By Tara Lohan
Despite the warning signs — climate change, biodiversity loss, depleted soils and a shrinking supply of cheap energy — we continue to push along with an economy fueled by perpetual growth on a finite planet.
You refer to the age you see coming up when there’s less cheap energy available as the “Great Simplification.” Where does that term come from and what does it mean?<p>The idea for this report first came from a series of guest lectures I did for a class at the University of Minnesota taught by [energy and systems expert] <a href="https://www.postcarbon.org/our-people/nate-hagens/" target="_blank">Nate Hagens</a> [a Post Carbon Institute board member]. Great Simplification is the term he was using in his class, but it ties well to anthropological work looking at social complexity in relationship to energy.</p><p><span></span>Societies that have less energy available organize themselves differently, and so the Great Simplification is this idea that as energy becomes more dear we'll need to use less of it. And our highly complex and globally integrated societies will begin take on forms that are simpler over time. That means less complex trade networks, less specialization in jobs, less bureaucratic hierarchies.</p>
When I try to envision what this Great Simplification would look like, I think of either preindustrial society or at least pre-World War II. What does it look like to you?<p>I remember traveling through Europe and seeing the contrast between a modern European city and someplace like a World Heritage site that is still a living city, but it was built centuries ago and there never was a suburban expansion around it. And so you basically see this countryside that you can walk to from the city center.</p><p>That's how people lived prior to the industrial revolution in most parts of the world. And if you go to somewhere such as rural Bolivia, that's what it still looks like. I think that's maybe what the long-term consequences of fossil fuel depletion will look like. But what happens in the messy middle is much harder to figure out.</p><p>To think about that, the report looks at places that have already started getting abandoned in the upper Midwest because they lost the industrial clout they used to have from the steel industry and the auto industry. So you can sort of see this process unfolding already. You may have a partial abandonment of some areas and then maybe also reclaiming of them partly for food production. Big suburban houses may instead have more people living together to share expenses and share work.</p>
It seems like today in the United States very few people know much about farming or producing food in general. How do we start to close that knowledge gap?<p>I feel like we have two kinds of threads going right now. On the one hand, there are a lot of school gardens and farms taking off and there's more being done for horticulture programs, shop programs and home economics. There's a bit of a skills revival happening. But on the other hand, there's also a big focus on teaching every kid how to code, or kids being on their personal entertainment devices all the time instead of getting outside in nature.</p><p>Part of what I hope the report does is to make people aware of this skills gap and try to prioritize learning not just about self-sufficiency but how communities can work together.</p><p>I don't expect the people reading the report will suddenly perform voluntary simplicity and try to find a commune to live on somewhere. But what I do hope is to inspire people to become change agents — to be ready for when the energy system forces a transition and start setting up systems that are pre-adapted to an energy-scarce world.</p>
What are some of the ways that people can support this kind of transition work and re-localization without being an actual farmer or food producer?<p>If you're a rural landowner there's a big opportunity. Farmers on average own only half the land they use. So, if you own that land, who do you choose to lease to? Are you actively trying to find a farmer who's oriented towards more regenerative, more organic, more local and regional systems?</p><p>If you have money there are also lending clubs that can help support local food systems and entrepreneurs. Then there might be people who are politically connected and know folks on the city council or in the planning department and can push for changes in codes or policies, like for instance, if there's a local law that doesn't allow you to capture rainwater or have a front yard garden.</p><p>Maybe you can support the local soil and water conservation district or the local conservation group that's trying put biodiversity back on farmlands. Farms are full of amazing habitats that can be great places to rebuild ecosystem services, protect watersheds, get insect, bat and bird populations back up — that will serve food production in the long run.</p>
It seems like these kinds of changes that you’re talking about could seem scary to a lot of people. What are the parts that inspire you the most or you think will be most exciting about re-localization?<p>I think that these coming times of great challenge and stress will force people to work together in ways where they have a shared sense of purpose, [like the veterans] at the American Legion Hall who had some experience together 40 years ago when they were in their 20s that bonded them and they know deep down that this person sitting next to them is someone they can trust.</p><p>Even though it's going to be difficult, we will find tremendous meaning in our shared experience that could be wonderful. And that's something people are missing right now.</p>
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By Alexandra Zissu
When Bjorn Quenemoen was a student at Bard College, he would host monthly popcorn parties. He would put up posters around campus, inviting everyone to his parties. At 10 p.m., on the appointed date, he would turn the lights down and put on some music.
By Alexandra Zissu
Audrey Berman burns some cedar in between meetings at Rolling Grocer 19 in Hudson, New York. Seated on colorful metal chairs around an office table made from a plank of wood, Berman (logistics) and her co-managers, Cece Graham (retail) and Michelle Hughes (purchasing and development), attempt to explain their sparse but thoughtfully stocked sliding-scale shop, which opened March 5, after three years in the making.
Rolling Grocer 19 / Facebook<p>It can be a lot to take in when shopping for staples like local lettuce, bones for broth and toilet paper. But Rolling Grocer 19 started as a mobile mart, bringing food to underserved areas of Hudson. It visited five sites weekly, including the library and subsidized housing. Its customer base was appreciative and the numbers were good, so they decided to open a store — a "consistent place where people can come," said Hughes.</p><p>Even though Hudson is the county seat, it lacks in-town supermarkets. The corner stores have no produce. To get to a supermarket, shoppers need a car or money for a cab. People with Internet access can shop online for delivery. "But if you're on electronic benefit transfer, you can't shop from home," notes Hughes.</p><p>The rural towns that surround Hudson are dotted with farms, some of which grow food. But farmers don't always have access to sell in their own communities. "And if it's organic or not conventionally grown, then cost is another factor," said Berman.</p>
Rolling Grocer 19 / Facebook<p>Rolling Grocer 19 is attempting to address all of these issues. Thanks to considerable support (Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation) and partnerships (Hawthorne Valley Association and Long Table Harvest), it operates on a sliding scale. Shoppers self-select a payment tier: blue, orange or green. To do this, they must consider personal factors beyond combined household income. The process was designed to draw awareness to privilege (for example, consider a higher tier if you travel recreationally or own pets). It's an honor system. Each item in the store — a streamlined assortment of minimally processed foods — has three prices.</p><p>"Some people in the green are very with it," said Graham. "They understand what access means, while others don't." If everyone paid green, it would be a regular grocery store. "Here, green pays for a percentage of keeping the lights on and paying staff," said Hughes. "Blue and orange are basically always going to have to be subsidized with donations — that's the mission and business model."</p><p>So far, community response, new customers and sales have exceeded expectations. Nearby towns are already asking for their own shop and want the trio to consult, and they're discussing how that could work. Their model works because of their partnerships and donor base, so it might be tricky to scale.</p><p>For now, they're focused on getting a mix of people in the door. "It's only 45 percent white in Hudson, but so far the customers don't reflect that," said Berman. They're also planning educational offerings around income equality and nutrition.</p><p>Oh, and they plan on tackling fair wages, too. "Missing from the conversation about food access is living-wage jobs," said Hughes. "We are trying to create jobs here."</p><p>Berman, who is always happy to take on a worthwhile cause, added with a smile, "A higher minimum wage would be great."</p>
By Sarah Treleaven
Farmers are starting to re-emerge, supported by a restaurant scene that is wise to the benefits of a fresh local food system and a network of farmers' markets.
By Sarah Treleaven
On an expansive property on the gloriously wild Kangaroo Island, near the western shore of the island's Eastern Cove, I stood in the middle of a large garden and practically inhaled a clipping of olearia (also known as wild rosemary). The scent was unmistakable: freshly split, perfectly ripe passion fruit.
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By Helena Norberg-Hodge
If you're seeking some good news during these troubled times, look at the ecologically sound ways of producing food that have percolated up from the grassroots in recent years. Small farmers, environmentalists, academic researchers and food and farming activists have given us agroecology, holistic resource management, permaculture, regenerative agriculture and other methods that can alleviate or perhaps even eliminate the global food system's worst impacts: biodiversity loss, energy depletion, toxic pollution, food insecurity and massive carbon emissions.
By Reynard Loki
Humans have been moving food around the world for thousands of years. Toward the end of the second century BC, merchants traveled along the Silk Road, transporting noodles from Xi'an, grapes from Dayuan and nutmeg from the Moluccas Islands to eager buyers along its 4,000-mile network. While it's possible to trace the evolution of food through that matrix of ancient caravan routes that linked China to the West, it's hard to measure its environmental impact. It's likely that, as with any road, wildlife corridors were disrupted. But greenhouse gas emissions were fairly low, consisting of the methane from the belches and farts of the horses, yaks and Bactrian camels, and the fires that humans burned along the way.
By John M. Carroll
Water insecurity is a touchstone for 2018. Our planet isn't running out of water, but various kinds of mismanagement have led to local water crises across the planet, directly threatening millions of people.
By Isabel Walston, EWG Intern
Summer is in full swing, which means many Americans are planning cookouts complete with friends, family and fresh food. Whether you're having a casual kickback or a big bash, Environmental Working Group (EWG) has you covered with tips and tricks to keep your summer cookout fun-filled and healthy.
By Sammy Blair
SEYLOU is a bakery and mill in Washington DC built around the art of whole grain baking. SEYLOU works with local farmers to source organic seeds to bake into 100 percent whole grain breads, and creates nutritious pastries and baked goods to reinstate bread as a part of a healthy diet.
By Joshua T. Beck and Brandon Reich
As residents of idyllic Eugene, Oregon, with its culture of local food, we might be forgiven for assuming all Americans are "locavores."
By Sarah Reinhardt
Earlier this month, we took a deep, data-driven dive into the state of food and farming across the U.S. with the release of our 50-State Food System Scorecard. Although the country as a whole isn't exactly the poster child for healthy and sustainable food systems (far from it), there's a lot of variability in what's happening at farms, grocery stores and dinner tables from one state to the next—and we're here to learn from it.
Yes, yes—it can feel daunting. The climate crisis is more urgent than it's ever been. Some days we feel like we're making good progress, when we hear of countries powered by 100 percent renewable energy or a big commitment to take on fossil fuel corporations from a city like New York. But other days, it's a heavy burden knowing there's so much more that needs to be done to unseat the fossil fuel industry and move to a just, Fossil Free, renewably-powered world.