Monday, September 28, 2009

Sustainable Food Gardening - Surviving and Thriving

There's an ever-increasing realisation that growing our own food in the places where we live, using natural systems farming is a core strategy to survive, and possibly, thrive in the face of challenges such as peak oil and climate change.

The effectiveness of community-based and small-scale sustainable food gardening is probably best demonstrated by Cuba who inadvertently provided the world with a valuable model in the aftermath of its economic collapse in the early 90's. This has been well-documented in the film, "The Power of Community - How Cuba survived Peak Oil".

When the Soviet Union fell apart, proud and resilient Cuba was almost brought to its knees. The economy collapsed - GDP crashed, oil imports halved and 80% of Cuban import and export markets were lost. Across the country, citizens experienced frequent and enduring black-outs; cars, transportation and farm machinery ground to a halt; factories and industrialised farms shut down; basic services, work, school and universities were constantly disrupted. The greatest threat was looming famine. The people of Cuba were experiencing a politically-induced "Peak Oil Crisis" and the country's response is something we can all learn from.

In the face of chronic food shortages, the Cuban government rapidly implemented a supply programme based on providing the minimum daily calories set by the United Nations. It kept widespread famine at bay for a time, but the programme, under increasing strain due to intensified USA sanctions, was not sufficient or sustainable. Cuba's exemplarly record of child care was now blighted by incidents of malnutrition in children under 5 years old and the births of underweight babies. Cut off from global institutions under USA-influence, there was no one "out there" to turn to for help, drastic action needed to be taken by the Cubans themselves.

One might ask, why a country with such a strong agricultural sector faced such a deep food crisis?
The answer is, that Cuba had long embraced large-scale, mechanised agriculture - it practiced the most industrialised farming in all of Latin America and used more chemical fertilisers than the USA. Industrialised agriculture is the major consumer of the world's fossil fuels. Cuba was highly dependent on chemical fertilisers derived from natural gas, oil-based pesticides and diesel fuel to power farm machinery. Without these costly, and now rare inputs, industrial farming faltered, leaving ghosts in the machines and dead soil.

Another contributing factor is that Cuban industrialised farms focused on growing monocultures of tobacco, sugar cane and citrus, mainly for export. Cuba had never met its own food production needs. More than half of staple foods, such as rice and vegetable oils for cooking had always had to be imported.

Cubans had no option but to look to the antithesis of industrial farming - sustainable, natural-systems, organic methods of food production. In high-density Havana, there was an ad hoc citizen response inspired by desperation. Lawyers and doctors, engineers and artists, students and the elderly were suddenly food gardening by trial and error. Neighbours got together to clean up disused lots, to plant and tend vegetables. Families planted pot, patio and roof food gardens. Kiosks selling fresh produce started to spring up on the city streets. People who produced food had more disposable income. Soon, all this effort was a recognisable urban food gardening movement.

Permaculture experts arrived in Cuba and began to train-the-trainer. Similar to its roll-out of a successful literacy programme right after the 1950's revolution, Cuban trainers spread out through urban and rural communities teaching Permaculture principles and skills. Cuban scientists turned their attention to bio-pesticides and bio-fertilisers.

While it did take 3 to 5 years to rebuild soil fertility in many places, the food gardening programme was a stunning success, and still quick enough to avert famine.

The results in Havana alone are impressive - by 2006:

  • 50% of the city's fresh produce was grown right in the city at the cost of zero food miles
  • 140 000 people were making their living from food production - food gardening became a growing sector of the economy
  • fresh, organically-grown "neighbourhood food" was available in 169 municipalities

In smaller Cuban towns, community food gardening was supplying 80 to 90% of food needs.

The next step was to reclaim land from the industrial farms and transform it into the small-scale, labour-intensive, community-based concerns that are conducive to sustainability. By 2006, 80% of Cuba's agricultural land was farmed organically using soil fertility, crop rotation, green fertilisers, inter-cropping, inter-planting and natural pest control techniques.

Cuba had successfully transformed its agriculture from a dependent, unsustainable, industrialised model to a gloriously independent, sustainable, life-promoting alternative.

Out of hardship and adversity, came important lessons, that:

  • People who grow food are very important in the community and to their country - they deserve to earn a good living and to enjoy dignity
  • At any time, but most especially when the going is tough - co-operation is far more advantageous than competition
  • Growing food in harmony with Nature works
  • Soil is a living system
  • Being active in your community can be the difference between abundance and poverty, between life and death
  • Everyone can make a difference

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Ecoliteracy is a Life Skill

Nowadays, there’s an abundance of information about sustainable living solutions. At every turn there is more news about 'green' products and technologies, ‘green’ homes and holidays, communities and cities… It is great to see so much human ingenuity and energy committed to creating a better world.

However, our transformation from wasteful societies voraciously eating into the Earth’s Natural Capital, to sustainable societies living harmoniously within the bounds of Nature is going to fundamentally depend on our collective mindset.

A sustainable world demands of us different values, different ideas, attitudes, priorities and ways of being. We’re also going to need to have different knowledge and different skills.

One of the most striking shortcomings of modern, consumerist life is the profound and widespread ignorance about how Life really works. 'Ecoliteracy' is a word coined by physicist Fritjof Capra, and it means knowing and acting according to the basic facts of Life.

Way back in the 70’s and 80’s, Dr Capra was urging us away from a damaging mechanistic view of the world by presenting erudite and compelling teachings on holistic systems-thinking. In essential, best-selling books such as “The Tao of Physics”, “The Turning Point” and “The Web Of Life”, Dr Capra made the need for the paradigm shift beautifully clear – we cannot understand the world wisely and intelligently by studying and explaining components.

Life is encapsulated by eco-systems – dynamic sets and networks of relationships, nesting within each other and connecting with everything else – Everything. To understand how the world really works we need to understand relationships, connections, contexts, systems – and we cannot shy away from their complexity. In essence, this is a long-heralded call for the human mind to stretch beyond the rational, intellectual cleverness that it takes to understand a tangible component, and to invoke all our intelligences to comprehend the intangible Web of Life that sustains all the different components in a system. This kind of thinking and knowing underpins sustainable living.

While this may seem daunting, Dr Capra has this succinct reminder:

"We do not need to invent sustainable human communities. We can learn from societies that have lived sustainably for centuries. We can also model communities after nature's ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature's inherent ability to sustain life."

Dr Capra went on to found the Center For Ecoliteracy - - dedicated to sustainable living education aimed at school children. It advocates four guiding principles as an anchor for all sustainability education:

  • Nature is our teacher
  • Sustainability is a community practice
  • The real world is the optimal learning environment
  • Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place

Monday, September 21, 2009

Climate Change Wake-Up Call

Tomorrow, in New York City, the United Nations convenes the highest level talks ever to be held on Global Climate Change. It's a tense occasion. 100 world leaders will be brought together and urged by the UN to make real progress on the Climate Change agenda, ahead of the December Copenhagen Summit.

The current state of the negotiations is frightening. So far, there isn't a country in the world with a government that has significantly stood up to the issues. Negotiators are ineffectively floundering around, gripping on to the concerns of their rich and powerful backers with white knuckles, or pointing fingers demanding that other countries make changes before they will. The UN is desperately trying to get them to step up and act like Global Leaders making critical decisions for future generations, for the future of all Life on Earth.

It's easy to feel pretty depressed and hopeless at the extreme narrowmindedness, lack of foresight and lack of courage of those we have put in charge to do the best they can for us and our children.

However, rather than being immobilised, there is action that each of us can take today to demand that our leaders reach wise and proper consensus with all other nations on Global Climate Change. All around the world people are gathering together at Global Wake-Up Call events, and we are also making phone calls to our governments to tell them that we want them to attend Global Climate change talks and negotiate a fair, ambitious and binding - 'FAB' climate deal.

Today, I called the South African President's Office and asked them to register my call. After being swiftly transferred twice, I was told by an assistant, Moira, that my details are now added to a long list that will be handed onto to the President. It took just a few minutes and it was quite exciting

If you are South African, you can call President Jacob Zuma on (+27) 012-300 5200 (+27) 021 - 464 2100.

You can find out more about the Global Wake-Up Call campaign at

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I am privileged to live in a city that still has real Nature. These are African Penguins that formed a small colony on Boulders Beach, outside of Simonstown in the 80's, a place just a 30-minute drive from my home. African Penguins are listed as a vulnerable species in the Red Data Book.

Like all ocean-living species, threats to African Penguins have been escalating.

In the early 1900's, egg and guano collecting decimated the southern island colonies of these birds. It is estimated that maybe 10% of the population survived. Since then, we've had a lot of oil spills and a lot of fishing. Today, we know the problems at sea are even worse.

Once I visited Boulders Beach and photographed a pair of penguins lying together in their sunny burrow with old-wing-flippers across each others backs. Penguins form deep monogamous bonds.

Today, I felt grateful that these penguins were there - toddling around boulders, burrowing under wild olives, braying on the beach and standing still in their moult, waiting for the next Ocean.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Is your "Now" short or long?

The present has a flighty reputation. Ephemeral, too surreal to hold any substance, hard for us to "be" in. It's not heavy like the past we trawl through, understanding at our leisure. It's not tense like the future we fearfully and excitedly anticipate. It's "Now" - a phenomenon almost too quick for us to grasp it's bridge and it's duality. Now, this moment that isn't just a moment, is a tantalising space, irrevocably shaped by the past and profoundly pregnant with the future.

In one of his best expressions, the essay: "The Big Here and The Long Now", Brian Eno proposed that we have the choice of engaging with a "Long Now" or "Short Nows".

He wrote:
"The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes. It’s ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows. Huge industries feel pressure to plan for the bottom line and the next shareholders’ meeting. Politicians feel forced to perform for the next election or opinion poll. The media attract bigger audiences by spurring instant and heated reactions to ‘human interest’ stories while overlooking longer-term issues – the real human interest."

This essay was first published by the Long Now Foundation,, of which Eno is a Board Member and contributor to the iconic "Clock of the Long Now" project.

You can read the full essay at:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life thoughts about Life

Early this morning, in a soft, silver rain, a friend and I talked about ways to respond to the Earth crisis. She's inundated with messages to stop the shooting of wolves, save 20 000 dolphins from slaughter, rescue starving bears... Many of these types of messages arrive in our inboxes and on our social networking interfaces complete with violent, traumatic imagery. It is a pornography of Earth despair - and most of us, don't want to look at it.

At a deep level, it brings us down. Even if we take action and sign the petitions, it doesn't feel satisfying when we press 'send' because in the process we have read or seen horrors, now imprinted on our psyches, now infusing our being with grief and anger, fear and despair. A powerful cocktail of negative energy - now emanating from ourselves...

At a 'Law of Attraction' level, what this means is that woven into our positive actions and efforts at protection, is despair at the ravaging of the Natural World. My friend said: "I think it's better not to know." And she got a valid point. What we really want to be doing is engaging with a life-giving, restorative, graceful FORCE...

But I still disagree that the way to do that is not to know. We must know what is going on in the world. We must understand the state of the Planet and we must act on what we know to be very wrong. The big challenge is to find the ways to deal with our painful emotions so that we can know, and still feed the good with our powerful positive energies. We must pay attention to Life, not extinction. We must celebrate every resilience and every new growth. But we cannot afford to be ignorant about what is under threat and what must be changed.

So what do we do?

In his video presentation for the 'Hands That Shape Humanity' project, novelist/wit/wild man, Tom Robbins shined up one of his loveliest gems - I can't find it on the web, so I am paraphrasing here:

When asked to give humanity one piece of wisdom, Mr Robbins said a few great things including something like this:

You've got to look out at the world with one eye and see everything that is wrong and suffering. You must vow to live your life in a way that changes that. Then you look at the world with your other eye and see beautiful fields spreading out to glorious mountains with the extraordinary sky above - and you know that all is well, just as it is. Then you hold those two contradictory thoughts in your mind simultaneously, in an ongoing dance of dynamic balance and understand that this is consciousness. It is in this state of acceptance of duality that we can be most useful - for if you act on the view of just one eye, you will either be so negative that you become part of the problem; or you will be so idealistic, you will fail to engage appropriately with reality.

As challenging as this way of seeing the world might seem, the message is that 'in the world of 10 000 things' nothing is 'either-or', but always 'both' - and we need to achieve this kind of individual consciousness.

Beyond our grief is a place of empowerment, and we really need to get there.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Adventures in Sustainability

There's a good case to make that the 21st Century human quest for sustainable living, may well be the real "Mother Of All Adventures", at least to date.

It seems that the urge to leave home to find something new, to be irrevocably changed, is hard-wired into the human soul, psyche and ego. From the daughters of Africa's Eve to the wayfaring Westerners, human beings are always restlessly journeying - entranced, pressed, intrigued, hell-bent on survival, full of hope that there is something better 'out there', downright curious to know what it might be.

So here's an exciting journey that started on this auspicious date of 09.09.09 - it's a project of the non-profit organisation, 'The Lifeline Global Initiative' called The Lifeline -

Three film-making teams left New York, London and Sydney today - each to journey around 6000 miles to arrive some 13 months later - on 10.10.10 - in Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Tokyo. Their collective mission is to find and record sustainable living projects along their paths in order to create a digital ark of inspiration and guidance that will help us to transform our lives for the better, and for the long future of our children.

Over the next 13 months, stories will unfold in team member blogs and vlogs as they meet people and contribute to growing organic food, conserving wildlife, educating others, implementing renewable energy and design solutions to address our current global crisis. After 10.10.10, there should be a unique treasure trove that can sweep the inveterate armchair traveller along for the ride.

It's very cool idea. Bon Voyage, The Lifeline...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It's Time

09.09.09 is the occasion of the launch of the citizen call-to-action campaign - 999 It's Time. While the initiative is powered by high-profile UK campaign ambassadors; the events, UK-based and the marketing 'hook' 999, UK-relevant - the big message and the model is global.

If you're a UK citizen, 999 is what you dial in an emergency. What 999 It's Time has to say is that it is time to make the call that sustainable living is an emergency.

Who around the world can really argue with: "Socially, economically and ecologically, we're in a State of Emergency" or "If not us then who? If not now then when?"

Making the call, declaring the emergency, comes down to individual responsibility. In taking action, we each make an expression of our personal power.

We do make a difference - even one simple action has phenomenal ripple-effects: When we refuse to buy products containing palm oil at our local supermarket, we resist the cutting down of forests in Indonesia and Malaysia which destroys the habitat of endangered creatures such as Orang-U-Tangs and Sumatran TIgers. We become extraordinary powerful protectors when we choose to be aware and active about what we buy on an ordinary day, in an ordinary shopping aisle.

999 It's Time is one of many current, great efforts to emphasise that to get to the point where human beings live within the bounds of Nature is not some place that governments or corporations are going to miraculously transport us to. In fact, all signs are showing that it's going to happen despite governments and corporations.

It's about you and me and the day to day choices that we make. To paraphrase the great Mahatma Ghandi, we are the change we want to see in the world. Don't expect anyone or anything else to do it for you. It's time to step up and make those individual day to day choices that protect, foster, restore, renew, recreate, renew...

There is such a wealth of information on how to do this on the Internet. If you're new to this, start with - it's an intelligent and heart-warming adventure, and it's readily available. Make a change for the better, take an action that makes a real difference and give generously to the long future. As you bless, you will be blessed.


I'm proud of this photo today - this is a close-up of the first spring bloom of Clivia miniata in my garden. I'm proud of South Africa when I note that it is indigenious. How beautiful! My baby looked at the real thing and she said, "Wow!"

Saturday, September 5, 2009


This afternoon we took a walk down our lane. It is a paved track on the narrow valley floor that ends in a close. There's a wood opposite the homes, with a stream running down from the mountains and lots of big, old trees - though they are all exotic to our land - Oaks, Cypresses, Pines, Bluegums. Most of the undergrowth too, is exotic.

While it's not at all ecologically sound, our little stretch of Nature still supports abundant Life. We have resident breeding Forest Buzzard, Gymnogene, Wood Owl and African Goshawk as well as Hadeda Ibis, Eygptian Goose, Cape Francolin and Guinea Fowl, and many smaller delightful birds. Every now and then some night traveller sees a Porcupine; and one dusky evening our landlady glimpsed a Caracal. In our Winter rainy season, black River Crabs cross the Lane.

There's an effort now amongst the residents to take better care of the Nature around us. Some young indigenous trees have been planted and neighbours are better informed about invasive species. People are keeping an eye on others to discourage the dumping of garden waste along the stream as this is what leads to much of the taking over of exotic species.

Today, at the end of the Lane, I noticed a clump of Bugweed - I don't know it's scientific name, where it originates from or how it came to be in South Africa. But I know it is very invasive and needs to be pulled. I stopped and grabbed hold of a plant, and then noticed this beautiful little chameleon on a twig right next to my hand. It's a Cape Dwarf Chameleon, the only chameleon on the Peninsula.

My parents' generation remember gardens full of chameleons when they were children. All that changed by the time of my childhood, mostly thanks to gardeners using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. Chameleons were uncommon when I was a child, and in my adulthood, a sighting causes major excitement.

I am so grateful my baby saw this particular Chameleon today. From now on, a Chameleon is no longer a picture in a book or a wood sculpture on the windowsill. It is an exquisite, alive, leaf-green, pink-and-blue, unbelievably delicate and extraordinary creature.

I am so grateful for Nature's resilience. We need to be determined to save this Earth. Life will meet us halfway.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Crazed Glass

Crazed Glass

Turtle life
paddling the Deep Sea
and Reef

Only it’s hotter than it should be
Only there’s a long line around my flipper
and a trawler scooping
my body out of shell

Wolf life
trotting through the Great Woods
and Plain

Only it’s hotter than it should be
Only there’s rifle-scope trained on me
and a trap pulling
my paw right off my leg

Elephant life
swaying along the Old Paths
and Riverbeds

Only it’s hotter than it should be
Only there’s fence around our history
and a conservation officer selling
our offspring

Vulture life
soaring the Blue Thermals
and Cliffs

Only it’s hotter than it should be
Only there’s no wild land left to scavenge
and I'm feeding crazed glass
to my baby

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Transition Towns - Doing It For Ourselves

Here's a story about how something good grows. Around 2005, Permaculture teacher and designer, Rob Hopkins gave his students at the Kinsale FET college in Ireland an assignment to come up with a community 'energy descent action plan' that took into account local response to peak oil and climate change.

So compelling was the project that the Kinsale Town Council adopted the plan of one of the students. Hopkins then devised an evolving Transitions Town model which has now spread through Ireland, England, Wales, the U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia, Italy and Chile. Transition Towns communities now include villages, towns, boroughs, districts and cities.

The main aims of the project are to foster local hubs of self-reliant sustainable living and build community resilience in the face of peak oil and climate change. People like you and me are mobilising, reinvigorating the concept of community to address food production and transportation concerns, waste reduction, energy alternatives, alternative commercial exchange systems and a new and better way of being in the world.

The central idea underpinning Transitions Towns is that sustainable living, that is living within the bounds of Nature, is actually richer and more fulfilling living than what we experience now. That it offers us all wise ways to be truly thriving, resilient and abundant. Transitions Towns is a relief from the lonely, depressed world of consumerism, waste, greed and war-mongering - freedom from the myth that there is such a thing as unchecked, unlimited 'growth' on a finite Planet.

There are various global hubs now supporting more than 200 Transition Towns, you can find them by starting with