Conservation, Everyone?

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At this year’s food co-op leadership conference, Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke movingly about holding steady by centering yourself around values. I appreciated her stating that the “courage” to bring up hard issues is only required if one is (unduly) worried about being accepted and agreed with.

From building design to lifestyle design, in an era of threatened energy resources, it all matters. If you read and think about global warming and the predictable decline of petroleum/natural gas supplies, present social practices look like a rush to the cliff’s edge. Let’s review several critical issues—some certain, others not. Some crises will be sudden, others a chronic “long emergency.”

The organic foods market is changing rapidly. Strong growth in demand will result in supply problems. Already much of the organic food sold in the U.S. comes from distant countries, and this has its own problems.

Fuel costs keep going up, with no likelihood of decline. Gasoline prices rose by one-third in the first half of 2006. Prices for natural gas, used for producing heat, electricity, and fertilizer, are also increasing rapidly. Storms and heat waves and cold snaps, along with wars, already are provoking interruptions and shortages. Food prices will inflate more rapidly, as will costs for any enterprise based on transportation and fossil fuels.

Ethanol production based on conventional crops—a fool’s gold that is temporarily profitable because it’s supported by petroleum and subsidies—is increasingly in competition with food production. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a fine book by Michael Pollan, needs a sequel: Motorist’s Dilemma.

Livestock that is not grass-based will be especially vulnerable to growing fuel costs and water shortages. From South Dakota to Texas, water tables are declining; the Colorado River now barely reaches the ocean. Those who sell and eat meat face questions about the food supply well beyond meat’s healthfulness.

Oil—critical to transportation, food production, heating/cooling, plastics, and more—has now returned to its historic peak. But this time, increased production does not appear to be an option, and demand keeps increasing. Wars to protect the fuel supply are being perpetuated by powerful groups and supported by fearful citizens. This will make the inevitable adjustments all the more painful, since alternatives are not well-developed. However, now and later, conservation is within reach of everyone.

Global domination by the U.S. is encountering its own long decline—its own “global executive limitations.” Unfortunately, the current replacement is “multi-polar disorder.” The proponents of alternative ways of living still face powerful financial pressures, transportation barriers, and the propaganda of fearsome and fraudulent events. Public funds for almost all domestic social programs including sustainable agriculture, conservation, and disaster relief will continue to be cut.

Above all else, global warming promises numerous storms and other disasters. The evidence (though not our options) is well summarized in An Inconvenient Truth. Among the film’s poignant statements by the narrator: The next generation will wonder, “What were they thinking?”

Is your cooperative helping your community address conservation and other critical questions? Try readings on oil and energy trends by authors such as Richard Heinberg, Matthew Simmons, James Howard Kunstler. Think about power outages and rationing. Will your cooperative sponsor the conversations that help keep your community pulling together rather than fracturing?

Food co-ops are helping rebuild local food economies. Meanwhile, U.S. farmers overall have the highest suicide rate of any occupation. And until our country retreats from energy gluttony and its governing culture of fear and punishment, it will continue to have fewer farmers than people behind bars.

However, after scarcity gets its shock of recognition, some years of concerted effort can turn this around. One of the best messages that I’ve seen is a DVD from Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The Power of Community (www. communitysolution.org/cuba.html) covers how Cuba, after losing almost all its petroleum supply in the early 1990s, managed a difficult transition to local food production and greater self-sufficiency. In the short term there was hunger, and Cubans lost weight. Now Havana produces 70 percent of its produce within the city limits, and hardworking farmers have gone from being
low-paid to well-paid. It’s a lesson about recovery and sustainability.

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #126 September - October - 2006