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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

St. Louis Roundtable Charts a Sustainable and Just American Future

by Phil Ardery Jr.

Leaders, experts and activists in the movement to steer the United States away from climate change catastrophe while protecting and improving the lives of low-income Americans and the poor throughout the world converged on St. Louis June 28–29 for a spirited roundtable exchange of ideas and proposals.

Dubbed “Surviving Climate Change: Producing Less and Enjoying It More,” the three-day eight-panel event focused on “developing solutions, rather than repeating the problems we all know exist.” (For a list of the 32 presenters and descriptions ofall panels, see http://www.gateway-greens.org/2008/08jun27_climateroundtable.htm). Officially co-sponsored by Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought and the Webster University Department of History, Politics and International Relations, this Roundtable was inspired by Don Fitz, editor of Synthesis/Regeneration and co-coordinator of the Gateway Green Alliance in St. Louis.

Fitz has articulated a way forward that requires mind shifts by both environmentalists and social justice activists. According to Fitz, “Toxic poisoning, peak oil and climate change all point to a need to dramatically reduce production. Unfortunately, environmentalists and social justice activists conclude that this means a need to consume less.” This wrong conclusion, Fitz told the Roundtable, traces to a failure “to distinguishbetween Type 1 Consumption, or consumption for genuine needs, versus Type 2 Consumption, which is luxury consumption, wasteful consumption, or consumption to feed corporate gluttony. Since roughly the 1950s, America has witnessed an explosion of Type 2 consumption with no overall increase (and perhaps a total decrease) in Type 1 Consumption.”

… production for human need, not corporate greed.

Using the example of shirts — contrasting shirts that wear out after a few years with “costlier” shirts that can be worn for decades — Fitz gave Roundtable participants a simple illustration of how producing more can mean consuming less, and, conversely, how producing less can actually create more consumption. “Everyday consumer items multiply almost as fast as they break, illustrating the simultaneous growth of Type 2 consumption and decline of Type 1 consumption,” Fitz said. He advocated the reduction of the work week to four days as perhaps the single most important action to advance desirable social change. “The current economy is so twisted that a decrease in the total mass of production is a necessary component of meeting the needs of the poor. The resolution of social justiceissues is, in actuality, identical to solving environmental problems. The fundamental principles of ecological production can be brought together in one concept: production for human need, not corporate greed.”

The eight panels applied the produce-less-and-consume-more idea to different domains, such as healthcare, law, and architecture. In Saturday night’s “Sustainable Food Systems” panel, Stan Cox, senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (http://www.landinstitute.org) explained that

Farming differs qualitatively from industrial work in that it is inevitably bound by the calendar — by month-to-month variation in the capacity of soil and sunlight to support the growth of plants…. That clearly isn’t the ideal pattern for efficient wealth generation, so the past century has seen relentless efforts to mold agriculture into the factory model as closely as possible and, where that can’t be done, to graft more easily regimented industries — machinery, chemicals, food processing, the restaurant industry, shipping, packaging, advertising — onto an agricultural rootstock.

Work that Cox shares with fellow researchers all over the world seeks to perennialize the major annual crops and to replace monocultural farming with species mixtures. Both shifts in agriculture can help the soil build and retain nutrients, and both will support more consumption over time. At the same time, making the shifts will reduce production in agriculture’s ancillary industries, especially the farm machinery and chemical industries.

Over the course of the weekend, the range of perspectives on the future covered most of the expansive ground between “There’s not a problem out there that an engineer can’t solve” (Rob Sadowsky, Executive Director of Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, http://www.biketraffic.org) and “We don’t get to where we need to go by keeping the same energy use and just switching to renewables; what we have to figure out is how to amuse ourselves for a lifetime with simple pleasures, and at the end die cheap” (Wes Jackson, President and Founder of The Land Institute). Solutions for current problems ranged from promoting the personal, social and environmental benefits of breastfeeding (Erin O’Reilly), to organizing and educating city dwellers to end urban “food deserts” (Fred Carter), to lobbying the US Senate to cancel Third World debt (Lori Reed).

Roundtable design encouraged active participation by non-presenters, as well. John Kintree demonstrated the low-powered internet-capable laptop he received for a donation to the One Laptop per Child program (http://www.laptop.org). Kriss Avery stepped forward to collect and summarize points of view in the Roundtable’s Sunday afternoon finale, a Plenary Wrap-Up. As facilitator of that final session, Brian Tokar, former biotechnology project director at the Institute for Social Ecology (http://www.social-ecology.org) and an active Vermont writer and educator, accepted the impossible job of herding cats toward a consensus agreement of What to Do Next in order to achieve a more sustainable and just American future. All Roundtable participants agreed there’s work to be done, and all took away from the Roundtable ideas and energy to be applied going forward.

Phil Ardery Jr., Louisville Ky., co-founded a chapter of Green Party USA in Louisville and helps steer the Louisville Sustainability Forum.

[17 dec 08]

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