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 site for details, and get involved.

music:  The Indigo Girls, “The Wood Song”


6 10 2006

William McDonough, the renowned advocate of sustainable development, paid a visit to Nashville recently. I wish I’d been there, but I’m having to settle for a friend’s account of what he said—many Nashville publications announced his talk, but none of them reported on the talk itself. My friend said he does his best to stay technical and avoid any kind of politics—he mentioned that for a mere four billion dollars (which we’re burning up in a blink of an eye in Iraq) China could be set up to manufacture solar panels at a rate and price that would make them highly attractive to U.S. buyers, creating four jobs installing and maintaining solar panels in the U.S. for every job making solar panels in China. He didn’t address the question of what we’re going to use for money to buy solar panels from China or to hire Americans to install them after we totally blow our wad on Iraq.

He pointed out that China’s growth rate is going to demand housing for another four hundred million people—more than the entire population of the United States—in just the next seven years, and that’s why forests all over the world are going bye-bye. That question was of serious concern to him, and he is attempting to address it.

Mr. McDonough is trying to do what he can to make China’s expansion sustainable. Technological sustainability is his thing, and I agree that it’s very important. He not only believes that everything should be recycled, he finds ways to change manufacturing processes and ingredients so it can happen. This is a good thing. But I think he’s leaving an important component of sustainability out of the equation—the human element.

A reporter from the Sydney, Australia, Morning Herald visited the Chinese “model village” McDonough has helped create, and found a great deal lacking in the execution of McDonough’s wonderful plan. Home building was being done by a private contractor who had changed the construction material from straw bale to cinder blocks made from coal dust, which may create indoor air pollution. The contractor was building the houses without solar orientation, solar panels, or insulation, all of which McDonough had called for, and they all lacked the garden space that Chinese peasants traditionally appreciate having around their dwellings. Beats a run to the supermarket, y’know? Speaking of runs to the supermarket, the homes were all equipped with attached garages, although nobody in the village owns, or can afford, an automobile, and the homes were priced well out of reach of the local villagers, who all complained that the houses were not appropriate for their lifestyle and that nobody involved with the project had consulted them about their needs and wishes.

The contracor’s response to the local community’s criticism of his project, and lack of investment in it, has been, according to the Herald, to start lobbying local authorities to force the villagers to move into the houses he’s building. Hey, that’s how they do things in China. Mr. McDonough’s projects here in the states seem to have worked a little better than this Chinese boondoggle, but his work over here involves only the wealthy and the willing, so far.

Mr. McDonough said in an interview that his goal is to create, “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world, with clean air, soil, water, and power — economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed, period. What’s not to like?” Well, from the way the China project is going, a little more justice and a healthy helping of democracy wouldn’t hurt—and, by the way, in all the research I did on him, this was the only time I heard him mention the word “justice”–and it was in Business Week Magazine.

Speaking of democracy, it’s also the element lacking in the continuing Walmart makeover, which is leading the company to do everything from cutting the amount of packaging it uses to selling only sustainably harvested fish to offering low-cost prescription drugs in its pharmacies—which will pull business away from its competitors and make life a little easier for Walmart employees who need prescription medication, since the company’s health plan has a pretty high deductible.

Meanwhile, Walmart continues to treat its employees unfairly just about any way it can, and has decided to increase its percentage of part-time employees so it won’t have to offer benefits to so many people—gee, Scrooge is going green, but he’s still Scrooge. He’s just looking out for his bottom line.

We like to say that we live in a democracy in this country, but democracy ends at the workplace door for most of us. Employers are the moral equivalent of kings—you can only argue with them very gingerly. Your job, your wages, your hours, your working conditions, benefits, vacations—all of that is at their discretion, and we all accept that as a given, unless we are in a union, in which case our union, which is at least theoretically a democracy, has standing to negotiate with the boss. Thus we see that those who advocate against unions are, essentially, advocating feudalism, which is the status quo for the 7/8ths of the American workforce that is not unionised at this point.

Of course, Walmart is not alone in their cavalier treatment of their employees and the communities they invade. They’re just the biggest player in the game. Many environmentalists are excited by Walmart’s move toward green technology because whatever the biggest player in the game does tends to set the standard for how the game gets played. Maybe Walmart’s awakening will extend to respectful relations with its workforce and the communities in which it does business. Sustainable technology without workplace democracy just creates green prisons. W here’s Lech Walesa when we need him?

Music: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, “When the Lie’s So Big


14 07 2005

What’s the Green Party’s vision for middle Tennessee?
Did you know that Tennessee used to be among the top ten fruit and vegetable producing states in the country? Right up there with New York, Michigan, California and (at the time) New Jersey?That was in the early part of the twentieth century, when most of the people of Tennessee lived on small, highly diversified farms—highly diversified because the farmers had too much at stake every year to put all their eggs, so to speak, in one basket. Yes, lots of people kept chickens, hogs, and cattle, grew peppers and cabbages and blackeyed peas and strawberries and pears and peaches, back in the day when Nashville had a farmers’ market because there were so many farmers in Davidson County.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we, now that we bring well over ninety percent of what we eat in from thousands of miles, or even a hemisphere, away, as the price of the fuel that brings it here starts its speeding spiral upwards? But I digress…The downside of Tennessee’s agriculturally and otherwise more self-reliant culture a hundred years ago was widespread poverty with its attendant ignorance and physical and emotional suffering. Tennessee was effectively part of the third world.

The Green Party does not yearn for that past—it’s the Republicans who are doing their best to drag us there, in all the worst ways.The Green Party wants to revive the best part of old Tennessee—community self-sufficiency,whether in food, health care and medicine, fuel, culture, clothing, or decision making. Our current economic structure is basically a siphon that sucks money from individuals and local communities into the pockets of large corporations and their already wealthy shareholders. Our current economy is a treadmill—the faster it goes, the faster we must go, and the faster we go, the faster it goes.

Both major political parties support this, arguing only over how much to siphon and how much to speed up the treadmill.The Green Party proposes to take out the siphon and turn off the treadmill. A great deal of what needs to happen will have little to do with government, except that government needs to be willing to step out of the way and let it happen. Other things will need a strong, coherent government in order to happen. We believe it is the purpose of government to stand up for the people. What we have happening now is government by and for special interests—specifically large, for-profit corporations.

Enough with the noble rhetoric, you say. Give me some details! What can we do? How could we actually, rubber-meets-the-road improve the quality of life in middle Tennessee? We got an automobile plant on the best farmland in the area. Most of the farms that used to feed us have been turned into subdivisions. Most people don’t garden or even live walking distance from a grocery store, and they’ve all gotta drive miles on the same roads at the same time to get to work. Watcha gonna do about it, greenboy?

Well, as one of my favorite frogs once remarked, it’s not easy bein’ green. A lot of damage has been done to the human/ and natural ecology of middle Tennessee. Sometimes I despair about this—it seems like a debate over where to put bandaids on a dying man—and friends, it may be. We may be too locked in to the self-destructive pattern of late-period capitalism to avert catastrophe, but we have got to try.

The Green Party does not, however, have a vast, overarching, detailed program of how to do this. The Green Party approaches things differently from the Democan-Republicrat—“let-us-tell-you what you need and whether it’s working for you” song and dance. One of our primary principles is to give people power over the decisions that shape their lives—so we do not have a top-down solution that we intend to impose on you the people.

What we would do as the party in power is use the government to grow solutions from the bottom up—get people together in neighborhoods and communities and facilitate discussion of issues and answers. As a governing party, we will help people learn what they need to know to make intelligent decisions, and then use government as a tool to implement what the people want, rather than what the wealthy and their lobbyists want, which is the way it works today.

But wait, you say, people in Tennessee are crazy as outhouse rats—they’re against an income tax, even though it means most of ’em would pay less in taxes—they’re for a lottery, which is an increased tax on the (mostly poor) people who can’t do math very well—they’re against gay people being able to adopt children, even though it’s spare-the-rod-and spoil-the-child Christians who are more often in trouble for child abuse. What makes us naïve Green Party people think that turning decision making back to the people will result in intelligent decisions? What is to keep it from resulting in widespread repression—nightshirts and ponies, creationism, cars up on blocks in front yards in Brentwood? AAGGHHH!

Well, I would like to propose that if the y’all are smart enough to put the Green party in charge, y’all are smart enough to figure out your own lives without hurting anyone else. And if y’all keep voting in the same old same old, things will keep going round and round just like always, further and further down the drain, and then we will still have to figure it out for ourselves, only from an even more difficult position than we are in already.

Now, I was a young man back in the 1960’s,(“you made your own amusements then”) when we first had this vision and called it things like “participatory democracy.” and “sustainable culture.” Forty years ago, it would have been easier to take the path we propose. The forces of greed, ignorance, and selfishness have done everything they can to throw roadblocks in our way since then—but they can’t outspin the fact that they are running America over a cliff. We in the Green Party have a better idea. We invite you to take charge of your own future.

%d bloggers like this: