Archive for category Social movements
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!
Why the Most Powerful Thing in the World is a Seed
by Abby Quillen
Janisse Ray celebrates the local, organic food movement but fears we’re forgetting something elemental: the seeds. According to Ray, what is happening with our seeds is not pretty. Ninety-four percent of vintage open-pollinated fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished over the last century.
Ray begins The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by explaining how we lost our seeds. Feeding ourselves has always been a burden for humans, she explains. “So when somebody came along and said, ‘I’ll do that cultivating for you. I’ll save the seeds. You do something else,’ most of us jumped at the chance to be free.”
But, according to Ray, when the dwindling number of farmers who stayed on the land gave up on saving seeds and embraced hybridization, genetically modified organisms, and seed patents in order to make money, we became slaves to multinational corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta, which now control our food supply.
In 2007, 10 companies owned 67 percent of the seed market. These corporations control the playing field, because they influence the government regulators. They’ve been known to snatch up little-known varieties of seeds, patent them, and demand royalties from farmers whose ancestors have grown the crops for centuries. The result is that our seeds are disappearing, and we miss out on the exquisite tastes and smells of an enormous variety of fruits and vegetables. More alarmingly, “we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk,” Ray writes. “The more varieties we lose, the closer we slide to the tipping point of disaster.”
However, The Seed Underground is not a grim story. It’s a story about seeds, after all, which Ray calls “the most hopeful thing in the world.” Moreover, it’s a story about a handful of quirky, charismatic, “quiet, under-the-radar” revolutionaries, who harvest and stow seeds in the back of refrigerators and freezers across America. Sylvia Davatz, a Vermont gardener who advocates that local food movements produce and promote locally grown seeds, calls herself the Imelda Marcos of seeds, because she has a thousand varieties in her closet. Yanna Fishman, the so-called sweet-potato queen, toils over a wild garden in the highlands of western North Carolina, where she grows 40 varieties of sweet potatoes. Dave Cavagnaro, an Iowan photographer, teaches people to hand-pollinate squash with masking tape to keep vintage varieties pure.
Seeds, it turns out, don’t just grow plants—they build stories, heritage, and history, which tend to be shared every time seeds pass from hand to hand. So it’s fitting that Ray, an accomplished nature writer and activist, shares some of her own story in The Seed Underground. When she was just a child, Ray got her first heirloom seeds from her grandmother—Jack beans, which resembled eyeballs. At 12 she set a brush fire trying to clear land for a garden. At 22 she joined Seed Savers Exchange.
Perhaps we learn the most about Ray from her present-day gardens at Red Earth, her Georgia farm. Ray writes that in the garden, she is “an animal with a hundred different senses and all of them are switched on.” She grows crops like Fife Creek Cowhorn okra, Running Conch cowpea, and Green Glaze collard. Her barn is filled with drying seed heads; her kitchen is stinky with seeds fermenting. “Seeds proliferate in the freezer, in my office, in the seed bank, in the garden shed—in jars, credit card envelopes, coffee cans, medicine bottles, recycled seed packets.”
Ray outlines the basics of seed saving in The Seed Underground, but it is not a how-to book. It’s a call to action, which often reads like a lyrical love letter to the land and to varieties of squash and peas most of us have never tasted. It’s also a love letter to us, Ray’s readers. “Even though I may not know you, I have fallen in love with you, you who understand that a relationship to the land is powerful,” she writes.
The truth is, Janisse Ray is on a mission to turn you into a quiet, under-the-radar revolutionary, and if you read The Seed Underground, she just might succeed. At the very least, you will look at seeds—tiny, but vital to our survival —differently.
“A seed makes itself. A seed doesn’t need a geneticist or hybridist or publicist or matchmaker. But it needs help,” she writes. “Sometimes it needs a moth or a wasp or a gust of wind. Sometimes it needs a farm and it needs a farmer. It needs a garden and a gardener. It needs you.”
Abby Quillen wrote this article for How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy, the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Abby is a freelance writer in Eugene, Ore. She blogs at newurbanhabitat.com.
It seems like the Internet becomes a more inspiring place every day. One of my favorite developments of the past few years is all of the brilliant people gathering to share ideas, lectures, and presentations — and the video projects that bring their inspiring words to the rest of us.
Here are just seven online video projects that could change your outlook on life:
1. TED Talks
Six years ago, Richard Saul Wurman and Henry Marks sought out some of the most interesting people on earth and asked them to share what they’re passionate about. Since then TED Talks have mushroomed into a global phenomena that’s transforming the Internet into a more electrifying place.
2. Do Lectures
“In a field, in a tent, from a small, clever country called Wales, the doers of the world come to share their stories.” The Do Lectures is like an intimate British cousin of TED Talks. “So each year we invite a set of people down here to come and tell us what they Do…” they explain on their web site. “When you listen to their stories, they light a fire in your belly to go and Do your thing, your passion, the thing that sits in the back of your head each day, just waiting, and waiting for you to follow your heart.”
3. RSA Events
The Royal Society of Arts hosts a public events program in the United Kingdom that delivers over 150 free lectures, talks, screenings, and debates each year. “Our aim is to translate new ideas and critical debate into practical change,” they say. “And to inspire our audiences, from the local to the global, to be a force for civic innovation and social progress.”
4. The Feast
The Feast hosts and films annual conferences gathering “the most remarkable entrepreneurs, radicals, doers and thinkers who are revolutionizing the way things work for the betterment of humanity.”
The School of Life calls itself “a new enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life.” They explain: “We address such questions as why work is often unfulfilling, why relationships can be so challenging, why it’s ever harder to stay calm and what one could do to try to change the world for the better.”
6. Gel Videos
Good Experience Live is a yearly conference in New York City that “brings together ideas, experiences, and thought leaders from many disciplines. Participants are invited to find the common patterns, even in areas vastly different from their own.”
The Good Life Project is a 40 minute weekly web -show hosted by Jonathon Fields. He interviews “people building deeply-meaningful businesses, bodies of work, movements and careers, as well as world-class experts.” The conversations are thought-provoking and beautifully filmed.
If the reaction to my all-time most popular post 5 Documentaries That Could Change Your Outlook on Life is any indication, people are hungry for entertaining, life-changing documentaries. You can find many, many suggestions in the comments there, and here are five more of my picks.
1. I AM (2011)
An accident left Tom Shadyac, director of comedies like Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty, incapacitated and questioning the meaning of life. When he recovered, he set off on a journey to understand the root cause of the world’s ills, meeting with scientists, philosophers, and thinkers, like David Suzuki, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and John Francis. Meanwhile he traded in his 17,000-square-foot mansion and private jet for a mobile home and a bicycle. What he discovers is that humans are more connected to each other and the planet than he ever imagined. Watch the trailer.
2. Food, Inc. (2010)
Want to know what’s in industrial food? Watch this documentary, featuring interviews with Michael Pollen and Eric Schlosser. The deplorable way our food is raised and produced is almost less shocking than the actions corporations take to hide it from us. But the documentary provides ample hope, like the success of Joel Salatan’s Polyface Farm. Watch the trailer.
3. Rebecca’s Wild Farm (2009)
Filmmaker Rebecca Hosking returned to Devon, England to take over her family’s farm. But first, because of sky-high oil prices, she set off on a journey to discover how to farm without fossil fuels. In the film, she wanders the breathtaking English countryside interviewing a cadre of experts and discovers simple and practical solutions in the wisdom of wild nature. This enchanting documentary will change the way you think about food and farming. Watch it here.
4. Living Downstream (2011)
Biologist Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 20. Although her doctors told her it was a fluke, she’s convinced she was part of a cancer cluster in her hometown in Tazewell County, Illinois, where textile dyes in the groundwater are known carcinogens. In the next 30 years, Steingraber went on to become a cancer survivor, receive her PhD, write popular books and articles, and speak all over the world as a passionate “carcinogen abolitionist.” Living Downstream documents her life and research. Watch the trailer.
5. Stress, Portrait of a Killer (2008)
Are we brave enough to learn from a baboon? That’s what scientist and MacArthur genius Robert Sapolsky asks in this eye-opening film. He’s spent 30 years studying the effects of stress on a troop of baboons and found that baboons on the bottom of the social hierarchy are more stressed, which leads to detrimental changes in fat-cell storage, artery health, brain chemistry, mood, aging, and life expectancy. Research on British civil servants suggests the same thing may be true for humans. Sapolsky has some good news, though: we can take steps to reduce stress, individually and as a society. Watch the documentary here.
What’s your favorite documentary?
My article “Farmers Go Wild” about conservation-based agriculture is in the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. You can read it here.
“Frogs are an indicator species,” Jack Gray explains, leaning over a small, muddy pond to look for tadpoles.
Here on the 170-acre Winter Green Farm, 20 miles west of Eugene, Ore., Gray has raised cattle and grown vegetables and berries for 30 years.
It’s a sunny April day, but water pools in the pastures, evidence of the rains this part of Oregon is known for.
Gray is in his mid-50s and agile from decades of working outside. He built this pond to provide habitat for native amphibians, because bass in another pond were eating the red-legged frogs and Western pond turtles.
Cows graze in a field behind him; wind whispers through a stand of cattails, and two mallards lift off. Gray points out the calls of killdeer, flycatchers, and blackbirds. Up the hill a flock of sheep chomp on long grass. “They’re part of a controlled grazing to try to control reed canary grass, which is an invasive species,” Gray explains. “It tends to smother areas. It makes deserts almost.”
Gray, his wife, Mary Jo, and two other families co-own Winter Green Farm. They are committed to something Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance, calls “farming with the wild.”
When my son Ezra was an infant, he was no fan of the car. Car rides, even short jaunts around town, invariably included crying and multiple comfort stops. But, at some point, my almost-three-year-old became a huge admirer of the automobile – perhaps right around the time we sold ours.
“Mama, we need a truck. A big, huge truck. We can drive it all over the streets,” he remarks as we walk past a neighbor’s pickup.
“Dada, we should buy a car at the store,” he insists as we cross the parking lot to the grocery store. “We need a car.”
On the rare occasions when we rent a car, Ezra is ecstatic. “I can’t drive the car yet,” he explains as he crawls into his car seat. “My feet don’t reach the gas pedals. I will drive it when I’m this tall.” He waves his hand a few feet over his head.
Sometimes I wonder if our car-free experiment, now in its eighth month, is cementing our son’s love for all things automobile. One day he’ll undoubtedly drive a monster truck and eschew gardens, clotheslines, and hand-washing dishes.
But if our experiment has made my son more enamored with cars, it has only reinforced my husband and my ambivalence about car ownership.
A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law flew in from New York and rented a car for the week. We loved seeing her, and having a car around was great in lots of ways. We ran all kinds of errands and visited both the coast and the forest. I was able to zip over to a nearby town to interview someone for an article. My husband and I marveled at the convenience and warmth of cruising across town while rain pounded down. We shot sympathetic glances at cyclists who passed by us dripping wet and dressed head-to-toe in rain gear.
Then midway through my mother-in-law’s visit, my husband and I biked across town to run an errand.
“I feel alive again,” my husband said as we pedaled down the path. I couldn’t help but agree. For all the convenience of the car, I had really missed walking and riding my bike.
Plus, as my husband mused, car ownership is expensive — not only because of the car’s price tag, $3.80 a gallon gas, and the inevitable maintenance. With the exception of the ocean and hiking trails (which I love and miss visiting more often), we noticed that the car tended to take us to places where the main activity is spending money – notably malls, box stores, and home improvement centers. We hadn’t visited these places in about eight months, and we hadn’t missed them.
Apparently my husband and I are not alone in our ambivalence about car ownership. Car sharing was all over the news last week, when Zipcar, a car-sharing service with 560,000 members in 14 cities, went public on Thursday and raised an impressive $174.3 million in its initial public offering. Peer-to-peer car share services, like RelayRides, which allow car owners to rent out their own vehicles, have also been getting a lot of press.
The Oregon House of Representatives just passed a car sharing bill with overwhelming support. If it passes in the senate, it will allow car owners to rent their cars to friends or neighbors through a car sharing service without fear of losing insurance policies or facing increased rates.
As our planned one-year car-free experiment nears an end, we go back and forth about whether to buy another vehicle. Oddly, my husband, who once drove the car almost exclusively to commute to work and shop for groceries, is the one who’s more convinced we can live without one. He’s adapted amazingly well to commuting about 12 miles a day on his bike, and he’s in the best shape of his life because of it.
I rarely drove the car when we owned one, preferring to walk and ride my bike, but I’m more torn about whether we should buy another one this summer. I don’t want a car loan, and I don’t miss the stress and worries involved with maintaining an older vehicle. On the other hand, in a few months, we’ll have a new baby, who won’t be able to ride in a bike trailer or bike seat for quite awhile. I’m a huge fan of walking, and Eugene has decent public transportation, but I know a car will make daily life with an infant and three-year-old easier, a seductive idea as I contemplate caring for two little ones.
Hopefully car sharing will become an option for more of us soon, making decisions like my family’s easier and providing extra income opportunities for those who invest in car ownership. In the meantime, at least we know how Ezra will vote when we have to decide whether to shop for another vehicle.
As my mother-in-law packed, Ezra cried and told her how much he was going to miss her. Then, as we lugged her bags out to the rental car to say our goodbyes, we realized he was also going to miss something else.
“Grandma, please don’t take the red car,” he cried. “Can’t you walk to New York?”
Interested in reading more about car-free living? Check out these posts:
“Where do you get your wheat?” I was about to ask.
My husband and I were out for a rare dinner alone at a nice restaurant, which advertises itself as exclusively local and organic. Next to us, a floor-to-ceiling board announced the night’s specials next to a list of farms where the food was grown.
I had just interviewed a local wheat farmer for an article and heard about a number of farmers in the Valley, who are switching from growing conventional grass seed, long the main crop in this part of the world, to growing organic grains for local markets. I was curious if this restaurant bought its wheat from one of the farmers I’d heard about.
But just as the waiter leaned in, and the question was about to leave my lips, I thought of this spoof of Portland, Oregon from the new show Portlandia, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
It’s true – Oregon is in the midst of a farm-to-table restaurant boom. I’ve been to three restaurants in the last few months with boards listing local farms. One is decorated with a mural of the rolling hills where the restaurant’s produce is grown, and the menu includes photos of the smiling farmers who grow the food.
Of course, farm-to-table restaurants are not new. Alice Waters has been serving up local, organic fare at Chez Pannise in San Francisco for decades. What is new about the locavore restaurants opening in this area is that more and more of them are affordable. One of the restaurants I ate in is a brew-pub and another serves “healthy fast food”, with all dishes under $10.
Moreover, just as the clip of Portlandia suggests, local restaurateurs (as well as grocers and bakers) seem to be forging closer relationships than ever with local farmers – and all parties are coming out ahead.
“It became a heck of a lot more fun to farm,” the wheat farmer I interviewed told me about his farm’s switch to growing food for local markets. “It’s infinitely more rewarding than just growing a product for a guy that you never know.”
We consumers might be the biggest winners. I’m a huge advocate of growing a garden, shopping at farmers’ markets, and cooking from scratch, but the reality is, Americans eat out a lot. In a 2006 survey, the average American family spent 42 percent of their food budget in restaurants.
When restaurants buy from local farms, our meals are more nutritious and taste better, since the food hasn’t made the 1500-mile road trip most produce takes before consumption in the U.S. And just think about all of the pollution and carbon not spewing into our air, and all of the money staying within our communities.
Besides, as a consumer, you can always put down the menu, ask the waiter to save your seats, and go meet the farmer who grew your wheat.
Are farm-to-table restaurants cropping up in your area? What do you think of the trend? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
“We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” – Mother Theresa
Happy Valentine’s Day! It’s the perfect day to think about love. I’m not thinking about romantic love, although I’m all for that too. What I’m thinking about is something I’m convinced we need more than ever right now – love for our communities.
In the last few years we’ve seen housing prices plummet, jobs become scarce, and retirement accounts evaporate. Many of us and our friends and neighbors are suffering. Many more fear a bleak future. But I’m convinced we will thrive. How? By building community.
An increasing number of people are starting to talk about resilience rather than sustainability, about investing locally and learning (or relearning) the skills that will help us succeed in a different kind of economy and a different climate. Humans have the ability to get through tough times. We’ve done it before. And it only works when we do it together.
Here are six ways you can invest in your community this Valentine’s Day:
1. Get to know your neighbors
For the first seven years we were together, my husband and I were nomads. We lived in seven different houses in two different states. We had a lot of different neighbors, few of whom we knew very well. Then we bought a house and got a neighborhood. Now we know the majority of our neighbors. We borrow ingredients from each other. We talk in our yards and driveways. We swap babysitting and gardening tips. We go for walks together. The neighborhood kids play outside – laughing, climbing trees, and riding bikes and scooters up and down the block – until sunset. When my old nomadic ways surface, the first thing that I think about is our neighborhood. How could we leave this?
Getting to know your neighbors doesn’t just help you buck the troubling trend toward social isolation in the U.S. It helps you build the kind of wealth that people seem to take for granted these days – friends. When a neighbor had to foreclose on his house, a bunch of the neighbors showed up to help him move. He ended up renting a house down the street. “I can’t leave these people,” he mused while he watched a neighbor load furniture into his truck.
Want to get to know your neighbors and not sure where to start? Sit on your front porch. Walk and ride your bike through your neighborhood. Have a yard sale. Take your headphones off. Talk to your neighbors. Attend a community meeting. Check out i-neighbors.org.
2. Buy local
The New Economics Foundation, a London think tank, compared what happens when people buy produce at a grocery store versus in a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program. It turns out that when people shop locally, twice the amount of money stays in the community.
When you buy from local businesses, you not only support a local business owner. Local businesses tend to buy from other local businesses, so money flows where you live rather than exiting for corporate headquarters. Moreover, local businesses are usually located in city centers rather than the fringes, encouraging customers to use people-powered or public transportation to get to them. And since they usually rely exclusively on local labor, you help to employ your neighbors. Local businesses are also what make our towns and cities unique.
3. Join a CSA
How can you support a local farmer, eat ultra-fresh vegetables all summer, and get to know the people who grow your food? Buy a CSA share. You usually pay a lump sum at the beginning of the season, which helps farmers have cash flow when they need it the most.
We’ve bought CSA shares over the years and have had great and disappointing experiences. One year, we ate a lot of Asian pears. So make sure you know what to expect. Here are a few questions you might want to ask before you sign up: What does the farm grow? Is the produce organic? How big is the standard share? What happens if you’re on vacation? Does the farm do home-delivery or will you need to pick it up? Do you get any extras, like eggs or flowers?
Be ready to plan your menus around your weekly produce box. You might see some produce that you’ve never eaten before, but most farms send out a newsletter with cooking tips and recipes to help introduce you to the exciting world of kohlrabi, garlic scapes, and mustard greens.
4. Volunteer your time
For many years, I thought about volunteering, but I was convinced I didn’t have the time. Then I changed my definition of volunteering. I used to think of being a volunteer as something you needed to sign up for, go through an orientation, and wear some kind of badge to do. Quasi-employment. Certainly formal opportunities abound to help out at food banks, libraries, literacy centers, schools, animal shelters, parks, nature centers, and other agencies if you have the time and inclination. But maybe you already work full time or more than full time? Or maybe you care for your kids all day and can’t get away? Well, there are plenty of informal ways to volunteer your time to your community that are easy for most anyone to squeeze in.
Here are a few ideas: Bring a bag and gloves with you on walks and pick up garbage. If you see ripe fruit on a tree going to waste, ask the property owner if you can pick it and donate it to a local food bank. Ask an elderly neighbor if you can help with chores or shopping. Donate books to the library and gently-used clothes to shelters or thrift stores. Share your talent or skill with your neighbors by donating a craft or piece of art to a charity. The idea is to give a little bit of time to bettering your community each week.
5. Be courteous on the roads
Aggressive driving and road rage are on the rise in the U.S. In one survey New York claimed the prize for having the most aggressive drivers and Portland, Oregon the most courteous. But all cities have ample room for improvement. AAA reports that, “At least 1,500 men, women, and children are seriously injured or killed each year in the United States as a result of senseless traffic disputes and altercations.” Driving a car can make people feel more isolated and protected, encouraging them to act in ways they normally wouldn’t. That probably explains all of the horn-honking, gestures, and fist-waving going on out there.
We can improve our communities immeasurably by simply being courteous on the road, whether we’re motorists, cyclists, or pedestrians. If you find yourself getting angry behind the wheel, like 60 percent of commuters report they often do, here are a few ways to prevent road rage: Get enough sleep. Give yourself more than enough time to get to your destination. Slow down. Don’t get in the car when you’re upset. Listen to upbeat or relaxing music when you drive. Relax and breathe.
If you’re on a bike, don’t forget to be visible, ride defensively, and always follow the rules of the road.
6. Be kind to strangers
“Hi,” my son chirps every time we pass someone on the sidewalk. Each time, it makes me glad. It’s easy to focus on the not-so-good things we inevitably role-model as parents – the slipped swear word or a proclivity toward chocolate chip cookies. But if our kids see us being friendly, chatting with neighbors, and being polite in the grocery store and post office, we’re teaching them something that has the power to change the world – kindness.
Researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis have demonstrated that a single act of kindness can influence dozens more. In an experiment, they divided participants into groups of four, gave each person 20 credits each, and asked them to secretly decide what to keep for themselves and what to contribute to a common fund. Then they distributed the credits and mixed the participants into different groups. If just one person contributed a generous amount to the common fund in a round, his entire group contributed more in the next round, showing that kindness really can go viral.
How do you show your love for your community? I’d love to hear about it.
“My one year challenge is to live in clothes that are solely farmed, created, treated, and colored all within 150 miles of my front door,” Rebecca Burgess said in an interview last April.
Burgess is a textile artist living in Fairfax, California, a small town just north of San Francisco. Like most of the United States, her region has no textile industry. To meet her challenge, Burgess would need to find local cotton growers and sheep, goat, and alpaca farmers. She’d need to track down a local mill, something that used to be commonplace across the United States, but is now nearly extinct. And she’d need to design, knit, sew, and dye her own wares by hand or pay local artisans to do it for her.
Why would one woman undertake such a Herculean challenge?
Locavore was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2007. Across the country, people are challenging themselves to eat 100-mile diets, eschewing the tempting strawberries and tomatoes on supermarket shelves in January, and patronizing local farmers’ markets. The local foods movement is even transforming the mountains of Colorado where I grew up, a region where elevations reach 10,000 feet and the growing season is as short as 40 days.
But the sad reality is that most of us are shopping at those farmers’ markets or toiling in our backyard gardens wearing clothes that are anything but local. In 1965, 95% of our clothes were made in America. Today 97% are made overseas, often by garment workers laboring long hours in terrible conditions for little pay.
The textile industry is an environmental nightmare. Most of the clothes we wear are made from synthetic fibers, which are made from petrochemicals. They require massive amounts of energy to create and have huge carbon footprints. The chemicals used in their manufacturing pollute the air, soil and water. Even the natural fibers we don, like conventionally-grown cotton, require pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and huge amounts of water. And the vast majority of our clothes are colored with synthetic dyes made of highly toxic, often carcinogenic chemicals.
Burgess is half-way through her year-long project, which she calls the Fibershed Challenge. She’s been wearing locally-made clothes since June. Her wardrobe started with just a shirt and a pair of pants. “There were some interesting sensory moments when the clothes were being washed– realizing that without those garments– there was just me and my skin. I didn’t think of the necessity of my clothes, until I didn’t have them,” she wrote on her blog. By September, Burgess had eight garments, which you can see here:
Burgess estimates that her wardrobe for the year will cost $2,000. Of course, most of us don’t spend anywhere near that much on clothes in a year, nor could we afford to. However, Burgess hopes her project will inspire people to think more about the ecological and human costs of inexpensive clothes. Moreover she wants to inspire new business models that could eventually bring down the price of locally-sourced, sustainably-produced clothing.
She hopes people will start asking, “Hey, we don’t have a cotton mill? This is awful. What’s happening? Why can’t our small farmers grow cotton and have it milled? … Or, we have all these mulberry trees. we could feed silkworms like crazy. Why aren’t we producing our own silk? … Or, there’s no naturally produced color in this country?” she told Jill Cloutier of Sustainable World Radio. Burgess points out that in her county, ranchers raising sheep for meat compost or throw away up to 20,000 pounds of wool fleeces each year, because nobody is currently processing the material in the region.
“My prayer is that people will see this as a way to give people real jobs again, and to clothe us in a way that’s non-toxic, and that we don’t keep off-shoring misery to people trying to keep up with our consumption. The transition could be beautiful.”
You can keep up with Burgess’ year of dressing locally on the Fibershed Challenge blog. If you start at the beginning, you can take a tour (beautifully documented with photographs by Paige Green) of an organic cotton farm, a small mill, and a suburban homestead sheep farm. You can discover the community of designers, farmers, ranchers, natural dyers, and ethnobotanists that Burgess found just outside her front door, and follow them as they plant indigo, knit and sew clothes, tan skins using Native American techniques, design a wardrobe, felt wool, and dye fabric with plants and seawater.
And if you’re inspired by Burgess to change the way you dress, she pointed out in an interview that we can all do some small things to make our wardrobe more sustainable. She suggests starting with the following:
- Recycle textiles through your community. Stop thinking of clothes as something you constantly consume. Buy durable, well-made garments, and join a clothing swap to trade with others.
- Re-skill yourself. Take a knitting, sewing, weaving, or natural dyes class. Burgess insists you’ll never look at clothes the same way.
- Support a local fiber producer. Buy yarn from a provider at your local farmer’s market, if available. If you can’t knit, stop into a local knitting store and ask if someone would be willing to knit you a piece. Burgess bets you’ll find dozens of local knitters eager to be of service.
What do you think of Rebecca Burgess’s Fibershed Challenge? Do you own any locally-made clothes? Do you knit, sew, weave, or dye? I’d love to hear about it.
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Hello! I'm Abby Quillen. Welcome to my blog. You can find more of my writing at abbyquillen.com.
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