A Just/Joost Solution

We can build sustainability into the way we already do things, or we can push for systemic change. Each approach has it’s strengths and weaknesses, which are important to think through and discuss to work out what kind of future we want to develop.

I’ve made my own attempts at transportable food gardens in rental housing, though nothing close to a closed loop system.

It’s urban agriculture month, marked by the very welcome and much delayed return of warmer, sunnier weather, and a flurry of talks, events and open gardens here in Naarm (Melbourne). Last night I went along to a screening of Greenhouse by Joost, which tells the story of the closed loop exhibition house developed by Joost Bakker from idea to conclusion.

The flagship of Joost’s Future Food System initiative, the greenhouse operates entirely from the food and energy it generates, and is built from fully recyclable or compostable materials designed to suit modern urban spaces and aesthetics. All nutrients and continuously cycled through system elements including aquaculture, composting, biodigestion and worm farming. The surplus worms feed the fish, the fish waste fertilises plants, the fish and plants feed the humans, the human and organic waste provide natural gas for cooking and hot water, and more nutrients for the plants. It’s an ingenious system designed to make us rethink housing design, materials, land use and other big challenges facing large cities.

Watching it though, a little niggle lodged in my brain. Joost’s solutions and innovations – as valuable as they are – remain tied into the culture of the individual. Running a house like the greenhouse means you need , you need:

  • To own property, allowing you to design in core elements like solar and battery power, rainwater harvesting, and biodigestion.
  • A site with the right conditions (light, orientation, wind protection, climate, etc.) to produce enough food for the inhabitants.
  • To have the resources to cover the high upfront costs (offset long-term, but still requiring that initial injection of capital).
  • The time to set up and then maintain the system (Joost reckons half an hour a day to maintain it, though you can’t leave it for more than a couple of days and any maintenance skipped needs to be caught up later).
  • The skills and time to cook from first principles and feed your household from what you grow, including unfamiliar and high-labour foods.

My local community garden is a wonderland of shared land, skills, tools, time and abilities, with a mix of individual plots and shared plantings, including composting. We’re interconnected among ourselves and keen to expand connection to the neighbourhood around us, recognising that we represent the more privileged and whiter residents.

So how do we take the significant positives of the greenhouse and apply them to urban and suburban neighbourhoods at the scales we need to meet the project’s lofty goals of reducing waste, improving food security, reducing carbon emissions and cooling our cities? Joost himself believes that there are enough people who love gardening who would be willing to grow surplus for others. That may be true, though we lack systems for effective cooperation and redistribution of surplus home produce. That’s a firm goal to work toward.

Trickier yet critical, I think, is developing shared, collaborative systems that push back against this assumption of individual ownership, accountability and action. Solutions for suburbs with socio-economic stress, high rental rates, little private space. Options for those poor in the time, skills, mobility and social networks required for the Joost model to work. Ways of delivering those sweet benefits to the communities with less, by working at the systems scale.

I’m excited to explore approaches that are intersectional and inclusive, that can work for renters and refugees, the time and money poor, the unskilled and excluded, the disabled and the disconnected.

I’m hungry for ideas on more sustainable food systems that incorporate social justice.

What can we take from community gardens and co-ops and expand? Where do we need to be challenging the regulations, structures and funding models that govern property rights and shared urban spaces? What great ideas have you dreamt up or seen in action? What other domains and initiatives can we learn from to challenge the cultural fantasy that everyone can be a stand-alone home owner?

Let’s talk!

Running laps

New year’s eve, 2021

Another loop around the sun completed, and like the vast majority of the world, I am exhausted. Living through the combination of grinding pandemic, climate breakdown and political dysfunction really does take it out of you, and the outlook ahead is for ever more of the worsening same.

It’s up to us. Our ability to guard our energies and influences. Our capacity to prioritise action and connection over depression and isolation. Our skills in working individually and collectively to challenge and change the systems and structures around us.

It’s beyond time we moved beyond protest and directed our anger and fear into meaningful, organised action. And its oh so hard to do so when you’re already exhausted.

Keep time aside for doing the things that nourish and connect you

We need to nurture ourselves. To step back from the relentless news cycles and social media screaming. To connect with those who inspire and motivate us. To develop rewarding and constructive ways of working together, exploring this evolving pandemic space and the possibilities and opportunities that come with rapid change.

We can tap into the power of our communities. From school committees to local councils, from sports clubs to libraries, we can grow individual action into something stronger. We can share our skills and build resilience through this time of crisis. We can move beyond the environment movement, stretch ourselves into intersectional collectives that imagine and implement local solutions to shared challenges. We can network and collaborate to reach the scales we need, leading change from the bottom up where we can’t shift the power centres at the top.

We can organise and attend working bees; growing trees, building gardens, cleaning pollution, sharing food, fixing bikes, helping our neighbours and our communities’ most vulnerable.

We can accrue our own power and influence; nominating for Boards, organising for Independent political candidates who share our values, standing for office ourselves. We can move our banking and investments out of fossil fuels and armaments. We can attend shareholder meetings, council meetings, community consultations.

Stop to appreciate what you love and what you’re striving to protect

This pep talk is for me. I, who have lapsed into social-media despair and exhausted inaction. Me, who is frustrated by the pointlessness of protest that is ignored by established power. This pep talk is for all of us, who find themselves a little adrift after the stormy seas of the last two years and can see the red sky morning.

In 2022, I am:

  • Signing up for my local community garden
  • Growing and planting native plants for the Tree Project
  • Visiting the community centre and library, to see what groups exist that share some of my values, and/or creating one
  • Participating further in Regen Melbourne, making connections and collaborating to support shared aims and learning to make change happen
  • Curating my social media feeds and reducing my online exposure to emphasise possibilities, opportunities and supportive networks
  • Using my networks, skills and knowledge to connect others and contribute to actions that are bigger than myself and my personal sphere of influence.

Inspire, support, soothe and assist each other. It’s up to us, together.

I see you

Well hello there 2019. Didn’t you turn up rather suddenly!

It’s been a while. What have you been up to? Tell me what feed your hope these days.

In the crooked old house in Kensington the morning sun sluices across the long-neglected garden to spread across the worn timber floor. Out the back there’s a compost heap seeping life back into sleeping soils in preparation for Spring. In the evenings my newly-hung curtains hold the warmth in and the house cracks its bones. It’s all starting to come together, but now I’m leaving…

I rent, and in the mess that is the Melbourne housing market my rights are few and my money limited. Situations change and I must move out and on. A new space to try to make home, finding harmony with strangers and making peace with the required compromises. No food scraps returning to soil, no renewable energy contracts, no walkable neighbourhood tucked into a corner of the inner city.

It’s a disappointing reminder that for so many of us, sustainable living is an out-of-reach privilege. We’re priced out of the suburbs with great public transport and farmer’s markets. We’re forced to move at the whim of a landlord or a rise in budget-stretching rents. We live where the work is and move when that changes, leaving behind friends and community; the imprints of our lives. It’s a modern malaise with high costs for our personal wellbeing, the community and our environment, all compounded by a system that was never designed for these sorts of stressors.

Dawn 022

Hobart’s small-city magic means capital city facilities in a smaller community

Packing my life up yet again provides a poignant reminder of my own past privilege: an inner-city cottage within walking distance to work in an urban miracle called Hobart, Tasmania. How lucky I was to have that, and how lucky are those who still do, so long as luck and privilege are the keys to sustainable housing dreams.

What if it were different? What if we designed our cities, our economies and our communities in different ways? There’s wealth of ideas out there on more human systems and structures that value more than maximum profits and deification of economic growth. There are ways to plan cities that build in social and environmental justice (fair access to services and shared impacts of pollution and development); ways to build housing that fosters community and reduces environmental impacts; ways to structure work that balance security with flexibility. There are ways, too, of addressing the rising inequality that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few, though none of them easy.

I’d like to explore them. To look at ways to take sustainability from a nice thing to do if you can afford it, into being the way things are, an integral part of our systems.

For now, I’m saying farewell to the community gardens and cute cottages of Kensington and heading out into a housing estate in the ‘burbs, accepting my circumstances and making do as best I can. At least I’m pretty good at packing these days.

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My street no longer, one Melbourne morning

My name is Toni.

I live in a creaky old house in inner-city Melbourne with a serious lack of right-angles and a garden I don’t get enough time for. I work in the intersection of water and agriculture, aiming to support food production that will keep regional towns going in balance with protecting the environment. My job is to balance environmental, social, economic and cultural needs and values in the frameworks used to manage irrigated agriculture across Victoria. It’s  my kind of gig.

Work is what keeps me tied to the big city, a place that never quite feels like home. As much as I can, I get out of the city to go adventuring in the mountains, forests, coasts and cliffs that nourish my spirit and feed a deep connection with nature and our human place in it.

I worry for the future: climate change distresses me and the failures of our current socio-economic systems are self-evident yet those with power aim to keep us on this self-destructive path. The current politics of late-stage neoliberal capitalism makes it harder than ever to find meaningful ways to make a difference. That doesn’t stop me trying.

Over the last 5 years or so I’ve been exploring ways to try to leave this incredible planet in a better state than when I arrived on it. From personal changes through to political action I’m learning about what the issues are and where the power lies to effect change. I also try to balance this with living a full life and accepting that I too am part of the system that is overtaxing Earth’s ecosystems.

I want to help create new ways of being; a culture, and economy and a society that is more communal, more joyful and ultimately sustainable. I’d love for you to join me.

Araps-9

By now you’ve probably heard that there’s been a major coral bleaching event in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. What you might not know is why it’s such a big deal, so let’s talk about coral bleaching: how it happens, why it happens, and what it means to the reef, to people, and to the planet.

Coral 101

Although there are two types of coral reefs – shallow tropical and deeper cool-water reefs – coral bleaching is only an issue for the tropic kind, so when I talk about reefs I’m talking about the coral communities found in calm, warm tropical waters in the shallow regions around islands or along edges of larger land masses.

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Coral reefs (dark pink dots) are found in calm, shallow tropical waters around the world. [1]

Coral reefs are formed over long periods of time in places where weather and ocean conditions are generally pretty stable. The hard mounds and ridges that form the structure of the reef are made of calcium carbonate: the remains of corals and other animals lived there [2]. Large reefs like Australia’s World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef take thousands of years to form, with living corals growing on top of their ancestors: a colourful living layer atop the reefs of time past.

Corals themselves are tiny little animals that are related to jellyfish (phylum cnidaria). What we think of as a single coral – the single structure – is actually a colony of teeny individuals all of the same species, living together as some kind of super-organism. They’re not on their own though: the corals take on boarders called zooxanthellae, wee single-celled algae that live within the coral animal’s body tissues. The corals and their algae have a mutually-beneficial relationship, with the corals keeping the algae safe from other critters who would eat them, and the algae supplementing the coral’s food source by sharing some of the sugars they may through photosynthesis [3]. It’s like having your own personal power plant just under your skin.

The wondrous bright colours of corals are a result of this happy cohabitation arrangement: pigments produced by the algae that get trapped beneath the coral’s skin. Without their algae boarders, corals lose their colour. Worse, without the sugars the algae provide through photosynthesis, the corals can’t catch enough food to meet their energy needs. Corals without algae turn white. This is called bleaching [4]. A bleached coral is a very stressed coral indeed, and there’s a pretty good chance it’ll die.

So what makes corals lose their algae pals?  Read More

Today is Earth Day.

I’ve spent it as I’ve spent most of the last eight weeks: inside, buried under required readings, assignment work, lectures and tutorials. While post-graduate study is challenging and intellectually rewarding, studying how to better care the environment feels like it is temporarily disconnecting me from much of it. My current life is very urban. I live and study in the inner city, surrounded by concrete, glass and steel. There’s precious little greenery and no wildness about Melbourne, but this, too, is the environment. This too is Earth.

When we think about environmentalism, about sustainability, about nature, we hold images in our mind like the photo above: a vast swathe of unspoilt Amazon rainforest. Places that take our breath away and make us want to protect them. Animals that inspire a sense of awe and wonder. This, we think, is worth protecting.

What about the every day places, the spaces we inhabit in our daily lives? This is our environment on the most intimate level: the space we interact with daily; the air we breathe, the ground we tread on, the food we eat. We are part of nature and these are the environments we create for ourselves. How then to value our cities and towns, these modified spaces? How to value properly the spiders, whose unappreciated efforts keep insect numbers down. How to value trees transplanted from elsewhere that never-the-less produce oxygen and filter pollution, anchoring themselves into paved-over soils and somehow staying alive? What about the once-wild streams now concreted and hidden beneath us? What about the pigeons and the sparrows that somehow manage to thrive here? This too is nature.

Today is Earth Day: a reminder to care for this planet and the forms of life that depend on her. A reminder that this planet is our environment, that we are part of nature: it shapes us as much as we shape it. The environment is not just the mystique of the Amazon or the brilliance of the Great Barrier Reef, it is the here and now of you and I, and how well we understand that, how we choose to value that, matters.

Today and every day in this still-unfamiliar city I am grateful: for the clean air I breathe, for the urban creeks I cycle by, for the exotic street trees in their autumnal glory, for the spiders and the sparrows, for the sky and wind and rain. This is my environment; something to care for, to protect and improve. After all, it’s keeping me alive.

Rutledge Lane

The COP20 kicks off here in Lima tomorrow, which is kind of a big deal.

What is the COP20?
COP stands for “Coalition of the Parties”, which is United Nations-speak for meetings of the countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and this particular meeting is called the COP20 as it is the 20th such meeting of the Parties.

Previous COPs worth mentioning include:

  • 1995: COP 1, Berlin, Germany – the Berlin Mandate to act against climate change, which shows how long we’ve been talking about this stuff for.
  • 1997: COP 3, Kyoto, Japan – the signing of the 1st COP agreement, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change
  • 2001: COP 6, Bonn, Germany – the USA under George W Bush rejects the Kyoto Protocol
  • 2009: COP 15, Copenhagen, Denmark – International negotiations for a new post-Kyoto agreement fail in spectacular fashion. Pretty much every meeting since has been about picking up the pieces.

How big a deal is all this?
For the next 2 weeks the representatives of all the member parties – all 196 of them – will be talking here in Lima. These representatives of the majority of the world’s governments aim to negotiate new global agreements on greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change mitigation. The measures developed during these 2 weeks will be further tweaked then formally signed into being next year at the COP21 in Paris.

So why do these agreements matter?
The best understanding of the science indicates that an average global temperature increase of 2oC (3.6oF) is now the MINIMUM increase guaranteed to happen this century, and that even the best agreements at the COP can’t stop that from happening. The climate is already changing now, and the social and environmental impacts of that 2+oC change are already appearing. Here in Peru glaciers are disappearing, agricultural productivity is declining and water shortages are emerging, and it’s only going to get worse. We know the world is shifting, and that these changes are going to be economically, socially and ecologically significant.

Left un-checked, climate change, will irreversibly change the natural resources (soil, water, forest, oceans, air) we depend upon, with permanent effect on where we live, what and how much we eat, and just how many human beings can survive on our planet. Competition for decreasing natural resources will cause wars. There will be food shortages not just in poor countries, but rich countries too. Increased frequency and severity of climate-linked natural disasters, like hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, cold-snaps, floods and fires, will affect all of us. Read More

Protecting landscapes isn’t a novel idea. An appreciation for spectacular views and aesthetically special places drove the creation of the first national parks in Australia and many other parts of the world, long before we starting talking about things like biodiversity values and ecosystem services. In Australia we’ve protected these places by preventing their habitation or exploitation for anything more than tourism, but you can’t do that in a place like Peru where people have been part of the landscape for thousands of years, where the areas you want to protect not only hold great beauty, but also well-established communities, connected by roads and wires to the wider world and shaped by millennia of agriculture.

Nor Yauyos Cochas is a beautiful place; there is no arguing that. The territory of the Yauyino people, this Andean oasis boasts glacier-capped peaks and mirrored alpine lagoons revered as apus – natural gods – by the Andean people, as well as the spectacular turquoise waters of the upper Cañete river. The steep mountainsides are incised by ancient agricultural terraces and remnants of the old Inca road network – the Qapac Ñan – still connect the walking routes between villages, revealing the age and extent of human habitation in Peru’s central-western mountains. In the modern villages of Huancaya, Vilca, Tanta and Miraflores the modern world has made little intrusion. The houses are largely still hand-built adobe and special stone channels bring water from the river through the streets, where the Quechua-speaking locals collect it in kettles to boil for use. Read More

Twelve months ago this week I unpacked my bags in a simple hotel room and stepped out to meet Lima, the city that would be my home for the next year-and-a-bit.

Lima… almost 10 million people pressed up against the desert coast. The kind of place where no-one is truly from, if you go back far enough. The pre-Colombian cultures that built their mud and stone temples here fished and worshipped in the summers when the sun shines brightly and the rains pour down in the Andes. In the endless grey days of winter they returned to the hills and the fields of the river valleys. Permanent settlement came with the Spaniards who claimed this swampy coast for their capital in the conquest of the region.

So began the difficult history of this city, a place of clashing cultures and competing motivations. The Spaniards brought with them African slaves, then later Chinese coolies to work the silver mines and guano deposits. Japanese migrants came to settle at the end of the Second World War. Domestic terrorism in the Shining Path years drove the mass migration of Andean peoples to the city outskirts. Now and the promise of work and a better future for their children draws people from the far coast, the high Andes and the steaming Amazon to Lima.  Read More

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