Earth Summit 2014

I’ve just learned about an online conference coming up in March, the Whole Earth Summit. There are 42 speakers from around the world. Among those I’m most excited about:

  • Vandana Shiva
  • Charles EisensteinFree
  • Bill McKibben
  • Anna Lappé
  • Joel Salatin
  • Terry Tempest Williams
  • Raj Patel
  • Starhawk
  • Susun Weed

It’s an online event, March 11-13, running from 4-10 p.m. each day (eastern time). I know I won’t be able to watch all of it, but I’m going to try to catch at least the speakers that most interest me, and I will walk on hot coals to hear Terry Tempest Williams.

You can register for the summit here, and it’s free! You will also get a preliminary schedule of events. A few speakers are yet to be announced (I am still hoping for Wendell Berry and Naomi Klein).

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A Splurge of Reading: Collective Nouns

AngelsFebruary was collective nouns month. Not for everyone, just for my book club—my very small book club of two people. This year my (book) friend Sheila and I have adopted a theme-a-month idea that we lifted from an old issue of BookWomen Magazine, published by the Minnesota Women’s Press. Each month has a theme. January was water (I read The Body is Water, by Julie Schumacher, a book I’ve had on my shelf for more than a decade and I thought it was okay; Sheila read The Seduction of Water, by Carol Goodman, which she liked but didn’t love). I also read a whole bunch of poetry books with watery things in the title (e.g., river, lake, sea, estuaries, rain).

The thing that I like about having a theme like this is it gets me out of my ruts. I can get into years-long ruts. For several years I read only women authors, but that was not a rut as much as making up for lost time. But still I go through phases that limit how I pick my books. Most recently (last two years) I’ve been on a food-reading kick. Cooking memoirs, food-based fiction, local eating, local food, food issues, seed saving, GMOs, pretty much all things food.

So having this theme-a-month thing makes me look at my books in a new way. And sometimes it makes me learn things. Like, for example, what collective nouns are. This was not a term I was familiar with when we adopted the list. My first thought was that I would read a book I started years ago (that I put down for some reason and yet it still calls to me, or it wouldn’t have been top-of-mind here), Glass, Paper, Beans. I thought that title comprised a most excellent collective noun (three of them in fact). But I was wrong. Collective nouns are much more fun. For example:

  • A murder of crowscrows
  • An unkindness of ravens
  • A shush of librarians
  • A mischief of mice

Sheila and I are not always reading the same book for the monthly theme—sometimes yes and sometimes no. We did read The Kitchen Congregation this month for the collective noun theme, and it generated some good discussion. I decided to continue down the collective noun road and what should I find on my fiction shelf but An Exaltation of Larks! It doesn’t really get much better than that in book-theme obsessions.

Compendium NounI am planning to end the month with A Compendium of Collective Nouns (“compendium” itself being a collective noun). This was a gift from my spouse at the very beginning of the month. (“It’s a sign,” he said. “You have to have it.”) I thought it a bit frivolous, but I could not refuse. And I have had so much enjoyment with this book, have learned so many things, and have absolutely loved the artwork—many gorgeous full-page depictions of collective nouns (a comfort of cats, a dazzle of zebras, a clan of meerkats, a host of angels—I haven’t counted, but there must be at least 50). It is a book I will treasure for years.

Next month, we are on to modes of transportation. The one book I know I want to read for sure is John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers. And Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith (our joint transportation read). But other than that, it’s up in the air.

Sacred Economics 3: Solutions

Sacred Economics picI have just finished Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and I am starting to change—at least a little bit—the way I think about money and the economy. And I’m changing my behavior: I’m starting to do much more on a cash basis. I track it just like I did my debit card, but I find I am spending less. I am much more stingy with cash than credit (or debit). I seem to think about it more when I’m paying cash. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve read studies that say people tend to spend less when they use cash than credit, even when their income stays the same.

Eisenstein has seven policies or strategies that he believes will move us toward an economic system that values nature and people over money and the accumulation of wealth. I will be giving them very short shrift here—after all, he has devoted nearly 500 pages to this analysis, so if any of these approaches interest you at all, I strongly encourage you to pick up the book. You don’t even have to pay for it—in the spirit of the gift economy, Eisenstein is making his book available online at no cost. Here are the seven policies/pillars/strategies, and a comment or two about each:

Negative-interest currency. This is the one I have the hardest time getting my arms around, but apparently it’s not as wacky as it sounds, as the Fed has written at least one paper about it and Sweden has implemented it. The purpose of negative interest is to keep money circulating and to discourage its hoarding. Negative interest rates have been used primarily as a temporary measure to force banks to lend money rather than sit on it. This also makes a steady-state economy acceptable, whereas an interest-based economy needs to keep growing or it will implode (another thing I have a hard time getting my arms around).

Elimination of economic rents, and compensation for depletion of the commons. This shifts the tax burden away from labor and toward property owners. In this way, private interests can only profit by using a property well and improving it, and not by merely owning (or destroying) it. Also, shifting taxes onto property and resources will reduce or eliminate sales and income taxes and create a strong economic incentive for conservation.

Internalization of social and environmental costs. Currently, society pays mostEconomy Ecology of the costs of pollution and environmental damage. These costs are referred to as externalities (external to the company, that is; not external to taxpayers or the environment). Internalizing these costs to the companies themselves will end the opposition between ecology and the economy. “With economic disincentives for cheap, throwaway goods, manufactured items will become more expensive, more durable, and more repairable. We will care about our things more, maintain them and keep them.” Wouldn’t it be great to move away from our throwaway culture?

Economic and monetary localization. Hidden subsidies and decades of policy (NAFTA, anyone?) have pushed many things that can and should be local into the global commodity economy. This puts local regions into competition with each other, resulting in a “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental quality. Not everything will be local in our more localized economies, but we’ll probably stop importing honey and apple juice from China.

The social dividend. This is basically a return to every individual for use of the commons—physical, social, and intellectual. The dividend will come from the pollution taxes and payments for the use of our commons.

The social dividend would ideally provide the bare amount to cover life’s necessities; beyond that, people could still choose to earn their own money. It frees work from the pressure of necessity; people would work because they want to, not because they have to…. The point of economic life…will no longer be to “make a living.” Freed of that pressure, we will turn our gifts toward that which inspires us.

plantEconomic degrowth. It is time to stop growing. It is time for stability, or perhaps even some economic shrinking. With all the labor-saving devices we’ve invented, we have consistently chosen to consume more rather than work less. Now it is time to consume less. Everyone seems to think this is so scary, but I think it provides wonderful opportunity and happiness quotients will soar. “People will spend more and more of their time in noneconomic activities as the money realm shrinks and the realm of gifts, voluntarism, leisure, and the unquantifiable grows…. People will also share more and consume less, borrow more and rent less, give more and sell less—all reflecting and engendering economic degrowth.”

Gift culture and peer-to-peer economics. Shoveling your neighbor’s walk. Giving an extra potato masher to a friend that needs one. Carpooling to the grocery store, sharing a lawnmower, watching the neighbor’s kids. More needs will be met without money. We are seeing a huge growth in peer-to-peer economics already, through the Internet: Craigslist and freecycle come to mind.

I have shortchanged every single one of these ideas. It may seem pie-in-the-sky to you, but some of these practices are already taking root. Look at Wikipedia. Farmers’ markets. Co-ops and credit unions. Community gardens. Car-sharing programs.

Enough, anyway, that it just seems possible.

The Importance of the Commons

In an earlier post, Sacred Economics 2, I alluded to the commons. The commons refers to things we hold in common—things that belong (or should) to all of us. Many are nature-based: the oceans, rivers, air, and our topsoil, but public spaces and language are also examples of commons. According to On the Commons, “The commons is the essential form of wealth that we inherit or create together, and which must be shared in a sustainable and equitable way. Ranging from water to biodiversity to the Internet…the commons provides the foundation of our social, cultural, and economic life.”

Our Common Wealth bkThe reference to the commons in Sacred Economics made me pick up Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, by Jonathan Rowe (his is a site well worth checking out—tons of interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking articles). I highly recommend this short book (123 pages) that so explicitly and clearly focuses on our commons. He refers to the commons as “the economic realm that promotes relationships rather than stuff.” And he was hopeful (he died in 2011): He cites examples of people working to resurrect and reclaim various kinds of commons as a growing trend:

Consider the World Wide Web, where people connect and share with a minimum of market-imposed restrictions. Social networks facilitate communication among friends. Creative Commons licenses allow creators to distribute music, photos, and other works without legal rigmarole. General Public Licenses keep open source software available to everyone. And of course there’s Wikipedia, the largest compendium of human knowledge ever assembled.

He also references the resurgence of commons in the food sector. For example, farmers’ markets have increased by 364% since 1994, and they continue to grow. From 2010 to 2013, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. increased 33%. That is not small potatoes! Farmers’ markets are rich on many levels:

They are about local food and the opportunity to deal directly with the people who produce it. They also are about the festive sociability of the market itself. People go to partake of the bustle and good spirits, something that doesn’t much happen at Safeway or even Whole Foods. 

Farmers marketCommunity gardens are another example of a growing commons that enriches a large swath of life.

Would it surprise you to know this is all coming from a conservative? It shouldn’t. At least if you think about the old-fashioned conservative. My dad was a conservative (I am more on the other end of the spectrum) but we often were able to find common ground. I know it exists, I constantly seek it out, and I love when I find it. Rowe:

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it. 

Conservatism is, or at least used to be, a way of thinking about society as a whole and the qualities that help maintain it…. This view of society has large implications. For one thing, it means that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes…. For another, it means that humanity must take the long view.

And he echos a concern that I believe is felt by many conservatives:

In recent decades authentic conservatism—the kind that respects community, locality, tradition, and virtue—has been displaced by a phony kind that is politically expedient and cynical to the core. It channels the conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues—abortion, gays, school prayer—that pose no threat to the bankrollers of either party…. 

What this phony “movement” really professes is not conservatism but the opposite—a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it.

This reminds me so much of my dad. He drummed “buy local” into me decades ago. And I will say he was also big on community, tradition, and virtue. And we found a lot of common ground through those values. Sigh. I miss my dad.

Rowe is not anti-market and has no pretensions to getting rid of it or having the economy run on commons principles. “The two realms are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.” The view of the market will always be the short term, and the view of the commons is by necessity long term. In the last several decades, the market has grown while the commons have shrunk. Now it is time for the protected commons to be enlarged.

“It does what the market can’t do, and that is what nowadays most needs to be done.”

North Shore

The Lure of the Library

Library cardI recently had lunch with my sister-in-law (who was also my best friend in high school) and I told her (rather proudly) that I had gotten my library card renewed. She looked at me somewhat aghast. She knows I love books and could hardly believe I had let my library card get out of date.

And three days later I had lunch with my friend Kathleen, and when I told her I renewed my library card, she looked at me in shock and said, “You’re going to get books from the library? Really? Wow. You? You’re going to the library?”

I am a reader. I love libraries—the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. And of course I love books. I often possess my books: I underline, star, bracket, argue, and write my thoughts in the margins. And some books that I think I will refer back to frequently, I index.

All of this possession is not acceptable in library books. (People still do, but not often. I did appreciate that someone corrected a word in a recipe in a memoir I read recently.) But yet and still, I will occasionally circle the typo that I run across (lightly, and in pencil). Why? Because I value accuracy and I value proofreaders. And if someone else chances on this text and notices the error, they might notice the ever-so-light indication that someone else has visited this space and noticed the same indiscretion.

library

But I have renewed my library card, and I am using it! First for Kitchen Congregationa book recommended by a friend that I was having a hard time finding; and then for an herb book I wanted to check out before buying.

MaupinAnd then I found out Armistead Maupin has a new book out (The Days of Anna Madrigal). I love this series and have read the first six books at least three times, and have loved the additions over the years. But I’m pulling in my spending horns and this is only out in hardcover. As a book lover on a budget, I decided to get it from the library (I am currently #54 so I will maybe get it in a week or two) and then buy it when it comes out in paperback. A bonus is that the paperback will match the rest of my Tales of the City books. (Well, it won’t match exactly, because I have some of the earliest versions of the books, but it will be in the spirit.)

And yet another book, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can Eat, caught my attention when it was published in hardcover. I decided to wait and buy it in paperback (because I always bought my books). And now it is out in paperback, and I am thinking I’ve never read this author (Edward Kelsey Moore) and so maybe I should get this book from the library too. And it is now in transit.

And I’ve remembered I can get videos, so now I’m on the waiting list for the first season of Sherlock. I can see going on rolls of Katherine Hepburn or Nicole Kidman or Alfred Hitchcock down the road.

I’ve found a lot more than books since I got reacquainted with my library—including tax forms (federal and state and the most common schedules). And I’ve hardly explored it at all!

I will probably continue to buy nonfiction books that I want to argue with, underline, and index. But I’m pretty sure the library is back in my life to stay, and I won’t be a bit surprised if it starts making inroads in my nonfiction reading as well.

The Warmth of Other Suns

Warmth of sunsI was familiar with the concept of the Great Migration (the movement of African Americans from the South to the North throughout much of the 1900s), but I didn’t know much about the particulars until I picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s most excellent book, The Warmth of Other Suns. All in all, about 6 million blacks left the South in the Great Migration—spanning from about 1915 to 1970. They left the South for nearly every corner of the United States (and perhaps beyond). The migration didn’t end until the 1970s. By then nearly half of the country’s African Americans lived outside the South. Prior to the migration, 90% of blacks resided in the South.

In 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave who had a job making coffins for victims of lynching, led 6,000 ex-slaves to Kansas after years of far-too-steady work. A steady trickle continued over the next decades. “The trickle became a stream after Jim Crow laws closed in on blacks in the South in the 1890s.” But the precipitating event that triggered seriously large numbers of migrants was World War I:

[T]he masses did not pour out of the South until they had something to go to. They got their chance when the North began courting them, hard and in secret, in the face of southern hostility, during the labor crisis of World War I. Word had spread like wildfire that the North was finally “opening up.”

More than half a million blacks left the South during the decade of World War I. At firstTangerines the South didn’t seem to care. But when the fields were increasingly empty, they began to panic. There was a huge labor shortage what with so many white men gone to war, and they were increasingly dependent on black people who were increasingly moving north. I often forget that Florida is also part of the deep South, but I have learned that all those oranges, those grapefruit, and those most-difficult-to-pick tangerines, were picked by black people. And with a labor shortage, the whites in charge were desperate:

From the panhandle to the Everglades, Florida authorities were now arresting colored men off the street and in their homes if they were caught not working. Charged with vagrancy, the men were assessed fines of several weeks’ pay and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane to work off the debt if they did not have the money, which few of them did as the authorities fully anticipated. Those captured were hauled to remote plantations or turpentine camps, held by force, and beaten or shot if they tried to escape. 

As you might expect, this made anyplace-but-the-South look increasingly attractive. As blacks continued leaving after the war, some states tried a different tack:

In the 1920s, the Tennessee Association of Commerce, the Department of Immigration of Louisiana, the Mississippi Welfare League, and the Southern Alluvial Land Association all sent representatives north to try to bring colored workers back. They offered free train tickets and promised better wages and living conditions. They returned empty handed.

I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown….
I was taking a part of the South
To transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom.

–Richard Wright

Sacred Economics 2: Externalities

Sacred Economics picMoving into the solutions aspect of Sacred Economics, one step Eisenstein suggests for a more sustainable economy is to eliminate externalities from the equation. Externalities are costs of production that someone else pays. Usually we the people. One of the most common examples of an externality is pollution. Here in the U.S. we are importing a lot of really cheap clothes from overseas. The cost of these clothes does not include the pollution emitted by the factories producing these clothes under much looser air and water standards than exist in the United States. But wind will blow, and the pollution isn’t confined to China and Bangladesh, and we all wind up paying those costs (including the people in China and Bangladesh).

When Wal-Mart moves into a town and everyone goes there to shop because they have cheaper everything, the mom-and-pop stores that close are externalities. When the Wal-Mart employees sign up for food stamps and Medicaid because they have part-time jobs that don’t support them (perhaps they used to work at the True Value Hardware in town), that’s an externality. The loss of a vibrant main street because both the True Value Hardware and the Coast-to-Coast have closed is an externality.

water pollutionBut the environment is the biggest externality: our polluted oceans, removed mountaintops, declining water tables, eroded topsoil, and climate change in general. (Some would disagree and say the biggest externality is our health and I could not argue that, though I would certainly appreciate the discussion.)

There are some companies out there who are concerned about these issues as well, and they have enacted a “triple bottom line” (aka “full-cost accounting”). They address three bottom lines: people, planet, profit. This makes good sense: If there are no more people, or if the planet implodes, there will be no profits anyway. But still, most companies focus only on profits—short-term profits—regardless of long-term impact.

Eisenstein suggests:

[W]hen the costs of pollution are internalized, the best business decision comes into alignment with the best environmental decision. Suppose you are an inventor and you come up with a great idea for a factory to cut pollution by 90 percent with no loss of productivity. Today, that factory has no incentive to implement your idea because it doesn’t pay the costs of that pollution. If, however, the cost of pollution were internalized, your invention would be a hot item. A whole new set of economic incentives emerges from the internalization of costs.

I like it. I’m tired of living in a world where everything has a price and everything can be exploited.

Valuing the forest as a forest, the oil left in the ground, the sand left to be a water filter instead of fracking material: Yes, I will pay more for that.