BRATTLEBORO—Most people agree that the U.S. economy needs rebuilding. But what should the post-2008 credit crunch economy look like?
More than 200 people gathered at the Strolling of the Heifers’ first Slow Living Summit last week to swap ideas and build relationships that embraced values for a “new economy.”
The Strolling of the Heifers celebrated its 10th anniversary this month. The event has had a dual purpose of providing fun for the community while raising funds to support local farmers and promote agriculture.
In the opening and closing keynote presentations, speakers outlined where the American economy had broken down and what communities could do to create resilient local economies.
Presenters represented business, education, government, and non-profit organizations and included some of the luminaries in the field of green living such as environmental journalist Bill McKibben and Stonyfield Farms “CE-Yo” Gary Hirshberg.
According to the Slow Living Summit’s website, the goal of the summit was for participants to engage in “an intensive exploration of ways to build healthy, thriving local economies while encouraging, mentoring and supporting a new generation of activists, entrepreneurs and engaged citizens.”
Stroll Executive Director Orly Munzing said people have lost their connection with their food system since food became a commodity.
Munzing said the summit’s goal was to help shift community values to a common-good economy rather than investing in the current “self-interest” one.
The shift, she said, would create ”a slower more mindful economy.”
Philip Snyder, the summit’s program coordinator, said to the audience on the first night that ”there’s a lot of stories as to why you’re here tonight.”
“If we can move beyond self interest, it sounds good,” he added. “It’s really about an inner shift that needs to happen within each of us.”
He said the slow living movement has its roots deep in the past, yet looks into the future. Movement participants are also at a turning point where either they can make the new values work, or they can give in to the “doom and gloom” entirely.
Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA (“a national non-profit that believes everyone has the right to good, clean, and fair food,” according to its website) said that, on the one hand, the agricultural situation in this country has never been worse.
“Our barn is burning,” he said.
But on the other hand, never have so many people been ready to take action, said Viertel, whose organization involves about a quarter-million people.
He said it was around the dinner table that he learned important life skills — how to share, think critically, and disagree with people while still loving them.
As an adult, Viertel realized his commitment to local food issues.
He said the country needs to improve the national “Froot Loops to fruit ratio,” saying that there is something wrong with a system where it’s cheaper to feed children sugary cereals than fresh fruit.
Viertel said that, at times, the argument of “voting with one’s fork” is flawed, because for some of the U.S. population, the only food they have access to is processed.
“Slow food, it is a gateway drug to civic engagement,” said Viertel, adding that if it is done right, it has the ability to lift people up.
But, he said that one concern he has about the current slow living movement is that it attracts a narrow political point of view.
He asked the audience to consider how to get beyond talking to themselves and reach the people they were not speaking with.
Will Raap, the founding CEO of Gardener’s Supply, an employee-owned company in Burlington, said that the U.S. economy might have hit its peak similar to that of the phenomenon of peak oil.
The question, Raap said, is how people accept and adapt to an economy that will be very different from what they have known.
Raap warned that society needs to confront the world holistically, describing many “good” federal initiatives to encourage wiser use of energy and resources as rotten to the core.
He described many of the green-energy incentives as bribes for people to do the positive, because the government funds such incentives from fossil-fuel industry money.
Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx and host of public radio’s The Promised Land, opened her remarks by saying she had something in common with the tea party.
The audience hushed.
She said that like the tea party supporters, she believes that the country needs less government. Yet, she said, people can improve their government only when they feel empowered.
Many of the folks in urban centers who have worked to improve their neighborhoods, she said, have realized that “you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.”
Viertel agreed, saying that people need to engage in order to create change, and not just by growing our own food and buying locally. Citizens also need to engage with federal policy as not only enlightened eaters, but also as a community.
He said that the current economic system is rooted in the military-industrial complex. Part of the shift to the new economy will require transferring jobs from the defense industry to the green industry.
Carter said that numerous economic booms have left out huge swaths of the population, and that communities need to challenge themselves to develop a local resilient economy that allows people to live with dignity.
Helping to improve the local economy is what Carter calls “hometown security.”
And she feels change can happen.
“We did not leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones,” said Carter, and said that we won’t leave the old economic system because we don’t want to help each other.
“The root of all this [change] is love,” said Carter..
Cathy Berry, an investor in Vermont Smoke and Cure and founding board member withSlow Money, says the concepts of slow money can work within the current system economic system.
“It doesn’t have to be really complicated,” she said.
McKibben, author of The End of Nature and leader of the global warming action group 350.org, closed the summit by saying he was impressed with how far people have come so quickly.
He felt the participants should feel “celebratory” at the end of the event.
Ten years ago, when he started teaching about the local food economy, the closest thing to a textbook was 20 years’ worth of Wendell Berry essays, said McKibben, who teaches at Middlebury College and holds the title of distinguished scholar.
In the intervening time, eating locally has evolved, where it no longer is a fringe thing, he said.
But despite the progress, the earth still faces extreme environmental challenges.
He said that 2010 was the warmest year on record, and that climate change is wreaking havoc on both the weather and the global food system. For example, an ongoing drought in Russia, a major wheat exporter, has driven up the price of grains 80 percent.
“I traveled 200 miles this week. I know how that feels. That’s how tomato feels also,” said McKibben.
Earth is a “finely balanced” environment, he said, and scientists estimate that a 1-degree-Centigrade increase in the global temperature is enough to melt the Arctic, a process that is well under way.
But unless the world ends its dependence on fossil fuels, McKibben said, the planet’s temperature will increase 4 to5 degrees Centigrade before the end of this century.
“We don’t want to find out what 4 degrees will do,” said McKibben.
He warned the audience that it should always think locally and globally. Even the best local food system still depends on the health of the earth, he pointed out.
After showing the audience photos from the October 2009 350.org global protests, McKibben said that environmentalism is no longer just for white, rich people, as the common assumption purports.
Most of the people involved in the 350 protest, he said, were “poor, brown, and young,” because those are the people who make up most of the world.
McKibben urged audience members to become active in changing the current global circumstances.
The big companies who are contributing to global warming, he said, put about $200 million worth of campaign donations in the pockets of politicians.
“We can’t take away their money, but we can take away their credibility,” said McKibben.
He also said when it came to taking action, it’s not just the duty of college students to stand up and protest. The older generation that poured carbon into the environment should also stand..
“There’s lots of rooms like this one, filled with people ready to get to work,” said McKibben.
After the summit, McKibben said that organic food is becoming more accessible to more people.
Community supported agriculture, for example, is one of the cheapest ways to buy food, he said. Also, farmers’ markets across the country accept EBT cards for people living on social services.
People living on lower incomes are stressed in many ways, but communities can take measures, such as home efficiency programs, to make their lives easier, McKibben noted. He said there’s no reason people on low incomes should heat wintery New England with energy escaping from poorly insulated homes when they can’t afford it.
Munzing, noting that all the presenters who attended the conference volunteered their time, said that bigger projects to come out of the summit through networking will be the big payoff of the three days.
Through discussions at the event, Munzing said UVM Extension, the Vermont community college system, Sterling College, Antioch University, and World Learning will collaborate on a sustainable education program.
The more that people talk about the concepts of the new economy, the easier it is for people to understand the concepts, said Berry. .