Last Call at the Oasis just opened in movie theaters this past Friday. Film critic Christopher Campbell said it best: Last Call at the Oasis is “necessary viewing for anyone on the planet who drinks water.”
It helps us understand how water is central to every part of our lives, shows how it is becoming more scarce and in some cases toxic, and offers examples of ways to conserve water more effectively, reduce pollution, and manage our precious water resources better.
The movie trailer is below. As you watch it, note the lake that appears at 45 seconds in to the trailer. That is Lake Mead. It is the main source for water to Las Vegas, and feeds the Hoover Dam, which generates electricity for Las Vegas and beyond. The lake has been around for a very very long time, and, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will likely be dry in the next 10 years. Increased consumption and changing climate have caused the lake to drop an average of 10 feet per year. In 4 years, the water level will likely drop so low that Hoover Dam will be unable to operate.
Here’s a picture of Lake Mead taken in 2007. It was bad then and it’s worse now.
I was driving through Texas last summer, and all the radio stations could talk about was how hot and dry it was. At that time, Austin had over 70 days straight of temperatures above 100 degrees F. Wildfires raged as the drought-parched land baked to a crisp. Here’s a drought map that shows just how extensive the drought was. Note that the brownish-red areas are ranked as “Exceptional” – beyond even extreme drought.
As climate change continues its slow inexorable advance, we should expect to see the southern US trend much drier and hotter. Agriculture and ranching will become unsustainable. Humans will need to be very good at conserving and getting by with much less water. Last Call at the Oasis is a wakeup call.
Here’s the movie trailer for Last Call at the Oasis…
Consider seeing the movie. It helps us understand how we can preserve our precious water resources. It is so much more satisfying being part of the solution, than being part of the problem.
Peñon de los Banos, is a women-owned sustainable organic farm cooperative, a short ride from the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My wife and I are part of a field trip, organized by The Center for Global Justice, visiting the Campo, to learn more about their work.
Residents of this small dairy farm have been part of a traditional ejido system for generations. Ejidos are communal lands, for growing food, shared and co-managed by the people of the community. The system was developed during ancient Aztec rule of Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has forced the Mexican government to do away with the ejido system, and open the land up to foreign agri-business.
With exponential population growth driving increasing demand for food, food prices are increasing. Farm land has become a growth investment. Foreign investors are eager to buy up land in this fertile region. This can put land ownership out of reach for local farmers. Much of the traditional farming is now being forced out, replaced by industrial agriculture. So, the women of Peñon de los Banos have banded together and formed a SPR (Sociedad de Produccion Rural). Adding to their dairy cow farm, they have constructed nine greenhouses to grow organic tomatoes and other vegetables, year round. They endeavor to farm sustainably, using composted manure from their cows to keep the soil fertile, and employing drip irrigation to conserve precious water. They are creating value-added products including tomato sauce and paste.
If they can grow the farm business, they hope to bring their husbands into the operation. To help pay the bills, the spouses have had to leave the community, to work in San Miguel or the US.
They are surrounded by industrial farming, which presents some challenges. The industrial farming methods use old fashioned wasteful irrigation techniques. Peñon de los Banos uses very efficient drip irrigation, but they are drawing from the same well and aquifer as the industrial farms, so if the industrial farms run the well aquifer dry, it effects Peñon de los Banos too. And with increased drought in the south, water is getting very scarce. Also, the industrial farms are not organic, and when they spray with pesticides, the women at Peñon de los Banos need to quickly cover their crops so the poisons don’t settle on the crops.
This trip has a special energy, as we were accompanied by a wonderful bunch of young women and their teachers, from Edgewood College, in Madison, Wisconsin. The students are here on a trip lead by their sociology professor, Julie Whitaker. They are a fantastic bunch of people. Julie and I talk about sustainable farming challenges facing farmers. She seems like a great teacher. Her students ask great questions. I continue to be impressed with the social engagement and energy young people are bringing to our world. These students rock! They have it in them to leave the world a better place.
After the tour, the women of the farm serve us a delicious traditional lunch (comida). They teach me how to make gorditas, toasting them on a wood fire heated steel plate. I am frankly overwhelmed by their beautiful generous spirit. For me, this has been the highlight of my month in Mexico.
Here is a video interview with the women of Peñon de los Banos, pictures from the trip, and an audio presentation by Cliff Durand of The Center for Global Justice. Cliff talks about the history of Peñon de los Banos and small farming in Mexico, and talks about the recent impact NAFTA is having on small farmers.
Video – filmed at Peñon de los Banos
Includes video of traditional mid-day meal (comida) and interview with the women that run the farm cooperative. Translation is provided by Ousia Whitaker-DeVault.
Pictures – from around Peñon de los Banos
Scenes from the farm, sharing a mid-day meal, and at the organic farmers market
Audio Presentation: Small farming in Mexico
Cliff Durand, of The Center for Global Justice gives background on small farms in Mexico and the effects of NAFTA. Audio quality is low until about 1 minute 30 seconds. Duration: 57 minutes.
Landing at Puerto Vallarta International Airport in Mexico’s western state of Jalisco felt risky and appropriate: it was October 11th, the same day that hurricane Jova was expected to make landfall. The threatening category 3 storm was just off the coast as I was beginning my research assistant position on “Indigenous food security adaptation and climate change”.
I had accepted the six-month assignment with the Center for World Indigenous Studies as part of my graduate work in sustainable development. The ominous clouds looming ahead seemed symbolic—of what, exactly, I did not quite know. While hurricane Jova ended up sparing the community from severe structural damage, it wreaked havoc on a series of towns south along the coast.
Mexico has suffered increasingly intense drought, four major hurricanes, and devastating floods which have led to soil degradation and destroyed crops, infrastructure, and human settlements. Indigenous communities, and the bio-culturally diverse regions they represent, are vulnerable to the recognizably changing climate. I have begun to learn that rural communities in western Mexico have the capacity and desire to adapt to the changes using knowledge learned from earlier generations of farmers and residents. This knowledge is a key point of debate in Durban, South Africa where climate change treaty negotiations started on November 28th. Given what I have experienced on the ground in western Mexico, it is critical for those in the midst of the United Nations Forum on Climate Change (UNFCC) and other “leading experts” to look at how ready and willing THEY are to adapt to inevitable climatic changes and related food insecurities.
Part of my work focuses on the local use and production of climate sensitive plants while engaging in long distance colloquies over the incorporation of language in the climate change treaty negotiations supportive of indigenous peoples. The question of how ready and willing self-described “developed” nations are to adapt to climate change is not intended as a direct plea for their higher levels of social and environmental accountability (although I do believe such governments and the corporations who fund them should be held accountable). Rather, it stems from a long overdue acknowledgement that the 5,000+ indigenous communities worldwide, who hold 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity within their lands, have proven to be incredibly resourceful in adapting to historical climatic changes in their respective eco-niches through a consistent and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth. Instead of spending time not agreeing to global mitigation plans, government decision-makers representing the monetarily prosperous sectors of nations should be asking for guidance from indigenous communities as they consider their own layers of vulnerability: concrete food deserts, oil-dependent infrastructures, and an incessant need to consume well beyond human and environmental means. As the climatic shi(f)t hits the fan, will they have not only the hands-on skills to make adaptive responses but also the collective ability to creatively and more responsibly reconfigure their societies?
In a recent visit with members of the indigenous municipality of Cabo Corrientes, Jalisco, I met a subsistence farmer named Bety.
Dr. Rudolph Ryser, the leader of this research effort sent me to Bety’s community to ask about the food availability and distribution patterns of certain nutritionally-dense foods. What I had read about the security of such communities and what I found were two different things. In current economic and agricultural discourse subsistence societies are primarily described as those who do not produce a surplus; they produce only the minimal amount of food or goods that are necessary for their basic survival. Based on this definition, one might envision—as is often depicted on the front cover of UN and NGO briefing reports—families on the brink of starvation, eager to acquire the technological and financial transfers necessary to upgrade their production capacity.
This was not the scenario I encountered as I talked with Bety and observed what actually transacted on her farm. Set amongst a backdrop of lush hillsides, Bety and her parents, Crispina and Ricardo have been subsistence farming for generations. Maize, heirloom tomatoes and squash, maguey, hibisucs, sugar cane, beans, plantains, avocados, chickens, pigs and cows are just a handful of food sources that Bety proudly showed me as we toured their small, incredibly-efficient parcel of land. Subsistence clearly produced considerable abundance and variety. “Why would I want to work in a factory or an office all day when I can work out here; move my body and breathe fresh air?” she asked. “The land wants to provide–if you are willing to put in the time and love–she is more than willing to produce”.
Nearing sunset, Bety and her family literally kicked up their heels, relaxed in hammocks, and invited us to partake in home-fermented raicilla—a regional, moonshine version of Tequila. It was apparent that subsistence communities celebrate happy hour as well.
While I recognize that the degree to which different subsistence communities around the world can or cannot fully provide for their own needs varies tremendously, especially given uneven climate change effects, I think it is important to highlight a positive, yet often-neglected view of subsistence living. In her seminal work entitled Subsistence Perspective, Maria Mies presents a vision for an alternative ecological model for societies. It is not an economic model; rather, it is a way of looking at the economy—a perspective. She describes it as subsistence perspective because it focuses on the creation, recreation and support of life and it has no other purpose than this. It is life that stands at the centre of this vision, rather than money, economic growth or profit. For more on this topic, see Ecofeminism and the subsistence perspective: fostering cooperation, not competition.
Prior to my visit with Bety, I might have read Maria Mies revised definition of subsistence, and quietly tucked it away as a cozy, past-oriented notion that is no longer plausible within today’s fast-paced, growth-oriented ideology. Yet when I make my daily trek to the neighborhood Mercado, an open-air market teeming with color, variety, and intricate layers of human interaction, I recognize the numerous ways in which Mexico continues to boast tremendous life-supporting cultural infrastructure.
Indigenous communities, which comprise most of Mexico’s population, have cultivated these life-supporting systems for millennia. Their role in local, regional and international discussions on climate change and food security is vital, not only because of the vulnerabilities their own communities face, but because of the critical knowledge–the science— they have developed as a result of successful historical adaptations.
In an uplifting TED video, Britta Riley, founder of R&D-I-Y (Research & Develop It Yourself), talks about how a global network of interested citizens developed a simple window farming design that allows urban dwellers to grow food in their apartment windows.
Using open-source collaboration methods, and sharing a common interest in growing fresh food in their living spaces, the online innovation community has grown to 25,000+ participants.
In the same way that Egyptians used Web 2.0 social media tools (e.g. Facebook and online forums) to rise up, R&D-I-Y is using those social media tools for product development and innovation. All this, done outside the for-profit sanctum of traditional corporate culture.
Here’s the video of Britta describing the journey that started with a simple desire to grow healthy fresh food in her tiny apartment.
The resulting window garden design is in the public domain, at Windowfarms.org, and can be purchased as a kit, or, for Do-It-Yourselfers, you can download plans and participate in the collaborative community, to build one for yourself.
This is important. If you can build it, you can repair it. And in our disposable culture, on a finite planet, that’s a big win.
By building something, we come to understand the nature of it – how it works. And, should it break, we understand it enough to repair it. And we have the collaborative community backing us up, if we need some advice.
Repair – it is one of the 4 Rs of sustainable living – Reduce, Recycle, Reuse and Repair. Here’s how window farming helps us live more sustainably:
Reduce the distance food travels, water consumed for irrigation, CO2 and water pollution, fuel imports, food cost, food nutritional loss, etc.
Reuse things like wire, light fixtures, fabric, etc., that might normally be discarded, when you are building it from scratch.
Recycle things like plastic bottles, which are basic building blocks of do-it-yourself window farms. But in this design, no need to recycle (which takes energy) – we can Reuse discarded plastic bottles.
Repair – If you build it, you can repair it.
For those that want to live lighter on the land, and more sustainably, the 4 Rs are our credo.
One hundred years ago, almost half of Americans were employed in farming or food production. Now it is less than .4 percent of the nation. While this is a testament to improvements in the efficiency of agriculture, much has been lost. We have become disconnected from how our food is produced. Convenience often drives our choices. We consume much more prepared food, loaded with preservatives and with less nutritional goodness.
Our food travels an average of over 1,500 miles to get to us. That consumes a lot of fuel, emits a lot of CO2, reduces food freshness, and removes dollars from our local communities.
As our global population has doubled to over 7 billion people, the per capita land available for growing food has been cut in half. There are serious concerns about how we will feed the exponentially growing population. And that population will largely be dwelling in cities.
What if much of the food we wanted to eat was, literally, within reach?
Urban agriculture allows us to reclaim the built urban landscape for growing food. But now, in the dense urban setting, we will do it vertically. The acres of farmland are transformed into vertical window scapes, or rooftop gardens.
My wife and I garden year round, raise chickens, and enjoy a local community committed to growing healthy food. In addition to the economic benefits (food is one of the biggest costs of living), there is something deeply satisfying about picking fresh produce and cooking it up, on the spot – sharing it with friends.
Growing food is a daily miracle. The tiny seed becomes a mature plant that can provide food for months. In an economy of increasing scarcity, gardens provide a welcome abundance.
Beyond the satisfaction of growing ones own food, there is a real health benefit. Listen to Dr. Terry Wahls describe her remarkable story about how careful food choices cured her MS. At the center of her diet – kale and greens that can be grown in a window garden.
As Dr. Wahls points out, we can be eating a lot of food, but starving ourselves of the nutrients needed for good health. Obesity in the US is at all time highs – thanks to the proliferation of prepared foods that taste great but have little nutritional value – e.g. soft drinks, pizza, fast food, etc.. Here’s just one example. Each day, the average American consumes 100 to 200 times more sugar than we did 100 years ago. Healthcare costs now represent 17% of US GDP. Anything we can do to stay healthy will save us enormous amounts of money and the inconvenience and discomfort of doctor visits, hospitalization, surgery, back problems, addiction to pain-killers, chemo, radiation, …
Bad food put Dr. Wahls in a wheel chair. Good food got her back on her own two feet – In a matter of seven months. But with so much processed food being engineered to addict us to the food (sweet, salty, buttery, etc.), the choice to eat nutritious healthy foods is not easy. It is a daily choice that rewards only if we are steadily committed to the journey.
A Global Perspective on Food
Pulling the lens back for a more global view – as world population expands inexorably – we are approaching a tipping point with regard to food production.
Recently, a report that gained little attention in the news, but has major ramifications for every nation, was published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The FAO report – The World Food Situation – reports that world food prices surged to a new historic peak in January, for the seventh consecutive month. The FAO Food Price Index (below) is a commodity basket that regularly tracks monthly changes in global food prices.
This is the highest level (both in real and nominal terms) since FAO started measuring food prices in 1990.
As we can see from the chart on the right, the price of individual commodities that comprise the index – meat, dairy, cereals, oil and fats, and sugar – are all on the rise.
Global food prices have exceeded their pre-recession price levels. Some of this is due to the price of petroleum returning to pre-recession levels. About 17% of all petroleum production is consumed for food production. Petroleum is a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertilizer and pesticides, and sources energy for irrigation, food transport, etc. Note how the Food Price Index closely parallels the price of oil.
In addition, climate change is driving an increase in extreme weather, including record heat during growing seasons, record flooding, and extreme rain.
Protein is usually produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:
It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
So, it takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef
Though food prices are volatile, and change daily, the trend is clearly up.
As our population increases, and as each nation seeks affluence, food will become a major factor in the stability of all nations. Food shortages in China will effect the price of our food here in the US, as nations vie for the precious basics of life, on a finite planet.
Want to change the world? Plant some food in your window.
Jeffrey Sachs has a outstanding new book out called The Price of Civilization. The title of the book refers to remarks made by US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who spoke of the need for citizens of a country, who enjoyed the benefits of living in that country, to pay the price to support that civilization.
Sachs provides a thoughtful, cogent analysis of challenges facing America, and how to address those challenges. The book has a clean straightforward jargon-free narrative that is balanced and has elements that will appeal to conservatives, independents and progressives alike – though each group will find things to disagree with, there is much that will be embraced.
Sachs looks at the nature of America, through the lens of democracy, fairness, civic virtue, compassion, and happiness, and asks the question “What is our role in the 21st century?”
Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University.
Here’s Sachs being interviewed by Charlie Rose, about The Price of Civilization.
Here’s Sachs in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, taking questions from reporters. Sachs is articulate, plain speaking and clearly frustrated with the faltering state of the nation and the cozy monied relationship between government and big business.
On a related note, Charles M. Blow had an excellent graphic from the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation report “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?” It helps give some context to issues driving the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and challenges facing America.