The Curious Case of the Antidepressant, Anti-Anxiety Backyard Garden

Whether it’s microbes in the dirt or fresh air—or both—researchers do know this: Gardening is strong medicine

Originally written by: posted Nov 12, 2015 for YES Magazine.

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Daphne Miller in her backyard garden in Berkeley, California. YES! photo by Kristin Little

Gardening is my Prozac. The time I dedicate to training tomato vines or hacking at berry bushes seems to help me stave off feelings of sadness or dread and calm the chatter in my mind. My vegetable beds have even buoyed me through more acute stressors, such as my medical internship, my daughter’s departure for college, and a loved one’s cancer treatment. I’m not alone in appreciating the antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects of gardening—countless blogs are dedicated to this very subject, and a rash of new studies has documented that spending time around greenery can lead to improved mental

The idea that microbes in our environment might impact our health was not new to me. It’s well-established that the microbes in soil enhance the nutritional value of food and, as found in studies of farm children in Bavaria and among the Indiana Amish, improve immune function. (Researchers were finding that exposure to a diversity of microbes early in life led to fewer allergies.) But garden microbes acting as mood enhancers—well, this was news to me.“How does this work?” I asked Jill Litt several years ago when I first became interested in what I call gardening’s “bio-euphoric” effect and was wondering whether to prescribe this activity to my depressed patients. Litt, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, was studying gardening’s impact on a variety of health outcomes—including mood disorders. She rattled off a list of possible explanations, including that gardens create community, encourage physical activity, offer a bounty of nutrient-rich food, and expose one to Vitamin D-producing sunshine, which helps regulate serotonin, the “happiness” neurotransmitter. But then Litt surprised me by adding, “Also there are the microbes themselves. We have no idea what they are doing.”
I soon discovered that there is, in fact, evidence to back up this idea. It’s a smattering of data, and most of it has been collected on our distant cousins, the mice, but it is still compelling.

This investigation into the soil-mood connection began, like much of science, quite serendipitously. British researchers were testing whether immune stimulation with Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless microbe found in soil and water and potentially on unwashed vegetables, might help treat lung cancer in humans. While they discovered unchanged life expectancy in the subjects treated with the M. vaccae, they were surprised that these patients scored much higher on a standard quality-of-life questionnaire than the controls. Somehow the bug had enhanced their mood.

This finding inspired another researcher, Chris Lowry, a behavioral endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, to inject heat-killed M. vaccae into the bronchi of mice. The rodents, like the cancer patients, seemed to derive a psychological benefit from the treatment, exhibiting less depression and anxiety on a stressful “forced swim test.” In their article in Neuroscience, Lowry and his colleagues hypothesize that the immune reaction to M. vaccae activates the release of brain serotonin leading to reduced stress-related behavior.

Building on Lowry’s work, Susan Jenks and Dorothy Matthews, two researchers at Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, decided to administer M. vaccae to their mice and perform a new set of behavioral tests. Instead of using the heat-killed M. vaccae used in previous experiments, they cultured the live organism and fed it to the mice via a concoction of Wonderbread and peanut butter. It occurred to me that this exposure method most closely mirrored how I might come in contact with M. vaccae: by eating the casually washed greens that I regularly harvest from my backyard.

“It was just amazing,” Jenks said, discussing a maze test designed to expose rodents to stressful new situations. “We would place them in the maze and could clearly see that there were some mice doing better than others. We would think: ‘Is that the M. vaccae [mouse]?’ And sure enough it was.”

Forever in search of safe, low-tech solutions that I can offer my patients, I asked Jenks whether her experiment was essentially suggesting that M. vaccae exposure by eating backyard veggies or digging with glove-free hands could be a potential new antidepressant therapy.


Daphne Miller collecting late-season parsley, tomatoes, and pineapple guavas for her backyard compost in Berkeley, California.

“What our research suggests is that eating, touching, and breathing a soil organism may be tied to the development of our immune system and our nervous system. But you have to understand that we fed our mice much more of that organism than you are likely to find in a peck of dirt—it was more like a drug dose.”

In fact, an entire raised bed in my garden is unlikely to contain as much M. vaccae as what Jenks was serving her mice.

Still wanting a treatment I could offer my patients, I called Jack Gilbert, a marine microbial ecologist by training, who teaches at the University of Chicago. Gilbert co-founded the Earth Microbiome Project and American Gut, two ambitious collaborative projects seeking to understand how humans and other animals interact with their microbial environments. Gilbert had previously shared with me that his son’s autism diagnosis had prompted his interest in the potential neuroregulatory effects of microbes.

When I asked him what I might advise my patients based on these findings, he sighed.

“Every talk I give, there are parents that want something. I totally get it. We want that thing that will help our kids feel better.

“All this research is really fascinating, but we don’t have enough information to make any claims. If I were to say to everyone, ‘Move to a farm, buy a dog, and eat more raw veggies,’ those statements would be vacuous from an experimental or clinical perspective.”

Speaking with Jenks and Gilbert reminded me that M. vaccae is not an isolated therapy. In fact, it is just one of an enormous palette of microbes that have been interacting and coevolving with us since our earliest days. Our immunological and psychological well-being likely depends on more early and frequent exposure to a diverse group of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and worms than it does on any one organism.

These creatures, which interact with us through our skin, lungs, and gut, are what Graham Rook, physician, microbiologist, and professor emeritus at University College London, refers to as “Old Friends.” I met Rook last year at an evolutionary medicine meeting at the University of Arizona where he presented a series of compelling studies in support of his “Old Friend” theory of immune dysregulation: that a mismatch between our DNA and our modern microbe-depleted environment is responsible for a recent increase in chronic health problems, including autoimmune diseases and depression.

So what to advise my patients? I agree with Jenks and Gilbert. Microbiome research is still in its infancy, and there is much to discover before we can make definitive prescriptions. But there is compelling evidence that we need a diversity of organisms found in animals, plants, soil, water, and air for optimal functioning of our immune and nervous systems. I now equate preserving ecological diversity in our surroundings with protecting our own health.

On a large scale, we can begin to do this by increasing the diversity of what we grow on our farms because agriculture, covering more than a third of the earth’s land surface, is an obvious reservoir for biodiversity. Our prevailing system of crop monoculture has severely limited the variety of organisms hiding beneath the soil, lying on the plants, and roaming the fields. The herbicides and pesticides used in monocultures narrow this spectrum further. We can start to shift to a more diversified system of farming by patronizing farms that grow a range of crops and by educating friends, neighbors, medical providers, and lawmakers about the health importance of this type of agriculture.

Even closer to home, perhaps the best place for us each to begin is with our own backyard plot or window box. Planting a rainbow of seeds, avoiding the use of garden chemicals, nourishing the soil with plant matter, digging with our hands, and eating the bounty—while not guaranteed to replace a pharmaceutical grade antidepressant—is a wonderful chance to hang out with “Old Friends.”

 

Dr. Daphne Miller wrote this article for How to Create a Culture of Good Health, the Winter 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Daphne is a practicing family physician, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, senior adviser at the Prevention Institute, and author of Farmacology and The Jungle Effect.

Borrow, Save, Share: 3 Ways Seeds Can Democratize Our Food System

Originally published on Yes Magazine authored by Neil Thapar.

Just six companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market. But seed libraries offer us an opportunity to reclaim the seed commons and create our own community food systems.

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Our food system is broken and needs to be fixed, many say. But it isn’t broken. In fact, I think it’s working exactly how it was intended. The current food system, and the legal rules that govern it, have been built by and for only the largest producers, retailers, and manufacturers. The bigger the better, the logic goes, which is why our food economy is dominated by large, increasingly consolidated, vertically integrated corporations.

An especially consolidated sector of our food system is the seed economy; for example, just six companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market. Because most of our food starts off as seed, instead of trying to fix a system that isn’t intended to work for the vast majority of people, animals, or the planet, we should try to create our own.

 If we want more equitable access to healthy, affordable food grown locally by small farmers who steward natural resources responsibly, this is exactly what we need to do. The task is tall, but so achievable, especially if we all commit to working together in the right direction. Here are three simple steps we can take to reintroduce democracy back into our seed system and into our neighborhoods.

1. Borrow

If you haven’t been to your local library recently, you might be surprised to find a seed library there. Across the United States, there are about 400 of these community-based seed sharing initiatives, which allow neighbors to share seeds with one another. It basically works like this: You borrow seeds, grow the plant, harvest almost all of the fruit (which you eat!), and save and return some of the seeds back to the library, where others will repeat the process. Seed librarian extraordinaire Rebecca Newburn, cofounder of Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, says it like this: “It’s like checking out a book, except that you’ve added a chapter when you return it.”

Seed libraries make seeds freely available to its members or the public, relying on reciprocity and a sense of interdependence to ensure that its stock is continually replenished. By treating seeds as a common resource to be stewarded for the public benefit, libraries create what is called the seed commons. The commons reframes our role in relationship to seeds as that of caretakers instead of owners. While owners only have a responsibility to themselves, caretakers have a responsibility to the seeds and to the community that placed them under their care. By bringing seeds into the commons, we have the power to democratize access to, and control over, one of our basic necessities: food.

2. Save

Seed saving is nothing new. If anything, it’s likely one of the oldest continuous human traditions, going back some 10,000 years. Just in the last century or so, we as a society have lost—and been removed from—our connection to seed. In this time, seeds have been transformed from a common resource into a commodity, bought and sold and owned by fewer and fewer companies.

But saving seed is not necessarily simple. That’s why libraries exist as educational resources to help us rediscover the art and skill involved with it. Re-skilling ourselves means that we will be able to provide healthy foods to ourselves and our families, build community resilience in the face of climate change, and rediscover the cultural history and significance attached to the seeds we save.

In practice, it also means growing food for ourselves and our communities. The more food we grow ourselves, the less we rely on a global food system that prioritizes profit over environmental, human, or animal welfare. It also means that we are buying and selling food locally, circulating our dollars in our communities, and generating local wealth. Seed saving is at once an act of resistance and renewal.

3. Share

The success of our new food system relies equally on our independence from the current system as it does on our interdependence on each other. What that simply means is that we should share more and sharemore equitably. We should share both the risk and the reward, the profits and the losses, the efforts and the outcomes. By sharing, we also begin to take part in an alternative economy, one not based on transacting money for goods or services, but on relationships, gift giving, and mutual aid. At a time when dollars in our economy are increasingly scarce and consolidated in the hands of the wealthy few, sharing gives us the means to provide for ourselves.

In particular, sharing seeds is an easy place to start, because seeds by their nature almost beg to be shared. One tomato plant might produce upwards of 500 seeds, which, in theory, could be planted in 500 different gardens the next season. Now, imagine that 100 households grow five crops each to share their seeds. It’s not difficult to picture the multiplying effect community-based seed sharing could have on the total amount of local food production!

Yet no good deed goes unpunished. Right now, seed libraries across the country are struggling to protect their ability to facilitate local sharing. In partnership with others, Sustainable Economies Law Center, where I work, has been leading a campaign to raise public awareness of this struggle and to advocate on behalf of seed sharing organizations. You can learn more about it at our Save Seed Sharing website.

Creating a true bottom-up democracy means that we need to envision democracy not just in our government but in all aspects of our lives. Civic engagement is not just about choosing who to vote for—it’s also about choosing how and where to spend a dollar. Seed libraries offer us an opportunity to become more civically engaged by reintroducing democracy into the food economy, reclaiming the seed commons, and empowering communities to begin creating their own local food systems.

 

Neil Thapar wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Neil is a staff attorney at Sustainable Economies Law Center and leads its Food and Farmland programs. He is passionate about building collective power to recreate healthy, just, and resilient food systems. Follow him on Twitter @NeilThapar.

Boston Coworking Collective Prioritizes Community Over Profit

Originally Published by Cat Johnson on Shareable.net

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In 2008, Boston-based user experience designer Benji Mauer was feeling the isolation of working from home. He and his friend Benjamin Spear decided to rent an office together, but they couldn’t find one small enough. Rather than give up, they decided to get a few more people onboard and rent a larger one. They found an old industrial space with “a lot of character.” They opened the doors and started working there two months later. They called it Ad Hoc Boston. It was the precursor to Make Shift Boston, a coworking space run by a member collective of 10-15 people with a strong focus on creativity and social justice.

Initially, the space was just shared office space, with the handful of people working there making decisions about the space needed. After two years, the roughness of the building was “getting old”; the ceiling was falling in and there was brick dust everywhere. The officemates found a new location nearby, but conflict about the direction of the space emerged. Some in the core group were focused on entrepreneurial ventures while others, including Mauer, were more interested in working on social justice projects. The group eventually disbanded and the social justice crew created Make Shift Boston.

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Make Shift Boston’s members focus on social justice issues

Members of Make Shift Boston, which is located in a former radical bookstore in the South End neighborhood, now include writers, filmmakers, developers, designers, playwrights, artists, and more. Among the social justice issues they’re working on are net neutrality, food insecurity, the prison industrial complex, capital punishment, supporting local fisherman in sustainable practices, black radical projects, political plays, and supporting nonprofits.

“We really care about who we share space with,” says Mauer. “The culture we have right now is pretty precious and awesome.”

To become a member of Make Shift Boston you have to be admitted by full consensus of the current members through an application, an interview process, and a free trial month. Once admitted, members join one of the various committees, have full decision-making power in the space, and can host events and “do a lot of other cool stuff.” For Mauer, this is what coworking is all about.

“The spirit of coworking, to me,” he says, “is people who want to work with other folks in a coworking-style situation—coming together, of their own volition, to make a space that is their own and supports the work they want to do in the world.”

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Make shift Boston member meeting

At Make Shift Boston, members all have a say in management of the space and financial issues. It’s a consensus-based organization that everyone has an equal financial stake in. At this point, Make Shift Boston is financially flush, and they “don’t need to be a whole lot more than flush” to continue.

“Once you take the profit motive out of it and [are focused] on creating a space that works for the members and works for the community, that isn’t really needing to scale in any way to fill anyone else’s pockets,” says Mauer, “what you end up having this really dynamic space that is at this equilibrium and isn’t extracting anything from anybody who’s involved with it.”

In addition to being a coworking space for members, Make Shift Boston is a lively community hub for artists, performers, organizations, and groups. It’s an alternative, neighborhood space where people can connect, gather, celebrate, and work.

“Boston’s a really expensive city,” says Mauer, “and there aren’t a lot of third spaces—spaces that fit in-between stores and coffee shops, and home. Make Shift Boston, in a lot of ways, exemplifies that, because it’s so affordable as a rental space and because we have such an amazing network of people that come through it either for work or for events.”

He adds that people see Make Shift Boston as an option for making something happen that they couldn’t do in their house because they don’t have enough room. Because of the members’ radical values, the space is a better fit for some community projects than public spaces, such as public libraries, which may have issues around political content.

The biggest challenge in collectively running Make Shift Boston is that the members are busy and don’t have as much time as they might like to put into the space. This means that sometimes things are left undone. But, where consensus decision-making can sometimes devolve into lengthy discussions the members of Make Shift Boston have a good track record for working together to make decisions.

“Consensus decision-making with 13 or 14 other people doesn’t always go well,” says Mauer with a laugh. “But, incredibly, so far, it’s been totally amazing… Even if there is disagreement, “there’s not some guy in an office over there who’s going to say, ‘We’re going to do it like this and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

For those thinking about creating a similar space, Mauer says, go for it.

“I hope that more people who feel dissatisfied with the coworking options in their area consider starting their own space in this way because it wasn’t really that hard,” he says. “Say rent is $3000, you divide it between 15 people. Don’t sweat it. Then, once you’re in it, you’ve got this cool space and you get to do all this amazing shit with it that you might not be able to do in a space you don’t own.”

 

Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter

MakeShift Boston Co-working Space from Helen Matthews on Vimeo

Sweden to become the world’s first nation to end reliance on fossil fuels

First Published on : http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/sweden-become-worlds-first-nation-end-reliance-fossil-fuels/

The Scandinavian nation already meets two-thirds of its electricity requirements from non-fossil fuels energy sources, mainly hydroelectric and nuclear.

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City of Stockholm, picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Swedish government announced that they plan on spending an extra 546 million USD as a part of their climate change action in 2016. It would be too soon to put a ceiling on the time-frame within which this mission will be completed.

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Wind energy in Sweden

What you may not know is that this Scandinavian nation already meets two-thirds of its electricity requirements from non-fossil fuels energy sources which are predominately hydroelectric and nuclear. The focus will now shift to increasing the solar and wind energy potential, and at the same time, making its transport industry more sustainable. In order to suffice the budget increase, heavier taxes will be levied on petrol and diesel.

The budget will also cover the manufacture of smarter grids, electric bus fleets, subsidies for green cars and on renewable energy storage technology. This quantum leap should come as no surprise since Sweden already has quite an impressive track record when it comes to climate change action. Several cities across the globe are already in the process of making this switch and are eliminating fossil fuels with huge success.

5 EYE-OPENING GLOBAL TRENDS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT

Originally Published by: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/5-eye-opening-global-trends-you-should-know-about/

5eyeopening_1It’s not easy to keep track of the complex ways in which our everyday choices have an impact on a global scale. But as the world’s population surpasses 7 billion, each of our actions—positive or negative—gets multiplied. Read on to learn about five global trends from our latest publication, Vital Signs: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, that show that our consumption choices affect more than ourselves—they affect the environment and the lives and livelihoods of millions.

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  1. WE ARE PRODUCING 25 TIMES MORE MEAT TODAY THAN IN 1800.
    Since 1800, the rate of meat production has outpaced human population growth by a factor of over three. In 2013, we produced an estimated 308.5 million tons of meat, more than ever before in a single year. That year, people worldwide ate an average of nearly 43 kilograms of meat each.

    Who’s driving the trend? Asia leads the world in meat production, generating close to 43 percent of the 2013 global output. Europe, North America, and South America follow far behind. People in industrial countries continue to eat much larger quantities (76 kilograms per person in 2013) than those in developing nations (34 kilos per person).

    What does this trend mean? The livestock sector uses industrial methods that consume large quantities of water, feed, grazing land, synthetic fertilizers, and antibiotics. Beef is by far the most intensive of meats, requiring more than 15,000 liters of water per kilogram of meat produced. Beef production also uses three fifths of global farmland despite its yield of less than 5 percent of the world’s protein and less than 2 percent of its calories.

    What can be done? Supporting the switch of feed from grains to grass or other plants (to reduce direct competition with crops that otherwise could be used directly as food); using natural instead of synthetic fertilizers; and ending factory-style livestock operations could reduce environmental and health impacts. Dietary choices, such as eating less meat or choosing less resource-intensive meats, also make a difference.5eyeopening_3

  2. DESPITE HAVING ACCESS TO RENEWABLE TECHNOLOGIES, WE ARE CONSUMING MORE COAL THAN EVER BEFORE.
    Since 1950, the amount of coal consumed worldwide has nearly quadrupled (from just over 1 billion tons of oil equivalent to 3.8 billion tons in 2013). Because of strong demand and low prices, the coal supply also is getting “dirtier.” That means that the coal we’re paying for has a lower energy content than before, resulting in more coal being burned (and more pollution generated) for the same amount of heat.

    Who’s driving the trend? The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 70 percent of global coal consumption in 2013, although the country is quickly diversifying its energy sources through solar technologies and natural gas. In the United States, coal consumption has been decreasing, despite the continued growth in demand for electricity, in large part due to the switch to domestic shale gas. In the European Union, coal consumption has been decreasing since 1990, thanks to reduced energy intensity and growing reliance on renewables.

    What does this trend mean? Coal is the dirtiest energy source we use today. Without curbing consumption and related emissions, we likely will fail to keep global warming below the 2 degree Celsius threshold.

    What can be done? Supporting meaningful, binding multilateral agreements on climate change would help stop the rise of coal. Decreasing our energy intensity and promoting lower costs for renewables would further reduce coal’s share within global energy production.5eyeopening5

  3. THERE ARE NOW OVER 1 BILLION AUTOMOBILES ON THE PLANET.
    The world’s fleet of light-duty vehicles (such as passenger cars and light trucks) has grown so much that there is now one car for every seven people on the planet. Of these, only about 400,000 were electric vehicles at the start of 2014—or only 1 out of every 2,500 cars.

    Who’s driving the trend? The United States and Japan have the world’s largest vehicle fleets. China, now in third place, skyrocketed the size of its fleet over the last decade, growing over 10-fold from 2000 (3.8 million) to 2011 (43.2 million). Most electric cars are in the United States (144,000), Japan (68,000), and China (45,000).

    What does this trend mean? Today’s light-duty vehicles consume on average 7.2 liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers and contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

    What can be done? Higher fuel efficiency is needed to limit automobiles’ contribution to environmental problems. Alternative vehicles—such as hybrids and electric cars—help reduce local air pollution, but will only make a difference with regard to greenhouse gas emissions if the electricity they use is produced with renewable energy.5eyeopening_6

  4. MILLIONS OF TONS OF PLASTICS STILL MAKE THEIR WAY TO LANDFILLS AND OCEANS EACH YEAR.
    Even though most plastic is recyclable, between 22 and 43 percent of plastic worldwide is disposed of in landfills. And each year, 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans.

    Who’s driving the trend? Western Europeans and North Americans consume the most plastic per person, using 100 kilograms of plastic per person each year. Asia currently uses just 20 kilograms per person, but this figure is expected to grow. In Europe, about a quarter of plastic was recycled and a third was burned for energy in 2012. In the United States, only 9 percent of plastic was recycled in 2012.

    What does this trend mean? When plastic is not recycled, it is often sent to a landfill where its resources are wasted, it takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Plastic in oceans can entangle seabirds, whales, and dolphins or get transferred up the food chain as small particles get ingested, carrying chemical pollutants from prey to predator. Some toxic additives in plastic products—such as colorings, flame retardants, and plasticizers—have been linked to health issues.

    What can be done? Along with reducing unnecessary plastics consumption, finding more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives, and improving product and packaging design to use less plastic, many challenges associated with plastic could be addressed by improving management of the material across its life cycle. Governments, companies, and consumers can work together to encourage recycling.5eyeopening_7

  5. WHILE GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS ARE TOUTED AS A MEANS TO ALLEVIATE HUNGER, THEIR DEMAND IS DRIVEN BY ANIMAL FEED AND OIL—NOT BY FOOD CONSUMED DIRECTLY BY PEOPLE.
    Since they were first commercialized in the early 1990s, genetically modified (GM) crops have reached a global plantation area of 181 million hectares (2014). The most commonly planted GM crops were soybeans (used for animal feed and oil), maize (used for animal feed), cotton, and canola (used for oil).

    Who’s driving the trend? North America and South America accounted for 87 percent of the global GM plantation area in 2014. A small handful of companies that develop and market GM crops have a near-monopoly on the US$15.7 billion industry (as of 2014).

    What does this trend mean? While GM crops often result in saved time and effort in farming, they also can result in loss of land and livelihoods when less resourceful and less protected farmers are taken over by those with more assets. Growing more crops for animal feed is driving numerous environmental problems, from pollution to deforestation. Finally, crops that are modified to be herbicide-tolerant may be losing their advantage as herbicide resistance develops in weeds.

    What can be done? In the next 5–10 years, GM crops likely will continue to expand, as 71 new GM strains have undergone field trials. Rigorous regulatory frameworks based on case-by-case assessments will be needed to protect farmers and the environment.

As consumers, we influence the landscapes and lives of those who live near the extraction, manufacturing, disposal, and other impacts of the products we use every day. Once we see ourselves as part of the larger puzzle, we are better able to choose what we buy, how we eat, and for whom we cast our ballot.

A journey with the San

By: JAY NAIDOO Originally published at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2015-06-29-a-journey-with-the-san

South Africa’s coat of arms makes a special recognition of the San way of life. There’s a reason for this, which becomes all too clear when one spends any length of time living with the San people.

Writer’s note: !Gubi’s beloved wife, Oma, died just as I was finishing this column. I wish to dedicate it to her gentle grace and grand spirit.

I am deep in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia in a San village. I am here with Pops Mohamed, an iconic, world-renowned South African musician, who has spent much of his life studying the San music, culture, ceremonies and way of life. He is welcomed with open arms, which are graciously extended to all of us. I watch his seamless transition into their world. He finds a deep connection here with the San. It fills a void and connects him to the source.

I am here to learn about this and what the San ancient wisdoms have for our modern times. After all, we all come from here. The San, the earliest hunter-gatherers in southern Africa may hold the key to our future survival. Science has now proved that the Khoe-San are the descendants of the original Homo sapiens (modern day man) who occupied Southern Africa for at least 150,000 years. Geneticists say that the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans is that of the Khoe-San. It dates back to about 80,000 years ago.

A journey to the timeless expanse of the Kalahari Desert, a large semi-arid sandy savannah in southern Africa, covering much of Botswana, parts of Namibia and South Africa, to live and learn about the San culture, has always been on my bucket list.

All of us in the world, with our different colours and races; physical characteristics from eye colour, hair type, nose shape on the planet, are descendants from this original gene type. In fact we are all 99.9% identical as the human race.

So if we are to understand our present and how to solve many of the interconnected crises we face because of human activity, it would be instructive to go back as far as we could in living human history; to attempt to understand how the wisdom of the San and other indigenous peoples could help us think about the future choices we need to make to save both the human species and our planet. After all, the San revere Mother Nature as their god and leave virtually no carbon footprint.

I was not disappointed. Travelling with Pops Mohammed is both educational and inspiring.

The !Gubi family homestead is bare, its simple mud and wood frame dwarfed by the immense solitude of the “great thirsty” red-sanded Kalahari. The goats, chickens and the famed Kalahari dogs saunter around searching for those scraps of food that rarely fall. The main means of transport still remain the donkey cart. It is winter, a fire burns continuously and the temperature plunges as the star studded night sky unveils a dazzling spectacle of the vast universe.

!Gubi is a shaman and one of the last remaining San knowledge holders. Now a wizened 86 years, he feels that the San traditions and culture are disappearing, “We are the First People of God. Humanity is losing its way. We do not hold each other together and feel that we share one human race. God is sad that we do not respect Nature, the forests, our land, water, the wild animals and our plants.”

I reflect on this. It is true. We have divorced ourselves from Nature. We feel alone even when we are in a crowd. We feel disconnected even when technology makes us the most connected generation in the history of humanity. Something is missing and we keep trying to replace it with materialistic consumption. But we still continue with emptiness in our lives.

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Photo: San Elder !Gubi with his wife Oma in their home. Oma, sadly, died since this photograph was taken.

Even here deep in the Kalahari Desert the onslaught of our modernism is manifest. Plastic and glass bottles are strewn around and the local trading store does a roaring business in beer and junk food. Blaring music drowns out the melodies and sounds of this deep San ancestry of Africa.

!Gubi worries that the San way of life is being rapidly eroded, pushed back in the name of progress and civilisation. Private companies and governments wanting to commercially exploit the space for cattle ranching and mining, encroach their ancestral hunting lands they freely traversed. Pushed more into the arid grasslands of the Kalahari into reservations they share with the more dominant tribes of Herero and the Tswana, barred from hunting and cut off from their sources of food, they find themselves in desperate circumstances.

!Gubi was born in Botswana in 1929, and is a highly respected traditional healer who learnt his crafts as a young man studying medicinal plants. His family is today separated across Namibia and Botswana and he feels that culture, dance, music and the traditional folklore stories that binds them together as a family is threatened.

One of the nights I witness a trance dance ritual in which !Gubi and his grandson John, clad in leopard skins, circle a burning log fire as the women clap to the rhythm and sing special medicine songs. It is a visceral connection between human and Nature, and creates an altered state where communications with the divine and ancestors becomes possible.

I ask !Gubi later what the trance dance means. “God is in our dreams. We communicate with God through the trance dance. We enter the spirit world. As the intensity increases of the chanting and dancing a powerful energy takes over the mind and trance state is achieved. We talk to our ancestors during that time. We heal the ill and fight off the bad spirits. They show us the good medicine. They lead us to the right plants. The experience brings about a healing energy that restores peace and harmony.”

Living in harmony with Nature is the key theme of our conversations. !Gubi explains, “We use a hand bow and arrow to hunt. It is a sacred act; talking to the animal being hunted; running with it for hours until it wears down. It is assured that no part will be wasted; that its sacrifice will give life to the San community. A holy prayer is recited and a poison dart guarantees painless and quick death.”

I can see his pain. They are prosecuted today for hunting. He has seen all the radical changes in his life. Borders, fences, passports, nationalities and notion of private property do not exist in San culture. Yet we have imposed our laws and norms of modern civilisation on them. We have taken the freedom away and his travel, even to his sons who live in Botswana, is restricted today.

I offer to cook for the crew and the community while I am there. It seems that this is the only regular meals they have while we are there. It is simple and rewarding and such a joy cooking communally with the San. And they loved the subtle taste of Indian spices. I was able to catch a glimpse of the intimate lives of our most distant living relatives as a human species. It was sobering microcosm of the struggles of indigenous peoples across the world.

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Photo: !Gubi also examined the potjie I cooked for the family.

Experiencing the deep love between !Gubi and his wife, the regal and stately Oma, as he patiently massages her feet to reduce the swelling and pain; the love kisses and hugs he regularly showers on her; seeing him chastising his grandchildren, and chasing the hungry goats keen to nibble on the wood of his home with his stick. I felt privileged to be here.

Teaching our children how to live of the land, building an unbending respect for each other, our environment and respecting our diversity of languages and culture is a good start. I watch the growing youth anger, frustration and discontent at the marginalisation they face and know the values of San – simplicity, empathy and harmony – are missing in our world. Here we see the San perilously holding on to values.

As my son Kami (22) said, “I felt the Earth connection the San have with the land. While we need expand the tools of our modern-day world; especially in health and education we should see the reciprocal value of these ancient wisdoms for our modern times.”

As our world population grows and our human activities exceed our planetary boundaries and threaten the future of our human species, I feel that we will have to return to villages like these to learn how to live in peace again. Africa remains the “storehouse” of humanity. Everything that makes us human, from walking upright, cognitive thinking, language, art and even the earliest technologies in fire, tools and even agriculture.

South Africa’s motto, written on the SA coat of arms, is a /Xam phrase: !ke e: /xarra //ke, literally meaning: diverse people unite. Perhaps it time we understood why we have made this profound recognition of the San way of life. DM

Jay Naidoo

Aichi family free of utility bills after turning to firewood, solar power

By: Chunichi Shimbun Originally published in Japan Times

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A family in the city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, is experimenting with self-sufficient living by using solar energy to generate their own electricity instead of purchasing it from a utility.

Since moving to the mountainous area of the Asahi district nine months ago, the family has adopted various energy-conservation methods, including using firewood, and has successfully managed to avoid utility costs.

The project was started by professor Masao Takano from Nagoya University’s Graduate School of Environmental Studies.

He began contemplating the feasibility of living only on natural energy after experiencing rolling blackouts in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.

Yuji Shimono, 45, a regular office worker, and his wife, Tomoko, 38, volunteered to take part in the experiment in November.

The couple relocated to Toyota from the Aichi city of Chiryu, along with their two children, 7-year-old Kako and 5-year-old Masataka.

“In summer, daytime is longer so it’s easier to prepare dinner. In winter, I have to start at 4 p.m.,” Tomoko explained while firing up some food.

In the background, the natural sound of birds fill the air as she prepares dinner.

Tomoko cooks in front of the bright entrance area of the house in order to save electricity.

The Shimono family does not own a refrigerator, rice cooker or stove. Instead, Tomoko uses a nukakudo, a portable stove often used for camping, to cook rice by burning Japanese cedar tree leaves and chaff.

“Nukakudo and firewood are the two most essential items in our lives now,” she said.japan_2

She stores vegetables on a shelf near the kitchen door, away from the sunlight.

The family considered getting an environmentally friendly refrigerator, but decided against it in the end.

“For perishable food with a short expiry date like meat and fish, we eat them on the same day we purchase them,” Tomoko explained.

The family also uses firewood for heating and for hot water.japan_3

Since the temperature is cool in the mountains, they do not need an air conditioner in summer.

They only use electricity for the washing machine, to charge their cellphones and laptops, for lighting, the rice huller and iron.

Their one-story house is made of Japanese cedar and cypress and is not connected to any power lines.

In addition to six solar panels installed on the roof, generating up to 145 watts each, they also reserve about 10 kilowatts per hour for rainy days.

Like any other household, the Shimonos had been using a refrigerator and air conditioner prior to beginning this experiment. However, they were conscious of self-sufficiency as well, preferring to sew some of their own clothes and grow their own vegetables.

“It’s just a matter of getting used to (this lifestyle),” Tomoko said.

The amount of electricity that can be stored in reserve is the equivalent of turning on air conditioning for the entire day in a normal household.

The Shimono family managed to survive the rainy season by waiting for sunny days to do household chores that take up a large amount of electricity, such as ironing and washing clothes.

They consume an average of 300 watts per hour of electricity each day, which is 5 percent of a normal household in Japan and less than half of the energy generated by their solar panels.

“Those who want to relocate to the mountains have to be (cognizant) of an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Through this project we have proved that people can grow their own vegetables and rice, and even generate their own electricity if they want to,” said Takano.

It all depends on how people want to live their life, the couple said.

The number of people who want to generate their own electricity has increased in recent years.

According to Shokan Otsuka, architect and chairman of Okayama-based Jienegumi (Natural Energy Group), which offers consultations on energy self-sufficiency, 42 households across Japan have achieved self-sufficiency with their help since the group was established in March 2013, with 13 more in the works.

Otsuka moved to Okayama Prefecture from Fukushima Prefecture after the earthquake in 2011 and has been promoting energy self-sufficiency to his clients ever since.

Most of the people who accepted his pitch are those who have high awareness of environmental issues and “do not want to use electricity from nuclear power plants or power utility companies”.

Half of his clients live in major cities.

“Self-sufficiency is not limited to those living in the countryside. Anybody can achieve it as long as they have an area to install the equipment and enough sunlight,” explained Otsuka.

Plan C for Advancing the Commons Transition in Greece

Excerpt:

Plan A is the name for the capitulation towards the demands of the creditors, now the most realistic possibility; plan B is the Grexit which offers Greece an independent path within the same economic logic, but with basic sovereign powers to protect and advance their own interests; plan C stands for a Commons Transition, which can take place either under conditions laid out by Plan A or Plan B, but which could become the main strategy under conditions of a revival of popular power and democracy.

Read More here

Dutch city of Utrecht to experiment with a universal, unconditional ‘basic income’

Original Article published at :
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/dutch-city-of-utrecht-to-experiment-with-a-universal-unconditional-income-10345595.html

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The University College Utrecht has paired with the city to see if a system of welfare without requirements will produce an efficient society

The Dutch city of Utrecht will start an experiment which hopes to determine whether society works effectively with universal, unconditional income introduced.

The city has paired up with the local university to establish whether the concept of ‘basic income’ can work in real life, and plans to begin the experiment at the end of the summer holidays.

Basic income is a universal, unconditional form of payment to individuals, which covers their living costs. The concept is to allow people to choose to work more flexible hours in a less regimented society, allowing more time for care, volunteering and study.

University College Utrecht has paired with the city to place people on welfare on a living income, to see if a system of welfare without requirements will be successful.

The Netherlands as a country is no stranger to less traditional work environments – it has the highest proportion of part time workers in the EU, 46.1 per cent. However, Utrecht’s experiment with welfare is expected to be the first of its kind in the country.

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Alderman for Work and Income Victor Everhardt told DeStad Utrecht: “One group is will have compensation and consideration for an allowance, another group with a basic income without rules and of course a control group which adhere to the current rules.”

“Our data shows that less than 1.5 percent abuse the welfare, but, before we get into all kinds of principled debate about whether we should or should not enter, we need to first examine if basic income even really works.

Read more:
Dutch court orders government to cut country’s emissions
Utrecht features third in top 20 bike friendly cities
Working poor set to face cut in tax credits

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sitting passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

The city is also planning to talk to other municipalities about setting up similar experiments, including Nijmegen, Wageningen, Tilburg and Groningen, awaiting permission from The Hague in order to do so.

Next month the city will host the start of the Tour de France 2015, the Grand Départ.

Between city and country: domestic workers building food sovereignty

Written by Karen Pomier , Tanya Kerssen

In Latin America and the Caribbean, domestic workers make up 18% of the female labour force. Migrating from rural areas to work in the city, many maintain both rural and urban identities. With strong connections to their family’s farm on one hand, and playing a key role in buying and preparing food in urban households on the other, they occupy a strategic position within food systems. In Bolivia, increasingly well-organised unions of domestic workers are using this space to both empower their members and educate urban consumers about indigenous foods, healthy diets, agroecology, and the importance of supporting the small farm economy.

Photo: SITRAHO-SP

Photo: SITRAHO-SP

Like many countries of the global South, Bolivia has experienced large waves of internal migration in the past few decades – especially from rural farming areas to urban areas such as the capital, La Paz.

They are keenly aware of the need for urban, worker and consumer solidarity with rural producers

The causes of rural out migration include neo-liberal policies that undermine the price of peasant-produced crops, and climate change, which makes agricultural production increasingly uncertain. As a result, many Bolivian women from farming households find themselves forced to move to cities in search of work – often before the age of 15, with little formal education, and many from indigenous backgrounds. Indeed, while rural out migration is typically portrayed as male, the ‘feminisation’ of migration is increasingly recognised.

In the worst cases, these vulnerable young women become victims of human trafficking. Others end up working in private homes as domestic employees charged with cleaning, preparing meals, and providing child and elder care. Working conditions for domestic workers vary widely, from near-slavery to relatively dignified jobs. But in general, this sector, which comprises an estimated 72,000 workers, 97% of whom are women, has languished in the shadows.

Despite the challenges of organising often fragmented and isolated domestic workers, remarkable progress has been made in forming unions to defend their rights. In 1993, the National Federation of Domestic Workers’ Unions (FENATRAHOB) was founded, which now comprises 13 unions from Bolivia’s nine departments. The unions work to defend domestic workers’ and women’s rights, and provide education and resources to their members. They also work to build the self-esteem and cultural identity of their members, most with roots in rural areas, by strengthening links between the countryside and the city.

Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty

Dignity and Food Sovereignty In 2009, the domestic workers’ union of La Paz, SITRAHO (Sindicato de Trabajadoras del Hogar), launched the Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project, with the goal of providing members a political education in food sovereignty, and increasing the direct marketing of healthy, ecologically produced food.

With support from the Interchurch Cooperative for Development Cooperation (ICCO), SITRAHO opened its Practical School for Women Domestic Workers (Escuela Integral Práctica de Mujeres), which carries out programmes focused on leadership skills, financial management, and entrepreneurship. Among these, the Programme in Gastronomy and Food Sovereignty provides training to the union’s 2000 members in culinary arts, food safety, and other practical food management skills, together with a political education in the principles of food sovereignty. The curriculum focuses on the use of local products, procuring ingredients from family farmers’ organisations, and revaluing indigenous foods. These principles are then applied in the homes where SITRAHO members work, thus spreading the values of food sovereignty to middle and upper class families. The programme also runs its own lunch counter selling healthy, ecological, locally sourced, and affordable dishes with a focus on consumer education. Most of the consumers are working people from the San Pedro neighbourhood, where the restaurant is located, with the profits used to support unemployed or elderly union members.

Rural and indigenous identity

The practical school for domestic workers is transformed into a restaurant during lunch hours. Photo: SITRAHO-SP

The practical school for domestic workers is transformed into a restaurant during lunch hours. Photo: SITRAHO-SP

Many domestic workers remain closely connected to their rural villages, with family members still engaged in farming activities. They are keenly aware of the difficulties farmers face, and of the need for urban, worker, and consumer solidarity with rural producers. Rosalía Lazo Lazo, who came to La Paz from the rural province of Omasuyos at the age of 14, comments, “since we started in 2009 I’ve heard from a lot of peasants and indigenous farmers and this makes me remember my childhood and think of my parents who still work in the fields.”

Many domestic workers are from Quechua or Aymara indigenous cultures and are familiar with native indigenous foods such as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), cañahua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), açaí (Euterpe oleracea) and muña (Minthostachys mollis). These foods are often unknown to urban residents, and are not found in supermarkets that primarily sell imported products and processed foods with homogeneous tastes and textures. Through the Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project, not only do domestic workers value foods from their own food culture, they also introduce these foods to their employers.

Domestic workers are generally responsible for making all household food purchases and for preparing three meals per day. This gives them tremendous influence over families’ food choices, what kind of food system they support, and whether they promote corporate value-chains or the peasant economy. Rosalía comments, “I know farming is hard work and that people in the countryside need support. My mother still wakes up very early each morning to look after her sheep, and frost or hail sometimes damage her crops. Consumers don’t value ecologically produced products, preferring instead to buy imported produce. But in my last job, I would buy cañahua for the kids. It was hard because they preferred to eat junk food, but I would say to them, don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong? And they then would eat it! Nothing is impossible when you believe in what you do.”

Alliances with family farmers

Over the past few years, SITRAHO has formed partnerships with important food advocacy groups, small businesses, and producers’ organisations including the Association of Organic Producers of Bolivia (AOPEB); the Coordination of Peasant Economic Organisations (CIOEC); Fundación Sartawi which promotes sustainable agriculture in the municipality of Calamarca (south of La Paz); Madre Tierra, a chain of organic food stores in La Paz; and Slow Food Bolivia. SITRAHO has made a commitment to source food from these small farmer organisations and local businesses to strengthen the local food economy and support small scale farmers.

In October 2014, SITRAHO co-organised La Paz’s first Ethical Food Fair (Festival de Comida Consciente). The women of SITRAHO were in charge of preparing all of the dishes offered at the fair, with an explicit commitment to educating people about non-GMO and ecologically produced ingredients sourced from local farmers’ organisations. Piero Meda, a farmer from Calamarca said, “we work closely with the union of domestic workers to bring healthy food directly to consumers.”

SITRAHO’s partnerships go well beyond food sourcing, consumer education, and helping to create local markets for small farmers. They also translate into political alliances with farmers on important issues of agricultural policy. For instance, SITRAHO is an active member of the Bolivian Consumers’ Collective, a broad-based coalition of workers, activists, and consumer groups, which recently issued a declaration condemning the government’s support of transgenic crops and industrial agriculture.

Looking ahead

SITRAHO’s Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project is a powerful example of collective efforts to repair the social, economic, and ecological damage caused by rural outmigration. Such rural–urban alliances are critical to supporting declining peasant economies and to building food sovereignty in the city and the countryside.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges faced by the union so far is the history of trauma of many of its members. Many domestic workers have been victims of trafficking, child labour, and abuse, experiences that often manifest as internalised oppression. Whereas many domestic workers feel a strong connection to their rural roots, others aspire to the urban, consumerist values of their employers. They have often been subjected to intense racism and may reject indigenous foods so shopping at the supermarket or buying imported food can symbolise status and acceptance.

Thus, building food sovereignty requires tireless, ongoing work to dismantle racism, sexism, and classism; recover rural identities; and construct class-based alliances that link workers and peasants, producers and consumers, in a collective struggle. These lessons from Bolivian domestic workers can be applied much more broadly, to efforts around the world, to create community-based food systems rooted in justice, sustainability, health, and culture.

Karen Pomier and Tanya Kerssen

Karen Pomier is a Bolivian agronomist and activist who works with SITRAHO, in support of the Domestic Workers in Search of Dignity and Food Sovereignty project.
Email: karenpf@hotmail.es

Tanya Kerssen is the research coordinator at the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First in Oakland, California, USA (www.foodfirst.org).
Email: tkerssen@foodfirst.org

First published: http://www.agriculturesnetwork.org/magazines/global/rural-urban-linkages/domestic-workers-building-food-sovereignty