man with health problems, may not survive the change.  With that in mind, I want to make that transition as smooth as I can, so I am living as simply as I can, and supporting organizations that I believe will help cushion our descent, like our local bioregional council and the Tennessee Green Party.  As long as we have a functioning statewide political system (and I am not going to hazard a guess on how long that may be), we need to take advantage of it and use the framework of the Green Party to raise real issues:  local sustainability, resource conservation, universal access to health care, economic justice, and grass-roots democracy, to name the first few broad headings that come to mind.  There is SO much to do, and we’re  running the Green Party of Tennessee with a skeleton crew–so come on aboard, there’s plenty of room.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable





ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE

3 10 2008

As one who advocates for, and practices, local self sufficiency, I sometimes feel like a very odd duck.  Why are we the only household in our neighborhood with a substantial garden, a rainwater catchment system, a solar oven, and a wood stove?  The only household without a television?

When I read Barbara Kingsolver‘s recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, subtitled “A Year of Food Life,” I was gratified to be reminded that you can both espouse radical homesteading and have mass appeal.  Indeed, homesteading is only part of a panoply of radical views espoused by Ms. Kingsolver, whose most widely read novel, The Poisonwood Bible, is a serious critique of European/American influence in Africa, and whose other novels deal with the  persecution and deculturalization of native peoples and the consequences of US-backed terrorist campaigns.  Oprah Winfrey picked Poisonwood for her book club, which assured it phenomenal sales and probably set up Ms. Kingsolver for life;  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle didn’t get a boost from Oprah, but still managed to sell nearly three hundred thousand copies in 2007, although the fact that she was outsold by Anne Coulter does tell us something disturbing about the state of America’s psyche….but, I digress….

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is actually three books in one.  There is the narrative of her family’s decision to eat locally for a year, there is a wealth of background material on why they made this choice, and the book also includes many recipes showing how to cook elegantly with local fare–although Ms. Kingsolver decided that some low-bulk items such as tropical spices and olive oil would not be included in her ban on foods from a distance.  Hey, olive oil has a long and venerable history as a trade item, dating back at least five thousand years to ancient Crete.  I don’t know how reliably we’ll be able to get it from the Mediterranean basin after the petroleum’s gone, but maybe the climate will shift enough so that we can grow our own, or California will move out of housing and high-tech and back to olive trees and send it east via caravan…anyway, mankind has been coming up with local,  low-tech cooking oils for a long time–sesame and sunflower are two oilseed crops that would at least theoretically grow in her home area of western Virginia.  Sesame oil extraction is nearly as old as olive oil extraction, and sunflower oil extraction dates to the 17th century, so both ought to be produceable at a local level, even if we have to rediscover some technology to do so.

The wonderful thing about Ms. Kingsolver’s book is that it is so eminently readable.  The story she has to tell, and the facts she transmits through it, could be dull if not downright stultifying in the hands of a lesser writer, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a thoroughly engaging read–especially the “miracle” part, which doesn’t come into play until nearly the end of the book–all I will tell you is that it involves turkeys, and brought tears to my eyes.

The only part of the book I would argue with is her contention that homestead meat production is essential to a healthy locavore diet.  While I haven’t actually tried to raise all the beans I eat, it seems like a reasonable possibility to me.  One of these years, while I still can and before I have to…but this is a small quibble in an otherwise wonderful book.

The turkey miracle at the end of the book was not the only emotional moment for me in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  This is a story not just about growing your own, but about the poignancy of what we have lost now that most of us are so alienated from what we eat.  Whether she’s talking about lactose intolerance, summer squash,  the beauty of the Italian countryside, or seed saving, she connects us to her subject in a deep and personal way. offering a primer for anybody who cares to follow in her footsteps, a primer that covers not only the technical but the psychological details of growing your own and eating locally.  Let me leave you with a sample, a couple of paragraphs that spring from a conversation about the rediscovery of the ivorybilled woodpecker,  held while hunting wild mushrooms in an overgrown hillside pasture, in the rain:

I share with almost every adult I know this crazy quilt of optimism and worries, feeling locked into certain habits but keen to change them in the right direction.  And the tendency to feel like a jerk for falling short of absolute conversion.  I’m not sure why.  If a friend had a coronary scare and finally started exercising three days a week, who would hound him about the other four days?  It’s the worst of bad manners–and self-protection, I think, in a nervously cynical society–to ridicule the small gesture.  These earnest efforts might just get us past the train-wreck of the daily news, or the anguish of standing behind a child, looking with her at the road ahead, searching out redemption where we can find it:  recycling or carpooling or growing a garden or saving a species or something.  Small, stepwise changes in personal habits aren’t trivial.  Ultimately they will, or won’t , add up to having been the thing that mattered.

We all went crazy over finding the ivorybill because he is the Lord God’s own redheaded whopper of a second chance.  Something can happen for us, it seems, or through us, that will stop this earthly unraveling and start the clock over.  Like every creature on earth, we want to make it too.  We want more time.

And, really, more time is all we can ask for–more time to create the sane, humane, local future that will feed back to give us more time to create more of it.  The human scale of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will inspire your own creative efforts.  Read it, if you haven’t already–and if you have, consider a refresher course.  It’s like visiting with a good friend.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Beautiful World





REAL FOOD MEALS

30 03 2008

from Michael Pollan:

1. Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as      food.                                                                                       2. Avoid foods containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.
3. Don’t eat anything that wouldn’t eventually rot.
4. Avoid food products that carry health claims.
5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.
6. Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmer’s market or CSA.
7. Pay more, eat less.
8. Eat a wide diversity of species.
9. Eat food from animals that eat grass.
10. Cook and, if you can, grow some of your own food.
11. Eat meals and eat them only at tables.
12. Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.

full interview with MSN

confession:  i eat meals, but often in front of my computer…have to clean the keyboard regularly….it gets nasty… and i’m not sure my grandmother would recognize tempeh, tofu, and soymilk as food…but hey, her idea of living well was eating steak three times a day….





FUTURE POSSIBLE?

10 11 2007

I just returned from a two-week swing through New England, and overall it was a very encouraging experience. I lived in Vermont for several years in the nineties, and in many ways felt as if I had left the US for a saner country. It was very refreshing to visit again and find a place where sanity and counterculture have spread and grown, rather than eroding and fragmenting as they seem to have done here in the south. And no, it wasn’t ”like I’d died and gone to heaven.” There were plenty of problems still to solve, both personal and political, everywhere I went. But it felt like there was the will and intelligence and infrastructure to do it. Let me give you some examples.

There are nearly 600 organic farmers in Vermont, according to the state’s organic growers’ association. Considering the small size of Vermont, this means that organic farmers are pretty ubiquitous. Not quite as ubiquitous as dairy farms—there are about 1400 of those left, down from a 1947 peak of 11,000. But gee, that’s one organic farmer for every thousand Vermonters, and about one dairy farm for every four hundred and thirty people. If we had a similar proportion here in Tennessee, there would be about five hundred organic farms and over a thousand dairy farms just in the Nashville area alone. That sure would be a different Nashville, wouldn’t it?

These aren’t just fruit and vegetable farms. There are meat and field crop producers, as well as some overlap between the organic farm numbers and the dairy farm numbers, so we are talking about the possibility of a whole diet from locally grownorganic food—yes, even homegrown sweets, because there are honey producers and maple tappers aplenty up in the northeast woods. And there are cafes and co-op grocery stores in the small towns, vibrant little community centers where people eat and shop and meet their neighbors and talk and argue and plan and create.

Not all of this food gets consumed locally. In fact, most of it gets shipped down to Boswash, the Boston-Washington urban conglomerate, where the money is. But the Vermonters would like to keep more of their produce at home, and they are working on ways to keep it local, and benefit their communities as they do. The organic farmers have teamed up with a food-policy think tank called Foodworks and Shelburne Farms, an environmental education center, to create FEED, “Food Education Every Day,” an organization which works to get local school and other institutional cafeterias to use as much local food as possible, and to educate schoolkids about the many advantages to locally grown food. They have gotten the state legislature on board, and so there are grants and incentive programs, but the program practically sells itself. I should add that it’s not a ”top down” affair; each school district, in a council of teachers, administrators, farmers, and cooks, determines its own priorities.

They have had to add one step to make it work better, but that step adds value for everyone. In Vermont, the garden season and the school season barely overlap, and everyone involved quickly realized that having a way to process and preserve food would make it more available. So, voila! Small-scale canning and processing has become part of the mix, adding value and local employment. Tomatoes and peppers become salsa or tomato sauce; carrots are made into carrot sticks, bagged, and stored; apples are sliced by the bushel—don’t ask me why, but they found out that most kids will eat more apples if they are sliced first! Processing also enables them to use produce that is not aesthetically pleasing enough to sell fresh.

And then there are the in-school educational programs—soup making contests, with the kids as judges; farm visits where kids get to pick their own carrots, blueberries, apples, or whatever; school cafeteria staff, long the subject of bad jokes, get to do something creative, nutritious, local, and tasty. It’s a win/win situation, and it’s growing. Vermonters did not seem overly worried about political, economic, or even ecological collapse.

I’m glad to know they’re up there and doing so well. I hope their inspiration spreads. We could use some of that energy down here, where locally grown food, organic or not, is still a novelty, and the organic food stores depend on trucks from California and Florida to stock not just their produce, meat, and dairy departments, but all the other grocery shelves as well. Five hundred organic producers in the Nashville area? What have we got now, about five?

What would it take to start growing our growers to the point where we might imagine local farmers providing a measurable share of the food that is eaten in middle Tennessee? First of all, we have to look at our tax codes and land valuation and zoning policies, which make it much more profitable to subdivide land and sell it than to grow food on it. Zoning has to recognize that small-scale food production is a legitimate use of one’s home, although I think there should be some common-sense limits to this! Then there are infrastructure questions—how to help people get into farming, I think the way to do this is to find people who can take on a backyard garden with a fork and a hoe and feed their neighborhood, then help them graduate to a half-acre or an acre and feed their community with occasional help from teenagers, retirees, or people who want some healthy exercise after sitting at a desk all week. And of course there are weather questions. We don’t yet know if last year’s stunning heat and drought was a terrible anomaly, or the beginning of a new pattern. Growers will have to learn to be flexible; we do live in a climate in which, with a little simple protection, salad vegetables and leafy greens will produce all winter, and that’s likely to keep on being the case, no matter what our summers become.

Meanwhile, oil is pushing a hundred dollars a barrel, and there’s no telling where the price will jump the next time there’s a catastrophe to intensify the growing scarcity. Imported food, whether from California or across the ocean, is just going to get more expensive. The sooner we start providing for ourselves, the better off we’ll be.

music: Kristina Michelson, “Hippies in the Hills”





SATURN RETROGRADE

11 12 2006

Things are looking rough down in Spring Hill. The Saturn plant is going retrograde. GM is closing one production line, and moving the other line’s product, an SUV, to Mexico. Company officials say they are looking for another vehicle for the plant, but this may be the equivalent of saying, “let’s stay friends” when you break up with someone. Meanwhile, Spring Hill, which has grown in the last twenty years from a sleepy village of fifteen hundred to a high-pressure suburb of fifteen thousand, is looking at its future and thinking, “Detroit here we come? Oops!” Maybe some other automaker will come along and pick up the pieces, but don’t hold your breath, guys….there’s a lot of abandoned manufacturing capacity in this country, and you, too, can have a big piece of it.

This is the end of what was supposed to be a new era in American automobile manufacturing. The Saturn plant was intended to be GM’s answer to the more efficient production methods and management strategies that have helped Toyota and other foreign-owned car companies take US automakers to the cleaners over the last thirty years. The plant worked well, but the company’s sales plan didn’t. Workers who thought they had a sure thing because they had such good relations with management are getting the boot. That’ll teach ’em! GM is also closing two other plants that have won awards for efficiency and quality. In the corporate world, nothing fails like success.

But, at the dawn of the post-carbon era, how could the manufacture of gas-burning cars be termed a “success”? Maybe they should have been making plug-in hybrids?

Maybe there shouldn’t have been an automobile plant there at all.

Spring Hill was gifted by geology with some of the most fertile soil in the state of Tennessee, Mississippi delta included. You can grow just about anything there. The state of Tennessee has a Spring Hill experimental farm that has demonstrated this, over and over again, to a largely indifferent public. Yeah, I know it’s never been big on organics, but that could change….

Middle Tennessee imports about ninety-nine percent of all the food we eat: fruits and vegetables mostly from California, some from Florida, some from farther afield; meat and grains from god knows where—some beef sold in Nashville comes all the way from Australia and is touted for its “organic certification.” To me, its carbon footprint—and the carbon footprint of just about any organic item grown outside middle Tennessee—outweighs its organic value. “ Buy organic” is only half of what’s important—the other half is, “buy local.” Currently there is enough food grown in the middle Tennessee area to support a few thousand people. This makes me feel very insecure.

It didn’t used to be this way. Back around the turn of the last century, a hundred years ago, Tennessee was one of the top ten fruit and vegetable producing states in the country, with most production coming from small, diverse farms. This was not a bad thing.

If the government of Tennessee had had any sense whatsoever, it would have just said no to Saturn and developed the Spring Hill area as the agricultural hub of dozens, if not hundreds. of small, owner-operated farms that could have provided the bulk of middle Tennessee’s food needs—eggs, apples, grains, greens, oilseeds—you name it—well, OK, we’d still have to bring in citrus and rice.

Instead, the power of the state was used to create a multi-million dollar tax break for GM to come in and pave over prime farmland with roads, schools, and subdivisions–which, now that they’re putting the brakes on, are no longer needed, but will still need to be paid for. Maury County, Williamson County, and the State of Tennessee are being hung out to dry, along with the City of Spring Hill and the thousands of families who moved into the area. Gee, maybe some of them will take up gardening to supplement their unemployment….

They’re going to need to do something innovative, because all those houses come with a whale of a utility bill. Thirty years after Jimmy Carter declared that we ought to make solving America’s exorbitant energy demands “the moral equivalent of war,” the construction industry has done the moral equivalent of nothing to implement this. Every house built in the last thirty years should have been solar paneled, solar-oriented and super-insulated, at the very least. Like the idea of turning Spring Hill into a local food production center, this hasn’t even been on the radar of the business and political leaders of this country. By remaining under the spell of the religion of the short-term bottom line, they have seriously lessened the possibility of a graceful, enjoyable, prosperous future for all of us, including their own grandchildren.

This, to me, is truly criminal negligence, because it is our exorbitant need for energy that has driven us into a war of aggression in Iraq,ands caused the deaths of more Iraqis in a shorter period of time than that dictator we toppled—and let’s not forget, this country supplied him with his weapons of mass destruction and encouraged him to use them, all in the name of securing our oil supply.

I’ve been saying that the US had as much right to invade Iraq as Hitler had to invade Poland, but I think I’m going to start saying that the US showed as much sense invading Iraq as Hitler showed invading Russia, because Baghdad is turning into the Bush Junta’s Stalingrad.

But, I digress….our so-called politicians have pandered to the short-term needs of wealthy corporations, from Spring Hill to Kyoto. The about-face of the last election was a mini-step in the right direction, although you’d scarcely know it by the election results (or major-party candidates) here in Tennessee. Spring Hill has been badly malled by consumer culture and is not likely to become a showplace for small farm-centered Jeffersonian democracy any time soon. But we’ve got to keep trying.

music:  James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here Any More





DECODING CODES

26 07 2005

Nashville has a building code and zoning ordinances. Theoretically, this is a good idea—a way of deciding where your right to swing your arms ends and my nose begins. Unfortunately, it sometimes turns into a way to legitimize punching someone in the nose.

A small, almost humorous example is the case of my mother-in-law’s chickens. My mother-in-law has kept chickens in her back yard for as long as she has lived there. A year or two ago, a local real-estate firm wanted to raise property values in her neighborhood, so they went around looking for codes infractions—and it turns out keeping chickens in your back yard is a code infraction, at least in that neighborhood. None of her actual neighbors cared a bit—many of them in fact appreciate her occasional surplus eggs and broiler hens. It was a corporate person, the kind of person who, even less than a vegan, doesn’t appreciate the reality of homegrown chickens, that complained to codes. Corporate persons are demons, committed only to fattening themselves at the expense of whatever they can find to devour—and they don’t appreciate fried chicken, just the money to made from selling fried chicken. So, at the behest of this corporate non-person, whose only stake in the neighborhood was its desire to make more money from it, the codes people were dispatched to shut my mother-in-law’s chicken coop down.

Now, I haven’t eaten chicken in almost forty years, but if I were going to eat chicken, I’d rather eat my mother-in-law’s homegrown backyard chicken than some multinational corporation’s hormone-saturated chicken. As fuel prices rise and supply lines attenuate, we had better encourage local food production any way we can—and if that means altering the zoning codes to allow people to raise backyard chickens, let’s do it, and to hell with conceptual ideas of property values. A neighborhood that raises its own chickens is more valuable than a neighborhood that doesn’t. There’s something to eat there!

Now, that’s one very personal example. At a similar level of nitpickyness we find laws against unmowed lawns, unliscenced vehicles, loose dogs, ugly fences, and the like. Many of these provisions actually do work to the benefit of flesh-and-blood neighbors who would like a little leverage on their sloppier fellow citizens.

A little further up the scale we have Metro requirements that dwellings be hooked up to the municipal electrical, water, and sewerage systems in a responsible fashion. Such provisions cut both ways. They prevent landlords from renting so-called substandard housing to people, but they also prohibit homeless individuals from creating their own shelter, and at the other end of the spectrum they prevent innovative, off-the-grid housing from being created here in Davidson County—and at this point, we come back to my mother-in-law’s chickens. With supply lines and fuel sources looking increasingly dicey, we need to allow creative housing options to flourish in Davidson County, not just for those who have land and want to do something different, but for those who have nothing and would like a place to call their own. The importance of giving people at the bottom of our society a sense of ownership and achievement has often been noted, so why not allow them a chance to call someplace besides a homeless shelter home? There is plenty of unused land in this city—do the Titans really need so much parking space? That’s a spot where showers and toilets are already available and underutilized, most days of the year.

And then there are times when the zoning board is just a way to legitimize punching a whole neighborhood in the nose. The Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing cities to condemn private property to facilitate large retail development is only going to make this worse. We have had numerous examples of private hijacking of the public trust already, from the malls that grow like cancers in our suburbs to Vanderbilt’s destruction of the northern half of the Hillsboro Village neighborhood so rich college kids would have a place to play games and park their parents’ cars. The only way to stop any more of this kind of piracy from happening is for more people who understand the limits of growth to get on the zoning board.

We do not need any more retail outlets. Commercial retail sales are no longer the engine that drives the economy, they are the open artery that is bleeding America dry—thanks to the movement of virtually all consumer goods manufacturing to China and other low-wage enclaves. This is why the Democratic Party’s economic platform doesn’t make sense any more. Consumer spending no longer circulates money in the country, it sends it right out of the country. The funny thing is, we could probably do without new consumer goods for years, if we were collectively unneurotic enough to quit looking for satisfaction in material things. This country is awash in clothing and household goods—that’s why the u-storit business is booming. We could not import any consumer goods for five years and just have a great time going to each others’ yard sales and nobody would go naked or run out of furniture or kitchenware or entertainment possibilities. That’s how to cut the trade deficit. Think about it.








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