sustainability

‘Organic Island’ redux: Bhutan takes steps toward becoming the world’s first ‘organic country’; ten year timeline proposed

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So the notion of taking a whole nation organic isn’t so loopy (or original) after all. In Bhutan, political and social leaders are coalescing around a plan to ban a whole slew of agricultural and industrial chemical poisons and promote sustainable, organic methods in their agricultural sector. It runs counter to the ‘what’s good for business is good for [insert nation here]’ thinking that so frequently prevails but this decision represents not some atavistic neo-Luddite groundswell that’s predestined to fail but a fantastic opportunity for innovation and development that employs and educates vast populations in its achievement and maintenance.

Bhutan, by flickr user Christopher Michel. Used by cc: license. All rights revert to originator.
Bhutan, by flickr user Christopher Michel. Used by cc: license. All rights revert to originator.

Organic agriculture relies on the maxim “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” The organic farmer learns more, thinks more, and works harder to produce the same pound of cocoa or tomatoes or sugar cane as his/her conventional compatriots. Organic farmers accept a self-imposed standard of excellence that functionally eliminates 80% of the problem-solving shortcuts available to conventional farmers: the ‘spray-and-forget’ solutions that never ask how the shortcut was manufactured or where it goes after it kills whatever needed killing. National acceptance of the organic farmer’s mindful ways is the opposite of atavistic. It is an evolution: a step forward that equally and unreservedly reveres their shared past, present, and future.

In a nation with so ancient a Buddhist & Hindu tradition maybe the idea of everyone working together to improve everyone’s situation isn’t so alien or unlikely-seeming. I think perhaps that’s why I could see Grenada going the same way. I saw so much real agape on the island I can’t help but believe the political will exists to undertake the same level of national self-improvement & -empowerment. Every human rationale and potential benefit that accrues around this call to action applies to Grenada as well. Someone has to show the world what ‘possible’ means.

New York Times analysis of estuarine development at the mouth of the Elwha

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In the early days before the removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams that returned the Elwha River to its free-flowing state, most talk was focused on the return of salmon to a once-prodigious Native fishery. Some raised valid concerns about the post-removal turbidity as decades of sedimentary buildup behind the dams washed down to the sea: making the river water too cloudy for hatchery fish to survive in outbound migration much less the return spawning trip from the sea.

Eventually — in a decade or more, Dr. Warrick said — all of the sediment that had accumulated behind the dams will be gone. Then, the researchers predict, the river will revert to its pre-dam pattern, moving about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment downstream each year to the beaches.

Though the geology of California differs from that of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Warrick said, this project demonstrates that dam removal may remedy beach erosion in both regions.

The idea is popular among some environmental lawyers and legal scholars who have long argued that beaches have “sand rights” — a right to sand that would naturally flow to them if people and their infrastructure had not gotten in the way. Advocates of sand rights say anyone who interferes with the flow of sediment to and along the shoreline should be required to mitigate the effects.

Once the water levels had gone down behind these dams the amount of sedimentary infill in these impoundment lakes was fully revealed. The entire contour of the valleys where the lakes had been had slowly filled up with sand, silt, and gravel. Deprived of their source of natural replenishment beaches and wetlands downstream had become anemic, requiring bolstering with rip-rap or other artificial means (as the law of unintended consequences rears its head). Reconnected with a century of undelivered sediment, the beaches at the mouth of the Elwha and nearby along the Strait of Juan de Fuca are rebounding at a reassuring rate as the turbidity of the Elwha’s waters continues to improve.

Read the full New York Times article from July 15, 2015 here.

Organic Island

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When we moved to Grenada in 2008 it didn’t take long to discern that the best produce was sold by roadside vendors. Our first week in our house we met Miss Annette at her stand on the Mont Toute Road. Gardeners ourselves, we found lots of common ground. She was never a voluble conversationalist, but engage her about her farming business and she would tell you everything there was to know. It was this way we came to understand how certain Grenadians make a living, but also to realize that for the most part the produce sold in roadside stands was grown organically.

The most evident reason for this is economic: pesticides/fungicides and chemical fertilizers are expensive. In the absence of modern industrial solutions to ancient agricultural problems however, Grenadian gardeners and truck farmers relied on tried-and-true pre-industrial methods to keep pests at bay or maintain the health and productivity of their soil.

Agriculture is everywhere on a small island, even at the bus stop by Grand Anse.

Yard fowl proliferate throughout the island, making a useful living for themselves on the fat bugs attracted by a yard full of delicious food while fertilizing & aerating soil as they go. Early-morning drivers often pass the gardener in his/her plot, taking advantage of the coolest hours to lend credence to the old saying “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” Manic pot-hounds or cunning scarecrows deter opportunistic avian thieves. The farmer could simply spray chemicals all over his/her garden and go inside to watch TV for the rest of the day, but to the Grenadian farmer such ideas are as alien and inconceivable as the endless flat fields of the American prairie.

As accidental as organic Grenadian produce may now seem, certain Grenadian agriculturalists pursue these methods the same way avowed organic farmers do: as a living homage to an ideal. Among the lane’s-end backwoods camps of Grenadian Rastas organic agriculture is practiced in accordance with and observance of a universal ideal.

In Rastafari : from Outcasts to Culture Bearers, Ennis Edmonds observed that according to Rastas “the entire universe is organically related and that the key to health, both physical and social, is to live in accordance with organic principles” (60). One need not rely on academic sources however to realize that Rasta culture urgently identifies and stresses the unity of mankind and the Earth. Popular attention is focused on Rasta rejection of material ways and cannabis consumption, but viewed as an ethic instead of a cultural oddity Rasta reveals itself to be as powerful a motivator for organic methods as the mission statements of any number of international organic colloquia.

Organic agriculture wholeheartedly accepts the notion that obsessive fixation on maximizing productivity and profit shortsightedly –perhaps even lazily– engages the job of farming. Like Rastas, organic farmers hold ever in mind The Bigger Picture: that everything we do happens within a closed system of responsibility. The science-driven organic farmer acknowledges the interrelatedness of environmental and biological systems and seeks to preserve them in their original balance by either by mindful, principled action or judicious non-intervention. The Rasta farmer seeks to align his every action with the principles of his religion, and so is prevented from using what he rightly perceives as poisons on an Earth he sees as the very tableau through which he lives an observant life of spiritual communion.

To my knowledge there is no formal alliance between Rasta agriculturalists and the organic farming movement, but there should be. To show the Rastas that they are already part of and welcome in a well-known and internationally respected community of agriculturalists, to bring new ideas about organic methods to their farms, to witness and document the methods they have developed to deal with the unique problems inherent in tropical agriculture…it is to facilitate the one-ness of man & Earth.

Cocoa pods merrily growing. Photo by flickr user Karunakar Rayker, appearing here under Creative Commons license

For that matter, there is no reason this message couldn’t resound among all Grenadian farmers & gardeners, close as their methods often already place them to even the strictest international organic principles. For most, it might require a few simple adjustments (e.g., removal of pressure treated lumber in/around the garden, filtration of greywater used for agricultural purposes) and then they get a bright ‘ORGANIC FARMER’ certificate to hang on their roadside stand or market stall.

The benefits of a certificate program are obvious. First, Grenadian and international customers alike can buy with confidence from a vendor displaying internationally-recognized symbols of quality. Second, it creates a gossamer layer of useful bureaucracy to gather and administer information about Grenadian agriculture. Third and finally, this information could lead to the creation of the world’s first ‘organic island’, taking cues from the ‘greening’ efforts of other nations in the developing world like the ‘Green Gabon‘ program or the now-legendary economic success of Costa Rica in ecotourism.

The ‘organic island’ –announced proudly to the world– is one of the few positive statements a country can make that can instantly attract the attention of the world’s press and the solidarity of every progressive individual who receives the message. No-one is offended. No vital agricultural sector is regulated out of existence. All you are really saying is that, as a nation, you are committed to the nourishment of all mankind. The goodwill and attention generated by such a move can only positively redound in the tourism industry: the cash engine of the Grenadian economy.

On this point everyone can agree. The truck farmer is given means to burnish his/her professional reputation and gain access to tried-and-true organic methods from gardeners the world over. The Rasta farmer finds the same opportunities, but more importantly the reassurance of witnessing the propagation of an ethic of supreme importance to him. Even the larger-scale sugar cane operations –most likely to have the capital to use non-organic methods– benefit from their transformation into a premium product: one that continues to satisfy local demand but sells at higher prices in the world market. It bears mentioning that other products made with organic cane (e.g., rum) can also transform into and market themselves as premium organic vendors. Given how few changes most Grenadian farms would require to fully adopt organic standards, there is no reason the average consumer would see prices at the markets increase. Ultimately, 90% of the plan is informational: talking to local producers, lining up their support, then shouting the news to the world.

“Ever conscious of God we aspire, build and advance as one people.” To me, no readily-accessible goal lives up to this motto like the ‘organic island.’

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10

Ever conscious of God, we honor him by preserving and supporting His creation. My question –my proposal– is this: can Grenada aspire to and build a national treasury of public health and international goodwill? Does Grenada believe –as the Rastas and organic farmers do– that to mindfully adhere to a principle that benefits all mankind is to advance…to proclaim that Grenadians are one with all the peoples of the Earth?

The Grenada Chocolate Co. LTD – Solar-powered, owner-operated, organic chocolate: from cocoa pod to bar. Inside this building one man’s ‘crazy dream’ became the island’s premier gourmet export. It can be done! Note the solar oven and prodigious photovoltaic capacity in the front yard. Photo: 2008.

Some commentary about the universality of certain experiences…and Darth Vader

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Looks like that row south of Grenville to me. Photo by flickr user Canterbury. Used by Creative Commons License. All rights revert to originator.

From a social media posting:

“I was a punk rock guy in my teens. The local punk rock house was rented by one of our better local bands, the guitarist of which later ‘grew up’ and became a professional chef in a really neat, innovative restaurant (before killing himself with heroin). The things he could make out of last night’s rice and today’s beans…I learned a lot about cooking on the large and cheap from him.

“It’s funny to me, but when I moved to the island of Grenada I noticed immediately these punk rock cook-ins came about the same way the locals would organize a cookout. Whatever you had to offer –be it your share of fish from this morning’s net or a hand of plantain from your yard or a big dasheen root from the market– would all be brought and all go into a big pot over a fire. Sometimes that pot would yield oildown, sometimes fish waters, sometimes something else. Every time though a group would form when the head chef/host judged the pot ready. The fisherman and farmer who provided so much to the pot get their fill, but the wives and children and neighbors with empty bellies who happen by all eat too. There is no such thing as leftover oildown. It just impressed me that this communal way of eating –one that acknowledges our common humanity and our original cooperative social modality– seems to spontaneously arise in certain communities, even at great geographical and sociological distance. It is as if sharing and the concept of ‘enough’ are actually coded somewhere in our DNA, like the last shred of The Force that resided in and ultimately redeemed Darth Vader.”

Mottainai – もったいない

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大山祇神社  Oyamatsumi-jinja, Kochi. Photo by flickr user berobeeman. All rights revert to originator.
大山祇神社 
Oyamatsumi-jinja, Kochi. Photo by flickr user berobeeman. All rights revert to originator.

Mottainai is a Japanese word expressing a sense of regret at waste.

Mottainai is a compound word, mottai+naiMottai (勿体) refers to the intrinsic dignity or sacredness of a material entity, while nai (無い) indicates an absence or lack (Mottai further consists of mochi (勿), meaning “inevitable; unnecessary to discuss”, and tai (体), meaning “entity; body”)…

…Buddhists traditionally used the term mottainai to indicate regret at the waste or misuse of something sacred or highly respected, such as religious objects or teaching. Today, the word is widely used in everyday life to indicate the waste of any material object, time, or other resource. Compare also the concept of tsukumogami “artifact spirit”, which are said to live in old objects that have gained self-awareness and are angered if the object is thrown away wastefully.

Another of the threads in my old cloak, this sense that items we’d term mere objects seem at times imbued with a greater there-ness than their mere presence would suggest. I avoid allowing food to go to waste not solely for the image of a disused half a head of celery in the compost heap somehow sad it was unable to fulfill its prime directive, but can’t help experiencing a moment of not sadness but recognition when an item goes to waste at my hands. It recalls a moment in kindergarten when asked to choose a favorite color & draw a picture with it. When my teacher asked why I had chosen black I replied “Because nobody else chose it and I felt sorry for it.”

Modern psychologists might suggest mottainai is a manifestation of a guilt complex, though the word and its etymological roots* were thoroughly inculcated in Japanese cultural DNA since ancient times. Rather, in view of persistent Japanese observance of their own ancient religion (Shinto) I would tend to attribute this pervasive social more to an earlier human mindset, in which we viewed the trees, stones, and streams themselves as possessed of a silent, watchful awareness.

I’ve always found it hard to explain how among countless hundreds of miles of backcountry trails one stone catches my eye; wants to come with me, even if only long enough to find company atop the next trailside cairn. My first inclination is always to leave a thing as I find it: to trust the arrangement of rocks, trees, and waters are proper inasmuch as they have come to exist in just such a state in course of their own self-determination. A boulder calved from a mountain is a rock, a stone, a pebble, sand, and soil in its course. Who am I to interfere?

Neither this perspective nor that represented by mottainai necessarily require a person to view stones, consumer goods, or foodstuffs as imbued with living souls, only to acknowledge an obligation to treat them as gently as we would an urn of grandfather’s ashes. The hunter gives thanks to the deer. The mason is thankful for a kindly-shaped stone. The prescription for mottainai is gratitude.

* I encountered the following analysis of the etymology of the word mottainai by /u/wonkydonky in /r/wikipedia on Reddit and thought it worth reposting here, for academic interest:

mottainai” (もったいない) is indeed a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret concerning waste, being wasteful, or being more than something is worth. And it’s not used just about sacred or highly-respected objects, but can be used for anything, gasoline, electricity, etc. I suppose it might have roots in the Buddhist term 勿体 and the Shinto belief in objects having souls, but I wouldn’t know. I know that the kanji for もったいない is indeed 勿体ない, but I’ve never seen it outside of a dictionary.

But I seriously doubt that any more than a handful of Japanese-speakers actually know its origins. To the average Japanese speaker, it just means, “wasteful”, without any religious imagery, in the same way that the average English speaker would consider “sinister” to just mean, “someone who plots evil,” and without any sort of relation to “left-handedness”, despite the fact that it comes from the Latin word for “left-handed”.

Applepalooza 2013

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Raw Materials
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Toots, Cal, and Charlie
Driveway Wildmen
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A small portion of the finished product

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More a press prototype than functioning device. Five or six dudes always standing around it, re-engineering…
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A late appearance by haloed Wy’east

Peter Singer: Why Pay More?

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Peter Singer gawks at conspicuous consumption in the 21st century, and not in the way conspicuous consumers want to be seen.

Wearing a watch that costs 200 times more than one that does a better job of keeping time says something else, even when it is worn by people who are not governing a relatively poor country. Andrew Carnegie, the richest man of Veblen’s era, was blunt in his moral judgments. “The man who dies rich,” he is often quoted as saying, “dies disgraced.”

We can adapt that judgment to the man or woman who wears a $30,000 watch or buys similar luxury goods, like a $12,000 handbag. Essentially, such a person is saying; “I am either extraordinarily ignorant, or just plain selfish. If I were not ignorant, I would know that children are dying from diarrhea or malaria, because they lack safe drinking water, or mosquito nets, and obviously what I have spent on this watch or handbag would have been enough to help several of them survive; but I care so little about them that I would rather spend my money on something that I wear for ostentation alone.”

Of course, we all have our little indulgences. I am not arguing that every luxury is wrong. But to mock someone for having a sensible watch at a modest price puts pressure on others to join the quest for ever-greater extravagance. That pressure should be turned in the opposite direction, and we should celebrate those, like Sikorski, with modest tastes and higher priorities than conspicuous consumption.

The extravagance race is the arms race is the capital race. Keeping up with the Joneses is keeping up with the Soviet threat is keeping up with Chinese technology. To each his own Tower of Babel: self-monumentalism; burning existence for appearances.