Hopeful Weekend Links

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Become a Radical Pragmatist – Alan Webber, Do Lectures

Top 16 TED Talks for Foodists – Darya Rose, Summer Tomato

Guide to Seasonal Living: Spring – Mother Earth News Living

Oregon Moves to Help Disappearing Honey Bees – Jodi Peterson, High Country News

How Finland created the best education system in the world – Christine Gross-Loh, The Atlantic

Cure “plant deficiency syndrome” with the wild medicine solution – Guido Masé, Herb Mentor Radio

Become the Solution

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I love brainstorming for solutions. That’s why I started this blog. I wanted to ponder answers to some of the questions I was asking myself after my first son was born, like how can my husband and I create a healthy, happy, sustainable family life? How can societies redesign communities for health and happiness? Four years later I’m still here brainstorming.

Often I come back to a movement that may hold some of the answers: permaculture.

Permaculture is a gardening movement that originated in the 1970s in Australia. Its “father” Bill Mollison defines it as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Sound confusing? I haven’t even gotten into the three tenets or twelve design principles. Honestly, I don’t wholly understand permaculture, which may be why I’ve yet to transform my yard into a food forest.

But I find it to be an incredibly refreshing and hopeful philosophy, because it re-frames a tired conversation about our role in nature.

Most of us are well-versed on humans’ criminal performance as stewards of the natural world. Nearly all my earth science lessons from first grade through college ended with discussion of humans’ destruction: a hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, rampant pollution, global climate change. After my dad died, I saw a photo of a polluted landscape and immediately recognized the emotion I’d been feeling during all of these environmental lessons: grief. I’m sure I’m not alone in that emotion.

The environmental movement often espouses footprint reduction as the solution to the devastation. In An Inconvenient Truth, we saw a list of the same solutions I heard in elementary science classes: turn off the lights, drive less, buy energy efficient appliances.

As you know, I’m all for finding joy in simpler lives. But I’m not convinced it’s the answer to our environmental problems.

Derrick Jensen makes a good point in his 2009 critique of simple living “Forget Shorter Showers”: “The logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. . . . we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.” Jensen is trying to provoke political action in his essay, but he captures how psychologically depressing and even destructive it is to think the way we can best serve the world is to disappear.

If our presence itself is the problem, how can we be the solution?

Perhaps that’s why when I first read about permaculture, I felt a rush of relief. The movement is not about shrinking, shriveling, or getting smaller. The ultimate goal isn’t disappearing. It’s about doing something productive that makes the world a better place. It’s about improving the environment through our actions.

In their memoir Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates describe how they built a permaculture food forest that transformed their barren urban lot into a high yield food-producing habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms. “Imagine what would happen,” Toensmeier writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”

Permaculture is incredibly powerful, because it inspires us to become the solution. It shows us that we can create systems of abundance where everybody wins.

What if we apply the same mindset to other seemingly entrenched problems? We’d probably be able to re-frame all kinds of tired conversations and focus on what we can design and create to affect the world for the better.

It’s the mindset that inspired Seattle to create Beacon Food Forest, seven acres of fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs and vegetables that will be open to the public for foraging, that helped Judy Wicks build a successful business while creating a thriving local economy in Philadelphia, and that helped a Spanish biologist build a fish farm in Southwest Spain that reversed the ecological destruction of the Guadalquiver River valley.

If you haven’t seen Dan Barber’s TED Talk about that Spanish fish farm, it’s an incredible reminder of what can happen when we become the solution.

Check out these resources for more inspiration:

Hopeful Weekend Links

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How green microbeweries stoke sustainability – Peter Brewitt, Orion

The full-fat paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean – Allison Aubrey, NPR

How to Change the World – Renee Tougas, Fimby

60 Plus Nutrient Dense Recipes That Any Kid Will Love – Kristen Marr, Live Simply

Some good news in the farm bill – Karen Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists

It took this man two hours a week to change the world – Sage Cohen, The Path of Possibility

How to Surround Yourself with Brilliance

Photo by Joshua Rothhaas

Photo by Joshua Rothhaas

When I told my dad, a freelance writer for more than 30 years, that I was going to make a go at freelancing in 2009, he joked that I might try “something more remunerative, like looking for dropped change on the sidewalk.” He was exaggerating of course, but he was right that freelancing is not the easiest way to make money. It is, however, an amazing school.

I’ve learned so much from generating ideas, pitching, interviewing, researching, crafting articles, working with editors, and polishing pieces. If I had to pluck out one lesson to share from my freelancing adventures, it would be this: ask more questions.

It sounds simple, but learning how to interview people changed the way I approach everything from my friendships to my parenting to my writing. People love to share their stories. All you have to do is be curious, ask questions, and listen. It’s a sure way to improve any relationship, project, or boring activity. And you’ll likely find out you’re surrounded by fascinating geniuses.

Hopeful Weekend Links

Photo by Chris Breeze

Photo by Chris Breeze

Seattle to Build Nation’s First Food Forest – Claire Leschen-Hoar

22 Unbelievable Places that are Hard to Believe Really Exist – Bored Panda

Going on a Walk Could Change the World – Hannah Engelkamp

Microhousing takes off in some cities – Claire Thompson, High Country News

Mind blowing beach art – ViralNova

The Best Fast Food You’ve Ever Had

Here’s my article about Portland’s food cart revolution, from the current issue of YES! Magazine. We’ve had a week straight of ice-cold fog, and these photos, taken last July, are making me delirious with summer longing (not to mention hungry).

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Portland’s Food Truck Heaven: How a New Kind of Fast Food Brings Jobs, Flavor, and Walkability

Immigrants and other restaurant workers get a way to rise in local economies. Communities get the best fast food they’ve ever had.

by Abby Quillen

At noon on a sunny day in Portland, Ore., in what not long ago was a vacant lot, customers roam past brightly painted food carts perusing menus for vegan barbeque, Southern food, Korean-Mexican fusion, and freshly squeezed juice.

The smell of fried food and the tent-covered seating bring to mind a carnival, but a number of Portland’s food carts take a healthy approach to street food. The Big Egg, for instance, serves sandwiches and wraps made with organic farm-fresh eggs, balsamic caramelized onions, and arugula. Their to-go containers are compostable, and next to the order window is a list of local farms where they source their ingredients.

“We don’t have a can opener. We make everything ourselves, so it’s very time-consuming. And that’s the way we want it,” says Gail Buchanan, who runs The Big Egg with her partner, Emily D. Morehead.

The Big Egg usually sells out, says Buchanan as she hands a customer the last sandwich of the day, one made with savory portobello mushrooms. And on weekends, customers form a line down the block, willing to wait up to 45 minutes for their food.

Buchanan and Morehead dreamed of opening a restaurant for years. They had food service experience, saved money, and spent their free time developing menu items. “Then 2008 happened,” says Buchanan. Difficulty getting business loans after the recession convinced them to downsize their dream to a custom-designed food cart. When a developer announced he was opening a new food cart lot, Buchanan and Morehead jumped in.

Portland’s permissive land-use regulations allow vendors to open on private lots—food cart “pods”—like the one that hosts The Big Egg. Local newspaper Willamette Week estimates there are about 440 food carts in the metro area.

The food cart scene has taken off in Portland in a way it hasn’t in other cities—transforming vacant lots into community spaces and making neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly and livable.

Recent features in Sunset, Bon Appétit, Saveur, and on the Food Network have pointed to Portland’s food cart pods as tourist destinations. There are even food cart walking tours.

Despite their success, Buchanan and Morehead have found that running a food cart isn’t easy money. They both work 70 hours a week, most of it prepping menu items—their fire-roasted poblano salsa alone takes three hours to prepare. But they’re grateful for the experience. They plan on opening a restaurant soon, like a growing number of he city’s most popular vendors.

Many of those vendors are first-generation immigrants who’ve found a way to make a living by sharing food traditions.

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A few blocks from The Big Egg, Wolf and Bear’s serves Israeli cuisine from Jeremy Garb’s homeland. But it’s Israeli cuisine with a Portland influence, says his co-owner, Tanna TenHoopen Dolinsky. “It’s inspired by food in Israel, but we sprout our chickpeas and grill everything and don’t use a deep fryer.”

Wolf and Bear’s has grown to two locations and employs 12 people, and Garb and Dolinsky are considering opening a restaurant. “There’s a feeling of opportunity in Portland, and I think the rise of cart culture is representative of that,” says Dolinsky.

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Nong Poonsukwattana has made the most of that opportunity with her food cart, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, famous for her signature rice and chicken dish. She describes hers as the best kind of fast food: “Fast service but not fast cooked. It’s fresh. I serve happiness.”

Poonsukwattana arrived from Bangkok, Thailand, in 2003 with $70. She waitressed at five different restaurants, working every day and night of the week, before buying her own downtown food cart in 2009.

Now she has two carts and a brick-and-mortar commercial kitchen and employs 10 people. Recently she started bottling and selling her own sauce.

Poonsukwattana likes the sense of community in the food cart pods, “even though competition is fierce,” but especially the cultural exchange with customers, many of whom she knows by name.

“I think it’s always good to support local business, mom-and-pop shops, or small businesses with different ideas. It’s beautiful to see people fight for a better future for themselves.”

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Abby Quillen wrote this article for How To Live Like Our Lives Depend On It, the Winter 2014 issue of YES! Magazine.

Making Economic Exchange a Loving Human Interaction

Here’s my review of Good Morning, Beautiful Business by Judy Wicks, which appears in the current issue of YES! Magazine.

Judy Wicks Cover

The Economy of Smallness: Making Economic Exchange a Loving Human Interaction

Philadelphia restauranteur and local economies movement leader Judy Wicks on making good and doing good.

by Abby Quillen

A few years after Judy Wicks opened the White Dog Cafe in West Philadelphia, she hung a sign in her bedroom closet as a daily reminder of what her business could be if she gave it ­creativity and care. Two decades after its humble beginnings, Wicks’ restaurant had become a model for socially responsible business, and Wicks herself was a national leader of the movement for local, living economies.

The message on that sign, “Good morning, beautiful business,” is also the title of Wicks’ memoir, the story of a woman driven by a love of community, a strong sense of justice, and a taste for adventure.

Wicks worked for VISTA in a remote native village in Alaska, laid down in front of a bulldozer to stop the demolition of a historic building, grew one of the most socially responsible businesses in the nation, and co-founded several sustainable business organizations. She also threw some fabulous parties. The courage, creativity, and sense of fun in her story are contagious.

Growing up in the 1950s, Wicks shunned the stereotypes of how girls should behave and longed to play baseball with the boys. But when, almost by accident, she became a businesswoman and entrepreneur, she recognized that her feminine desire to nurture was an asset in bringing collaboration to business and creating a more caring economy.

In the early days of the White Dog Cafe, located in the downstairs of Wicks’ Victorian brownstone, she couldn’t afford to build a commercial kitchen or hire a chef. She cooked the restaurant’s meals in her own kitchen while she watched her young son and daughter, and customers tromped upstairs to use the family’s bathroom. Eventually the restaurant filled three row houses, a companion retail store filled two more, and her businesses were grossing $5 million annually.

But Wicks wasn’t content to do well; she wanted to do good. Before most Americans had heard of farm-to-table, Wicks bought her ingredients from local farms and breweries. When she read about factory farming, she switched to humane sources for the restaurant’s meat. Then she created Fair Food, a humane farm network and free consulting program to teach her competitors about the importance of using humanely sourced meat.

Wicks also used her business as a platform for social and political activism. She traveled to Nicaragua, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Mexico, and Cuba to establish sister restaurants and build friendships in parts of the world where she felt U.S. foreign policy was doing harm. She held “Table Talks” and published a newsletter to inform her customers about her trips as well as other peace and justice issues.

“‘Food, fun, and social activism’ became the White Dog motto,” writes Wicks, who attributes many of her socially responsible business decisions to living above her restaurant. “When we live and do business in the same community, reconnecting home life and work life, we are more likely to run businesses in the best interest of the community we care about.”

Wicks paid her employees a living wage, started a mentoring program for the area’s high school students, and made her business the first in Pennsylvania to purchase 100 percent renewable energy. Good Morning, Beautiful Business proves that profit can accompany making the world better. It should be widely read in business schools and entrepreneurial circles, but it offers ample lessons for others as well.

Wicks challenges us to look at how we can make a difference in our daily lives and with our dollars. “You can find a way to make economic exchange one of the most satisfying, meaningful, and loving of human interactions,” she writes. At a time when we hear much about what’s wrong with the economy, Wicks helps us imagine an alternative.

She envisions “a new economy based on smallness” made up of independent businesses and decentralized farms that work cooperatively, invest in each other, and pay attention to a triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. Through her work at the Social Venture Network, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and other organizations, she has spent decades working to realize this vision.

“We’re out to create a global system of human-scale, interconnected, local, living economies that provide basic needs to all the world’s people,” she writes. “To put it simply, we believe in happiness.”


Abby Quillen wrote this article for The Human Cost of Stuff, the Fall 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Abby is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Ore. She blogs at newurbanhabitat.com.

Why the Way You Think About Happiness Might Be Wrong

Photo by Trecking Rinjahi

Photo by Trekking Rinjani

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. – Abraham Lincoln

“If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.” This is the way most of us think. But happiness expert Shawn Achor says we have it all wrong.

Our brains are simply too adept at moving goal posts. “You can get great grades in school, but then you have to get better grades so you can get into a better school and then get a good internship and then a good job and then go back to school. And you can’t be happy yet, because then you have to rise up in the ranks, and then your children have to do well.”

The myth that success leads to happiness reflects a broader assumption that our external world predicts our well-being. But really, “If I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10 percent of your longtime happiness,” says Achor. Of course, most of us know this is true. My friends and I had a great time while living in dilapidated surroundings and eating Ramen during our college years. And you only need to skim through a copy of US Weekly to recognize that mansions, Lamborghinis, and Oscar nominations don’t ensure bliss.

Yet still the meme that success leads to happiness endures, and Achor says it has detrimental effects. “If happiness is on the other side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society.”

Moreover, he insists that we have it exactly backward. Success doesn’t lead to happiness; happiness leads to success. “Thanks to cutting-edge science, we know that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement — giving us the competitive edge that I call the happiness advantage.” Achor cites numerous studies showing that happiness raises intelligence and boosts performance.

So are you doomed if you tend to see half-empty glasses? Happiness is not something that happens to us,” says Achor. He insists we can reprogram our brains to be happier with five simple practices:

1. Write down three things you’re grateful for every day. Your brain will retain the pattern of looking for positive things in your surroundings.

2. Spend five minutes a day journaling about a positive thing that happened to you. Your brain responds the same way to visualization and experience, so you can double your good experiences.

3. Meditate. Focusing on your breath, even for two minutes a day, trains your brain to single-task.

4. Exercise. It reinforces that your behaviors matter, which is a key predictor of success.

5. Perform conscious acts of kindness. Achor advises writing a two-sentence email first thing in the morning praising or recognizing someone in your environment: a co-worker, family member, or friend. A strong social support network is a big predictor of happiness.

Achor warns that no one should expect to be happy all the time. “That’s a disorder.” But by taking the above steps, “We can reverse the formula for happiness and success and not only create ripples of positivity, but create a real revolution.”

Learn more about Shawn Achor’s research:

What do you think? Is it time for us to reverse the formula for happiness and success? Have you reprogrammed your brain to be happier? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Photo: Aaron Patterson

Photo: Aaron Patterson

Money’s a horrid thing to follow, but a charming thing to meet. – Henry James

Several months ago, I realized that money makes a lot of people miserable. In our household, paying bills was a source of anxiety, and many of my friends were feeling a similar financial squeeze. An older friend came into a sizable sum of money, but it didn’t exactly bring him joy; he vexed over how he should invest it and whether it would be enough for retirement. Then two close friends got into a feud – and I suspected a monetary transaction was at the root of it.

That’s when someone introduced me to the concept of the gift economy, which Charles Eisenstein articulates in his book, Sacred Economics. His contention is that money has “contributed to alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth.”

“One of the things I talk about,” says Eisenstein in a beautiful film about the book, “is the sense of wrongness that I had as a child. I think most kids have some sense that it’s not supposed to be this way. For example, that you’re not supposed to actually hate Monday and be happy when you don’t have to go to school. School should be something that you love. Life should be something that you love.

Eisenstein and other gift economy proponents argue it’s time for us to move toward a non-monetary economy.  “We didn’t earn any of the things that keep us alive or that make life good. … We didn’t earn being able to breathe. We didn’t earn having a planet that can provide food. We didn’t earn the sun. So I think that on some level people have this in-born gratitude. … In a gift economy, it’s not true the way it is in our money economy that everyone’s in competition with everyone else. In a gift economy when you have more than you need, you give it, and that’s how you receive status.

Gift economics is compelling, and Sacred Economics, the book and film, are worth exploring. The Creative Commons, wikis, and open source are examples of successful gift economies in action, and I’m sure we’ll see many more in the future. Eisenstein says he tries to bring the ideal of a gift economy into his own life by, for instance, letting people pay whatever they wish for the materials he self publishes.

The chain Panera Bread has famously experimented with pay-what-you-can ideas, and locally, a few institutions are experimenting with gift economics. “We don’t sell anything,” the founder of a non-profit school told me. They do, however, actively fund-raise for monetary donations, which begs the question of how removed these institutions are (or can be) from the money economy.

On a personal level, I fear turning away from money would be as dysfunctional as chasing it. The gift economy seems to reflect something that many of us feel – an inner ambivalence about whether it is “good” to make money, to spend it, and to have material things. But money is here to stay. The question is: can making and spending it be a source of good in the world and in our lives?

Judy Wicks insists it can. I recently reviewed her memoir Good Morning, Beautiful Business for YES! Magazine. She opened Philadelphia’s famous White Dog Cafe, one of the first restaurants in the nation to feature local, organic, and humane food. The business made millions, which Wicks used to create sustainable business networks and build local economies across the country. “You can find a way to make economic exchange one of the most satisfying, meaningful, and loving of human interactions,” she writes.

Wicks inspired me to think about how I can transform earning, saving, and spending money into a more satisfying, joyful, and meaningful part of my life. To that end, I’ve been taking a moment when bills arrive to connect them with what I’m paying for. For instance, as I examine our electricity usage or mortgage bill, I remind myself of our warm, cozy, comfortable home, which brings us ample joy. I’m already noticing a new emotion arising when the postman drops off a stack of bills – gratitude.

I’ve also been exploring how I can use money to make the world better, even if in a micro way. I’m budgeting a little cash every month to give away anonymously. What a powerful exercise! I’m amazed by how hard it is to let go of cash. But it feels fabulous to use money, which is so often a source of discontent, to spread a little joy.

There’s no question that money and the pursuit of it causes a lot of misery and devastation in the world, but I hope I’m on my way to a healthier, more joyful relationship with it in my own life.

Do you feel conflicted about making and spending money? Have you found ways to make money a satisfying, joyful, and meaningful part of your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Happy Earth Day!

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In honor of the holiday, I’m posting a column my dad wrote for the April 21, 2011 Denver Post. I have a cameo appearance, and I love my dad’s hilarious and true take on how we should celebrate the day.

Replace Earth Day with Binge Day

By Ed Quillen
The Denver Post

Earth Day is Friday, and as a loyal resident of Earth, I want to celebrate properly.

I may have already found the wrong way to celebrate. In 2003, I was invited to speak at an Earth Day rally in Alamosa. Being rather immodest, I accepted.

But my 170-mile round-trip drive must have damaged the ozone layer or accelerated global warming or otherwise worsened whatever we were worried about eight years ago. The gathering in Cole Park was pleasant, but there were generators growling and smoking to provide electricity for the amplifiers. This didn’t strike me as especially Earth-friendly.

And when my stage turn came, I followed Peggy Godfrey of Moffat, who’s a cowboy poet or cowgirl poetess. However you describe her, she’s a great performer. I felt like the local garage band that somehow ended up appearing after the Rolling Stones. Peggy is a hard act to follow.

This was clearly not an appropriate Earth Day commemoration for me. But what would be?

To find out, I called the greenest person I know, my daughter Abby in Eugene, Ore. She has a big garden and keeps chickens. She and her husband, Aaron, don’t own a car; Aaron bicycles 12 miles each way to his teaching job. Abby’s always on the lookout for local foods and gentler ways to run her household — for instance, she washes her long brown hair with vinegar instead of commercial shampoo.

(I should point out that we did not raise Abby to turn out this way, as we had a car but no chickens. It’s a choice she made after graduating with honors from the University of Colorado Denver with a degree in history.)

“So how do you plan to celebrate Earth Day?” I asked Abby, expecting to hear that she’d be at a big rally in a downtown Eugene park.

“I know some people who are driving clear up to Vancouver, B.C., for an Earth Day festival.” She laughed at that irony. “But for us, it will be pretty much the same as any other day. I’ll feed the chickens, gather eggs, tend the garden, take Ezra (their 3-year-old son) for a walk, hope he naps long enough for me to get some writing done — what I do most days.”

Abby’s got the right idea here: If you care about the environment, forget about Earth Day trips and celebrations, and live simply every day. When you think about it, focusing on the environment once a year doesn’t make much sense, especially when that celebration often involves burning a lot of fuel.

But there does seem to be a basic human need for annual celebrations, and to that end I propose a yearly Binge Day.

On the other 364 days of the year, we would live simple green lives with local food and drink. We would walk, bicycle or ride public transit to get around. We would eschew gaudy imported novelties, fad electronics destined for quick obsolescence and other trashy food, goods and geegaws.

In other words, we would live prudently and sensibly, following adages like “Waste not, want not.” The global economy might contract on that account, but it seems to be doing that anyway.

On Binge Day, though, we could pig out on champagne and corn-fed prime rib. We’d rent a Hummer or an Escalade to drive to the shopping mall for an orgy of conspicuous consumption. We’d ignore the recycling bins and just toss our abundant trash in a barrel. And after the once-a-year Binge Day blowout, we’d go back to living sensibly.

Add it up, and Binge Day should be about 364 times better for the environment than Earth Day.

I’m editing an anthology of my dad’s columns. To find out more about it, visit edquillen.com. How are you celebrating Earth Day? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!