Friday, January 23, 2009

Deep Ecology Champion Arne Naess Passes

Amidst the euphoria swirling around this historic inauguration was the passing of Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, on January 13. Perhaps best known for coining the term “Deep Ecology,” Naess was one of Europe’s most well respected and prolific philosophers of the 20th century. His writings and lectures spanned Spinoza, the nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi, and 20th century environmentalism.

I cross country skied with Naess when he was in his mid-80s. On a sunny spring day, we strided and poled three or four miles to the Peter Grubb Hut at the base of Castle Peak, not far from Donner Pass. We stopped occasionally to take in the sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada, and Naess fanatically checked his pulse. At the hut, he insisted on shadow boxing and fooling around with my friend, the outstanding Norwegian skier, Jon Erik Brondmo, and me. In addition to his childlike high energy, I had this feeling that Arne had a special lens onto the world, that he was sensing and relishing in layers of aliveness that the average person could not see or experience.

Perhaps this is what helped him to discern the important differences between “Deep Ecology,” which addresses the root causes of biodiversity loss, and “Shallow Ecology,” that attempts to remediate environmental problems with end-of-pipe fixes. Naess very clearly stated his concerns about the growing human population, the rise of affluence and technology, and the reverence for all of the earth’s species. Among his more notable quotes, I remember him saying that he was a pessimist for the 21st century but an optimist for the 23rd century, when he envisioned that extreme changes in the human population, in ecological and social justice, and other developments would once again turn us toward a more harmonious way of life. But Naess believed in personal responsibility and urgency. “Every week counts. How terrible and shamefully bad conditions will be in the 21st century, or how far down we fall before we start on the way back up, depends on what YOU and others do today and tomorrow. There is not a single day to be lost. We need activism on a high level immediately.”

Below is the 8-Point Deep Ecology Platform drafted by Arne Naess and George Sessions:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life-forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

NY Times Obituary

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ripe for Change?

The American public’s demands for a radical new direction in the country’s food and farm policy are beginning to gain some rather serious volume. It’s a new year, a new administration is assembling, and the unrequited expectations of the last eight years are being vocalized: in key newspapers, on the blogosphere, among community organizers, and at dining tables around the country. We are experiencing a shift in the global gestalt, not only around the possibility and need for change, but in the places where such reforms have to start.

People want our unhealthy food and agriculture system made healthy. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be giving up any time soon.

At the Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008, the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture was unveiled, an eloquent call and 12-point checklist for a 21st century approach to food and farm policy. Thousands of people signed on immediately. And the declaration is gathering steam as it makes its way around the country.

In December, the Iowa-based group Food Democracy Now drafted a letter to the Obama Transition Team recommending potential candidates for the vacant Secretary of Agriculture position. Within a week, that letter gained over 60,000 signatures. A core group of sustainable food advocates talked with the Obama Transition Team to express the severity and urgency of a potential food system meltdown. But it remains to be seen if that testimony will actually be taken seriously by the new administration, with former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as USDA chief. In the mean time, Kim Severson of the New York Times wrote a full-page article about the Food Democracy Now effort, which is well worth the read. Will the Obama’s till up a few acres of the White House’s precious lawn to plant a vegetable garden? It doesn’t seem that much to ask.

Journalist Christopher Cook—in a recent piece for the Christian Science Monitor—put forward a “nine-point platform for food reform.” He calls for the new administration to include food and agriculture projects in the forthcoming stimulus package, asking for “change we can eat.”

Just this week, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and our sustainability laureate, Wendell Berry, published an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for a Fifty-year Farm Bill. The United States, Jackson and Berry argue, must quickly move from highly erosive and toxic monocultures of corn and soybeans that blanket the country, to a more perennial landscape. That is, farming systems that maximize soil and water protection by providing as much permanent ground cover as possible. Jackson and Berry call for a two-pronged approach: transitioning back to hay, pasture, and grazing rotations that allow the “farming to fit the land”; and a revolution in perennial grains that could reduce the need for plowing, toxic pesticides, and heavy doses of fertilizers.

Because the Farm Bill is renewed every five to seven years, and because its billions of dollars in farm owner incentives actually determine many of the rules of our modern food system, federal policy can become both a driver and road map for that long term goal. In fact, using a fifty year Farm Bill plan, we could begin to plot out a half century of sustainable food policy. Instead of “Getting Big or Getting Out,”—the cold war-era blueprint for the past fifty years of agribusiness domination—we could “Go Perennial by the Next Centennial.”

My hope is that this surge in popular understanding of the importance of our food system to the very survivability of our society is not merely swept up in the winds of change blowing across Washington at this very moment. Rather, I hope these efforts are only the seeds of something much larger, a movement that will grow to millions of concerned citizens. Millions of citizens who may be willing to make small contributions to an organization dedicated to demonstrating the power of a new movement—civic agriculture. Maybe then the needs of the people and the land and the future will begin to take precedence over the greed and ambition of corporate agribusinesses now standing in the way of healthy food and agriculture.

These times are ripe for change.