Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Bars Of Our Intended Cage

I have often stated our dependence on the breaking system known as the “official” economy, and have pointed out that the masters of this system are waging a war against anyone who tries to create a safety net of alternative systems. Recent posts discussed how this war is being waged against ordinary people who want to become self-reliant in regard to food. However, there are many other fronts to this war.

One such front is the war over the Internet. The Internet has emerged as a powerful example of citizen media and a powerful expression of free speech. Therefore it has become a powerful threat to the established media of our modern industrial society. Anyone who is the least bit savvy knows that the established media have largely become mere propaganda outlets – mouthpieces of the elites who run our society. Often they don't report the very important news which has a significant bearing on the course of our society, and the news they do report is usually slanted to promote the aims of rich corporate masters.

A case in point is the media coverage of the protests which took place just before and during the G20 economic summit in London at the beginning of April. When the protests were covered at all, they were usually covered at the “10,000 foot” level, that is, in a very generic manner almost devoid of detail. On the few occasions when the mainstream media focused on individuals and specific places, they painted the protesters as vandals and lawbreakers, while portraying the British police as dedicated men just trying to do their job. (Examples: “Spirit of 'the Mob' lives on in London,” CNN, 2 April 2009,; “Police Attacked As They Try To Save Dying Protester,” Fox News, 2 April 2009,,2933,512171,00.html)

The “official” line was roundly discredited, however, by the appearance of citizen-shot video posted on Youtube which showed police initiating violent and unprovoked attacks on protesters and innocent bystanders (See “Earl Street Raid During G20 Protests,”; “G20 Armed Police Raid On Seated Protesters With Their Hands In The Air,”; and many, many others). And it turns out that the “dying protester” whom the police had been “trying to save” according to the Fox News report had actually been shoved to the ground by the police. Moreover, he had not been a protester at all, but simply a man trying to get home from work ( I can guarantee you that CNN, Fox and the Associated Press didn't break these stories. The Oregonian didn't break these stories. They were not discussed on KPOJ, “Portland's only progressive talk station.” (Ha! That's a laugh. When it comes to chasing money and hawking stuff to buy, KPOJ is no more progressive than any of its Clear Channel sister stations – including right-wing KFI in Los Angeles.)

The result of the appearance of citizen media which so roundly discredits the “official” news line regarding such key events has led to a swift and sharp drop in the credibility of the official media. It has been wryly amusing to follow some of the editorial pieces written by major newspapers decrying the death of the modern newspaper in America, and the supposed inferiority of blogs and other citizen-generated means of publishing news. Often these editorial writers talk of mysterious psycho-social forces and new technologies as being the cause of the demise of the traditional newspaper. I think the truth is far less comfortable to these people. That truth is that more and more people are seeing that the traditional mainstream media predominantly tell either fluff (“Did you hear that Britney Spears' psychotherapist is dating Joaquin Phoenix??!”) or outright lies.

Citizen media, captured by inexpensive consumer electronics and broadcast cheaply over the Internet, is a huge threat to the official propaganda machine of the corporatists who control our society. It is therefore no surprise that members of the United States Congress are now very “concerned” about Internet security and Internet vulnerability, and are introducing legislation to provide for increased “cybersecurity.”

Senate Bill S.773, “The Cybersecurity Act of 2009,” is sponsored by Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). In a videorecorded speech, Senator Rockefeller justified the need for this bill by speaking of the increased threat to the American economy resulting from vastly increased attacks on America's information technology infrastructure, and he cited “secret” briefings he had received describing these attacks. During that speech, he asked rhetorically whether it would have been better for us if we had not invented the Internet at all. (A most interesting question, which provokes another question: why is he asking this?)

The proposed Cybersecurity Act establishes the usual huge new Federal bureaucracy customary for such bills, but it also establishes a new cybersecurity certification for IT professionals. Any IT professional who cannot obtain this certification is to be barred from IT security work in the U.S. Perhaps the most chilling part of this proposed new law is the granting of power to the President to “declare a cybersecurity emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network...”

One would hope that if such a law was passed, a “critical infrastructure information system or network” would not be defined to include the general Web structure, including such things as Google, YouTube, blogs and other means of disseminating citizen media! Otherwise, during a time of domestic tension and deployment of armed Government agents, the President could shut down citizen media sites by declaring a “cybersecurity emergency.”

We don't need such a law to provide an IT infrastructure that is more secure from attack. We could instead take such simple measures as breaking up Microsoft, switching critical IT hubs to Linux or Unix-based operating systems, and insuring a diverse supply of software vendors instead of the monoculture we have now. And there is already a loud and increasing protest and backlash against this proposed law. But I have a prediction: that as protest against this proposed legislation increases and its chances of passage diminish, other members of Congress will be induced to quietly introduce legislation that seeks to set up the same regulatory power proposed in this “Cybersecurity Act.” After all, this is the same strategy that is being employed in corporate attempts to establish Federal control over “food security.”

Friday, April 24, 2009

Volunteer Groups And Community Food Security

As has been stated repeatedly on this blog, the globalized, industrialized culture of modern advanced civilization is under great and increasing stress, due to resource constraints, climate change and economic collapse. This stress is severe enough to threaten the small units that make up our modern society – the homes, families, streets and neighborhoods in which most of us live. I seek to do my part to investigate strategies for making neighborhoods and communities resilient in the face of our present stresses. In this I am hardly alone, as there are many individuals and groups striving to achieve the same goal.

In America the challenge of achieving resilience is particularly acute, as most Americans acquire necessities by going into debt, thus forcing them to rely on the breaking systems of the “official” economy. Getting out of debt is very hard in many cases, due to rising prices or diminished earning power (i.e., low wages). Those who lose their jobs usually wind up losing almost everything they “own,” since their ownership is based on making monthly payments on an interest-bearing debt. A key, therefore, to getting out of debt and becoming more resilient is finding strategies which allow people to meet a portion of their basic needs for free or at very low cost.

One such strategy is urban food gardening. Yet urban gardening is a challenge in itself, since most Americans don't live on a farm and don't know how to garden for food, having never grown a food crop. I know how much of a challenge this was for me when I started in 2007 in Southern California. Later that year, when I moved to Oregon, I started a garden in my new backyard. I was trying to grow plants I had never seen before, and was anxious that I wouldn't be able to tell a fava bean plant from a weed.

I was greatly helped in my gardening efforts by the discovery of local, non-profit, volunteer groups of people who have made it their business to host classes on gardening, food preparation and food preservation, and who provide help to residents looking to start gardening for food. Growing Gardens, of Portland, Oregon is one such group. I have had the pleasure of attending several classes hosted by them, on subjects such as urban chicken-keeping, winterizing the garden, food preservation and canning, urban chicken-coop building, and seed saving. Their connection to community resilience seemed to be a natural and obvious topic to explore, so I arranged to interview one of their staff to discuss this in more detail.

Thus it was that I got to spend a bit of time with Growing Gardens staffer Rodney Bender last week. We met at their headquarters, a simple rented house which has been turned into offices and storage space to support their activities. Rodney's time was somewhat constrained, as they are very busy with this being the growing season, but he was gracious enough to give me about a half-hour. Here are some questions I asked, along with his answers:

How did Growing Gardens start? During the early 1990's, a gentleman noticed the poverty of some local residents, and began building raised-bed gardens for them, using his own materials and money. As word got out about what he was doing, demand for his services rose quickly, and he soon found himself unable to meet all the needs that were popping up. In 1996, he met a network of volunteers who offered to turn his effort into a non-profit organization to carry on his work. (According to the GG website, this first non-profit was called the Portland Home Garden Project. Later, the name was changed to Growing Gardens.)

What is the mission of Growing Gardens? Their mission is to provide food security to people whose income would normally be insufficient for such security. They do this by transferring skill-sets to people without prior gardening experience, as well as building actual gardens in the yards of low-income residents. Over the years they have installed a large number of gardens, both at single-family homes and in apartment complexes. (Rodney provided an interesting quote: “Give a man a carrot and he will eat for a day; teach a man to grow carrots and he will eat for a lifetime.” I laughed and told him that that was a vegetarian version of a similar slogan I had once heard.)

Rodney spoke of how GG's approach to gardening had evolved over the years. A specific example concerns raised bed gardening. When the project first started, volunteers would build wooden box raised beds in people's yards. However, over time the wood would rot and the soil would be compacted or lost, necessitating an expensive rebuild of the raised bed. This was clearly not sustainable for low-income gardeners, so GG changed its approach to building raised mounds directly on ground level, on top of a layer of newspaper. With this “raised mound”/sheet-mulching approach, installing and maintaining a garden bed is much cheaper.

You said that Growing Gardens has installed apartment gardens. How did that work out? Evidently, they have been able to install gardens in 45 apartment complexes. However, there are unique challenges to starting an apartment garden. First, one must find tenants who are willing and enthusiastic, and obtain permission from the management. This is usually the easy part. The harder part is organizing the daily labor and care needed for a successful garden. Sometimes the original enthusiastic tenants lose interest; sometimes they just move away. In any case, these gardens often wind up as weed patches after a few years. Skillful community outreach and organizing is key to a successful apartment garden.

Is Growing Gardens reaching out city-wide, or are your efforts focused mainly on a certain region? Growing Gardens is focused mainly on the east side for the present. However, they hope to expand to the west as they are able to add staff and resources.

How easy is it to find all of the volunteer helpers and teachers on whom you rely? That part is actually very easy, as GG maintains a listserv where those who want to volunteer can sign up. To date, over 1,000 people have signed up in one capacity or another. (For those Portlanders who are interested, you can sign up here:

How do you see urban gardening contributing to the establishment of a strong local economy? Urban gardening is a growing contributor to the local Portland economy, with many local merchants taking an interest. One obvious example is the many local restaurants and farmers' market stands that are now buying and selling garden-raised produce. (That prompted me to ask, “There are broad food-safety laws being proposed in the United States Congress, laws that would impose stringent regulations on food grown for commercial use, no matter where it is grown. How do you see these proposed laws affecting the contribution of urban gardening to our local economy?” Rodney was unaware of bills such as H.R. 875 and its cousins, but my question definitely aroused his interest.)

What advice do you have for people who want to start something similar to Growing Gardens in other cities? First, start small, so that you don't get overwhelmed. If the group's main focus is helping poorer families install home gardens, start with five to ten families at first. Second, keep it simple (especially at first). Begin by teaching simple gardening methods. And where supplies are needed, use free or recycled resources wherever possible.

That concluded our interview. One day I'd like to be a helper (and a witness) at one of their garden installation “parties”; if I can do that, I'll write a post describing it. Growing Gardens is an example for others in other locales to imitate. Another such example is the Portland Fruit Tree Project (, a group that collects gleanings from backyard fruit trees in order to donate them to charity. They got their inspiration from a similar fruit tree project in Canada, which now has at least two such projects including the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project (, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Victoria Frut Tree Project (, located in Victoria, British Columbia. The Victoria Project was featured on a 2006 broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, a Canadian food security radio program (

I have a few closing thoughts on the subject of volunteer groups and food security. First, volunteer groups will play a vital role in establishing resilient neighborhoods, especially those groups that teach self-sufficiency skills. A whole body of knowledge has largely been lost to our generation, which has only known reliance on far-flung global systems for the most part. Second, the Internet is a great resource for connecting with like-minded people. If you have a skill or a benefit that you would like to impart to your local community and you're wondering where to start, you'll probably be able to find someone in another locality who is already doing (or trying to do) what you want to do. Feel free to write others in other localities who are interested in doing the same things. You might even want to arrange visits where you can observe and learn from what others are doing.

Lastly, consider petitioning your local governments for changes in the way they specify greenery for public places. I think particularly of the city easements that exist in front of houses on many residential streets, and how these are usually planted with ornamental, non-fruiting trees. You might suggest that your city use its funds to plant trees that bear useful things like various fruits, nuts and olives. Such plantings would provide the beginnings of a very public safety net of food security.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Neighborhood Resilience Lunch Discussion

In my first “Report From The Front Lines” post, I mentioned that a co-worker and I were planning to host a brown-bag lunch discussion on community and neighborhood resilience at our office. Last week we finally sent out an e-mail announcement, and today we actually did the discussion.

Eight people showed up, including me and my co-worker partner. We had a good time and discovered a rather deep well of interest among the other attendees. I began the discussion by stating that in this time of economic uncertainty it was necessary for each of us to begin building alternatives and safety nets to help cope with sudden adversity. I got a laugh out of everyone when I said, “Most of you who have had to endure my 'soapboxes' over the last year or so probably know where I think our economy is headed, and the reasons why. There are three possible responses to such a point of view: first, to plug one's ears while singing 'La, la, let's not think about that!'; second, to head for the hills with a stash of five tons of baked beans and five thousand rounds of ammo; or third, to reach out to one's neighbors to form a network of people who take care of each other.”

I talked also about the systems of a neighborhood, and how they break down under economic stress. Lastly, I defined resilience as the ability of a neighborhood to bounce back after a shock or stress. One of the other employees spoke up at this and mentioned the difference between the response of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the small communities in Iowa after the most recent flooding in that region, and how the Iowans had learned to be self-reliant and to help each other instead of waiting for the government to rescue them.

At this point my co-worker partner took over. He described how he himself had experienced adversity a few years ago due to a death in his family and a prolonged stretch of unemployment. He spoke of how he chose to make his needs known immediately to his neighbors, and how he was able to trade skills and manual labor for basic necessities. He also spoke of the need to spend the necessary time and effort to get to know neighbors and their needs, including volunteering to meet those needs as he is able. He lives in a neighborhood in which many of the homes are occupied by widows and the elderly.

This prompted me to mention a post by Sharon Astyk on her blog Casaubon's Book, titled, “The Party's Not Over – It's Just Getting Started!” ( That post talks about taking steps to forge community connections in one's own neighborhood. Since we had a laptop and a projector in our conference room, we all took a bit of time to peruse her post. We also discussed the optimum size of community circles.

We finished with a query of each of us as to how well we knew our neighbors. One other co-worker told the story of the neighbors of his cul-de-sac, who all know each other and who went out of their way to welcome him when he moved in. They went so far as to bring baked goods as a housewarming present, and to loan him a few air mattresses (without his asking first) when he had relatives over. They also have neighborhood showings of movies and have even volunteered to help each other with large house/yard projects, where during a particular year all the neighbors will go to one house and do something like removing a tree or a project of similar scope.

We had an extensive agenda of topics to cover, but our lunch hour was over before we could even finish discussing this first topic of establishing community connections. However, we plan to get together again in a few weeks to discuss other things, like building lending libraries of tools, community gardening, and swapping skills. I'm excited to think of where this discussion might go, and am itching to try a few things in my own neighborhood.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Catching Up And Falling Behind

I'm running a bit behind on posting this week. But I have some good excuses: first, I started building a chicken coop in my backyard this weekend. I also installed a new hub dynamo-equipped front wheel on my bicycle, along with some new dynamo lights. (For those who are curious, the hub is a Shimano DH-3D71, 36 spoke, mated to a new Sun Rhyno Lite heavy-duty rim. The front light is a Busch & Muller Lumotec IQ Cyo, and the rear light is a Lumotec Seculite.) The chicken coop is nowhere near finished, and installing the lights took far too long.

My next few posts will hopefully consist of conversations I've had with local people about subjects related to community resilience and our present economic situation. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Homeboy Culture And The Solari Index

When I first moved to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2007, I immediately noticed one difference between Portland and Southern California from whence I had come: the almost complete absence of “gangsta” graffiti. The rare graffiti I did see was almost entirely political – much of it quirky and quaintly humorous.

Over the last year and a half, that has changed. There has been an explosion of graffiti in our city during that time, and most of the new stuff is not political. Instead, it's a tired repeat of the same things I saw in So. Cal. – homeboys and “wanna-be” homeboys marking out their turf in destructive ways, much like cats marking their territory with their own urine. The City of Portland has a webpage with a link to a document titled, “How to Read Graffiti And What To Do,” describing the various types of graffiti now showing up everywhere in the city ( According to that document, gang-related graffiti now accounts for 15 percent of all graffiti in Portland, although that percentage is growing. (“Tagger” graffiti comprises almost all of the rest.) The document also states that most of this gang graffiti is now done by Hispanic/Latino/Latina gangs and gang “wanna-be's.” Curiously, the document does not mention the obvious link between gang graffiti and tagger graffiti.

This graffiti can be found on the usual public structures such as signs and freeway barriers, but it is also being applied to private buildings such as company offices and storefronts. Here's the kicker: some taggers are now putting their mark on private residential property, such as front yard fences, houses and vehicles. I'm sure these taggers are not asking the permission of the owners of said property beforehand.

This says something about the mindset and culture of these people, namely, that they can't feel comfortable living in a place unless they have had a chance to make it ugly and dangerous. Graffiti is the first step toward turning a place into a ground of armed battle – battle over things that are really stupid and insignificant, desperate attempts by gangbangers to provide themselves with an identity. That identity is not built around a worthwhile personhood devoted to making one's place a better place or becoming a productive member of one's society, but rather toward doing one's best to tear things apart – toward becoming known as the biggest, baddest nihilist (though most gangbanger wanna-be's can't even spell “nihilist,” let alone tell what it means). Gangstas and wanna-be's don't care if the things they deface are not their own things – in fact, it's more fun to destroy someone else's things, whether those things are publicly (i.e., taxpayer) owned infrastructure or privately owned buildings, houses and neighborhoods, or human lives.

Who is responsible for creating this culture? There are two answers to that question, I suppose. On the one hand, one can say that gangbangers are fully responsible for their actions, having knowingly chosen things that are wrong and evil, and that one day they will have to answer fully for their actions. There is a level on which that is certainly true. This should be a cause of great fear for gang members, if they are thinking with clear heads – namely, that one day, they will stand in ultimate judgment for every piece of defaced property; every stupid, senseless fight; every neighborhood ruined by senseless violence; everyone killed over gang signs, gang colors, ethnicity or other stupid reasons; every wounded or killed innocent bystander; every attacked outsider; everyone who was ever pressured by a gang peer group to do something criminal.

Yet gang members are not thinking with clear heads; if they were, they wouldn't be gang members. Gangs are dysfunctional groups that attract dysfunctional people. They are symptoms of a larger dysfunctional society. In my post, “Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods,” I described the “Solari Index” as a measure of how safe and healthy a neighborhood is for its residents, and I described how certain wealthy interests outside the American minority community were doing things that lowered the Solari index of minority neighborhoods in order to make money. The problems caused by this, and the culture that results, have become the emblems of minority culture in America. But a further problem is now becoming apparent – that the dysfunctional culture of the American 'hood has now burst out of the 'hood to infect the rest of America and the world.

It can be seen in places as far-flung as Sudan (, and Britain, for instance, where over the last few years there have been incidents of gang-related gun violence and where in 2004, a well-known black personality on British TV criticized gangsta street culture as a “deadly virus” destroying a generation of African-Caribbean boys. According to a Guardian news article, the TV sportscaster, Garth Crooks, said “...there was a direct link between films and rap music glorifying violence and the drift of black boys away from education and into crime and violence.” (Source: “Gangsta Culture A Deadly Virus, Says Top TV Presenter,” UK Guardian, 12 September 2004,

As drug use in American minority communities was partly boosted by CIA and Federal involvement during the 1980's and 1990's, I'd like to suggest that gang culture in America is being driven by forces outside that culture, in order to enrich certain powerful growth capitalists. The drivers of that culture include all the usual suspects, namely poverty, exploitation and gross material inequality. But I want to focus on two huge drivers of that culture: the prison-industrial complex and the entertainment (or “content”) industry.

It's fairly easy to trace the role of the prison-industrial complex in the growth of American gangsta culture. As the prison “industry” has lobbied for ever-tougher laws and punishments for ever more trivial offenses, the result has been an explosion of the American prison population. This has meant more jobs for prison administrators, staff, guards, and so forth, as well as more contracts for architectural and engineering firms who design these prisons. But it also means that one out of every 31 Americans is now in jail. One out of every 31 Americans is now being exposed to and shaped by a corrosive institutional culture in which gangs are prominent. One out of every 31 Americans will one day come home to a family that has been disrupted by that one individual's incarceration. Many of those families will have kids on whom the culture of the lockup will rub off.

The corrections “industry” has influenced the American judicial system to prey on minority communities first of all. But the corrections “industry” is a growth industry, like all industries in our global economy. Its success is measured in capturing market share and growing the bottom line as measured each quarter. Therefore, it can't remain static. It grows exponentially, as expressed thus:

Corrections Industry Growth = Aex

Those who want to grow it want really high growth rates, rates that are usually higher than the rate of population growth, so that they can get rich really quick. This can be expressed thus:

Corrections Industry Growth Aex > General Population Growth Bey

This means that this industry is branching out beyond the minority community in its search for people to throw in prison. They're probably already looking for poor non-minority candidates for lock-up. Who knows? Maybe soon they'll be looking for formerly well-off people who can't pay their bills. They'll encounter ever more surprised fish as they move up the food chain. We may get to see what sort of culture emerges when a large percentage of America is thrown in the slammer.

Then there's the entertainment industry. I don't have nearly the time to trace all of the “urban-themed” entertainment now being marketed to impressionable American youth, but I suspect that it's quite a lot – from the rap, gangsta, hip-hop and other “urban” music, radio and music videos to the gang-themed movies. As I write this, Slumdog Millionaire comes to mind – not only because it shows how pervasively American hood culture has infected the rest of the world, but because the producer, Celador (now wholly owned by Sony Pictures) couldn't even make a movie about a non-Anglo country and culture without injecting American trash culture into it. Now Summit Entertainment is releasing yet another “urban” film, Next Day Air, with black people in all the settings customary to such a film – raunchy comedy, drugs, guns, and sex. There are even gang-themed video games for Microsoft's Xbox and Sony Playstation!

The trouble with all of this is that it's being marketed to an ever-younger audience. The self-imposed industry rating systems are a joke, as they are meant much more to protect the movie industry from strong regulation than to actually protect young kids from trash. The content industry says that consumers of its content are assumed to be responsible consumers who can properly process the unwholesome parts of the content they consume. But this is not the case with young kids whose powers of discernment are not only not yet developed, but are actively being short-circuited by ads for harmful movies and other content. The content industry says that its movies, TV and other offerings are not contributing to a general breakdown of society. But anyone who watches young kids acting out the “entertainment” they now see and hear knows that this is a lie.

The continued creation and strengthening of gang culture in the U.S. will be an impediment to the efforts of citizens to create local, resilient communities that can weather the effects of economic collapse, resource constraints and climate change. All of these threats will be difficult enough to handle without having to worry about dysfunctional people trying to tear down whatever anyone tries to build up, all for the sake of “keepin' it real.”

For Further Reading

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Self-Reliance And Regulatory Capture

In my post, “Knee-Capping The Peasants,” I described various pieces of legislation that are either being proposed or that have already become law, the effect of which is to prevent ordinary people of small means from becoming self-reliant. This, of course, results in forcing those ordinary people into continued reliance on the global system known as the “official” economy, forcing those people also to pay an ever-larger portion of their income to the masters of that economy in return for basic necessities. The system is now breaking, due in part to the inability of ordinary people to pay any more than they are already paying because they are being crushed by a huge debt load. The system is also breaking down because these ordinary people are losing the means to pay – i.e., their jobs and incomes.

Yet the masters of the official economy are using the leaders of government to attempt to pile yet more obligatory dependence on that economy on the backs of common folk, by cutting off alternatives to that official economy. I previously mentioned a particular case, H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, introduced to the U.S. Congress by Representative Rosa DeLauro. The purpose of this act is ostensibly to provide enhanced protection of America's food supply, but the actual effect of this bill will be to drive most small farms in America out of business by burying them under an unworkable weight of regulations. There has been much online protest over this bill, resulting in a lot of media attention.

But now it appears that bills like this are multiplying in Congress. Two such bills were recently sponsored by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) The Dingell bill is even more burdensome than DeLauro's bill, since it would require small farms to keep electronic records of food production practices. Now here's the funny part: small farmers are feeling justifiably threatened by these bills, yet large agribusiness firms like the Kellogg Corporation are supporting these bills. In fact, the W.M. Kellogg Foundation has teamed up with a “nonprofit” group called Trust For America's Health to lobby for passage of the DeLauro bill.

This is yet another proof that our government, at least at the Federal level, has degenerated into a tool of the rich, to be used to maintain the power and position of the rich at all costs and by any means. For if ordinary people of small means were able to find genuine alternatives to the industrial food system, that would cause a huge disruption to the profits of a significant sector of the official economy, and would bring real trouble on corporations like Kellogg, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Cargill, Kraft and others. Therefore, in the minds of the leaders of these firms, such alternatives must be crushed.

In other words, we are seeing yet another example of “regulatory capture,” defined thus: “a term used to refer to situations in which a government regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead acts in favor of the commercial or special interests that dominate in the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.” Or, to put it another way, gamekeeper helps poacher, or fox guards the henhouse.

Regulatory capture of government by the elites of our society is one of the primary threats to our ability to prepare for and adapt to life on the downside of Hubbert's Peak – a life characterized by the increasing failure of the very systems established by these elites. We must therefore vigorously oppose any further attempts to use the government to keep us enslaved to and dependent on the existing elite-run systems. But I have a (somewhat) hopeful prediction: we won't have to worry too much longer about such things as regulatory capture. I see a coming weakening of the power and reach of large-scale government. I think it will happen rather soon, as the tax base of large-scale government dries up due to our present economic crisis. Within a couple of years, things may be very different.

So grow your garden, learn to tend your homestead, and get your chickens. And don't let anyone try to tell you that such self reliance is dangerous.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Chicken That Laid Leaden Eggs, and Other Horror Stories

I have become interested in raising urban chickens as part of my strategy for decoupling myself from the breaking system of the “official” global economy while living more sustainably. Thus I recently found myself at an urban chicken-keeping class which covered various aspects of the subject, including building backyard chicken coops. During the class, one student mentioned a rather disturbing article that was published in the Portland Tribune on 26 March, titled, “Chickens Eating Lead Not So 'Sustainable.'”

It seems that this article is a response to the explosive popularity of the “urban chicken-keeping movement” in our fair city, and is a criticism of that trend. The author, Tamara Rubin, stated that there is a high risk of lead contamination of the soil of most Portland home lots, due to the lead paint that was used on homes built or painted prior to 1978. She also stated that it takes only two grams of lead dust to heavily contaminate an area the size of a football field. She asserted that chickens on farms are typically less likely to ingest lead, due to the non-lead-based paint used on barns and farms, as well as stating that “most free-range farm chickens and eggs are therefore lead-free.” After giving a few short, general suggestions for testing soil and siting a chicken coop, she concluded by suggesting that the better alternative to backyard chickens is to “[buy] locally farmed, organic, free-range eggs from the store and don't risk inadvertently poisoning your own children in the name of personal sustainability.”

This article hooked my interest, though perhaps not in the way that Ms. Rubin had intended. My interest is always piqued when I hear people warning me or other ordinary citizens away from specific steps toward self-sufficiency. My response is always to ask, “What's really going on here? Is what I'm hearing true? Even if it is true, is it the whole story? Why am I being told these things – especially now?” It was with these questions in mind that I began to study the issue of lead soil contamination in urban areas. This is what I found:

Is It True?

It is a fact that many older urban neighborhoods in the U.S. have soil that is contaminated by lead. The sources of contamination are lead compounds from automobile exhaust and industrial processes, and lead paint on older buildings. The lead from car exhaust was generated by the burning of leaded gasolines, which were gradually phased out in the U.S., starting in 1973 and ending with a complete ban of lead as a component of automotive gasoline in 1996. However, leaded gasoline is still allowed in aircraft, off-road vehicles and farm equipment. The sale of lead paint for residential use was banned in the U.S. in 1978.

Because of the high concentration of heavy industry and car traffic in older inner cities over time, soil lead levels have built up to very high values in these places. The United States Environmental Protection Agency standard sets a maximum “safe” soil lead level of 400 parts per million (PPM) in areas where children are likely to play, and 1,200 ppm elsewhere. As a reference, lead levels in virgin, uncontaminated soil range from 20 to 50 ppm. In cities such as New Orleans, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia, soil lead levels of nearly 2,000 ppm can be found.

These heavily polluted areas are where poor and ethnic minority populations have historically been concentrated. The small children of these neighborhoods absorb lead via breathing dust and windblown dirt from bare lots, or by ingesting dirt. They frequently suffer central nervous system disturbances as their blood lead levels build to very high values relative to the general population. The children of some of these cities have rates of chronic lead poisoning that are ten times higher than rates of children in affluent suburban neighborhoods.

The lead contamination problems found in older American inner cities is greatly amplified in the cities of the developing world, where environmental and health regulations are much more lax than in the U.S., and where large multinational corporations have moved most of their dirtiest manufacturing operations as a result. The environmental damage wrought by lead pollution prompted this quote from Caltech geochemist Clair C. Patterson: “Sometime in the near future it probably will be shown that the older urban areas of the United States have been rendered more or less uninhabitable by the millions of tons of poisonous industrial lead residues that have accumulated in cities during the past century.” If this is true of the United States, it is true in spades of many places in China, India, South America and other places of outsourced manufacturing.

Lead And Urban Agriculture

Is there a danger then to those who raise their own food in their own backyards? Not as much as one might think. Many studies of this subject have been performed by many groups, including U.S. Government scientists, local universities, local non-profit food security and urban gardening groups, and public-private partnerships between two or more of these agencies. In addition, studies have been performed by NGO's and governments of other nations where lead and heavy-metal soil pollution is a problem. These groups have discovered that lead is not readily absorbed by many plants, nor is it readily concentrated in their tissues to a significant extent. (There are some notable exceptions, however.)

A 2003 study titled, “Lead Levels Of Edibles Grown In Contaminated Residential Soils: A Field Survey,” by Northwestern University, found that those plants that in any way took up or concentrated lead in their tissues did so in their roots first and foremost. Thus, root vegetables such as carrots or onions might absorb between 10 and 21 ppm from growing in highly contaminated soil. Plants were less likely to concentrate lead in their shoots or leaves, although some leafy vegetables like mint had leaf lead levels as high as 60 ppm. Lastly, the fruit portion of fruiting vegetables like corn, beans, grapes and other varieties was least likely to absorb or concentrate any lead. Mitigation of risk from eating these vegetables was easily handled by thorough washing with soap and water. In addition, the 2005 study “Sources, Sinks and Exposure Pathways of Lead In Urban Garden Soil” by Wellesley College concluded that a small child's standard serving of garden vegetables would contribute no more than 10 to 25 percent of the lead found in that child's standard daily portion of tap water.

Then What About Urban Livestock? (Specifically, Chickens)

I was only able to find two studies that directly examined lead uptake and concentration in tissues of chickens. One study, “Lead Contamination of Chicken Eggs And Tissues From A Small Farm Flock,” was cited by Tamara Rubin on her website about lead poisoning, and dealt with chickens that had actually eaten chips of lead paint from an old farm building. While the report states that lead tissue concentrations rose as high as 1,360 parts per billion for the livers of these chickens, concentrations in the eggs of these chickens rose no higher than 450 parts per billion. This study did not analyze the uptake of lead by chickens from polluted soil.

The other study is titled, “The Content of Cadmium And Lead In Muscle And Liver Of Laying Hens Housed In A Copper Industry Region,” and was published by the Agricultural University of Wroclaw, Poland in 2005. This study tracked the lead uptake of two sample groups of hens raised in a region that had formerly been mined for copper, with resulting heavy metal contamination of the soil. This study found that free-range hens and their eggs were likely to have higher concentrations of lead and other toxic heavy metals than their caged counterparts. The weakness of this study is that measurements of soil metal levels were not included, nor were they correlated with the locations of the flocks studied. Therefore, it is not possible from this study to plot the relationship between specific levels of soil and environmental heavy metal pollution and heavy metal blood and tissue levels in chickens raised in this environment.

These studies do indeed show a correlation between environmental sources of lead and increased concentration of lead in poultry tissue. However, these sources do not show the correlation as clearly as it should be shown, especially for lead uptake by poultry on contaminated soil such as is found in urban environments.

There is one other thing to mention, namely that even on regular farms, animals and poultry are being exposed to heavy metal poisoning through exposure to pesticides and inorganic fertilizers. Being on a farm is not necessarily safer in this regard.

Remedies For The Urban Homestead (The Other Side Of The Story)

When one reads Tamara Rubin's writings, as well as the sources I have cited above, one can get the impression that urban gardening and self-sufficiency is scary and dangerous, and that one is better off continuing to rely on the official food system. However, such a conclusion ignores several facts. First, non-profit urban gardening groups and scientists from universities have studied strategies for making urban gardening safe even where soil is contaminated. Northwestern University has published the following recommendations for urban gardeners:

  • Survey the property to determine the potential lead hazards, extent of the contamination and location of high-risk areas.

  • Plan to locate fruit and vegetable gardens away from buildings, especially if peeling paint is evident and sites where sludge with heavy metals was applied.

  • Analyze lead concentration in soil samples from areas where vegetable gardens exist or are planned.

  • Do not grow food crops in a soil that is contaminated to levels greater than 400 ppm. Instead, use either containers or construct raised beds, with a semi-permeable barrier between the clean and contaminated soil.

  • Where container or raised bed gardening is not possible, fruiting crops should be grown.

  • Root vegetables, leafy greens and herbs should not be planted in contaminated soils.

  • Test new topsoil before using it and annually retest the garden soil to monitor for recontamination.

  • Do not use plants grown in contaminated soils for compost.

  • Use mulch or a weed tarp in garden beds to reduce the potential for aerial soil dust deposition or soil splash up on crops.

Others have studied the effect of adding various soil amendments to reduce soil lead bioavailability. One such study, conducted by Hangzhou University in China, discovered that adding phosphorus to lead-contaminated soil bound the lead and made it insoluble, thus less able to be absorbed by plants. Other studies have shown that adding raising soil pH or adding compost and manure to contaminated soil reduces the bioavailability of lead. Lastly, there are agencies who are studying phytoremediation techniques, where specially selected plants are used to draw lead out of contaminated soil in order to reduce total soil lead concentrations. While the other techniques have documented success, phytoremediation is still in an early, experimental stage. And as for chickens, there are several very simple strategies that can be employed in the building of their coops and runs to keep them from coming into contact with contaminated soil.

But before anyone rushes out to secure remedies for soil contamination, the first step is to get your soil tested by a reputable laboratory. It may be that you live in an area that is not heavily polluted.

Conclusion: Bustin' Loose From The System

Having examined the evidence behind Ms. Rubin's article, I believe that she does raise some legitimate concerns regarding lead contamination of urban soils. However, I disagree with the tone of her article, because it forces ordinary, average people of small means into a corner. These are the people who are being squeezed and bruised by their continued reliance on the breaking system known as the official economy. Last year, most of them found it increasingly hard to afford food and fuel as resource shortages led to skyrocketing prices. Most of them even now are being crushed by the weight of unsustainable debt. Very soon they will be squeezed yet again by rising food prices. Midst all of this, they are losing their jobs at a terrifying rate.

What shall we say to such people? “Don't garden; don't raise urban livestock, don't try to be self-sufficient; it's too dangerous”? Shall we tell people that they can only get their food from the store? Shall we pass laws making self-sufficiency illegal? That will go over about as well as a lead chicken. We can't not garden; we can't not keep urban chickens; we can't not learn self-sufficiency. We have to pursue these things. Rather than trying to scare people away from self-sufficiency, let's work on fixing that which has become so broken, while going after the people who did the breaking in the first place.

I'd have been much happier with Ms. Rubin's article if she had mentioned the public/private partnerships between Government and University researchers and urban food security non-profit groups to find remedies for lead soil contamination. I'd have been much happier if she had suggested pressuring the government to make urban polluters clean up urban neighborhoods instead of trying to scare people away from raising backyard chickens. The truth is that the city is where most of us will take our stand, where we will rise or fall in our efforts to carve out a meaningful life to hand down to our descendants amid the crises now converging upon us. We can't all run away to the farm, nor can we continue to rely on a breaking system. As Bruce Sterling said, “The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st Century's frontier.” We're starting to live in those ruins now. That's where the new pioneers will make their stand. Whatever's broken, it will be up to them to make it work. There is no other choice.