Food Fight for Sustainable Development?

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Fast food’s a slow death in disguise. It’s the wild wild westernized world of deception and lies…nothing won’t grow the land stays barren. Pollution in the river, mercury in the salmon. What sense does it make, being at war with the planet?

– Stic.man of Dead Prez

Eight percent of farms make up more than 60 percent of agriculture sales, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. The authors of the Common Market: A Case Study postulate that this is due to 75 years of consolidating, centralizing, and industrializing agriculture and food production.

What are the consequences of the consolidation of agriculture? The average prepared meal in the U.S. contains food from at least five different countries other than the U.S. The extensive use of unsustainable industrialized agriculture practices deplete soil nutrients and often use excess amounts of water. Consequences of this disconnect include contributing to the emissions of carbon dioxide (largest contributor to Green House Gases) through transporting the food from thousands of miles away, destabilizing local and regional economies, and reducing access to healthy food, especially in low-income communities of color.

AshEI is a Bay Area musical artist and food justice activist, and created a music video, Food Fight, to raise consciousness of the problems with processed food, particularly in the black community and other communities of color. In this video Vandana Shiva, an anti-globalization and food activist, discusses the threat of ‘food totalitarianism.’ She likens the consolidation of food production and globalization of food distribution to a mechanism of state control over food that in turn controls the population. Quoted at the beginning of this post, Stic.man from the hip hop group Dead Prez, articulates the negative impacts of processed food on chronic disease among people of color, and the toll it takes on the environment, saying, “what sense does it make, being at war with the planet?”

One way to address the three E’s of sustainable development (economy, environment, and equity) is through food initiatives, such as to shortening the food supply chains. Authors, Feagan, Connelly et al., and Feenstra discuss key issues to food initiatives that can lead the way for connecting these three components. Key questions include: How and where do we get our food? What food grows regionally/locally? How much food can a particular region produce and how does it vary from season to season? How did relationships between growers and consumers become disconnected? How can the relationship between growers and consumers be rebuilt to relocalize the food production and consumption chain within a community?

While these are important questions, understanding the complex meaning of place, community, and local may be even more pressing. To an extent, these terms have been reduced to buzz words in local food system marketing. However, in Robert Feagan’s article, “The place of food: mapping out the ‘local’ in local food systems,” he cites Pascual-de-Sans defining place as “a spatial concept having no existence without people and to which a geographic identification is critical.” This speaks to the importance of relationships, both between different groups and between people the land.

The industrialization of food sacrificed local connectedness with food for efficiency and perceived economic benefit. This process diminished societal acknowledgment of the intimacy between people and place. Relocalizing food systems is one way to rebuild connection between people and place, increase local economic activity, reduce nutrition related health inequities, and increase environmentally sustainable processes. Both Gail Feenstra (in her article, “Local food systems and sustainable communities”) and Feagan emphasize the importance of partnerships and collaboration across sectors to achieve relocalization.

Living in the Bay Area, the local food system movement holds a prime spot in dominant discourse. But, whom is this movement directed towards? Who is given access to participate in it? Who gets to define place, community, and local? The majority of marketing I see is geared towards higher income, predominantly white populations, often offering organic, locally-based, and sustainably farmed produce at boutique grocery stores, such as Canyon Market or chain stores like Whole Foods. Healthy, locally and sustainably grown food is often only accessible and affordable to privileged populations. This not only creates a logistical barrier, but it also sends the cultural message that healthy, non-processed food is not for everyone; it’s for privileged individuals. Vulnerable communities must be held at the center of the local food system movement, not only to ensure everyone has access to healthy food, but also to holistically implement sustainable practices.

Dominant discourse and research notes small profit margins in the food industry as a key challenge in making locally grown food available to low-income communities (Feenstra). However, the Common Market Case Study in Philadelphia and efforts in Vancouver for a local food hub help to demonstrate that it is feasible and “foster the politics of civic renewal.” Feenstra defines civic renewal as the “interactive – the debate of citizens regarding purpose, value, power…citizens pooling their intelligence to achieve maximum human good…the art of the possible – a process that recognizes limits and grapples with the questions of equity imposed by those limits.”

AshEI’s video is another great example of an effort to engage communities in civic renewal to shift the consolidated food paradigm to a more socially just and sustainable food system. AshEI demonstrates strong social economy efforts by analyzing food issues through a structural lens, using the characters dressed in suits with sunglasses (resembling the CIA) to represent the state as a source of power – considering many industrialized and processed food practices are government subsidized. However, while efforts that connect a social economy and sustainable development approach exist, they remain on the fringe of the local food system movement. What will it take for those who are most at risk to be held at the center of this movement? Will it take the kind of “food fight” as AshEI poses?

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Indicators and Environmental Action Plans (or how I learned to stop worrying and loved to diet)

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Sustainability is the way to go. Or so it seems. There seems to be a current trend in planning for sustainable development, reacting upon the awful impacts we have clearly done to the environment; not because we acknowledge that we have been a terrible species in this world, but because we are starting to feel the impacts ourselves. Although there are those who still believe this is not our fault, there seems to be more of us who want this to stop. While “deniers” are looking in detail at concepts and trying to prove who is responsible for this; “believers” – me included (bias alert) – have finally understood how to deal with this issue: let’s start to ignore deniers (maybe start making fun of them?) and start planning.

So we need to think about sustainability. The term per se is still not very clear for most of us, but the main idea is: let’s try to live in a way we can ensure that the environment tomorrow will be like today, or better still, cleaner and nicer. This is definitely a non-scientific approach, but I want to recognize the need to stop trying to define everything in precise and exact scientific ways in order to move forward. Let’s face it, most of the right decisions we take in life are not precisely calculated, we just use our common sense and act upon it.

On this note, I want to suggest a comparison: a diet. Imagine you have eaten everything you ever wanted, whenever you wanted it. But now, things are starting to hurt. So what do we do? We go to the doctor and say: this thing hurts and I want it to stop, what should I do? The doctor examines you and tells you that your cholesterol levels are super high, you are overweight, and you need to reduce these levels doing some sort of diet, exercise, and maybe even some pills.

Let’s put this in context to planning then. The first step towards sustainable planning, as Daniels and Daniels clearly depicts in their 8-step strategy to implement an Environmental Act, is to acknowledge the problem. Experts and scientists then evaluate the problem in the context needed and present numbers, indicators, and metrics to define this problem, just like the doctor did. These numbers come with a strategy. The idea is to reduce these numbers to specific targets so that our health is not in jeopardy.

It is vital then to understand the importance of these numbers. Indicators help us understand the gravity of the problem. Planners can use these numbers to evaluate how policies and strategies are being implemented and what results do they bring to society. This indicators show then, in a mathematical and scientific way, the progress of different strategies to improve the urban lifestyle. If they are taken carefully, then they are facts, and as such, they are powerful. However, it is important, to recognize that this numbers are the results of strategies, and not the other way around. Innes and Booher argue that “Indicators do not show the causes of a problem, only their existence… They are indicators, not answers.” So once we understand these problems, we define a strategy. In the case of our example, the numbers can determine the rigidness of the diet or exercise plan, in the case of cities, it helps build Action Plans.

Action Plans are planners approach to deal with sustainability and environmental issues. As Innes and Booher argue, “Cities are like living organisms functioning as complex adaptive systems”, so the strategies designed to deal with these issues involve a great number of metrics. As an example, the City of Oakland, through the 2012 Energy & Climate Action Plan, describes which sources are affecting the environment the most and what should the City do to reduce them at desired levels for the city, region and state level. In this case, Oakland plans for a 20% VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled) reduction, 32% decrease in electricity consumption, 14% reduction in gas consumption and 375,000 tons of waste diverted away from landfills by 2020. These system performance indicators are backed by 28 “Secondary Performance Metrics” that follow upon the strategies defined, so that through yearly evaluations, planners, authorities and citizens can see how well they are doing. Innes and Booher argue that there are three different indicators that planners and authorities should always consider when planning for sustainability: system performance indicators (measuring the overall health), policy and programs measures (measuring how policies are working) and rapid feedback indicators (for citizens and businesses support on day-to-day decisions).

However, cities follow different approaches to sustainability, some have a strong commitment to reduce our footprint on the environment, while others just play along (the typical “oh I can’t, I’m on a diet”, but the next day devours everything). Berke and Manta Conroy conducted a statistical analysis on different Action Plans concluding that “the explicit inclusion of the concept (sustainability) has no effect on how plans actually promote sustainability principles”. In other words, saying you are on a diet will not improve your health. This seems moronic, but it is true, and it is one of the most complicated issues in sustainable planning. Another way to trick planning efforts from success is by performing the wrong measurements. Brugmann argues that some cities choose the wrong indicators to measure sustainable planning, ending up in inconclusive strategies. Using Sustainable Seattle as an example, the author argues that using ill-defined indicators for sustainability could result in inconclusive results from sustainable strategies.

This brings us back to our diet. Following a diet is not easy, and there are often conflicts: can I eat burgers? How will I get my proteins then? I can’t afford fancy meals! In planning these are more common still. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement, the Tea Party, even Environmental Groups often stop sustainable policies from being implemented. The changes implicit in living in a sustainable way often presents conflicts with different groups, and conflicts where there is no real right answer. So how can planners promote sustainability effectively? Karen Frick studied the conflicts present between planners and different social groups when dealing with sustainable planning. Her conclusion is brilliant. There are often conflicts to this policy changes but there are also common grounds. Planners should avoid engaging in these conflicts and work on identifying common grounds between groups to promote sustainable policies. Leading the discussion into a negotiation. This is even applicable to our little comparison: we can eat burgers but we’ll run 15 minutes more every day!

The development of a sustainable action plan therefore relies heavily on metrics and measurements. Indicators are essential for the successful implementation of sustainable Action Plans. But let’s not forget, they are data, not statements. The data does not speak, we speak for the data. Hence it is important to recognize which specific measurements are useful for the city in context, to generate strategies that improve conditions to different community groups by identifying common grounds between them, and finally, develop an Action Plan that is tailor-made to the community and feasible for its implementation.

Refererences:

  • Daniels & Daniels. 2003. “Taking Stock of the Local Environment and Creating and Environmental Action Plan”
  • City of Oakland Energy & Climate Action Plan. 2012.
  • E. Innes, J. & Booher D.E. 2000. “Indicators for Sustainable Communities: A Strategy for Building on Complexity Theory and Distributed Intelligence”. Planning Theory & Practice. 1 (2), 173-186.
  • Berke, P.R. & Conroy, M. M.. 2000. “Are We Planning for Sustainable Development? An Evaluation of 30 Comprehensive Plans”. Journal of the American Planning Association, 66 (1), 21-33.
  • Brugmann, J. 1997. “Is there a Method in our Measurement? The Use of Indicators in Local Sustainable Development Planning”. Local Environment, 2 (1), 59-72.

Tools for Sustainability Planning and Analysis

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Many strategies, principles, indicators and models have been used by urban planners both past and present in attempts to realize sustainable, green, livable and smart municipalities “for all”. From our readings, it is safe to presume that these strategies/tools include the precautionary principle as a guiding or regulatory framework, GIS land use mapping, urban growth boundaries, goal setting and visioning exercises, the creation of comprehensive planning documents, ecological footprint quizzes, zoning codes, performance standards, intergovernmental incentives, sustainability indicators, green development rating systems, political organizing, coalition building, educational processes, consensus building processes (DELPHI method), environmental life cycle analysis, land trusts and bonds, etc. These tools can and have been used for either qualitative or quantitative purposes. Triangulation of methods, nonetheless, offers opportunities for place-specific, time dependent and holistic analysis. Using various planning tools also allows for the redundancy needed to effectively, efficiently and creatively implement future mechanisms and political power dispersal once planning processes are complete.  Yet, questions remain- is planning as an attempt, intention or process (versus planning as an art and successful outcome) enough to bring about justice, equity and greater political inclusion within the cities in which we live, work, play and pray? How do we know when it is appropriate to use a particular tool when each tool is loaded with its’ own political baggage?  

Moreover, the inherent tensions amongst the ideals of equity, economics, livability and ecology (ideals that serve as the backbone of sustainability) arguably contribute to disdain for the planning discipline, criticism aimed at various urban planning movements (i.e. New Urbanism, Smart Growth, etc.) and opposition to seemingly “lofty” or “anti-American” ideals of compact, high density mixed use zoning. Opposition to planning for sustainability also gains popularity amongst individuals, collectives and organizations opposed to precautionary planning and precautionary science that can threaten the status quo of power inequalities amongst economists and other quantitative, technology driven enthusiasts and communities and individuals that disproportionately bear the burden of social, ecological and economic harm from polluting technologies and services. Even more pressing, planning and analysis for sustainability can seemingly threaten individual property rights, a key element of the “American dream” and nation-wide cultural preferences. With all of these conflicts around in the social milieu and public sphere(s), I also wonder whether planning and analysis for sustainability even makes a difference in a society in which regulations and codes within comprehensive plans are routinely compromised by development plans and priorities. Thus, can we promote a science of sustainability that truly “serves society and not vice versa”; likewise, how do we break away from the hegemony of economic cost benefit analyses? How do we stop corporate interests from undermining and weakening regulatory environmental policies and other sustainable land use policies/procedures such as the case in California with a proposed football stadium?

From my own experience working to increase environmental participation and decision making for natural resource management amongst underrepresented groups, I know it is paramount to facilitate trust, transparency and common ground amongst diverse power brokers and risk bearers impacted by new proposed land use policy. I also think it is important to educate the public on the potential for planning to diminish suburban sprawl and prioritize compact, contiguous, connected, ecologically sound and diverse communities. Tools such as the ICLEI and LAB Pioneer Cities developed Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) Evaluation Toolkit can perhaps help towards this end. However, it is also important to keep in mind that consensus for all is highly unlikely and negotiation, as pointed out by our guest speaker on land rights activism and opposition to planning, is probably the best hoped for outcome. To that end, I am intrigued by the innovation made possible by the idea of loose friendships, coalitions or networks so that you are neither a friend nor foe to anyone for the long term.

Further Questions/Concerns

  • How do we gain sufficient causal knowledge needed to plan for sustainability and consider all (or most) alternative scenarios/options?
  • If planning is a theory of governmental resource allocation over time, or a theory of successive governmental budgets, why isn’t more time spent on teaching planners practical coalition building strategies/relationship building skills as opposed to quantitative skills needed to complete environmental impact statements?
  • What is the role of irrationality in planning for sustainability? Can sustainable development be rational with inherent tensions and contradictions?

 

Bibliography

Danney, J.H. 2011. “Sacking CEQA: How NFL Stadium Developers may have Tackled the California Environmental Quality Act.”

Godschalk, D.R. 2004. “Land use planning challenges: Coping with conflicts in visions of sustainable development and livable communities.” Journal of the American Planning Association 70(1): 5-13.

Local Governments for Sustainability (Tools) http://www.iclei.org/resources/tools.html

Melbourne Principles. http://www.unep.or.jp/ietc/focus/melbourneprinciples/english.pdf

Myers, N. “Debating the Precautionary Principle.” http://www.environmentalcommons.org/staging/precaution-debating.pdf

San Francisco Department of Environment. 2003. “The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco.” http://environmentalcommons.org/precaution-white-paper.pdf

Wheeler, S. 2013. “Tools for Sustainability Planning.” Ch. 6 in Planning for Sustainability

Wheeler, S. 2013. “Land Use and Urban Growth.” Ch. 10 in Planning for Sustainability

Wildavsky, Aaron. 1973. “If Planning is Everything, Maybe It’s Nothing.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 127-153.

Climate Change – Our Impacts and Our Roles

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Last week, we were asked to take an ecological footprint quiz. Many students in the class were surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, about their scores despite their efforts to be more environmentally and socially conscious. Some shared that their lifestyle here in Berkeley is different from where they were living before. For some, the change has enabled them to incorporate more sustainable behaviors, such as bicycling or using public transit rather than drive. Others shared that their current lifestyle as a student has made living sustainably more difficult – some must travel longer distances to visit home, and some shared that they are more tempted to buy packaged and processed foods due to constrained time and income. As Kolbert and Vitousek et al. discuss, human actions significantly impact the environment. However, this exercise made me consider the ways in which the environment impacts our actions, and how we must adapt to our environment. In light of the constraints and challenges that we experience in our current lifestyles, how can our actions and behaviors contribute to climate change mitigation and sustainability goals rather than exacerbate climate change?

From individual behavior changes to larger scale shifts in how we produce energy, design our transportation systems, and construct our housing, everyone can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action plans provide a framework for local, state, and regional governments to set benchmark goals, devise and implement a plan for reaching the goals, and set up a mechanism for monitoring progress. Wheeler brings this one step further by arguing that in addition to mitigation, we need to put more attention into adaptation and how we will cope with the inevitability that the earth will continue to get warmer.  He provides some examples of adaptation strategies such as moving development away from possible flooding and rising sea levels, preparing for drought and increased risk of wildfire, designing buildings to remain cool in hot weather, diversifying crops in agricultural areas, and preventing food shortages in the developing world. I would like to add social cohesion as another adaptation strategy that can help ensure that the most vulnerable populations, which are often times low-income and/or under-resourced, are not disproportionately impacted by climate change. Wheeler draws a connection between climate change action and social equity, stating that “…if poor people simply have more adequate and secure incomes they will be able to cope with climate change in ways similar to better-off individuals” (Wheeler, 2013, p. 115). I think that while alleviating poverty can help address some of the root issues of climate justice, the social ties and access to community resources that a person has can also go a long way in climate change adaptation. For example, during extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves, support from neighbors can be the most important method for survival, especially when external aid is not available. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, many residents were not able to evacuate because they lacked access to transportation or alternative shelter. Similarly, during heat waves, seniors who are socially isolated are more vulnerable to adverse health effects.  If they are not affiliated with any community organizations such as a church or senior group, neighbors may not know to check up on them when emergency events occur.

While the consequences of human activities and global warming will have long-term effects, Vitousek et al. emphasize that there have already been serious immediate impacts on our land, oceans, air, and wildlife. Climate change mitigation and adaptation is an urgent issue, not just one of the future, but the challenge, as Wheeler points out, is that it is not a high priority for most people.  What does it take to instill a sense of urgency? Are there opportunities to shift the awareness, sense of responsibility, and political will of this generation and future generation?

Sustainability and Economic Development

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Can some people go green while billions go hungry? Proposing changes to the current structure of the economy is daunting, given the grim outlook on climate change mitigation. But this week’s readings are encouraging because they highlight grassroots activism from communities that have been historically passive. One reason for their passivity is the unjust exclusion of people of color from quality education. This exclusion results in lifelong and generational inequalities. As we have learned from earlier readings, people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution. It is a cyclic problem, because exclusion from quality education breeds poverty and lack of representation in positions of power and government. Therefore, these communities cannot fight against injustices like environmental pollution. Stories like that of the San Diego Latino community fighting against the fossil fuel plant expansion and advocating for green energy are very inspiring and serve as good indicators that there has been progress towards sustainability (Barnett and Loh, 2010, pg. 2).

However, there are still significant challenges. Ulrich Brand in the article “Green Economy” highlights key institutional and cultural practices/systems that are inhibitors to achieving a truly sustainable economy (Brand, 2012, pg. 29). In particular, economic institutions and traditions such as capitalism and profit driven technology development are not sustainable. In class, we discussed the example of Tesla electric vehicles. The Tesla is expensive because it is a new and innovative technology but has public subsidies to promote its adoption because of its public benefit of emissions reduction. However, only people of high income can afford Tesla vehicles, even after the subsidies. It becomes a situation of subsidizing the rich. This is also the case in Germany where there is a feed in tariff for solar generated electricity. Because solar technology is relatively expensive, mostly the rich have the opportunity to install solar panels and take advantage of the tariff. However the tariff is funded by money collected by all ratepayers (electricity consumers). Therefore people of all economic classes subsidize this tariff for the rich.  Someone in class proposed social engineering; that is the development of technology for purely philanthropic purposes. Although I think that would solve many issues, it is hard to imagine how such an economy would work. It is a worthy vision, but as Brand argues economic institutions will have to be completely overhauled (Brand, 2012, pg. 30).

Finally, it is important to re-frame the definition of sustainability to incorporate a people- centered theme (Acey & Culhane, 2013, pg. 16). Personally, I have found myself more motivated to mitigate climate change when I read narratives of energy poverty and famines in Africa, and of droughts in South America and floods in Asia. These narratives, rather than an abstract measurement of the carbon concentration in the atmosphere, convey a sense of urgency. While scientific definitions are very useful, to an untrained audience, it is easily forgotten. Advocating for sustainability in the context of increasing water and electricity access to over 1 billion people globally is what personally motivates me. Properly designed policies are direly needed to achieve this. For example, Nigeria does not lack the technology, the resources or the labor to improve its electrification rates. However, Nigeria lacks the right policy to sustain these technologies after installation (Acey & Culhane, 2013, pg. 9). Poorly designed top-down interventions ultimately fail in alleviating any kind of poverty: energy or economic. The importance of improving electrification rates cannot be overstated; apart from its link to alleviating water scarcity, it will improve education access and health care. Electrification using renewable energy will diversify Nigeria’s oil dominated economy and make the country resilient to future market shocks that are bound to happen with emissions regulations. Despite all these benefits and availability, without the right policy, it remains wishful thinking.

References

Acey, C, & Culhane, T. H. (2013). Green jobs, livelihoods and the post-carbon economy in African cities. Local Environment, 18(9), 1046-1065.

Barnett, K. and Loh, P. (2010). Towards “Justainability”: A Colored Perspective on the Green Economy.

Brand, U. 2011. “Green Economy: The Next Oxymoron?” GAIA 21: 28-32