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 Truth To Power: Eugene, Oregon: Community & Personal Collapse Preparation, Part I

InterviewsBy Carolyn Baker

Exclusive interview with Dan Armstrong, writer, activist, and owner of MUD CITY PRESS.

CB: I'm going to ask you about your book "Prairie Fire", but first I'd like to find out a little bit about your background. Tell us about your roots, how you came to settle in the Eugene area, and your passion for writing.

DA: My background is that of a middle-class suburbanite baby boomer. My father was an officer in the Navy (as was my grandfather) and as a youth, I lived either in a suburb near a Navy base on the east or west coast or within a short-commute to the Pentagon.

I grew up in the belly of the beast.

I entered Princeton University as a freshman in 1968 to study Aerospace Engineering, headed to a career in the defense industry. As a junior in 1971, I did an independent research project on the effects of greenhouse gases. To my surprise, I found that we were already well into a positive feedback loop of warming. This project, along with my involvement in student demonstrations against the Vietnam War, began what would be a lifelong questioning of the American way of life. Instead of taking a job in the weapons industry, I went to graduate school at the University of Oregon in Eugene to study journalism and the theory of mass communication. Street life in Eugene in the early 1970s, however, proved far more interesting and meaningful to me at age twenty-three than graduate school, and before the year was out I'd said good-bye to the establishment and hello to counterculture. By 1974, I was nothing more or less than a Eugene hippie trying to live the simplest life I could. The beast had burped me up and spit me out. ...

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As part of a counterculture lifestyle, I sought self-realization through art. I wrote fiction and did sculpture, working part-time as a house painter or construction worker to make ends meet. I have continued in this manner all of my life, though I have added editing to my resume.

My passion for writing is intimately connected to my state of mind. For me, writing is therapy, a kind of intellectual yoga. It's a way of ordering my ideas, stretching my imagination, and bringing peace to my inner being. After writing for forty years with only the slightest financial return, it's clear to me that I write because I have to.

CB: So tell us, what does "relocalization" mean to you? How and why did you become interested in it? How important is relocalization to you personally?

DA: Despite being a fiction writer who gives in fully to the extravagance of fantasies and humors of all kinds, I ground myself in simplicity and common sense. Relocalization, to me, is a common sense response to all the challenges we face today. Peak oil, climate change, environmental degradation, food concerns, financial instability, political corruption, and the negatives of globalization are all soothed by condensing the way we live, compacting our circle of activity, and connecting with local environs, local politics, and the immediate community.

My personal attraction to relocalization stems from two things, Peak Oil awareness and my loss of faith in the national government. As the price of gasoline climbs, it simply makes dollars and cents to create a way of life that involves less driving, both for the individual and in the design of a community. As we are all too aware, our national government has been bought and sold. It responds to the leverage of huge sums of money and is something individuals can affect only indirectly-if at all, but we can directly impact and take part in local government. At the very least, we can sit in on the city council and make public comment. If you apply energy to local politics, whether in the city council or at neighborhood meetings, you have some modest chance of effecting change. Add that Peak Oil is a market issue and is changing the economic gradient of everything in the direction of relocalization. And as time goes on, the strategy of relocalization will be an easier and easier design concept to get city managers to listen to.

CB: You are involved with relocalization efforts in the Eugene, Oregon area. Please tell us about Eugene's relocalization programs. I'm sure our readers would welcome details.

DA: Eugene, Oregon makes an interesting case-study of a mid-sized city confronting the triple threat of Peak Oil, climate change, and financial meltdown. A smaller city like Willits, California with a population of about 13,500 is one thing, but a community like Eugene and sister city Springfield with a surrounding population of about a quarter million is an entirely different animal. What is going on here in Eugene merits a few words, both positive and negative.

On one hand, the Eugene area (which means Lane County or the southern end of the Willamette Valley) seems the perfect fit for relocalization. Eugene has been a countercultural haven for more than forty years. The population is a nearly even mix of rural Oregonians, longtime hippies, and middle-class baby boomers. Clearly this is an over simplification, but the point is, a significant portion of the community has been anticipating and participating in culture change for quite a long time. The city is designed around bike paths. Vegetarian and organic lifestyles are commonplace. Community gardens and home gardens are everywhere you look. The city is surrounded by extensive and fertile farmland. Wildlife is prevalent. Water is aplenty, and the entire valley is insulated from the outside by large mountain ranges. In a sense, it is a secluded piece of paradise.

The Eugene populace and the newspaper, The Register Guard, are decidedly liberal. Climate change and Peak Oil are topics that do appear in the Op-ed columns. The mayor, Kitty Piercy, regularly talks about sustainability, relocalization, and climate change. With her efforts and the efforts of others, a Sustainable Business Initiative passed through the city council in 2005, and just last fall a Eugene Sustainability Commission was formed. In other words, Eugene accepts that our future is challenged.

On the other hand, as local activists have discovered, there is a wide gap between adding buzz words to the city manager's lexicon and actually changing business as usual. In Eugene, as in any American city, money and big business leaders make things happen, and regardless of how they wear their hats, profit and growth is really what they want. That said, my experience during last year in Eugene is revealing in what we can expect and what we can't expect regarding large-scale community relocalization.

Last fall, I organized a film screening of What a Way to Go: Life At The End Of Empire with four other activists in Eugene. I tend toward a quiet home life instead of participating in social gatherings, and though I did speak to the city council on Peak Oil and relocalization on one occasion, putting together the documentary screening was the first time that I had made an effort to spread "crisis" awareness through any means other than my Mud City Press website. Sally Erickson and Tim Bennett came to Eugene for that screening, and the event was a huge success for all involved, but particularly inspiring for me. This first dip into pro-active community engagement prompted me to kick myself in the butt and get involved with the activist community of Eugene. Like many out there, I was a concerned but isolated citizen, and the decision to activate involved pushing myself through a kind of invisible psychological barrier. It wasn't easy, but it became a very empowering decision.

After the showing of What A Way to Go that night in late October, about 50 people in the crowd of 200 stayed to talk and pass the talking stick with Sally and Tim. I had never done this before and found it a powerful experience. A woman, Pam Driscoll, a well-known Eugene activist, took the opportunity to announce that there would be a meeting of all the action groups in Eugene to form a Peak Oil and Climate Change Coalition. Though I was not a member of an organization at that time, I attended the meeting and was thrilled by the turn-out. Some 40 organizations were represented-spanning interests from anti-war to peal oil to permaculture.

Over the next three monthly meetings, the coalition battled to find its identity, settle internal differences, and finally determine that relocalization was a strategy we could all agree on and use as a central theme for our activity. During those three months, there were several community presentations and demonstrations on forest management practices, climate change, and Peak Oil. I attended nearly every one. At first, the coalition's formation seemed to prompt higher turn outs for these kinds of political activities in the city. But as time went on, the audiences diminished, and gradually the audience returned to being only those in the choir. From my point of view, the energy was here in Eugene to be tapped, but it was still sadly unfocused.

During this period, however, the Peak Oil and Climate Change Coalition did enable a lot of networking among like-minded organizations. This has proven to be the coalition's most powerful asset and facilitated my meeting several people involved in Lane County food security organizations, including the Helios Resource Network, Food for Lane County, and the Lane County Food Policy Council. Because I'd studied global agriculture for many years, written several articles on global food supplies and based the novel Prairie Fire on this topic, I decided it made sense to concentrate my efforts on food security. I turned my focus from speculative global scenarios to the local food system.

The food networks in Eugene, and probably most cities, have several things going for them. Most have existed for many years for the sake of the poor or homeless and often have city or county affiliation and/or modest funding. Because of the practical nature of food security, food issues attract people across political lines, meaning it is not a particularly polarizing topic. Everyone can understand an empty plate or the returns of a home garden. When I attended meetings or presentations devoted to food security, not only was the audience full, but it contained farmers, restaurant owners, market owners, political activists, permaculturalists, and more likely than not a neighbor. And should there be any kind of crisis, if you have food, you can get along without oil and your food stores can work as currency. For my two cents, food security is a very smart place to begin relocalization.

The word relocalization suggests that what was once local is no longer and that it should be. Nothing could be more apt than applying this concept to food sources in Eugene-or pretty much anywhere in the U.S. Regarding food sales and production, the net effect of globalization in the last thirty years has been to take the local out of what we eat. Give or take a percent or two, only about five percent of what we eat today-wherever you live in the United States-comes from within 100 miles-or by definition is locally grown-meaning ninety-five percent of what we eat must be shipped in from long distances.

American farmers, and really all farmers in the world, tend to follow market lines. In the globalized economy, this means moving away from diversify and catering to specialized markets. In Iowa, for example, where there is the potential to grow all kinds of food products, corn and pork production dominates the large and mid-size farms and very little of what they produce stays home for Iowans. This may be the best way to chase profit, but it tends away from local economic balance and, in a world where the price of fuel will only increase, away from economic stability-and local food security. In any kind of big picture perspective, this is nonsense if not suicide.

Even in a place like Oregon's Willamette Valley where there are more than a million acres of rich and fertile cropland, where more than 250 different edible plants can be grown and propagated, this imbalance exists. Fifty years ago, the Willamette Valley provided its inhabitants with more than half of what they ate, growing a wide variety of food crops in significant quantities, including close to three hundred thousand acres of wheat. But now, because large food conglomerates dominate the food industry and almost everything we eat comes from more than a thousand miles away, farmers in the Willamette Valley sell, as mentioned before, only about five percent to local buyers, whether individuals, food markets, or restaurants. Sixty percent of what was grown in the Willamette Valley in 2006 was grass for grass seed, which is shipped all over the world for suburban lawns and golf courses. Grass seed is our cash crop. The Willamette Valley is hailed as the grass seed capital of the world. At the same time, less than fifty thousand acres of wheat were planted in the valley in 2006. In other words, prime Oregon farmland is being used primarily to grow a non-edible luxury item instead of food. Globalization enables specialized and long distant markets while at the same time diminishing crop diversity at home.

This is not news. Organizations in Eugene like the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and Helios Resource Network have been pushing local food buying for many years with just this intention-reversing the effects of globalization and bringing more stability to the local agricultural economy. It just makes good sense. Unfortunately, because products grown in countries where labor costs are significantly less than in the United States, a strawberry grown in Peru can be cheaper to Oregonians than one grown in the Willamette Valley-even with freight costs added in. This makes progress in establishing local food markets extremely difficult. In the last year or so, however, concerns for Peak Oil have added fuel to the relocalization fire. More than just smart thinking for a balanced and diverse agricultural economy, as the price of petroleum fuels climbs, the labor cost advantage of food producers in distance countries will be lost to freight costs. The buy local movement can now gradually gather market force behind it instead of against it.

This is a start.

In addition to lost agriculture diversity in the Willamette Valley, there has also been a gradual loss of food system infrastructure. Because we are receiving ninety-five percent of our food from distant places and because much of it already packaged, grain millers, food processors, and local farm produce distribution hubs are also disappearing from the Willamette Valley, meaning not only don't we grow our own food, but we also don't have the capacity to process or distribute what we do grow. We have erased such large portions of the Willamette Valley food system that this very fertile region can no longer feed itself. Again, this is nonsense if not suicide.

The situation reveals itself in three parts for the Willamette Valley. Less than twenty percent of what is grown here is food; food system infrastructure is declining, and the markets for selling local food are few and far between. This was not the case fifty years ago. Thus the solution, and the target of relocalization efforts regarding food security in Eugene, is changing what farmers grow, rebuilding food industry infrastructure, and creating more markets to link buyers, growers, and distributors. And this is what we are focusing our energy on in Eugene. These same targets are probably applicable in almost any city or region in the United States-except those without any cropland at all.

So exactly what are we doing to encourage these kinds of changes in Eugene?

Everything begins with the market. If we can increase demand for local produce and grain, we can change what the farmers grow and verify the need for rebuilding the food system infrastructure.

At the first level, this means getting people to buy locally grown food. The Helios Resource Network and the Willamette Food and Farm Coalition have promoted local food buying awareness, including a farmers market and Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, in Eugene for several years by publishing a local food register called Locally Grown and by sponsoring regular "Eat Here Now" pot luck dinners.

The local food register is an essential hard copy networking device and works as a yellow pages devoted to local growers and buyers. As Lynn Fessenden, the Executive Director of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, told me two weeks ago, this is Eugene's most powerful tool for stimulating local food buying.

The pot luck dinners are social events that stir the human energy stew. These large gatherings are usually held at churches or schools and enable people to share dishes they have prepared from local produce. This is always a fun community activity, invariably includes music and sometimes dancing, and in the last year attendance has steadily increased. There is evidence of a surge in local food buying here in Eugene.

At the second level, the local food networks sponsor presentations and lectures about local food buying and its potentials. These presentations are aimed at local farmers, local restaurants, and local food markets with the idea that connecting farmers and large buyers can stimulate buying. Again these activities are centered around a meal made from local products. There was one such presentation that I attended two weeks ago at the local community college. The keynote speaker was David Yudkin of Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, Oregon. Curiously enough, he began his talk with an overview of Peak Oil and how rising fuel prices would gradually increase demand for food grown closer to home. I found this significant; the often controversial Peak Oil message was being given not to the choir but to a collection of farmers and restaurant owners. They didn't bat an eye. The reality of rising petroleum prices is here and now. Tell farmers how they can save a dime, and they will.

Yudkin then went on to describe how he sought out local farmers to grow all the ingredients he uses to his make his pizzas, telling the audience that items like olives and pineapples just simply weren't available fresh in the Northwest. So instead of shipping them in, he found viable substitutes. In the case of pineapples, he has substituted pears. Not the same, but this is what you do. Regarding olives, he has struggled to find a substitute, but, as it turned out there was a Willamette Valley farmer experimenting with growing olives attending the presentation and Yudkin was able to make this important connection that day! Again, that was the purpose of the gathering.

Yudkin also said that by buying locally he actually knew the people who supplied him with his needs. He knew how they grew their food, how they treated their employees, and was able to talk to them face to face at their farms if necessary when problems arose. He did say this was not the easiest way to run a pizza parlor, but that it was personally rewarding for him because he had created a community of people that he worked with and knew as friends. After a slow start and much investment of time and money, Hot Lips Pizza now has a large following in Portland and is very successful.

At a third level, it's necessary to introduce farmers to the food processors. A month ago, the Lane County Food Policy Council had a gathering where a grain mill operator, a natural food store distributor, and an organic farmer addressed an audience of farmers and food network organizers. Again, amazingly enough, the presentation began with Peak Oil and the logistics of transportation and included a locally grown meal. The organic farmer, Harry MacCormack of Sunbow Farm was at the center of this presentation, telling the audience how he has gone to other farmers he knows and spoken to them directly about growing organic wheat instead of grass seed-one of the central issues for Willamette Valley food security. Five years ago this would have been an impossible sell, but with the price of wheat rising just as fast as that of petroleum, he is now making some headway. In the end, if the grain mill and the food distributor can promise to buy the wheat or other local food products, even offer advance contracts, farmers can have a measure of security that what they grow can be sold. That the food processor is close to home is just more good (meaning fuel saving) news. This connection between farmers and local infrastructure is effectively a form of community supported agriculture (CSA), but on a larger scale.

At a fourth level, the idea that a diversified agricultural economy with a strong local food systems infrastructure makes good common sense, especially as we face Peak Oil, must be directed to the city management. This takes individuals to either write Op-ed pieces or go to the city council and make public statements. This is where I made my contribution as a researcher/writer. And the truth is, once the facts are laid out, it's not a hard sell.

In terms of results, Eugene has begun to take real steps forward. A local grain miller, the only one in the Willamette Valley, and a local natural food distributor, the only one in Eugene, wanted to move to larger sites-both closer to the farmland for improved logistics and fuel savings. Unfortunately, the sites that they hoped to move to were constrained by zoning codes. The grain miller said he would have to consider leaving the state if the site weren't available to him, and the food distributor said the inefficiencies of his current smaller site would incur wasteful costs and safety issues. Fortunately public action and comment about food security reached city officials. The distributor was granted a zoning waiver and a tax break, and the grain miller nears a similar decision. In other words, something has happened-two important pieces of our food system infrastructure will be preserved-and at the same, as it became a front page newspaper story, the importance of these ideas reached the general public.

So what can I say? I've seen positive changes in the last half year. Not regarding less car use, not regarding a moratorium on building new highways, not regarding legislation to expand mass transit, not regarding a change of business as usual-all of which is frustrating, but in the actual connection of farmers, markets, and food system infrastructure. A full and meaningful transition, however, will take time. An individual buyer makes the decision to support this transition every time he or she buys food. Farmers make this decision each growing season as they buy their seeds for either food products or lawn products. And the infrastructure can take anywhere from one to five years to rebuild.

All in all, as a point of emphasis, what really advances the discussion of food security is organizing presentations and meetings around a meal. This breaks down the wall between the audience and the presenters and gives everyone the opportunity to talk casually, to get to know each other, and to begin linking the threads of community. Nowhere else in all my involvement have I felt or seen the kind of community building that I've seen in the food relocalization movement. While emotional Peak Oil or climate change presentations, sadly, have done little to change business as usual, food discussions do. If you want to get involved, I suggest food security as a good place to start, not because it will change the world today, not because it will bring salvation, but because you can see incremental positive response. And if you're fighting your state of mind, this helps.


DAN ARMSTRONG is the editor and owner of Mud City Press, a small publishing company and online magazine operating out of Eugene, Oregon. He has written extensively in both fiction and non-fiction. For access to his books and short stories, political commentary, humor, and environmental studies CLICK HERE.


Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. is author of a forthcoming book, COMING OUT FROM CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISM: Affirming Life, Love and The Sacred. Her recent book, U.S. HISTORY UNCENSORED: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You, is available at her website: http://www.carolynbaker.net
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[22 February 2008]

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