15 Oct 2013
Letter from America #4: Five extraordinary days in California
California is vast, a nation in itself. As a state, it actually is home to the ninth largest economy in the world. It is home to one in eight Americans, and produces at least half of the nation’s fruit, and a sizeable proportion of its vegetables. Its climate runs from tropical in the south, to subarctic in the mountains. It’s a fascinating place. When I first got to San Francisco, I had, unusually for my madly packed schedule, the rare joy of a couple of hours to myself. I headed to City Lights bookstore. I have to say it was one of the best bookshops I have ever been in, specialising in poetry, literature, arts, political books, alternative and counterculture publications. It describes itself thus:
Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights is one of the few truly great independent bookstores in the United States, a place where booklovers from across the country and around the world come to browse, read, and just soak in the ambiance of alternative culture’s only “Literary Landmark.” Although it has been more than fifty years since tour buses with passengers eager to sight “beatniks” began pulling up in front of City Lights, the Beats’ legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking continues to be a strong influence in the store, most evident in the selection of titles.
It was great. I spent an hour in there, I could have spent all afternoon.
I then travelled to Janelle Orsi’s house in Oakland for an early supper with various San Francisco Transition folks. An amazing meal of food mostly from within and around the city. Janelle is a lawyer, doing what she calls ‘Legal Services for a Sustainable, Equitable and Sharing World’, basically doing amazing work to support the legal aspects of Transition, supporting co-ops, housing projects, laws around urban agriculture and so on. Vital stuff, some of which is captured in her book ‘The Sharing Solution’.
The evening’s event was to take place at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. Before it all began I did an interview with Tara Lohan at AlterNet. You can read our conversation here. The evening was being co-presented with Gopal Dayenani of Movement Generation, a group whose work focuses on the concept of ‘Just Transition’, and was chaired by Pandora Thomas of the Black Permaculture Network who is also on the board of Transition US. There was a great crowd, people from the Bay Area and beyond.
Following introductions, I spoke and then Gopal spoke about the work Movement Generation do, based on the belief that there can be no Transition without social justice. Real engagement needs to be designed into groups from the start, and it is not possible to do Transition without acknowledging the struggles, political, economic and racial, that many communities face.
Our talks were followed by a fascinating discussion about what a more inclusive Transition might look like, on the great stuff already being done but also on the long way there is still to go. We explored the tensions around this, and the edge between Transition and activism, between Transition and politics. It was a timely conversation, and one that opened important dialogue and thinking. Here is the video of the evening:
After the talk there was lots of talking and booksigning and conversations, before heading off back into the city night. The next day started with an interview on Uprising Radio in LA, part of the promotion for the forthcoming trip there, which you can hear here. Then, with Asher Miller of Post Carbon Institute and Maggie Fleming of Transition US, I visited La Cocina, an amazing incubator for food entrepreneurs. While there, I made a short film about it. Here it is:
Very impressive. The plan was then to go to The Social Kitchen, a great microbrewery and bar, for lunch, but most disappointingly, it was closed. So we ate Japanese instead. Then we headed for Northern California, to Sebastopol, up in the hills. What a beautiful part of the world. Olive groves, vineyards, orchards, rolling hills. Reminded me of Tuscany a bit.
I was staying with Rick Theis and his wife CJ, in their amazing house. For many years it was a house that won ‘green building of the year’ awards. One of the most fascinating bits was the pise walls (a French version of cob building, often stabilised with a small amount of cement, which is blown against shutters rather than built in layers like cob is. The final result has great thermal mass, and keeps buildings cool in the summer too. It was a gorgeous place, with permaculture garden, lots of fruit trees, solar panels and reclaimed wood. What a spot.
We had supper, joined by Andy Lipkis of Tree People (more about him later), Trathan Hickman of Transition US and others. Then off to the Laguna Foundation in Santa Rosa for a fundraising event for Transition US. Lots of people came to celebrate the work of Transition US so far, and rather than the talk I had generally been giving up to that point, Asher and I had a conversation which was really enjoyable. Helped along by some delicious local craft beer, it was a lovely evening among friends celebrating the work of Transition US.
The next morning started with a visit to the home of Richard Heinberg, who I imagine needs no introduction for readers of this blog. He and his wife Janet live in Santa Rosa, in a small house with a great garden, full of fruit trees, vegetables and herbs, as well as a couple of chickens. We had time to stop and look around, have some lunch, and to do an interview with Richard which will be posted here soon.
Next it was off to the Building Resilient Communities, the 2013 Northern California Permaculture and Transition Network Convergence, at the Solar Living Institute in Hopland. The event was described thus:
“The first ever Building Resilient Communities Convergence, at the beautiful Solar Living Institute, brings together the best of the Northern California Permaculture Convergence and the Northern California Regional Transition Network Conference for an action-packed weekend designed to build a powerful movement for community resilience”.
I had read about the Solar Living Institute for years, an iconic early example of scaling up strawbale construction. I had no idea that was where we were going, so it was a delightful surprise. A kind of smaller, Californian version of the Centre for Alternative Technology, it featured renewables, natural buildings, ponds and much more.
And for this weekend it was home to a coming together of Transition and permaculture folks. Beautiful place. Sunshine. Good people. What’s not to love about that? While there, Carolyne of Transition US took my iPad off and asked various people “What is Transition?” Here’s some edited-together highlights of those …
… and “why do you do it?” …
I didn’t get to go to any talks, rather I hung out and chatted to people, which was very enjoyable. Tried to set myself the task of walking around the Real Goods shop without buying anything. I failed. I was part of the final keynote session in the evening. After an amazing supper in which vast amounts of squash were eaten by the hungry hoards (accompanied by other delicious food), attention turned to the main stage.
After an introduction by Tathen Heckman of Transition US and Daily Acts, Richard Heinberg began by setting out the larger picture, of where we are at in terms of peak oil and climate change, and how fracking will do little to alter that picture. Then Doria Robertson spoke. Doria is from Richmond, California and is the Executive Director of Urban Tilth, a community based organization rooted in Richmond dedicated to cultivating a more sustainable, healthy, and just food system. Urban Tilth hires and trains residents to work with schools, community-based organizations, government agencies, businesses, and individuals to develop the capacity to produce 5% of their own food supply.
She spoke movingly about how Richmond is surrounded by refineries, which regularly pollute the neighbourhood, and the problems with asthma and cancer that plague the surrounding community. Last year, an accident at one of the plants, run by Chevron, caused, as she put it, “the sky to turn black”, and the resultant pollution meant that much of what Urban Tilth had grown had to be thrown away.
Then I spoke, talking about my roots in permaculture, my love of it, and my frustrations with it too, and how the challenge of our times is how to scale it up. I said that some groups I spoke to had a sense that money was bad, and that somehow to create a movement dependent on volunteering was somehow ‘purer’, but that there is an exclusivity to volunteering. There are many people who cannot afford to volunteer, so it often means that only white, middle class people get involved. As Doria said in the Q&A after the talks, “if this revolution depends on volunteering, I can’t be part of that revolution”.
There was then a great discussion and questions from the audience, before the bands and the dancing started up, I signed some books, met some people, and then headed off into the night. A very enjoyable event, and an amazing thing for the organisers to pull off in a very short run-up period.
Next morning, Marissa Mommaerts of Transition US and I flew to Los Angeles. Approaching LA from the air is quite an experience. It is vast. It goes on and on in every direction. I have never seen a city so vast. It takes the breath away. What’s also striking is the many huge square, flat-roofed buildings in the city. It was hard to see them and not think of their huge potential as rooftop urban farms or as power stations.
On arrival we went to the home of Joanna Poyourow, the catalyst for bringing Transition to LA, and a one-woman embodiment of The Power of Just Doing Stuff. One of the first things that strikes you about LA is that the lawn is king. It’s only when you take a step back and look at the city’s culture around how water is obtained, managed and disposed of, that the absurdity of the whole thing becomes clear. According to Andy Lipkis of Tree People:
- LA City’s Water Supply Budget is roughly $1 billion per year
- LA imports 89% of its water…only 11% comes from local supplies (mostly the San Fernando Aquifer)
- Importing water to Los Angeles is the single largest use of electricity for the entire state of California (9th largest economy on earth).
- 19% of the electricity used in the State of California is used to move water around the state.
- According to Mayor Garcetti, LA currently throws away $400 million worth of rainwater per year
- 1 inch of rain on Los Angeles generates 3.8 billion gallons of runoff
- The whole county of Los Angeles spends several hundred million dollars annually maintaining the flood control (rain runoff) system
- Approx. half of LA’s water use is for landscape irrigation
- LA City spends approx. $100 million per year to collect “green waste” lawn and garden clippings and haul them to local landfills to be used for daily “cover” of the other trash.
If ever there was a case for applying more holistic thinking, LA, and its relationship to water, is it. Here’s a short video about Tree People’s work, and their proposal that, as permaculturists are wont to say, the problem is the solution:
On most residential streets in LA, lawns lie in front of every house, including the smaller strip between the pavement (sorry, sidewalk) and the road. At night they are watered by sprinklers. No-one ever really seems to use them much, they are ornamental. Not at Joanna’s house. Waste water from the house is channelled underground to irrigate plants. Her garden drips with grapefruit, persimmons, all manner of amazing fruits that I barely even associate with trees (the climate here is similar to that of Israel). LA has what is pretty much a year-round growing season, a turn of phrase guaranteed to make any British gardener bristle with jealousy.
After some lunch, we headed off to visit the “Just Doing Stuff” festival taking place at the Emerson Avenue Community Garden. En route we called by the local Episcopalian church, which has had a water-harvesting, permaculture, food garden makeover, supplying food for the local food bank as well as being a great resource, and banisher of lawns.
The festival was underway when we arrived. There was music, and stalls, and a chance to see the very impressive community garden, tended in plots by 38 local families as well as by the local Transition group and the school. It was great to meet some Transition people who had travelled a long way to be there for the event.
The evening event took place in the Westchester United Methodist Church. I spoke first, and then I was joined by Andy Lipkis of TreePeople, D’Artagnan Scorza, from the Social Justice Learning Institute, Joanne, and Meghan Sahli-Wells who is Vice Mayor, Culver City and Transition core team member. Here we all are…
Anneke Campbell of Transition Mar Vista/Venice facilitated the evening. There was some great discussion about what it takes to step over into doing stuff, what it looks like when that happens. Each speaker set out examples of where they have seen that in action, and what it can lead to. The evening ended with a great exploration of what really scaling this stuff up will take, with some great discussion and ideas which I hope were recorded and captured somewhere.
Then, after signing lots of books and meeting many lovely people, I headed off with the other speakers and organisers for a delicious local curry complete with local beer.
The next day started with breakfast with Anneke and her husband Jeremy in their home which, like Joanne’s, flies in the face of LA lawn culture. It features a soakaway from the washing machine, all manner of herbs and fruit trees, both in front of and behind the house. An ocean of horticultural sanity.
Her garden included what is called a ‘Little Free Library’, part of a movement across the US I had never heard of before. The website states:
“It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share”.
Then it was off through the LA traffic, mercifully light because it was a holiday, to Pasadena, to Throop Church, and an event organised by Transition Pasadena.
Throop Church has been in a process of Transition itself. As Reverend Tera Little who is the Pastor at the church told me, “Transition revived our congregation”. One of the reasons for this was the creation of a water-holding, food-producing garden built outside the church on a very public street corner.
The place was buzzing. There was a Repair Cafe, with sewing machines, screwdrivers and other tools being wielded. There was a “Speed Dating for New Ideas” session. There was a ‘Transition Town Fair’, with stalls from lots of other local groups.
The event itself was a delight too. I had the time to give my full presentation, having been introduced by the Pasadena Mayor, Bill Bogaard. Some great questions and answers afterwards too. The Pasadena group had produced lunch for everyone too, and I ate and signed books and met lots of lovely people.
During the event, a member of Transition Pasadena kindly took my iPad off and interviewed people to ask them “What is Transition?”. Here’s what people said:
She also asked people for their feedback following the talk I gave, and some of the answers were quite illuminating, so I’ll include that here as well:
After spending time hanging out and meeting people, it was back to Westchester. That evening saw a gathering of some of the co-ordinators of different Transition groups across the greater LA area. People had come from as far afield as Joshua Tree. Over a delicious pot luck supper, people talked about their triumphs and challenges, what would help them move forward, and what they love about feeling part of this Transition thing. It was fascinating to hear what Transition looks like (or tries to look like!) in such a diversity of settings, as well as to feel part of something that had taken root in what on first appearance appears to be the most barren and unpromising of settings. Like many of the gardens I saw in the city though, the seeds have established and the roots are being put down.
And with that, it was off to Milwaukee and the final stop of this great adventure. Before I leave you, I must share something that still makes me giggle. One of the things that gets rather tiresome rather quickly is either English comedians in the US, or the other way round, who do routines about the funny things the other nation gets wrong in its language, odd turns of phrase or whatever. However, on Joanne Porouyow and her family’s front door was the following sign …
Although once it was explained, it became clear that in the US, ‘solicitors’ means ‘hawkers’, I was left with a somewhat Monty Python-esque vision of suit-clad solicitors going from door to door in such epic numbers that people have to put up such signs. “Who’s that at the door dear? If it’s another bloody solicitor …”
My thanks to Miriam Brummel and Karim Sahli-Wells for use of their photos. Also to Chris and Patricia, my hosts in LA, to Richard Heinberg for his lovely introduction in Hopland and to Anneke and Jeremy for breakfast.