Friday, May 25, 2007

Trying to see the big picture

Last week I went to a session on scenario planning, sponsored by a University group that is interested in sustainability. We were asked to imagine what southeastern Minnesota would look like in 2050, across a range of areas: natural resources, social environment, politics, economics, culture and technology. I found that I enjoyed projecting my speculations out to the future, and equally appreciated hearing versions of the future from others with different perspectives.

Scenario planning seems to be something my brain is eager to do right now. Several years ago I became attracted to mind mapping; I think I've blogged on this topic before. This morning I sat down and started to think about what I might put on a current Martha map, based on what I see happening in my own life and in the world around me. The easy conclusions about personal priorities are those I arrived at some time ago: 1) do all I can to invest in a sustainable home landscape right now; and 2) work to create a supportive and resilient community and especially neighborhood around me.

Some of the actions that are unfolding from the first priority have included: planting asparagus, a cherry tree, an apple tree, rhubarb, and more plantings to come; and home improvements aimed at reducing the solar exposure of our house in the summer. This is because I believe that local permaculture (or permanent agriculture) will be increasingly important in the years ahead, and because I believe rising energy costs and average temperatures will make it expensive to cool our house. Currently, larger savings can be experienced in terms of reducing our carbon footprint through conservation measures. Technology may make solar and wind more affordable on a household basis in the future, but it is not practical now.

The actions unfolding from the second priority have included: being an active participant in a local sustainability group, and starting a sustainability effort in my local church. This is slow community building stuff but it has some long-term promise.

The more difficult questions that I keep coming back to are: how does art fit into this whole scheme? and: am I called to be a leader in any different or new ways? Perhaps the questions are unanswerable and simply need to continue to be asked. My art is clearly a gift to myself and to certain others, but for a broad group it is simply irrelevant. This is not any self-criticism of its quality (although I do think higher quality work will demand attention in ways that average work does not), but rather an assessment of the quality of attention that people have available these days. If we think of attention itself--the ability to be present and take information in--as a finite resource and therefore an attribute of sustainability, I think we would have to conclude that most of us have our attention strained beyond sustainable levels. There's far more information and visual material available than we have the capacity to take in. If attention is an aspect of sustainability, most of us should be trying to gather back our attention from where it is scattered, often uselessly and even wastefully. Yet that is easier said than done, because one still has to make some decisions about where the attention will be focused.

Many people feel called to take up some form of art these days, whether it is visual art or music or writing. I think this is a good thing, because these art forms are a way of focusing our attention. Many others are being drawn to meditation, which I see as a form of clearing the slate of the mind so that we can think more clearly. I'm not a virtuoso meditator but have been trying to get some minutes in every day. The wisdom traditions assert that this is a good thing and I am taking it on some faith, because I find it difficult. I also have some faith that the continued attention I place on my art will help me in my ongoing efforts to try to see the big picture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A short conversation with a CEO about sustainable transportation

This morning I accompanied an friend of mine on a visit to meet with a former CEO of a major corporation in the town where I live. The company shall remain nameless, because my arrival in his office was a surprise and I respect this CEO as an individual. My friend is the director of an environmental resource center in a beautiful and ecologically diverse rural area. He is seeking funds for improvements to the center, designed to make it self-sufficient in energy terms, and neutral in terms of carbon footprint. These improvements include installation of a geothermal heating system, a solar energy demonstration project, and a biomass electrical generation project. He was seeking financial support from the CEO.

The two of us had been participants in a day and a half long program on scenario planning, that asked participants to consider the natural, social, political, economic, cultural and technological future of southeastern Minnesota. The effect of all this long-term thinking was to make me see more clearly the how much hard work there is to do if we are to get off our currently destructive course.

Anyway, I went along on this friend's visit to the CEO to listen, and to make a short pitch for this man to play more of a leadership role in persuading businesses to consider more sustainable transportation for their employees. "What is sustainable transportation?" the CEO asked. We get so caught up in our own jargon that we forget how to communicate with people who work in wholly different realms of work. I explained that sustainable transportation was transportation that conserved the resource (gas, and energy), such as walking, bicycling, carpooling, and taking the bus. It could also include trains and other transit forms, and it could include employee benefits like a guaranteed ride home for the carpooling employee who has an emergency. I didn't want the CEO's money, I wanted his leadership in our community.

This man has the reputation as an ethical and visionary leader, but he admitted that he had never thought about taking any special steps to encourage employees to travel more sustainably, even though there are demonstrable bottom line benefits both for the business and the employee. For the business, the benefits are improved health (oh yeah, we have an obesity crisis!), improved employee retention (employees like to work at places that demonstrate transportation flexibility), relief of parking problems, and access to a more diverse labor force. For the employee, the benefits are saving money, building community within the company, improving health, and oh yeah, saving the environment.

Last fall when I organized a sustainable transportation campaign in our town, I called the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, to see if I could secure business participation in the campaign, for example through bike to work programs and so on. She stated that the Chamber was a membership organization, and its members weren't asking for this kind of program. As a community organizer, I guess I need to be willing to cold call one business at a time, and start to educate them about these transportation issues.

I don't know why I should be distressed or surprised by this reality: those of us who are outraged, inspired, or energized by the global warming situation, who feel moved to action by peak oil, the loss of migratory songbirds, the relentless march of invasive species, the loss of agricultural topsoil--operate from a different set of basic assumptions from the CEO and the great mainstream. Perhaps most people have never become intimate enough with a woods to recognize that they are changing and are under threat. Too many people are living in a state of distraction, whether it comes from video games, television, the everyday demands of family and work, the seductive cascade of music emanating from their Ipods, or the exciting sale on now at Target. They can't see the woods or the trees.

So yes, I am disappointed that the CEO was didn't share my engagement with these issues, didn't seem persuaded that promoting sustainable transportation had a monetary and moral value. Maybe it's better to assume that we won't be bailed out of the coming crisis by big government, big business, the media or elected officials. Perhaps if I had received a glib or insincere response to my request, I'd go back to my comfortable little cocoon. The leader that is most needed at the present moment is the one I see in my own mirror, and I guess I should come to terms with that.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Leaderless Groups

I've been thinking a little lately about how groups operate, based on my own participation in a number of voluntary organizations.

A couple of things moved this to my mind. First, I read an article by environmental entrepreneur Paul Hawken about the emerging environmental movement, which he says "is the largest social movement in all of history," adding that, "no one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye." What's mysterious about these groups, Hawken observes, in that they are fluid, atomized, arising spontaneously, and bound by ideas rather than ideologies. For example, he says, "we read that organic agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of farming in America, Japan, Mexico, and Europe, but no connection is made to the more than three thousand organizations that educate farmers, customers, and legislators about sustainable agriculture."

I happen to be involved in two of these groups, and what is interesting about them to me is their resistance to traditional models of leadership. One of them has been meeting continuously for at least three years. We do accept the rather loose control of having someone facilitate meetings, but everyone has resisted designating an individual as a leader. This does not mean there is an absence of leadership, but rather it means that leadership moves more fluidly from one individual to another based on the demands of the situation and the interests of our various members. We have succeeded in pulling off a World Cafe on global warming, have launched a Low Carbon Diet group, have educated electrical contractors about opportunities for electrical energy improvement rebates, organized a sustainable transportation week, and have hosted numerous small forums and meetings on sustainability topics. We have a website, a blog, and are collaborating with others on developing an environmental mailing list. All this has been done without the traditional apparatus of an organization: we have no budget, no board of directors, no staff, no meetings minutes, no dues, and no "Roberts Rules of Order."

When a group operates in this manner, things can get done easily and rapidly as group interests coalesce around an issue or approach to matters. Because most of the group members are responding based on their own internally generated priorities, actions that don't meet these needs simply whither on the vine. For example, the sustainable transportation week, which was one of my top priorities, failed to generate resonance with other group members. The project needed allies to be successful, and it failed to find these. In contrast, the World Cafe on global warming resonated strongly with enough members to make it a collective effort worth pursuing.

I contrast the behavior of this group to several more traditional groups that I have been invited to join. AAUW, the American Association of University Women, has an active chapter in my community. The organization has a long and storied history of good works and community building. Unfortunately, I found I was not attracted to the group based on both its more traditional form (membership dues, designated leaders, minutes, and so on), and to its less fluid content.

Despite the fluid content of these newer untraditional organizations, they still must develop an organizational culture. Stresses and strains arise not only to leadership failures, colliding values and patterns of domination, but due to the multiple levels of maturity and consciousness of group members. It takes real wizardry for leaders within these groups--self acknowledged ones rather than designated leaders--to navigate through these layers of ambiguity, harnessing the potential collective energies for good group work.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A springtime sustainable soup

This weekend the farmer's market will open in our town. I don't anticipate there will be many fresh vegetables yet, but I'll be there to purchase a few plants, to greet the organic meat man, and perhaps to buy some good cheese.

I feel a tremendous rush of optimism this time of year; spring is definitely my favorite season.

With the sunshine comes all the little spring wildflowers, morel mushrooms, and dreams of garden bounty to come. Not that I am a skilled gardener. I am trying to learn as much as I can about permaculture, a term coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, referring to permanent agriculture--growing practices adapted to the unique growing conditions and mix of plants found in the existing landscape. Our backyard is populated chiefly by black locust trees, considered a pest in many parts of the country. Our trees are about 70 years old. They wait until June to leaf out, have small leaves that do not need to be raked, and delightfully fragrant flowers. To implement permaculture in our yard, I'll be gradually adding perennial plants, especially edibles, that take advantage of the unique qualities of our particular site.

Last year I planted some asparagus on the edge of our yard, theorizing that the late leafing black locust would permit the asparagus to get the early sun it needs. This year, I am trying to nurture an apple tree that also grows beneath the canopy of the black locust. I pruned the apple tree, and hung a homemade moth catcher in its branches. The following ingredient are mixed in a plastic milk jug: 2 cups of water, a banana peel, 1 cup vinegar, and 1/3 cup black molasses. I cut a 2" hole in the jug and hung it in the tree. This brew is supposed to have a fermented smell that will attract the moths that afflict the early blossoming apples.

The other thing that is coming up all over is garlic mustard. I've written about garlic mustard before. It is another invasive plant that has millions of seeds. The spring seedlings grow quickly and crowd out the native plants. It is very difficult to eradicate once it gets established. The plant has gained a foothold in our neighborhood, the seeds no doubt carried by the prolific deer who live around here.

I think about garlic mustard a lot; for some reason it seems to capture the dilemmas of the changes we humans have wrought on the landscape. I had heard that garlic mustard was edible but found the raw leaves bitter. This afternoon I boiled some garlic mustard leaves in chicken broth for 15 minutes, and found the taste quite palatable.

So, I present herewith a recipe for Kielbasa and garlic mustard soup, which we will have tonight. I'll update this blog with our reactions to the recipe. As I picked the leaves for my garlic mustard I went through the field of growing plants with my grass clippers and snipped off the little white flowers. Next year's crop of garlic mustard will be prolific enough without letting all the plants blossom.

A Springtime Sustainable Soup

Kielbasa & Garlic Mustard Soup

1 19 oz. can Cannellini beans
1 14 oz. can chicken broth
12 ounces turkey kielbasa
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp. hot chili sauce
½ lb. potatoes, sliced
½ lb. cabbage, thinly sliced
3 cups fresh garlic mustard leaves, washed and sliced coarsely

Place chicken broth, beans, onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and chili sauce in a pot. Simmer covered, for 25 minutes. Add to the pot the potatoes, cabbage and garlic mustard. Simmer, covered for 25 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Options: substitute kale, spinach or collard greens for the garlic mustard.

Here are some more recipes for garlic mustard, which I found on a website called Prodigal Gardens. I would like to see a nutritional analysis of garlic mustard. According to Wisconsin herbalist Rose Barlow, "Mustards provide lots of calcium, potassium, and vitamin B & B2. Research has shown that all mustards, even commercial ones like broccoli, contain concentrated substances which help prevent cancer, including isothiocynates, beta carotene, vitamin C, and fiber."

Happy spring!