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 »
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.

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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 »
Jan 082015
 
Gowy-icaro-prado - Copy

Jacob Peter Gowy’s “The Flight of Icarus.”

What if Icarus’ father—knowing his son would fly too close to the sun—had made the wings he designed more resilient? What if he had used bone and string and not just wax to bind them? Would this ancient myth have turned out any differently? Probably not. Icarus would have simply flown closer to the sun before the sun destroyed his wings—perhaps igniting them on fire rather than just melting the wax. And so the boy would have fallen even further and have been crushed even more brutally by the onrushing wall of ocean below.

Let’s apply that question to today. What if we make our globalized consumer society more resilient? That is to say, what if—as more people in the sustainability community are advocating—we make our economic and social systems more able to withstand the inevitable shocks that come with an ever larger human population living within a destabilizing Earth system. What if we build future coastal homes on stilts. And invest billions of dollars and massive amounts of natural capital (in the form of cement and embodied fossil fuel energy) in sea walls around cities like New York and New Orleans. And we even genetically modify crops—even livestock—to withstand drought and heat.

What happens then? We fly higher, we grow bigger, and our inevitable crash into the sea is delayed temporarily. But as with Icarus, the crash would be made far worse. These technologies may delay civilizational collapse a few decades. If that’s the difference between 2030 and 2050, that might mean a peak population of 9.4 billion instead of 8.3 billion, a number far harder to sustain—even without the productivity losses that will come with a changing climate. This delay might also translate to an overall temperature increase of 5 or 6 degrees Celsius rather than just 3 or 4 degrees, which could mean the difference between meters and tens of meters of sea level rise and the difference between millennia of misery and just centuries.

Instead, let’s learn the lesson that the myth of Icarus is supposed to teach: avoid hubris. Do not fly too high. Acknowledge limits exist, including the keystone limit that infinite growth is not possible in a finite system.

This isn’t an easy lesson—especially for a business community seemingly locked into a growth-dependent system. But it can shape the way the sustainability community discusses and advocates for resilience. No sane person should be advocating for a more resilient growth-centric society. That’s the very worst scenario we can have, because that’ll allow this economic system to disrupt more of Earth’s ecosystem services before its eventual collapse.

Instead the pursuit of resilience should be fully embedded in a degrowth paradigm, ensuring that programs that work to bring us back within Earth’s limits—and minimize catastrophic climatic changes—also help us weather those changes with as little suffering as possible.

So let’s ask the crucial question then: what gets us closer to living within planetary limits while simultaneously making us more resilient?

Some examples: Rebuilding local economies and community food self-sufficiency; finding ways to rapidly accelerate small scale energy production investments (but planning for a far lower electricity usage norm than what we currently use); investments in public infrastructure like bicycle sharing systems; and most importantly cultural changes that denormalize unsustainable forms of consumption: luxury travel, pet ownership, daily portions of meat, sub-arctic levels of cooling in the summer, and so on.

Yes, I recognize this isn’t the technological utopia that futurists promise. There will be no robot slaves to make living easy; no intelligent computer operating systems that simplify our lives and also double as romantic partners for the lonely. Life will be harder—humans will probably labor more, including in simple day to day chores, but hopefully this simplification will prevent dystopic futures portrayed in movies like Soylent Green or Snowpiercer.

Naturally, we’d use some high technologies—appropriately: solar panels on tops of homes for example, but probably not in such densely concentrated arrays that they incinerate birds flying overhead; antibiotics—for life-threatening diseases, but not in ways that make bacteria more resistant (or should I say more “resilient”?); bicycles; zero net energy buildings; family planning aids; composting toilets; wind turbines—perhaps once again for moving water, grinding grain, and sawing wood more than for producing electricity; and the list goes on. But a lot of modern luxuries would be phased out.

The challenge is ensuring that all our efforts to become more resilient make us more sustainable—and vice versa. But even if we fail at that, we should still work to stop any ‘resilience’ projects that serve to extend the reach and robustness of the consumer society. That, at least, may help cushion our eventual fall when we crash into the proverbial sea.

—-

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? He writes about raising his son to survive the collapse of civilization at Raisinganecowarrior.net.

Draper_Herbert_James_Mourning_for_Icarus - Copy

The Lament for Icarus by H. J. Draper

 January 8, 2015  Posted by on January 8, 2015 Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
May 262014
 

A few weeks back I attended an “Accelerating Sustainability Forum” at the US Chamber of Commerce. While there was lots of rosy talk about sustainability, in truth, most of the focus was on growth, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that true sustainability is going to require a massive scaling back of human enterprise. In the Guardian’s Sustainable Business blog I tried to grapple with that conundrum.

You can read the full article there though I’ll leave you a few tidbits to ponder here:

While climate change was discussed openly in the Chamber’s Hall of Flags – a feat in its own right, given the state of the climate conversation in America – many of the businesses in the room were clearly still drinking Jeffrey Immelt’s “Green is Green” Kool-Aid.

It’s hard to fault people who are searching for the right lexicon to convince corporations to prioritize sustainability, but perhaps the business case is not the solution. Because, let’s be honest: as the world goes to hell in a hand-basket, there will be huge opportunities to profit off the decline, whether on skyrocketing food and energy costs, private security services, or ecosystem services no longer freely provided by nature, such as water treatment and pollination (robotic bees anyone?).

I then try a different frame, one focused on survival:

Let’s explore an alternative way to frame sustainability, one that might have better outcomes when appealing to companies’ sustainability officers. Rather than focus on the profits that could be reaped in the pre-end [of the world] period by businesses and investors that plan appropriately today, let’s consider that, even for the best planners, the end will still be filled with unimaginable horrors, ones that they, their families and their companies probably won’t survive.

A nice coat of greenwash if I've ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

A nice coat of greenwash if I’ve ever seen one (photo courtesy of Jen Bojan via flickr).

However, in truth, I don’t think this type of far-sighted planning will succeed–as the example on the paint company Benjamin Moore I discuss in the piece reflects–so I conclude with the obvious point that regulation (or perhaps I should say “governance” and give a shout out to State of the World 2014) will be essential to save companies from themselves.

So does that suggest that the only way to save the free market is to make it less free? Do companies need regulators to proactively step in to make the sweeping changes necessary to organize the economy as a subsystem of the Earth system, rather than assume the inverse? Probably. But in truth, the only way that will happen is if some really smart companies enable that political leadership, using their influence to shift the focus to stopping the end of the world rather than just profiting in the pre-end stage.

So in other words, we’re in a Catch-22 that may stymie any real progress toward degrowth until its far too late. But there may be a silver lining, as I note in the piece by quoting Bob Mankoff’s comic punchline:

“And so while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

Enjoy it while it lasts!

 May 26, 2014  Posted by on May 26, 2014 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »