Monday, March 17, 2008
Sustainability: geography and history
Local food -- Papaya -- comes from the tree in the yard in Mexico...
Camp Connell, Ca -- While we in the United States struggle to adapt new
technologies to survive what many fear will be a major economic
collapse, there are two places I visited recently which were far better
prepared than we are for hard times.
One place was historical, the other geographical.
I was in Mexico, our "Third World" neighbor to the
south. Yep. The same place people leave seeking opportunities in the
U.S., just in case you like a little irony.
I was struck by the similarities between the way the Mexican people live
today, and the way we lived in the U.S. a few generations ago.
That prompted a memory/historical visit to my grandparents.
Maybe if we open our eyes and minds to our past and our neighbors to we might actually improve the planet.
Up here in the Sierra Nevada we are swept up in the effort
to become part of what is popularly called a "sustainable culture."
I know. This is California and we are expected to be trendy.
But that does not make the current efforts any less sincere, or less important.
We humans will either find a way to adapt to our planet in better ways, or we will choke life off the surface.
Despite the Luddites among us who deny we have a problem -- our president
acting as "chief denier" -- it only takes a quick look around to see
where we are heading.
We are using up the world's fossil fuel
supplies, fouling the air beyond belief at the same time, and wasting
our fouling basic resources like water.
Our food supply is
endangered by forces we have turned loose without understanding, from
patents on seeds to tax benefits for corporations to grow crops we
don't really need.
One potential agricultural disaster is the declining world population of bees, upon whom we depend
for most of our food supplies. If they die, food supplies shrink.
Sea life is 90 per cent depleted, and the cycle of life that depends upon clean water
moving from ocean to sky to land to ocean is being strangled by bits of
plastic bags trapped in the ocean and waste from our cities.
It's a bad old joke, but the affluent society has become the effluent society, and we are drowning in it.
As people accept these as serious concerns, and as my
generation accepts a larger share of the responsibility for creating the
problems, the effort to reduce our impact is gaining strength.
We've begun to learn:
-- Eating local food is healthier for us, and the planet;
-- Electricity as we use it is a luxury item, not a necessity, and solar
power is a realistic option for much of the world's energy needs;
-- Walking beats riding, and riding on shared transportation is more efficient;
-- Those of us who live near the sea have a close-by food supply that is
inexpensive, and healthier than corn-and-manure-fed beef;
-- And pesticides and herbicides are extremely dangerous, and not always necessary for health or food production.
Our ancestors knew this stuff.
My grandparents and great-grandparents lived closer to the land and created far less planet survival problems than we have.
When an economic recession staggered the economy a hundred or more years
ago, people did without luxury items, and more important, met many of
their basic needs on their own.
A much higher percentage of the population lived on farms, Even those who live in the cities kept chickens for eggs and occasional dinner meat, and had a milk cow in a
shed on the property.
The Barry family home in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1800s...
My grandmother lived in a city, and the
photograph of her family gathered on the front steps 100 years ago
shows the garden was part of their daily life. As a boy my father would go help pick his dinner from
It's paved over now, more room for cars to park.
During my childhood most city people gave up gardens, except during war time,
but the produce man still came around in a truck direct from his farm. Fresh
vegetables were always available from a local supplier.
The mass migration off the farms and into modern cities guaranteed us a new
vulnerability to economic depression. In modern America when someone
loses their job, or the factory closes down, they don't supplement
their food supply with a garden. They get food stamps, if they are
We traded one kind of sustainable culture for modern
appliances, convenience, and mechanized world where cash replaced
barter (and the rich get richer).
Also, now consider Mexico today.
Life in a village seems a lot like the life led by my grandparents' generation.
People don't talk about recycling much in Mexico, any more than my grandparents did, but they live it.
Little is thrown away.
If an appliance breaks, someone has the skill to fix it for far less than
the cost of a new one. Old cars are kept running through generations of
owners. Old houses, torn down, find their usable parts hauled off to be
reused somewhere else.
People can't afford to be wasteful.
Shoes are not just made here in the town of Huerta, they are repaired rather than thrown away...
It is not idealizing poverty to recognize that their priorities start with
needs, but in the U.S. we worry a lot more about what we want rather
than what we need.
Of course, many Mexican village people are poor. They don't have a lot of flat-screened television sets, and
I didn't see a single Hummer rolling down the street. But they manage much better than we do on a lot less.
I met a family of three that lives far below our poverty line. Because they
live in a small village where community counts for something, they have
found a place to live in a very small house that meets their needs. It
was not clear to me whether they pay rent, or live there for free. The
house was empty and it is entirely possible that
someone who knew about it simply encouraged them to move in, and the
owner either wasn't around or was glad to have someone take care of his
property. It happens in a community where people watch out for each
other, and family members still live near each other.
In another village a friend of mine bought some commercial property that included
a small decrepit house. A man living there heard through neighbors
that the place had been sold, and moved on. There was no dispute, no
eviction, and no conflict. It was simply no longer available for his use.
My temporary Mexican neighbors don't have room for a garden,
but have skills despite some physical limitations (not handicaps). The
entire family cooks, and they prepare fancy food treats and take them
downtown to sell, generating cash. They set up a table in front of an
abandoned store on main street, and established their business. People
like their treats, so they buy them. The economy works.
The mother knows a local realtor through a family
member, and helps clean rental units on the beach. They also take in laundry from the neighbors. To do the laundry they rent a washing machine for fifty pesos (about $4.50) a day. She
can make that much off of one lazy tourist, like me, and the rest is
I know they are poor, but I also know that they are members of the community in good
standing, contributors to village life, and responsible for themselves.
They are living and working in a sustainable culture.
Mexican construction workers, on a break, designed
and made a tool to pick fresh papaya from a tree near the work site.
The papaya was going to waste until they spotted it, got permission,
and retrieved it for lunch.
There are some other aspect of Mexican life I find appealing.
If there is a hole in the sidewalk, people have enough sense to walk
around it. You assume responsibility for your own safety. If you trip,
it is because you didn't look where you were going.
You can walk in the street, but it is up to you to get out of the way if a truck comes along.
If a restaurant sells bad food the health department does not descend with
warrants and shut them down. The place closes because no one will go
there any more.
Few people sue over disputes in Mexico, because the
loser may go immediately to jail. You have to consider whether that
would really help you get the other fellow to pay his bill, or maybe
you should work it out directly.
If something breaks, you fix it, or find someone who can.
Ride sharing on a bicycle is normal, as is carrying three or four people on
a low-cost motor scooter. Walking is the most popular mode of transport.
I recall all the jokes I heard over the years about abandoned car
bodies in the yards of rural homes in my native South. I even made a few jokes myself
about an uncle in North Georgia who had a mix of cars, trucks and even
a road grader sitting in the weeds.
But he never had to go look for parts. And he could fix anything.
The old road grader worked, which he proudly demonstrated one summer, and he
sold a rusty Model T truck in the shed to a collector for a lot of
He wasn't a redneck hillbilly people joke about.
He was a pioneer recycler.
Maybe we need to go back to history class, and study our geographical neighbors lifestyle.