Category Archives: Sustainability

The Challenges of Inequality

(Adapted from an article in ON TRACK: Transition Honesdale Newsletter, October 2013)

Let me state this explicitly at the outset: I am by no means an egalitarian. I don’t expect, or even desire, that everyone should enjoy exactly the same kind of economic situation. I understand that society, at any level, will always have some degree of stratification. I accept that some folks – those who take on particularly great responsibilities, for example, or skilled and highly trained professionals like doctors, lawyers, and teachers – will have, and rightfully deserve, a greater level of compensation than, say, a mere first-line manager and part-time scribbler such as me.

But let’s face it: when it comes to economic inequality in the United States, things are starting to get out of hand.

I won’t go through the laundry list of statistics. It’s easy enough to find any number of sources, from the US Census Bureau to the Institute for Policy Studies to the excellent website for Robert Reich’s critically-acclaimed film “Inequality for All”, that will illustrate the extent of the problem, and how quickly it is growing. Let it suffice to say that the distribution of wealth and income in the United States is now the most imbalanced since – well, 1929.

And we all know how that turned out.

The general effects of this imbalance on our political and economic landscape are widespread and well-known. Members of the lower socioeconomic classes lose power and gain debt, and find themselves working harder while facing increasing insecurity. From the specific point of view of Transition, though, inequality poses additional challenges, particularly if we consider its effects on community cohesion, a key factor of community resilience.

The Transition philosophy takes as one of its starting points the notion that business-as-usual will not – indeed, cannot – continue much longer. At some point, we believe, the fundamental underpinnings of our society will begin to give way (whether gradually or catastrophically), to be supplanted by a different and more sustainable way of life.  In this new economy, the ethos of excess, individual accumulation, narrow self-interest, and competition will be replaced by one of lower consumption, community well-being, mutual aid, and cooperation.

But if we have a class of people accustomed to always having the “best of the best,” we have to wonder whether they will be able, not to mention willing, to make that transition gracefully.  We may see the well-to-do withdraw into their own heavily guarded and well-supplied enclaves, leaving the rest of us to squabble over their leftovers, or they may try to keep the status quo in place through increasingly coercive measures.

As wealth and power continue to concentrate at the top, the spirit of community splinters – not just between classes, but within and between different groups, as they struggle to secure their share of a dwindling supply of resources and opportunities.  Tensions between groups are likely to be manipulated to protect sheltered interests.

Even now, inequality is undermining community – right out from under our feet, in fact.  As society becomes more stratified, we see casual contact and meaningful communication between members of different classes becoming more and more uncommon.  Suspicions, resentments, and fears increase, as stereotypes and prejudices blossom.  Eventually, we might end up with something like a caste system, where social mobility is strictly regulated.

And worst of all, in my opinion, inequality undermines two of the main foundations of American society. One is the ideal of “equality before the law.”  As inequality increases, it becomes harder for poor defendants or litigants to get the legal assistance they need – and much easier for wealthy miscreants to avoid detection or punishment, particularly for financial crimes.

The other is the sense that every human life has an innate dignity and value – what some might call the notion of “equality before God.”  Studies have shown that as income disparity increases, the rich find it easier and easier to dismiss not only the complaints and sufferings of the poor, but eventually their very humanity.

But such nightmarish scenarios can be avoided.  The primary challenge is for all of us, in all sectors of the community, to see that in the long run, too much inequality harms everyone.  Then we can begin to explore how we might work together to create and sustain shared prosperity.  This process starts simply, locally, through pilot programs and economic experiments designed to embody the values of a more sustainable society.

As soon as we can, we need to begin that process, and bring our lives, our relationships, and our communities back into balance.

CONTROLLED DEMOLITION (1998)

(This essay was originally written in 1998. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine.)

You’ve seen the pictures: one moment, there is a building, seeming solid and stable. Suddenly, flashes of light can be seen within the building, and puffs of smoke appear from its windows. The building seems to inhale for a moment, and then, as it exhales, it slowly folds in upon itself in a great cloud of dust and debris. The surrounding buildings are untouched, undamaged, except perhaps for a coating of dust.

It’s called “controlled demolition,” and the people who make it happen rely on a number of things:

  • An intimate knowledge of the structure to be brought down
  • Thorough understanding of the capabilities of their tools
  • Careful planning and consideration in the use of those tools
  • Absolute concern for the effects of their actions on the surrounding environment and the people within it.

Now consider the global society in which we live as a building of its own. Look at the conditions on the lower floors, where the air is fouled, the plumbing backed up, where children and old people sleep in hallways or closets. There has been a party going on in the penthouse for years, of course… but the partygoers are either unaware or uncaring about the conditions below them that make their party possible.

There are those of us, within the Green movement and elsewhere, who believe that this structure is inherently unsustainable — that at some time, it must collapse under its own weight. But what should we do? If we simply sit back and wait for the collapse, countless numbers of innocent beings will suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we just bring in the bulldozers and knock it over (the approach that was advocated by quite a few during the 1960’s), we will still cause unnecessary suffering – and be left with a bigger mess than we began with.

It seems to me that the task before the Greens and their allies is multifold.  Here is what must be done:

  1. Construct alternate structures.
  2. Help people become aware that alternatives are both necessary and possible.
  3. Enable as many as people as possible to make the transition.
  4. Then — and only then — bring the structure down, in as controlled and deliberate a manner as possible.

The first two steps are being done, to some degree.  Many individuals and groups are building alternative institutions, and the awareness of their existence is growing.  But we are nowhere near the point where large-scale transitions are possible.  In the meantime, there are other things to be done.  Within this metaphor, for example, electoral and legislative activity are attempts to temporarily shore up parts of the structure, to try to stave off the collapse until the other parts of the work can be completed.  This is not trivial work, it is not a waste of time, it must be done — but we must not deceive ourselves that electoral or legislative successes in and of themselves are the goal.  Rather, they are only one part of a much larger work.

What’s Cooking: Food Hub Hubbub!

This piece was published in the Wayne Independent on April 23. 2014. This column isn’t published on the Wayne Independent website, so I thought I’d replicate it here…

“Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America’s farmers… Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers. By serving as a link between the farm or ranch and regional buyers, food hubs keep more of the retail food dollar circulating in the local economy. In effect, the success of regional food hubs comes from entrepreneurship, sound business sense and a desire for social impact.“
— USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, May 2013

Good thing we had our taxes done already… Otherwise, I might not have been able to attend the “Wayne County Food Hub” presentation that SEEDS, our local sustainable-community group, and The Cooperage Project co-sponsored last Tuesday evening, April 15 – and I would have missed out on a very interesting, informative, and thought-provoking discussion.

The first thing that impressed me about the gathering in the Cooperage that evening was the size and diversity of the group. I counted about 70 participants, including elected officials, farmers (young and old), local business people, educators, and members of the general public.

What seemed to unite the group was a simple conviction: Agriculture needs to remain a viable, thriving enterprise in Wayne County.

The other thing that impressed me was the amount of coordination and cooperation involved in the food hub concept, not just between different agencies but also between different parts of Wayne County’s economy and overall society – and the eager willingness all those people showed to get the ball rolling The food system, after all, has many stakeholders, and everyone can derive some benefit from anything that makes that system work more effectively.

This broad-ranging impact makes sense when you consider what a “food hub” is. As the meeting announcement from SEEDS defined it, a food hub is ”an effort to stimulate the economy of our local farming community by purchasing food from our local farmers and producers.” A food hub, for example, can help to expand markets – making it easier for producers to connect with and sell their products not just to individual consumers, but also institutional ones (such as restaurants, camps, schools, hospitals, and prisons). There are added benefits – in the process, a food hub can create jobs, provide educational and job training opportunities, enable farmers to share their knowledge, and knit a community more closely together. (For more information about food hubs, see http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/foodhubs)

Cindy Matthews of Wayne County Human Services led the discussion, ably assisted by Bob Muller, District Manager of the Wayne County Conservation District (who also works with the Agriculture Subcommittee of Wayne Tomorrow). Other panelists included Andrea Whyte of Wayne County Area Agency on Aging, Tom Eccles of Farmer in the Dale, LLC, Michele Sands of SEEDS, and Anthill Farm’s Sky Ballentine. Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith also appeared later in the program, speaking eloquently and encouragingly about the need for the kind of increased cooperation that a food hub makes possible.

Cindy started off by describing the basic elements of the food hub concept, and reviewed some of the possible benefits. Bob Muller reminded us that back in the day, Grange halls performed many of the same functions – helping buyers meet with sellers, and enabling farmers to get together and share ideas. Nowadays, people want more than ever to know where their food comes from, and that their food supply is safe and reliable. Food hubs, like farmers’ markets and CSAs, help the public make better, more personal connections with food producers.

Michele noted that local food production and distribution, where it is possible, has many advantages for a community – not only in terms of things like energy efficiency and lower transportation costs. but also community preparedness and food security. Every food dollar spent locally circulates many times throughout a community.

Tom Eccles talked about how getting connected with a institutional buyer – in this case, the Wayne County Area Agency on Aging – helped him to expand his business, add new products, and reach out to more new customers.

There are challenges ahead, to be sure, to get a local food hub up and running. Tom pointed out that farmers need to know more about food safety procedures and regulations before they can market to many institutional buyers, and those regulations need to be made more rational, more comprehensible, and easier to implement.

Sky Ballentine of Anthill Farm talked about a recently-formed regional initiative called the Lackawaxen Farm Company (www,lfcfresh.com), that enables consumers to order produce, meat, and other foods from a number of small local producers through one website.

The food hub system focuses more on cooperation and distribution, but it is not intended to be a replacement for, or even a challenge to, the traditional capitalist food distribution systems of large warehousers and competing grocery store chains. But it can make local food and local farmers more successful and more sustainable – and we can all profit from that.