Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Husbandry and Hope



Today, I'm officially joining some form of blogging unity. The good folks at Heifer International are holding a, "Unite for Hunger and Hope" blogging rally of sorts, and as a fan of their work, I thought I'd offer this morning's post for anybody reading.

If you don't know them, Heifer International paraphrases the old fishing and eating line, and gives folks goats, sheep, cattle, fowl, and quite possibly other domestic animals, as a means to help end poverty and hunger. The idea is that by providing animals that produce milk, eggs, etc., as well as training, they offer sustainable means to providing nutrition.

I created this blog to talk about the connections between folks and nature, and so I often find myself blogging about the effects of acquiring food, or the means. For me (and I'm sure most of you reading this), this is easy enough: we go to the store. But for one third of our world's folks, that just isn't possible. The World Health Organization estimates that over two billion people are starving today. Right now.

Please consider that.

Then, please consider heading over to one of these organizations (or Heifer International) to see if there is anything you can do:

Sportsmen Against Hunger (through SCI)
Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest)
UN World Food Program (to which a great, James Beard-nominated blogger donates an auction prize to each year)

Now, I do not personally endorse or work for any of these organizations, but they have decent track records, and seem to be really trying.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Great essay on stewardship vs. standards


For those who don't know me, let me explain that when I decide to take on a new hobby or endeavour, such as bowmaking or tying flies, I do a tremendous amount of reading before actually getting up the courage to buy something. In fact, I probably drive my wife to distraction and bore her to tears, following her around the house with a book, reading to her about the fascinating art and science of tillering, or some such thing.

So, when we decided to try raising ducks, I read as much as I could online and from the library before actually ordering ducklings. And, because our property is small and urban, I found myself at a number of sustainable-ag., Mother Earth or Bible-heavy places, from people who are trying in one small way or another to opt-out, and found very interesting reading from sincere people trying to better understand their relationships to the world and other folks. A bit preachy at times, but I don't mind that nearly as much as most others, I've found (religious studies student that I am), and I think the admonition to allow free speech extends beyond the mere libertarian notion to leave other people alone.

It was great, then, to stumble upon an essay on stewardship by David Walbert who runs a website called the New Agrarian. He hasn't posted a blog entry since January, but the essay is well-wrought and bears some reading.

Now, I would try to explain his point, but I think he does so in a very concise manner here:

"Organic agriculture now seems in danger of forsaking stewardship for mere management. That, ultimately, is the goal of the National Organic Standards — to codify the practice of “organic” agriculture and reduce it to a set of principles for managing the land. I am not going to criticize the organic standards as standards; that is, I am not going to quibble about whether a better set of standards could have been written. They represent a significant improvement over most agriculture in the United States, and our national agriculture would surely be improved if every farmer adopted them. Organic standards are a great step forward in farm management. But they are not, and cannot be, a guide to farm stewardship — at least not on their own.

The problem, I think, is in the very idea of standards. The purpose of standards, ultimately, is to do away with individualization, with variation, with diversity — to standardize. And I do not believe that farming, or food, should be standardized. Standardization is the cause of most of the problems organic farming was meant to solve or avoid: lifeless food, distant producers and consumers, farm consolidation and rural depopulation. What we need, in American agriculture and American society, is not more standards, not better management. We need more stewardship..."

"Or consider the uses of “stewardship” in the Bible, which is, in Western culture, the source of most of that word’s connotations. The original, literal meaning of a steward was one who took care of a household, and descriptions of good stewards appear throughout the Bible. A steward is more than a good manager; he is “faithful,” “wise,” a member of the household he stewards and a loyal servant to his master, with a personal connection to both. Hence it is stewardship that becomes the model for the apostles’ relationship to God and to their church. They describe Christians as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4.1) and as “stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4.7). One could not sensibly be a manager of God’s grace and mysteries"

A very interesting author with a strong and nuanced understanding of these concepts.

If you get a chance, click on over there and read it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Carbon Emissions by Quintiles (warning, economics jargon!)

When it comes to emitting carbon, nobody beats the developed countries. Although on par with China's emissions as of now, the per capita comparison (~ 7 1/2 billion metric tons of CO2 divided by ~300,000,000 in the US; for China add one billion to the second number) is no comparison. And it can be argued that the vast, vast majority of China's emissions come only as a result of US emissions.

Now, let's drop a bomblet into population growth people's proper, organized, and simplistic worldview: The same countries with the highest per capita emissions are, with one exception, shrinking in population.

You see, with basic economic development (electrical & transportation infrastructure) and with women's education (even just finishing elementary education), population growth is curbed to nearly parity, and continues dropping with a country's improvements in quality of life and social safety nets. And this occurs almost without regard to social traditions and customs.

The real problem with carbon emissions is that we have based our transportation and mass-production infrastructures on one ingredient, petroleum. As people become more wealthy, they consume more petroleum-heavy stuff. In order to shift away from carbon emissions, we need to shift to alternative forms. This shift, as I see it, must include some way to ease the blow to folks who can't otherwise afford it, because transitions of this magnitude always move in fits and starts, and not smoothly.

That's where the title of this post comes in. I've been looking for data that separates carbon emissions into socioeconomic quintiles, or, fifths of the population separated by their relative wealth. All the data I'm finding right now are numbers like total carbon emissions for a country, or per capita carbon emissions, or, projected growth in carbon emissions based on previous years' growth (those can be thrown out the window this year). Even better would be to add in geographic location.

I know that wealthier people emit more carbon than poorer people, as a rule of consumption. What I am sick of hearing from wealthier people are admonitions that to save the planet "we" all need to stop having babies and use mass transit. Now, mass transit is important, but living close to where you work is better, so that little sleight-of-hand on the part of many wealthier folks to ignore the problem with housing says a lot. And the myth of a looming population boom is another illusion.

Again, the real problem is use of petroleum, that's it. And, without a doubt, rich people use far more petroleum than poor people (and tend to have more babies and use less mass transit, too). What I would like to see are data showing just how much more petroleum is consumed by people in the top 20% of income earners in the US, vs. the bottom 20%. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it's probably an order of magnitude greater at the top.

But, similar to rates of mass transit use by income level and birth rates by income level in the US, I have yet to find it...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Agrarianism and farm subsidies


Recently, I've become a farmer... not really, but I sure felt like it after buying a hay bale for my ducklings. Well, we've planted over 40 fruits and vegetables in our backyard this year, just to see how things work out, and with an initial goal of 1 full meal produced at our house per week once we get to harvesting and our ducks commence to layin'.

Of course, one could wax poetical-philosophical-religious-economical-environmental about all the benefits of gardening and animal husbandry. Of those who do it well, I recommend Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, and that fella from Polyface Farms. And though I love that stuff, lately I've found myself reading much more practical writings, most of it published over at Storey.

I will say that kids (and adults!) should raise animals at some point in life, and if at all possible (as I've just learned), raise both for happiness (like a dog) and for food-production or some other practical benefit (like guard duty or hunting). Your responsibilities and relationships are subtly different, but both are valuable.

Now, on to the political sphere, just to make an observation. When Obama first picked Gov. Vilsack to run the USDA, I was more than a little bummed. In my opinion, the biggest improvements in habitat and climate change are going to have to take place around food. Production, transportation, and processing use up tremendous amounts of energy, and the types of foods and our reliance on a mass-production system is seeming to come up against some pretty heavy laws of nature, especially around plant types and nitrogen from petroleum. Also, as Pollan pointed out in Omnivore's Dilemma, it is pretty hard to keep a 6-12% annual return to shareholders if people only eat around 2,000 Calories and our population remains static.

However, when I learned of the Administration's proposal to cut subsidies to large farms, I was overjoyed, and in theory, this could be an idea to be embraced by conservative and liberal alike. Unfortunately, they have backpeddled some from the initial statement by Obama to, "end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them." Nevertheless, for Secretary Vilsack to back some kind of reform here is a huge deal.

And the pictures? At the top is our garden twenty-six days ago, and here it is now...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A new direction

For those of you who occasionally stop by to see if I'd posted anything, thank you. And, I will continue to post items up here, but in my blogging experiments, I realize that many of the topics I try to cover here tend to be big and heavy, if not for the format, then quite possibly for me.

However, I've been tossing about an idea in my head for a few months, one I believe lends itself more easily to blogging. This idea first occurred to me as a joke, one I pondered while hunting a local haunt, but it soon morphed into something that I feel I can work with.

So, if you get a chance and seem interested, check out my new blog, Lands on the Margin.

You see, I don't come from the same outdoors tradition common to many folks in the outdoors media. Growing up, I never hunted preserves or paid for a fishing guide. We didn't know how to do it, and we didn't have the money for both travel and guide services (plus tips, I'm guessing). We camped in Yosemite National Park exactly one time.

Where I developed my passion for the outdoors was in those lands where access was free or very cheap, and often fairly close. We fished a local county park for bluegill, crappie and bass. We hunted a friend's property, or we drove up and combined our vacations into camping, fishing and hunting trips in the National Forest or BLM lands. We went spotlighting (not jacklighting) at night along county roads looking for interesting animals.

On these marginal lands we saw beautiful and rare species, amazing displays and behaviors, and other people, too. We met others like us who appreciated these spaces. Personally, I developed a patriotism that includes, as a right, access to free and public lands.

We also saw terrible degradation from people who cared nothing for the great responsibilities that come from such a right. Refrigerators, ovens, the carcasses from burned-out cars, and worse, tossed in these places because somebody didn't want to pay the $10 at the county dump.

Like I said, the idea to write about these lands started as a joke in my head: Answering the question I posed to myself about how I can uniquely and substantially contribute to a community I love. I thought, "Well, as a young-ish white man from the countryside, the only unique perspective I can bring is a conversation about hunting on marginal lands." Our marginal lands are used and abused, in good ways and in bad, yet they have no voice. Over time, I started to realize that, in fact, I might be able to provide a place for information about these lands, the opportunities they provide and the threats they face.

So that is what I will do. Please head on over there if you get a minute, and offer some advice or perspective or your experiences in these strange and interesting places. I'd really appreciate the help and ideas.

The other day, I went fishing at the Barge Canal in West Sacramento. There, I saw some teenage boys, some fishing, and some just goofing off. As I was leaving, I realized that I was seeing some form of me a few years back. One guy hissed at another, "stop throwing stuff in the water, you'll scare the fish!" That would have been me. I passed some old carpet remnants that some idiot had left, and an empty styrofoam container that previously held worms. I also watched a pair of wood ducks splash down, squealing with delight, and watched guys throw their garbage in their truck as they wolfed down some sandwiches before launching a boat for the evening. I passed a black bass on the heavy side of 3 lbs., spawning among the tules.

Yeah, I wanna write about this.