A new approach to conventional agriculture would unite not only row crops and prairie plants, but farmers and environmentalists. In his New York Times editorial, Mark Bittman highlights the STRIPS program and its incredible potential for commodity grain farmers throughout the Midwest. STRIPS stands for Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips. From Iowa State University researchers, this new conservation method converts 10 percent of a crop field to diverse, native perennials. This relatively small change reduces soil erosion by 90 percent and nitrogen loss by 85 percent.
Prairie Plains Resource Institute(PPRI) of Aurora, Neb., is a non profit organization with a 34-year history of doing just this kind of work in the Great Plains. Specializing in high-diversity restoration, their program Ribbons of Prairie hopes to engage landowners in turning their streams and waterways into stable, diverse strips of nature that resist erosion and runoff. “We believe it should have a much wider application,” says Bill Whitney, Executive Director of PPRI. “Also, it seems to me that the heartland could go through a major transformation in land use in the next generation or two, due to climate change, fossil energy availability, water and societal changes. Prairie is certainly not the answer to everything, but it is a sustainable resource that is fundamental to life in a semi-arid environment.”
Similar to the STRIPS program, PPRI encourages reseeding ditches with high-diversity regional mixes. Ditches are like field strips in terms of land coverage, but carry water away from fields. If re-designed for higher plant diversity, they would store water in the soil more effectively and create a diverse insect and plant habitat that encloses a crop field, from previously unused land.
Learn more about the STRIPS Research Team at their website. Publications on prairie restoration may be found at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture website. If you are interested in connecting with a prairie restoration organization in the Great Plains, you may contact the Prairie Plains Resource Institute at email@example.com or 402-694-5535.
(Top) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute: A PPRI Restoration: Monarda in bloom.
(Second from top) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute: Pokorny Prairie seed collecting, next to a corn field.
(Second from bottom) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institure: Mike Bullerman, Restoration Ecologist with PPRI, reseeds a ditch.
(Bottom) Photo courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute: High Diversity Restoration.
Have you noticed more frequent encounters with yellow jackets recently? Yellow jackets are a type of paper wasp found across the country. Depending on the species, they either nest above or below ground in colonies with workers and one queen that lays eggs. During the spring and early summer, workers build-up the colony with chambers for eggs and a protective, outer shell. When the colony reaches full size, the queen lays eggs that will develop into male and female yellow jackets that leave the nest to start new colonies the following year. Workers become more aggressive at this time, typically mid- to late-summer, to protect new larvae as they grow.
Viewer Tip: Encounters with yellow jackets tend to increase at this time of year because they are foraging for food outside the colony to feed new larvae. Yellow jackets typically reserve aggression for protecting the colony, so passing by or walking over a colony could result in an attack. If you have yellow jackets on your property, it’s best to avoid the area where the colony is located. If the colony can’t be avoided, you may need to remove or destroy it. Seek help from a professional who is experienced in pest removal – spraying water, burying or otherwise bothering a colony is likely to result in many stings.
Sources: eNature. Nature Watch: Summer Stingers.
Growing some of one's own food, conserving and generating the home energy supply, being part of a thriving local economy, and other moves toward self-reliance are all important, laudable goals with, as far as I can see, no ill side effects. However, in North America and Europe, there is now a strong trend among progressive thinkers and activists toward dependence on localism as the means of reversing the global ecological crisis and achieving global economic justice. That's just not going to happen.
Recently, on Al Jazeera's opinion page, I attempted to make that case: that as important as it is to improve life locally, such efforts will not work their way up through the world's economy to solve our biggest problems. I argued that retreating into a romanticized vision of the local life means latching onto one of capitalism's symptoms — the eclipsing of local economies and governments by more powerful transnational forces — and treating it as if it's the disease itself.
I cited the 2012 book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change the World by Greg Sharzer, which goes into deep detail on the disconnect between local solutions and global problems. In it, Sharzer writes, “The problem with localism is not its anti-corporate politics, but that these politics don't go far enough. It sees the effects of unbridled competition but not the cause.”
Efforts to localize have tackled issues such as promotion of hometown businesses, alternative currencies or barter systems, community-based energy generation, greener transportation, and most prominently, local food systems. The more highly visible, and shallower, forms of localism have concentrated on consumption without acknowledging that it's not in the checkout line but in the workplace that the great chasm opens up between families who live paycheck to paycheck and the more affluent, more powerful business owners who today control the fate of communities.
It's not that local owners are exceptionally greedy or heartless. As Sharzer shows, they simply have no choice but to play by the rules of the regional, national, and global market. Even the most well-intentioned local owners know that if they don't squeeze the greatest productivity out of the smallest payroll, there are plenty of other, more efficient businesses ready to take their place.
Even leaders of the localist movement acknowledge that so far it has had only a very limited sociopolitical reach. Australian Ted Trainer, a leading advocate of economic de-growth, observes, “At this stage, most of these [voluntary local movements] are only implementing reforms within consumer-capitalist society.” (His view is supported by research on one such initiative, the Transition Town movement that originated in Britain and has spread worldwide.)
Less radical efforts have had even more limited impact; the more business-friendly localism advocate and Vanderbilt University sociology professor David Hess admits, “The 'buy local' movement is, at least at present, mostly an alliance of small businesspeople and middle-class shoppers. It is not a poor people's movement.”
If movements to date have faltered in their efforts to resolve local problems, it is hard to imagine how they would address crises in the wider world. Some localists are counting on a mega-disaster—most likely, they say, in the form of oil depletion or runaway climate disruption—to deliver a mortal blow to global capitalism, at which point communities that have become more self-sufficient can show the way to the rest of the world, into a grim future.
A more hopeful vision comes from Greg Sharzer and others who urge local movements to stop avoiding political struggle and trying to create idealized communities; instead, they need to “confront global institutions of capitalist power in local spaces.”
Needless to say, taking that course will be anything but easy. But it's our only way out, and at least it has a lot more appeal than hunkering down and waiting for global catastrophe to hit.
By now, you have all been bombarded by the phrases “go green” and “be sustainable” in the media, in advertising and from peers, but have you heard of the phrase “go blue?”
“Blue” is to the ocean as “green” is to the environment. So, when I attended the Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C. last week, I expected to learn more about ocean policies and helping to protect the marine environment, but I never expected to find myself submerged so deeply into ocean issues with such an interesting group of people from all over America and abroad.
Blue Vision Summit (BVS) is held every other year in Washington, D.C. and serves as one of the nation’s largest ocean movement strategy conference. BVS brings hundreds of individuals concerned about the ocean and marine conservation together to take unified action on key issues and policies impacting the ocean. Each Summit reserves one day for advocates to meet and educate members of Congress on Capital Hall.
BVS is organized by Blue Frontier Campaign, a group, founded in 2003, that “highlights the economic, environmental, recreational and spiritual benefits of healthy and abundant seas…through outreach and service to hundreds of marine grassroots organizations.” Blue Frontier works to unite grassroots groups together with “private, civil and governmental organizations for the purpose of creating a visible and effective blue movement to advance sound policies and practices from coastal watersheds to deep ocean waters.”
Blue Vision Summit 2013 focused on three areas: responding to coastal disasters like Superstorm Sandy in ways that will protect ecosystems, making climate change a blue issue, and highlighting youth leadership for ocean conservation.
BVS carried out these themes in a variety of different ways. The first night of the conference, we all learned about marine debris from “artivists” (artist + activist = artivist) or “creative conservationists” who showed conference goers their work. Many of the artivists used plastic debris collected on their local beaches to make beautiful art with a message.
Shark sculpture made out of plastic debris found on the beach. By Claudio Garzon
Attendees also watched a number of interesting documentaries about ocean conservation issues. Check out a short animated film called the “Song of the Spindle,” about a conversation between a man and a whale. The documentary about the Nightingale Island Disaster, put together by Ocean Doctor, a nonprofit founded in 2004, is also an eye-opening piece.
I enjoyed every day of Blue Vision Summit, especially Healthy Ocean Hill Day on Capital Hill, and came home with two very important take aways:
One: Every state is a coastal state
BVS had representatives from 24 states, Borneo and Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa northeast of Guinea, southeast of Liberia and southwest of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the states that brought a number of ocean advocates was Colorado. Well, yes, there is no ocean in Colorado, but these passionate individuals realize that every action we take ultimately has an impact on the ocean. Fertilizer and pesticides are carried from stream to stream, river to river, and eventually the ocean. This reason, as well as many more, is why the Colorado Ocean Coalition was formed to protect the ocean “from a mile high.”
Another interesting partnership that was showcased at BVS was that of Iowa farmers and conservationists in the Gulf of Mexico. Watch a segment from the video Ocean Frontiers here to see how the farmers came to realize that the Mississippi River carried their actions all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Two: Kids are Working Hard to Save the Ocean
Towards the end of the conference, Blue Frontier organized a panel of youth advocates to speak about their work to save the ocean. Now, the environmental community is awesome for so many reasons, but my favorite has to be how we all inspire and motivate each other. I was so inspired by the 7th grader I spoke with a month or so ago about plastic pollution and by the young ocean advocates at Blue Vision Summit last week. These kids are not waiting until they grow up to save the ocean, they are working hard at marine conservation now. They were also tired of people saying they are the advocates of the future; they are working for change right now. The panelists from Teens for Oceans, The Harbor School, and 5 Gyres believe that youth make excellent advocates because of their curiosity, fresh perspective and inspiration from the world around them. One panelist spoke about how adults feel jaded and frustrated by marine issues, while kids feel empowered and see problems as an opportunity to make a positive change.
After three days at Blue Vision Summit, I felt empowered by the advocates around me, young and old, and all of the different types of people: artists, film makers, policy makers, government employees, nonprofit volunteers, to do the best I can do to “go blue.”
I've been thinking a lot about how to affect systemic change in the face of the vast, overwhelming environmental crises facing us as a species, like that of global climate change. And my ongoing meditation about climate change, interestingly, has been shaped by my health challenges. You see, I recently discovered that I have an autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the moisture-producing glands of the body, particularly the mouth and eyes.
Because traditional medicine can’t do much to disrupt the disease process of Sjogren’s, I started seeing a Chinese medicine herbalist in April. Only two weeks into drinking an unpalatable tea twice a day, I no longer felt like I was climbing up a steep mountain in the hot sun after a night of binge drinking. My fatigue has abated, and with that, clothes have begun to be folded, strawberries planted, floors swept and mopped, and I feel like a gentler, kinder woman — some of the time at least. The effect of this herbal tea on my health has been nothing short of miraculous.
After a couple of weeks of dutifully drinking my mystery miracle potion, I asked my herbalist some questions. I learned that Chinese medicine considers Sjogren’s Syndrome, a disease characterized primarily by dryness, as a “toxic yang” condition. The metaphor he used is that my body is like a burning building, and as a consequence, the normal energetic pathways (on which health depends) are blocked. This makes for some pretty crazy, seemingly unrelated, physical symptoms, in my case ranging from having numb or tingling fingers, dental issues beyond belief, to feeling ice cold even in the unrelenting heat of the Texas summertime.
So check this out: an autoimmune condition characterized by intractable dryness and heat, resulting in seemingly disconnected and contradictory symptoms, like the sensation of cold. If this isn’t an apt metaphor for global warming, I don’t know what is. Only we are the cells who are unwittingly attacking our shared body, planet Earth, by spraying pesticides, draining aquifers, clear-cutting forests, and boosting CO2 levels in the atmosphere with our penchant for burning fossil fuels. Our Earth is now the burning building, many natural pathways to balance blocked, causing increased temperatures and drought conditions worldwide, except for increasingly common instances of extreme weather — savage cold, rain or wind — worldwide.
Yang is the outward-looking, warming, initiating, doing principle, often associated with the sun, maleness, and the mind. The yin pole, in contrast, is the inward, cooling, responsive, meditative, being principle, often associated with the moon, femaleness, and the belly. We all have both energies available to us, of course, but as humans and often as whole cultures, we tend to live habitually out of one energy center or the other. I’d characterize our culture as a toxic yang culture, and whether we wish to participate in the disease process of global warming or not, we can’t help but pour fuel on the fire by going about our daily lives, not unlike a confused immune system that attacks itself as a natural outgrowth of profound imbalance.
Here’s where the irony, and the hope, steps in: the secret ingredient in the herbal tea that is working wonders in me, helping rivers to run again in the desert of my body, is a powdered form of a snake, found in the South of China in the summertime. The paradise of good health — my Eden, if you will — is being restored by a snake!
Predictably, I began encountering snakes everywhere at home once I began drinking my Chinese tea. And so I have been thinking a lot about snakes, about their ability to shed their ill-fitting skins and start anew, symbolizing new life and regeneration. And I’ve been thinking of how the snake was a common symbol of the Goddess in ancient days, only later to be depicted as the “Evil One” as yang religions gained ascendancy with their hierarchical structures of leadership, their orientation to a male Sky God over a female Earth Goddess, and a marked preference for the head over the belly as the primary source of wisdom.
I have also been meditating on the snake as potent teacher and spiritual medicine, pointing us to alternative approaches to healing the crisis of our collective body, planet Earth. Snake medicine for toxic yang — toxic doing, toxic consuming, and toxic warring with what is — suggests that we learn how to bring our energy low, slow, and on equal ground with all others. Snake medicine reminds us how to journey forward, but with serpentine movement. And perhaps most important, snake energy reminds us to attend to the wisdom of the belly in seeking new ways of being and acting on behalf of our shared body, planet Earth and all her beings.
There’s a story I know that speaks to honoring the intuitive process, yin wisdom, or snake medicine in dreaming up meaningful responses to the world. One afternoon, about a decade ago in Austin, Texas, I visited the Mary House Catholic Worker to attend a “hen party,” for women only. At this hen party, I met a remarkable woman, Joanie, who told me the story of how she came to find her path of social service in the world.
Joanie, married and living a materially-comfortable life, found herself with time on her hands and the determination to do something of good for the world. But what, she had no idea. Every morning, this woman went to church. In prayer on her knees, she asked to be told, shown, or nudged in the direction of what she was to do.
Low and slow, adopting a posture of a heartfelt and humble search for answers, this woman resisted the cultural pressure to just do it. Instead, she asked and waited, asked and waited. In fact, she asked and waited for her answer for quite some time. Perhaps more unusual yet, however, was the fact that Joanie, embedded as she was in a patriarchal religious tradition and society, trusted that she had a particular purpose and gift to give the planet.
In our culture, with our emphasis on the head as the primary gateway to wisdom, it is common to look to the heads of organizations, or the halls of higher education, or to professionals with impressive credentials to give us guidance when we’re at a crossroads in life and seeking answers. Joanie, however, made a very different choice. Belly down in the dust, where no one is higher or lower than anyone else, humble but also equally endowed in worth, talent, and purpose, yin energy connects us to the promise we each hold in healing our world. Grounded in the value of her unique soul, Joanie inquired within to discover what her contribution might be. She inquired within and waited.
Then one day she received an answer: peanut butter. I kid you not: peanut butter. On a gut level, she had received an answer, a “knowingness” if you will, which is made of more solid stuff than anything manufactured by the mind. You can wait quite a while for the gift of knowingness, but often the answer you receive — peanut butter — can seem the tiniest bit crazy and off the mark, especially to our linear minds. It’s hard to know what to think, and that’s the point: now we’re in the realm of authentic, unique, and homegrown inspiration, of which we need a great deal more. Joanie stopped by the grocery store on her way home and lo and behold, there in the grocery store was a huge display of peanut butter — on sale. It must have been a quite the sale, peanut butter so cheap and plentiful as to not be passed by, because Joanie stocked up on several cases, all the while wondering how she would explain this to her husband when she returned home.
The path of the snake, while forward-moving, does not travel in straight lines, but weaves first in one direction and then the other. With all these jars of peanut butter taking up the available pantry, floor and counter space in her kitchen, and no earthly idea what it was all for, you can imagine that Joanie would again wonder whether she had completely lost her mind. Thankfully, one morning a few days later, the phone rang. A friend was calling, brimming with excitement about an article she had just read in the Austin American Statesman about the “egg lady.” The egg lady, Lynne Goodman-Strauss, who to this day runs the Mary House Catholic Worker, brought hard boiled eggs and tortillas to feed the day laborers who stood in the street downtown, waiting in the early morning hours, hoping to be hired for a job that day. These workers were often so poor that they came out to find work without first eating.
Joanie, kitchen full of peanut butter, reasoned to herself that if these men needed eggs for breakfast, they would probably like a peanut butter sandwich to take with them, too. So began Joanie’s peanut butter sandwich ministry, which she operated out of the trunk of her car to complement the efforts of the egg lady. The work of the peanut butter and egg ladies lasted for many years, until a larger organization, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, was organized to feed the hungry with food trucks throughout Austin. From the seed efforts of a small number of deeply committed individuals, like Joanie and Lynn, a new effort took root and spread, enlisting the help of a great many more volunteers with the ability to feed thousands of hungry people daily on the streets of Austin.
Now you may be allergic to Christianity, mention of prayer, peanut butter, or the thought of a higher power. That’s fine by me. You can still practice snake medicine, or yin wisdom, in your own life with none of the aforementioned trappings. But perhaps you’re simply not sure how feeding the hungry amounts to action on behalf of a planet on fire with a toxic yang imbalance. Me either, exactly. But I’d say that whatever your authentic answer is to the question that the world poses to you, if you engage in the spiritual practice of tuning in to the slow, low, serpentine energy of your gut, which is connected in a profound way to the Earth and all her creatures, then your action holds real promise for addressing some part of the disease process from which our planet suffers — toxic yang, toxic doing, toxic consuming, and toxic warring with all that is.
What we all need are more free peanut butter sandwiches and belly laughs to soften the desert of meaning, and drought of joy, that afflicts us. That’s all I’ve got: I don’t yet have my unique answer for how to disrupt the disease process of global warming, though as a mother and as a human being, I have a lot riding on this one. In the meantime, I will join in the effort where it feels fitting, marching here, contacting my Senator there, keeping bees as best as I am able.
But the real work, the radical, to-the-roots effort of my being, I carry within me quietly, unseen and unheralded by the world. I carry the question that this beautiful, suffering world presents to me, embracing it as fully as I can, in my head, in my heart, and in my belly. As I meander through the days, I am silently, persistently, asking and waiting, asking and waiting.
I was recently trying to get a mortgage for a house that my wife and I were looking at buying. After 30 minutes on the phone, answering questions about my income, assets and debts, I was declined for the mortgage. I asked if there was any room for flexibility, and the mortgage broker said something that really struck me: “Sorry sir. Everything in our industry is black and white.”
At the end of a long, slouching call, that one sentence made me sit bolt upright, write it down, and now write a blog about it. Because at Kiva Zip, we’re trying to disrupt that paradigm, and this (lending) industry. We’re trying to inject shades of grey, or (even better) rich, vibrant colors into the process by which small business owners can access the capital they need to launch or grow their businesses.
There are a myriad of ways in which we are challenging the conventional “black and white” approach, but I’m going to highlight two – firstly, how we underwrite loans; and secondly, how we approach delinquent payments.
When I was applying for the mortgage I mentioned above, I was underwritten on a purely financial basis. What was my credit score? How much money did I have in my bank account? How much did I earn last year? How much did my wife earn? What debts do I have? What is my net worth? At no point was I asked for character references. And the mortgage broker did not know me personally. It’s all about numbers and statistically-tested algorithms. I didn’t qualify for the mortgage because, on average, people in my financial standing would not be able to keep up with the payments in more than (e.g.) 10 percent of cases. Now don’t get me wrong, this numerical, financial approach is very useful. And it works. It’s why banks and lenders are able to maintain high repayment rates, and make money.
But it doesn’t paint a full picture. By failing to take into account the character of the borrower, or social data points (like the strength and extent of a borrower’s trust network) on an individual, case-by-case basis, this average-based approach misses out on nuance, and thereby disqualifies many would-be borrowers that deserve, and could pay back, a loan. At Kiva Zip, by focusing on these information gaps that exist in conventional, financial underwriting, we can introduce flexibility and “color” into our underwriting process, and help a lot more people think a “black and white” approach allows.
In July of last year, we launched Kiva Zip in Richmond, Virginia – thanks to funding from Capital One, and support from Senator Mark Warner and Mayor Dwight Jones. Unfortunately, one of the borrowers we made a loan was taken seriously ill just as she received the money. In a “black and white” lending world, this personal tragedy would have been met with stern letters, late fees, and spiraling interest payments. I imagine there would have been no “exceptions”. In the Kiva Zip community, the borrower’s proactive communication on her conversations tab was met with no fewer than 15 comments from her lenders – every single one of them positive, affirming and understanding. The unanimous message was “we are so sorry to hear of your sickness. Make sure you focus on getting back to full health first. You can pay back the loan later.” This empathy and grace on the part of her community of Kiva Zip lenders blew me away, and epitomizes the “color” that comes from re-injecting human relationships and people into a financial system that (over the last couple of decades) has become overwhelmingly transactional, and subsumed by the pursuit of profit at all costs.
Now the borrower has recovered, and is paying off her loan. With any other lender, the accumulation of late fees and interest rates might have made hers an unbearable debt burden by this point, and she may have weathered one crisis of health, only to be confronted with financial bankruptcy. But on Kiva Zip, even a year later, she still has only and exactly the $5,000 principal to repay. This might be stretching the point, but on some small level, I can’t help but wonder if the flexibility she experienced from her community of Kiva Zip lenders, in stark contrast to the intransigence that she probably would have encountered from a more conventional lender, might even have helped her emotional and physical recovery. There is ample evidence linking financial worries with emotional stress, the detrimental physical effects of which are also well known. If our financial system was more people-focused, would we all be a little less perpetually worried about money, and a little happier as a result?
In a black and white lending industry, we on the Kiva Zip team want to thank all of you, our lenders, for enabling us to dream of splashing vibrant colors on the canvas.
Now I’m not saying that I should have qualified for the mortgage. But that’s because of my shady character, and dubious circle of acquaintances, rather than the paltry state of my finances.
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Are you ready for the kinds of severe weather that could impact the area where you live? National Severe Weather Preparedness Week takes place from Mar. 3-9, 2013. This is a great time for you and your family to “Be a Force of Nature” by learning the importance of planning for severe weather events and practicing how and where to take shelter before severe weather strikes.
Viewer Tip: In 2012, the United States experienced ten hurricanes, 936 reported tornadoes, numerous devastating wildfires and many other natural disasters. Some storms, such as tornadoes, can strike quickly and without warning. Being prepared can save lives. Visit NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation website for severe weather preparedness tips and resources to encourage your social network to prepare by texting, tweeting or posting a Facebook status update.
For state-by-state severe weather preparedness information visit Ready.gov.
(Sources: NOAA,“Weather-Ready Nation”; FEMA)