Restoring Value to the Food We Eat

July 9, 2019

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (Island Press, 2019)

Bob Quinn is a third-generation wheat farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, about eighty miles northeast of Great Falls. He earned a PhD in plant biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, became a leader in the organic food movement, developed a group of closely inter-connected food-related businesses, created an ancient-grain business, and sponsored Montana’s first wind farm.

Early in the book he states his premise, that “economics is not just about what happens in faraway boardrooms or on the floor of the stock market. The real measures of economic health are in the fundamental goods that not only make our lives possible but also make them worth living: thriving communities, meaningful work, healthy land. At the center of this fundamental economy are our staple foods, our daily bread. If we hope to recover honest value in American society, we must redeem the original commodity, wheat” (p. 11).

Late in the book Quinn restates his thesis: “a regenerative organic food and agriculture system is the only way out of the chronic disease problems plaguing this country.” The reform he describes “could dramatically reduce the incidence of four of the top seven causes of death in the United States, lift thousands of Americans out of poverty, and fight climate change—all the while slowing the growth of marine dead zones and reversing pollinator decline” (p. 219).

Quinn is committed to the health and vitality of rural communities such as Big Sandy which in the early 1960s, when he was growing up, was a vibrant community with a population of nearly 1,000. It was, he writes, “a hub of activity” with many of the business and community institutions that people needed for their normal activities and services (p. 16). He shows how new chemically-dependent farming policies and practices have made it difficult for such communities to survive. One of his purposes as farmer, business and community leader, and author is to restore vitality to rural communities all over the country, and especially in places like central Montana.

While doing undergraduate studies in botany at Montana State University in Bozeman, he was introduced to ecology as an area of growing importance. During his graduate studies he deepened his knowledge of plant science and also learned major ideas and values of the way of farming that predated the industrialized agriculture introduced following World War II, and that his own family had practiced for many years.

When he decided to return to Montana and farming, Quinn came to understand that farmers like his father were caught in the changes that came about because what they raised—mostly wheat—had become standardized commodities rather than food. Increasing the volume of grain they could raise by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, became their goal. The nutritional quality of what they raised lost importance and actually declined. Political objectives and economic policies were intended to reduce rural populations significantly, and the new farming methods impoverished the people so they fled—as had happened in Big Sandy.

As Quinn began his own farming career, he found his father to be simultaneously colleague and debate partner. Their debates helped both men understand what was happening and encouraged them to resist the new agriculture and seek to develop ways of farming that were adapted to their climate, soil, plants, and livestock and could thrive under those conditions.

Quinn established relationships with several farm-related organizations and became increasingly committed to values promulgated by the organic food movement, inspired by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. In order to advance and protect organic farming on the scale required by wheat growers like himself, he became politically active, shaping legislation that would define and protect the kind of farming and food that he believed in.

Along the way, Quinn began studying the energy inputs needed to grow food, comparing them with the energy outputs of the crops they raised. As a result, he found a plant adapted to his climate and soil that he could grow and turn into biofuel that would reduce these fuel imputs. Realizing that wind farms would work wonderfully well where he lived, he created necessary legislation and business leadership to establish such farms in his wind-swept part of the world.

When he was in high school (1964), someone at the county fair gave Quinn a few grains of kamut, an ancient wheat. Years later, when he was well established in his main career, he explored the origin and properties of this wheat. Discovering that it possessed highly desirable properties that had disappeared from commodity wheat, he developed seed stock and networks of farmers to produce it on a large scale. He also developed business relationships to market it around the world (one of which is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods of Milwaukie, Oregon, whose products, including this wheat, I can buy three blocks from my home in downtown Indianapolis).

Grain by Grain is a personal story of one man’s career as farmer, environmentalist, community leader, and business leader. Quinn writes well, includes much factual material and ethical conviction, and commands the reader’s interest all along the way. The way of life for America’s farmers and food suppliers that he describes is radically different from patterns prevailing today.

Yet near the end of the book he gives a reason why we can believe that Americans may rise up to reverse what he describes as the plundering of the American people by corporate powers. “As value subtraction comes home to roost in our bodies, it may be that concern for our health is what will finally motivate us all to do something about it” (224). In the final six pages of the book he provides evidence that this transformation is now beginning to take place.

Liz Carlisle, who also grew up in Montana, is a lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. In the book’s prologue she describes how she became acquainted with Quinn and his work and offered to help him write a book about what he was doing. She helped him with some of the research and writing but left “her first-person voice aside” so that readers would “get to know this green economy cowboy” for themselves (xvi).


Coming of Age at the End of Nature

February 28, 2019

Reviewing Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Julie Dunlop and Susan A. Cohen; Foreword by Bill McKibben (Trinity University Press, 2016)

As a man in his late late 80s, I had the good fortune of starting my life in a world that in retrospect seems to have been greener and happier—with salmon still swimming upstream in western rivers to spawn, Monarch butterflies migrating in vast numbers every season, and western forests free of bark beetles that infest and decimate. Forest fires of limited scope were part of the natural cycle that maintained the health of forests and the well-being of all creatures, including humankind, who depended upon them.

My grandchildren’s generation, now in their 30s, is living in a world that has suffered what may be irreversible change in the half century since I was their age. Any way we look at planet earth, we stare at sights we do not want to see.

In Coming of Age at the End of Nature, twenty-two members of this generation tell everyone who reads this collection of vividly-written essays what they see, feel, and want as they live their lives on a plant that has already changed and may continue to deteriorate during years to come.

Part I, “Living on Eaarth,” borrows the word coined by Bill McKibben in a book he published before some of the essayists were born. His point was that so many irreversible environmental changes had taken place that a whole new term needed to be used to name the place where we live. The essays in this part of the book are gritty accounts of disheartening experiences—working in Haiti, foraging for food on city streets and alleys, serving as a forest ranger who has to tell tourists that the vistas he shows them have been unchanged for a thousand years despite his knowledge that disease and terrible fires are moving irresistibly from one valley, over the ridge, to the next, in a process that seems unstoppable.

Part II, “Thinking Like a River,” adapts Aldo Leopold’s phrase, “thinking like a mountain,” to encourage “long-term, holistic ecosystem conservation” (p. xvi). One theme that comes into focus quickly is that we need to find new ways of understanding our place as human beings in the larger and more complex natural world. There is no way of restoring the world to the way that it used to be. Eucalyptus trees have adapted to the American Southwest to a remarkable degree, as though they had always been there. It doesn’t make sense to destroy them for the sake of restoring plants that originated in this part of the world.

There is no way to undo the destruction of indigenous peoples nor can all of us of European, Asian, and African descent be returned to the places where our species originated. The distinctions we make between ecology and culture, or nature and culture, are misleading.

Jason M. Brown, a native of Orange County, California, writes that ecology is not a place or a thing we have control over; “ecology is the space between things, including us” (p. 73). In the next essay, based on his experience living in Bangkok, Cameron Conaway writes that “so often we move through life without really being present where we are” (p. 76), and life becomes whole again when we become focused on the life we really are living.

Amy Coplan deplores the separations between ourselves and much of what we depend upon, the sources of our food for example. “Nature is not a wilderness ‘out there. Nature is embedded in everything we do. Nature is us, and we are nature” (p. 87).

Part III, “Mindful Monkeywrenching,” contains essays in which the writers “offer creative solutions to diverse problems, both personal and societal” (p. xvi). An example is Emily Schosid’s essay (next to the last in the book), “Could Mopping Save the Planet? How Day-to-Day Chores Can Bring Big changes.”

In the final essay, Danna Joy Staaf returns to the generational theme with which this review begins. Her essay, “True to Our Nature,” is a letter to her dear offspring. “One of you is two years old; the other of you is still whiling away the months in my womb.” In the first paragraph she talks about creativity, which is one of the foundational features of life, but then writes: “The flip side of life’s generative impulse is, of course, wanton destruction” (p. 208). She soon introduces a hopeful third feature: “Unlike the rest of creation, however, we have the urge to overcome our violent side” (p. 210).

Herein lies one reason why even old men like me have reason to hope. We can believe that the destructive aspects of life of Eaarth will be overcome by new processes of creativity coming to life in the generative still being born.


Climate of Hope

February 6, 2019

Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)

Carl Pope, long-time leader of the Sierra Club, and Michael Bloomberg,business leader and “unrepentant capitalist” begin this volume by acknowledging that they are an unlikely pair of collaborators in writing a book like this one. Despite their significantly different backgrounds, however, they are united in the conviction that it is possible to win the battle against climate change. As the book’s subtitle indicates, both men believe that cities, businesses, and citizens can take the lead in meeting the greatest challenge that has ever faced the world.

What brought them together were their parallel efforts to move beyond coal in generating the nation’s electricity. During Pope’s years leading the Sierra Club, this environmental organization responded aggressively to the George W. Bush administration’s proposal that it support the building of 150 new coal-fired power plants. Because of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, only 30 of the proposed plants were built.

In 2001, when Bloomberg became mayor of New York, this city, along with many others, was entering a new era of vitality and growth. Studying the dynamics of urban life, the new mayor identified four reasons why “cities are well-positioned to fight climate change: (1) because of the density of urban environments, the per capita carbon footprint is significantly lower than the nation’s average; (2) because cities are where the action is, they are “the primary drivers of climate change [and] must take the lead in tackling it;” (3) “mayors see fighting climate change as a spur to faster economic growth;” and (4) mayors “now realize that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change” (pp. 20-23). As mayor, Bloomberg inspired a coalition of New York businesses and institutions to take the lead in transforming their city.

Pope and Bloomberg are persuaded that “by changing the way we think and talk about climate change, we can lower the temperature of the debate—and accomplish a whole lot more. Cooler heads can produce a cooler world.” They also believe that the “changing climate should be seen as a series of discrete, manageable problems that can be attacked from all angles simultaneously. Each problem has a solution. And better still, each solution can make our society healthier and our economy stronger” (p. 3). Read More … Climate of Hope 2


For the dance of the future climate calls the tune

January 10, 2019

Responding to A Great Aridness: Climate and the Future of the American Southwest, by William deBuys (Oxford University Press, 2011)

 For seven years beginning in 1995, I lived in Sun City West near Phoenix and by bicycle explored much of Arizona’s Central Valley of the Sun and the canyon country north of the Mogollon Rim. In more recent years I have bicycled extensively through the “Sky Islands” east of Tucson and the border region near Sierra Vista, Bisbee, and Douglas. This desert wonderland fascinates and troubles me, which is why A Great Aridness, which I found in the Indianapolis Public Library was a book I had to read.

The jacket photo is arresting. Photos, graphs, and maps accompany the closely printed text of the book, which with notes and index, is 369 pages long. I agree with the publisher’s statement that deBuys writes “with an elegance that recalls the prose of John McPhee and Wallace Stegner [and] offers an unflinching look at the dramatic effects of climate change occurring right now in our own back yard.”

The author explains that the “book had started out, years ago, as a general environmental history of the Southwest, but environmental change intervened. The dynamics of the past never lost their fascination, but the galloping dynamics of the present overtook them, and I resolved to follow the action” (p. 317).

Each of the eleven chapters and the introduction is based on an event—a murder in 1919 at Cedar Springs in Navajo Country, a canoe trip over Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, and a drive along Highway 79 through the Sun Corridor from Tucson north to Florence Junction. The purpose of each chapter, however, is to discuss in considerable detail some aspect of the climate challenges now facing the Desert Southwest. The most frightening, especially given recent fires in California, is deBuys’ description of the Rodeo-Chediski Burn along the Mogollon Rim in 2002. He includes a persuasive explanation of the fact that our actions intended to improve an existing condition often make it more dangerous.

The author draws extensively upon his research into the history and climatic science related to the events and places that he describes. He deftly describes locations, such as the observatories on Mt. Graham and the steel beams and barbed wire fencing on the border near Apache Pass. Several chapters describe the author’s trips to these locations with people of expert knowledge, sometimes at considerable risk. Although the book bristles with information, ideas, and strongly stated opinions, it pulls readers along from beginning to end.

In coming years, deBuys writes, the Southwest will become hotter, drier, and more vulnerable. He offers three “big ideas”—no big thing happens for just one reason; the human contribution to change in the natural world more often catalyzes than dictates the outcome; and the enormity of the human capacity for adaptation (pp. 15-16).

The chapter on border crossings is especially pertinent, given current political debates in the United States. The border “is an inherently violent ‘structure’ [marking] one of the steepest sets of social and economic gradients on the planet: material wealth and a white-dominated society on one side, poverty and a brown-skinned world on the other. . .As long as they exist, there will always be a current between them, and people will move along that current, irrespective of the risks” (p. 222). deBuys describes the immense cost of building and maintaining these physical barriers, the serious environmental impacts associated with them, and persuasive evidence that they don’t work.

As climate change intensifies already serious problems, he writes, pressures along the border will intensify, raising questions similar to those debated seven and a half centuries ago at the Sand Canyon Pueblo: “do we find ways to accommodate the new waves of homeless, or do we fend them off? Lately the United States has pursued the latter strategy at exorbitant cost while distorting its legal traditions to an unprecedented degree. . . .“If the test of character for individuals is to remain true to their ideals even in times of trial, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that the same may be true for a nation” (p. 235).

In his concluding chapter, written at the Zuni Pueblo, deBuys discusses a report issued in 2008 by the London Geological Society, which suggests that we are entering a new geologic era—the Anthropocene—that is replacing the Holocene epoch that has endured since the melting of the last great ice age. In the earlier era, humans were able to alter ecosystems. What is happening now “is something new under the sun: a cumulative and determinative human effect on core planetary processes, primarily climate” (p. 306).

This book closes with sense of urgency. World civilization has to make dramatic changes if we and the world as we know it are to survive. “Taken together, the fateful combination of present inactivity, rising energy and resource consumption, and climatic vulnerability make it difficult to envision a safe landing for humankind. Still, we know where to begin if we would soften the crash” (p. 315).

Ancient societies were forced to “dance with the facts of place” and so must we, wherever we live. “Climate is not the only such fact, but it is central and implacable. It calls the tune” (p. 312).


Outrageous civil resistance, conducted with wit and civility

November 27, 2018

A response to Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben (Blue Rider Press, 2017)

In this, his seventeenth book on the environment, Bill McKibben adopts what is for him a new style of writing. He gives us a fable, a wild story of five people in Vermont who interrupt regular TV and radio broadcasts with their own outside-of-the-law, call-in talk show.

It happens in Vermont, during another winter without much snow. The story’s political climate is shaped by the Trump White House. The characters include a governor who is convinced that Vermont needs to go big time, one sign of which is a new stadium with retractable roof. For many in the business community, going big time means replacing local businesses with national chain stores and local craft beers with national brands.

Not so for Vern Barclay, who has spent much of his long life hosting talk shows on local radio. Sitting outside on a winter day that was too warm, he mused. “Goodness didn’t demand the one-way arrow toward Progress and More. It was, he thought, a blessing to have lived out his life in a place that spun slowly like that yellow leaf, an eddy in the American rapids, a place that was shrinking when most of the country was growing growing, ever-growing” (p. 78).

He partners with a young, slightly autistic techie and a life-long Vermont woman who teaches classes on how to live in Vermont to new-comers—mostly retired executives, lawyers, and academics who are choosing Vermont as the place where they could finish out their lives. They are joined by a young woman biathlete, an Olympic gold medalist whom Vern had coached. Before the story ends, Vern’s 96-year-old mother who lives in a nursing home is part of the team.

Their campaign’s edgy theme is that Vermont should withdraw from the Union and reestablish classic Vermont values and patterns of personal and community-based ways of life. Vern directs their efforts. Young Perry digs up information and uses his hi-tech skills to get them on the air and avoid being traced to their hide-away at Sylvia’s house. Trance, with her Olympic-based public persona, becomes the focal point of their climactic confrontation with Vermont’s law enforcement system and the F.B.I.

By story’s end, Vermonters all over the state are involved in the debate and, following Vern’s urging, are planning to discuss secession in the town meetings that soon will take place in communities—little and large—all across the state. While Vern continues to urge that the people renew their distinctive, localized, freedom-loving way of life, he edges away from his advocacy of secession. “He knew precisely how fallible he was—he sensed he was on the right path, he really did think the country was too big, out of control. But it was one thing to argue that, and another to act on it; and the pleasure he took made him all the more suspicious” (p. 169).

McKibben begins his two-page author’s note at book’s end by writing that an “advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end.” For this book, it is not that everyone should secede. “Instead, it’s that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster, and if we can do so without losing the civility that makes life enjoyable, then so much the better.”

As an example of how this idea plays out “in the age of Trump,” he cites the action on the first day of his presidency which “saw millions of (mostly) women in pink pussy hats on the street, followed in subsequent days by sights of conscientious Americans flocking to airports to protect immigrants, or thousands of New York bodega owners shuttering their shops for a day in protest of the new regime’s Muslim ban” (p. 219).

In his comment about the book published on the jacket, Bernie Sanders states two hopes: first, that no one secedes, but also “that Americans figure out creative ways to resist injustice and create communities where everybody counts.”

We’re enduring a period of harsh, angry confrontation that seems only to harden people in their positions, making it difficult for any kind of civil, sober discussion and development of new ways of responding to the crises that most people admit, at least privately, are sweeping the world. Pink pussy hats have been put away, the mid-term elections are past, and a different political mix is taking over in Washington and many other parts of the nation.

This is the time for serious conversation and prudent legislation in the real world. What will it take to make such talk possible? More episodes of creative civil resistance conducted with wit and civility might be one answer.


Fighting for a world with less oil and more honey!

November 9, 2018

Responding to Bill McKibben’s book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014)

In 1989, when he was still in his twenties, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature. It was his first book and the first of its kind, a book on climate change written for non-scientists. It was a best seller, translated “into a couple of dozen languages.” He continued to write, more books, magazine articles, op-eds, and blog posts, hoping that people would be persuaded about the climate dangers facing the world and change how they lived.

When changes did not occur even after twenty years had passed, Bill concluded that more direct action was necessary and that he had to take the lead. He gathered friends from across the country, consulted with experts on activism, and recruited students from the Vermont college where he taught.

Early in their consultations, they decided that the oil industry had to be their target and they focused attention upon a project that previously had been little known, a pipeline proposal called Keystone XL that was designed to transport almost a million gallons a day of oil pumped from tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Construction was underway and all that seemed still to be needed was approval from President Obama who had already given signs that he was likely to approve.

Bill and his collaborators formed an organization entitled 350.org. He cross-crossed the nation, making speeches to audiences that kept growing in number. He led protests, frequently being one of the people arrested. During this period of time, the nation was experiencing increasingly serious weather that seemed to confirm what Bill and other activists were saying, but even so there seemed to be little response from business or political leaders. Dangers because of human impacts upon climate continued to become more threatening.

At the same time that he was learning to be an activist in the campaign against big oil, Bill was becoming an activist of a radically different kind. He became friend and then business partner with Kirk Webster, a reclusive Vermont beekeeper who was developing what Bill describes as “a very different, very beautiful way of dealing with a malfunctioning modernity.” In 1985, Kirk had begun raising bees and selling colonies, queens, and honey. Despite the increase of disease everywhere that was decimating the bee population, Kirk was determined to pioneer a better response, which was to refuse the use of chemicals and develop bees resistant to disease and adapted to new conditions, including those brought about by climate change.

He lived alone, made no use of the internet and other technologies that seem to dominate the lives of most people today. When Bill needed respite from his battle against big oil, he spent time on Kirk’s little farm, helping him during the course of an entire year covered by the book. Kirk was demonstrating the “wonderful kind of life that’s possible with full-time farming on a small place” (p. 2).

Late in the book, Bill gives the moral of his double narrative. It is not what one oil executive was saying, that global warming is an “engineering problem with engineering solutions,” and that as weather changes require us to move crops around we’ll adapt. Rather, Bill writes: we should instead start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers such as Kirk Webster, who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace, and who don’t do much damage in the process.” Already, Bill continues, people are making that change. In the previous year, after a century of decline, there had been “a net gain of thirty thousand farms in the country. And almost all the new ones are small” (p. 167).

At book’s end, Bill was coming to a second conclusion. Despite the success of his activism, including the public acclaim he was receiving, the life he was living didn’t feel like his life. “[I]t wasn’t me, or at the least it wasn’t the me that used to be the one that wrote difficult books, that had time to figure things out instead of just reacting.” He supposes that some people thrive on the constant rush of the internet and public action, but he concludes that he is not one of them. “A writer, if you think about it, is someone who has decided that their nature requires them to hole up in a room and type. You can violate your nature for a while, but eventually it takes a toll” (p. 239).

I for one am glad that Bill McKibben is a writer and continues to bless the world with what he writes. Oil and Honey is one more proof that his proper work is putting words on paper and giving them to the world—words that describe reality, identify wrong doing, propose new possibilities, and give us hope. In the paperback edition that I read, Bill writes a new afterword, describing a change of mind that he was experiencing, one that depended much less upon a few leaders than upon movements of people, vast numbers of people everywhere who develop new ways of life and resist the energy-hungry, climate-changing way of life that now is threatening to destroy the world.

He sees an analogy in what the power industry describes as “distributed generation.” Instead of a few huge power plants, what we need are “ten million solar arrays on ten million rooftops” linked together to provide the electricity we need. While we need a few gifted people to lead us forward, even more, we need millions of ordinary people who are changing the way they live in order to live better lives and, while there’re at it, saving the world. Together, we are “fighting for a world with less oil and more honey.”