Sunday, July 14, 2013

Istanbul & Other People's Fights

I just got back from Turkey. It was an interesting couple of weeks.

One thing I took away from the trip was a bunch of crappy low-res photos taken with my four-year-old iPhone: Aya Sofya's layered domes. Illuminated signs strung between minarets. Gaudy mosaic lamps in the Grand Bazaar. A street selling nothing but buttons. Row after row of riot cops. A narrow side street filling with tear gas.

I also took away both a visceral respect for the popular uprising currently sweeping the country and a sense of unease vis a vis my relation to it.

Last Saturday, some friends and I caught a cab across town (in itself a rather harrowing adventure, given Istanbul's highly aggressive driving culture). We'd heard there was going to be an action at Gezi Park, the small patch of greenery that originally catalyzed protests in and around Istanbul's Taksim Square. We wanted to be there.

But minutes after we hit İstiklal, the neighborhood's main pedestrian thoroughfare, the seemingly relaxed evening crowd turned on a dime, and everyone started running. Huge white armored trucks topped with water cannons started clearing the street from both directions, driving everyone off İstiklal and into the narrow side streets and alley ways.

My group got gassed and water-cannoned, but not badly. We ran, like everyone else, then spent the rest of the evening hiding out in a series of bars while protestors and riot cops vied for territory. At one point, we found ourselves in an upscale cafe with huge windows looking out on a square over the Bosphorus -- a perfect, surreal frame for the tableau unfolding right outside. Ladies with shopping bags gave way to a crowd of mostly young people. When the crowd hit critical mass, they started chanting, and when the chants got loud enough, the cops moved in. Teenagers wielding slingshots and bottles crouched behind potted shrubs, eventually driven back by a line of cops shooting gas canisters at close range.

It was weird sitting there drinking Mojitos in the air conditioning. Part of me wanted to go outside, strap on a gas mask, prove I was more than a voyeur. But another part, the larger part, knew that would have been at best foolhardy and at worst a kind of riot tourism. Plus I didn't have a gas mask.

In the cab home, we talked about it: How do you stand in solidarity with a fight that's not ultimately yours? How do you participate in a struggle, when you only understand it in the broadest of strokes? We didn't have a lot of good answers then, and I don't really have any now.

With the internet abuzz with nothing but outrage over the Trayvon Martin verdict, with seemingly everyone in America grappling with questions of race, justice, and identity, today seems a better day than most to ask those questions.

I've seen a lot of this famous MLK quote recently: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The protests in Turkey are pushing back against a strong-man government seeking to curtail secular freedoms, against encroaching privatization and corporatization, against a militarized and brutalizing police force. If we're going to build the kind of world I want to live in, then those forces must be pushed back everywhere. In this, at least, the Turkish protestors' fight is mine.

But so much of being a good ally is listening. I think that's why I was uncomfortable as part of the Taksim crowd: a street fight with the cops is not the best place to listen.

Aya Sofya: church, then mosque, then museum. 
Like Istanbul itself: palimpsestic, often shabby, bafflingly huge.
Ramadan, Blue Mosque.
Retail in Istanbul: one whole street selling nothing but buttons.
Something from home.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Things to Lose

When I started writing this post, it was about fear.

I've spent the past year thinking about climate change for a large part of every day. (This was, of course, following on an adulthood of thinking and worrying about climate change at least once, most days.) For the first several months of my awesome new job as a full-time climate organizer, I came home every other night and cried my eyes out from sheer terror. This historical moment is such that one cannot confront the facts of climate change -- to say nothing of the worst-case predictions -- without being deeply, existentially afraid. So I'm interested in fear: how to process it, how to live with it, how to not be overwhelmed by it. How we might lean into it and use frankness about our fear as an inoculant against despair.

But: I just got married! I'm coming off a month of celebrations. I spent June surrounded by family and friends and showered with love. Right now, as I type, I'm on my way from my honeymoon on Cape Cod to join my team in Turkey, where they've just wrapped up a conference to train rockstar young climate organizers from 130 countries to stir up beautiful trouble around the world. In Istanbul a peaceful, youth-led popular uprising is challenging the kind of top-down economic development that bulldozes parks and leaves people behind. My world is changing under my feet, and I find that fear isn't exactly what I want to talk about -- or not the only thing.

According to the The Way Things Ought to Go, now should be the time for making plans. As young newlyweds, my partner and I should be talking about houses and kids. We should be shopping for furniture. We should be settling down. Of course, we do talk about these things, but it's with a kind of ambivalence that I feel sure our parents' generation didn't have to navigate. They had their own troubles. They had the Cold War. But they had nothing like this.

This is what I'm afraid of: That the chaos and destruction of the next decades will somehow -- there are so many ways! -- prevent Jacob and I from building a happy life together. That the island I grew up on will suffer a cascading series of losses: its trade winds, its beaches, its economy, its stability. That I won't be able to take care of my family when they need it. That I won't be able to choose freely whether or not I want to have kids. That the world won't be beautiful anymore. That there won't be anywhere to go.

In Jacobin Magazine, Alyssa Battistoni makes the case that despair can be freeing. She compares the movement to confront climate change to the HIV/AIDS fight of the 1980s and the groundbreaking work of direct-action organizations like ACT-UP. We climate activists share an up-against-the-wall clarity with those gay men surrounded by dying friends and lovers. This is life-and-death here. We have nothing to lose now, and it makes us stronger.

Battistoni quotes Tim DeChristopher, who has become a sort of folk hero for the climate movement: “Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future, that there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future — of a career and a retirement and all that stuff — I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway.”

Having nothing to lose changes what you ask for and how you organize. Seeing the End of the World bearing down on us from this closer vantage, with better science in-hand, has at least shaken us free of the inside-game incrementalism that paralyzed the environmental movement for decades. Catastrophism is a delicate hand to play in terms of social change-making, but it can make way for a new sort of Utopianism -- a harder-edged sort, bounded by the constraints of a physically compromised planet, yet unmoored from the demands of "political realism."

That's where we're at: the tectonic plates of the possible are shifting, even as our window to take meaningful collective action grows smaller. I don't think despair fully describes it, although some days it's close.

Oddly, I personally have more to lose now than I ever did. Rather than risking it by taking action, however, I'll lose it for sure if I do nothing. I won't have a house in the suburbs, a comfortable retirement, college educations for my kids. But the basic needs of loved ones, a good life in reasonable comfort with my partner, the chance to do good work -- these things are precious and still mine to lose.

It's been a lot of months since I came home from work and cried. Living with this kind of terror and grief, it's like living with any other kind of pain: you do it. Work helps. The chance to fight this good fight is truly a privilege and a gift. I still read the climate newswires every day, and our prospects are still bad-and-getting-worse for sure. But I also spend a portion of each day looking at pictures from the front lines of this battle, and those pictures are fucking beautiful.

There's a tattoo I've seen on several First Nations activists engaged in the fight for their sovereignty and against Alberta's tar sands: Love is the movement. I like that. I like the way it rolls off the tongue. And this movement, this fight for a livable planet, this bending of that stubborn arc of history -- it really is like a marriage. It's hard work, not a static state that you can rest in, and no kind of happily ever after. But it's love.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I've never been a joiner. I tend toward the skeptical, and I distrust inflammatory rhetoric. I don't like crowds. I am not an anarchist. Nothing frustrates me like a dearth of rhetorical clarity. I tend -- by both disposition and conviction -- toward reform rather than revolution. And so this past month I watched -- like most people like me -- with skepticism, some trepidation, and a vanishingly small amount of hope as the Occupy movement spread through the country and the media. I supported where I could, but mostly I watched. I read the internet voraciously. I watched as it grew from something easily dismissed into something less easily dismissed. I waited. I'm not sure what for. To see. To wait and see.

Then this past week something changed. Oakland happened. A friend said "revolution" to me, and I found myself really thinking about that seriously. The media tone changed, in both the professional and citizen coverage of the phenomenon. This has been a week of tiny earthquakes; it felt like yet another subtle tectonic shift. I let myself shift too.

I have always been convinced that we have an ethical imperative to act, even and especially in the face of terrible odds. As activists, one of the most important bulwarks we can employ against burnout and apathy is the sense that working hard to make things better carries with it an inherent good, regardless of outcome. It was never the hopeless-case aspect of the Occupy movement that held me back, but rather the potential inefficiency of sinking energy into chaos. Is this the right hole down which to throw my energy and effort? Is this the best way to fight a forever losing battle? This past week, the momentum of this movement has been such that I am finally ready to re-frame that question: Let's win this time. What do we need to do to win?

On Thursday, my partner and I slept out at Occupy SF for the first time. Even for just one night, it felt like saying "OK, I'm in." The night before we'd stayed at Justin Herman (Bradley Manning?) Plaza until after 4:00 AM, expecting a police raid that never came. Clustered in an amorphous group by the plaza's southern end, people began spontaneously calling out with their personal testimonies. One woman spoke about the cruelty and waste of California's prison system, another about standing up for the children being robbed of a decent education. One man talked about being a veteran, another about the imperative of climate change. They used the "people's mic," speaking in short, choppy bursts that were easily repeated and spread from one listener to another.

"I'm here/Because I'm fucking queer."

"I'm here/Because when I went to college/It was free."

"I'm here/Because you all are beautiful."

"Because I believe/That we can decide for ourselves/What kind of world/We all want to live in."

The short format isn't my strength, so I didn't speak up. But I might have said this: I'm here. Because all my life. I have been angry. And hopeless. But it's time now. To be angry and hopeful. It's time now. To be angry and win.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What the World Needs Now...

Is really not more of this. Seriously. Please, people.

About a week ago, the NYT's opinion pages again trotted out some of the same old industry-driven doublespeak, straw man arguments, and flat out untruths around genetically modified crops that pop up at least monthly in the mainstream media. This time they came packaged as a soberly written, compassionately motivated op-ed by State Department advisor and Penn State biology professor Nina V. Fedoroff. Her argument: We need GMOs in order to feed a ballooning world population. Anti-GMO sentiment amounts to little more than myth and fear-mongering. Government regulation of GMOs stifles innovation and stops us from getting on with the good work of getting people fed. Eminently reasonable, right? I mean, we're feeding the hungry here!

Federoff's precise framing is as familiar as the argument itself: populist compassion, clear-eyed critique, exposé of unexamined assumption, exploder of sacred cows. This rhetorical strategy -- especially when applied to just about any aspect of what might be termed the good food movement -- has become so ubiquitous and tiresome that I considered titling this post "Fill in the Blank: Good/Local/Organic/Sustainable Food is NOT Elitist/Impractical/Unhealthy/Going to Make People Starve." But then I decided that was a bit wordy, even for me.

The problem, of course, is that this strain of argument is pure (and excellent) propaganda. Even when the speaker isn't directly associated with the biotech industry -- as is usually the case, in some form -- they are propagating a message forged and fed by its PR machine. Others have eviscerated the NYT piece and Federoff herself quite eloquently, most notably here and here. I'm chiming in now because I can't help myself, because the brazenness of it all leaves me almost speechless... but not quite.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, otherwise known as the IAASTD. Published in 2008, the IAASTD was modeled after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it represented the work of the world's best minds in agricultural science and policy. The study had over 900 contributors from 110 countries and took three years to complete. Its conclusions were sweeping, nuanced yet decisive, and really, really good science. They were also promptly maligned by the big biotech firms and then almost entirely forgotten. Last week I gave a brown bag lunch talk to a bunch of Berkeley foodies, and not a one had ever heard of it.

Leaving aside the naming/branding issue of the IAASTD (yes, both the full name and the acronym seem ill advised), it continues to astonish me that the world's most comprehensive attempt to determine exactly what mix of technologies, policies, and strategies have the best hope of feeding a planet with 9 billion inhabitants, almost never gets mentioned in discussions of precisely that question. I suppose it makes sense in the end. The answer is inconvenient, unprofitable, and politically daunting.

That answer? No, we don't need unregulated, full-steam-ahead development of GM crops to feed the world. That is really, really unlikely to do the trick. I'm not personally opposed to GM crop development (in principle and depending on application, implementation, etc.), but as an international agricultural development strategy it has proven entirely unsound. What we need is bottom-up, small scale, distributed, locally-based, and culturally appropriate solutions -- thousands and thousands of them, all over the world. What the world needs is agroecology in all it's myriad forms.

This back and forth that we're having now reminds me strongly of, say, 2004, when the science was well and truly decided about this thing called anthropogenic climate change, yet the public discourse on the issue seemed to reflect an entirely separate reality. There was a lot of well, no one really knows, and a can we really be sure, and for goodness sake, don't be so political about it. It was at the time rather uncool as a layperson to just stand on a rooftop and yell "My god people, why are we even having this conversation? Real scientists who actually know what they're talking about figured this shit out already."

I feel like that person sometimes, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Various Broccolis Gratin (with Questionably Long-Winded Personal Narrative)

I'm supposed to be at a birthday party right now. In fact, I believe I missed two birthday parties today. I don't have any real excuse.

See, sometimes my life is kind of like this. (Not really. But sort of.) I was totally kicking this particular weekend's ass. There I was, making it to the market before noon and doing laundry and going to yoga like a champ. The last big thing on my list of Functionality Indicators was going to a birthday party! But then my resolve sort of crumpled. There was a distinct chill in the air, and I couldn't stomach the idea of Muni-ing out to Ocean Beach to huddle 'round a fire in the fog. (Sorry, Katie! I'm sure you all had a lovely time without me.) I just wanted something warm. I just wanted to curl up under my freshly laundered comforter and eat a really good, somewhat decadent meal that I'd made myself.

Lately -- in addition to maintaining said Functionality Indicators with varying degrees of success -- I have been doing Other Things, which have mostly included neither blogging nor cooking. I have been camping. I have been swimming in creeks, in pools, and in the bay. I have been walking, and then walking some more. I have been breaking in the most fabulous pair of knee-high black boots you could ever hope to see. I have been falling in love. And I have, most recently, been eating a lot of kimchi. (Kimchi needs a post onto itself. Long story short: this was a first attempt and not entirely successful. But at least this ain't no white girl kimchi! This kimchi is the sort of hot that catches you in a never ending masochistic loop of kimchi eating, wherein eating more kimchi simply hurts less than not eating more kimchi.) And while all of these Other Things have been quite grand, today I needed something warm, home-cooked, chili-free, and cheesy.

Also, I happened to have a ton of various incarnations of broccoli in my overstuffed fridge. There was the somewhat wilted broccoli I'd inherited from someone heading out of town, and there was the broccoli I'd bought at the farmers market. Then there was the glorious Chinese broccoli cultivar we're growing at Alemany Farm right now, which is leggy and tender and sort of rabe-esque. And it turned out that in addition to Glorious Chinese Broccoli from yesterday, I also had Somewhat Less Glorious Chinese Broccoli from two weeks ago, which was literally going to seed in the crisper. (Summer at Alemany means an increasingly bounteous harvest, and everyone is expected to do their part in the eating department.)

What to do? Various Broccolis Gratin, that's what.

Chop various broccolis into bite size bits. Steam, then transfer to a greased casserole dish. Sautee some chopped leeks and red onions, and add to casserole. Meanwhile make a light butter roux. Season to taste -- in this case, Herbs de Provence, salt, and fresh black pepper. Stir in cream. Heat, but don't boil. Melt in cheeses of choice -- in this case, Asiago, another mystery hard cheese from the back of the fridge, and Mozzarella to fill it out. Pour sauce over vegetables and toss to coat. Lay thinly sliced red onions over the top for a bit more color, then sprinkle with more cheese and/or breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 until golden brown.

Warm. Easy. Cheesy. Comforting. And look! Finally posting to the ol' blog again was also on my to-do list. Check plus.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hunger and the Budget

I'm hungry. Not starving, just hungry. Just hungry enough so that it feels sharp and hard rather than desperate and empty. My senses are heightened, my eyes a little dry, and as I type my hands are taut with a thin, barely-there nervous quiver. The day has an almost metallic edge to it, which holds its own odd satisfaction.

I'm on day three of a juice fast inspired by this NYT op-ed column by Mark Bittman. I love nearly everything that man writes, but I found this piece particularly moving. Bittman was himself inspired by World Food Prize laureate David Beckmann, who is organizing this fast to raise awareness of the budget cuts currently making their way through Congress -- particularly those that relate to food and hunger.

The budget proposal currently before the House is egregious in many ways, but the proposed cuts to food assistance programs can only be described as at best heedless and at worst cruel. Among other things, this budget entails cuts to the WIC program, which serves as an absolutely crucial bulwark for some of society's most vulnerable, and cuts to international aid programs that would immediately cut off 18 million of the world's hungry from much-needed food aid.

So why a fast? What difference can me not eating for a few days possibly make? I'm not personally fasting to raise awareness, like Bittman, Beckmann, et al.... or at least not exactly. Over the past couple of days, I flatter myself that I may have influenced one or two people to join in, but honestly that's not really the point. Even collectively, I doubt this sort of symbolic protest will ultimately carry much weight vis a vis the congressional sausage making. And I'm not fasting for the hungry who will be affected by these cuts, or at least not exactly. I doubt my rich western solidarity gives the hungry much solace when all is said and done.

I'm fasting almost purely for myself. Not fasting to teach myself what hunger feels like -- although that is useful knowledge -- but more just to feel the weight of this thing. I'm fasting to drive home to myself the seriousness and reality of this otherwise rather abstracted process. Because what we're witnessing in Congress right now is catastrophic. It's callous. It's inhumane. It's cruel. And if I really care about food and justice, then I need to do everything I can to feel the gravity of that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Farmwashing, Ag Censorship, and Other Manifestations of Total Bullshit

The term "farmwashing" entered the lexicon of food industry marketers and Michael Pollan-quoting advocates a couple of years ago, but its usefulness has lately seen a sharp uptick. You know: the green, grassy hill + red barn + antique tractor + happy cows adorning a label that adorns a product that came from what essentially amounts to an animal-product factory. Not ringing a bell? Take this pastoral idyll:
...which is being used to sell an operation that more likely looks like this:
That's farmwashing, and it's been a Big Ag staple for about as long as there's been a Big Ag. Over the years, this subtle idea that a farm, a farmer, and an innocent landscape constitute the story behind the processed food products we typically buy in the grocery store has proven a consistently effective strategy for selling us crap.

But as consumer awareness around food has grown stronger and more sophisticated, agribusiness has started to feel the heat. They're casting about for new PR strategies to fit a newly critical market... and it is a chillingly cynical process to watch. Lately, many of the nation's largest ag industry groups -- including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Pork Producers' Council -- have banded together and turned to social media in order to engage consumers in a "conversation" about what farming is really like and "create more reasonable expectations." As the spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau put it:
"So often people advocate for a utopian world and it's not doable," Cornely said. "Feeding the world requires us to kick up some dirt and create a few odors. That is just a reality of producing food and fiber that may not fit in with the utopian vision. The vast majority of people are reasonable people, they just need to know that you can't have the perfect world."


Another new strategy is putting individual farmers out front. Through social media as well as through more centralized campaigns, conventional farmers are being encouraged and coached to tell their stories -- about their love for the rural lifestyle, for their families, for the land those families have been on for generations, etc. -- and those stories are then being appropriated as the story of agriculture in America writ large. "Here," Big Ag is saying, "See, the farmer is real! Hear him talk! See him walk!" (It is, of course, almost always him.)

The rationale is that it will be harder to criticize the industry as a whole if there are individual farmers standing in front of it, taking the hits, and then objecting to their unfair treatment at the hands of those pesky, thoroughly "unreasonable" activists. In a nice bit of PR magic, the food movement's structural critique of a broken system and the corresponding indictment of a small group of large companies are cast as part urban presumption and part outright meanness. Against the farmers. Think of the farmers!

As with all propaganda, it helps that much of this is in a technical sense quite true. Farmers do exist (surprise!), and many of them do sell their products into that same industrial system that spits out most of our food. Just as it is also true that not all farmers are bad actors who abuse their animals and degrade the environment. Many, many of them are not, and in general it is a good thing to hear their individual stories told. Of course, none of this offers any substantive counterargument to the plain fact that the way we produce the vast majority of food in this country is unsustainable, inhumane, and no good for just about anyone outside of agribusiness... including most small farmers. And to be clear: it is in fact farmers at the forefront of the movement toward sustainable agriculture and good food. If anything, the urban food advocates that I know hero-worship said farmers (to an occasionally embarrassing degree) rather than denigrating them.

So that's farmwashing. But wait: there's more! Not content to obfuscate and mislead, agribusiness is now taking it a step further with a spate of recent bills at the state level that aim to make it explicitly illegal to take photos or video of agricultural operations without the operator's permission. This is presumably in response to footage released by the Humane Society and other animal rights groups documenting horrific instances of cruelty in confined animal feeding operations... such as do sometimes occur. This is a ban on a certain type of non-libelous speech. It undermines whistleblower activity and hurts the public interest. It is outright suppression of information that the public has a right to know. I don't see what you can call that aside from censorship.

This is a whole lot of bullshit, and it smacks just a bit of desperation. I suspect there is a lot more of this ugliness to come.
It is also oddly, occasionally hopeful however. After all: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." We are definitely past the ignoring stage! And as Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society said, "It doesn't matter what media they're using, defending practices most Americans consider indefensible is not a smart strategy for the ag industry."