Can Permaculture Make Society Sustainable?

posted on Apr 11th, 2016

Originally published in The Limestone Post:

Tucked in a valley near Lake Monroe stands an unusual three-acre farm. It contains no orderly rows of corn or soybeans but, instead, blends gently into the forest that surrounds it on three sides. At its center is an area of raised beds used for asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, and annual vegetables. Encircling the beds is a double fence that acts as a run for chickens and ducks.

The surrounding hills are terraced and planted with fruit trees, berry bushes, and hazelnuts. Beneath the bushes grow perennial herbs and greens. Intermingled among them are support plants: shrubs that provide nutrients, ground covers that shelter predatory insects, and flowers that feed pollinators.

In a shady grove on one side of the farm stands a pile of logs, covered in netting, growing shiitake mushrooms. Standing low around the poultry run are several greenhouses, full of starter plants for the coming year. Numerous ponds of all sizes are strategically positioned about the farm, attracting dragonflies, frogs, and salamanders.

The farm, Bread & Roses designed and built by Salem Willard, is an example of permaculture.

Read more…

The True Meaning of Pragmatism

posted on Apr 4th, 2015

“He’s a pragmatist.”

This is what several supporters of Darryl Neher’s mayoral bid have said to me. They were answering my expressed concern that he was somewhat conservative. Someone naturally skeptical of the power of government. Someone who would balk from using our city government to solve big problems.

“He’s a pragmatist.”

They weren’t denying the fact that Darryl would shy from tackling big problems. They just viewed this as a virtue. But in the next four to eight years we’ve got a very big problem to face, and we need to use all the tools at our disposal to address it.

There is no planet b

We’re Out of Time

In 2009, the Copenhagen Accord set a budget for carbon emissions. If we kept ourselves with in the budget, climate change would still have serious economic consequences, but they wouldn’t be civilization threatening. (1)

In 2012, the International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook. It contains the following alarming statement:

If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.

If we didn’t start aggressively switching to renewable energy sources, we’d have used up all of our budget by 2017. After that, any new emissions would be pushing us further in to the catastrophic consequences range.

Well, it’s 2015, and emissions have only risen. We’re burning more fossil fuels and we’re burning dirtier fossil fuels. Which means we now have less than two years to drastically change course or we lose our chance. We’ll be unavoidably headed for catastrophic consequences.

If emissions keep growing the way they are, then we’re currently headed for warming that is two to three times what our budget would have kept us to. (2) This is what the World Bank says we’re currently headed for:

the 4°C scenarios are potentially devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

Keep in mind, this is coming from the World Bank, which means it will have been stripped of language viewed as “alarmist” to prevent upsetting world markets.

Many climate scientists and economists say that what we’re currently heading for is the end of civilization. There’s some give room between the consequences we’re about to lock in and “the end of civilization”. But if we’re going to avoid the latter, we have to move.

The next decade is absolutely key. We have to fundamentally change our society. And we have to do it now. What we do in the next few years determines whether our kids will be living in one of the post apocalyptic landscapes that have so filled our imaginations of late.

Political Pragmatism vs Real Pragmatism

The context in which the question of pragmatism came up was a discussion of implementing municipal broadband here in Bloomington. This is something originally put forward by John Hamilton, Neher’s opponent in the mayoral race. To Darryl’s supporters, municipal broadband is “pie in the sky” and Darryl was pragmatic for dismissing it with “But John, the cost!”

Pragmatism in the context of politics—and as used by Neher’s supporters—all too often means that a politician gives up before even trying. He glances at a problem and says “That’s too hard, there’s a chance I may fail.” That’s not what true pragmatism demands.

True pragmatism is about solving problems. It’s about the intersection of ideals and reality. The true pragmatist doesn’t start from “I can’t.” He starts from “How can I?” He looks at the realities of a problem and tries to find a way through them.

The reality of municipal broadband is that over 450 communities in the US have one form or another of community owned broadband. 89 of those have fiber to the home networks and 40 of those have gigabit or faster speeds. Many are in communities are like Auburn, Indiana. They aren’t large or particularly well funded. They aren’t in particularly friendly states. They are in towns where the administration didn’t say that’s “pie in the sky”. (3)

They said “How do we do this?”

Bloomington is a city currently dealing with a duopoly. Our choices are Comcast and AT&T. Comcast has previously said that they have no interest in investing in infrastructure. They’re currently making a 97% profit charging us for mediocre broadband, and they’re perfectly comfortable with that. AT&T isn’t any better.

John Hamilton looked at this problem and he asked “How can we fix this?” The answer he found was to form a municipally owned broadband corporation. And now he’s aggressively pursuing that idea. He’s trying to figure out how to make it work by bringing together panels of community leaders, reaching out to people who have made it work in other communities and studying how they did it.

This is the pragmatic approach.

If you watch the debates, you’ll frequently hear Darryl say “We can’t.” When he does offer alternatives they are small, easy things that don’t go very far. Inclusionary zoning? “We can’t.” Housing the homeless? “We can’t.”

John, instead, will say “We can and here’s how…” or else he’ll say “We should investigate that.” John doesn’t shy away difficult things.

This is the approach we need if we’re to do what we must to address climate change.

Acting Now, Acting Here

Bloomington isn’t the “lynch pin to addressing climate change” as one person on Facebook recently accused me of arguing. We’re one city of about 80,000 people. But it should be abundantly clear by now that we can’t depend on international agreements or national policy to address this. Not in time. We have to do what we can here and now, knowing that everything we do buys us all a little more time.

We can only hope that other towns step up to do their part.

At least a few other towns have clearly come to the same conclusion, and they’re moving. After they weren’t able to get their local investor owned utility to switch to renewable energy sources, citizens of Boulder voted to have the city form a municipal energy utility. And Burlington, Vermont recently announced that they were now operating on 100% renewable energy. (4)

Bloomington needs to be looking at doing similar things. We need to get on renewable energy, any way we can. We also need to be looking at improving our public transit and redesigning our neighborhoods so that residents no longer need to own cars to have freedom of movement. We need to be providing homeowners with the means to retrofit their houses for energy efficiency. We need to be relocalizing our food supply and growing our food all through out and surrounding the city. We need to be fostering a local economy that can produce more of the basic necessities of life. We need to do all this and more. And we need to do it soon.

If the world doesn’t collectively realize the danger we face and act then the children currently being born could well be facing the collapse of civilization in their lifetimes. So says a study funded by the “alarmist” NASA Goddard Space Center. (5)

We cannot control the rest of the world. We can only control what we do.

We don’t need to have the solutions to these problems. We don’t need to know how to accomplish any of the big things on that huge list above right this minute. We only need a mayor who looks at difficult problems and asks “How?”

John Hamilton is that mayor.

  1. The budget would have kept us to a planetary temperature rise below 2 degrees C. It was generally agreed upon that a global average temperature rise of 2C would have economic consequences, but we’d be able to manage them. Here’s the IEA World Energy Outlook.
  2. Depending on who you talk to, we’re currently heading for between 4 degrees C and 6 degrees C. The consequences of that much heating are catastrophic and would likely lead to the end of civilization. Here’ s the World Bank, on what 4C warming looks like.
  3. From the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
  4. And they did it through a cooperative! From the Boston Globe.
  5. Seriously! A NASA funded study says we’re headed for the collapse of civilization. At that point, it’s past time to start taking it seriously. From the Guardian.

Dear Bloomingfoods, Please Don't Hire Union Busters

posted on Sep 15th, 2014

I’ve shopped a lot at Bloomingfoods over the last 4 years. When I first started shopping there, I assumed the prices were higher because the employees were well cared for.

Over time, I realized that wasn’t really the case. My last article, told the story of my general disillusionment with Bloomingfoods. One of the concerns I mentioned was the lack of a union or employee representatives on the Board of Directors.

It seems that Bloomingfoods employees have decided to rectify the lack of a union part.

Everyone Welcome - except the union

I’m generally supportive of the right to unionize. Sure, unions have their problems, but what organization of people doesn’t? Unions are a tool with which workers can advocate for themselves. They provide workers protections in dealing with those who have power over them and give them a strong voice in their workplace. A strong voice they can use to improve that workplace.

So I was pleased to hear about the union organizing drive. I was really hopeful that the Bloomingfoods administration and Board of Directors would use this as a wakeup call. Hopeful that they would respect the push and take advantage of the possibility it offers for additional systems of accountability with in the co-op.

Imagine my disappointment when I heard that the administration had secretly hired a union busting lawyer.

That Has To Be Just A Rumor

At first I was skeptical. I tried to convince myself it was just one of the many overly hyped rumors that have been flying around.

I had the name of the firm, so I decided to do some research. I did a search for the name, Barnes and Thornburg, and “union avoidance”—a poor euphemism for “union busting”, but one that seems to have come in to wide use. Low and behold, right there on their website, I found this.

A union flyer was posted on one of your facility’s employee bulletin board last night. What should you do next? Fortunately, you don’t have to know the answer—because we do. We have the experience, depth and understanding to deal with any situation at a moment’s notice. We will get you through this – our professionals have worked with employers from coast-to-coast, across most industries and with most of the major unions. Our passion is to preserve a client’s freedom to manage and to assist our clients in helping them remain union-free.

Emphasis mine.

My jaw dropped. I hadn’t expected them to be quite so blatant about it.

From further down the page I found this bit.

An effective union avoidance strategy involves a number of other components, including: [ … ] Rapid Response Capabilities. We have been called in by clients to manage rapid responses to organizing activities and have prepared our entire team with campaign management tools that allow us to quickly address union organizing activities in the event of any card-signing or other union activity.

It’s pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a firm you hire when you want to fight a union organizing campaign. They all but say, “Call us and we’ll help you to remain union free!”

My immediate next thought was “Bloomingfoods cannot have hired these folks, and if they did, the board cannot possibly know about it or have approved it.”

So I reached out to Tim Clougher, the board president. I quoted him the same things I’ve quoted here and linked him to that web page. “Folks involved with the union push are now saying that George placed the law firm Barnes and Thornburg on retainer. Can you please confirm or deny this?”

It took him a little while to get back to me, but when he did, I found myself deeply disappointed by his answer.

Thank you for getting in touch and voicing your concerns to us! Like you, we really care about our Co-op, the employees, the members and our community. We recognize the rights of co-op employees to consider whether they want to join a union or refrain from joining a union. We are resolved to respect co-op employees’ decision on this issue, whatever it might be. Federal law imposes numerous requirements designed to ensure that the process of contemplating a union is free of improper influence. We are committed to making sure the law is followed. We are in the process of learning as much as we can about this situation and our role in this process in order to best represent our members. We appreciate your continued communication and support in this effort. On behalf of the BCS Board, Tim Clougher-President

That’s not an answer.

Just to be sure, I casually asked a former labor lawyer that I happen to know and she told me, with the usual disclaimer that this wasn’t legal advice, that there was no law she knew of that would prevent the board from answering my question. Nothing to prevent them from publicly stating the name of the firm or firms they were working with.

There are two possibilities here.

In the first, they are deliberately refusing to answer the question in order to avoid a member-owner backlash. I will only say, that when one finds oneself in a public service position—as serving on the board of a co-op is—wanting to keep something secret for fear of the ire of those you serve, well that’s a darn good hint that you shouldn’t be doing that thing in the first place!

The other possibility is that Tim, the board president, was unable to get a hold of George, the General Manager, to get a yes or no answer to my question in the 26 hours it took him to get back to me. Personally, I think this is unlikely, but should the board plead lack of knowledge, I will only say that it makes me question their ability to provide adequate oversight of the Bloomingfoods administration.

A strong employee union would help in that regard, by the way.


At this point, I have confirmation from one of the union organizers that Bloomingfoods has consulted with one Nathan A. Baker of Barnes and Thornburg.

I’ll quote a relevant section of his publicly posted profile.

His labor relations practice has also included all aspects of traditional labor law. He has represented management in union-free training, arbitration hearings, unfair labor practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board and union organizing drives and counseled clients through strikes and lockouts. Nathan also represents employers in collective bargaining negotiations as well as in resisting union organizing attempts.

He represents employers in “resisting union organizing attempts.” Is there a clearer way to say “he helps employers bust unions”? This is what a modern union buster looks like. They aren’t tough goons with sticks anymore (most of the time). They’re lawyers.

The biggest problem with the co-op hiring one of these guys is that it makes it impossible for us to give the board and the co-op’s admin the benefit of the doubt.

Plausible deniability is these union avoidance lawyers’ bread and butter. The whole reason they can do what they do is that they are experts at staying in the grey area just inside the red line—or at dancing over it in ways that are very hard to trace back to them.

If we, as member owners of the co-op, truly respect the right of Bloomingfoods employees to consider unionizing, then we cannot allow the administration to continue to consult one of these lawyers.

I really want to believe Tim when he says, “We recognize the rights of co-op employees to consider whether they want to join a union or refrain from joining a union. We are resolved to respect co-op employees’ decision on this issue, whatever it might be.” But as long as Bloomingfoods is consulting a lawyer who specializes in “resisting union organizing attempts”, I can’t.

The egregious lack of transparency only worsens this state of affairs.

The Way Out

I want to give the Bloomingfoods board and administration staff the benefit of the doubt. But so long as they are following the classic union busting playbook by secretly hiring a union avoidance lawyer, and so long as they blatantly dodge my requests for transparency in the matter, I cannot.

I have to assume they’re following the union busting playbook intentionally, because the first line of that playbook is “Maintain the appearance of respecting the worker’s right to organize.” Every other line in the playbook is about undermining that very right. It’s the most divisive and deceitful playbook out there and is wholly unbecoming of a cooperative.

So, Tim, Bloomingfoods board and administration staff, if you want to win back my trust and repair some of the damage you’ve done in the last few weeks, here’s what you can do.

Start by being transparent. Publicly state whether you’ve consulted with, retained or hired Nathan. Clarify his role in your deliberations and the nature of those deliberations.

Next, fire him. A union avoidance lawyer has no place in a cooperative environment. There are many lawyers who can advise the co-op as to the legal intricacies involved in this process who refuse to engage in any sort of union avoidance. These are lawyers who we, as member owners, can trust to provide truly neutral, objective advice to the co-op. I know some local labor supporters who are currently assembling a list of such neutral lawyers. If the board doesn’t have it already they should have it shortly.

Finally, maintain transparency through out the rest of this process. Be open and honest with us about your worries with respect to Bloomingfoods unionizing. Tell us what your lawyers are telling you. Give the union organizers a chance to respond. Allow us to have a truly objective, open air and cooperative discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of unionization.

Then stand back and let the employees make their decision.

Please, allow us to deal with this as a cooperative and not adversarially as labor supporters fighting an untransparent corporation.

Why do I shop at Bloomingfoods?

posted on Aug 9th, 2014

Why do I shop at Bloomingfoods? This is a question I’ve found myself pondering recently. It started last Thanksgiving when my mother returned to living in town full time. We went shopping for the big meal and I was trying to convince her to go to Bloomingfoods instead of Kroger or (god forbid) Sam’s Club.

Everyone Welcome

Her primary value when purchasing food has always been quality first and low price a close second. She seems pretty representative of a large share of the American populace who have been indoctrinated with the idea that the most patriotic thing they can do is consume. And the best way to consume is to find a deal.

I was trying to talk her out of this conditioning, but found myself unable to craft an argument in favor of Bloomingfoods. I could only argue against the alternative. Through out the discussion her point was, “I can get the same stuff at Kroger for much less.” I couldn’t respond with the statement that Bloomingfoods takes care of its employees, I know that it doesn’t. Meanwhile, Kroger has unionized labor. So why shouldn’t my mom go to Kroger to get the same products for less? And why don’t I? Cooperative? Or coop only in name?

Why do I continue to shop at Bloomingfoods?

I’ve been a Bloomingfoods member owner since I moved back into town about four years ago. While away at college I became involved first in the local food movement, and then with the environmental, sustainability and permaculture movements. When I returned to Bloomington I knew I wanted to get involved in all of these movements locally. Joining the coop was one of my first moves in that direction.

I was really excited to be a part of it. I had images of a business I would have a say in. That I could volunteer for—like the coop I’d briefly been a part of in New York. One that would take care of its workers, seek out local and organic food and try to minimize its environmental impact. One that would actively try to do good in the world and one that I could happily support.

Almost immediately part of that image began to dissipate. There were no volunteer opportunities—that I knew of I told myself I would make it back with the end of the year profit sharing check. This coop just used a different mechanism. But when that check showed up, it was a measly $30—after I’d spend thousands. It also quickly became apparent that there was almost no transparency. The newsletter didn’t talk about coop issues. The minutes from board meetings were conspicuously absent. Indeed, until recently I had no idea when board meetings even were. They weren’t advertised.2 The newsletter mostly included fluff articles and local events. I had no idea what was going on internally to the coop, and no clear channel for finding out. It took befriending many of the coop’s employees for the rest of this vision to chip away.

As I became more and more privy to internal gossip, I learned that the employees weren’t actually well cared for. Loyal employees who’d worked there for years were still working part time and making below living wage. There was no union, nor any kind of employee representation on the board. The employees at the bottom felt like they had no channel through which their voices could be heard.

The more I shopped at Bloomingfoods, the more I realized that they carried very little local produce. What they did carry all seemed to either not be labelled with its origin or came from one farm, Stranger’s Hill. As it turns out, George Huntington, the general manager has partial ownership of Stranger’s Hill. Most of what Bloomingfoods carries is big organic. Much of it is even conventional.

As I got to know local farmers, I started to learn about what the coop required of them in order to carry their produce. One local farmer I spoke to told me that he had given up trying to sell to Bloomingfoods. When he’d attempted in the past he’d been told to match the prices of the big organic farms in California. Which is impossible for him to do, and unreasonable for a coop to ask of him. And yet, even as I learned all of this it never translated into questioning my shopping there. Until I tried to convince my mom to follow suit, and realized I couldn’t.

So, now I am on a quest. A quest to understand what’s going on with Bloomingfoods. Why is it that this coop operates in a manner apparently so far from its advertised values? And what can we, as member owners, do to change this? Are there good reasons for the ways in which it departs from its mission statement and image? Or is it simply a matter of poor management and member owners who haven’t demanded better? I hope to find out, and to start a conversation among member owners. What can we do to make Bloomingfoods do better?

  1. A friend and Bloomingfoods employee has informed me that there are, in fact, volunteer opportunities. Any member owner can volunteer 2 hours in a week for a 10% discount that week. This fact just isn’t widely advertised. To quote “We have 11,000 members, obviously we can’t have them all volunteering.” In the course of writing this article, a page describing the opportunities appeared on the Bloomingfoods website.

  2. After receiving pressure from both employees and several member owners, the times and locations of the board meetings are now advertised on the website.