Cheer up — things really are as bad as you think

November 14, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

In last week’s election, Obama may have been a better choice than the alternative, but no American president is likely to have much positive impact on climate change, peak oil and the worldwide economic crisis anytime soon. Given the sorry state of national governments, controlled as they are by rapacious corporations driven by the profit motive, there’s little chance of either hope or change coming from the top in Washington or any other capital.

So, it’s up to local communities around the world to save themselves. Three new books will inspire you to join the effort while helping you achieve the calm and cool mind you’ll need to succeed.

Old McDonald had a brownfield

Deeply embedded in daily life, industrial food could be the most insidious kind of tyranny that today’s society exerts over people and communities. You nearly have to become Amish to completely avoid processed food made from GMOs and packed with chemicals and additives that may not kill you right away but will certainly kill you slowly through cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

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Urban Farms by Sarah Rich with photos by Matthew Benson, Abrams, hardcover, 223 pp., $30.

Urban Farms by Sarah Rich is a non-combative hardcover volume with pictures by photographer Matthew Benson of rooftop raised beds and hoop houses that you can feel safe leaving on the coffee table even if you entertain a vice president from ConAgra or Monsanto. But its underlying premise is a revolutionary one: why should “urban” be separate from “farm”?

The book profiles farms in America’s biggest and hardest hit cities, from Detroit and New Orleans to Los Angeles, focusing on the angle of urban renewal and community building.

Accompanied by short introductions, you’ll find the usual shots: a twentysomething hipster mom wearing her baby while shopping for produce at a farm stand near downtown Philadelphia; a hand-painted sign at the Common Good City Farm in Washington, DC reading “Garlic stops vampires in their tracks”; multiracial schoolkids in New York City getting a lesson in gardening while sitting on hay bales or pushing wheelbarrows between groomed rows of mulch against a background of chain link fence and neighborhood brownstones.

The value of Urban Farms is not to show that you can do composting toilets in the middle of Philadelphia or raise goats and chickens in West Oakland. It’s providing proof that so many people in inner-city areas across the country are already not just gardening, but farming.

You break it, you buy it

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How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies: Hard to Make, Hard to Break by Philip Monghan, Routledge, 141 pp., $35.95.

I would’ve enjoyed How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies: Hard to Make, Hard to Break better if editors had pepped up author Philip Monaghan’s bureaucratic prose and moved his numerous distracting in-text citations to footnotes. Also, why is this slim paperback priced at about twice what it should be?

And in my case, as a recently elected member of my local city council, I would have found the book more helpful if it had given local government types more detailed advice on how to deal with tight budgets and program cuts besides outsourcing city services, either to volunteers (intriguing but how to do it well?) or private companies (scary unless you’re a Tea Partier or a private company).

Nonetheless, the book is worth a skim for its numerous case studies showing how cities around the world have taken control of their local social, economic and environmental issues from national governments or big corporations.

I especially appreciated Monaghan’s story of one way Los Angeles started dealing with its massive gang problem differently. Realizing that social and economic inequality breeds discord and gangs, the City of Angels augmented its notoriously tough law enforcement efforts with programs to help former gang members get jobs and become mentors to keep youth out of gangs.

That’s an important lesson about inequality and social cohesion that could mean life or death in a future of crazy weather and other local emergencies: In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some places with major storm damage experienced looting while others remained relatively calm. Does social equality help ensure domestic tranquility in tough times?

Keep calm and prepare to collapse

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The title is not on the cover, but trust us, this is Dark Mountain, Issue 3, Summer 2012, Dark Mountain Project, 290 pp., hardcover, £15.99 (available online from the U.K.).

Dark Mountain, Issue 3 is not a book to skim. It’s a volume of thoughtful essays, stories, poetry and art that you’ll want to read in full, even if you decide to skip around. Put out by the U.K.-based Dark Mountain Project — which is apparently a collective of hard-core peak oilers, climate hawks and rabid back-to-the-landers who can write like Matthew Arnold — the summer 2012 edition of their literary-political hardcover is as beautifully produced as Urban Farms.

But it’s no coffee-table book where you’d thumb through the photos. Before you crack Dark Mountain, you’ll want to put on your smoking jacket and settle into your favorite overstuffed leather chair for some deep thinking that will take both your mind and your body to a more relaxed and focused place.

My favorite piece was “Dark Ecology” from the project’s founder, Paul Kingsnorth. A true master of simple-living philosophy and direct prose in the mold of Wendell Berry, Kingsnorth writes meaningfully and beautifully. As a new and unskilled user of an old-timey blade to mow the grass at our community garden, I appreciated Kingsnorth’s opening by talking about how to use a scythe from which he jumps to an analysis of the “collected writings of Theodore Kaczyniski” (yes, that one) via Ivan Illich to debunk a new group of techno-optimists, the neo-environmentalists, who argue that yet more technology can save us from climate change and ecological overshoot.

Finally, Kingsnorth arrives at five things that “would not be a waste of my time,” including withdrawing from mainstream society, preserving non-human life, getting your hands dirty, insisting that nature has a value beyond utility and building refuges.

These are the things that make sense to me right now, when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road…a personal philosophy for a dark time, a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world — but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.

Front page image by chriscom.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: book review, dark mountain