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Friday, November 26, 2004

Food and Oil

I think a lot about food and sustainable agriculture and the economy. And over the past few days, I've had even more reason to think about them, in part because I'm on Thanksgiving break and have lots of time (despite painting and moving manure around), but also because there have been a number of articles and radio programs about these things over the past week or so.

Then this morning, I received the monthly members email from Robert Waldrop, founder and director of Oklahoma Food and Better Times. And what he has to say is so good that I feel compelled to share it. It's long but worth the read, I think, especially for those of us trying to lead normal lives while simultaneously seeking to lessen the negative environmental impact of our presence on earth. Parts of it are essentially ads for Better Times --- for me, that doesn't diminish the value of what he's written, but I've edited those parts out anyway.

The local joke is that one of the consequences of global climate change will be that Oklahoma will get a decent climate.

[...]

Global climate changes, environmental devastation, and waves of violence and destruction are sweeping across the earth. The captains and the kings are marching and shouting, people are dying and there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of this changing any time soon. Indeed, the velocity and magnitude of the problems seems to be increasing. Into this world situation comes the specter of sharply increasing energy prices, and the certainty of even more extreme price increases on the horizon. Energy prices are being driven by an "irresistible object" (insatiable demand for ever more fossil fuel energy)" running smack dab up against an "immovable object" (the limits – dictated by the geological facts under the ground and our technology – of fossil fuel production). Everyone in China wants a car now, in fact, they want two cars and a garage to put them in.

Meanwhile, world oil production appears to be nearing its all-time production peak, after which it is all downhill, with things going from bad to worse for energy production, and then they will get even worse. North American natural gas is already in decline, and that decline rate appears to be accelerating. All this is the beginning of sorrows, so nobody should be thinking about bidness as usual, but unfortunately that is pretty much where most people are at.

Every calorie of food in a supermarket incorporates many calories of fossil fuel in its manufacture and distribution. Food production in the "developed world" is entirely dependent upon high inputs of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, and toxic herbicides and pesticides. Soil fertility is declining, agriculture diversity is being eradicated, thousands of heirloom varieties of food crops and heritage breeds of poultry and livestock have gone extinct. The food industry is increasingly consolidated. A supermarket may look like a competitive marketplace, but in reality most of those brands are owned by five corporations.

[...]

One of the tragedies of this time is that there has been an almost complete breakdown in the cultural transmission of important knowledge, sciences, and arts between generations. My grandparents, William Glen and Dovie Irene Waldrop, and John and Opal Marie Cassidy, lived on self-sufficient homesteads on the southwestern Oklahoma prairie along the Red River and lived much of their lives as farmers who grew and preserved a substantial amount of the food their families ate. They worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, and my grandmothers were among the best cooks that Tillman County ever produced. My grandfather Waldrop was an artisan of curing hams and making sausage. We still have the wagon bows from the wagon that brought my great grandfather Waldrop and his wife Mollie and family from Sherman, Texas to Tillman County, Oklahoma territory, but we have lost much of the knowledge they and their daughters and sons possessed. He lived in a mostly solar economy, and so did my grandparents up until rural electrification. My grandmother used to say that one of the regrets of her life was that her mother had died before they got electricity, and thus "she never lived to see how easy it was to keep house with electricity."

Thus it is important for people to work together to preserve this kind of "solar economy" information and learn how to incorporate it into our lives again. As we walk this journey, we must learn the value of the slow, the traditional, the small, the particular, the locality, the sense of place that used to be a fact of daily life. We must understand that there are limits and boundaries, and we should respect them. These ideas are so alien now they seem almost exotic.

It is of course all well and good to climb up on a watchtower and shout, "Lo the dust of the war chariots of the enemy riseth above the foothills", or to put on your John the Baptist hat and cry repentance, but it is another thing to actually put these high sounding ideals into practice. Thus the regular editions of this Better Times Almanac of Useful Information, each one building upon the previous work, growing organically in response to the signs of these times.

If things are going to change for the better, it will only happen because people decide to literally be the change they want to see in the world. And conversely, if things don’t change for the better, if things continue to go from bad to worse, it will be because too many people did NOT decide to be the change they want to see in the world. The place for me to start is with the man I see each morning in the mirror. It is said that the world would be a better place if we would all try to be what we want the other fellow to be.

It is as simple as that. Each person is responsible for his or her individual response to the world situation, we are all part of the problem, and we are thus all part of the solution. There is nobody that anyone can blame for not doing their part in the way they lives their lives.. There are many things that many people can do to make a positive difference in the world, and procrastination is the deadly enemy of the loving care and responsible stewardship of Creation. We can do, as the masthead of Better Times proclaims, what we can, with what we have, where we are. And so we should do it.

From the beginning, if we are talking about ways and manners of living, I have felt that the place to start is in the kitchen. Food First! It is one area where we have a lot of control, and it is a place where changes can be made without spending big piles of extra money. [...] Food provides instant rewards. Eating is an agricultural act, eating is a moral act, eating is a cultural act. Decisions we make in our kitchens have enormous consequences, for good or for evil. One of the things we need to work for is a world where it is easier to be good. [...]

If we want a local food system, where farmers use sustainable, organic production methods, where herds and flocks are free-ranging and naturally managed, where land and resources are conserved and constantly renewed by natural processes, then there must be a market for the products of such a system.

If there is going to be a market for such products, then those of us who are customers must generally change the way we do our food.

We must stop looking for frozen, prepared, manufactured foods and instead purchase basic ingredients (or grow our own) from which we prepare our meals, always looking for products grown here in this region.. It is not as hard to make this transition as it seems at first, and it really is true that there are instant rewards in terms of both the authentic tastes and nutritional value of true food. The Better Times Almanac of Useful Information is designed to help you to stop being a passive consumer of manufactured junk foods and to start becoming a "co-producer" in a local food system where your grocery dollars support local farmers and local economies instead of feeding the appetites of transnational agribidness corporations and driving the destruction of our soils, biological diversity, and rural economies. In this situation, there is no rich or poor, or middle class in between. Everyone has a place at this table, there certainly is plenty good room.

A holiday, by definition, is a break with the ordinary routine of life and in most cultures is connected with feasting and celebration, so I would like to write a bit about the preparation of our Thanksgiving feast. As with much in our lives, there is good and bad co-mingled. The world is such that making the best decisions can be difficult, in some situations impossible. But we shouldn’t let the difficulty of some decisions stop us from making other best decisions which are so easy they are practically no-brainers. That’s why I talk about these kinds of food preparation happenings, first so that I can reflect on how I can do better next time, and second so that others can learn from our experiences, both the mistakes and the successes.

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