Sculptor Frances Whitehead calls herself a provocateur. She’s no Banksy. Instead, this professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago pushes people to think differently about how art fits into, and shapes, our lives, from the mundane to the political -- and how it might help us imagine a more sustainable future.
In 2006, Whitehead penned a creative manifesto called “What Do Artists Know?” The document is a point-by-point articulation of what a creative mind can bring to the broader cultural conversation. She later swayed city officials to place artists into government via her program, The Embedded Artist.
It was only a matter of time before Whitehead, a longtime gardener who frequently incorporated natural objects into her sculpture, began to focus on the combination of art and science. In 2004, Whitehead and her husband purchased a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and converted it into their Green House, a haven of sustainability and reuse. Replete with wind turbines and geothermal heating and cooling, the structure served as an educational classroom for design students and inspired new ways of approaching the post-industrial city.
Sustainability, Whitehead says, “is a cultural problem and artists can help find the solution.”
Giving up the grease is a hard sell in the South, though, especially if people find such cooking emblematic of their culture -- a complication explored recently in the documentary Soul Food Junkies, and as seen regularly on the cooking shows of former Southern glory Paula Deen. But eating healthy can’t be seen as a foreign concept in a state like Mississippi, which leads the nation in obesity and diabetes. Which is why Minor, and a team of pastors across the impoverished Mississippi Delta region, have made it their mission to change their members’ eating habits.
Minor's work has earned him the support of First Lady Michelle Obama. Recently, he took his mission a step further by enlisting as a “Navigator,” an evangelist of sorts for the Affordable Care Act, helping people sign up for the troubled program.
I caught up with Minor by phone as he drove to Memphis to connect with more churches around expanding access to quality healthcare. What I learned: Grassroots movements really can influence federal policies, and he does not approve of New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to ban large sodas.
Andrew David Thaler has always loved the ocean. “I'm that obnoxious kid that wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 3,” he says. “I've wanted to work in the deep sea since before I can remember.”
Thaler now holds a PhD in marine science and conservation from Duke. He lives in the Bay Area working to preserve the species living in and around deep sea vents, particularly as these underwater fissure are explored for possible mineral drilling.
But when not saving deep sea invertebrates, Thaler turns into an evil genius who will help you put Tokyo under 80 meters of water.
For Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, many of our problems today boil down to this: Through much of human evolution, our ancestors spent their days eating twigs and berries, chasing antelope, and being chased by things with big, nasty teeth; these days, the only things we chase are our double greaseburgers and fries -- and it's usually with 32 ounces of corn-syrup-laced soda. We're cavemen come to live in the city. Our bodies just aren't adapted for this stuff.
Those are my words, of course. Lieberman is much more eloquent and precise about the subject, which he's explored in great depth in his new book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Lieberman is the first to point out that modern living and technology have made our lives better in many ways. Still, a look back at where we came from can tell us a lot about where we're headed, he says -- and how we might alter that course for the better.
I caught up with Lieberman recently for a conversation that ranged from the paleo diet to Fruit Roll-Ups to the similarities between the obesity epidemic and climate change.
Q.You write in your book about “mismatch” diseases that arise from the fact that our present-day environments and lifestyles are so different than they were through most of human evolution.
A. That’s right. We’re very poorly adapted for some of the modern environments which we’ve created. It is pretty clear, for example, that we’re poorly adapted to being extremely sedentary, or to eating lots of sugar. Right now I’m sitting in a chair, right, and I’m staring into a computer screen, and you know, we’re definitely not adapted for those things.
Q.Are you into the paleo diet?
A. Not really. I think, to be honest, it is a bit on the silly side. I think the paleo diet is based on some good science and some good ideas, but there are also some assumptions there which I question. Just because our ancestors ate it doesn’t mean that that’s optimal. Furthermore, just because something’s ancient doesn’t mean it’s good for you, and just because something’s recent doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. One has to be thoughtful about how one applies evolution to living today.
When I caught up with Rob Hopkins at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week, he had just ended a seven-year, self-imposed airplane fast. This is a guy who takes the climate fight -- and the power of individual actions -- seriously. A few years back, he launched Transition Towns, aimed at helping communities lead the way into a post-fossil-fuel world. The movement has since spread around the globe.
Jacqueline Patterson can rattle off an endless stream of statistics about how climate change, and the industries that are driving it, put communities of color at risk. Patterson heads the NAACP's environmental and climate justice program, so she lives and breathes these numbers -- statistics that show that African American, Hispanic, and other minority communities bear the brunt of our dirty ways, from power plant pollution to urban heat island effect and superstorms like Katrina and Sandy.
I caught up with Patterson at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week and found that she had some good news along with all the grim.
Mohamed Hage is not your typical urban farmer. The Lebanese-born entrepreneur, now living in Montreal, got into food as a technological challenge: He wanted to come up with a better way for family back in Lebanon to grow crops. But to say he has a green thumb would be a bit of a stretch; instead, he relies on a knack for high-tech gizmos and marketing. In 2011, his business, Lufa Farms, opened the world's first commercial greenhouse on a roof in Montreal. Today, the company has two rooftop farms and a staff of about 30, including "more programmers than farmers," he says. Next year, Lufa expands to Boston, with plans for world conquest from there.
I caught up with Hage at the SXSW Eco conference happening this week in Austin. Here's what he had to say:
In 2010, Ron Finley planted a garden on the 150-foot-long curbside strip outside his house in South Central Los Angeles. The produce -- tomatoes, kale, corn, you name it -- was free for the taking, and the colorful riot of herbs and flowers and vegetables got a lot of attention. The only unwelcome scrutiny was from the city of Los Angeles, which owns the land. Finley received a citation for growing plants that exceeded height limits, and for failing to purchase a $400 permit. By circulating a petition and bending the ear of a receptive city council member, Finley convinced the city to leave his garden alone. Around the same time, he helped start an organization called L.A. Green Grounds, dedicated to installing free vegetable gardens in curbside medians, vacant lots, and other properties in blighted areas.
Then, in February of this year, the self-described “gangster gardener” -- an outgoing straight-talker with a penchant for catchy one-liners -- gave a TED Talk. “The drive-throughs are killing more than the drive-bys,” he said, exhorting urban dwellers to get outside and “plant some shit.” The talk instantly rocketed him to green-thumb stardom. As of this writing, the talk has attracted more than 1.3 million views, and Finley has appeared on Russell Brand’s late night talk show and been profiled by The New York Times, among many others.
This fashion designer -- he’s dressed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal -- and collector of black entertainment memorabilia, highlighted in a recent movie poster exhibit, now spends much of his time delivering talks and planning new urban gardening ventures. All the media attention has brought new funding, including support from the Goldhirsh Foundation. (But in Los Angeles, the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly. Planting on curbside medians remains a tricky proposition.)
Finley had just returned from a permaculture workshop in Sonoma County when we spoke. We chatted about fame, sex, and his diabolical plan to take over the world.
Kevin Shanley says too many cities have an outdated approach to storm protection that makes them vulnerable to the coming mega-storms. The CEO of SWA Group, an international landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm, Shanley is an advocate of using “green infrastructure” -- human-made systems that mimic natural ones -- as bulwarks.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people are taking note. Some experts believe New York City would not have sustained such severe damage had the original wetlands that lined the coasts not been uprooted by development. In fact, some parts of Staten Island remained relatively unscathed because they were protected by the massive Fresh Kills Park and its wetlands.
What’s needed, Shanley says, are policy shifts “rooted in a natural system-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” Beyond policy changes though, Shanley has also worked on projects, in Texas and elsewhere, that show how these human-made systems could work. But he cautions that more research is needed if communities’ lives and livelihoods are to rely on human-made nature.
Shanley was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. I caught up with him there.
Q.What were the lessons of Hurricane Sandy?
A. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.
Gastronomically enlightened Grist reader that you are, you’ve probably participated in a CSA, or at least heard of them. Community-supported agriculture is so common that in many circles the acronym needs no explanation. (Sorry, mini football helmet collectors, we’re talking about farmers who sell “shares” of their seasonal fruits and veggies, then deliver them to members when they’re ripe.) But a pint of locally sourced strawberries says you didn't know a black man came up with the idea.
Beginning in the early 1970s, an Alabama horticulturist and Tuskegee University professor named Booker T. Whatley started promoting direct marketing as a tool for small farmers. This took the form of what he called “clientele membership clubs,” as well as pick-your-own farms. Whatley traveled widely, giving as many as 50 seminars a year, and produced a small-farms newsletter with 20,000-some subscribers. Here’s how he described the membership clubs in a 1982 Mother Earth News interview:
The farmer has to seek out people -- city folks, mostly -- to be members of the club ... The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the whole setup. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market.
Not to mention find good homes for Jerusalem artichokes and other ostracized vegetables.
The story of Booker T. Whatley is one of dozens that Mistinguette Smith, founder of a national organization called The Black/Land Project, has unearthed. “People are completely stunned when I tell them that the model [for CSAs and ‘U-Pick’] comes out of black history,” says Smith, a poet, playwright, and nonprofit consultant raised in the 1960s South.
The mission of The Black/Land Project is to find and share stories like Whatley’s as a way of helping black people transcend what Smith calls “historical trauma.” In this country, race has always been intrinsically tied to land. The laws surrounding black land ownership -- from the early 1600s up through the modern practice of redlining -- are part of that history, as, of course, is the experience of forced agricultural labor during slavery.
“Even though we've undone some of those historical structures,” Smith says, "the legacy of that is still very much alive today.” For example, the experience of losing a home to foreclosure during the recent mortgage crisis echoed the loss of family land to theft in the Jim Crow South, she says. The modern version of land loss feels much like the former, and the psychological results are similar. As one Black/Land workshop participant put it: “Having been stripped of the ability to relate to substantive things, such as land and place ... strips away part of our essence.”
The Black/Land Project, now in its third year, is a national survey. Smith and her team have thus far interviewed 38 people from all over the country, and from all walks of life. Interviewees include African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and African immigrants, and the “land” they talk about can be anything from a family farm to a neighborhood church. Here’s a taste of the stories they’ve unearthed: