Sunday, August 21, 2016

Visioning Agroecology


Dammed Embargo


Wednesday, August 03, 2016

It's Time For A New Economics


Having worked on and off in the arena of sustainable agriculture for nearly fifty years in both the government and nonprofit sectors, I am asked/challenged most often with the question “When will the production of locally grown, nutritious food become economically viable?” 

For years I struggled mightily to find an honest and (very important in this “sound-byte era”) concise response to that needling question.  The struggle is finally over.  The answer came to me clear as a bell: It already is.  I came to this conclusion upon realizing that the question we should be asking is “Why is our current economic system incapable of meeting the basic needs of so many citizens?”

This epiphany is in large part a result of my recent experiences in Cuba. My first visit to the island was at the end of October 2014 – less than two months before presidents Obama and Castro announced that it was time for their two countries to take serious steps toward renewing diplomatic relations. I was part of a delegation organized by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  The delegation was seeking to learn more about what Cubans did to avoid starvation during their “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991. That singular event abruptly and forever severed Cuba’s major lifeline for agricultural exports and petroleum imports. The immediate results were the near implosion of its economy and looming starvation of its people.

A crisis of that nature leads to rapid no-nonsense prioritization. Priority number one for Cuba was finding ways to feed its people without petroleum or the economic support of the defunct Soviet Union. Cubans responded to this first challenge by developing an organic system of farming within a cooperative infrastructure. The Alamar Organopónico on the outskirts of Havana is one of the country’s premier agricultural cooperatives. The farm was created in 1997 to serve the surrounding neighborhood. Vivero Alamar is one of many organopónicos that have emerged since the early 1990s.  Employing seventeen workers, this 25-acre worker-owned organic farm provides 60-70 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed by the residents of Havana.

The other major challenge was finding a new economic system that acknowledges the value of Cuba’s crisis-driven strategy for sustainable food sovereignty. I was surprised by the animated and informed public conversations taking place during our visit around the economic failures of socialism.  The gist of those conversations boiled down to: Is there a system that can improve the overall economic condition of Cubans while preserving the significant social gains (health, education, agrarian reform) stemming from the Revolution?

A similar conversation is long overdue here in the United States.  It borders on the absurd to think that the reason for not supporting locally based strategies for producing nutritious food grown with environmentally sound practices is because they are deemed “uneconomical.”  In 1973 economist E. F. Schumacher wrote a seminal book entitled Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.  Schumacher’s advocacy for a more ethical approach to economics resonates in 2016 as much as, if not more than, it did in 1973.  We are desperately in need of a new economics that prioritizes people’s needs over corporate greed.  Why not begin by demonstrating how such a system could deliver life-giving sustenance to all citizens?

This is not a utopian dream.  It is a goal that is well within sight if we are willing to adjust our vision.  Bernie Sanders is right on the mark with his call for a political revolution to get the U.S. back on track.  That revolution needs to be informed by what visionary polymath Buckminster Fuller called a “design science revolution” that would put the discoveries of science and technology to work on behalf of all humanity. The Buckminster Fuller Institute annually awards $100,000 to an individual or organization with the most comprehensive solution to a pressing global problem, helping “make the world work for everyone” while preserving – even enhancing – Earth’s overall ecological integrity.

A convergence of these two nonviolent, systemic revolutions provides the best hope of shedding light on alternatives to corporate trickle down as well as to government-planned economies and reveals pathways to economic systems that are truly for and by the people. Critical components of an equitable and just economics are already being implemented in communities where residents’ basic food needs are unmet in Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, and other cities across the country. Among the pieces of this promising economic puzzle are food banks, community land trusts, neighborhood markets, urban farms, urban farming zoning ordinances, worker-owned cooperatives, farmers’ markets, food policy councils, and regional food systems plans – all waiting to be assembled and complemented by pieces from other sectors such as housing, healthcare, education, and transportation. Local currencies are wonderfully disruptive innovations designed to support local businesses by keeping money circulating within communities and creating new value networks.  They are being incubated in communities as diverse as San Francisco, California, to Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Taken together these social innovations, organizational strategies, and progressive policies are part of an evolving Community Systems Design Toolkit.

What we need now is proof of concept: one or more place-based pilots where a critical mass of these tools can be put into play and unleash the socioeconomic synergies (simultaneously eradicating so-called food deserts; providing new options for preserving open space; creating new job opportunities; generating civic pride; empowering citizens) that illustrate the true value of this approach to economic development.

As Manuel DeLanda points out in his remarkable book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, there are historical precedents for the economic disruption that is imbedded in the structure of society:

The birth of Europe in the eleventh century of our era was made possible by a great agricultural intensification.  A series of innovations occurred which consolidated to form a remarkably efficient new way of exploiting the soil. These innovations (the heavy plow, new ways of harnessing the horse’s muscular energy, the open-field system and triennial field rotation) were mutually enhancing as well as interdependent, so that only when they finally meshed were their intensifying effects felt. 

Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century there’s a new opportunity for synergistic meshing; however, rather than exploiting the soils, this meshing seeks to nurture and co-evolve with them, with the emphasis on synchronizing our economics with Nature’s regenerative cycles.

The two scarcity-driven extremes (capitalism and socialism) have dominated our thinking regarding what is possible for far too long. We deserve an economics that is at once practical and fueled by hope. In order to bring this about, we must break free from the linear (left-right-centrist) approach to thinking about economics. It would be ironic to say the least if a collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. contributed in some small way to the creation of a transcendent, synergistic economic system.

It's Time for a New Economics by Greg Watson

To learn more about the Schumacher Center's work in Cuba, visit the Cuba-U.S. Agroecology Network's website.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Womb days womb days, dear ol' tummy-tomb days..."


In his groundbreaking 1970 book "Expanded Cinema", Gene Youngblood is the first author to make the case for video as an art form.  Bucky Fuller wrote the introduction to the book.  Following are the opening paragraphs of that intro.
"At all times nowadays, there are approximately 66 million human beings around Earth who are living comfortably inside their mothers' wombs. The country called Nigeria embraces one-fourth of the human beings of the great continent of Africa. There are 66 million Nigerians. We can say that the number of people living in Wombland is about the same as one-fourth the population of Africa. This 66 million Womblanders tops the total population of either West Germany's 58 million, the United Kingdom's 55 million, Italy's 52 million, France's 50 million, or Mexico's 47 million. Only nine of the world's so-called countries (China, India, Soviet Union, United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan, and Brazil) have individual populations greater than our luxuriously-living, under-nine-months old Womblanders.

Seemingly switching our subject, but only for a moment, we note that for the last two decades scientists probing with electrodes have learned a great deal about the human brain. The brain gives off measurable energy and discrete wave patterns disclosed by the oscillograph. Specific, repetitive dreams have been identified by these wave patterns. The neurological and physiological explorers do not find it extravagant to speculate that we may learn that what humanity has thus far spoken of mystifiedly as telepathy, science will have discovered, within decades, to be ultra-ultra high-frequency electro-magnetic wave propagations.

All good science fiction develops realistically that which scientific data suggests to be imminent. It is good science fiction to suppose that a superb telepathic communication system is inter-linking all those young citizens of worldaround Wombland. We intercept one of the conversations: "How are things over there with you?" Answer: "My mother is planning to call me either Joe or Mary. She doesn't know that my call frequency is already 7567-00-3821." Other: "My mother had better apply to those characters Watson, Crick, and Wilkerson for my call numbers!" And another of their 66 million Womblanders comes in with, "I'm getting very apprehensive about having to 'go outside.' We have been hearing from some of the kids who just got out— They say we are going to be cut off from the main supply. We are going to have to shovel fuel and pour liquids into our systems. We are going to have to make our own blood. We are going to have to start pumping some kind of gas into our lungs to purify our own blood. We are going to have to make ourselves into giants fifteen times our present size. Worst of all, we are going to have to learn to lie about everything. It's going to be a lot of work, very dangerous, and very discouraging." Answer: "Why don't we strike? We are in excellent posture for a 'sit-down.'" Other: "Wow! What an idea. We will have the whole population of worldaround Wombland refuse to go out at graduation day. Our cosmic population will enter more and more human women's wombs, each refusing to graduate at nine months. More and more Earthian women will get more and more burdened. Worldaround consternation— agony.  We will notify the outsiders that, until they stop lying to themselves and to each other and give up their stupid sovereignties and exclusive holier-than-thou ideologies, pollutions, and mayhem, we are going to refuse to come out. Only surgery fatal to both the mothers and ourselves could evacuate us."

Another: "Great! We had might as well do it. If we do come out we will be faced with the proliferation of Cold War's guerrillerized killing of babies for psycho-shock demoralization of worldaround innocent communities inadvertently involved in the abstruse ideological warfare waged by diametrically opposed, equally stubborn, would-be do-gooder, bureaucratic leaders and their partisans who control all of the world's means of production and killing, whose numbers (including all the politically preoccupied individuals around the Earth) represent less than one per cent of all humanity, to whose human minds and hearts the politicos and their guns give neither satisfaction nor hope. Like the women in Lysistrata who refused intercourse with their men until they stopped fighting, we Womblanders would win."

Saturday, December 06, 2014

The search for economic freedom

In her important new book "This Changes Everything", Naomi Klein argues that we will not be able to avoid the worst-case climate change scenario if we continue to work within the "current rules of capitalism".

She suggests that one critical step towards escaping the clutches of capitalism and create a more equitable society would be to establish a Guaranteed Minimum Income - a system that guarantees that all citizens or families have an income sufficient to live on, provided they meet certain conditions.

The concept of the National Dividend was invented by engineer C. H. Douglas between 1916 and 1920 and subsequently modified by poet Ezra Pound and Buckminster Fuller. The basic idea (although Douglas, Pound, and Fuller differ on the details) is that every citizen should be declared a shareholder in the nation, and should receive annual dividends on the Gross National Product for the year over and above their earnings, to help bridge the gap between purchasing power and prices.

Bucky Fuller was quick to point out that the very notions of humans "having to earn a living" and governments' fixation on having to create jobs run counter to evolution which is fast-tracking humans towards increased unemployment as we learn (of necessity) how to do "more and more using less and less."

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

An interesting approach to achieving some measure of economic freedom by sharing the wealth of the commons can be found in a proposal put forward by Peter Barnes in his book "Who Owns The Sky: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism".

The Tree Media Group is in the process of crowd-funding a film "Total Freedom" that explains why the time has come for an Unconditional Basic Income for All.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What he was trying to do

In 1959 Bucky Fuller was asked by the Marquis Publishing Company to state "in one unpunctuated sentence" exactly what he was trying to do in life. He responded with a 100-word sentence. That comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bucky - especially those who were fortunate enough to see and hear him in person.  Over the years, Bucky refined and rewrote his sentence.  His final 3,000-word version was published in 1976 in his book "And It Came To Pass Not To Stay".  Following is a 200 word iteration that appeared in an issue of Saturday Review in 1962 in response to a request by Norman Cousins. (GW)

What I Am Trying To Do
R. Buckminster Fuller (1962)

"Acutely aware of our beings’ limitations and acknowledging the infinite mystery of the a priori Universe into which we are born but nevertheless searching for a conscious means of hopefully competent participation by humanity in its own evolutionary trending while employing only the unique advantages inhering exclusively to those individuals who take and maintain the economic initiative in the face of the formidable physical capital and credit advantages of the massive corporations and political states and deliberately avoiding political ties and tactics while endeavoring by experiments and explorations to excite individuals’ awareness and realization of humanity’s higher potentials I seek through comprehensive anticipatory design science and its reductions to physical practices to reform the environment instead of trying to reform humans, being intent thereby to accomplish prototyped capabilities of doing more with less whereby in turn the wealth augmenting prospects of such design science regenerations will induce their spontaneous and economically successful industrial proliferation by world around services’ managements all of which chain reaction provoking events will both permit and induce humanity to realize full lasting economic and physical success plus enjoyment of all the Earth without one individual interfering with or being advantaged at the expense of another."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wake up call

Back in August of 2006 when I launched my blog "12 Degrees of Freedom", Facebook did not exist.  In fact, many of my current Facebook friends were originally followers of my blog.  "12 Degrees" went into "hibernation" three days before I was sworn in as Massachusetts commissioner of Agriculture (March 29, 2012).  I felt that as an appointed state official is was best to keep my personal opinions to myself.

As you can see, my giant panda friend Max, has awakened from his prolonged siesta.  This just happens to coincide with the election of a new governor here in Massachusetts.

Coincidence?  Who knows?

There's  been no official word yet, though I learned long ago that it's best to be anticipatory at times like this.  Should/when the word comes down that there will be a new commish on the block, I look forward to firing up "12 Degrees of Freedom" again, but with a slightly different format - more experience-based commentary and opinion. I'm feeling a bit rusty, but hopefully will be able to ease back into this.

Hopefully those who found it worthwhile during its first six years will continue to find it relevant.  I am absolutely convinced that the the wisdom, insights and strategies of Bucky Fuller and other selfless whole systems practical visionaries who are committed to building a world that works for everyone will finally capture the public's attention and be embraced.

I will continue to contribute whatever I can toward that goal at whatever table I'm invited to sit at or am able to gracefully crash.  To paraphrase Bucky: "We are all terrific bundles of experience".

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Time to hibernate



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Landless Liberation Movement

Many in the U.S. consider being arrested for a vocal protest or sit-in as an extreme - even heroic - bit of activism. In many other parts of the world, standing up and acting for what you believe is often a matter of life and death. (GW)

Brazilian activists' murders may be linked to land dispute


Police investigate whether shooting of three rural activists was linked to efforts to win land also contested by sugar mill owners

Associated Press in Sao Paulo
Guardian
27 March 2012 03.31 EDT

Brazilian police are investigating whether the fatal shooting of three rural activists was linked to their effort to win rights to land also contested by owners of a sugar mill.

The activists were shot on Saturday as they got out of a car near a landless workers' camp in the south-western Minas Gerais state.

A five-year-old girl, the granddaughter of two of those who were killed, survived the attack. No one has been arrested, a police spokesman said.

Watchdog groups said police were questioning land activists about the possibility the killings could have resulted from an internal conflict within their movement. The groups rejected that idea and accused landowners of paying gunmen to shoot the activists.

Carlos Calazans, head of the Minas Gerais branch of the federal department of land reform, known as Incra, said police were looking into the land dispute as a possible motive.

"It's definitely one of the theories for the motive behind this barbarous crime," he said. "I've no doubt these activists were summarily executed. But police have to follow all leads until they find the truth."

Calazans said the killed couple approached Incra last year seeking support in various land conflicts in the region, including the one with the mill owners. He said Incra tried to get the owners and activists to agree on the issue a few weeks ago, but the effort was unsuccessful.

Killings over land in Brazil are common, and people rarely face trial for the crimes.

The watchdog group Catholic Land Pastoral says more than 1,150 rural activists have been murdered in Brazil over the past 20 years. The killings are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protests over illegal logging and land rights, it says. Most of the killings happen in the Amazon region.

Fewer than 100 cases have gone to court since 1988, Catholic Land Pastoral says. About 80 of the hired gunmen have been convicted, while 15 of the men who hired them were found guilty, and only one is currently in prison.

According to Incra, those killed on Saturday were Clestina Leonor Sales Nunes, 48; Milton Santos Nunes da Silva, 52; and Valdir Dias Ferreira, 39.

The girl was apparently the only witness to the killings, which were carried out along a highway near the camp, about 25 miles (40km) south-east of Uberlandia. She told police a car cut off the one she was riding in with the victims, forcing it to stop. Either one or two gunmen then opened fire.

A statement on the Catholic Land Pastoral's website described the three victims as state leaders of the Landless Liberation Movement, one of several rural activist groups that invade land and set up camp, living on what they say is unproductive ground.

Brazil's agrarian reform laws allow the government to seize fallow farmland and distribute it to landless farmers. Nearly 50% of arable land belongs to 1% of the population, according to the government's statistics agency.

The latest killings come just before the month that landless worker movements typically step up invasions of what they say is unused land. The seizures are meant to mark the April 1996 killing of 19 landless activists in Para state.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Being a farmer in California is worse than going to Las Vegas"

This story could very well be a preview of one of the scariest climate change scenarios that could unfold in the not-to-distant future. (GW)

California Farmers Feel Pain


Water Allowance Cut Amid Unusually Dry Winter, Choking Key Region's Rebound

By Jim Carlton
Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2012

FIVE POINTS, Calif.—Sharp cutbacks in water for farmers threaten to trigger renewed layoffs in a large swath of California, eating into the state's $40 billion-a-year agriculture industry and damping its nascent economic recovery.

Amid an unusually dry winter, managers of the federal Central Valley Project, which delivers mountain water for agriculture, late last month announced an initial reduction in farmers' water allowance for this year to 30% of the allotment in the driest southern reaches of the valley, down from 85% last year. Now farmers and local agriculture officials are taking in the economic impact they face.

"Being a farmer in California is worse than going to Las Vegas," said Mark Borba, as he inspected a barren field he may leave without crops this year because of the water reductions. Mr. Borba, co-owner of Borba Farms, which gets water from the district, expects to reduce his cotton crop by 38% to 1,480 acres from 2,400 last year.

The Central Valley, which is 450 miles long and about 50 miles wide, is home to most of California's agriculture industry. With much of the valley semi-arid, farms there for decades have depended on irrigated water from the Northern California mountains, but those supplies have long been subject to sharp fluctuations. Environmental regulations have made the water supplies from year to year even more unpredictable.

The mountain snowpack stood at 45% of normal as of last Wednesday, compared with 139% a year ago, according to official estimates. Reservoirs remain full enough from 2011 precipitation so that restrictions aren't expected to spread to the household water tap yet, officials said.

But cutbacks to farms could slow the state's overall recovery. While agriculture accounts for only a fraction of California's roughly $1.9 trillion economy, the sector employs hundreds of thousands of workers, whose spending ripples out to the broader economy.

CALFARM

The Central Valley —which became the epicenter of California's real-estate crash and still stands in contrast to the improving coastal cities—will take the biggest hit. The valley's farm belt was so badly damaged by recession and drought that its unemployment rate remained as high as 19.5% in January, compared with 10.9% for the state and 8.3% for the nation, according to Labor Department estimates.

Farmers, who have some of the weakest water rights in the state, say the system is inadequate, without the storage facilities to bank enough water in wet years. Some also blame federal restrictions like the one on pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect species such as the endangered smelt. Meanwhile, some environmentalists say farmers could conserve more and shouldn't be growing water-guzzlers like cotton.

During the last drought, in 2009, a cutback in water allocations to as low as under 10% of the allotment resulted in 285,000 acres going fallow and the loss of 9,800 agricultural jobs, for a $340 million loss in farm-related revenues, according to a study by the University of California at Davis.

Here in Fresno County, farmer Todd Allen said he was able to plant only 40 of his 600 irrigated acres with wheat that year, leaving the rest fallow. In 2011, there was enough water to plant all 600 acres with wheat, cotton and onions. But he said with the new cutbacks he will reduce his acreage to 450 this year, and perhaps to zero in 2013, which would force him to lay off his four employees.

Harris Farms plans to reduce its cotton crop to zero this year from 2,003 acres last year, said John Harris, chairman and chief executive of the 14,000-acre operation. That would translate into 68,696 fewer work hours this year, a loss of $755,480 in wages, according to estimates by Harris Farms. After receiving more water in 2011, payroll jumped 46% to $12.97 million from $8.87 million in 2010, the family-owned company said.

Businesses that depend on farms also are bracing themselves. At Kern Machinery in Bakersfield, general manager Clayton Camp said sales of tractors and other farm equipment could fall "20% to 25%" this year from 2011, when they had increased by single digits from 2010. Less water "will be a direct hit on our sales," Mr. Camp said.

In Firebaugh, Cathy Jones, a saleswoman at Westside Ford, said the dealership's revenues probably will drop this year after an increase in the sales rate to 25 vehicles a month from 16 in 2009. She said the sales rate had been 35 to 40 vehicles a month in 2008. She said the sales rate had been 35 to 40 vehicles a month in 2008. "Next year will be the rough year for us," Ms. Jones said.

Mr. Allen, the farmer, offered a starker assessment. "Without water," he said, "I'm worth nothing, basically."

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com