Just food now: taking personal responsibility

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In my last blog, I presented some ideas on how local government, colleges and community groups might help to strengthen the local food economy.   In this blog, I will share some ideas on how individuals can contribute directly to the long-term health of local food systems by changing our behavior.

But wait you say…..  how can individuals make a difference when government, corporations and university research and education all support industrial agriculture?

Well, lets begin with the assumption that investments in a local food economy make sense in the long term as we face increasing stress to the industrial food economy.   Then if we look at the systemic structure of large systems like corporations and government, we see that their behavior is governed by powerful mental models that discourage their leaders from acting on a long-term perspective.   Let ask…. “who among our leaders has a planning horizon that allows them to think in the long term?”   Afterall…..

  • those we elect to the U.S. Senate want to get elected every 6 years,
  • the President of the United States wants to get elected (or be succeeded by their own party) every four years,
  • those we elect to the House of Representatives want to get elected every 2 years,
  • most local officials run for election every 2 or 4 years, and
  • corporate leaders must show increased profits every quarter (3 months) to be successful!

Popular uprising in Egypt

Given our expectation for immediate results, how can any of these leaders take actions that will pay off in the long term and expect to remain in leadership?   WE have to begin to change the mental models governing western culture by changing our own behavior FIRST!

As I suggested in my last blog, if WE START A “LOCAL FOODS PARADE” (based on new mental models), these leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

Leadership of the local foods movement is in our hands!

While we need to continue to work with local government, businesses, colleges and community groups, we also need to take action as individuals to directly support local food and begin to shift mental models.  Here are a few things we might do now:

  1. If you live in an apartment, plant a few vegetables or herbs in window boxes or on the patio. And of course walk or bike to one of our farm stands or farmers markets to buy local food whenever possible.  Better yet, join a CSA!
  2. If you live in a suburban neighborhood, tear up that lawn and just grow food now!  And then teach your neighbors how to grow more food.  Can and freeze as much as possible, and share it with your neighbors.
  3. If you are in less populated part of town and maybe have a large yard (like some owners of “McMansions”), grow a large garden with fruit trees.   And don’t forget  hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  4. If you live on a farm, grow more food crops (for people).  Much of the farmland in New England is used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  5. If you are responsible for a public building, grow food on the rooftop.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.   Or look to re-configure parking lots and other open areas with raised beds such as the urban organiponicos in Cuba.

And no matter where you live, think about ways we can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle. Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps prices artificially low through public subsidies and failing to pay for externalities. If we want more local food, we need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.

We all need to begin by imagining possibilities and then getting to work in our backyards, neighborhoods, local government and educational institutions.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.

Individual Actions

1. Join the Slow Food movement, which “unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

2. Buy Fair Trade food products which ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their labor.   And why not try out this cell phone app to determine which products are “healthy, ethical and green.

3. Support Bioregionalism which encourages us to get our food from an area defined loosely by natural boundaries and distinct cultural human communities.

4. Work for clear public commitment to a nutritious diet for all, fair wages and working conditions for farm labor, and a living wage for farm owners.  Share the idea of a local Food Commons with your neighbors.

5. And perhaps the most effective way to support local food is to begin to uncouple your diet from the global industrial food economy starting with avoiding all factory farmed animal products such as eggs, milk, meat, and cheese.   Try to increase the number of food products you buy from farmers you know!

What else?   What would you add to this list?

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For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  And for those of you who still wonder if one person can make a difference, please see an essay I wrote on this topic called “Saving the world – one clothespin at a time.”

Food Sovereignty: the people’s response to the global food crisis

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Last week’s blog, “The Future of Food; Dealing with Collapse,” elicited a lot of comments.   A few of them reminded me that if we are going to address the global food crisis, we must listen to the people who do most of the work growing food.   We must hear from the peasants, farm workers, and small landholders who grow 50% of the food on the planet.

Without their voice,  policy makers responding to the food crisis, will continue to invest in the same industrial model for growing food that is the root cause of the problem.

If we care about sustainable food and farming, we must work for Food Sovereignty.

According to La Via Campesina, “Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture.”   One of the “raps” against sustainable agriculture is that while we talk about Social Equity as one of the three principles of sustainability, most of our efforts focus on Environmental Integrity and Economic Vitality.  Food Sovereignty provides a framework to make sure we maintain a focus on justice!

Food Sovereignty is about solutions!

La Via Campesina is a global movement of peasant farmers and workers.  In 1996, they introduced the concept of Food Sovereignty at the World Food Summit in Rome, and since then the principle of Food Sovereignty has been adopted by many organizations.

This movement which brings together the environmental, economic and social aspects of food production was created to serve the needs of small and medium-size farmers, migrant workers, the landless, women farmers, and indigenous peoples from all over the world.  These are the same people who are most likely use agroecological principles to grow food in a way that builds rather than degenerates natural resources.

A recent United Nations study claims that small farmers, using agroecological techniques, can double food production in 10 years.   These techniques are supported by the International Peasants Movement, La Via Campesina, which claims that peasants can feed the world.

According to Via Campesina “food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption.  It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement.”

This global movement however, is not only relevant in developing countries.  Last week, a town in Maine passed the first Food Sovereignty law in the U.S.  I encourage you to learn more about this movement and to support one of the 148 member organizations in 69 countries working for Food Sovereignty.  And join the millions of small farmers and workers around the world on April 17, 2011 to celebrate the struggle of peasants and rural people to survive and continue feeding the world.

To learn more, go to April 17, 2011 – International Day of Peasant’s Struggles.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Is the modern industrial food system “in collapse”?

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Cassandra (of Greek mythology) the daughter of King Priam, foresaw the destruction of Troy by the invading Greeks (who of course had come to retrieve  Helen).  Cassandra warned her father of the impending disaster – but no one believed her!  It seems the God Apollo, who had given her the gift of prophecy, had also cursed her by preventing anyone from believing her.

Frustrating, huh?

I suspect Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimias might understand her frustration.  Who are they you ask?

Well, they are just two of the modern Cassandras, who are trying to help us wake up to the impending collapse of the modern industrial food system.  But it seems Apollo is still up to his old tricks….. because based on our behavior, it seems we are still ignoring the warnings.

We didn’t listen to Tristan Stuart who reminded us in Waste, that “infinite abundance is an illusion.”  Nor did we hear Carolyn Steel, who claimed in Hungry City “our food system is no more secure, ethical or sustainable than Rome’s was.”  And Julian Cribb’s new book about food, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, is also likely to go unheeded.

Its all just too depressing, isn’t it.  The “foodies” seem to be too wrapped up in what Fraser and Rimas call “the New Gluttony,” which, in their words “turn food into fashion – and undermines the critical danger we face.” Of course, most people don’t think much about the food system and just take the current food system for granted.

If you are one of the majority of people who seem to believe that somehow the food in the grocery store will always be plentiful, will always be cheap, and somehow is actually good for you – you should read Empires of Food.   Most astute observers of the modern industrial food and farming system recognize that the industrial food system is harmful to people, society and the earth….  and is vulnerable to collapse.  Not convinced, well read what some of the experts are saying…..

Or listen to this 11-year old kid!

I suspect I’ll be accused of being “alarmist” by some readers who would prefer not to be disturbed.  But when there is danger in our path, an alarm is exactly what is needed.  A billion people hungry, another billion malnourished, and another billion ‘overfed’ sounds like a problem.   Students often ask how do we wake up those people living in denial.

Personally, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people that a system built on cheap fossil fuel is at risk in a peak oil economy.  I won’t argue that continued erosion of the natural resources upon which our high level of productivity is based –  is a prelude to disaster.  Nor do I like to point out (especially to people who are just not interested) that a system that allows a few large corporations to control the food supply is fundamentally unjust.

I’m actually much more interested in working on solutions; like tax incentives for small, integrated local farms, public investment in bioregional food production and distribution systems, changes in zoning laws which support the “homegrown food revolution”, and public education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, and community self-sufficiency.

Relocalization may not replace the system of international trade which presently dominates the global food economy.  But there are surely things we should consider to help us build much-needed resilience into a food system in crisis today in the poorer nations – and on the verge of collapse in the industrialized world.

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Next week’s blog will explore some of these solutions.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.


The perfect storm part III: Climate change

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Last week’s blog focused on the second of the three big problems of our time, the threat of Global Pandemic. This week we are looking at Climate Change.   According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, the three major problems of our time are:

1. Peak Oil
2. Pandemic
3. Climate Change

……..

When we discussed the problem of climate change in my Sustainable Living class, some of the students in were surprised to find that I had learned about “global warming” when I was in college 40 years ago!   One student told me after class that I must have been wrong because he heard (in another class) that scientists became aware that climate change was a problem only recently.  So I took a look at the history of global climate change and found:

  • In 1896 a Swedish scientist published the idea that as humanity burned fossil fuels, carbon dioxide gas released to the Earth’s atmosphere would raise the planet’s average temperature.
  • In the 1930s, people realized that the United States had warmed significantly during the previous half-century.
  • In the 1950s, a few scientists began to look into the question with improved technology.
  • In the early 1970s, the rise of environmentalism raised awareness about climate change and more scientists took it seriously.

We have known about this treat for a long time.  One of the questions I get regularly from students is; “if you knew this might be a problem, why didn’t your generation do something about it?”

Good question!

So, once again I turn to the “iceberg” to try to understand the root cause of seemingly “crazy” and self-destructive human behavior.

If an intelligent human living in 1970 learned that their behavior might be causing harm to the planet, why would this person not change their behavior?

If we apply the iceberg tool, an event might be a one human choosing to ignore the evidence.

A pattern would be lots of individuals choosing to ignore the evidence (which is indeed what happened).

But what are the systemic tructures that supported this particular pattern of behavior?  What organizations and policies specifically contributed to an entire society not paying heed to the warning?

Well, how about:

  • The U.S. Government under the Reagan administration
  • Automobile manufacturers that claimed they could not improve fuel efficiency
  • The U.S. Government under the Bush administration
  • Energy company sponsored advertisements that cast doubt upon the science of global climate change
  • The U.S. Government under the Clinton administration
  • Mass media that made “the good life” seem like the only life worth living
  • The U.S. Government under the second Bush administration
  • An entertainment industry that provides distractions that are much more pleasurable than worrying about the future
  • The U.S. Government under the Obama administration

The only problem in making a list of the social structures that support millions of people living in denial is that EVERYTHING about our culture supports this self-destructive behavior.

But lets continue.  The next question is “what mental models support these structures”?

A recent article in The Economist speculates on the belief systems (mental models) that explain why Americans seem unwilling to change our behavior.  They write:

  • “Psychological: The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate. Therefore, we’re denying the issue, as we used to deny monsters in the room by hiding under the blanket.
  • “Economic: The costs of a large-scale effort to fight global warming are too steep to bear. Therefore, we’re trying to ignore the issue, or pretending it doesn’t exist, or we believe that the economy (including development) is more important.
  • “Political: The fact that Democrats are always hammering on about climate change and Republicans aren’t suggests that this is a political issue, not a scientific one. This creates a feedback loop: if climate change were real, why is it so polarizing? Because it’s so polarizing, it must be slightly suspicious.
  • “Epistemological: Why should we believe in climate change? Where’s the evidence? All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong.
  • “Metaphysical: God isn’t going to let millions of people die in an epic drought.”

In addition to these mental models, I will add my own:

  • the belief that the “world was made for us to use”
  • the worldview that “humans are not part of Mother Nature”
  • the hope that “government will protect us”
  • the “joke” that whomever dies with the most stuff wins

To change the patterns of behavior, we must change the structures; the policies and organizations that allow millions of humans to continue to avoid or deny the truth.   But to change the structures, we must change the way we think (mental models) because thoughts create actions and actions create thoughts.  This reinforcing feedback loop is very powerful and has allowed us to live in denial for a long time.

So the next logical question must be “what would cause us to wake up?”  The Academy Award winning 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” didn’t do it.  A highly respected report from Britain’s Government Economic Service (the Stern Report) which found that it would be less expensive to take action now than try to deal with the crisis later, didn’t do it.

My students often ask “where will we find the necessary political will and leadership to take action?”

Good question!

There are many interesting theories about why we seem to find it so hard to change our behavior, but my response is usually, “why are we so worried about everyone else – what are you willing to do?

The response from many students is to look for leadership from politicians and business leaders.  But we know that anyone in government is caught  in a systemic social structure that requires them to run for election every 2, 4, or 6 years.  They cannot afford to think about the long term.  And for business leaders it is much worse.  They must show profitability to shareholders every quarter (3 months) or their job may be in jeopardy.

So who can think about the 7th generation?   Well, perhaps a mature young adult taking my class?  Perhaps you?

I believe that individuals who are not afraid to act  must “join the sustainability parade” and the politicians and corporate leaders will “jump up front” when they see which way the parade is headed.

Are you willing to join the sustainability parade?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

The perfect storm part II: Global pandemic

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Last week’s blog focused on one of the three big problems of our time, Peak Oil. This week we are looking at the threat of Global Pandemic caused at least partially by industrial animal agriculture (factory farms). According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, the three major problems of our time are:

1. Peak Oil
2. Pandemic
3. Climate Change

In my Sustainable Living class, I introduced the topic of Global Pandemic with this video:
……….

There is evidence that the bird flu and swine flu epidemics of the past few years originated in factory-farms in Southeast Asia and Mexico.  The industrial response to bird flu was typical of modern culture – proposals to irradiate meat, flu vaccines for the birds, efforts to outlaw backyard chickens.  The real problem is the system we have created to make sure our meat products are cheap – factory farms (these are “structures” in our iceberg tool that we use to understand root causes).   Perhaps an even more immediate concern however, is the potential loss of antibiotics for human health care due to their extensive use in factory farms.

If you WANTED to create antibiotic resistant bacteria, this is how to do it:

  1. Inoculate a petri dish with bacteria, which will “grow like crazy
  2. Apply an antibiotic, which will probably kill 99% of the bacteria
  3. Feed the surviving 1% with sugar water,and it will “grow like crazy”
  4. Apply an antibiotic to the new growth, which will probably kill 99%
  5. Again feed the surviving 1% sugar water, and it will……

Do this again and again and again…. and what you end up with is a strain of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics!  And this happens BY DESIGN in at least two places in modern culture….

Human health care

and

Factory farms

Industrial animal farms and the over use of antibiotics in human health care result in antibiotic resistance.

In a  Johns Hopkins magazine article from June 2009….. Kellogg Schwab, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health, spoke about samples he collected from a lagoon used to store pig manure. “There were 10 million E. coli per liter [of sampled waste]. Ten million!   And you have a hundred million liters in some of those pits. So you can have trillions of bacteria present, of which 89 percent are resistant to drugs. That’s a massive amount that in a rain event can contaminate the environment.”

He adds….

“This development of drug resistance scares the hell out of me. If we continue on and we lose the ability to fight these microorganisms, a robust, healthy individual has a chance of dying, where before we would be able to prevent that death.

Schwab says that if he tried, he could not build a better incubator of resistant pathogens than a factory farm.

This is crazy!

Lets use the iceberg tool again to try to answer the question “why do we do this to ourselves?“.

So, once again I asked my class…. “what is the root cause of this crazy human behavior?”

In this case, an event might be a single hog or chicken that was treated with a low level dose of antibiotic to help it grow faster.

A pattern would be thousands of chickens treated with antibiotics to keep them alive while living in a crowded, unhealthy environment.

The more interesting questions are about the structures and mental models that make these crazy behaviors “normal.”

Among the structures named were:

  • Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (factory farms)
  • pharmaceutical industry
  • government regulation
  • advertising industry
  • fast food industry
  • what else?

And the mental models that make these structures “normal” might be:

  • a belief that everyone needs animal protein daily
  • the expectation that food should be cheap
  • the belief that animals are simply “units” not living beings
  • the worldview that humans are not part of “mother nature”
  • the hope that “government will protect us”
  • what other beliefs support this behavior”?

To change the patterns, we must change the structures used to raise animals.  But to change the structures, we must change the way we think (mental models). Take a few minutes to compare these two systems for raising chickens, and look for the mental models under each of these structures:

1. An industrial poultry farm

2. My backyard

The local farm or backyard option is a real possibility, but to change these structures we must first change the way we think.  And to change the way we think, we need to change the way we ourselves choose to live!  The following is a short video comparing the way we treat animals with the way we live our lives…..(can you see shared mental models?).
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To change the way we treat animals, we need to change the way we live our lives.  What are you doing to change your own life!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

The perfect storm part I – Peak oil

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This week in Sustainable Living class here at UMass we are beginning to explore the root cause(s) of the three big problems of our times.   According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, these problems (which I describe as “the perfect storm” because they are interrelated and all happening at once) are:

  1. Peak Oil

  2. Pandemic

  3. Climate Change

This blog looks for the root cause(s) of our excessive use and dependence on oil, a problem described by the term “peak oil”.   Most students at UMass have heard the term (which was not true just a few years ago). But it is surprising how few can speak about  the root cause(s) of our excessive energy use, which has resulted in peak oil.  So in class, we introduce the topic with a short video, and then ask the students to use the systems thinking iceberg model (which I wrote about last week) to begin to understand the root cause(s) of peak oil.  Here is what we learned…..

M. King Hubbard predicted that oil production in the U.S. would peak in 1970.   And it did! This means that half of the extractable oil in the U.S. was burned by Americans over 40 years ago.  This is a problem!

Even the former-President of the U.S., George W. Bush, charged the nation with being “addicted to oil.” The first step in 12-step recovery programs is to admit that we have a problem.   Based on our behavior however, it seems that we are not willing to accept this truth.  Like other addictions, this one will end badly.

So, if it is obvious that being addicted to a finite resource isn’t a good position to be in, why aren’t we taking it seriously?  I believe that most of us find it difficult to face problems when we can’t imagine a reasonable solution.  And understanding the problem is the first step toward creating and accepting reasonable solutions.

So in class, we look for the root cause(s) of problems by using the iceberg.

When I asked the class to identify the structures that result in patterns of human behavior that cause us to continue to deplete fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates, they came up with the following list:

  • The oil industry
  • Automobile manufacturers
  • Advertising agencies
  • Vacation & Travel industries
  • Well, in fact almost ALL businesses….
  • The military
  • High gas mileage thresholds
  • Subsidies for the oil industry
  • The national highway system
  • Airports
  • Non-energy efficient buildings
  • Well, just about everything in our lives

Here is a short clip explaining how we determine structures, with a few more examples:

The more interesting question is what are the mental models (the beliefs, the assumptions, the stories we tell each other) that contribute to the creation of the structures that encourage the excessive use of a oil.  These are some of the mental models generated by the class:

  • Individual actions don’t make a difference
  • We’ll figure out what to do when things get really bad
  • The world is made for humans to use
  • I have the right
  • Shop till you drop
  • I need amusements to be happy
  • If I can’t fix everything….. I won’t do anything

Here is a short clip describing mental models, with a few more examples:

Why don’t you identify your own mental models from the video below and share your thoughts in the comments box.

……………..

What do you think is the root cause(s) of peak oil?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Digging for the root cause(s) of global crises

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Last week my Sustainable Living class at the University of Massachusetts explored Mother Earth’s three ecological rules for living sustainably.  They are:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Waste = food (cycle everything)
  3. Support biological diversity

During the class, I briefly mentioned what happens when humans violate these rules.  The result is “collapse” as presented so well by these two classic texts, Collapse and The Lorax (which are basically the same book – well, one has more pictures!).

Both Jared Diamond and Dr. Suess knew that when a society outstrips its natural resource base (what was that old onceler thinking when he cut down the last truffula tree because “everybody needs a thneed“) ….. well, things get bad – its  the “perfect storm”!

There are many ways to analyze the problems we face today.  In Sustainable Living class, we  look for root causes of the events that make it into the newspaper.  In his 1949 book of essays, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold encouraged us to “Think Like a Mountain.”   I suspect a mountain would not notice the daily economic and political struggles of humans, but would focus on the underlying systemic patterns that result in social and environmental decay.

In class, I presented three global systemic patterns (“the perfect storm”) as the principle ecological crises that we must face – or collapse!  They are:

  1. Peak Oil
  2. Global Pandemic
  3. Climate Change

When we begin to look closely at these patterns, it is easy to become depressed and feel quite hopeless.  It is easy to blame others.  In Sustainable Living class we look for realistic and simple actions that students can take to begin to address these problems.  The first step is to try to understand the root cause of the patterns.

To begin to understand complex systems (like the entire planet and all of human civilization), we need some powerful tools.   I’ve been teaching courses related to systems thinking for some time and the most useful tool I teach is the “iceberg.”  This systems thinking tool helps us to “see below the surface” of daily events to begin to identify the root cause of systemic behavior.  Lets try it!

In the iceberg tool,  individual “events” are depicted as the tip of the iceberg, and visible to the naked eye.  But most of the iceberg is below the surface.

So we learn to look below the surface for the root cause of events.  Here is a simple example:

An Eventthere was a robbery in my neighborhood last week during which someone took a laptop computer and some loose cash from an empty house.  The break-in took place one evening while the homeowners were out to dinner.

The Patternthis has been happening regularly for several years!

Structure (these are physical things, organizations, policies and rituals that are relatively permanent and contribute to the pattern)

  1. Most homes in my town have been left unlocked day and night for years (ritual).
  2. It is easy to break a window (physical thing) and gain entry to most homes.
  3. Unemployment has risen dramatically over the past few years (a result of policies).
  4. The capacity of police departments (organizations) to patrol neighborhoods has been hampered by limited budgets (policy).
  5. Cuts in public support for education results in some people having less opportunity for good jobs (policy).
  6. Television and magazines depict “the good life” as one rich in material goods (policy).

Mental Models (these are the beliefs, worldviews, and assumptions that create the structures)

  1. “It won’t happen to me, so I won’t lock my doors at night” (homeowner).
  2. “People with homes can afford to loose a few luxury items” (robber).
  3. “Its probably just a few kids.  We’ll catch em soon.” (police).
  4. We can’t afford good public education or employment programs during this economic crisis” (conservatives).
  5. “You can have it all!” (the advertising industry).
  6. What else?  I”m sure there are many more.

This example describes how the iceberg model can be used to “dig deeper” into root cause of a social problem.  If all we do is “react to events” (such as an individual house break-in), the systemic problem (lack of education and employment, and material-rich expectations of “the good life”) will never be addressed.  Systems thinking helps us to uncover leverage points for the transformation of society necessary to deal with systemic problems.  Transformation must begin with a “mind change”…. that is, how we think.

Here is how we use the iceberg tool to “see below the surface.”


Over the next few weeks, we’ll use the iceberg to begin to try to understand the root cause(s) of the perfect storm. For now, here is a link to some of the events and patterns that describe these three global systemic problems.

The Perfect Storm

Lets look at another example of how to use the iceberg.

While major problems (patterns) are embedded in social structures and supported by mental models, sustainable behaviors are also encouraged by sustainable structures and mental models.  Here is an example.


To change behavior, we need to change the way we think.  I wrote a post about this a while back.  See “changing minds” for some thoughts on the power of the mental model!

The good news is that the structures that contribute to global systemic problems are “mind made”…… and therefore can be mind changed!

Check back here in a week to learn more…….

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Gardening and living by three “ecological rules”

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Spring semester is underway at the University of Massachusetts and I’m teaching a class called Sustainable Living with about 300 students.   My next several posts will share some of the lessons from this class.  My first lecture is called Ecology “Rules”.

The three ecological rules for living sustainably are:

  1. Use current solar income whenever possible.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

This post looks at how we try to “obey Mother Nature’s rules” in my own household and garden and makes suggestions for you to consider in your own life.

1. Use Current Solar Income

Well, the obvious use of solar income growing food in the garden.

We have a big garden, with two unheated hoop houses that allow us to grow food during three seasons in New England.  But if you live in an apartment, you can still grow some food in planters and window boxes.  Or check with your town hall and ask about access to a community garden.  Or join a CSA (many deliver directly into the city).  But if you have a big back yard, why not try “food not lawns”.  Lawns require too much fertilizer and water and produce nothing.

A simple way to use solar energy is dry your clothes outside.   I enjoy feeling like I’m somehow beating the oil companies this way.  And while it is a small thing, I like to feel the sun on my back while I’m hanging the laundry out.

And if you own your own home, there is no better investment than solar hot water! 

Although, both oil and wood are originally solar, wood heat is much more “current” than oil and can be regenerated in a lifetime.  So we burn wood for supplemental heat.  It also provides a back up when the power goes out in a winter storm!

I suspect there are lots of other actions we could take to obey Mother Nature’s first rule.  Why don’t you add your own below in comments box?

2. Waste=Food

So, here’s the second rule…..  everything cycles, or “waste=food.”  And of course the easiest way to obey this rule is to compost food wastes.  We collect all of the organic waste (except meat) in a small bucket on the kitchen counter.  It goes out to a compost pile to turn into organic matter, which goes on the garden to grow more food.  In Mother Nature, there is no waste!

Some of the food “waste,” like old tomatoes, go to our hens, which turn that “waste” into fresh eggs.  Have you ever had a fresh egg?  It tastes different than the industrial version.

There are other ways to turn waste into food.  The ashes from the wood stove (waste) go onto the garden to grow more food.   Wood ash has potassium (potash), an essential nutrient for plants.

And how about recycling old newspapers and cardboard by using it as a mulch on the garden?   Non-glossy newsprint is safe and prevents weed growth, builds organic matter, and provides a great home for worms that turn leaves and garden residues into fertilizer.

The newspaper is covered with hay and then watered down.  We do this every fall to get the garden ready for planting in the spring.  We try not to rototill at all, since this kills the worms which help feed the garden.

3. Support Biological Diversity

And the third rule…… well, the first two don’t work well without biological diversity.  A monoculture, either a 1000 acre corn farm or your front lawn violates Mother Nature’s rules.  And the best way to mix things up in the garden is to make sure you have both plants and animals!   Animals…… really?

Well, yes.  Animals in the garden are needed to recycle nutrients.  Here are our “meat chickens” feeding (and pooping) in the old strawberry patch. 

Chickens are one of the easiest animal to include in your garden.  We raise 25 broilers each summer.  They are around for about 8 weeks and then “into the freezer.”  Lots of communities are working to change their zoning rules to encourage backyard chickens and hens for food self-sufficiency.

There is one backyard animal that is even easier than chickens….. that’s bees.  We harvest about 8 quarts of honey each year from our bee hive.

Oh sure, you say…. I can’t do that!  Well, its not all that difficult and there are lots of your neighbors who have already joined the “homegrown revolution!”

But if you are not ready for chickens and bees….. well, then start with worms.  Yup, that’s right.  They can help recycle kitchen wastes all winter long.

This little “worm condominium” supports a few thousand worms that quietly eat food waste, producing lovely potting soil.  And the hens love to have a few worms as a snack during the winter when the ground is frozen and they can’t scratch up their own bugs.  Try it!

The food waste goes in and the worms do the rest.  Its called vermiculture farming (worm) and its simple!

How are you obeying Mother Nature’s rules?  Post your ideas in the comments box below!

But I don’t want to “obey” the rules

There is a part of me that rebels when I hear the word “obey” or “obedience”.   But lets look more closely at that word “obey.”  It comes from the Latin “obedire“, which is to hear or listen.  Perhaps that is what it means to “obey” Mother Nature’s rules, simply to listen deeply.

I remember my first Permaculture course, when we we told to go out and sit in a garden and observe quietly.  I was surprised by the difference between this garden brimming with biological diversity (birds, bees and bugs) and my own which was productive but sterile.

When I sit and listen to Mother Nature’s “voice” I seem to become part of something much bigger than myself.  I can feel the energy of the earth and I feel at peace.   And yes, I try to obey the rules.

After all, these ecological rules have evolved over 4.5 billion years of evolutionary trial and error (or perhaps divine intent) on this planet.  Our own human cleverness isn’t working so well and seems to have gotten us into quite a mess.  Maybe we can learn something by listening to Mother Nature!

How do you live by these three ecological rules?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

On creativity and the sources of “new ideas”

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A few years ago, I ran a cross a little book called The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward DeBono.  I’d like to share some of Professor DeBono’s thinking on creativity and the sources of “new ideas.”

DeBono was a Maltese educator and thinker.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and has had faculty appointments at Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge. He has consulted for academic institutions, governments, and corporations worldwide on educational theory and learning.  He has written 25 books on cognition, which have been translated 20 languages.

DeBono is given credit for the concept of lateral thinking, a tool used to create fresh ideas.  He claims that most ideas come from vertical or logical thinking, which may produce “an answer” but is likely to be inadequate in the face of new and complex “real world” problems.  Really fresh “new ideas” won’t emerge from logical thinking.

DeBono uses the image of digging holes to describe the quest for new ideas.  He says you can’t find the answers to new problems by using old ideas. Sometimes you have to dig in a new place.

DeBono writes:

“It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

If we need new and creative solutions to emerging real world problems, it is unlikely that we will find them in our text books, classrooms, libraries, or even the scientific journal articles….. the ideas that we have “dug out of the old holes.”  An example of a new idea is the “communiversity” that I wrote about some years ago, and turned out to be just another new hole that was ignored by the university.  So why are new ideas so difficult to take seriously?

DeBono writes,

“…it is easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place.”

University research and education programs are really good at digging in places that have proved successful in the past.  Institutions are designed to be conservative and giving up the old holes is difficult.  DeBono continues…

“The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of effort that has already gone into the hole. It is far easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do.”

DeBono says that it is easier to follow along the path of current understanding, present knowledge, old ideas when he writes….

“…no sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direction, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction, than to change your thinking.”

DeBono paints the unglamourous picture of scientists digging away at old holes, exploring old ideas, when he writes…

“by far the greatest amount of scientific effort is directed towards the logical enlargement of some accepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one.”

DeBono explains that the process of education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their teachers, supervisors, or elders.  And enlarging the hole that has already been started, offers an opportunity for progress and the promise of rapid advancement within the academy.

Our education and evaluation systems encourage us to jump down into the hole with our teachers (the experts) and dig along side of them. This is how we achieve recognition and advancement, we join the experts.

DeBono offers the following observation about experts:

“An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else.”

and

“Experts are usually to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes.”

In our university system diggers are rewarded, even if they are at the bottom of out-dated holes, ones that were appropriate last year, or the last decade.

If college and university educators are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, we’ve got to climb out of the old holes and have a look around.   DeBono encourages us to dig new holes in more original places. He says we never will see a better hole from the bottom of the one we are currently in.

New ideas abound, but we  will need to look outside of our own professional organizations, our own academic departments, our university culture to see them.

We need to broaden our horizons, first by listening more carefully to what our students are talking about and then perhaps by reading an internet newspaper, or create a customized RSS feed for those topics that interest you.  If you are new to this, perhaps just follow World.edu on Twitter, or “like” us on Facebook.  We all need to open ourselves to creative thought from many places if we want to be relevant in the future.

The social networking world seems intimidating (and foolish) at times, but it can really open our eyes if we are willing to wade in!   I believe this web portal is a wonderful way for global educators to stay linked to some of the freshest new ideas in sustainability and higher education.  I called for such linkage when I first wrote about the communiversity in 1997.  The updated version of my essay adds some specifics about the technologies predicted in the late 90’s.  But its not too late!  Why not “get linked?”

Sign up for the World.edu newsletter to get started!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

What can you say to people who don’t want to talk about sustainability?

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Most of my blog posts on World.edu have focused on sustainable agriculture, but lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of sustainability in general.  Last week I wrote about how to talk about sustainability with friends and family.  I stated that it is difficult to convince someone who just isn’t interested in thinking about sustainability to change their behavior.

Personally this doesn’t bother me, as I find myself busy enough working with people who are ready to try to change their lives to be more sustainable.  I choose not to worry about people who “just don’t get it.” Nevertheless, some of my students continue to ask me…..

“…what can we do about them?

For an answer, I return to the iceberg model from an earlier post.  Remember, mental models influence social structures, and societal and personal behavior.


When we take the iceberg model and rearrange the components into a causal loop diagram, we can see why it is so difficult to change behavior. In this model, non-sustainable events, patterns, structures and mental models are all part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When we look for the cause of the loop, it is like asking which comes first – the chicken or the egg.  None and all of the components in the loop are cause and effect. They cause each other.  This is how reinforcing feedback loops work – like an addiction.

When we realize that our behavior is not in our best interest  – and we still don’t change that behavior – we are caught in an addiction cycle. A systems thinker might describe it like this;

  • as non-sustainable actions increase, non-sustainable patterns increase, and….
  • as non-sustainable patterns increase, non-sustainable structures increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable structures increase, non-sustainable mental models increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable mental models increase…..
  • the cycle goes on and on……

An addiction cycle is difficult to stop….. but it can be turned around!

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Lets look at what happens in addiction cycles….

When a person or society is caught in an addiction cycle, something bad always happens.  We’ll call it “something to learn. For someone addicted to substances, something to learn is often a very painful physical and emotional “bottom.”  For someone with a spending habit, something to learn might be maxing out a credit card.  For a society that is living or spending beyond its capacity, something to learn might be a financial crisis (sound familiar?).

In any case, “something to learn” is usually painful and confusing.  The good news is that pain can be a catalyst for changing our mental models…. in fact, a new vision only begins to make sense when it becomes clear that the old way of thinking is no longer working.

For someone who “just doesn’t get it” the pain-induced new vision (mental model) can begin to turn things around!

A new way of thinking might result in a person (or a society) trying something different….. like more responsible or sustainable behaviors…… and then the reinforcing feedback loop can take over – and watch out! Things that seemed impossible before can change fast as sustainable actions result in sustainable patterns, and new systemic structures.

For those of us already awake to our non-sustainable situation, I believe we have a responsibility to take action NOW.  For those who are not yet ready, pain will eventually help them wake up.  But I can’t spend a lot of energy talking to people who are not yet ready to change…. I’ve got too much work to do.  I believe that we are already well into the Great Turning (that is the inevitable  transition from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society) and this is really exciting work.

Lets see….

THE GREAT TURNING HAS ALREADY BEGUN!

You are invited to join the Great Turning. We can begin now…  or we can wait.  Either way, we are guaranteed that “something to learn” will eventually convince us all to think and act in a more sustainable manner.  The longer we wait – the more pain we will experience.

So “what can we do about them?” If we are talking with people in which we already have a trusting relationship, we can speak from the heart as I described in an earlier post.  For the others……  well, I’ve got too much work to do to worry about that….

What about you?  Do you want to join the Great Turning?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.