Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dissertation Complete!

Once again I took a very long break from writing on this blog. And I believe this is going to be my last post on this blog. I have officially completed the dissertation and submitted it for defense! The title of the dissertation is "Sustainable Food Consumption: Opportunities and Limits to Ethical Consumerism."

This essentially marks the closing of an important era in my life, and the blossoming of a new beginning. So I'd like to start something a little different, something more focused, and something new. This blog has essentially been everything in my head, along with the kitchen sink. It is pretty frenetic and all over the place. I want to separate some of this stuff. There are a lot of gems in this blog and I don't want to lose them. But this blog lacks coherence, and doesn't adequately reflect the direction of my research, or my overall intellectual pursuits.

With that said, I'm launching a new site called The Phenomena of Sustainability - the purpose of the new blog is to explore some of the ideas developed here. I'm really interested in the personal experience of living sustainability, people's efforts to live more ethically, and capture some of the beauties and difficulties of promoting new lifestyles. I'm specifically interested in this experience as it relates to living and working in urban environments. And I will be exploring some themes regarding urban agriculture, voluntary simplicity, resource conservation, and other topics related to my general purpose.

With the dissertation out of the way, I think I will have some time to write, generate some ideas that I have, and do some more creative exploration. 


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thoughts on a sustainable food future - Part I

The path towards creating a sustainable food system is not simply about influencing a class of conscious consumers, but lies in transforming those consumers into producers. The path will require a reconnection with place to include the land and people of particular location - that include the limits imposed by the natural rhythm of place.
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In recent years there has been increased concern over the safety and sustainability of our food and farming systems. People are becoming worried about the environmental impacts of how food is grown, where food is grown, how farm labor is treated, and whether the foods we purchase are safe for our families. These sentiments have been reflected throughout the media, through surveys, and in scholarly research. With these concerns, the market for sustainably produced foods has increased dramatically.  More and more, people are looking for alternatives, such as local organic foods that are not a part of the mainstream food system.

Consumers are venturing to farmer's markets, purchasing more produce and preserved foods directly from farmers via roadside stands, community supported agriculture (CSAs), and u-pick farms. According to the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service, there has been a boom in the growth of Farmer's Markets across the country. In fact, according to the Farmer's Market Directory Listing, we have seen an exponential increase in the number of markets over the past 18 years.

Along side these trends, there is also a movement among urban residents to grow more of their own food through backyard and community gardens. In addition to cultivating fresh fruits and vegetables, urban residents are also beginning to raise animals in their backyards for eggs and dairy. This is an interesting trend, indicating that citizens are increasingly moving beyond being consumers to become producers.

According to Bill Mollison, a co-originator or the permaculture movement,
"...the greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter." 
Indeed, a true revolution towards a sustainable society is one where people are producers, not simply consuming to satisfy every conceivable need. Together, these efforts are creating new opportunities and alternative forms of relating within communities of place. In essence, small-scale agriculture and home-scale urban farming go against the grain, by asking people to participate more directly in the fulfillment of their living needs. And although not explicit, these new forms of consumption challenge people to think more deeply about the amount of things they consume, as well as the quality.

* * * * *

Yet, mainstream thinking contends that consumers simply need to make more informed purchasing decisions, and producers will naturally adopt more sustainable production practices. (See - World Economic Forum report "More with less"). This assumes we can modernize by increasing efficiencies, and consume our way to a new and more sustainable society. In this way, a more sustainable agriculture is one that is characterized by precision irrigation, GPS guided farm equipment, and GMOs to reduce the needs for fertilizer and pesticide inputs.This technological intensification is believed to help minimize the resource demands of growing populations, and spreading affluence.

However, studies suggest that increasing rates of consumption tend to offset any gains made through the adoption of more efficient forms of production. Foster, Clark and York (2010), note that such patterns are common - referring to the Jevon's Paradox, named after the economist, William Stanely Jevons (The Coal Question, 1906). The Jevon's Paradox suggests (in the case of coal) for every unit increase in the efficient use of coal, there is a corresponding increase in the consumption of that energy resource. This increase results from the reduced cost of using that resource and the economic expansion that occurs as a consequence. The problem is that aggregate use increases. As in the case of efficiency gains in the U.S. automobile industry. With greater fuel economies for vehicles, it becomes cheaper for consumers to purchase a car or truck. However, with increased purchases, there are greater numbers of vehicles on the road, leading to increased use of petroleum, and CO2 emissions, offsetting efficiency gains.

This phenomena contradicts efforts to promote sustainability, because the system of production and exchange are still bound to the organizing force of capital accumulation. And with each increase of efficiency in a particular technology, we often find greater complexity in the design, manufacture and distribution of that technology. Increasing complexity also appears to require more sources for the material inputs needed in the process of production. The resulting expansion of the economic system is detrimental in a world where definite limits exists.

These patterns suggest that technological advancement does not necessarily lead to more sustainable use of resources; and that economic growth enabled by increasing technological efficiencies creates a sort of Faustian bargain. This occurs in the transition towards more efficient tools, as much as through the expansion of production to meet a newly created need. More resources are required to bootstrap onto existing systems to make them more efficient, or scrap those tools entirely in order to create new ones. Further the emphasis on individual consumption reveal different realities when looking at aggregate consumption.

In the context of recent food trends, and in particular, the "grow-your-own" movement, there is an emphasis on low-tech solutions, that implies a contraction of the social relations required to produce the foods required for one's household. That doesn't necessarily mean that social interaction is lessened, in fact they might be deepened and intensified. However, sustainability through backyard and community gardening represents a conscious reduction of one's dependence upon the larger system of social production that modern consumers rely on to fulfill their needs.

The shift from consumers to producers opens up opportunities for more direct social relations where gardeners exchange knowledge, resources and the fruits of their labor. This is in contrast to the distancing of relations that currently exist within our food system. Today, conventional agri-food systems are characterized by a massive infrastructure of cultivation, processing, storage and distribution. This includes support industries from chemical companies, manufacturing of farm equipment, to agricultural marketing organizations.

In a truly localized agri-food system there would ideally be a mix of full-time and part-time farmers who fulfill the food needs of the community. The members of the community come to fulfill the roles of the larger social system of productions, but on a much smaller scale. This could also include exchanges between different regions as a means to minimize food insecurity and support dietary diversity resulting from differing ecosystem characteristics. However, this doesn't assume that people will be able to live high-consumption lifestyles. Rather, this approach imposes natural limits on the "rate," and "what" of consumption, re-linking food to the people and place of cultivation, and the variance of landscapes.

Overall, an ecologically coherent human society will be one in which each person is reconnected to the landscape of place, bound in part to the limits of place - this not only requires a more conscious form of consumer, but a form of citizenship that recognizes when one's cup is already full. And from time to time, choosing to fill it on one's own.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Eursafe 2013: “The Ethics of Consumption: The Citizen, The Market, and The Law”

This is worth mentioning. There is an upcoming conference on the ethics of consumption. Eursafe 2013: “The Ethics of Consumption: The Citizen, The Market, and The Law.” This is for the 11th Congress of the European Society for Agricultural and Food EthicsUppsala, Sweden, September 11-14, 2013! There is currently an open call for abstract submissions, with a due date of January 1st 2013.

Check out the details on the International Society for Environmental Ethics (ISEE) website.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Yes, I've been in hiding, but for good reason...

Yes, I have been hiding out for some time now. For the past year I have been writing exclusively on the dissertation. And guess what, it is nearly complete! After all this time, I finally have something of substantial quality and relevance to the issues facing the future sustainability of our food systems.

Over the course of the process I have had my share of hiccups and redirects, but with focus and perseverance, I have put together a series of solid research articles. These articles represent the basis of the dissertation; each article is unique, but related, and each one addresses issues related to sustainable consumption, sustainability discourse, and equity in our agri-food systems.

One article in particular looks at people's 'affective connection' with nature as defined in Mayer et al. (2004), and their Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS). Following Aldo Leopold's concept of the 'Land Ethic,' the CNS aims to measure the degree to which people feel a sense of connectedness to nature as part of their broader community. Leopold suggested that this connection was essential to changing human relationships with the land, away from a form of destructive dominance over nature, and towards one of respectful cooperation with nature. 
Using a much abbreviated version of the CNS - 4 items versus 14 items - I looked at the association between peoples sense of nature connectedness and behavior vis-a-vie, ethical consumption. The study looked specifically at sustainable food provisioning in the form of attitudes and behaviors around local food purchasing. Even with the smaller sized scale, the 4 items retained from Mayer et al. original CNS proved to be an important indicator of both interest in ethical consumption and actual behavior through local food provisioning. 
This is very exciting as it further verifies the CNS, while also giving additional evidence to the importance of Leopold's 'Land Ethic' perspective. Of course, more research is needed, and it would be particularly necessary to employ the entire scale in a study of actual behavior. However, the little bit of evidence that this study provides is important. It also has sparked additional thinking about what influences a person's connection to nature. Perhaps the answer is being worked on the University of Virginia, through an exploration of a concept called, The Nature Pyramid. It is argued that humans require a range of interactions with their natural environment. The Pyramid defines various forms of interactions in terms of scale. 
I wonder which forms will prove to have the most impact, if any, on cultivating a person's connection to nature... I wonder if, and how the structure and character of human-built environments will influence this connectedness. Perhaps Christopher Alexander's concept of 'degrees of life' in a place will prove useful in future inquiry.

Anyway, all ideas for future work. In the meantime, I will post some of the research, probably around the end of September. And now that this project is finally coming to an end, I will have more time to start using this blog as a means to "think out loud" again. Plus, I will have time to get this little webcrawler software project ready for public use!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Status Update - Revealing my secret research project - On the Experience of Living More Sustainabily

- On the Experience of Living in a More Sustainable Manner - 

Well, life over the past 6 months has seemed like a whirlwind, not unlike the 6 months before it.

As I come to my senses, and the mental fog clears, I find myself feeling as if my family and I have been abused - sucked dry. In part, the past year or so has been the result of our own choices, and partly the results of external forces outside our immediate control. And no, I have yet to complete the dissertation, and up until the last 4 weeks everything has been pretty much on hold. However, with a little reprieve and some time for personal reflection, I realize how much hardship can teach each one of us.

For one, I think Maslow was correct in his assessment of human fulfillment.  In my case, when one's life is reduced primarily to dealing with the basic necessity of survival, higher level pursuits tend to suffer. The capacity for reflection is not necessarily diminished, but the depth of importance or relevance to one's immediate survival needs seems ancillary.

It is almost embarrassing to publicly admit this, but I know what it means to feel hunger. I know the fear (uncertaintity ) and shame (poor choices) that comes with the threat of homelessness. I know the sense of uncertaintity that comes with poverty, as well as the loss of "freedom" that comes with poverty. Instead of having the ability of choosing between a series of positive pursuits, the experience of poverty is one where the opportunities one has are severely limited in terms of the number of options one has available, as well as the quality of those options. Often times my wife and I would find ourselves having to choose between phones, power and food. Most days, we could only choose one.

(Side note: the connection between choice and the "experience" of poverty seem to resonate with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's conceptions of justice - where the capabilities one is afforded correspond to the freedom to act, the freedom to enjoy life)

Unfortunately, I am already familiar with the experience of being a young father, and a husband struggling to take care of a new family. At the age of 19, I woke to a foreign reality - Somehow I navigated through teenage homelessness, and all of the things that come with being 16, and living life on the streets. Somehow I was employed, working just above minimum wage, and a roof over my head. Still I was a high school drop out who barely completed the 9th grade, and who was suffering from a deficit of purpose and vision - suffering from a deep existential angst. However, with the reality of fatherhood and the level of responsibility that being a parent entailed, compelled - demanded a cosmic shift. I committed to finding a purpose, that ideal vision - where I could live in line with my passions and beliefs. The trick was finding out what that meant...

Fast forward 13 years, and I find that those earlier years seem like a faded dream of another person, living another life. But whether one is a homeless teen, a nervous parent to be, or a respected scholar - a convergence of events can land anyone in peril, and at any moment the feeling of powerlessness in the storm of life can overwhelm and debilitate.

On the other hand, not all is "negative" and it often seems that through the hardships we encounter in life, are the times when we are challenged and . For one, as someone who pays lip service to the ideals of "voluntary simplicity," it wasn't until I was confronted with "forced simplicity" that I learned how to watch my habitual patterns towards consumption, accumulation and the never-ending pursuit of comfort. Thinking for a moment about the "Fulfillment Curve" articulated in the book, "Your Money or Your Life," I can't help but see the parallels with my own life experience. We sought out a degree of comfort to offset the overwhelming discomfort through coffee, food, alcohol, etc. But the more we sought out these small comforts the more we perpetuated the problems of scaricity, and ultimately the problem of choice. The time, energy and worry that went into balancing the immediate needs, and immediate wants became a greater stresser than the relief we derived from fulfilling those wants. Like a drug addict, I was habituated to the satisficing of my desire for comfort, even when both my apparent obsession and compulsion had become key factors in my mental and material poverty.

Overall, I learned that although I possess the skills and experiences to start and run an organic, sustainable farm - write software, do research, run a non-profit, etc., etc. - my obsession with those more immediate comforts made it impossible to forgo these things -- despite our dreams, and our cause. After all, one of the very basis for the move was my own desire to extend beyond my "objective" research work on sustainable living and agriculture, and delve into the phenomenological dimension of what it means to live in greater ecological balance.

Sure you can read books, and study the science but to immerse oneself in the practice and process reveals a type of knowledge that is hidden through more positivist approaches to developing knowledge and insight. While one might seem to be discursive in nature, the other would seem more heuristic, and born out of immediate experience. I just never anticipated this little detour, and yet it was the act of purposeful struggle that highlighted the material, social and psychological barriers that invariably shape the character and extent of our abilities to live more balanced, or at least more coherently with our ideals.

Unlike a survey, or an in-person interview - the active engagement in attempting to create coherence between one's ideals and one's actions, a disciplined and methodical inquiry into the nature, or experience of sustainability reveals a different dimension. The process of reflection in the wake of all that has transpired highlights to me, one of the missing elements in my research. What has been missing is the personal story - the personal struggles, failures and successes.

While I have spent a great deal of time working on developing a web crawler to support my social network and discourse analysis, I realized that one critical element was missing. For me, it is not enough to merely study a particular phenomenon. In a sense, one must enter into it in order to more fully comprehend the nuanced nature of the phenomenon. This embrace and engagement is in a sense a response to the more starchy, antiseptic research endevours that speaks to a highly academic audience. While this is important in the context of research and policy, our intellectual engagement must delve beyond the specific research question and dig deeper. We must begin to consider more fully what it means to be a human living in modernity and simultaneously seeking to follow a post-modern - ecologically oriented worldview.

So far, the revelation of living (or attempting to) illuminates the contradictions of choice that emerge - contradictions that are made apparent through the limitations of time and space - contradictions that appear in light of scarcity. As I move forward in this line of inquiry, I hope to give more context to the growth in local food systems, and especially the growing movement of people seeking opportunities to grow their own food and reassert more control over their food supply. Yet, just as this project aims to reveal the opportunities and intelligence of human communities (and individuals), it is meant to show the limits that confront us. By seeing both, it is possible to create more intelligent solutions and opportunities for making it easier for people to begin living more consciously, more voluntarily, and ultimately more sustainably...

(More to Come)