Boulder-Based Action: Wait, let’s go climbing first.
Posted Jun 05 2009 5:01pm
By Lilly Justman
The undertaking of the task to write a blog post on “food sustainability” has for some odd reason tormented my waking mind. The topic spreads a spectrum of issues and emotions that I can’t even begin to express in words, and I have only attempted to express through my body and soul, in actions. Let’s face it, it’s tough to be a small group of individuals against a domineering and frighteningly large University, with tens of thousands of students, and decades of contracts and elitist decision making.
But at this point, our small group of individuals continues to persevere, more with a sense of knowing that it will all have to manifest our way eventually. At the University of Colorado in beautiful Boulder, we have over 30,000 students, and a system that is simply too large and resource intensive to sustain. We have an incredible Environmental Center with several full-time paid staff members who have accomplished landmarks such as composting in the dining halls, carbon-neutral buildings, and securing $119,000 worth of funding for a an upcoming off-campus farm. We are a truly advanced University when it comes to sustainability. But the urgency of our present environmental predicament has not yet fully penetrated our campus. Our campus keeps expanding, and it is unclear how soon individuals will fully understand that fundamental, radical changes are imperative to enabling a smooth transition off of cheap fossil fuels.
How soon will the chair of this or that board finally realize the jeopardy that our water supply is in, out here in dry Colorado?
How soon will people understand that these buildings that we keep building, building, building, will just have to be retrofitted in the next few years due to the inadequacy of “LEED” certified standards in increasing energy efficiency?
How soon will it be until the President becomes ill at ease because of how fast oil supplies are beginning to decline, multiplying per-barrel prices, and thus quadrupling the price of once cheap food grown and trucked from thousands of miles away?
How soon will we trash this idea of food security, and galvanize around the idea of food sovereignty?
We must become food sovereign.
In an informal interview with one of the lead chefs at the University, it was said that we have about three days of food supply stored, in the chance that there would be some type of crisis that affected our ability to receive food imports. This is our food “security”. After that, we depend on the Red Cross for emergency drop-offs. Now I know it sounds incredibly doomsday to be thinking about our food supplies in crisis mode, but we must face the reality of how vulnerable our enormous campus, and all large campuses nationally, really are in the face of peak oil.
Matthew Simmons, one of the most renowned peak oil experts, as well as previous energy advisor to George W. Bush, is one of the few people that fully understands the vulnerability of the food system we have. At a lecture at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) Conference last October of 2008, Simmons broke the news that if every American were to simply, go “top off their gas tank”, it would completely deplete our oil reserve, and supermarket shelves would be empty within 5-7 days. Can you imagine how quickly a national oil scare could cause this to happen? Trucking wouldn’t be possible, and food deliveries to the dining halls would quickly come to a halt
But no big deal, because we have three days of food stored up, right?
This notion of campus food security is absolutely ludicrous if it’s contingent upon a finite supply of packaged goods. Our entire method of shipping and buying massive amounts of food to feed the campus is horrifyingly vulnerable with quickly declining oil supplies and future oil price volatility. We can’t be food secure if we continue to rely on a finite natural resource. We must galvanize around this notion of food sovereignty. We have got to learn how to produce food from within, in a way where food can be abundant, and cyclical, thus developing personal sovereignty over our future food sources.
This is where the idea of radical and fundamental changes come to play. Influenced largely by the Transition Movement, a movement that is rapidly spreading throughout the globe (www.transitioncolorado.ning.com), myself and other like-minded students recognize the need for the radical reform of our food system on campus. It’s been frustrating acting as a small student group trying to make large changes when contracts and partnerships exist with large and wealthy corporations. It’s also been frustrating to see the slow pace of changes; like when it takes the university several months of preparation to have one day of local foods in only two of our six dining halls. Fundamental shifts have to occur faster than this.
At the University of Colorado in Boulder, we have acres of absolutely stunning green grass. Our ability to grow beautiful grass is truly stellar. But unfortunately the necessary inputs and labor needed to sustain the beauty of the grass is ridiculous, incredibly fuel intensive, and overall unsustainable. Why not have some lawns be divided into small plots to enable students to have personal or shared community gardens? In Boulder, community garden plots are slightly pricy and continually have long waitlists to secure a plot. With so much space on campus, students could learn how to grow food and also secure a cheap and abundant food supply. Dining halls could also have their own spaces to grow fresh produce for meals. Not to mention the abundance of space where small fruit orchards could replace other un-producing trees. Already we have several greenhouses on top of buildings, but most are used for chemistry or other lab experiments. Why not utilize tops of buildings for plant starts in greenhouses, or make green roofs with veggie gardens, that would actually prolong the lifetime of a roof, cool the air, create ecosystems that make great learning environments, and produce abundant food? I know these changes seem like massive endeavors across the board. But we’ve got to shift our way of thinking that small, piece-meal changes are enough in our precarious predicament. Coming from a background of peak oil (which is what I wrote my senior Honors Thesis on), somewhat skews my way of thinking to one that is more urgent. Knowing even the slightest bit about our current oil situation would make anyone feel ill at ease. As for climate change, our race to secure more and more oil through unconventional means (which requires more fossil fuel inputs) exacerbates the already terrifying rate that our atmosphere is warming. And it’s hard to really make people understand the severity of the situation because of our ability to continue life as usual. But many people who have become more specialized in the peak oil field develop a sense of fear that underlies any action. This is a huge problem, because you can’t move people to action through fear. When speaking of our oil predicament, we can’t be fearful, but we must be realistic. When Cuba experienced a peak oil type crisis after the collapse of their largest trade partner, the Soviet Union, Cuba had to dramatically reform how their food systems functioned, and how their universities could be sustainable. As a result, the three large universities that existed in Cuba had to be diffused into over forty smaller universities, because of the energy intensive nature of students commuting from all across the country. Universities began to offer classes on agronomy, because of the need to dramatically increase the number of farmers on small, local farms spread across the country. Cuban universities relocalized out of necessity.
The truth is, is that I don’t know if the large scale changes I am recommending will be enough to enable large universities to survive and thrive in the face of declining cheap fossil fuels. Maybe in the face of peak oil and the global climate crisis, the idea of a 30,000 university populace will become absurd. But the point is, is that we have no reason not to try. Because the only way we actually will be able to keep these large scale universities, is if we radically transform the way they function, and the way they devour large amounts of resources, right now.
I recommend everyone, especially students, to read the empowering commencement address spoken by Paul Hawken at the 2009 University of Portland graduation ceremony (http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/05/23-2). Author of Blessed Unrest and several other life-changing books, Hawken’s words moved me in a way that calls me to act from my heart, and take on the role of Earth Steward that is now more important for us educated students, than ever.
“The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”—Hawken