National Journalists Gain Appalachian Awareness

To open the Society of Environmental Journalists eighteenth annual conference in Roanoke on October 17th, co-chairs Bill Kovarick and Ken Ward acted out a fruit-toss visual lesson in local pronunciation: Apple. Atcha.

“That’s how we say it, and welcome to Roanoke in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia.” With that, several hundred journalists and guests from across the nation were welcomed to our beautiful part of the world.

The week’s sessions focused as much on possible solutions as on the problems we face. Many experts in their fields expressed the conclusion that very soon we “need home runs, not base hits” to put in place viable energy alternatives and reduced carbon emissions policies and practice on a global scale.

Speakers educated conference attendees during every meal, on bus rides to field trips, and at back-to-back sessions from Wednesday breakfast until Sunday noon. So while a full account of the time is impossible in this space, I want to share with you some memorable personalities from the conference.

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has offered energy efficient alternative technoogies for years; the market may finally be ready to listen. Lovins work has long been where we must soon go–to lighter cars and more energy efficient buildings. See his description of tomorrow’s Smart Garage.

In 2002, Lyle Estill, co-founder of Piedmont Biofuels, turned a little cooking oil left over from deep-frying turkey at home into a million-gallon-a-year business converting used fats and oils into fuels. See Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy.

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia, farms in much the same way his predecessors would have a hundred years ago. In a recently rediscovered farming practice, he fattens 200# pigs to a finish weight of 300# inside temporary fencing that contains them in oak forest.

The acorns give the meat a unique and desirable taste–so much so that the 800-restaurant chain, Chipotle, takes all the Polyface pork it can get.

Salatin encourages environmental writers to use their voices to increase the public’s “educational footprint” toward new understandings of the way we produce and consume products from within local “farmsheds.”

Roanoke was chosen for this year’s Virginia-tech sponsored conference in part because of its proximity to the sites of major environmental concern in our region and the nation: mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR).

Mining executives among the speakers saw the greatest good in producing as much coal as possible for the lowest possible costs–at least in dollars. Others saw coal’s costs measured in other ways, holding the opinion that post-mining mitigation (making the land like it was before) is nothing more than “lipstick on a corpse”; and that you “cannot regulate an abomination.” The long view and hope of many is towards a “post-carbon economy.”

The personal cost and human impact of current coal-extraction methods was expressed most eloquently by Wendell Berry, cultural and economic critic, prolific author and Kentucky farmer. At the final Sunday morning Author’s Breakfast, Mr. Berry read an essay he had offered months earlier on the Kentucky capitol steps.

He considers MTR the “moral equivalent of genocide” whose end is permanent loss of place and culture. In the light of the failure of lesser measures of “non-violent insistence” to bring about an end to these atrocities, Mr. Berry expressed a reluctant personal willingness to “stand in the way of destruction.” I highly recommend the youtube record of that speech.

As a life-long resident of the Southern Appalachians, I’m gratified that, as these hundreds of journalists and other visitors return home from their brief time in southwest Virginia, they will know much more than how to pronounce the name of our gentle mountains.

They have appreciated our music and our culture; and from their comments, they were impressed by the kindness of the people here and by autumn’s peak of color in the Blue Ridge.

SEJ journalists now have a richer understanding of our deep bonds of connection to place and have experienced in some small way “the infinite private suffering” of those whose mountaintops and creeks have disappeared.

And every time they turn on the lights back home, they will know in new ways why there will never be such a thing as “clean coal.”

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Sun-Food Agenda: Future’s Food Footprint

Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, IndianaWendell Berry Image via WikipediaI expressed my hopes recently that Mr. Obama might encourage the earthcare values lived and written by Wendell Berry. Then the next day, I finished reading Michael Pollan’s NYT letter to the future “Farmer in Chief” and thought how different our world could be if we did nothing else but to reassess from the soil up our agricultural relationship with the planet.

And on Hoarded Ordinaries (thanks Lorianne!) I find Obama has understood the ramifications of the “omnivore’s dilemma” where changes to that failed system of bigger-hammer agriculture will help us nutritionally as much as politically. What energy issues could be more radical and in need of change than how we grow, ship and eat the food that sustains (or damages) us?

Below (from an interview with Time mag) is a snippet of Obama’s wholistic expression of hope for healthier foods, buildings, cities, transportation. What he grasps–in a way unfamiliar among our generation’s politicos–is the paradigm shift (read: change) that will be necessary to the very survival of our species. Whether he can make the kind of Manhattan Project for the Sun-Food Agenda (and in other sectors as well) happen in four years remains to be seen. But we can start. We can hope. We can work to be the faithful stewards Mr. Berry and Mr. Pollan encourage us to be. Yes we can.

There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil.

As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

That’s just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

Interesting to note that McCain faults both Obama, and indirectly Pollan, for their ignorance of how Big Ag really works. No paradigm shift in view here, just biz as usual.

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We All Live Downstream: Act NOW!

I am not in the best situation for blogging this morning but must make you aware of this final Bush-era gift to Big Coal, one of his last insults to the people of Appalachia and Planet Earth. 

Read this short explanation below of the pending legislation, find out everything you need to know. Link

In one of the first of what will likely be many terrible Bush Administration last minute decisions as his term comes to an end, they are trying to force through the Stream Buffer Zone (SBZ) rule change. Last year, you may recall grassroots groups from across the US teamed up with national groups to send between 40,000 and 70,000 comments to the Office of Surface Mining, Reclaimation, and Enforcement (OSMRE) asking them to block the rule change — which would legalize and expand the worst abuses of mountaintop removal.

Please read and sign the petition to the EPA administrator; petition text  (subject to your additions or not) is included below.

I am writing to urge you not to approve the Office of Surface Mining’s final recommendation to repeal the Stream Buffer Zone rule. This rule is critical for the protection of aquatic life and safe drinking water for Appalachian communities.

It is the duty of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment, not to allow coal companies to permanently destroy flowing streams.

The Office of Surface Mining’s recommendation would overturn an existing ban on mining within 100 feet of streams that has been in place since 1983. The Stream Buffer Zone rule is one of the only habitat protections for Appalachian ecosystems.

Rather than enforcing the rule to protect water quality, the Bush administration and the OSM are giving coal companies permission to permanently destroy streams. Over 1,200 miles of streams in Appalachia have already been devastated by mountaintop-removal coal mining.

As EPA administrator, it is your responsibility to protect the streams, habitats, and communities of Appalachia by not putting this rule change into effect.

SEJ Food Shed Trip Part One

 foodshedhaywagon.jpg

The sun rose to our right beyond wave after wave of blue ridge as the bus headed north along I-81 on Thursday morning–Day 2 of the SEJ conference. Touring journalists could not have asked for better weather for the two hour bus ride north from Hotel Roanoke to Polyface Farm near Staunton.

Following the mission of giving tour attendees the most possible information bang for their buck, an informational data-stream was offered by a number of guides, leaders and experts who took their turn swaying at the front of the bus with a microphone, their purpose–to help us understand what we would be seeing and better understand how the diversified 550 acre Polyface farm fits into the context of future farming practice, not just in Virginia but as a model for a successful and sustainable national bottom-up agriculture.

Tour leaders freelance journalists Joseph Davis and Christine Heinrick and Senior Rodale Institute Editor Dan Sullivan deserve the credit for arrangements at the day’s destinations, coordinating travel, and arranging for the lunch meal (provided by Chipotle and enjoyed at the Frontier Culture Museum near Staunton.)

I took copious notes that day–my handwritting under the best of conditions I can barely read. Taken on a bus at 70 mph, it seems I lapsed into Klingon. I’d planned a long narrative of the trip but life intruded. So I’ll offer a lesser recap in snippets with a few pix, probably in two parts.

  • Farming is a $70B business in Virginia employing 49,000 folks who give their occupation as farmer. (Mention was made that being “just a farmer” was about to change; in the future, farmers–especially those like Joel Salatin who we were soon to meet, would become folk heroes.)
  • The number of farmers whose incomes fall between $5K and $250K are falling; the “small family farm” is disappearing–not because people have stopped needing what those farms once produced
  • Journalists need to be able to tell the stories of farmers, to “give a face to our food” and to encourage readers to “enlarge their educational footprint” with regard to the food they buy and eat
  • more direct relationships are growing between university and school food services and farms and farm co-ops; the trend is toward local production. Even so, it is still difficult to get Virginia products into Virginia schools (the example of apples was given).

Speaker Lyle Estill was a business major before life imposed different directions for him (as one’s occupational life often does.) In 2002 a search for something useful to do with several gallons of used oil from deep frying some left-over turkey began his unexpected career in turning fats into fuels.

He is now co-owner of Piedmont Biofuels whose production from various organic oils and fats has surpassed a million gallons a year. During the past six years, Lyle has learned a lot of biology, chemistry and carbon math. What’s more, he is very passionate and articulate about his experience and his future energy hopes–and his misgivings–about supplanting fossil fuels with bio-fuels of any stripe, especially when food crops are the source. His well-reasoned and informed position is offered–among many other places–in this recent essay.

So this would probably be a good place to end for today and begin in part two where I’ll be better able to read my notes taken from the moving haywagon navigated across Polyface Farm by Joel Salatin–whose erudite and highly-impassioned monologue would fill an entire notepad. I’ll offer more snippets.

Almost Heaven

Grayson County, Virginia

No, it isn’t West Virginia but Southwest Virginia. This is Grayson County whose southern border is the North Carolina line.

The county contains the highest peak in the Commonwealth, Mt. Rogers, and that might be it in the far distance, upper left. What you can’t see here (but I will show you soon) is the New River that completely wraps around this high promentory of land, itself worn smooth like a river stone, plush-carpeted in eastern deciduous greenery.

I’ll have images to show you of the river from high above, from the river-at-my-feet, and of the people who own and care for–and I mean care for–this place on earth.

You’ll hear how this part of the county is becoming a model of earth-care and stewardship that will insure the land remains in a condition both of best use and best preservation.

I went along for this visit on October 13, a journey that seems much more like participating in a story than an assignment.

I’m working on several more posts from SEJ out of my notes and have not even dipped into stories and topics from the bag of pick-up items or videos on CD offered at vendor tables during the five days of conference.

Also, I know there will be audio and video from each conference session. I’m not sure it will be publicly accessible–I hope it will–so I’ll be digging into that resource as I’m able and will be highlighting those for your edification. If you don’t wanna be edified, well, that’s another deal.

I’m heading back to the House of Pain today, putting back on my Physical Therapist hat. I feel like Cinderella. Fetch me the bucket and mop, the Grand Ball and Pumpkin Coach were something else, now back to real life as we know it.