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"Food System"

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I hear a lot of people these days talking about our “food system.” Like where our food comes from, how it’s produced. It seems as though a lot of people think we need to change our food system: Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, Michael Pollan.

Yet it seems that the conversation has yet to acknowledge that the vast majority of what Americans eat isn’t produced by a food system. In other words, we don’t need to change our food system; we need to create a food system from scratch.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story many times before: the first green revolution wasn’t about food production, it was about finding uses for industrial byproducts following World War II. You’ve also probably heard about how many of our most profitable corporations produce products that people ingest. And yet these companies are not food companies. They’re chemical companies, or logistics companies. They’re out, not to produce food, but to make a profit. And rest assured: you can’t do both.

 So we need to do a little backtracking here. Working with our current infrastructure of production and distribution isn’t going to cut it. Because that infrastructure isn’t compatible to food.

There are people out there working on producing food. Actually, I’m a patron of some of them. The small-scale sustainable agriculture movement, along with Slow Food, and the local movement, are starting to scratch the surface.

I realized this when I was having a conversation with someone about what kinds of foods our food system produces. For example, if we make a shift to no-till perennial agriculture, people will no longer be able to eat their current varieties of tomatoes, broccolis, or carrots. Instead they might start eating seakale, chestnuts, and hardy kiwi. For foodies, this would be a change. And it would be a change for normal Americans anyways, but the change in inevitable. And currently they’re eating processed “foods,” so it doesn’t really matter what they’re transitioning to as long as the practices are more ecological and the food is more nutritious.

*Image credit

"A Pattern Language"

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The following review concerns Oxford University Press’ 1977 book, “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.”  It was authored by Christofer Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel.  It is second of three in the Center for Environmental Structure Series.

Background and Overview

"A Pattern Language" is exactly as the title describes.  The book is a language for describing and organizing patterns.  It presents 253 patterns from large [on the scale of regions] down to small [details in a house].  All of them relate to architecture in some way or another.

I first came across this book during my Permaculture Design Certificate with Julia and Charles Yelton at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in 2010.  It was presented not as a book on permaculture, but on the permaculture mindset.  A permaculture design could be laid out using the approach of this book.

Last year I saw the book sitting on my parents’ shelf, and asked if I might borrow it.  As it’s almost a 1,200-page book and I take notes, it’s taken me a year to read.

Reception

In some ways I find the book too specific.  In order to name something, we must strip it down to the bare essentials, something that can fit in a phrase.  Inherently, there are aspects of something that get pushed out by this process.  So although it seems like the authors had the best intentions in mind, their persistence in talking about all levels of patterns in architecture felt a little bit disrespectful and controlling some of the time.

I love patterns, but I don’t love objective guidelines.  For example, the book claims that wood is an unecological building material, and that we should use lightweight concrete instead [pattern 207].  I don’t understand the logic in this, but regardless, the impacts are irreparable.  Patters in later part of the book build on earlier patterns.  So the one pattern to use concrete affects countless later patterns, locking in that method of building and only that method of building.

I think one way to judge the nuance and universality of this book would be to see what range of styles this book might support.  It’s actually quite narrow, so I feel that in many cases, the book has settled on more surface-level patterns rather than defining the underlying dynamics.

On the other hand, many patterns aren’t this restrictive, and are rather, quite observant.  Such as pattern 127, the Intimacy Gradient.  This pattern outlines the dynamic that almost all multi-roomed residential or spiritual buildings have an intimacy gradient, ranging from almost public near the front and center, and quite private around the edges and toward the back.  But it could be argued that this is so intuitive it need not be expressed.

So as to the style of architecture trumpeted by this book, it’s a mixed bag.  But I think there’s promise in this pattern language thing.  Unfortunately, I won’t know for sure until I read the two other books in this series, “A Timeless Way of Building,” and “The Oregon Experiment,” which give the pattern language context, and then put it to use with a real-world project.

Lastly, regardless of my opinions on the actual patterns described in the book, the book is a very impressive work.  I wonder at the team dynamic and research that must have been put into it.

Overall, if you’re interested in architecture, I’d recommend this book.  And I’d love to see a permaculture design using a pattern language sometime.

Additional Resources

You can read my notes here.  Most of these notes are taken directly from the book [if you’re looking at a copy, the bold text and the pattern names].  I’ve added my comments in italics. 

The Internet’s Own Boy

A couple nights ago I watched “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.”  It was an excellent documentary by Participant Media on the life of internet activist Aaron, who, last year, committed suicide in the face of life in prison.

I found personal resonance with Aaron’s story on a number of levels:

  • Being the only young person in the room
  • Being a privileged white male interested in shaking up the power structure
  • Learning that education is more about enculturation than freedom
  • Getting involved in politics and government
  • Forging your own path
  • Facing a lot of struggle

I highly recommend it.

Civilization

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I’ve been reading Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization.”  Ever since my time at Maggie’s Farm I’ve been thinking critically about the concept of civilization.  There are just so many problems with it.  For example, it seems that permanence and sustainability exist only outside the bounds of civilization.

Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say on the subject.  This is taken from the first paragraph of their article:

A civilization (or civilisation in British English) most broadly is any complex state society characterized by a social hierarchy, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment. Civilizations are intimately associated with and often further defined by other socio-politico-economic characteristics, including urbanization (or the development of cities), centralization, the domestication of both humans and other organisms, specialization of labor, culturally ingrained ideologies of progress and supremacism, monumental architecture, taxation, societal dependence upon agriculture, and expansionism. Historically, a civilization was an “advanced” culture in contrast to more supposedly barbarian, savage, or primitive cultures. More neutrally, civilization is contrasted with ancient, less stratified societal models, including the cultures of hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists, tribal villagers, and band societies.

Wow.  So here’s a list of the attributes of civilization:

  • Hierarchy
  • Symbolic communication
  • Perceived separation from nature
  • Control
  • Centralization
  • Myth of progress
  • Oppression
  • Agriculture
  • Growth

It sounds like the social justice and environmental movements have a lot more on their hands than they bargained for. Social justice and environmentalism might just require the destruction of civilization, as Deep Green Resistance proposes.

Even so, I think there’s still hope for and purpose to the civilization project. As Bill Plotkin says“unhealthy cultures are the result not of a defective species but of a species brilliantly designed by Mystery to bear sacred wound as an essential ingredient of its journey and its promise and destiny.”

*Image Source

Adam Smith was a Muslim

The following lengthy excerpt comes from David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.”  I was recently rereading the text when I was struck by this passage:

There was a particular hostility to anything that smacked of price-fixing.  One much-repeated story held that the Prophet himself had refused to force merchants to lower prices during a shortage in the city of Medina, on the grounds would be sacrilegious, since, in a free market situation, “prices depend on the will of God.”  Most legal scholars interpreted Mohammed’s decision to mean that any government interference in market mechanisms should be considered similarly sacrilegious, since markets were designed by God to regulate themselves.

If all this bears a striking resemblance to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (which was also the hand of Divine Providence), it might not be a complete coincidence.  In fact, many of the specific arguments and examples that Smith uses appear to trace back directly to economic tracts written in Medieval Persia.  For instance, not only does his argument that exchange is a natural outgrowth of human rationality and speech already appear both in both Ghazali (1058-1111 ad), and Tusi (1201-1274 ad); both use exactly the same illustrations: that no one has ever observed two dogs exchanging bones.  Even more dramatically, Smith’s famous example of division of labor, the pin factory, where it takes eighteen separate operations to produce one pin, already appears in Ghazali’s Ihya, in which he describes a needle factory, where it takes twenty-five different operations to produce a needle.

Basically, many of Smith’s central ideas are Islamic in origin.  In other words, capitalism is an Islamic philosophy.  At the same time, the US is often cited as the epitome of capitalism.  I find all of this quite ironic, as the US considers Islam its enemy.

*In no way do I mean to infer that people of the Islamic faith are inferior, or superior, for that matter.

Wild Mind

This post is a review of Bill Plotkin’s 2013 book “Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche.”

I have to say that, after the first read-through, I don’t have much comment about this book.  I think that it’s probably great.  But it didn’t really hold my attention, even though I went through the entire thing.  I see it as a hand book, best used for hands-on application, rather than something for casual reading [as I was doing].

There are really just two diagrams that sum up the entire book:

This model is the second of three that Animas Valley Institute uses.  The first being the Eight Eco-Soul-Centric Stages of Human Maturation.  And the third being on personality types [not yet out].

I loved Bill’s first book, “Soulcraft,” because it had a strong storytelling aspect to it.  I think this book is more like Bill’s second, “Nature and the Human Soul;” more academic, less personal.

I look forward to coming back to this book when I need it.

Drop City

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This is a book review of “Drop City,” a published by Viking Press in 2003, written by T. C. Boyle.

A friend referenced this book.  And I’d recently read about the book’s namesake in this Aeon article.  And I’m the child of hippies and intentional-community folks.  So I thought it worth a read.

My reception?  Pretty negative.

Summary

A group of hippies in 1970 form an intentional community on a piece of land South of San Francisco.  Simultaneously, we’re made aware of a conservative redneck [I don’t mean this term in a derogatory way] couple up in Alaska, “making it off the land.”  The hippies get kicked off their land in California and move in next to the rednecks up in Alaska.  One of the hippies joins forces with the enemy of the redneck, and both enemies end up dying, after a lot of hardship due to them on the part of the hippies and the rednecks.

Reception

The book is extremely negative.  When something can go wrong, it does.  By the middle of the book I became paranoid, glancing around every corner, pondering what would be the next disaster.  And I have to say, I actually got pretty good at predicting when and how things would go wrong.

My guess is that our author, Boyle, is an atheist in the most pessimistic of ways.  There is not one shred of beauty in the entire four-hundred and sixty four pages.  Well, although there were many opportunities for beauty, our author missed all of them.  From many perspectives, the book could be romantic - people living off the land, focused on community and relationships.

Why do I say atheist?  Because the book just leaves you wondering, am I just putzing around until I die?  Does a human life have any real purpose or value at all?  It seems our author has concluded, no, it does not.  And although I won’t lay out my viewpoints here, I will mention that I disagree with him.  There’s still some hope left in me, some humanity.

There are some names dropped in the text which served some relevance to the generation.  At the moment, those of G. I. Gurdjieff and John McLaughlin are coming to mind.  So it’s not as though Boyle just made up the entire book.  Some aspects of the context aren’t that far off base.  But clearly, Boyle is not a hippy, nor is he a redneck.

There are some nice aspects of the book.  For example, we come to see that hippies and rednecks really care about the same thing.  Ultimately, this could be said about any two subcultures.  But it’s nice to find this slightly inspiring message hidden under all of the doom and gloom.

DamNation

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I recently watched a film about dams produced by Patagonia.  It’s called “DamNation.”  I watched in via Vimeo On Demand, a service I’m quite fond of.

My take on it?  Excellent.  My parents are freshwater ecologists, so it’s understandable that I’d be sympathetic.

The premise?  Dams are bad.  We have tens of thousands of dams in the US, and they’re not doing us much good.  They’ve killed off phenomenal “natural resources,” such as vibrant fisheries.  And they barely do anything for us.  At one point they supplied 50% of our country’s power; they now supply 7%.  It’s not that they’ve become less efficient; our use of electricity has relentlessly outstripped their capacity.

The silly part, and the part that I didn’t know, was that dams have a maximum lifetime of only a few hundred years.  Is hydroelectric a renewable, sustainable energy source?  Absolutely not.  I won’t get into solar and wind here; they aren’t renewable or sustainable either, but that’s for another time.

If you think about beavers, it’s obvious.  Beavers make a damn in a stream.  The stream becomes a swamp.  The swamp fills in with sediment.  The swamp becomes a meadow.  And then eventually the meadow becomes a forest.

The exact some things happens on a much larger scale with dams; they get sedimented in and become worthless.  It’s just a matter of time.  And that’s only if they don’t collapse first [which can definitely also happen].

One aspect of it that’s a little surprising for me, considering Patagonia is a billion-plus-dollar company, is the Deep Green Resistance bent of the entire thing.  Essentially they infer that if the government doesn’t cooperate in restoring these ecosystems, it’s up to us to fix these problems ourselves.  The films an inspiring blend of liberal and libertarian values.

I highly recommend it.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

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This post is a book review of “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

At first glance, I thought this book looked cheesy.  I didn’t like the color scheme or the design.  It talks about how many copy it’s sold right there on the cover.  And it doesn’t have a title.  Instead of a title, it has a lengthy description which makes it impractical to name in conversation.  Also, my copy was printed on low-quality acid pulp paper [it was severely yellowed even though it’s only ten years old].  Inside it, it had all of these exercises, which intimidated me a little bit.  I ended up skipping them for reasons of practicality.  Well, I read through them, but I didn’t have someone to practice them with.

But my partner asked me to read the book as my birthday present to her.  This was back in December. And I’m not yet a black belt in childhood communication, so I read it anyways.

After all that, I’d recommend you not to underestimate the potency of this book.  It’s not just a book about communication with children [especially your own children or children that live in your household].  It’s a book about life.

There are some strong parallels to Zen.  Living with children is a little like the monastic life: stark, bleak, austere, solitary.  It requires a lot of discipline, resolve, vigilance, and steadfastness.  This book offers inspiration, reassurance, and a new set of skill to excel in this environment.  It could even be called a spiritual handbook.

For the most part, the book avoids the Separationist mentality.  It’s thesis: that children are a product of their environment.  What does it take to be a good communicator with children: listening, empathy, minimalism, openness, realism, adaptability, observation, nonjudgementality.

This book has given me a lot to work with, and I look forward to putting it to practice.

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