Director’s Corner: Eating as if Food is the Point

“What we discovered in Italy was that if an establishment serves food, then food is the point.” (original italicized). Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

In her marvelous book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver describes her food experiences during a trip to Italy.  She was amazed that wherever she and her husband ate, a museum cafeteria, a simple diner, or a pizzeria, the food was always wonderful, intentionally prepared with care to make “food the point.”

She contrasts that with eating in America, where at fast-food restaurants “‘fast’ is the point”, at sports bars sports is the point, and at airport restaurants “the premise is ‘captive starving audience.’”  All of which equals mediocre food at best.

That got me thinking about habitually mindless or careless eating to indiscriminately silence hunger, to self-medicate during times of stress, or out of boredom; to eating distracted, while on our phones, while watching tv, while sitting at our desks.

That got me thinking about the pace of ‘life’ and how inattentive we can be every day to the small but meaningful pleasures as we rush about from one thing to the next.

I think because we are so distracted and rushed, we find ourselves tolerating a lot of things that, when we stop to think about them, are intolerable — politically, socially, environmentally, economically.  But for now, I’ll stick with food.

In his enlightening book Real Food, Fake Food, food and travel columnist Larry Olmsted writes about food fraud, how much of what we think we are eating is something else, and invariably something less.

For example, parmesan cheese.  The real deal is crafted in Parma, Italy and is called Parmigiano-Reggiano.  By law, it must contain only three ingredients: fresh (out of a cow less than 18 hours) drug-free milk, salt, and rennet.   The stuff in the green cardboard tube that I grew up eating is called parmesan and is made of “milk of unknown origin and purity, cellulose powder (wood pulp! ed.), potassium sorbate, and cheese cultures.”

Because “parmesan is the direct English translation of Parmigiano-Reggiano” they should be the same thing when clearly they are not.

There are so many examples of fake foods in his book: seafood, beef, oils, cheeses, honey (the third-most faked food), coffee, teas, wine, champagne, scotch, fruit juices, maple syrup, and more.  Some of the fakes are not just cheap and deceitful but downright dangerous.  According to Olmsted, improperly farmed salmon and shrimp imported from other countries can be laden with PCBs, dioxins, and other toxic chemicals.

Olmstead’s biggest criticisms are directed at the Food and Drug Administration, whose mission is “protecting and promoting your health.”  Read his book and you will see just how little oversight there is, how much influence industry has, and therefore how much fraud there is.

The good news is there are simple and, in many cases, inexpensive ways to make food the point and avoid these problems that also get at more mindful and pleasurable living.  Real Food, Fake Food is full of recommendations, like buying local for example.

And rather than grabbing a frozen pizza at the store, he encourages us to slow down, take a few extra minutes, and make a pizza that is far more nutritious and enjoyable.  He gives us some good reasons for doing this besides making food the point of eating.

Next time you are at a grocery store, or perhaps go into your freezer, check out the ingredients in a frozen pizza.  One brand Olmstead checked had 52 ingredients, many of which are not a good idea to eat.  Is one of the ingredients butylated hydroxytoluene?  It is “banned in England and the FDA has said (for years) ‘should’ be investigated owing to the possibility of turning other ingredients toxic or cancer-causing.”  How about the petroleum-derived additive butylated hydroxyanisole, is that an ingredient too?  I don’t know about you but I don’t want anything petroleum-based in my pizza or any other food for that matter.

Is it a pepperoni pizza?  Researching the book Olmsted learned that the FDA has a lower grade of pork than “acceptable.”  It’s the grade used by processed food producers.  Great.

Instead, Olmsted recommends making your own pizza.  Here’s how he does it:

  • Freshly made dough at a local market, the canvas upon which to create a culinary masterpiece
  • If appropriate fresh, local tomatoes are unavailable, a can of high-quality tomatoes; he uses Pomi, an Italian brand that is 100% Italian tomatoes and nothing else
  • Fresh mozzarella cheese
  • For pepperoni, he recommends buying from Applegate, available nationally
  • Add whatever fresh veggies or anything else you want
  • Grate some fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, drizzle some high quality balsamic, and add a few drops of olive oil (see his recommendations for these)
  • Bottom line: use real food, locally produced as much as possible.

The slower pace of preparing and cooking a pizza this way requires attention and intention.  It creates a more relaxed mental and emotional state in which to enjoy the work of culinary art just created and pulled out of the oven or off the grill.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle tells the story of Barbara Kingsolver and her family committing to living and eating like this for a year, respecting the natural processes of food production, preparation, and consumption.  The values that led them to make this effort strengthened and became more intentionally infused in every area of their lives to greater, more rewarding effect than they ever expected or considered.

In the effort to “make food the point,” wherever we fall on the scale between making a simple homemade pizza with fresh ingredients and moving to a farm to live off whatever can be produced locally for a year,  being more intentional about what we eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced is guaranteed to have salutary effects on our physiology and our psyche, while making the world a better, more enjoyable place for the effort.

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What is the Connection Between Climate Change & Our Food System? Does What We Eat Really Make a Difference?

Post contributed by Lecturer Ana Plana, ME, Culinary Science, Department of Nutrition, Dietetics & Hospitality Management, College of Human Sciences.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment concluded in its Fifth Assessment Report: “climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.” Dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures increasing, oceans warming, and sea-level rise; represent just a few consequences of climate change. Yet for many Americans, the topic of climate change remains a generalization. Many simply fail to make the connection between their own daily habits and the increasing global impact on climate change. The problem with lazily looking at the problem in the abstract is that it provides a convenient excuse to not act responsibly. All of us must understand and appreciate the need to adopt new food habits and choices in order to prevent the harsh effects of climate change for ourselves and for future generations.

In April 2019, The New York Times published the article “Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered” By Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart. This informative article breaks it all down for us. Yes, our food choices affect climate change. The “food system is one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases.” The food cycle includes clearing the forest for livestock, animal digestion releases methane gas, the usage of fossil fuels to run the machinery necessary to operate the farm, and the subsequent transportation of the meat, all of which contribute to climate change. The article makes four meaningful conclusions: 1) Agriculture is a contributor to climate change, and some foods contribute negatively more than others. Beef is the most significant contributor, and plants, the least. 2) Your food choices (i.e., reducing the amount of animal protein) has a greater impact than the effect of choosing local vs. organic. 3) You don’t have to adopt a vegan diet; changes occur as a result of even minor adjustments to one’s diet. For example, reducing red meat consumption to once a week, or substituting poultry for red meat a few times a week can have a substantial effect 4) Purchase and use only the food you need, will reduce waste tremendously.

Similar findings can be found in other publications. In Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Eating Planet, states: 

“sustainability of the agri-food chain of production depends not only on the commitment of the farmers, the producers, and the distributors but also -and perhaps even more so – on the individual choices and families, who have such a powerful effect on the entire market and the environment in which we live with daily choices and decisions they make.”  

Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), a research center that studies and develops an understanding of the many complex global issues involving our food system.  BCFN developed a double food and environmental pyramid model to reflect the relationship between the nutritional value of foods and the environmental impact of those decisions. The double pyramid suggests that following a Mediterranean diet, as recommended by many health professionals, will decrease the environmental impact. This diet entails eating without excess, reducing meat and dairy consumption, increasing fruits and vegetables, and eating whole grains.

These are just three examples of research confirming that YES, there is a connection between our food system and climate change, and our daily food choices have an impact on our environment. Reducing your environmental impact by slowly making changes will have a more permanent effect. Start with mini modifications in your diet (lifestyle changes). For example, finish your sauces by blending them instead of adding cream or butter, skip the cheese on your burger, make your burger with beans or pulses instead of meat, have a sustainable seafood night once a week. Bottom line: making a few small changes to your diet will help our environment and your health.

References:

Food For Sustainable Growth, Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, Eating Planet Food and Sustainability: Building our Future, Edizioni Ambiente, 2016 p. 92 -115.

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A Taste of Sustainability

Post contributed by Campus Dining.

It’s a spring day, the sun is warm, and the flowers and plants outside are displaying the most vibrant hues.  You stroll to the garden and pluck a perfectly ripe tomato from the vine.  The aroma is irresistible, and you take a bite; enjoying the firm texture and fresh taste while allowing a river of red lusciousness to escape down your chin.

There’s absolutely nothing that matches the experience of enjoying great tasting food and sharing it with good friends.  During your college years, you begin to develop preferences that can last a lifetime.  Tiger Dining wants to help you develop a taste for fresher, healthier foods that are locally produced. We believe that when people are exposed to products that are allowed to ripen naturally and are served fresh, their taste buds will tell them the difference.  There is an ancient proverb that says that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and maybe your first step into a more sustainable lifestyle is enjoying locally grown produce in one of our dining halls.

Once you have taken that first step and realize that local food tastes better, you will be happy to know that when you create a custom salad in one of our dining halls, you will be helping to support a farmer who lives just down the road.  Like the idea of helping local folks? Look for the Auburn Foods icon around campus.  By eating Auburn Foods, you’re getting the freshest food possible and are directly involved in improving the lives/livelihoods of local residents.

Not a salad eater?   Tiger Dining has options for you as well!  Join us at a dining hall to enjoy a burger or fish entrée, and you’re directly supporting fellow Auburn students.  Burgers served at Foy and the Village are procured from the Lambert-Powell Meats Lab, providing Meat Sciences students with necessary real-life experience.  Tilapia served is grown at the Aquaponics project located at E.W. Shell Fisheries on North College Street.  These fish are served within a day or two of harvest – to get any fresher, you’d have to catch it yourself.  In addition to creating a tasty plate, these fish are the generator of the Aquaponics system which uses water from the fish tanks to grow produce.  The cucumbers, tomatoes, and various other vegetables grown in the greenhouses are harvested and served on campus. When you enjoy these foods, you’re supporting the research efforts of multiple graduate students who are working to perfect a more sustainable food system that we anticipate will be replicated throughout the world.

Finally, Tiger Dining believes that the highest purpose of food is to feed hungry people; we prize food as a resource.  To promote individual health, societal connectedness, and general good stewardship of our resources, Tiger Dining saves any unserved food at the end of each day.  We store it safely until the Campus Kitchens Project (CKP) volunteers’ next pickup.  CKP collects unserved food from campus and local restaurants and repackages it into nutritionally balanced meals that are distributed to food insecure individuals within the local community.  Last year, CKP distributed more than 53,000 meals in the local area.  In addition to saving unserved food, scraps from food preparation are collected and composted to start the food cycle all over again.

This is sustainability you can taste!  Share a meal on campus with friends.  You’ll not only fuel your body well, you’ll also support sustainable efforts throughout the Auburn community.

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Meet Me at the V.I.C.–Volunteer, Internship & Career Fair

Post contributed by Grace Hamilton of the Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies.

The College of Human Sciences at Auburn University is home to many programs that promote living well through a focus on human health and well-being while igniting creativity to discover sustainable solutions for improving quality of life around the world. Beyond technical preparation, their graduates possess a broad worldview, a diverse understanding of the world in which they live and work, and a commitment to building a better world — one life at a time. With the College’s launch of the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies Major in the Fall of 2019, Auburn students have more opportunities than ever to gain hands-on experience in the nonprofit sector. By participating in classes that help solve critical social problems, The Bachelor of Science degree in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies program equips students with the comprehensive knowledge and practical skills to succeed in philanthropic endeavors. In class, students learn how to build solid personal and organizational financial foundations to support philanthropic projects and lead nonprofit enterprises. Beyond the classroom, participation in a 135 hour practicum at a nonprofit of their choice allows students to apply classroom studies to this professional field, before even graduating college. A minor in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies is also offered through the College of Human Sciences.

Within the College of Human Sciences, the Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies is a Nonprofit Affiliate Program with over 100 nonprofits in Auburn’s surrounding area. The Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies inspires its participants to discover their purpose through learning, giving and growing. Their programs focus on financial wellness, philanthropic engagement, and nonprofit studies, empowering all generations to leave an enduring legacy. As an academic center, the Cary Center works to provide networking and professional development opportunities to students in the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies programs.

One of the Cary Center’s upcoming preparedness opportunities is the 2nd Annual Meet Me at the V.I.C. – The Cary Center Nonprofit Volunteer, Internship & Career Fair. Meet Me at the V.I.C. aims to give Auburn students the opportunity to mix and mingle with attending nonprofits and apply for positions within the nonprofit sector. Last year, over 50 nonprofits were represented.

The 2020 Meet Me at the V.I.C event is free for Auburn students and is Monday, March 30th from 9:00am-12:00pm in the Student Center Ballroom. In addition to professional development opportunities, there will be giveaways, snacks, and the first 50 students to arrive will receive a “Get Out of Jail Free” parking citation forgiveness card!

Nonprofits wishing to participate at the VIC may register at: aub.ie/vic

Auburn students planning to attend the VIC may register at: aub.ie/vic2020

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Did You Know That Before the Grocery Store and the Food Truck, There Are the Bees?

Post contributed by Selina Bruckner, Auburn University Bee Lab.

Figure 1: Honey bees filling wax cells with pollen collected from plants that may end up in the grocery store as fruit or vegetable.

Whether we prefer to eat something sweet (imagine those blueberry pancakes dripping with maple syrup!) or savory (hear the crunch of a fresh juicy !); whether we like to drink a cup of steaming coffee or freshly pressed orange juice; our plates share one thing: Pollinators!

At least one third of the food we eat relies on pollinators! These creatures move pollen from the male part of a plant to the female part. This results in ovule fertilization, production of seeds, and ovary tissue development.. Long story short – the ovary tissues are the part of the apple or pear that we eat!

Figure 2: For simplicity, here a few honey bee colony migratory routes.

But who are these pollinators?

There are the inconspicuous ones: bats, birds, butterflies, beetles and others. And then, there are the more obvious, well-known ones: Honey bees and native bees. Bees don’t just selflessly pollinate plants though. This ecosystem service is rather a by-product of bees collecting pollen for themselves to eat. Economically speaking, honey bees pollinate crops worth about $15 billion each year in the United States! To provide such extensive pollination services, beekeepers purposefully move their colonies across the country to pollinate different crops (Figure 2).

Figure 3: Mining bee (genus Andrena) with pollen pants in an Auburn parking lot.

Estimating the monetary value of pollination provided by the ~ 4,000 species of native bees isn’t as easy. Unlike honey bees, most native bees are living solitarily in the wild without human management pollinating plants incognito (Figure 3). There are some exceptions. Bumble bees for example, can be native bees hired to pollinate tomatoes, and the solitary mason bees are often used in apple orchards.

One thing honey bees and native bees share is that they face some serious problems. Last year alone, beekeepers lost about 40% of their colonies. It’s even worse for native bees. In 2017, an extensive review revealed that more than 50% of native bee species are in decline. Scientists agree that these declines cannot be explained by one single but rather an interaction of multiple factors. And climate change plays a notable role in this complex system of bee stressors. Here’s how:

Shifting temperatures. Overall, monthly average temperatures are increasing. One could argue that this is beneficial for some bees; honey bees for example rarely fly at temperatures below 50˚F (10˚C). On the flip side, shifting temperatures could also cause flowers to bloom earlier in the season and we don’t understand yet whether bees will follow suit (Figure 4). Generalist bees that forage on a variety of different plants may be able to cope with such mismatches, but especially affect specialist bees which forage exclusively on one plant. As an example: The Gulf coast solitary bee (Hesperapis oraria) only consumes pollen and nectar from the coastal plain honeycomb-head, which in return cannot reproduce without this particular bee.

Figure 4: February 2020 in Auburn, AL. Frozen ground around a beehive at the same time Dandelion is blooming. Are the bees ready to go out and forage on it?

Habitat loss. Some animals like butterflies have been able to expand their habitat further North while maintaining their Southern range limits due to warmer temperatures. Bumble bees don’t seem to follow the same pattern though. Not only do they NOT move further North, but their Southern habitats are actually shrinking rather than staying the same. One potential reason for the smaller Southern ranges is land-use change. In recent years, urban areas and agricultural landscapes have expanded. Along with this, intensified agricultural practices such as pesticide use further limit suitable habitat for pollinators.

Pest and diseases. Due to the high densities and large-scale movements, honey bees are prone to disease outbreaks, invasions of pests and parasite infections. Nosema ceranae is a gut parasite of honey bees (Figure 5). Originally from Asia, this parasite has spread into other parts of the world (including the United States) due to global trades and has been associated with elevated colony losses. The good news is that colder temperatures help to reduce the prevalence of Nosema. The bad news is that with increasing temperatures, this parasite is predicted to become more prevalent and virulent strains will likely predominate in the future. This does not only concern honey bees though! Nosema can be transmitted to bumble bees when they forage on the same flowers as infected honey bees did.

Figure 5: Microscopic picture of Nosema spp. found in a honey bee gut.

In summary, climate change adds another layer to other environmental stressors that honey bees and native bees already face. Given that bees are critical to our food security, the U.S. economy and environmental health, something has to change…

To end on a positive note: Everybody can actually change something and support bees and pollinators on a small scale. Why not planting some wildflowers out in your garden (or in pots if you happen to live in an apartment)? Planting a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year will benefit all kinds of pollinators (Figure 6). There are plenty of resources providing lists of pollinator friendly flowers.
Even better: Why not plant your own vegetable and/or herb garden? Squash, tomatoes, rosemary, and lavender will attract a diverse group of pollinators and your dinner plate will look appealing to you.

Figure 6: Wildflowers for pollinators. Planting a variety of different flowers that bloom at different times will make pollinators and yourself happy all year long.

 

 

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Are Controlled Environments the Future of Food Production?

Post contributed by Assistant Professor of Horticulture Daniel E. Wells

It’s a Weird Time to be Alive

It is certainly unprecedented in human history to have anytime, on-demand access to almost any type of food, prepared in any way imaginable. Yet, as residents of the developed world in the 21st century, we find ourselves in this strange situation. Most of us are not exceedingly wealthy by American standards but are among the wealthiest of the wealthiest humans that have ever lived. Each day you and I have the option to dine on some of the best-tasting foods ever made. Let’s take a minute to reflect on the fact that on any given day any of us can taste something that is objectively more delicious that anything Alexander the Great tasted in his lifetime. We also have access to any kind of food, any time. For instance, my kids ate watermelon for dessert last night. In February. We all know watermelon is a summer treat. It’s a weird time to be alive, indeed.

The Costs of Privilege

Of course, this unmatched privilege comes with costs, as do all good things. Tremendous advancements in agriculture over the past two centuries have allowed for unprecedented human flourishing, but have also contributed, in part, to climate change which threatens to alter our environment for years to come. But, as we look for potential solutions, it would probably be a good idea to glance back from time to time to learn from our predecessors.

I often think about a picture I’ve looked at many times of my childhood home. The house was built in 1929 on an experimental farm in south Alabama. The actual focus of the picture I’m referring to is a couple of farm workers alongside their trusty mule, but the house I grew up in can be seen a few hundred yards in the background, standing alone, surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland. The key word in the previous sentence is “alone”. Every tree in view of the camera had been cut down. This was common in the early 20th century, and before. We can look back with 21st century glasses and scoff at this practice, but it would be foolish to do so without at least considering the mindset of the farmers in the picture. Did they know all the consequences of clear-cutting the land? Certainly not. Did they believe they had done the right thing by “freeing up” all that good land for crops? Probably so. Fast forward nearly 100 years and we can clearly see that those farmers did not know the best way to steward the land. There is a common phrase about hindsight that comes to mind here. I bring up this anecdote not primarily as an example of how ignorant or backwards our great-great-great-grandparents were, but as how ignorant we may one day look to our great-great-great-grandchildren. Those farmers in that picture didn’t know what they didn’t know and neither do we. So, with that in mind, let’s humbly look at our current and future situation.

Bad News and Good News?

Agricultural production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. When looking at the linked graphic, one can easily see that “food type” is the most important factor determining the environmental impact of agriculture. We can also clearly see that, for the most part, plant-based production systems account for far lower emissions than do other types of systems, the most notable exceptions being chocolate, coffee, and various oils of plant origin. Overall, grain and vegetable production systems account for a small percentage of ag-based global emissions. This is good news! Let me explain.

First off, plant-based diets are often cited in the literature as healthful for humans. To be sure, animal meats and fats can also be good for you when enjoyed in moderation. As Michael Pollan, author of many books including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” eloquently and succinctly puts it “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Secondly, most diets across the globe are, in fact, plant based. I often pose the question “how do we feed the world?” to my students at the beginning of each semester. When I ask the question, I’m not looking to learn the mechanisms of farming practices. I am trying to discern whether my students really know where human sustenance comes from. Where do most humans derive their life-sustaining calories? The most correct answer is “grains.” Wheat, rice, and corn to be more direct. There are many reasons for this, but we can summarize them by pointing out that grains are nutritional “powerhouses” in dryable, shippable form. Nearly the perfect energy source. The students in my classes are often surprised by this question and answer combo, because I teach classes focused on vegetable production. In particular, my “HORT 2060: Hydroponics” class covers production of vegetables in small-footprint, enclosed, environmentally controlled structures like greenhouses and vertical farms (more on that later). Grains are row crops produced on vast tracts of land, much of which is in the Midwestern U.S., and exported all over the world. As we have already seen, grains are still only accountable for a small portion of ag-related greenhouse gas emissions. Vegetables are an even smaller contributor then to climate change. So, what’s the point? The point is that although vegetable production contributes only a small proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, not all vegetable production is created equal.

Veggies of the Past and Present

For centuries, vegetable production has been practiced in a similar fashion to row crop (grains, et al.) production. Soil-based vegetable farming was and is the source of most of the world’s vegetables. Most of the vegetables traded globally and domestically are field-grown and although vegetable production is possible almost anywhere, certain locations have become major production centers due mainly to their ideal climates. Supportive infrastructures have followed, and incredibly large, centralized markets have developed. For example, in terms of value,  nearly 60% of the vegetable crop in the United States in 2017 was produced in California. However, weather patterns are changing and the vegetable production sector is evolving both domestically and globally.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), which can be defined as “plant production in (semi)controlled environments such as greenhouses, which use natural light and/or supplementary artificial light, or fully-enclosed environments such as warehouses and shipping containers, which allow for full control of environmental conditions but rely solely on artificial light” has made more localized vegetable production possible throughout the developed world because it helps negate some climate-related production issues like hard freezes and low light. Greenhouses have been used to produce fresh vegetables for decades, especially in northern climates. The most advanced greenhouses in the world originated and have continued to develop in the Netherlands (Holland) and have made their way to North America. Dutch growers exported their technology to North America in the 20th century to Canada first, then the U.S.

The benefits of greenhouses for vegetable production are numerous. A few examples are as follows: greenhouses are essentially solar collectors that maximize light, and CO2 in some cases, the two primary drivers of plant growth and yield. In addition, plant-essential nutrients (N, P, K, etc.) can be delivered directly to plant roots via drip irrigation or similar technologies, using complex, computer controlled, re-circulating systems which allow for extremely high water- and nutrient-use efficiencies and savings. Finally, greenhouses can be located in places where traditional agriculture is impossible, including urban, peri-urban, or suburban areas. This significantly shortens the supply chains for fresh vegetables. Maybe more importantly greenhouse technology increases the quality of produce. As an example, tomatoes that are commonly available in American grocery stores or restaurants are usually picked “mature green”, shipped from their place of origin (mostly likely California or Mexico, but sometimes Florida), and ripened in large storage bins or shipping containers with ethylene. While there is nothing dangerous about this at all, the fact remains that tomatoes that are treated in this way simply do not taste as good as their vine-ripened counterparts. Growing tomatoes in greenhouses, closer to their destination, allows them to ripen on the plant, vastly improving their flavor profile. If you think you don’t like the taste of fresh tomatoes, I highly encourage you to try some greenhouse-grown snacking tomatoes available at any large retail grocery store. You just might discover why Thomas Jefferson affectionally called tomatoes “love apples.”

The factors that make greenhouses so great for plant production also cause some drawbacks. For example, greenhouses are covered with highly transmissive materials, usually either glass or plastic to maximize light transmission. The high amount of sunlight transmitted through these materials promotes plant growth by collecting solar energy which is either utilized by plants for photosynthesis or converted into heat energy which is naturally trapped inside the greenhouse (hence the term “greenhouse effect”). This is an excellent scenario for producing warm-season vegetables in the cool season, but much of the heat energy trapped inside the greenhouse must be released when temperatures rise above what is optimal for plants. Heat energy is often so high in greenhouses that solar radiation must be reduced via shading, which in turn reduces yields unless supplementary light is provided. Another drawback to greenhouses is that transmissive coverings have very low insulation values, so additional heat energy is often required to keep temperatures inside the greenhouse high enough for warm-season plants when it is cold outside. Heat must then be produced, usually by burning fossil fuels. Low photosynthetic activity during short days of the cool season must also be overcome by using high-energy supplemental light. As a result, it is often impossible to absolutely maximize plant yields in greenhouses without purchasing significant amounts of energy for light, heating, or cooling.

Veggies of the Future?

Vertical farming is the newest technology on the scene, which is promising to revolutionize food production as we know it. But can it deliver on its promises? There are numerous advantages of vertical farming that can be found at the attached link. Probably the most drastic “advantage” of vertical farms can best be visualized in Figure 1. Vertical farms essentially allow for tremendous gains in production per area, and in energy, water, and nutrient-use efficiencies. They also drastically reduce supply chain length, thereby potentially reducing food waste considerably.

Figure 1: Photo credit: https://www.eitfood.eu/blog/post/is-vertical-farming-really-sustainable

This sounds really good right? But it’s not the whole story. Not even close. The visualized data in Figure 1 are for lettuce production. Americans eat a lot of lettuce. But as we now hopefully realize, lettuce does not feed the world. Lettuce also represents a tiny fraction of the global greenhouse gas emissions from food crops. So, why not grow other crops in vertical farms? Because the physics simply do not work well. For vertical farms to provide such crazy high yields, plants must be stacked “vertically” several levels high. Lettuces and other food crops of similar stature make the most sense. Plus, lettuce is relatively valuable which is a must because even though vertical farms are incredibly efficient, all their energy must currently be purchased. (For much, much more on this topic please see this excellent paper from researchers in the Netherlands).

What’s wrong with purchased energy? Well, as a reminder, there just so happens to be a gigantic flaming ball of gas nearby which “produces the equivalent of 38,460 septillion watts (3.846×1026 W) per second. To put that in perspective, this is the equivalent of about 9.192×1010 megatons of TNT per second, or 1,820,000,000 Tsar Bombas – the most powerful thermonuclear bomb ever built!” Seems like a lot. In vertical farms we have decided to shun the sun, as it were, in order to completely control the growing environment of the plant. We use highly efficient LEDs to provide all the light the plant needs and HVAC systems to keep temperature and humidity dialed in. Okay, but no matter how efficient LEDs become, they will never be as efficient as THE SUNTM.  This is all of course very tongue-in-cheek and maybe a bit too sarcastic, but I think I’ve made the point that vertical farming may have a role to play in food production moving forward, but its role will be limited unless we figure out how to do cold fusion (Here’s looking at you Senator Warren…).

In all seriousness though, there are a tremendous number of new and possible technologies that will greatly improve CEA sustainability. A few of my personal favorites, in no particular order, are large-scale geothermal energy, solar-powered greenhouses, and new co-generation projects.

The Survey Says…?

So, what’s the verdict? Are controlled environments the future of food production? I certainly believe they have a role to play, but I think we should understand that “food production” is a big issue. We need grains. We need meat, but maybe not as much as we currently have… We need field-produced vegetables to keep prices low. We certainly want people to be able to afford vegetables for a healthful diet. We need greenhouses to shorten supply chains and to provide us with incredibly high-quality, tasty vegetables with longer shelf lives. This will reduce food waste which is a huge problem we barely covered in this post. We will probably need vertical farms in some cases as well. I say all this knowing full well that we might be one or two technological advances away from solving all our problems, but that’s not very likely. Remember, we probably don’t know as much as we think we do. As we continue to make progress let’s be humble in our approach to food production, so that our great-great-great grandchildren won’t be too embarrassed when look at pictures of us standing in front of our shiny, new vertical farm.

 

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Food & Climate Change: A Permaculture Perspective

Post contributed by Joe Nisbett, President of Permaculture Tigers, Master of Landscape Architecture, Master of Community Planning.

Total Emissions in 2017 = 6,457 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent. Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2019

Our current food industry isn’t working. Agriculture accounts for 9.3% of the United States’ carbon footprint. This carbon footprint is furthered when we consider the high percentage of this food that goes to waste.

Agriculture is a designed human system which has created wealth and security, fueled industrialization and specialization of labor, and allows all the beauty of cities and society to continue. However, the human-altered biogeochemical cycles of energy and matter of contemporary agriculture are not appropriately managed. These climate change impacts are vast, including vulnerability of biodiversity, food security, human health, and water quality.

Permaculture offers positive solutions to properly manage these cycles, eliminate toxic chemicals, and create an abundance of food while regenerating land. Permaculture is a sustainable practice that creates beneficial relationships between human and living systems. Permaculture is about care for people, care for the planet, and return of surplus. In this blog post, I would like to introduce a permaculture perspective of contemporary industrial agriculture and its barriers to sustainability.

INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE VS. PERMACULTURE

There are a few processes that account for the majority of carbon and carbon equivalents produced in agriculture: application of artificial fertilizers, poor soil management, methane from flatulence and manure of livestock (primarily beef and dairy cows), and transportation of agricultural products.

Application of artificial fertilizer and high nitrogen manures can create nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Permaculture has a variety of approaches to mediate, resolve, or avoid these unsustainable practices. Specifically, permaculture advocates for completely organic agriculture which avoids the artificial fertilizers. When you farm organically, you don’t feed the plants, you feed the soil. Permaculture methods like composting, ‘chop and drop,’ no-till farming, and more efficient fertilizer application, like foliar sprays, increase beneficial soil organisms. These methods reduce or eliminate nitrogen or carbon escaping from soils.

This photo shows what tilling may look like on a farm. Tilling temporarily makes soil nutrients available to plants, but kills soil organisms by exposing and disrupting soil structure. Photo credit: Keith Weller, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Public domain

Soil erosion practices can also produce nitrous oxide as soil nitrogen is exposed to weathering. Regarding soil management, permaculture designs seek to ‘slow, spread, and sink’ water. This reduces stormwater runoff, recharges the aquifer, and seeks to eliminate soil erosion, thereby reducing the amount of carbon and nitrogen which leave the soil.

While there is a considerable amount of methane produced by cows’ stomachs, their decomposing manure creates additional carbon. Aerobic decomposition of this manure makes more carbon dioxide, whereas anaerobic decomposition produces more methane. A popular manure management method that permaculture uses is called a methane biodigester. These structures create anaerobic conditions for bacteria to process manure and other wastes and allow the gas to be collected for use in cooking and heating. Capturing and burning this methane creates carbon dioxide, but the impact is much lower than allowing methane to escape to the environment. Also, simply composting manures can avoid methane production.

Finally, a major issue with contemporary agriculture is that it happens far from where people live, and grocery stores are stocked with the same foods everywhere in the country. Harvested agricultural products must be transported hundreds of miles between farms, processing plants, distribution centers, and grocery stores, just to get to your fridge. This inherently creates embodied carbon through the transportation. Permaculture advocates for region-specific foods, growing food in your front and back yards, and eating local foods that are not part of the typical American diet. Farm-to-table production allows harvest when food is ripe and in season and avoids long transportation routes.

 

Diagram of a biodigester. Photo Credit: Consumers Energy

In addition to the problematic size of agriculture’s carbon footprint, pesticide toxicity (insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides) needs to be addressed to reach sustainability. Toxic chemicals used in agriculture are intended to kill pests, however, these chemicals can have long-lasting unintended impacts after application. Don’t get me wrong, the use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers has helped to feed millions of people. At the same time, some of these chemicals are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, and their impacts may not be fully known. For example, when you look at the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES) recommendations for pest management, you find a multitude of synthetic chemicals which are known toxins. To ACES’s credit, care is taken to recommend techniques that reduce total use and environmental impacts. However, peanuts alone have a 47 page guide to the use of these chemicals.

All of this contributes to why permaculture advocates for completely organic agriculture. There are ways to design farms which naturally break pest cycles, like providing habitats for predators, cycling livestock paddock management, and planting a polyculture of companion plants instead of monocultures vulnerable to pests. In a permaculture design, each element performs multiple functions, and each function is supported by multiple elements. This is why there is no single chemical insecticide to solve a pest problem, but rather a network of natural elements which work together to reduce pests. This is also why a diversity of species is planted. This diversity makes it harder for pests to find their preferred food, while creating additional habitats for predator species to eat pests.

The Permaculture forest garden seeks to fill each ecological niche of the ecosystem with productive and supportive species to create a natural system which provides for humans. Photo credit: Quercusrobur at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

DISCUSSION­

The industrial food complex has a massive impact on the global scale. By changing biogeochemical cycles of energy and matter (like carbon), we are literally changing the climate. The primary impacts to consider when looking at agriculture are the carbon footprint, artificial fertilizers, soil erosion, livestock, transportation, and pesticide toxicity. Permaculture has a variety of suggestions and methods to manage human and natural systems to reduce or reverse these impacts. However, sustainable solutions need to be properly used in the appropriate situation.

Because each site is different, each bioregion has its own considerations for regeneration. The appropriate application of permaculture has tremendous value to explore for regenerative agriculture. Permaculture is taught through the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course. The Permaculture Institute of North America (PINA) has information about permaculture educators and courses near you.

Find out more about permaculture principles and practices at the next Permaculture Tigers meeting, March 25 from 6:00 to 8:00 PM in Student Center 2222. Permaculture Tigers is a registered student organization at Auburn and an allied organization to PINA. We have monthly meetings on the last Wednesday of the month during fall and spring semesters. We have guest speakers, educational workshops, and field trips to permaculture sites.

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Lee County Remembrance Project: Reflecting on the Past to Build a Better Future

Post contributed by Olivia Nichols, M.S., Human Development & Family Studies Doctoral Student.

In partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, the Lee County Remembrance Project (LCRP) focuses on confronting the history of racial terror in Lee County and engaging the community through conversations about the narrative of racial injustices and the legacy of racial inequality in our community.

In an effort to accomplish this task, the LCRP utilizes the truth and reconciliation framework sanctioned by the Equal Justice Initiative. Our primary goal then is to identify and tell our county truths, particularly those most difficult to tell. After locating over 400 newspaper articles, we share them here, with you.

Between 1877 and 1950, thousands of African Americans were victims of racial terror lynching, including four men in Lee County, Alabama.

In 1886, John Moss and his cousin, George Hart, were accused of murdering a white Waverly resident. Hearing that a lynch mob was after them, they fled for safety – John to Wetumpka, and George to Birmingham. On November 3rd, 1886, John Moss was captured and taken back to Waverly. Despite his pleas of innocence, the mob tortured him, hanged him and burned his body.

George Hart was seized in a “citizen’s arrest” and held in the Montgomery jail. On Nov. 1, 1887, he returned to Opelika for trial. When the news broke that the evidence against him was “circumstantial and not strong enough to convict”, the white mob broke into the Opelika jail and, on Nov. 5th, hanged George from the same tree as John. A placard was found on his back which said, “this negro was hung by 100 determined men; whoever cuts him down will receive his fate.”

Lynchings in Lee County continued into the 20th century. On March 18th, 1900, a white mob shot Charles Humphries near Phenix City with over 40 gunshots for “outraging” a white, teenage female. On Nov. 3rd, 1902, a mob of white men seized Samuel Harris from work and accused him of an attempted robbery and attack on two white women near Salem. Mere hours later, he was shot by over 125 white men. His pregnant wife, Beatrice, was arrested as an accomplice.

No one was ever held accountable for these lynchings.

Sharing these truths emerge from a vision for harmony in our community and the recognition of past and present injustices that undermine and destroy. The legacies of racial terror and violence can only begin to be discussed and understood by acknowledgement of what occurred and by taking a closer look of the past. Although a deeper look into the past can be painful, we encourage all to do this because it equips us to better recognize and hopefully defeat injustices that are still being faced present day within the African American/Black Community.

To recognize and remember this history, our goals include developing educational materials for students and community members, and installing historical markers and memorials to remember the four men and their families. Accomplishing our goals involves each of us coming together, discussing the past so that we may become better advocates for the correction of injustices being faced currently.  Without a doubt the building of a greater and more peaceful future will evolve to include marginalized individuals who were historically not received.  It truly demands the participation of all citizens of Lee County. We NEED YOUR HELP! If you are not a part of the Lee County Remembrance Project we respectfully ask that you follow us on our Lee County Remembrance Facebook page or email us at leecountyremembrance@gmail.com so that you may be able to join us at our meetings and other events that will be taken place this semester such as the Soil Collection Ceremony. We look forward to your participation and cannot wait to see you at our events!

 

LCRP Co-Founders

 

Ashley Brown, M.Ed., NCC

Counselor Education & Supervision Doctoral Candidate

Auburn University

 

Olivia Nichols, M.S.

Human Development & Family Studies Doctoral Student

Auburn University

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Climate & Water Security: Vulnerable Communities in Peri-urban India

Post contributed by Dr. Kelly D. Alley, Alma Holladay Professor of Anthropology.

There are many vulnerable communities around the world whose livelihood challenges are exacerbated by climate change. In this blog post, I would like to introduce readers to the problems of peri-urban communities. In India, peri-urban communities live at the fringes of highly concentrated urban centers, in high-rise apartment complexes and informal settlements. The problems that peri-urban residents face in India are similar to those faced by urban and rural communities in terms of general climatic trends– hotter summers, devastating flooding and dramatic weather shifts. We can look at peri-urban communities in India to see the specific ways that residents experience water stress and grapple with problems diverting and treating their sewage in safe ways. We can then see these problems in the context of climate changes that affect water availability and quality for human consumption.

The peri-urban spatial definition. Source: Rumi Aijaz. 2019. India’s peri-urban regions: The need for policy and the challenges of governance. ORF Issue Brief, March 26.

According to the think tank the World Resources Institute-India (WRI), India is in the midst of an urban transformation. The population growth in cities is outpacing growth in rural areas by far. From 1981 to 2011, the urban population increased from 23.3 to 31.2 per cent.  In 2015, India’s urban population reached 420 million, and accounted for 33 per cent of the total population in the country. In addition to the megacities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata, large towns are establishing the second tier of urbanization. Constituting this large town category are cities with populations around a million or more. Between 2001 and 2015, the number of cities with a population of a million or more increased from 35 to 53.

The liberalization of the economy in terms of business deals and trade is pushing the pace of urbanization. Favorable environments in terms of services and tax breaks have been created for the private sector and for speculative investments in real estate. Corporate parks for IT and other industries are expanding in the peri-urban fringes where land is cheaper than in the urban core. In the midst of all this growth, the build out of basic water and sewer infrastructure cannot keep up. This means that many peripheral zones of growing cities, or the peri-urban areas, lie outside the city’s grids for water and sewerage. In these off-grid conditions, residents and workers must find their own water sources and create their own sewerage facilities.

The first source for these communities is groundwater but groundwater levels are rapidly depleting in peri-urban areas and the water is of varying qualities and often not suitable for drinking or even bathing. In some locations where groundwater levels are critically low, the government has issued a ban on groundwater extraction. In those locations, such as southern regions of the Delhi metropolis, communities must look for other sources of water. People living in informal or low-income settlements and even residents in high value apartment complexes are forced to purchase water from private companies, and this is supplied to them via large tanker trucks. The prices charged for this “tanker water” are generally higher per kiloliter than the prices charged by the government for piped water. So people end up paying more for water. Additionally this tanker water is of questionable quality—there are no monitoring agencies to ensure that quality is adequate for household consumption. Some families do not use this tanker water for drinking and prefer to buy bottled water that has some quality assurance from the bottling companies. Bottled water is even more expensive.

What does all this have to do with climate change?  Climate changes in India involve increased drought and water stress in some regions and at times severe flooding in other areas as monsoon paths are altered by temperature changes and other ecosystem functions. The most vulnerable peri-urban areas are in the drought prone regions such as the peri-urban areas of Bangalore, Chennai and Delhi. In times of drought and during the longer summer months, residents scramble to purchase private water supplies and the tension to pay for them causes increased stress.

Likewise, sewerage services are planned after building these apartments and are often add-ons to the local infrastructure. Some apartment complexes have their own sewage treatment plants but the communities that can actually finance and produce their own recycled or reclaimed water are the upper income communities. Lower income communities are not able to afford the installation and operation fees for these facilities. So they are more vulnerable to shifts in availability of tanker water and groundwater. When climate induced drought occurs, it puts additional pressure on water supplies and peri-urban communities become more desperate to procure water in a private market where prices rise in times of scarcity. Groundwater depletion is also accelerated by drought conditions because urban residents and farmers need to extract more groundwater as surface waters dry up.

This community is located outside the urban region surrounding the Taj Mahal. They receive a small amount of piped water from the government municipality, but then have to purchase drinking water from an ATM. Some residents with more income generation can have a borewell dug for them and purchase their own pump. Then they can extract groundwater and store the water in tanks on their roofs.

In another residential community outside Bangalore, community members have installed their own sewage treatment plant and use the treated water for gardening. This is one of several strategies for peri-urban resilience, as communities face water security challenges in a changing climate. You can see in the video below what wastewater looks like at the beginning of treatment in a small-scale system for a residential community. In the next video, you can see that the treated wastewater looks pretty good and can be used safely for gardening and watering dry and drought prone areas.

The next community is an upscale residential complex in peri-urban Bangalore. The apartment has no piped water connection from the government and must procure their water from borewells. Recently their borewell ran dry. They purchase water from tanker trucks and recycle their own sewage water for reuse in their gardens and for flushing their toilets. Imagine how much water is used to flush toilets and how much fresh water they can save by using recycled or reclaimed water!! For them resilience means organizing as a housing association and maintaining their own wastewater treatment and reuse plant, collecting rainwater, and thinking prudently about water use.

A resident waits for the private water tanker to arrive. Photo by Kelly Alley.

The next community is a low-income government housing project set up under the Rajiv Gandhi Rural Housing Corporation. A local nongovernmental organization created a baffled reactor to treat their wastewater. This is like a large septic tank with many chambers. Unfortunately, the reactor gets clogged and the sewage backflows into their homes. They do not have the financial capability to get the baffled reactor cleaned (to get the sewage sucked out) and they are unable to flush their toilets effectively. Their drinking water supply is connected to a large water tank connected to a borewell. The borewell pulls up groundwater but the government-appointed manager of that borewell does not turn the pump on often enough to give them a consistent supply of water. These residents are then forced to buy water from a private tanker truck. This is an example of a lack of coordination between governmental and nongovernmental agencies and residents of the housing association. All need to participate to ensure that water and sewer systems are maintained and used equitably. Resilience in this context would mean ensuring coordination between governmental and nongovernmental agencies and resident associations to help low-income communities meet their water and sewer needs.

Household water security is a concern for peri-urban communities in India and around the world. The examples show a few of the ongoing problems that residents have. As climate changes put fresh water resources at greater risk, by inducing drought, heat waves, coastal inundation and flash floods that wipe out critical infrastructure, residents are identifying where and how problems can be solved. This blog provides a few examples of community responses to water and sewage problems that build resilience in peri-urban zones.

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Director’s Corner: Taking the Measure of Our Humanity in the 21st Century

Sustainability Compass Icon
The Sustainability Compass

“I believe in one thing—that only a life lived for others is a life worth living.”  Albert Einstein, 1948

 

As I look around at the ever-growing climate crisis and the shocking lack of global action, the fracturing of democracies and toxicity of public discourse, constant war, and the widening gap between the very wealthy and everyone else and especially the desperately poor, several questions occur to me.

What does it mean to be a human being twenty years into the 21st century?  What are our individual and collective behaviors revealing about ourselves?  As a species are we advancing or regressing? How far removed are we from the coarseness and cruelty of our ancestors near and far?  How far have we advanced toward a higher refinement of what it means to be human, toward the nobility of kindness, compassion, generosity of spirit, appreciating our interdependence with each other, and applying our enormous mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities for the betterment of life on Earth?

What does the exercise of common humanity look like in the year 2020?  What are our responsibilities to the fabric of humanity and all life on Earth?

These are sobering times that require sober reflection on questions like these; questions about what we truly value and what we identify ourselves to be. Do we shrug our shoulders and say “thus it has always been” or are humans more like a Chesapeake Bay blue crab molting out of its shell to make room for new growth, habitually throwing off the confining old and emerging as something new, a more transparent expression of our “better angels” within?

The sustainability movement itself germinated and continues to grow from fundamental human values that are held in common among all peoples and cultures.  That’s why the movement is committed to creating a safe and just place for all humanity within the life-giving laws and limits of our planet.

Throughout my career I have been privileged to work with people in many aspects of all three sectors of society – government, business, and civil society – as well as in my personal life with friends and loved ones, who exemplify values in action on behalf of a better world.

I think the commonly held values that underlie the sustainability movement are reflected in four questions that, one way or another, we were all taught to ask ourselves when we were children.

The first question is: How am I showing up today?  Am I living carelessly or carefully? Am I paying close attention to living faithfully to the things I hold most dear?  Does it show in the way I present and express myself every day?  Robert K. Greenleaf, who defined the concept of Servant Leadership, reminds us that ‘the quality of our inner life is manifested outwardly.’  Perhaps the single biggest thing we can do to contribute to a just, thriving, sustainable world is to cultivate the quality of our inner life so that what is manifest outwardly reflects the very best of who we are and what it means to be human.

The second question: What is my impact on others? What am I seeing and bringing out in others?  Trappist monk Thomas Merton observed that “There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.”  Am I perceiving and speaking to the wholeness within others?  Do they feel seen and heard?  Do they leave an interaction with me better or worse for the experience?   These every day, common interactions with others have enormous cumulative effects.  We are not responsible for how our expression of humanity is received, only for what our expression of humanity is.

The third question: How am I treating the world around me?  Do I appreciate how utterly interdependent I am with all life on Earth and how completely reliant I am on healthy, functioning planetary systems?  Do I understand how precious life on Earth is?  If so, do I act like it, with intention, doing my best to ensure that my impact on the world is regenerative and restorative?

I guarantee that our impact on the world around us will improve, as will our mental and emotional wellbeing, if we invest time regularly – even as little as twenty minutes – in nature.    Humans have a natural affinity for life, for all life on Earth.  Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson uses the term “biophilia” to describe this connection. He wrote a book by that name and as it says on the book cover, “Wilson argues that our natural affinity for life – biophilia—is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living species.”  What does that look like in practice?  I know the results of these experiences are calming, relaxing, and leave me with a better perspective on what matters.

The fourth question: What am I leaving for those who come after me?  It infuriates me every time I hear about another assault on remaining old-growth forests, like the current assault on the Tongass in Alaska, the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world; or the wanton and willful destruction of the Amazon that is underway; or the destruction of water and air quality programs and policies that is reversing decades of already inadequate protections; or the mass extinction of species human activity is causing.  How much of what is left of the natural world are we going to restore, protect, and save for future generations?  “None of it” is the answer that comes most immediately to mind based on the evidence.

What am I leaving when it comes to human relations?  I am dismayed by the legacy of prejudice, oppression, and demonizing the other that we perpetuate and leave for those who come after us, a legacy that is tolerated and even being amplified today.  No one is born with hatred or prejudice.  It is either taught or learned through suffering caused by others.

More immediately, what are we leaving and providing for the next generation that is already here, the children?  The February 3, 2020 issue of TIME includes an essay by Jeff Madrick, author of Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty.  The essay opens this way: “Nearly 1 in 5 American children is officially poor. That’s roughly 15 million kids. But the number living with a significant deprivation–insufficient food, seriously overcrowded housing or a lack of access to medical care due to cost–is actually much higher. According to the latest studies, it’s more like 1 in 3. Why do we tolerate this?”

John Woolman, A Quaker who lived in colonial times, models for us what is possible when one person lives and acts consistent with their values.  Woolman spent more than twenty years traveling the colonies asking fellow Quakers how, given the tenant of the Christian faith that acknowledges the divine within each individual, they could enslave other human beings.  One of the questions he asked was ‘Do you think it is right to pass along the burden of this sin to your children?’  After more than two decades of his persistence and the Quaker community contemplating these questions, Quakers became the first religious community in the New World to renounce slavery.

Deep reflection on our most closely held values and what they mean for how we live can and does create meaningful, healing change.

The Great Law of the Iroquois, which inspired Benjamin Franklin and other founders as they were creating the American system of government, was written between the 12th and 16th centuries.  To me it is a guide; and a measure.

“The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in your mind and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation. In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”

The Great Law of the Iroquois evokes values that are ageless and universal.  We know what matters most.  Following its lead, we’re able to give gratifying answers to the four questions.  If enough of us aspire to live as true to our values as John Woolman did, we’ll all be okay. We will see what the expression of humanity in the 21st century looks like, and what it can achieve.

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