How to build resilient communities in a chaotic world
This post was originally published at TomDispatch, and it is republished here with Tom’s kind permission.
Now that we’ve decided to “green” the economy, why not green homeland security, too? I’m not talking about interrogators questioning suspects under the glow of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or cops wearing recycled Kevlar recharging their Tasers via solar panels. What I mean is: Shouldn’t we finally start rethinking the very notion of homeland security on a sinking planet?
Now that Dennis Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence, claims that global insecurity is more of a danger to us than terrorism, isn’t it time to release the idea of “security” from its top-down, business-as-usual, terrorism-oriented shackles? Isn’t it, in fact, time for the Obama administration to begin building security we can believe in; that is, a bottom-up movement that will start us down the road to the kind of resilient American communities that could effectively recover from the disasters — manmade or natural (if there’s still a difference) — that will surely characterize this emerging age of financial and climate chaos? In the long run, if we don’t start pursuing security that actually focuses on the foremost challenges of our moment, that emphasizes recovery rather than what passes for “defense,” that builds communities rather than just more SWAT teams, we’re in trouble.
Today, “homeland security” and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that unwieldy amalgam of 13 agencies created by the Bush administration in 2002, continue to express the potent, all-encompassing fears and assumptions of our last president’s Global War on Terror. Foreign enemies may indeed be plotting to attack us, but, believe it or not (and increasing numbers of people, watching their homes, money, and jobs melt away are coming to believe it), that’s probably neither the worst, nor the most dangerous thing in store for us.
Outsized fear of terrorism and what it can accomplish, stoked by the apocalyptic look of the attacks of 9/11, masked the agenda of officials who were all too ready to suppress challenges by shredding our civil liberties. That agenda has been driven by a legion of privateers, selling everything from gas masks to biometric ID systems, who would loot the public treasury in the name of patriotism. Like so many bad trips of the Bush years, homeland security was run down the wrong tracks from the beginning — as the arrival of that distinctly un-American word “homeland” so clearly signaled — and it has, not surprisingly, carried us in the wrong direction ever since.
In that context, it’s worth remembering that after 9/11 came Hurricane Katrina, epic droughts and wildfires, Biblical-level floods, and then, of course, economic meltdown. Despite widespread fears here, the likelihood that most of us will experience a terrorist attack is slim indeed; on the other hand, it’s a sure bet that disruptions to our far-flung supply lines for food, water, and energy will affect us all in the decades ahead. Nature, after all, is loaded with disturbances like droughts (growing ever more intense thanks to global climate change) that resonate through the human realm as famines, migrations, civil wars, failed states, and eventually warlords and pirates.
Even if these seem to you like nature’s version of terrorism, you can’t prevent a monster storm or a killer drought by arresting it at the border or caging it before it strikes. That’s why a new green version of security should concentrate our energies and resources on recovery from disasters at least as much as defense against them — and not recovery as delivered by distant, fumbling Federal Emergency Management Agency officials either. The fact is that pre-organized, homegrown (rather than homeland) networks of citizens who have planned and prepared together to meet basic needs and to aid one another in times of trouble will be better able to bounce back from the sorts of disasters that might actually hit us than a nation of helpless individuals waiting to be rescued or protected.
Imagine redubbing the DHS the Department of Homegrown Security and at least you have a place to begin.
Homegrown security for a cantankerous future
Homeland security, post-9/11, has been highly militarized and focused primarily on single-event disasters like attacks or accidents, not on, say, the infection of critical grain crops by some newly evolved disease or, as is actually happening, the serial collapse of ocean fisheries. Unlike a terrorist attack, such disasters could strike everywhere at once, rendering single-point plans useless. If Miami goes down in a hurricane, FEMA can (we hope) feed people via trucks and airlifts. If some part of the global food trade were to shut down, hundreds of thousands of community gardens and networks of backyard farmers ready to share their harvests, not warehouses full of emergency provisions, could prove the difference between crisis and catastrophe. Systemic challenges, after all, require systemic responses.
Food and security may not be a twosome that comes quickly to mind, but experts know that our food supply is particularly vulnerable. We’re familiar with the hardships that follow spikes in the price of gas or the freezing of credit lines, but few of us in the U.S. have experienced the panic and privation of a broken food chain — so far. That’s going to change in the decades ahead. Count on it, even if it seems as unlikely today as, for most of us, an economic meltdown did just one short year ago.
Our industrialized and globalized food production and distribution system is a wonder, bringing us exotic eats from distant places at mostly affordable prices. Those mangos from Mexico and kiwis from New Zealand are certainly a treat, but the understandable pleasure we take in them hides a great risk. If you’re thinking about what the greening of homeland security might actually mean, look no further than our food supply.
The typical American meal travels, on average, 1,000 miles to get to your plate. The wheat in your burger bun may be from Canada, the beef from Argentina, and the tomato from Chile. Food shipped from that far away is vulnerable to all sorts of disruptions — a calamitous storm that hits a food-growing center; spikes in the price of fuel for fertilizer, farm machinery, and trucking; internecine strife or regional wars that shut down harvests or block trade routes; national policies to hoard food as prices spike or scarcities set in; not to speak of the usual droughts, floods, and crop failures that have always plagued humankind and are intensifying in a globally warming world.
An interruption of food supplies from afar is only tolerable if we’ve planned ahead and so can fill in with locally grown food. Sadly, for those of us who live outside of California and Florida, local food remains seasonal, limited, and anything but diverse. And don’t forget, local food has been weakened in this country by the reasonably thorough job we’ve done of wiping out all those less-than-superprofitable family farms. U.S. agriculture is now strikingly consolidated into massive, industrial-style operations. So chickens come from vast chicken farms in Arkansas, hogs from humongous hog outfits in Georgia, corn from the mono-crop Midwestern “cornbelt,” and so on.
Such monolithic enterprises may be profitable for Big Ag, but they’re not going to do us much good, given the cantankerous future al
ready inching its way toward us. When a severe drought in Australia led to plummeting rice production in the Murray River Basin last year, the price of rice across the planet suddenly doubled. The spike in rice prices, like the sudden leap in the cost of wheat, soy, and other staples, was primarily due to the then-soaring price of oil for farm machinery, fertilizer, and transport, though rampant market speculation contributed as well. At that moment, the collapse of Australian rice farming pushed a worsening situation across a threshold into crisis territory. Because the world agricultural trade system is so thoroughly interconnected and interdependent, a shock on one part of the planet can resonate far and wide — just as (we’ve learned to our dismay) can happen in financial markets.
Think of the shortages and ensuing food riots in 30 countries across the planet in 2008 as grim coming attractions for life on a planet with unpredictable extreme weather, booming populations, overloaded ecosystems, and distorted food economies. The spike in prices that put food staples out of reach of rioting masses of people was soon enough mitigated by the collapse of energy prices when the global economy tanked. Make no mistake, though: food shortages and the social unrest that goes with them will eventually return.
And here’s something else to take into consideration: Nations that suffer food shortages may, when their hungry citizens demand food sovereignty, protect their agricultural sectors by erecting trade barriers — just as is beginning to happen in other areas of production under the pressure of the global economic meltdown. The era of globalized food production, whose fruits (and vegetables) we Americans have come to consider little short of our supermarket birthright, may contract significantly in the relatively near future. We should be prepared. And that’s where a Department of Homegrown Security could make some real sense.
Most American cities, after all, have less than a week’s worth of food in their pipeline and most of us don’t stockpile, which makes city dwellers especially vulnerable to disruptions of the food supply. Skip your next three meals and you’ll grasp the panic likely to arise if the American food chain is ever broken in a significant way. The question is: How can we address rather than ignore this vital, if underappreciated, aspect of homeland security?
Vertical farms and victory gardens
Because cities are so dependent on daily food shipments, local food security in urban areas might well mean storing more food for emergencies; this would certainly be the old-school approach to disaster planning, and it has worked well enough over the short run. Over the long run, however, what makes real sense is to encourage urban and suburban community gardens and farmers markets, and not just on a scale that ensures a summer supply of arugula and fresh tomatoes, but on one that might actually help mitigate prolonged food disruptions. There are enough vacant lots, backyards, and rooftops to host many thousands of gardens, either created by voluntary groups or by small-scale entrepreneurs. Urban farming could even go big. Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier recently unveiled his vision of a “vertical farm,” a 30-story tower right in the middle of an urban landscape, that could grow enough food to feed 50,000 people in the surrounding neighborhood.
Cultural historian and visionary critic Mike Davis has already wondered why our approach to homeland security doesn’t draw from the example of “victory gardens” during World War II. In 1943, just two years into the war, 20 million victory gardens were producing a staggering 30-40 percent of the nation’s vegetables. Thousands of abandoned urban lots were being cleared and planted by tenement neighbors working together. The Office of Civilian Defense encouraged and empowered such projects, but the phenomenon was also self-organizing because citizens on the home front wanted to participate, and home gardening was, after all, a delicious way to be patriotic.
Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, reports that, within the de-industrialized ruins of Detroit, a landscape she describes as “not quite post-apocalyptic but … post-American,” people are homesteading abandoned lots, growing their own produce, raising farm animals, and planting orchards. In that depopulated city, some have been clawing (or perhaps hoeing) their way back to a semblance of food security. They have done so because they had to, and their reward has been harvests that would be the envy of any organic farmer. The catastrophe that is Detroit didn’t happen with a Hurricane Katrina-style bang, but as a slow, grinding bust — and a possibly haunting preview of what many American municipalities may experience, post-crash. Solnit claims, however, that the greening of Detroit under the pressure of economic adversity is not just a strategy for survival, but a possible path to renewal. It’s also a living guidebook to possibilities for our new Department of Homegrown Security when it considers where it might most advantageously put some of its financial muscle while creating a more secure — and resilient — America.
As chef and author Alice Waters has demonstrated so practically, schools can start “edible schoolyard” gardens that cut lunch-program costs, provide healthy foods for students, and teach the principles of ecology. The food-growing skills and knowledge that many of our great-grandparents took for granted growing up in a more rural America have long since been lost in our migration into cities and suburbs. Relearning those lost arts could be a key to survival if the trucks stop arriving at the Big Box down the street.
The present Department of Homeland Security has produced reams of literature on detecting and handling chemical weapons and managing casualties after terrorist attacks. Fine, we needed to know that. Now, how about some instructive materials on composting soil, rotating crops to control pests and restore soil nutrients, and canning and drying all that seasonal bounty so it can be eaten next winter?
It’s not just about increasing the local food supply, of course. Community gardens provide a safe place for neighbors to cooperate, socialize, bond, share, celebrate, and learn from one another. The self-reliant networks that are created when citizens engage in such projects can be activated in an emergency. The capacity of a community to self-organize can be critically important when a crisis is confronted. Such collective efforts have been called “community greening” or “civic ecology,” but the traditional name “grassroots democracy” fits no less well.
Ideally, the greening of homeland security would mean more than pamphlets on planting, but would provide actual seed money — and not just for seeds either, but for building greenhouses, distributing tools, and starting farmers’ markets where growers and consumers can connect. How about raiding the Department of Homeland Security’s gluttonous budget for “homegrown” grants to communities that want to get started?
Here’s the interesting thing: Without federal aid or direction, the first glimmer of a green approach to homeland security is already appearing. It goes by the moniker “relocalization,” and if that’s a bit of an awkward mouthful for you, it really m
eans that your most basic security is in the hands not of distant officials in Washington but of neighbors who believe that self-reliance is safer than dependence. In this emerging age of chaos, pooled resources and coordinated responses will, this new movement believes, be more effective than thousands of individuals breaking out their survival kits alone, or waiting for the helicopters to land.
Actually, relocalization is an international movement and, as usual when it comes to the greening of modern society, the Europeans are way ahead of us. There are now hundreds of local groups in at least a dozen countries that are convening local meetings as part of the Relocalization Network to “make other arrangements for the post-carbon future” of their communities. In Great Britain, an allied “Transition Towns” movement has sprung up in an effort to spark ideas about, and focus energies on, how to wean whole communities off imported energy, food, and material goods. With a rising sea at its front door, the Netherlands has taken a further step. Its national security plan actually makes sustainability and environmental recovery key priorities.
In the U.S., “post-carbon” working groups are beginning to sprout across the country. In my backyard, right in the heart of red-state Utah, a diverse group of citizens calling themselves the Canyonlands Sustainable Solutions have come together to generate practical plans for insulating the remote town of Moab, 200 miles from the trade and transport hub of Salt Lake City, from future food and energy price shocks and supply interruptions. Such local groups are often loosely allied with one another, especially regionally, through websites and blogs that report on the progress of diverse projects, trade ideas as well as information, and offer lots of feedback.
The citizens engaged in relocalization projects have largely given up on federal aid and are going it alone. Still, think how much farther they could go if only a fraction of the $27 billion directed at state and local governments to enhance “emergency preparedness” in the 2009 Department of Homeland Security budget were given in grants to their projects. If we can afford to hand rural Craighead County in Arkansas $600,000 for hazmat suits and other anti-terror paraphernalia to defend cotton and soybean farmers from attack, surely we could provide grants for urban homesteaders in Detroit.
Food security, of course, is just one aspect of a green vision of homegrown (instead of homeland) security. Other obvious elements like energy and water security could also be re-imagined, if only official Washington weren’t so stuck in the obvious. No doubt, somewhere out there on the Titanic this planet is becoming, the go-it-aloners, with no Department of Homegrown Security to back them, are already doing so — and helping prepare us all as best they can for the realization that, right now, there are not enough lifeboats to carry us to safety.
Perhaps it’s not so unrealistic to expect that someday, as a homegrown security movement builds and matures, it can capture a share of the federal funds that now go to such dubious measures as closed-circuit TVs and crash-proof barriers at sports stadiums, including $345,000 for Razorback Stadium in Arkansas.
In the meanwhile, let’s encourage projects that are building resilience in communities as small as Moab and as large as New York City, while revitalizing local culture with a dose of grassroots engagement. Seed it, and feed it, and it will bloom. Along the way we will learn that when it comes to home, or land, or security, living in an open, inclusive, and robust democracy is not an impediment to defense but a deep advantage. Democracy, if only we nurture it, is the very soil of our resilience.