My Lecture at Moving Planet's International Day of Action

For more information about the day's events, click here.

A sustainable act is one you can repeat forever in the same way. That’s it. For all the attention sustainability gets nowadays, the concept itself is so simple, it’s amazing the practice eludes even our most educated politicians and world leaders.

Sustainability is literally the act of lending oneself to infinity.

Every microbe, bacteria, atom, and animal on earth has this system down pat. Every animal, that is, except for one.

Think of every system you participate in on a daily basis: from waking up to your alarm clock that's plugged into the wall, brushing your teeth and showering with water from a treatment plant that goes down the drain into sewers, showering with chemical-riddled soaps peppered with dyes and perfumes and additives. Think of the clothes you dress yourself in and the manner in which they were created, shipped, packaged, and sold to you. Think of the processed food you eat for breakfast and where your coffee beans came from. Consider your morning commute. Don't stop there. Consider the way homes, neighborhoods, states, and countries are run. Think of big business, industry, oil, and gas. Think of your churches and synagogues, and the energy they use to run their lights, their heating, their central air. The truth is, very few—if any—actions undertaken by any one of us in a day are truly sustainable. Which is to say, the way we act and live is linear instead of circular. We start with consumption and end with a pile of toxic, non-decomposing garbage, dirty unlivable water, and unbreathable air.

The way we eat isn’t sustainable. The way we handle our waste isn’t sustainable. The way we get to and from work, build our homes, make our jewelry, wash our bodies, and even the rate at which we reproduce are all done unsustainably. What does this mean? It means the stuff we eat, the fuels we use, the clean air we breathe, the fresh water we drink... will eventually run out. There are just too many of us using, eating, breathing, and taking out of the system without putting enough back in for the relationship to go any other way. I don’t know how long things can continue. A year? A hundred years? A thousand? But there is no question we will run out of the basic resources required to support a population of our size, in the way we consume now. It will end.

Read more here.

Ancient villages and indigenous groups the world over survived because they maintained small numbers, took only what they needed, and gave back in a way that speaks to a “natural order of things”. Groups of people were so small that dealing with waste, for example, was as simple an act as its result, which was to strengthen forests and ecosystems. It was circular living instead of linear.

There were no planes flying over miles of corn, dropping poisonous fertilizers onto biological material we would eventually eat and put put back into the earth. There were no landfills catching on fire because of so many toxic gases being released in the process of decomposition. There were no islands of plastic bobbing around in the oceans. There were no factory farms.

These days, we even embalm our dead with horrible chemicals like formaldehyde. Then we dip these otherwise perfectly good, biodegradable bodies into the soil. Death is our last opportunity to give back to the earth in the most literal, basic way, and we ruin it. Dying has instead become humans' final, and perhaps most insulting offering to the earth.

We see raging debates now over natural resources because we’re running out of them. Nobody’s making any more land, or a bigger ocean, or a fresh mountain range. So now we go to war over natural resources like oil. But once we extract all the oil, we can’t keep getting it because it takes hundreds of thousands of years for oil to become oil in the first place. Yes, we can drill here in the United States. And that will create x amount of jobs and provide, say, a hundred years’ worth of oil. Uh... and then what? Then where will we go? How long until we go to war to control the fresh water supply? And then, as we continue polluting, when will that run out?

We will run out of oil. We will run out of fresh water. We will run out of trees, clean air, and fertile ground, and all the most basic needs we have as living, breathing animals. We forget these most fundamental needs in the face of politics, and getting ahead, and the bottom line, and pretty houses in the suburbs and having a nicer lawn than our neighbors’ and cool new cars, and sweet clothes, and the most amazing new sneakers, and, and...

And we’re literally killing ourselves. This is so tragic, and so negative, and so extremist to say. But it’s also so true.

Because to be sustainable; in fact, to lend yourself to infinity, the actions you take have to be done in ways that they could be repeated over and over forever and ever through every great abyss of time.

So where do you begin? Where do I begin? Where can we begin as a group?

Well, we've already started. You're here to network, to get some answers, to learn a little bit about the predicament we're in and to offer some hope and trade some ideas. I'm here for the same reasons. And I'm here to offer a few basic tips that can help get you back onto a circular track instead of a straight one.

At Better Farm, the sustainability center and artists’ retreat I run in Upstate New York, we equip people with tools for infinite action. Better Farm is based out of a 19th-century farmhouse I’d call stubbornly unsustainable at best. When I moved up there two years ago the place was running off a fuel furnace, outfitted with totally inefficient light bulbs, plugged into the grid, and boasted several walls in the main building that no one had ever bothered to insulate. And that’s just for starters.
Our purpose at Better Farm isn’t to be holier-than-thou, and it isn’t to be perfectly green, and it’s certainly not to make people feel hopeless. Our purpose is to empower people to make more sustainable, creative decisions in their daily lives and to see how those actions and reactions make a difference to that cubic foot of soil, this earthworm, that organically grown vegetable, this body that eats said plant, that pile of compost, those trees, this air, and on and on and on.
What we try to teach people, in essence, is to believe in the power of one, even if that power of one isn’t going to reverse industrial waste or make a politician change course, or mean that we as a nation suddenly lose interest in the oil reserves of the Middle East, or the Gulf, or dear old Alaska.
Because it does matter to that earthworm and to your body and to all the tiny life systems you’d be affecting by making your own compost and growing organic vegetables and stepping outside of this linear consumerist culture that celebrates what's disposable and deplores all that lasts and comes around again. And if you can get your drinking buddy or your grandmother or your co-workers to realize that small difference, maybe he or she or they will start doing something small too. And with all those small things come bigger things, come all the other important things needed to bring about that very large change that is really so completely necessary.
At Better Farm, we give people a living laboratory to test out sustainable ideas. People visit for a night, a month, two months, or an entire season and spend their days figuring out sustainable systems for everyday life. Better Farm’s interns this summer outfitted a small cabin with a DIY solar kit, researched, designed, and installed a rainwater catchment system, studied companion planting and employed it in our gardens, and utilized a no-till, mulch-gardening system that relies on biodegradable matter and natural pesticides and fertilizers.
Everything we do is experimental in nature, and 100-percent sustainable in practice. If we take our organic food scraps and compost them, and use the compost to enhance the growth of plants in the garden, and water the seeds with harvested rain, and eat that produce; and if every year we rotate where crops are planted to ensure the ground gets fresh and different nutrients, well, that’s a sustainable system. Period.

e do smaller stuff, too, like preserve our own food, make our own biodegradable soaps, install solar panels on our newly renovated Art Barn, and improve the house we live in by upcycling and DIY’ing and switching out those terrible old lightbulbs for motion sensors and high-efficiency bulbs. It means buying less and making more, it means using what you might throw out to make something new.
And while we do all these things, we show the people there how they can make these changes too. You can leave Better Farm and go back to Brooklyn with the skills to start a community garden or grow your own salad greens or hook up a small solar kit or, if you’re lucky enough to have a little yard, you can gather rain. You can take yourself as far out of the one-way, linear system as you want. You can have a compost toilet, off-grid solar or wind system, geothermal heating and cooling, and cob walls if you get really ambitious. The sky and dirt and ocean are the limit, and maybe they’re not even the limit, and maybe you can’t go that far anyway but would like to do something. That’s fine. There is still so much you and I and we can do.

Here are my top-5 picks for changes you can make starting today to live more sustainably.

  1. Compost your food scraps. The EPA estimates that Americans discarded 31 million tons of food into landfills in 2008. Most of that food never receives the oxygen required to decay, which means most of the food in landfills simply doesn't decompose. The garbage in landfills that does decompose creates methane, a global-warming gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Whether you feed your food scraps directly to your garden, or to a compost tumbler next to your neat and tidy suburban garden, or to the earth worms living in a big tupperware container under your New York City apartment sink, you're creating a totally sustainable system of dirt-to-plants-to consumption - to compost - to dirt. If you don't have a garden, take your beautiful black topsoil you create and donate it to a community garden or your favorite Green Thumb. Or start a few spinach plants on your windowsill.
  2. Collect as much rainwater as you can. Rivers have been so badly diverted by dams and rerouted to grow cotton and lettuce, many of the world's greatest rivers never even reach the sea. About two-thirds of the water taken out of rivers is for big agriculture. A quarter goes to industrial use. The last 9 to 10 percent goes to cities and towns. Today, rivers have been diverted to fill bathtubs and swimming pools, to turn the turbines of power plants, and cool the wheels of industry. The last time the Colorado River reached the ocean was 1993. By taking a downspout from your gutter system and inserting it in a 50, 100, or 1,000-gallon drum, you can collect enough water from one good rainfall to water everything in your yard the next time things are looking dry. You can hook that water to an outdoor shower setup. You can use that water to flush toilets, run your washing machine, or fill your pool. The bigger the rainwater collection bin, the more water you can store. If you don't have gutters on your house, you can put a 10-foot gutter on the side of any shed or garage, hook it to a downspout and collection bin, and collect water that way. Even a big wine jug with a funnel sticking out of it on your fire escape in the city will gather enough water for you to take care of your houseplants.
  3. Change your shopping habits. More than voting, public demonstration, petition-signing, and protesting combined, the choices you make as a consumer are your most powerful positioning points as a member of this society. Where you put your money will dictate policy, trends, supply and demand. By making small, smart decisions every day about where your food, clothes, house supplies, beauty products, and every thing else you pay for comes from, you will be making the biggest impact of all.
  4. Grow your own food. Even one thing. Even spinach on your windowsill, or peppers, or a hanging herb bed in your kitchen. If you provide just one vegetable, herb, or salad green you love for yourself, you'll be saving exponential amounts of money and fossil fuels otherwise spent in the transportation of that item to you commercially throughout your lifetime. If you feel ambitious, start a garden—even a hydroponic garden inside, with a fishtank, some freshwater fish, and floating lettuce plants. Start a community garden with your neighbors if you don't have the time to take care of so much on your own.
  5. Stop eating so much meat. 18 percent of the “greenhouse effect” is believed to be caused by methane, much of which is caused by cud-chewers like sheep, goats, camels, water buffalo, and most of all, cattle—of which the world has an estimated 1.2 billion. According to the United Nations, raising animals for food generates more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, planes, ships, trucks, and trains in the world combined. Seventy percent of the leveled rain forest in the Amazon is used to raise animals for meat consumption. Try spending one day a week as a vegetarian or vegan. The rest of the time, insist on buying only locally raised organic meats. Take a year and don't step foot into any fast-food restaurant. Or a month. Or a week. In addition to the obvious health benefits, you'll be stepping outside the factory-farming chain that has wreaked such havoc on eco systems, the environment, and health.

While we may not be able to stop industrial waste before the planet is too sick to take on all us humans, or reverse global warming, or change our president’s policy with protests or even events like this (though we should protest, and we should keep having these events, as many as possible), we can continue to push for those changes and insist on them and do everything in our power to make big sweeping change about the very paradigm we’re in of feeding into a system that is the polar opposite of sustainable. And in doing many small things at home, making hundreds of tiny decisions every day that reduce our footprint and improve the soil in our backyards and keep as much as possible out of landfills and waterways and even the air, then we can each get ourselves back into line with what nature intended.

Which is to say we might lend ourselves a bit more to infinity and improving the natural life cycles all around us that we’ve lost so much sight of.

A Brief Rant on the Ever-Precarious State of the Union

Originally posted at blog.betterfarm.org

In spite of moves throughout his term toward clean-energy tax credits and the implementation of the first fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks, the president on Friday announced his decision to reverse positioning on tougher air-quality rules that some experts say would have reduced instances of premature deaths and heart attacks annually by 6,500.

The Washington Times reported Sunday that a "slew of White House retreats on environmental issues has 'green' voters seeing red—and threatening political consequences for President Obama in next year's election." This came at the heels of the aforementioned loosening of air-quality regulations and protests last week in defiance of Obama's proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension:
Everyone's favorite mermaid makes a Splash and gets arrested in D.C. last week at an XL pipeline protest.
And of course, let's not forget the total lack of governance that contributed to one of BP's pipes bursting under the Gulf.

Obama's most recent turning-of-tail has to do with changing the "ozone standard", which basically breaks down the amount of parts-per-billion allowed to be released into the atmosphere by U.S. industry. Though Obama's administration previously claimed the ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (set by the Bush administration in 2008) was based on outdated science, the new standard of 70 parts per billion (which the EPA and NRDC estimate would result in 4,300 fewer premature deaths and 2,200 fewer heart attacks annually by 2020) has been nixed. Ignored. Forgotten about. In fact, Obama cited the tragic economic climate as proof that protecting the environment at the cost of American jobs was, quite simply, not worth it.

Which brings me to my rant.

In order for us to have the luxury to play games with politics (in fact, to have politics at all) and the division of power; to invent an idea of currency that is totally abstract and without any actual basis in the real world; to make wonderful inventions and to live in them as though they were as literal as the trees that grow and the wind that blows; in order to do any of these silly human things—to make civilizations and destroy them, to obsess over material gains, to build great skyscrapers and jetset and work a 9-5 job and lobby congress and to invest and gamble and win and lose...

We have to, fundamentally, be able to breathe and eat and have shelter. Before we can worry about job loss in America, or our footing in the international economy, we have to remember we're animals who have to be able to breathe and drink water and eat food. And that the more we poison those things, whether by dumping oil in the water or ignoring the toxins we emit into the air or ripping down trees for big agriculture so forests eventually turn into deserts, the closer we bring ourselves to the point of no return, literally speaking.

Yes, in a short-term way you can create big, fancy water treatment plants that will allow the richest among us to drink the best water money can buy. You can make gated communities with poisoned, treated sod and no bugs at all. You can make more and more car factories (even some within inexplicably "green" structures), you can farm salmon indoors, you can break apart entire mountains and make pretty bands of gold to show how in love you are. You can keep doing these things, but the One Great Truth about sustainability is that these things, done in these ways, simply can't go on forever. The system itself is unsustainable.

So the longer we choose industry over environment, jobs over air, corporate loopholes over water, well, the less sustainable we are. And the closer we come to that dreaded point of no return. Come on, Mr. President. You who would be our "Yes We Can" agent of change owe it to those who believed in you to put our well-being over the monetary gains of private interests and some conceptual bottom line. We can't keep pushing the pesky issue of finite natural resources out of the way to keep big business happy. Doing so secures only one thing: that we're going to run out of the very things we need the most.

Just a little food for thought.

Want to get even more worked up? Recommended reading: What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay.

Spotlight On... Gowanus Canal Conservancy

By Nicole Caldwell

The Gowanus Canal has a logic-defying reputation for being as repulsive as it is enchanting. Tagged with nicknames such as Lavender Lake and Perfume Creek (neither due to lovely hues or pleasant smells), you wouldn’t think much could live in or near this dirty little estuary, which stretches from Gowanus Bay on the New York Harbor to Gowanus, an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn a mile and a half east.

Yet against all odds, this purple-hued water—Gowanus Canal Conservancyused as a virtual toxic dumping ground for industry along it well into the 1960s and beyond—has stolen the hearts and imaginations of people intent on saving it. New developments and shopping centers seem to spring up overnight along the canal. Property values climb despite debates over whether the pollution in this Brooklyn waterway causes asthma. There are documented accounts of fishermen catching striped bass and Atlantic silversides in the murky, badly polluted canal.

Read the rest of this article here.

[Originally published in the September 2009 issue of The Leaflet]