Erik Assadourian

Oct 192017
 

Hurricane Maria over the Leeward Islands near peak intensity and approaching Puerto Rico on September 19, 2017 as a Category 5 hurricane.
VIIRS image captured by NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite

I’m sure that some will criticize the insensitivity of the timing of this essay. How can you talk about Puerto Rico, climate change, and degrowth at this tragic time? But what time is better than now? There are only going to be more disasters and more tragic times ahead. And if after each one we spend billions on rebuilding costly infrastructure, the resulting carbon emissions are going to contribute to disasters elsewhere in the future. So when better than now to raise this—before billions of dollars are spent rebuilding Puerto Rico (and Houston and Florida too) in the same unsustainable, unresilient way that consumer economies have pursued thus far?

Perhaps the island’s debt crisis combined with this hurricane offers the perfect opportunity for Puerto Rico to develop in a different direction. Perhaps Maria can serve as the start of Puerto Rico’s “special period” where a simpler, more equitable, more sustainable pathway—and yes, poorer in consumer terms—is chosen.

In other words, could this disaster serve as the trigger of an intentional redirection of the island’s development? Could Puerto Rico degrow, and in the process bring about a more sustainable society?

The Benefits of Degrowth

First of all: why should Puerto Rico degrow?

The social and ecological costs of our fossil-fueled consumer culture are apparent—in disease burdens, in obesity rates, in CO2 emissions, and in other ecological costs. Choosing to move away from the consumer economic model could reduce obesity and connected disease burdens, reduce ecological impacts, reduce the stresses of modern day busy-ness, and help rebuild community as people once again work together in community and create webs of interdependence.

So if not the consumer model, how should Puerto Rico develop? Let’s look at Cuba’s special period, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent US embargo rapidly forced the country to go in a very different direction: returning to small-scale and sustainable agriculture; using far less energy; turning more to mass transit and bicycles for transportation; and greatly simplifying their economy. In the process, Cuba became one of the few countries with a one-planet ecological footprint that also sustains really high levels of human development outcomes, on par with the far richer United States. (To learn more on this watch this documentary or read this chapter from State of the World 2013.)

Along with requiring a strong state response during the crisis period (food rationing to prevent hoarding for example), this transition also required bold innovations both technological and cultural, such as converting all green spaces into small-scale community gardens. Could Puerto Rico act as boldly?

With a population of 3.4 million, and a higher density than Cuba, it wouldn’t be easy, but it could be possible (particularly as some Puerto Ricans will surely choose to defect from this new path and move to the mainland and as no embargo would mean access the most appropriate technologies to make this transition). So what exactly could be on the table?

Some Steps in the Path to Degrowth

With current estimates suggesting power might stay off for 4-6 months and the Power Authority already bankrupt, perhaps electricity should be rethought altogether. How much do households really need? Solar hot water could provide (very cheaply) hot water and a few solar panels could provide basic electricity requirements for basic lighting and cell phone charging. Air conditioning certainly can be let go. Is refrigeration necessary? This is a technology that feels like a necessity but hasn’t been around that long. Could people forego it (or at least share fewer refrigerators among communities)? Even if not, there are refrigerators available that use very little electricity—100 watt-hours a day—for example. Many other consumption patterns could also be rethought—down to even how housing is designed.

But more important than these changes would be macro-economic changes. How would Puerto Ricans sustain themselves if not as cogs in a consumer economy? Many Puerto Ricans could return to small-scale farming, converting yards, roadsides, soccer fields, schoolyards, and everywhere else into smallholder farms and community gardens. Others could be employed in restoring and expanding remaining forests, cultivating sustainable agroforestry crops, and in creating wetland buffers along coastlines. Many could also be trained as community sustainability and resilience educators to facilitate this transition. Others could be trained as family planning nurses to help bring down the population to a more sustainable level for an island that over the decades will be shrinking in area as sea levels rise. The tourism industry may also flourish in this restorative, idyllic landscape—particularly as the world flocks to Puerto Rico to learn how to implement these changes in their own societies.

At a Crossroads

Essentially the question is whether Puerto Ricans want to continue to be struggling consumers or whether there is an alternative development model that they (and others devastated by disasters) would accept. Could a low-consumption agrarian lifestyle that still provides citizens high levels of education and public health be valued over the consumer model that typically puts access to consumer goods above basic health, education, and security? (Just look at mainland United States where one can buy a hundred types of cereals or smartphones but struggle to find a good doctor or decent school.)

And of course, this is not only about ‘consumer preference.’ One of these models is ecologically restorative, while the other is rapacious and unresilient and will cause suffering to others elsewhere—both now and in the future. Ultimately, we either start making these difficult considerations or eventually after the second, third, or fourth leveling of a nation, the funds to keep rebuilding it will simply disappear. And those nations will be far worse off than if they had taken the more sustainable, less consumeristic path.

 October 19, 2017  Posted by on October 19, 2017 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Mar 142017
 

From: The Earth

To: The people of Washington, DC, and particularly to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

This is a letter to inform you that the manner in which you are living your lives is incompatible with the continuation of your civilization. Without significant changes, your future will be filled with famine, war, fire, brimstone, blah, blah, blah.

Ok, I’m the Earth and that’s not how I talk. Consultants hired down on K Street—a spot you all seem to know too well—suggested I write in what they called “legalese,” but I’m more of a birdsong and blossom kind of being. And sometimes when I’m really miffed, I favor the artistic power of a hurricane, drought, or flood. You might remember some of my most dramatic recent works—you named them Katrina and Sandy.

Those consultants rolled their eyes when I suggested that an eerily early bloom of Washington’s renowned cherry blossoms followed by a massive snow storm would finally be the sign needed to take seriously the climatic changes that your binge on my stored carbon is causing. But they also weren’t inclined to extend the dam-busting storms on the American west coast or prolong the brutal droughts spanning large swaths of Africa. One actually shuddered at the thought.

So, long story short, I fired the lot of them and decided to write you a personal letter. I hope you enjoy the cherry blossoms—and the snow day.

But while you’re strolling along the Tidal Basin tweeting photos of the ice-encrusted blossoms, please take a moment to reflect on the fact that the Tidal Basin and much of the National Mall were reclaimed from the Potomac River and Tiber Creek. Keep in mind that your precious cultural heritage—placed upon a low lying area that should already be underwater—will certainly be inundated when the Western Antarctic melts (I shouldn’t tell you this but I’m getting a tingling on my underside that suggests you’ve got maybe a few hundred years at most before something seriously gives down there).

So please note that this letter is a last friendly warning that you must take the wrongs you have dealt me seriously. I will endure them, not quietly, like your quaint little Lorax character who let that greedy Once-ler get away with destroying the Truffula Forest (I wish I had thought of those trees, those trees, those Truffula trees—perhaps next go-round, after this current mass extinction event).

No, not like the Lorax but like the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Demeter, if you recall, allowed Erysichthon, King of Thessaly, to cut down her sacred grove, but then cursed him with an insatiable hunger that led him to keep eating until he literally ate himself! I always get a chuckle from that story. You, however, probably won’t find the famine, flooding, and war ahead very funny.

Anyhoo, I wish you all the best, truly, and I warn you one last time: get your act together. Ratify the Paris agreement, shift away from your unsustainable growth-centric consumer culture, impeach your president and other elected officials who don’t believe in the basic scientific realities of climate change (seriously?!). Do whatever is needed to become a carbon-neutral species as quickly as possible, or you can kiss your city, and, heck, your whole civilization, goodbye.

Best Wishes,

The Earth

 March 14, 2017  Posted by on March 14, 2017 Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »
Sep 232016
 

megaphone-1480342_1280-1

In this fifth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an activist high school in São Paulo, Brazil. At this school students are activists first, students second. They’re learning by doing and, in the process, bringing about positive social change in their city, their country, and their world.

It’s hard to even see the Freire School of Activism in São Paulo, Brazil as a school. The 200 students spend far more of their time engaged directly in activist campaigns than in anything resembling traditional academic work. Of course there are classes—two days a week—where all the basics are covered. Portuguese and English, math, history, systems thinking, sustainability sciences, persuasive speech, advocacy, law, and ethics. But unlike other high schools in São Paulo, all coursework is regularly oriented toward how students can use this knowledge to make their communities, their city, their country, and their world better.

To keep costs to a minimum, class days take place at a few local churches, and tutorials and campaign meetings, which dominate the week, typically rotate between students’ homes, public libraries, and cafés. Most meetings consist of updates and strategic planning for the dozen or so campaigns that the students have chosen to initiate and participate in—from efforts to establish new health clinics and bike paths, to campaigns to reduce air pollution and clean up abandoned brownfields. There is even an ongoing campaign to persuade city officials to pass a law requiring green roofs and rainwater catchment systems on all new or rehabilitated buildings—essential infrastructure as climate change has made access to fresh water a dire challenge in the city.

What’s been most powerful about this educational model is that the students, like any good campaigners, learn to reach out to a broad range of constituencies to build strong coalitions. Students at Freire learn to identify potential partners, communicate strategically, engage groups with varying interests, and apply a whole host of skills such as running meetings, management, and organizing. Inevitably they also end up spreading a philosophy of empowerment to their families and communities as they seek out broader support, often inspiring others to join the campaigns.

Beatriz, now a teacher at the school, graduated from the very first class of Freire in 2024. One of the earliest campaign successes of the school was an effort to expand the Clean City Law—which banned billboard advertising across the city—to the entire state. The removal of billboards from the city had significant impacts on revealing social inequities and also reducing materialism and unhealthful consumption patterns. Although the campaign succeeded a few years after Beatriz graduated, her role in organizing nonviolent civil disobedience actions—including a relentless “ad-jamming” campaign to replace billboard ads with public service announcements and artwork—had a major impact in exhausting the opposition and persuading the populace and the state to pass the new law. Today, 15 years later, the state of São Paulo continues to be the largest ad-free area in the world.

Now Beatriz teaches Portuguese, persuasive speech, and civil disobedience, and serves as a mentor and advisor for students as they run their campaigns. It is part of the philosophy of the school that the students always lead the campaigns (with them organizing the spokespersons, community liaisons, lobbyists, and other leadership) and that teachers only take an advisory role. A recent survey of the school’s first ten years of graduates found that the majority have continued to be socially and politically active, and many have gone on to be leaders in local and state government, in education, and in socially responsible business.

Beyond activism, complementary skills such as conflict mediation, debate, and management are deeply integrated into the curriculum at the Freire School. And everyone is encouraged to participate in physical activities—particularly aikido, a martial art that encourages exploration of both how to de-escalate conflict and, when that fails, how to use the attacker’s energy against himself, a skill regularly put into service in the students’ activism. While there are many more campaigns to wage, the Freire School has been instrumental in making the city and state of São Paulo into healthier, more sustainable, and more livable places to reside.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


This concludes the School Days in 2040 series. What do you think? Would you want your children to go to any of these schools? To the Forest School? The River School? The Social Entrepreneur or Activist School? Or the Eco-engineering Academy?

Teachers: Would you want to teach at these schools? Do you know any schools that approach this level of “Earth-centric-ness”? Is there any chance that education will ever reach this level of potential? Or will the stresses of dealing with and paying for climate disasters in the coming decades simply deplete state coffers to the extent that education becomes poorly funded and we should count ourselves lucky when our children graduate literate? Your reactions, comments, and insights are welcome!


Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 September 23, 2016  Posted by on September 23, 2016 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Sep 152016
 

This article on UDC’s food system work was originally posted on FuturePerfect.

The University of the District of Columbia is leading the charge in transforming the food system in a city challenged with high levels of poverty, obesity, and population growth.

“Nature will be just fine. The question is whether it’ll be just fine with us or without us. Nature might just decide to jettison us.” So says Sabine O’Hara, dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to a class of eager area residents who have come to learn about sustainable urban farming. Through CAUSES, O’Hara is working to transform every aspect of the food system in Washington, D.C.—from cultivation, preparation, and distribution to food waste management—in a way that provides food security for city residents but does not compromise Earth’s systems or the ability of our species to survive. As impossible as this sounds, CAUSES may just offer a model for creating sustainable urban food systems in the constrained future ahead.

udc-rooftop-farm
The University of the District of Columbia’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Cultivating a New Urban Food Path

While cultivation is just one component of the food cycle, it is perhaps the most visible one, and CAUSES has experimented with a wide variety of techniques to get as much food as possible out of the high-priced landscape of the nation’s capital. As O’Hara explains, “We are not a city like Baltimore or Detroit where urban agriculture is the new big thing. D.C. is not emptying out, like it is there. D.C. is growing by a rate of 1,500 per month.”

Right on campus is the largest rooftop farm in the city—20,000 square feet—growing plump Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes and crisp red-stemmed Swiss Chard along the edges (areas of the roof that have the structural integrity to handle larger crops) as well as greens, flowers, and sedum in the interior sections (for insulation and water capture benefits). Much of this rooftop produce—grown mostly by volunteers—gets distributed to UDC’s faculty and staff through a community-supported agriculture program and to D.C. food banks as donations.

Swiss chard growing in UDC’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Swiss chard growing in UDC’s rooftop farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Sustainable Agri-experiments

Beyond the campus, at the end of the Green Metro Line, is the 143-acre Firebird Farm. Here UDC is experimenting with a wide selection of crops and techniques to sustainably provide food for a growing city: 1.5 acres of sweet potatoes, an Asian pear orchard, a more-sustainable dryland rice variety, a cluster of half-acre allotment gardens available to entrepreneurial D.C. residents. There’s even a large garden of “ethnic crops,” growing uncommon and highly nutritious vegetables like garden eggs, ghost peppers, gbomas, kitely, jamma jamma, and jute for the city’s significant immigrant population.

CAUSES dean Sabine O’Hara describes the UDC rooftop farm to Sustainable Urban Agriculture students. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
CAUSES dean Sabine O’Hara describes the UDC rooftop farm to Sustainable Urban Agriculture students. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Nearby there are also greenhouses with aquaponics, producing tilapia in high-tech, low-energy-demanding aerated tanks, with the fish waste water fertilizing greenhouses full of greens and veggies. But tilapia sells for little, so O’Hara’s team recently installed a smoking facility. “Why sell tilapia for a dollar a pound when you can smoke it and sell it for 12 dollars a pound?” O’Hara asks the class. As this pragmatic stance shows, if the numbers can’t be made to work, neither can the farm.

Hoop house at UDC’s Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Hoop house at UDC’s Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Koshihikari rice growing on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Koshihikari rice growing on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

There are challenges, though. For example, the rooftop tomatoes had to be harvested green last year as forecasts of high winds could have turned them into dangerous projectiles threatening unsuspecting pedestrians below. And as a city-funded university, navigating how to sell produce without bumping up against non-compete rules has not been easy. Currently, a lot of the food is donated, which helps with food security but does not help with sustaining the farm.

Firebird Farm Director Mchezaji “Che” Axum teaches students how to double dig garden beds. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Firebird Farm Director Mchezaji “Che” Axum teaches students how to double dig garden beds. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

Food in the City

O’Hara is not just focused on growing crops on the campus and farm. She is taking food exactly where it is most needed. The goal is to build an “Urban Food Hub” in each of the city’s eight wards, particularly the poorer ones. And with five already established, CAUSES is well on its way.

These food hubs include farms, hydroponics systems, and food preparation facilities. They are helping to train a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs who can provide healthy food in a city where too many neighborhoods are food deserts. O’Hara notes that 88 percent of the 520 D.C. food retailers offer no fresh produce; in Ward 7—where overweight and obesity rates have now reached 72 percent—only three full-service grocery stores serve 71,000 residents.

ronald-mason-and-belinda-decuir-mason
UDC president Ronald Mason and his wife Belinda DeCuir Mason pose in front of CAUSES Food Truck. Photo (CC BY-SA): Leslie Malone.

By creating food hubs, CAUSES can take a leading role in providing new skills, jobs, and healthy sustainable food to the people who need them the most. One of its newest endeavors is a business-incubator kitchen. Here food-safety-certified D.C. residents can get access to a commercial kitchen, standardize their recipes, and create and market new food products—to stores, restaurants, and markets. “We’re not running food hubs as businesses, but as business incubators. Our goal is to spin off businesses,” explains O’Hara.

CAUSES has even set up a food truck, riding on the current craze for these mobile mini-restaurants in DC. But like all of UDC’s efforts, this too serves as an educational and training opportunity—“a classroom on wheels,” says O’Hara.

“Food Systems Must Be Circular”

O’Hara doesn’t stop with the growing, preparing and distributing of food, but makes it clear that agriculture waste streams must also be captured and feed the next cycle of production. Solar power is used to pump groundwater for Firebird Farm, and drip irrigation reduces total water usage. Wastewater is managed with a variety of technologies—cisterns, rain gardens, even rice paddies. Composting transforms food waste into new soil, and a bio-diesel press converts used cooking oil into diesel fuel.

Solar power is used to pump groundwater for the fish farm and crops on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.
Solar power is used to pump groundwater for the fish farm and crops on Firebird Farm. Photo (CC BY-SA): Erik Assadourian.

With more people becoming urbanites, if cities can cultivate, prepare, and distribute more of their own food this will be a major step in making agricultural systems more sustainable, including reducing food-related greenhouse gas emissions and closing nutrient cycles. Moreover, if cities can localize their economies rather than depending on just one or two industries, they will be more resilient—a valuable trait in the less stable future that’s at our doorstep.

Perhaps with innovations coming from such a prominent place as the city’s university, and with the food and farming entrepreneurs that CAUSES is nurturing and the food businesses it is helping to create, Washington, D.C., will become America’s capital of sustainable food production. O’Hara is doing her best to make that happen.


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

This article was originally posted on FuturePerfect.

 September 15, 2016  Posted by on September 15, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Sep 082016
 

In this fourth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an eco-engineering high school in Singapore that is training highly moral scientific leaders to guide investigation of the world’s most controversial environmental technologies.

Arivan has just stepped off Singapore’s MRT train and is now walking his last few blocks to the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy along a pedestrian and bicycle-only street. This is his favorite part of the commute. Even though school starts later in Singapore to avoid the worst of the morning rush hour, the train ride is still chaotic. But these few last blocks along Agnes Avenue—with its lush tree canopy, birdsong, and verdant sidewalk cafes—is more park than street. Of course, not all roads in the city are so  picturesque. But Arivan is proud that the students of Garden City Academy have played an important role over the years in helping to make Singapore one of the greenest cities on the planet.

Even as a second-year student, Arivan is still orienting himself to the possibilities—and responsibilities—that come with being a student at Garden City. Ever since he was little, Arivan’s education has been strongly centered on character education. Having a strong moral character, or more simply put, “being good,” has been deeply integrated into every aspect of Singapore’s educational system—from teaching empathy early on to exploring the moral complexities of modern life as children mature.

With Arivan having passed both his character education and science exams at the top of his class, he has earned a coveted spot at Garden City (although, naturally, he accepted it with humility). Students here gain access to some of the most controversial environmental technologies on the planet—from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nanotechnology, to geoengineering and carbon capture and storage (CCS). They are expected to graduate not only with in-depth knowledge of these technologies, but also having helped advance humanity’s understanding of them, and of how to use them responsibly, if at all.

Garden City’s philosophy is that as the planet’s ecological crises have accelerated, the need for eco-engineering has too. Not only are governments working diligently to make their cities and industries more sustainable, but widespread ecological disruptions are requiring us to make our key systems—water, electricity, transportation, agriculture, coastal infrastructure—more resilient. As the climate heats up even further in the second half of the century, there will be greater pressure to try more controversial technologies in an attempt to dig humanity’s way out of crisis.

Rather than ignoring or banning these technologies outright, the Singapore government feels that it’s better to train the next generation of scientists to be morally evolved leaders that can analyze rationally whether the sacrifices that come with using the technologies merit the benefits. As an added bonus, many of the eco-engineers that have graduated from Garden City have become a valuable asset to Singapore, bringing significant global leadership in patent development and generating abundant journal citations, royalties, and remittances.

When Arivan started at Garden City, he was invited to participate in a longitudinal study on the health and environmental implications of saltwater-tolerant perennial rice. This GMO crop was designed back in 2025 and has been undergoing long-term testing to ensure that, along with being safe, it is productive, palatable, and profitable. During the early years of the study, students were involved in growing and harvesting the rice, and feeding rice meal to rats. When the field tests found no adverse health effects, students moved on to feeding the rice to chickens, then dogs and cats.

Two years ago, the students (under the close supervision of faculty scientists at the school) declared the rice safe for human testing. The rice is now served in the school cafeteria. After all, one of the mottos of Garden City is, “What we expect of others, we must expect of ourselves.” Arivan now plays an important role in collecting and analyzing health data. As a student in the school’s GMO track, he is routinely reading the latest journal studies and has even joined his team to present at the prestigious International Congress of Agricultural Biotechnologies. He and others in his track also regularly present updates of their own work and broader “field briefs” to students in the other three tracks at Garden City: Geoengineering & CCS, Nanotechnology & Biomimicry, and Urban & Civil Design.

This morning, the day is starting with a presentation from a Civil Design team working on “growing” Singapore’s first living house. Planted nine years ago, the trees and grasses that make up the house have now fused to a point where the interior will now be built. As the lead presenter explains, “If all goes well, we’ll have our first resident by the end of the school year.” When not at full school presentations, most students are either taking core courses or participating in their teams’ studies.

Of course, it’s not all science and moral education at Garden City. Languages—particularly English and Mandarin (the top two scientific languages), along with Malay—are a required part of the curriculum. The Arts and other means to cultivate creativity and critical thinking also are encouraged, as are opportunities to get outdoors in Singapore’s many managed natural spaces. Arivan is part of the wilderness skills club and is currently learning how to make fire using a bow drill. As Garden City administrators often state, “Connecting students to the eco-social-technical organism that the city has become reveals the mysteries of our living planet and their duty as stewards.” While that might sound like jargon to the outsider, it’s music to the students of the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 September 8, 2016  Posted by on September 8, 2016 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Sep 012016
 

In this third story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores a high school in India specializing in training future social entrepreneurs, farmers, and even midwives.

With lunch now concluded, Lakshmi excuses herself from the meal at her parents’ home, grabs her knapsack, and heads off to school. Unlike most schools, class at Bunker Hill doesn’t start in the morning but in the afternoon, continuing late into the evening. Here, in the southern Indian hill station of Ooty, much of the economy still revolves around agriculture, so mornings are reserved for helping parents or extended families with their farms. The high-elevation town is dominated by a mix of sufficiency gardens, tea plantations, and commercial plots of “English vegetables,” an export that, due to global population growth and the loss of agricultural land from climate change, is now as valuable as tea.

Today is a particularly important day at school. The entire student body—comprising 500 high school students—is gathering to hear four finalists present their project proposals for a new social enterprise that will be implemented when school gets out next month for the summer. Afterward, the entire school will discuss the projects and vote on how to distribute the $50,000 reserved for social enterprise investments each year.

Photo: Prof. Mohamed Shareef from Mysore (Green Pastures) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Prof. Mohamed Shareef from Mysore (Green Pastures) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The headmistress introduces the four project teams, and the presentations begin. Some students use high-tech video and slide presentations to help make their case, while others tell stories of what their enterprises could mean to Ooty. But all four teams present well-thought-out projects: a preventive health clinic; a permaculture design consultancy; a bicycle-sharing business with stations around Ooty; and finally a “Circular Café,” a teahouse that would sell local teas and vegetarian foods, procuring these from nearby farms and later returning the food waste to the farms to rebuild their soils.

After the presentations are concluded, the students return to their homerooms and spend the next two hours discussing the merits of the projects and determining which they feel should be supported, and to what level. While some of the conversations get heated, all remain considerate. Lakshmi, who loves drinking tea, is a strong advocate for the Circular Café, and helps win over her classroom to the project. Once the homeroom group comes to a decision, they elect one student to be the spokesperson for the final discussion. The 20 representatives, including Lakshmi, then gather in the auditorium and discuss—in front of the whole student body—what their homerooms decided on.

While not all homerooms chose the same winner, through a process of open discussion and consensus-building the representatives end up awarding the Circular Café the lion’s share of the funding. They decide to allot $45,000 to the project, praising key components like the identification of a vacant building on a high-traffic street; the agreement of the property owner to rent out the space at an affordable rate; and the vision for how the café could serve as a “third space” for the community, providing a place for tutoring and community meetings and for sharing important civic information via a prominent bulletin board. The remaining funds are allocated to the permaculture consultant team, which had required only $5,000 to start their venture.

For the winning team, the work has just begun. This summer will be their first taste of independently leading a social enterprise, even though collectively, over the course of their school careers, they have been involved with at least half a dozen. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be determining whether they can balance the café and their upcoming college studies, or whether they’ll need to defer admission for a few years.

This certainly wasn’t a typical day at Bunker Hill, but rather the culmination of months of collaborative work determining what the local community most needs and how to implement these new services in ways that sustain both the workers and the venture.

The school’s more typical curriculum includes a significant focus on regional ecology, agricultural sciences (including geology, biology, chemistry, and climatology), languages, first aid, and household management. Through this, students learn not only the basics like budget management, cooking, home building, and repair, but also comprehensive sexuality education—from family planning to how to raise a healthy baby and child.

There is even a track for students interested in nursing, midwifery, and maternity care. Students who excel in this track typically help to deliver their first babies at age 16 (as a doula), and by graduation they can serve as an assistant midwife. Research has found that having knowledgeable peer-midwives in schools helps to disseminate information about sex, family planning, and pregnancy more effectively and, in the process, helps to lower teen pregnancy rates.

Lakshmi didn’t choose the midwife track, although her midwife friends have certainly shared lots of stories with her. Rather, she chose the social entrepreneur track, and is eager to pitch her idea for an intergenerational learning academy next year in front of the school. She’s already brought together a team, and over the summer they’ll set the foundation for how to bring the idea to fruition. Lakshmi knows that helping to ensure that the wisdom of elders gets transferred to the community’s young people (and that the elders don’t get left behind with all the changes happening these days) would be a win-win. Perhaps the academy can even be based out of the Circular Café. However it shapes up, Lakshmi can’t wait for the summer to begin.

I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Mechai Pattana School in Thailand and Barefoot College in India as inspiration for this scenario.

 September 1, 2016  Posted by on September 1, 2016 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Aug 252016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040. Learn more about this series.

Today, Saikou arrived early at the dock where his school will pick him up for the day. Yes, instead of taking the bus, he’ll actually be picked up by his school, as the Tigerfish Floating School is a large boat. Over the course of the school day, Tigerfish meanders up and down a few kilometers of the Gambia River, just downstream of the city of Bansang, picking up the school’s 160 students

Today, it’s Saikou’s turn—along with his other classmates who meet at this dock—to harvest the day’s catch from the school’s dockside fish farm. Lunch each day consists of a mix of vegetables, rice, and the fish that the school raises in a series of small tanks, located on each of the docks. This ensures that even the poorest of Tigerfish’s students get adequate protein each day. The fish farms also are an integral part of the curriculum: all students will graduate middle school with a comprehensive knowledge of fish farming—from growing the insects that the fish eat, to proper harvesting and management of the tanks, to even basic veterinary training.

floating school education

Makoko Floating School in Nigeria (from CEE HOPE NIGERIA, May 2014), an early prototype of the floating school of 2040

After feeding the fish and harvesting today’s catch, Saikou and his classmates see their school approaching. The floating school is a large pyramid-shaped boat—designed not for speed but for stability, even in the worst weather. The school consists of several well-lit classrooms, a kitchen, even two science labs—as science is a priority at Tigerfish. Today, the first-year students (sixth graders) are learning about circuits and solar electricity. With a solar array covering the boat, the students have the chance not only to learn about photovoltaics in the abstract, but also to take part in maintaining the boat’s electrical system.

In the other science lab, the eighth graders, including Saikou, have been spending the day dealing with a problem. The tilapia in one of the school’s fish farms have developed some sort of disease, with many of the fry dying and many of the adult fish developing skin lesions and rubbing themselves raw against the sides of the tanks. Over the course of the day, the students have dissected several fish to explore internal symptoms, examined fish cells under the microscope, and conducted online research—first on Googlepedia and then in academic journals—to assess the problem. Their hypothesis: the fish are suffering from Trichodina, caused by tiny parasites that attach to the gills, skin, and fins.

The teacher, who has been quietly nudging the process along—helping with the equipment, engaging those who get left out, settling down those who get too excited—now makes a video call to the local veterinarian and allows the students to present their case that the tilapia are suffering from Trichodina. The vet, seeing the evidence, supports their conclusion and agrees to come by the fish farm the next day to give the fish a potassium salt bath to kill the parasites. After the call, the teacher praises the excellent work of the class, although it is the success of correctly identifying and dealing with the problem that is most rewarding to Saikou and to many of the other students.

Not every day does such a “perfect” project manifest at Tigerfish, offering the students an opportunity to expand their vocational knowledge, research skills, critical thinking, and ability to work together. However, routinely integrating river life into the school curriculum tends to offer more opportunities than would otherwise exist. Biology, chemistry, climatology, ecology, and physics are all naturally a part of life on a river—a river that most of these students will live along their entire lives.

Having a deep knowledge of and connection to the Gambia River is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Tigerfish, although gaining an understanding of the many changes occurring in the ecosystem is also very valuable. As climate change and population pressures have reduced wild fish stocks to endangered levels, farmed fish have largely replaced wild fish. And after several serious floods made schooling impossible for tens of thousands of children living along the riverbank, the idea of floating schools became more celebrated—with a quarter of The Gambia’s students now spending at least some of their school years at a river school.

Recognizing the high risk for future climate-related changes—including the potential submersion of vast areas of the country—certain skills are an integral part of the curriculum: the ability to swim well, disaster education (how to respond effectively in a crisis), and, most importantly, multilingualism. Although English is the primary school language, all students also learn French and Mandinka. The hope is that knowing two global languages will increase students’ employment opportunities in good times, and, if a large share of the population eventually becomes climate refugees (a possibility that the government now openly acknowledges), knowing both English and French will help people better integrate into other countries.

While floating schools certainly aren’t solving the climate crisis in The Gambia and the many other coastal countries where they’ve emerged, they’ve proven to be an ingenious adaptation—one that Saikou feels lucky to be part of.


Author’s note: I want to acknowledge the innovative efforts of the Makoko Floating School in Nigeria as inspiration to this future scenario.

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

 August 25, 2016  Posted by on August 25, 2016 Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Aug 172016
 

What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040.

Keep in mind that with this diversity of examples comes a wide difference not just in geographies, student ages, cultures, and available resources, but also in the direct impacts that school systems suffer on a rapidly changing planet. In places where flooding, drought, and other climate disasters have become omnipresent challenges, these experiences and their response strategies naturally have become part of the core curriculum—even the school design. Where stability has endured, these topics remain more “academic,” with activity focused on how students can help prepare themselves and global society for thriving (or at least surviving) in a changing world. But in all cases, the shifting ecological realities of the 21st century have deeply affected how school is taught to these students of the future.

What is unified across these stories is the schools’ commitment to put the Earth at the core of their curricula: teaching ecoliteracy and systems thinking, cultivating a direct relationship with a specific place or environment, and embracing global stewardship. Also at the heart of these stories is the teaching of moral education and the “art of living together” (conviviencia), as well as cultivating creativity and an ability to “learn how to learn” (what in the world of AI is called “deep learning”). Teaching life skills permeates every aspect of the school experience. And above all, these schools teach their students to be “Earth-centric leaders,” who will work both to heal the planet as well as to help humanity adapt to the inevitable changes that we are bestowing on coming generations. These curricular elements combine to form the Earth Education Core Principles (or EarthCore for short; see figure).

EARTHCORE

 

While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.

A final note: I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.

Rima’s Day at the École Gardiens de la Forêt (Montreal, Canada)

It’s late spring. Rima has just finished breakfast and is gathering her things for her first day back at École Gardiens de la Forêt (The Guardians Forest School) after the spring holidays. Although Rima had a good time on vacation, she can’t wait to get back into the woods and play. The holidays are never as fun or as wild as stomping and romping in the fields and forests of Gardiens.

Quebec was one of the first provinces of Canada to resurrect the idea of micro-neighborhood community schools—what Americans once called “one-room schoolhouses,” although few of Quebec’s schools actually have rooms. Many of the province’s elementary schools are now micro-forest schools, where children spend a large portion or even all of their day outside and embedded in a specific place and ecosystem. Gardiens serves a small neighborhood at the edge of Montreal with a total of 16 students and 2 teachers, Marie-Claude and Loic.

All of the students live within two kilometers of the school and are picked up each morning by “pedibus”—literally a walking bus, but in reality just the group of students walking together to school and chaperoned by a teacher. Admittedly, the pedibus takes Rima longer to get to school than a car would, but not for the reason one might think. Her teacher, Loic, stops frequently to identify animal tracks, wild edible plants, a tree in bloom (and one that’s rotting), and even scat. “Whose poop is this?” he asks the students, repeating a question that he has asked so often that it’s become a running joke.

The pedibus, along with being an excellent teaching opportunity and another way to make sure kids are active, further reduces the environmental and financial costs of the school, even when compared with the solar-electric buses that are now common in other parts of Canada.

Gardiens, itself, is nothing fancy: just a one hectare plot of woods and fields where the students explore, play, and learn. Twenty years ago, this site was an abandoned strip mall with its vast stretch of parking lots, but now it is transitioning to a mature sugar-tapping forest (still another 10 years or so to production) and a community green burial ground, which has helped finance both the reforestation efforts and school operations. The school also receives community and state funds—although not as much as during the peak years of the consumer era—but selling burial plots and (eventually) maple syrup will help it generate enough supplemental income to remain open even in the event of further cuts in educational funding.

In the morning, before the sun is too high, Rima and her classmates spend a few hours in the quarter-hectare garden and adjacent hoop house, learning about growing food and agroecology, as well as harvesting the greens and vegetables that will flavor the students’ lunch, usually a stew cooked on the central fire that the students help to prepare, serve, and clean up. Today, Rima is particularly excited because she gets to help chop the veggies—a first now that she’s turned five.

For the rest of the morning, the children are free to play on their own. Some stay close to the fire to read and to continue drawing a storybook that they’ve been working on. Others, including Rima, go off and finish the fort that they started building yesterday. And a few, under the watchful eye of Marie-Claude, practice their tree climbing skills. One child, Quinn, successfully hunts a squirrel with his throwing stick, which Loic, at the fire pit, helps him skin, gut, and add to the stew. “Tomorrow,” exclaims Loic, “we can invite the class to learn how to tan a hide!”

At lunch, all give thanks to the forest, to the fields, and to Earth for the meal, to Quinn for his success in the hunt, and to the squirrel for giving up its life to sustain their lives for another day.

After the dishes are washed, the students work on math and reading, with the older children helping the younger ones with basic problems. Studies have repeatedly found that there are few better ways to consolidate learning than when the student becomes teacher.

After the afternoon lesson block, Marie-Claude leads the class in what she calls their “Deep Dive” sessions. This week, she’s been focusing on the life of birds. On Monday, they observed birds on the school grounds and proposed hypotheses on various aspects of birds’ lives: what they eat, how they nest, and who hunts whom. Yesterday, they built their own wings out of cardboard and paper feathers and “flew” around the forest while discussing the mechanics of flight.

Today, Marie-Claude, with her infectious enthusiasm, declares that they’re going to make a nest. The first 20 minutes are spent brainstorming the best ways to build a nest and deconstructing an old nest that she found in a tree. The next hour is spent gathering twigs, branches, long grasses, and mud, and the class then constructs its own nest as a group. Rima overhears Marie-Claude whisper to Loic at one point: “Wait until tomorrow when a giant egg appears and we take turns sitting on it!”

Another day filled with adventure, thinks Rima, as she ends it with a relaxing walk home and dinner with her parents, during which she shares all her new experiences and life lessons learned at Gardiens.

Read more School Days in 2040 posts:


Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, State of the World report.

 August 17, 2016  Posted by on August 17, 2016 Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Jun 292016
 

frenemies-definition

I remember crossing paths with Thomas the Tank Engine when my son, Ayhan, was about a year old. Our local library had a weekly story and Lego Time, which became a regular Saturday morning outing for my son and me. Ayhan was instantly attracted to the Duplo train set, which happened to take on the persona of a certain blue engine. At first, I kept said train nameless, but many children at Lego Time loved Thomas (and how can you not love a train with a happy big-eyed face?) and many were sporting Thomas’ likeness on their feet (boots), backs (backpacks), or in their hands (toys of all sorts).

At that early stage I had kept Ayhan relatively free of almost all commercialism. No screen time, no advertising, no modern franchised characters (like Dora or Elmo, though Curious George got a stay-of-execution, probably because I loved him so much as a kid). But Thomas wasn’t part of my childhood and all the ‘merch’ on the kids at the library put me on the defensive. So, in short we kept our distance from Thomas and his friends. But slowly, products and characters can worm their way into peoples’ lives.

thomas-complete collectionAt Christmas in 2013, when Ayhan was 18 months old, we visited my sister. She loves Christmas, but respects our request to keep only to second-hand gifts. And she surprised Ayhan with four of the original Thomas books by the Reverend W. Awdry found at a thrift store. Now for those of you who haven’t read Awdry’s 26 stories, and think only of Thomas from his recent cartoons or the dumbed down books available in most libraries, Awdry’s stories are a-whole-nother world. Laden with Puritanical ethics of being “a really useful engine,” it is filled with strong lessons of what is today typically known as Servant Leadership. (Though many would argue that the lessons are overly authoritarian, even colonial, and push obedience over free thinking).

Along with being a bit moralistic, Awdry’s writing, at least when reading to a one-and-a-half year old, seems verbose, hence why I “forgot” two of the books at my sister’s. However, to my surprise, Ayhan really enjoyed the two that did make it home, and I read about “silly old Gordon” falling into a ditch and Thomas falling into a mine dozens of times (though I always removed the last bit about how since they were both “in disgrace” they could be “allies,” just saying that they were friends now because they both fell into holes).

The more I read (and the more my son enjoyed me reading these two stories), the more my heart softened to Thomas, and proud Gordon, and simple Toby, and I even allowed Ayhan to watch an occasional Thomas cartoon once we introduced a bit of screen time after he turned two.

Then for his second birthday, he got his first Thomas magnet train. Up to this point, he had simply named other trains after characters, though they were all generic trains with no faces—a red Lego train became James, a little plastic train became Hiro, a wooden block train became Stephen, and Thomas wasn’t even in the picture. (Some even got the full upgrade, with a smiling paper face taped to their fronts.) Then we added Thomas, and all was still fine, though he did become cherished above others.

Not long after, my good friend Tom (whose son is named Gordon), brought us a used copy of the complete collection of original Thomas stories and we read through all 400 pages (several times). Of course, some of the stories try too hard—was the dear Reverend Awdry just trying to keep writing more stories for his son, Christopher, or did he suffer from the serial author syndrome where his livelihood depended on producing yet more content?—but most were fun to read. Much better than many of today’s kid’s books. So Thomas, I can say, became my friend.

But then, our relationship started to sour again. While the original stories are interesting, complex, and filled with strong messages, the more recent Thomas stories are mostly derivative, focused more on introducing new characters (to sell more toys) than on reveling in life on Sodor or teaching kids valuable lessons. Same goes with the cartoons: while the old stop motion videos are well-paced, entertaining stories with good moral lessons, the new ones are primarily vehicles to sell new characters and their $25 wooden embodiments. And sadly, it’s the new stories and cartoons that pepper the shelves of my local library.

Most likely, this shift in style and focus is because Mattel bought THOMAS & FRIENDS in 2012—becoming the railway’s new “fat controller”—and invested lots of dollars into the brand to strengthen the company’s sales to the pre-K market. But in the process, Mattel commercialized the franchise significantly, pushing dozens of new products, Apps, and videos filled with lots of new marketable characters. And at the same time, the company gutted the good stories and moral lessons from the format. Hence, as I saw more of Thomas’ new dark side, I discovered that while I still got along with Thomas, I now harbored a deep distrust toward him. Yes, we had become frenemies.

thomasandfriends-screenshot

But with my relationship with Thomas the Tank Engine now three years old, I can say I’m happy with him being a small part of my son’s life—even if our relationship has been a bit tumultuous. I like Thomas—and his friends—they’re good, innocent trains, helping each other and the people of Sodor day in and day out. But Thomas the Franchise, I dislike deeply, and encourage parents who have yet to let the shadier side of Sodor into their homes to keep their doors closed to it. Clearly, that’s not easy, with kids covered in Thomas stuff, and with the new DVDs lining library shelves (at toddler eye-level of course), but I have found it is possible. By not exposing Ayhan to Thomas Apps, games or his heavily promotional website, and by choosing which books to read and cartoons to watch with him—namely Awdry’s original stories and the cartoons based on them—I can guard my son from Thomas’ high speed race to commercialization. And learning how to walk the fine line in the modern world of branded play might be the most useful lesson Thomas has taught me yet.

 June 29, 2016  Posted by on June 29, 2016 No Responses »
Jul 272015
 

Erik Assadourian, co-director of State of the World 2013 and creator of the reality TV show Yardfarmers sat down with Cullen Pope, editor of EATT Magazine, a few weeks back for an interview. We wanted to repost the interview here as Erik offers some insights into his strategy to get us to a more sustainable, more resilient future. 

FreshProduce02 - Copy

Recently, we joined Erik Assadourian, creator of the upcoming reality TV show Yardfarmers and asked him why in the world a sustainability researcher would jump into the baser world of reality TV.

Cullen: Erik, quite simply, why would you?

Erik: Fair question! And one I’ve asked myself many times as I’ve navigated the world of reality television over the past year.

I’ve been a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute for over 13 years, writing on a variety of sustainability issues and urging people to change course, along with many others. But in this time the state of the world has even more challenges with the global population growing by 75 million each year, more people become consumers (which is actually celebrated!), and climate change has passed beyond the point of gentle management.

The idea that we’ll be able to maintain and even expand the consumer economy in this scenario is absurd—driven more by magical thinking than by ecological realities.

Hence, over the past few years my work has increasingly focused on opening up a political space to discuss the taboo topic of “economic degrowth.” Essentially how do we intentionally contract overdeveloped economies like the United States and Australia to get back within ecological limits while preserving the best elements of modern development (antibiotics, vaccines, democracy, etc.)? Not making these proactive steps will mean that the planet will do it for us, and the Earth will do it in far less comfortable ways than we’d choose.

Cullen: So what does yardfarming have to do with this?

Erik: Right now, most Americans are almost completely dependent on the consumer economy for their livelihoods and the global food trade for their sustenance—even getting apples from Australia and New Zealand when apples are in season right in their own communities. This has led to massive environmental problems, from factory farms and food miles to over reliance on pesticides, fertilizers, and GMOs. It’s also led to many health issues, including the obesity epidemic and related diseases like diabetes and heart disease—caused in large part by too much time sitting at desks or in cars, and too much food available, especially unhealthy foods while healthier vegetables are either inaccessible or relatively too expensive.

So how do we create new jobs, rebuild local economies, bring back local agriculture, and make societies more resilient to climate change and potential disruptions in global food trade?

In America, where our fifth largest crop by acreage is the lawn, the answer seemed obvious to me: convert America’s 40 million acres of lawns into sustainable “yardfarms.” In the process, we could reduce demand for industrial agriculture, reduce emissions from lawn mowing, and reduce the three million tons of chemical fertilizers and 30,000 tons of pesticides being pissed away on maintaining green monocropped lawns.

In fact, this has already proved to be a successful model in the past. During World War II, the Victory Garden movement, led by the US government, mobilized Americans to turn their lawns into gardens, and by the war’s end 18-20 million Victory Gardens producing 40 percent of household vegetable needs.

Imagine what could be achieved now—with all the media tools at our disposal! Hence, I thought, why not harness the popular reality TV format and do something useful with it: specifically, get America pulling up their lawns and growing their dinners. This would not only get Americans outside and active, eating healthier food, and increase their food security, but when the proverbial shit hits the fan, more Americans will know how to grow their own food and subsist even when they can no longer rely on driving down to their local Walmart to bulk buy their groceries. In other words, this show could help spark a yardfarming revolution that could help futureproof America against the coming disruptions.

Cullen: So your hope is to follow along as a group of Millennials try their hand at yardfarming? Will these be actors? Real people? How will you find them?

Erik: Definitely real people! This is an example of REAL reality TV, not scripted with lots of clips of surprised contestants recycled over and over to add fake drama.

We’re actively searching for six individuals who feel excited about spending 2016 living the post-consumer dream, converting acres of lawn in their neighborhood (not just in their backyard but every viable space they can get access to) into new sources of sustainable food, community resilience, and security. Or at least try!

Some surely will fail, thanks to neighbors wedded to the suburban “green grass” ideal, or because of drought, pests, even fed-up parents perhaps!

Right now we’re in the search process. We’re looking for six young Americans to move back home with their parents or other family, and yardfarm during the 2016 growing season. The call for contestants is open—with the first deadline upcoming on August 1st. You can apply at http://yardfarmers.us/call-for-contestants/. Or if you know someone who might be interested, please spread the word!

Cullen: Why have contestants move back in with their families?

Erik: An excellent question, and admittedly it’s one part gimmick—adding extra drama to the show, but it’s also three parts futureproofing.

Small families living in giant houses is not sustainable, nor is it resilient. The Great Recession showed how easy it is to lose one’s home and how rapidly recessions increase youth unemployment rates.

Having multiple generations living together is a time-tested strategy for secure and resilient living. Parents may hold their formal jobs, youth may be yardfarming the neighborhood and be involved in the budding informal (or what Juliet Schor calls the “plenitude”) economy, elders may be caring for the kids while the kids help take care of their grandparents and the yardfarm and household. That’s how we’ll make it through future Great Recessions and climate contractions. So celebrating (while also exploring the challenges of) multigenerational living is a big part of Yardfarmers’ mission.

Cullen: How’d you first come up with this idea?

Screenshot from FarmVille via Wikipedia

Erik: Actually, back in 2010 I started to see people becoming obsessed with the game FarmVille—not just in the U.S. but even in other countries. This global phenomenon fascinated me, and so I gave it a try—and quickly wrote a screed calling the game company Zynga out, proposing to them if the company really wanted to do something useful, it would not just get people clicking their mouses to ‘play farmer,’ but help teach the next generation to be farmers—an essential development considering that the consumer system is destined to implode in that generation’s lifetimes from a rapidly changing climate and the breakdown of other essential ecosystem services. While Zynga never responded, the idea took root over the years and then at the end of 2013 I received a seed grant to develop the concept from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation. At that point, I started watching way too much reality TV, talking with a lot of directors, and eventually discovered Katy Chevigny of Big Mouth Productions, who became my co-conspirator in this endeavor.

Cullen: So when you’re not promoting yardfarming, are you out farming your yard?

Arugula is great as it sprouts up everywhere, even where it's not supposed to.

Arugula is great as it sprouts up everywhere, even where it’s not supposed to.

Erik: Not as much as I’d like I admit. I’m a pretty lazy gardener. I grow things that grow themselves. The soil where I live in Washington, DC is more broken brick and glass than organic matter, though each year it’s a bit better as we add the compost our household creates. So I don’t bother with fickle plants like tomatoes but just harvest greens, sunflowers, perennial herbs, and things that sprout up from our compost. For example, I didn’t plant squash this year but have five squash plants growing. Even more than yardfarming, I mostly forage wild edibles: “weeds” like dandelions, chickweed, violets, and lamb’s quarters, mulberries (which are abundant in DC), fruit from random fruit trees (several grow on old school properties near me) and acorns—a great source of nutritious flour with the right processing. Though in the last few years, I’ve focused more on symbolic gardening to get my toddler son excited than trying very hard to produce quantity. Once he’s a bit older, I hope that together we’ll start yardfarming a much larger area. After all, children should earn their keep too! And there’s no downside to learning farm skills early, not when the future is what it is.

EATT Magazine shares stories about passionate, generous spirited people, and the journeys they make in our world and work to encourage more people to be a force for positive change, wherever they are. You can find out more about EATT Magazine, download their app, and listen to recent podcasts on their website.

 July 27, 2015  Posted by on July 27, 2015 Tagged with:  No Responses »
Jul 182015
 

peachesI made jam with my son yesterday—from a mass of little peaches and crab apples we gleaned from a local school garden (it was either us or the squirrels as few urban dwellers connect fruit on trees with fruit in their bellies).

And I have to say that this jam was delicious. I’m sure if I bought it in a store I’d think it’s just pretty good. But knowing that I made it, and that it was essentially free—both in the ecological and financial sense (minus the little bit of electricity, lemon and sugar I used)—made this jam some of the best I’ve ever eaten! Plus the fact that my son, Ayhan, helped me cut the fruit (his first attempt with a knife, albeit with my hand on it too) and pour in the sugar, added some fun to the process too.

My recipe is based closely off the advice and instructions in this great blog post for making a small batch of jam from The Kitchn, but I didn’t follow it very meticulously, figuring there was a lot of room for improvisation in jam making.

cutting fruitIn short, I cut up about 10 small peaches, leaving the skin on (I didn’t want to waste anything), grated 12 very small crab apples (I grated them as they were too small to easily cut), threw in half a cup of sugar (the recipe suggested more but I wanted to err on the side of too little rather than too much) and squeezed in half a lemon (half of what the recipe called for but was still too much as there’s a lot of natural pectin—and sourness—in crab apples).

I then cooked it—in a wide pan—on a medium high heat until the fruit boiled for about 10 minutes and was thick in consistency. Towards the end I added some shakes of some ground cinnamon (this blog post from Northwest Edible Life has a great flavor guide on what spices to add to enhance jam). Then, once it was finished cooking, I pureed the jam with an immersion blender to make it a bit smoother and break up the skins better. And that’s it! I filled up a big jar with jam and put it in the refrigerator (I didn’t glean enough to consider the challenges of true canning—but put most in the refrigerator and froze a bit for later. As I can already attest, the jam is perfect for toast, pancakes, or even straight from the jar. Enjoy!

Step By Step (for next time I make it):

cooking fruit1) Glean a few pounds of fruit

2) Wash fruit

3) Cut fruit into small pieces removing damaged bits (or grate in the case of really small fruits)

4) Put in pan and add 1/3rd cup of sugar and mash with a potato masher

5) Squeeze in a quarter of a lemon

6) Bring to boil on a medium heat and boil for about 10 minutes (until a thick jam-like consistency is achieved)

7) Add cinnamon (or other preferred spices) while jam is boiling

8) Let cool and put into jar. Enjoy!

 July 18, 2015  Posted by on July 18, 2015 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Jul 052015
 

A few months back I wrote a reflection on raising an ecowarrior thus far for Adbusters and thought I’d repost here (with corrections and paragraphs that somehow fell out in the editing process….).

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute

In January, a group of environmental researchers led by Will Steffen of Australian National University published an update to their earlier work on “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of nine fundamental ecological processes — like climate regulation, ocean acidification and freshwater use — which, if crossed, could potentially trigger a collapse of human civilization or at least a whole lot of human suffering.

Hopefully, we’ll correct course and prevent potentially cataclysmic ecological disruptions — including a five to six degree Celsius warmer future — “that won’t be good for large mammals like us,” as Steffen notes. But realistically, the window to prevent this path may have already closed — or at least is so politically nonviable that anyone bringing a child into the world today needs to recognize that the future of their children will in all likelihood be unstable, violent, and ugly — as 8 to 10 billion humans fight to survive as droughts and disasters disrupt food supplies, access to fresh water and energy is limited, and as fertile lands and cities are consumed by a rising ocean.

When my wife and I decided to bring a child into the world (just one, as humanity needs to quickly stabilize and shrink its total numbers), part of the agreement was to raise him to be a future ecowarrior. One who, hopefully, could help steer us toward a more sustainable path so that the nasty collapse that kills off several billion people and countless other species will be averted or at least cushioned. Or if that is impossible, at least provide him with the skills and wisdom to increase his odds of surviving the ugly transition ahead, and help others to do the same.

Let me acknowledge right from the start that the freedom to raise my son, Ayhan, this way reveals a level of privilege that only a minority of people around the world have. The fact that I can take care of Ayhan half of every day instead of working 12 hours a day mining gold, assembling iPhones in a sweatshop, or foraging for valuable scraps in landfills is a luxury many will never have. But being part of the American middle class, I do have that luxury — especially as I have made economic choices to make the math work, such as owning no car and no home, and yes, having only one child — and with it I have the freedom, and even the responsibility, to prepare my child for the radically different reality he’ll grow up in.

As Ayhan is only two and a half, I’m still navigating what it means to truly raise an ecowarrior, and a lot of my hopes and plans for how to raise him are just that. Already we’ve learned a lot, especially on how to lay a strong foundation — and just how important that foundation is, not to mention how much work it takes. Below are the key discoveries of my first years of fatherhood. I hope when you read these, you think “duh,” but in reality, I’ve met so few parents, also of the American middle class variety, that are conscious of these facts and realities, and instead simply follow blindly the cultural norms of the unhealthy, unsustainable, socially disconnected consumer culture they’re part of. Without first breaking through that mindlessness, I can’t imagine much success in teaching the more challenging ideas, skills and lessons that will need to be part of bringing up children to survive the stormy century ahead. Sometimes the first step is simply to identify what is so difficult to see.

Birth and Infancy

The first and most important lesson to learn as an expectant parent is to not blindly trust in the medical system. This seems obvious considering the levels of corruption in the American medical system, but I’ve found that many soon-to-be parents spend more time researching which smartphone to buy than how to have a safe and healthy birth. Instead, invest your time in researching what a safe, healthy, and natural birth entails. A third of American women give birth via Caesarean section — with their babies pulled from a slice in their wombs, oftentimes for controversial reasons due to a dysmal American medical system. This can cause all sorts of complications — from slower healing in mothers and challenges with breastfeeding to a changed microbiome for babies (interesting fact #1: a baby’s gut bacteria is partially established from the mother’s birth canal). Increase the odds of a natural birth by eating healthily during pregnancy (goodbye white flour and sugar); choosing to deliver with midwives; writing a birth plan; having the support of a good doula; making sure your partner plays an active advocacy role during labor; and most importantly doing your homework — reading books like Pushed and watching documentaries like The Business of Being Born. If you aren’t aware of the “cascade of interventions” that can be triggered by doctors administering Pitocin to accelerate a woman’s contractions (often just for their own convenience), you may end up as part of the C-Section statistic.

Birth, however, is just the first moment of parenting. In the first two formative years, the role you play is critical — from breastfeeding your baby (or supporting your partner in this essential practice) and feeding him real, home-cooked foods rather than overly processed packaged baby food, to raising your baby yourself instead of outsourcing his care to low-paid workers. Granted, all of this takes significant time and sacrifice. And it is especially difficult in a country like the U.S. (as compared to Europe), where the culture completely devalues the role of parents, rarely providing paid maternity care or even follow-up support after birth, and instead equates getting parents back to work and growing the childcare industry as beneficial to economic growth. But the joy of watching Ayhan grow, and building such a close relationship with him far exceeds any costs endured.

CellophaneBaby31Plastic Wrapped

One of the most challenging steps so far in this childraising process has been to avoid raising my son as a “space age baby”. Children today are surrounded by layer upon layer of plastic: wearing disposable plastic diapers, fleece onesies, and nylon jackets. They play with plastic toys; swipe plastic iPad screens with hands coated in hand sanitizer; suck food from plastic baby food tubes; ride in plastic strollers that are even sealed in vinyl covers on rainy days. Just the toxic burden of all that plastic should break us of this mindless activity. But perhaps a worse side effect of suiting up our children like astronauts is that from infancy on they are completely separated from the natural world.

Few children are regularly exposed to plants, birds, dirt (interesting fact #2: ingesting dirt may be necessary to prevent asthma and autoimmune diseases), wind, rain, the sun, even the stars in light-polluted cities. If nature is absent in children’s lives, they may suffer immediate and long-lasting psychological effects, as Richard Louv describes at length in Last Child in the Woods. The odds are high that they will no longer value, defend, or even understand their dependence on the Earth and its myriad ecosystem services.

Back in 1949 Aldo Leopold said, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” And today, we have far more gadgets and middlemen. We even have unlimited access to an addictive, virtual world readily accessed at every turn through smartphone and computer interface. Limiting your child’s access to media is as essential as feeding her well. Of course, it’s not easy finding the time to read 40 kids’ books a day instead of plopping a child in front of Sesame Street, but then again, it can be quite joyful, especially after your two year old starts walking down streets and points to tree stumps exclaiming “broken tree, thneed!” making the connection between the ecocide portrayed in The Lorax and the ecological destruction he witnesses in his own home city.

Beyond the Toddler Years

This is all foundational, but what about with older children? How do we go about combating misinformation and consumer socialization at every turn — in school classrooms and cafeterias, from friends, from extended family with conflicting values, from the media, which I can only imagine becomes harder and harder to protect a child from as they get older? I do not yet have answers. I daydream of homeschooling Ayhan so that I can prioritize the knowledge and values that I think will be relevant — math, languages, and ecosystem sciences, of course, but also wilderness survival, basic medicine and first aid and martial arts. I consider what it will means to raise my child as an ecowarrior — teaching him to understand that all ethical norms and choices should stem from healing our living Earth and protecting it from further ravages of Man gorging beyond his ecological niche.

Right now, I am just setting the groundwork. My son is learning English from me, Russian from my wife, and we’ll add other languages later. He’s gardening, composting, and foraging fruit from street trees with me, and will attend his first primitive skills training this spring. We’ll enroll him in a martial arts class when he’s ready, and have already taught him a bit of yoga — surely, mindfulness in this increasingly mindless world will be a valuable skill to lean on.

Whether my son rebels against all this is an open question, but even if he does—as many more experienced parents tell me he will—when the collapse comes, he’ll still be able to forage wild edible plants, purify water, process acorns to make flour, and hunt, increasing the odds that he’ll survive as others go hungry when climate change disrupts the global food trade and grain prices skyrocket. And he’ll take the knowledge and wisdom he’s learned—and hopefully a deep-seated reverence for the Earth—and share that with others as well, perhaps even helping to sow the seeds for a new ecocentric civilization centuries from now. But no matter what comes, I understand that it is my role—as a responsible parent in this changing time—to do my best to prepare Ayhan for the daunting new reality he will grow up in. I invite others to do the same.

— Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and a contributing editor to Adbusters.

 July 5, 2015  Posted by on July 5, 2015 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »