20 March, 2010

Towards A Sustainable Abundance

The following is the written notes of a speech I gave the launch of
The 50% Food Initiative of the 7th Congress of Southern California.  The message was graciously and warmly received.  I wish to thank C. Darren Butler and the 7th Congress for asking me to speak on such an important topic.  

This is what I intended to say, I am afraid some was left out and much was added - I tend to deviate from notes and other directions freely. 

It is my honor and joy to be here before this Congress today. We are blessed to be at this point of time of the world: things are changing, a critical mass is becoming our reality and the naysayers and doubters number fewer by the minute! Slowly but with absolute certainty, our ranks are growing. At last, the general population of California, and therefore the rest of the United States and therefore the rest of the world, is coming to see 'sustainability' rests at the very root of most of the problems that our world is facing in the coming decades.

Sustainability's place in the great challenges of our time is so prominent because it is intimately tied to our ability to eat and to preform the functions as a race of living beings. Only population growth hits more central to the bone of all these issues; no race, let alone society, can survive without the ability to feed themselves good clean, healthy food. We stand here today facing that issue as the leaders towards the coming critical mass of this idea. Our focus today is the resolution that the current industrialization of agriculture was nothing less than a colossal mistake that needs be repealed before too much is lost.

Industrial agriculture had argued that cheap food was essential. It was so essential that it was worth subsidies, land degradation, use of deadly chemicals to fight insects and the resultant health costs. Now we can see that the massive subsidies haven't been able to make industrial agriculture meet its goals without adding in food stamps, yet another subsidy to buy the cheaper and cheaper food. And the cheaper and cheaper food gets less viable every day
In 2002, The Learning Garden was founded on a one acre site at Venice High School. The school had a thriving agricultural program that was doomed by the Prop 13 tax revolt. The ground sat idle from the early '70's through to the end of the 90's. Principal Bud Jacobs at that time hired Diane Pollock to teach a horticulture class. By 2002, her horticulture class still took only a small portion of the one acre.

Herbalists David Crow and Julie Mann wanted to grow healing herbs for the public to see and form relationships with and, together with Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, approached the Venice High School administration for a lease on the one acre site and The Learning Garden was created.

I started there as a volunteer, but soon saw that this little garden aligned with my life's goals and I was able to leave my position with UCLA to come to the Garden full time. After being there everyday for about two months, Julie said to me, “You're doing a great job, we'll have to figure out how to pay you.”

My love has always been growing food; I slowly learned how not to kill most of the herbs, but the food garden called to me. I grew up in the mid-west, a product of farmers of the Kansas prairie. Growing food for market and religion figured huge in our lives. Often, in the beginning of the Garden, when asked how I feel, I would reply, “Like John the Baptist,” who was famously described in the Bible as a “lone voice, crying in the wilderness.”

I started teaching classes on growing food in Southern California and they stayed away in droves. I couldn't give the classes away. I did the only thing a self-respecting author would do, I started a blog and gave it away for free on the internet! I wrote and I wrote in my blog with three, you can count 'em on one hand, three, followers. Most of the responses to my blog were in Chinese. Or at least I think it was Chinese.

I gave classes through UCLA Extension to 8, 9 or 10 people – with the Extension office letting me know what a huge favor they were doing to keep my class going despite the miserable enrollment.

From that humble beginning, we have shown that a busy intersection of two heavily used west side LA streets cannot destroy the tranquility of a garden that heaps a bounty of food on tables throughout our community. We produce food that finds its way to the tables of underserved populations through students taking food home and we send our excess produce to the West LA Food Bank for distribution throughout the west side. We do not send over second rate stuff – we only ship the food that I would eat if I could eat all of it. We include bunches of herbs because everyone should have fresh herbs – cilantro and basil in season and rosemary, thyme and oregano at various times of the year.

We are an educational project teaching how to grow food and demonstrating a multitude of different systems for growing food in an urban setting. Unlike the Path to Freedom in Pasadena, who are absorbed in production and not teaching, we are focused on teaching, not production. But there you have it, we grow food in West LA.

The first time students walk into the garden in their white sport shoes, they are underwhelmed. But after a few weeks, one of those disdainful students will walk out of the Garden with a radish held high over head in a classic Statue of Liberty pose. Not all of them will become gardeners. But all of them leave with an understanding that to eat, someone must grow it. And some will come to understand that the fresh carrot is ten times tastier than the store-bought well-traveled carrot. And this is the beginning of a generation that has some relationship to food from the ground.

When humans first adopted agricultural societies, they began to gather in villages and towns in the areas where they planted. Some of the towns grew to be cities – cities built on what had once been fields. A large chunk of every city in America sits on prime farmland and is now covered with houses and paved roads, parking lots, warehouses and shopping centers. This phenomena is seen today in California's great valley, one of America's most prolific agricultural powerhouses, as it is being paved over, in what is mockingly called development, at an alarming rate.

On the other hand, growing food in cities has been a part of urban life for as long as we've been having urban life. That we don't do this today is the result of our modern obsessions with conspicuous consumption and the disdain of physical labor. We are rootless, moving with each new job or house or loss of job or house, in a society divorced from the plant world that supplies us with medicines, clothing and food. As well as oxygen.

We've come to a place in history where growing a row of beets is an act of defiance at the world we wake up to daily. In a world where the headlines are dominated with forebodings about the future, I remember the old saw I learned as a child: Hope will not die as long as seed catalogs are printed.

And that's what I want to talk about today: a vision for a world that is sustainable – and not just sustainable because that's an unfortunate word for the majority of our fellow citizens – it doesn't conjure up anything tangible. If we are to have an abundant harvest, it's time to move boldly into the world with a message that conveys a sense of the awesome rightness of the 50% initiative. Every one of us, no matter what our strengths or weaknesses, our skills or our vices has a role to play; has a calling to be here and do the next thing in front of them now.

In America, our governmental policies are created and enforced to bring an abundance of cheap food to the table of the populace. Most of us know that this food costs more than the price put on it in the grocery store and most of us also know that it is more than just not good for you, more and more we are learning that it is bad for us: diabetes, the one we used to call 'adult diabetes' is rampant among our teenage population which consumes the most of this stuff.

In their recent book, A Nation of Farmers, Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton quote Gene Logsdan as saying: The biggest problem in my opinion is that our society, our culture, does not understand that food is everyone's business. We have decided as a society, to let a few people worry about our food while the rest of us worry about money. And so food production has more or less become the domain of a few very large international corporations. The only cure for it is what is now happening. Food prices and food shortages and fuel shortages will force people to take back their own lives.

We have abdicated the responsibilities of self care and turned to the government and corporations to do for us what we used to do for ourselves. The food system was turned over to the 'experts' and we turned a blind eye to the way our food was produced. We didn't look at it for over 20 years – as long as the food was 'cheap' we were happy.

The experts did us wrong. The methodology of producing the food erred in many of its basic assumptions which we can begin to correct here today:

The failure of the current model of food production has shown its true colors time and time again. It is here for profit and will not hesitate to feed consumers absolute rubbish to make a profit. We must come back to being in control of our food intake and our lives. Food is life, after all, without food we starve. Culture, as Wendell Berry observed once, is built on agriculture.

The book, A Nation of Farmers that I mentioned before, places the challenge that we get 100 million new people committed to grow our food – they are, of course talking about more than just grain farmers in the mid-West. Knowing that we need to reduce our dependence on oil, their farmers will live and farm in the city. But the book ends by asking what we will do to recruit those 100 million farmers. Let me tell you, the message of doom and gloom will NOT cut it. We must know our adversary, we must be thoroughly educated in the lies we've been told. But that won't be what will win average Jayne and Joe America over to plant the city parkways with artichokes.

We need to create a culture that embraces these concepts – and that involves many different modes of moving forward. And then sell that.

We need video on the web – like the one about United breaking guitars that went viral – it was funny, it was catchy and it made its point brilliantly. Many viewers from You Tube laughed as they learned the truth of baggage demolished by handlers that didn't care.

We need to call corporations out when they shovel double speak at us, like Monsanto declaring their products help the environment. The idiocy of it has to be brought up to those around us – and if we can make 'em laugh, so much the better!

We need our own stars! We need the endorsement of George Cluny or Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock. Or some lesser knowns. But we need familiar faces and voices!

We need someone writing fiction that embraces the 50% Initiative - maybe love in the corn growing in the parkway along Venice Blvd or the murder mystery in the artichokes running down Lincoln towards the Marina. We need songs about the farms in the city and the sweetness of life in the plants and the oxygen they bring us. We need poetry that evokes the wonder of food in the front yard. Paintings of Sepulveda Boulevard with fruit trees in bloom.

We need sex. Sex, as we all know, sells. We don't want to see the 7th Congress Swimsuit Calendar – or maybe we do? But sell the sensuousness of warm soil, fresh corn, and more time in nature. I still have a love affair with the Elton John song, Amoreena, with 'the fruit juice flowing slowly, slowly, slowly down the bronze of your body.” And who knows what is lustier than a flower? The tastes, the smells of a garden are more sensuous than the stink of an industrial process!

And remember, never have a meeting when you can throw a party! Potlucks bring communities together.

We need to be as inclusive as we can possibly be. The jerk you can sneer at with his big SUV will be your enemy unless you can overcome your prejudice and invite him to the table with freshly harvested food. Neophyte beekeepers are urged to promise honey to neighbors to win acceptance. There are fights we'll need to fight. Save our energy for them, quietly win battles with gifts of food and an easy heart. We need to win on the issue, it will take time and patience. We will need people of all persuasions and religions. We will need jocks and poets; lumberjacks and clockbuilders; fish mongers and insurance salesmen. Everyone has a place at our table.

We can invoke Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, they wanted an agrarian society. Abe Lincoln was a localvore. We have history on our side. Let's make use of it.

We need to connect the dots that we see for others who don't see it. We need to find ways to clearly indicate that peak oil is a part of this; environmental degradation is a part of this; social justice to see that every one in our community has the chance to eat good clean, healthy food; equalization of the sexes and the races are all a part of it. We need to be perfectly clear: this effects every single person who eats and or drinks. I think that's pretty inclusive.

Here is the crux of it. The only way we will get to a Sustainable Abundance will be by recruiting many, many hands to make it happen. It starts with us and we carry the message, with stories, with song, poems and parties. We eat and we say, “Gosh, did you know this was grown over there at Venice Blvd by a friend of mine – and we picked it just this morning?” We are focused. Here is the steps we need to take to feed ourselves. And if we do this, we won't be eating gruel of a few peas – we'll be eating like royalty because we will eat fresh, wholesome food. And the taste of the food, the smell of the fresh oxygenated air, will be the thing that sells our vision.

And one by one we will grow until one day even Monsanto cannot deny that there is more of us than of them. And our city will be full of food that WE raised without chemicals. It will feed everyone and people will be healthier and happier and more civil. We can do this because it is good. We want to do this because it is healthy. We HAVE to do this because the old way works more poorly by the day.

Ghandi once said, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it 2is most important that you do it.” He realized that every thing one does adds some significance to a life and to the world. Planting a row of carrots, especially when they fail to behave as anticipated may seem like a waste, but it's part of the change we have gathered here today to celebrate and embrace. Will you stand to be counted? Will you stand to give the children a chance to live healthy lives? Will you stand to tear down the inequality of a food distribution that benefits the few at the expense of the many? Will y0u stand to have a society after peak oil? Will you stand? Will you?

Thank you. 



  1. David, thank you so much for all that you do!

    I recently became a nomad and after witnessing firsthand the extreme imbalance of wealth and abundance in this world, I have discovered a newfound direction and purpose in life.

    We need to work towards a world of sustainable abundance if we are to leave behind a place for our children to not just survive, but thrive. It's the only way.

    There is so much wealth, so many resources, and so much knowledge already here. We need to work towards creating a world where those things are sustainable. I believe it is absolutely possible and that many people genuinely want to help.

    I'm working towards bringing such people together -- bringing together people who are interested in leaving behind a world better than they found it.

    Thank you for writing this post. It was very educational and really explained the importance food plays in the development of a sustainable world. After all, without food, none of us would be here!

  2. Thank you David for saying it so precisely. I believe in your work and hope I can contribute in my own small way. I am finishing a book which is my attempt to expose all of your beliefs on the production of food in a comic and entertaining way (as I have been a comedy writer for years)It is my observation that no one seems to be listening to the serous messages on cheap food production from the best of experts. My thought was to craft something entertaining to deliver the message. Hopefully it will awaken a few more young minds.
    At present, I am selling my suburban home with a pool to buy a piece of land with a tiny house and an acre of land to start growing food. Food to share with those who live around me.
    If you ever give classes online or have a basic starter kit for newby food growers, please advise.
    Keep speaking and growing as eventually, I believe it will catch on.
    Thank you for what you do.
    Mary Jo

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Mary Jo, we need funny stories and entertainment on all levels... My escapism these days is reading history and in the book, Maritime Power and The Struggle for Freedom, Peter Padfield notes in 18th century on the European continent: The English novel, which spread and was copied throughout continental Europe was quite as subversive... The novel, with its wide readership, its ease of imitation and comparative immunity form censorship, was probably Britain's most seditious export to Europe...

    This has got to become our focus if we are to succeed - shrill voices and hand wringing play well to the already converted, but the message has to 'play in Pretoria' as well as Topeka as well as Boise as well as Tampa Bay. Sun-powered stock car races... :-) Power-down potlucks (nothing cooked with fossil fuels). Inclusivity in everything we do...

    Raam Dev, yes you have the vision... Now to simply tell the world in a way they can hear... All of us have our own talents to give and we need all the talents of everyone from food service worker to scientist; artist to soldier; retired postman to computer gamer. We cannot leave anyone out - because everyone is in the same boat. But to make everyone see that our message must come from all directions in all forms.

    Rock on!