To think or not to think sustainably

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Education, Environment, John Cheek, Nature, Philosophy, Sustainability | Posted on 08-09-2009

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by John Cheek

Starting a graduate degree in philosophy invites a number of blunt questions, some from close family and friends uncertain of the plan’s wisdom, others from relative strangers snatching a bit more familiarity than seems entirely appropriate to my reclusive disposition. While my reasons for taking this path are incomprehensible to some, philosophy does offer some unique approaches to thinking about sustainability (and a host of other topics, of course). Philosophers have spent the last two millennia and change trying to convince the rest of you that we’re useful for something. There’s the tale Aristotle relates of the early philosopher Thales who, goaded for his “head-in-the-clouds” philosophical outlook, managed to corner the market on olive presses in his region and make a killing come harvest.

It’s a witty tale philosophers enjoy telling amongst themselves, (possibly to nurture the faint hope that any of them will ever make any money) but dark humor aside, there is one skill philosophers in general possess to a greater degree than any other profession. We can ask some tough questions. Socrates, perhaps the most famous of philosophers, was known for Socratic method (see, philosophy must be important if they named a method after one) in which he stripped away unsatisfactory explanations for common ideas by relentless asking pointed questions. Now depending on your disposition towards our subject, you may or may not have a very high opinion of the answers philosophers give to their own questions, but I’ll pose a couple of questions here and even risk an answer or two that I’d be quite delighted for you to criticize in the comments.

1. Is nature’s value intrinsic or extrinsic? In sustainably minded communities, we take for granted that our environment has value, but where is that value rooted? Is it intrinsic to the natural world, or is the natural world simply valuable in its usefulness to us? I’m fairly sure I know what trees would say if we could hear them talking, but it’s a good question to ask both of yourself and of others. If you are trying to enlist someone into a sustainable cause who believes the latter, then you’ll have a good idea of what arguments to pose and which statements to avoid.

2. How can we balance the needs of people with care for the natural world? It’s not uncommon to hear pie-in-the-sky statements from environmentalists, (I know, pots and kettles and all that) and that’s a good thing. Our goals should be ambitious as the stakes are quite high, but at the same time, it’s important that we consider the consequences different actions will have on the welfare of people in the short term. I don’t really have a great answer to how we balance these two aims, but perhaps some of you could help me suss one out in the comments.

Those are just two of the important questions that we face as a movement, and admittedly the answers can’t be handled completely in 500 words. So what do you think the answers might be, or am I even asking the right questions? Let us know what you’re thinking, and let me know if you’d like to help pay my tuition by renting an olive press …

Meandering thoughts from inside a heat wave

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Change, Consumption, Energy, Environment, Nature, Robbie White, Sustainability | Posted on 24-07-2009

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By Robbie White

I live in an historic neighborhood so I often think about our connection with those who lived before us in our home, of how things were “back then.” Our house was built in 1903. Most of our neighborhood came along in the decades around statehood. During this most recent heat wave my thoughts have wandered to how things were before air conditioning. 

I think of trying to sleep in a house with no relief form the heat. Then, I look at the lovely windows in my home. If those windows were opened, a nice cross breeze would cool each room of this house. A walk around the outside with this in mind reveals yet another reason for nurturing that huge pecan tree that has shaded the house for so many decades. In fact, most of our bedrooms are shaded in one way or another by trees or else they are on the north side. I wonder if this house had a sleeping porch screened from bugs but open on all sides. These days we have so many places to cool off on hot days — the library, a movie theater, church, the mall, and so on — but we still have to sleep at night. And I sleep better when it is cool. 

I recently read the book, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. The book is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Electric air is a new thing for the residents of the southern town. In one scene, the main character is trying to sleep in her parents’ plantation home, built in the late 19th century. She eventually ends up on the back porch remembering how many nights she slept on a cot out there in summer. In this and other stories of days before air conditioning, the heat becomes a force that shapes the lives in the narrative and illustrates how close those people lived to the natural world. 

My kids and I hid from the heat most days during the recent heat wave. We stayed inside where it was relatively cool. We watched movies, read books and worked around the house. We could be oblivious to the heat if we chose.

But with a sustainable lifestyle, you’re trying not to be oblivious. It’s easy to let the car idle in a heat wave because it is so hot, or to drive a car instead of bicycling on an errand. And you begin to see the challenge of stepping away from all that technology and of moving one step closer to the way things ought to be. 

How do you make your life more sustainable? In what ways are you closer to the natural world? Do you grow your own vegetables or have a compost bin or pile? Maybe you attended the local food fair at Harn Homestead last week? Or perhaps you support local farmers? Looking forward to your ideas. 

Let’s celebrate our choices together on Fresh Greens!

Turning sustainable ideas into reality: Jim Horne’s very determined green revolution

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Chelsey Simpson, Community, Farming, Nature, Organic Gardening | Posted on 10-07-2009

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by Chelsey Simpson

Access Tour Alumni Association 2007 Jim Horne and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture have long imagined agriculture with an entrepreneurial spirit and holistic ideal that transcends conventional agriculture and big industry. Their creativity and innovation introduced a quiet and growing revolution in Oklahoma, and while they’ve taken their lumps from the powers that be, they’ve doggedly continued to help family farmers keep their farms and enriched Oklahoma in ways too numerous to compile here. This past June, Fresh Greens contributor, Chelsey Simpson, interviewed Horne for an article in Oklahoma Living magazine. She graciously shares a portion of that interview here.

More than 20 years ago, Jim Horne made a decision for which he was ostracized and temporarily blacklisted by mainstream agricultural institutions across Oklahoma: he decided to put the “sustainable” in sustainable agriculture.

When Horne made the unpopular decision to change the Kerr Center’s official name to the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture  in 1985, he took the organization, and perhaps even the state, in a new direction. From their farm and office in Poteau, the center conducts research, produces educational materials, hosts field days and offers direct support to farmers, all in the pursuit of their mission “to assist in developing sustainable food and farming systems.”

On a rainy morning in early June I sat down with Jim Horne to talk about the role he and his Kerr Center teammates have played in shaping Oklahoma’s agricultural landscape.

When did your thinking start to shift toward sustainability?

The change started in the 1980s for me because there were thousands of farmers who went bankrupt in the ‘80s, and these were not bad farmers, these were good farmers who were going bankrupt. There were cracks in the system, and I could see that we had built an agriculture system around agribusiness, and the [crop] prices would not pay for the inputs we were using. It seemed to me that there had to be a better way to farm using the tools of nature instead of just using solutions that you had to buy.

My father passed away at 42 years of age from acute poisoning from using chemicals, and that probably had a bigger impact on me than I realized. KerrDSC_0298

I understand that it created quite a bit of turmoil and that members of the board even resigned because you added the word “sustainable” to the Kerr Center’s name. 

Why was it unpopular? How could you be against it? To make something endure forever—that only makes sense. But it carried a connotation that a lot of Oklahomans felt was a threat to the funding of their institutions from agribusiness if we promoted farming that involved a lot less chemicals. We were singled out as a group of weirdos and naive tree-huggers because we started the process of asking, “How do we make sense out of farming this way?”

My approach was to ask, “How do you meet the needs of this generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs? How do we keep from destroying our ecological capital?” That was a pretty foreign thought for most people.

Professionally, it was probably the hardest time in my life. I really felt ostracized for this belief, and it was a belief that I wasn’t totally sure of. I kept struggling with how to implement farming with nature. That’s when I came up with the Eight Points of Sustainability, which is all in the book [I co-wrote with Maura McDermontt.] I started breaking it down into what would make sense to a farmer.

What kind of results did you see? Did the methods you promote manage to save any farms that were in bankruptcy?

I know it managed to save a few farms, but I can’t really say how many. So many farms were so far gone by the time we started this.

We have to move to a different style and we need our universities to do research to help us move us in this direction. We have been building that concept among everyone that we don’t want to go through this [mass bankruptcy] again—we have too few farmers already. Sustainability is a necessity, not a luxury.

KerrDSC_0320 How financially viable is the kind of farming you promote?

The whole idea is to keep every drop of rain that falls on your farm, on your farm. The waste from one enterprise—pigs or cattle or chickens—is used as fertilizer in another enterprise, and you use clover to smother weeds. That’s the kind of research that we are looking at and trying to promote because it reduces what you have to buy off the farm, and farmers who are doing it, yes, they are finding profitability. Yields are probably not quite as high, but we have less invested.

How can the general public encourage sustainable agriculture?

I think consumers are the farmers’ best friends.

We have this giant agricultural industrial system that is a worldwide competition, and only large, large farmers can really compete in that system. For a small farmer to compete in a global system is a disaster. What we can do is compete in a local system, and I think that is what is overlooked.

We have lost so many rural communities, particularly in western Oklahoma. What people are realizing now—and I think it is why sustainability is becoming more popular—is that having a neighbor is valuable.

A common argument against these methods is that if everyone farmed this way we couldn’t feed the masses. I’m curious what your response is when you hear that.

The typical response is that if we farmed sustainably, half the world would starve. My answer is that right now we produce enough calories in the world that every person could have enough to eat—it is all about political strife and corruption. My take is—and I have thought a lot about this—is it our responsibility to feed the world, or is it the responsibility of each community to feed their own? I think that is really what we need to think about. KerrDSC_0355

How do we equip people, whether they are in China or Oklahoma, to create their own local food system and how do we minimize the importation of stuff?

What makes you believe so deeply in sustainability and local food? 

I think the point that it comes alive to me is realizing how interconnected we are as humans and in nature. I think that God created everything with a purpose, and when we decide that we don’t need this or that we have gone awry.

We can’t impair our systems just so
we can live affluently today. It is better to work with those systems, and that’s what sustainability is all about.

A longer version of this article is available online.

Follow the Trash

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Nature, Podcast, the Madfarmer, Waste Management | Posted on 02-02-2009

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by the Madfarmer

I recently came across a podcast about trash. It doesn’t sound interesting but I actually found it quite enlightening. For example, in the northern Pacific Ocean there exists a gigantic, slowly moving spiral of currents known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Besides being filled with phytoplankton it is also the world’s largest landfill. It has given birth to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas. Plastic constitutes 90 percent of trash both there and in all the world’s oceans. The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

Now I don’t generally categorize myself as a tree hugger, save the whales type of guy. But I do try to remain connected to my actions even if I don’t see the direct consequences of them. We too often don’t consider our impact on the world because society successfully insulates us from the results. Remaining connected to our decisions and their direct or indirect consequences should cause us to think twice about everything we do. If I toss this plastic bottle into that trashcan, what happens next? Where will it go once it is emptied? How long will it stay there? Where will its final destination be? For many of those plastic bottles they will end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This type of thinking should revolutionize our decision-making. If I buy this generic coffee, who am I actually paying the money to? If I buy the shirt that was made in Indonesia, am I financing child labor? If I eat beef from a confined animal feeding operation, what am I actually putting into my body and the ground?

These are questions many of us already ask on a daily basis. Continually educating ourselves and others around us about our choices is making a difference albeit at a remarkably slow pace. Ask yourself and those around you a few more questions than usual. The answers may make a difference.

Ancient Inspiration In a Modern World

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Nature, Robbie White, Science, Urban Gardening | Posted on 15-12-2008

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by Robbie White

The
most gorgeous moon has been in the sky these past few days. It is
called the Long Night Moon. I understand why the peoples from more
agrarian times called it that. It hangs, glowing, in the sky lighting
the longest and coldest nights of the year. In days before electricity
much had to be done from sunrise to sunset. Lighting with candles or
lamps wasn’t always dependable. The reason the glorious December full
moon is visible for so many hours also has a scientific explanation:

“The
midwinter full moon takes a high trajectory across the sky because it
is opposite to the low Sun. The moon will also be at perigee later this
day, at 5:00 p.m. EST, at a distance of 221,560 mi. (356,566 km.) from
Earth…” http://www.space.com/spacewatch/080118-ns-moon-names.html

I
encountered the most recent Long Night Moon last Monday night while I
was completing some holiday errands. I emerged from a store that faces
west and was stunned to find the horizon aglow with the very last of
the day's sun. Several planets were visible just above the horizon, and
despite the well-lit parking lot, I could sense the glow of the
Long Night Moon behind me. As I turned to see the glow of the moon, I
did not think about how much closer this moon is than other full moons
of the year. Perigees and trajectories never crossed my mind. I felt
closer to the earth’s natural rhythms in that moment. I allowed the
huge Long Night Moon to remind me that no matter what name we give this
cold and dark time of year, the natural order calls to me.

As
I stood in the parking lot taking in the lovely view, my fellow Fresh
Greens bloggers, Jennifer Gooden and David Brooks, jumped into my mind
as I recalled that they wrote eloquently about the joys of growing
their own food. I thought about the gifts I have left to buy and
wondered how I could merge the two thoughts. Is there anyone on my
gift list who loves to garden? What gift would encourage their
enjoyment of growing the food they eat? Jennifer and others have
several good ideas in their blog entries.

What will I do with the long nights of winter before I can plant my earth boxes
again? I think I will dig out my garden dreams of less busy years and
dust them off. I will plan which lovely things I will grow on the
balcony of my urban home that has too much shade for a good garden. I
will even write a Christmas wish list (which I haven’t done in years)
that includes some gardening books.

I
am grateful to the ancient Long Night Moon combined with the ultra
modern tool of blogging that inspires me to look again at growing
things and gives me a fresh perspective on gift buying. It is not too
late to buy some gardening books or magazines or seeds. What inspires
me more is wondering if I could grow enough in the summer of 2009 to
preserve as gifts for next Christmas? If I plan ahead, maybe I could
purchase some local berries or fruit to make homemade jams to wrap up
next winter? How about some jars of zesty sweet pickles from Oklahoma
grown cucumbers? Other thoughts on next year’s giving fill my mind like
visions of sugar plums…. I wonder if there is a recipe for sugar
plums online?  Hmmm…

I wish you all a happy Christmas full of joy and peace and dreams of warmer days and growing things.