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Gathering Seeds for a Livable Future

After a dry and fiery summer, the birds are now migrating, and the rains have returned here in the Canadian Pacific Northwest. The challenge I set myself this summer was teaching myself seed saving…leaving one plant of a crop to go to seed, drying, then storing. Not only am I trying to avoid reliance on commercial seeds, given the pandemic shortage, it is an act of cultural knowledge restoration.

Seed Saving

I never saw anyone save seeds or even what some plants look like when they go to seed. So, imagine my surprise when my carrot plant grew into a sizeable shrub and the edible root turned tough and fibrous. One carrot produced maybe 25 domed seed heads all holding the minute seeds. Thankfully, bean seeds are straight forward, especially as they are self-pollinating. My resistance to throwing them into a pot of baked beans, however, is weak. The dill did not dry enough to get seeds before the weather turned…so now I have a gardener’s note “let an earlier plant go to seed” instead of drying all the fronds for my spice rack. The effort seems modest, given the few seed packets I produce, but I can hear the reverberations across my ancestral line.

Ancestral Reverberations

This reverberation started years ago when I started preserving food. The beautiful, colorful jars all lined up on my cold storage shelves, invoked my mother and especially my grandmothers who had very few food alternatives, (i.e. no supermarkets). Especially for my rural paternal grandmother, what they produced in the garden, on the cropland, and in the animal pens, was all they had between them and hunger. They never went hungry though. While my Dad’s family hunted and my Mom’s family fished, to augment farming, it was never a mainstay. Such a self-reliant life is a life of dignity and resilience, even in tough times.

Out of this, the strong message in my family has been: owning land is key to self reliance. After the 1930s crash, it was clear that money in the bank was not fool-proof protection. Self-reliance for them was three things: land; the skills to grow and process most of what they needed; and good neighbours, often extended family, for working together and trading goods and services. Money for other items, such as sugar, salt, and cloth, came from selling excess production, like eggs, cream, or firewood. Even rural professionals like doctors, pastors and teachers were often paid in food, maybe a bedroom, or in other kinds of services such as blacksmithing, as money was scarce. This may come to pass again.

My Dad talks about his mother going down into the dugout basement under the house to snap off the potato sprouts, hoping to get a few more months out of them before the spring garden was producing again. One time, as I picked apples with my mother and my two little girls, I could feel all my grandmother ancestors milling around as I learned skills in the art of self-sufficiency. Years on, I hope they are proud of me. This year, I picked at least 60 pounds of apples from my tree, freezing pie filling, jarring apple butter, serving apple crisp, and storing the rest as eating apples. It is a very faint echo of how they provided for themselves. Being honest, I am the first to admit we cannot feed ourselves for even a month let alone a year. Yet, our many pounds of “clean” onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans etc. with lots of greens, certainly augment what we purchase with money over three seasons, which is very satisfying.

Designing a New Way of Living

We are at the cusp of a historical shift, where we need to look backward in these ways and relearn survival knowledge. But we also need to look forward using all the new technology and materials available to us. It feels like humanity is squandering this precious moment, to avert the harsh scenarios painted by thousands of scientists. We know we need to make significant shifts by 2030 and develop a profoundly different way of living by 2050.

Each international climate meeting reinforces the knowledge that national governments and global corporate leaders cannot rise above their vested interests. They want to know that they can either get re-elected or make money in the short term. It is not about a vision of a survivable, livable future, or as Indigenous people say, considering the impact on seven generations from now. Modern thinking has never been long-term thinking, as it is fixated on the “now”. We are not the only short-sighted ones, though, as many other civilizations have fallen as they outstripped their resources.

The vision entails redesigning the way we clothe, house, feed, transport, warm and cool ourselves, as well as how we make collective decisions, heal, educate, work, communicate, and use Earth-based resources. Much of this has been redesigned and just needs uptake.

Cities and Towns Getting the Job Done

So, how will this transformation come to pass? The most significant changes are being executed by municipal governments and citizens groups around the world. As Schumacher noted in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful, we need human-sized systems to execute this. Our current systems are too big and unwieldly. Globalization camouflages the origin of our goods and the conditions of their production, removing accountability and often ethical behaviour.

Cities and towns provide a scale that is much more workable. They can build robust citizen engagement and offer participatory democracy in everything from budgeting to policy making. Cities can develop the policy and regulatory measures that can stimulate innovations and new types of businesses. They have power over land-use planning, water provision, transportation, and building codes. City leaders can scale up workable innovations. Further, it is cities and towns who experience the fury of fire, flood, extreme weather, and superstorms, needing to protect residents, and then rebuild. Their residents are counting on them to get the job done. While national governments may provide funding, it is not national governments or international agreements getting the job done on the ground.

The Five Zeroes

Former Toronto mayor, David Miller, describes in Solved: How the World’s Great Cities are Fixing the Climate Crisis, how the cities who belong to the C40 Climate Leadership Group have made substantial strides towards reducing their carbon emissions. Originally 18, but now 97 cities, they represent over a half billion people and a quarter of the world’s economy. Informed by Green New Deal ideas, their overall goals are the “five zeros”: a zero-emission energy grid, zero-emission buildings, zero-emission transport, zero waste, and zero waste of water.

Frustrated watching Climate Summit negotiations, the mayors gathered at their own summits. The primary problem was that megacities (over 3 million) produce 70% of the world’s emissions. They consume two/thirds of the global energy supply, including the 25% that is already being generated by renewable sources. Since 2005, megacities can sign a Global Covenant to become a net-zero carbon city.

Early members agreed to peak their emissions by 2020, halve them by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. By 2020, 34 cities are on target for peaking their emissions. They have done it by retrofitting building infrastructure and stipulating all new buildings be net zero/carbon neutral. Cities such as Vancouver, have set their sights on doubling the number of green jobs and green companies over 2010 numbers. Many are reducing the total solid waste going to the landfill or incinerator. Further, these cities are moving toward much more compact, mixed-use development and extensive parkland, making active transportation instead of passive transport in vehicles, a more attractive and a healthy, safe option. There are "15-minute cities", every citizen only 15 minutes from goods and services. These cities are improving quality of life while increasing livability, prosperity, and inclusivity in their cities.

For example, in 2020, Toronto is now 33% below their 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Oslo developed a carbon budget and is aiming for 50% reduction in emissions by 2022. City staff are simply not allowed to go beyond their carbon budget, which carries significant ownership and pride by Oslo residents. Paris is using participatory budgeting and allots at least 20% of its budget to climate issues, including retrofitting 5,000 apartments annually. New York City has a Green Jobs Corps which trains low-income communities in the construction sector, partly to help “build back better” areas hard hit by extreme weather. Barcelona is ensuring that every resident is only a 10-minute walk away from a climate shelter, given extreme heat waves. They have developed “superblocks” which are completely car-free, enhancing outdoor life, air quality and equality of accessibility (see photo). Bike-shares and car-shares have been adopted in many cities as have climate resilience initiatives for “future-proofing”.

The C40 partnership now has significant funding partners, research expertise, measurement inventories, and peer teaching, to develop replicable changes. They have a program called “climate positive development” for Innovator Cities. The criteria are: holistic planning, use of global best practices, as well as strong policy, regulatory and procurement frameworks. The stories coming from cities like Stockholm, Jaipur, London, Sydney, and Rio are exciting.

Gathering Seeds in My Town

I am encouraged by my local town — Council, District staff, citizen-populated committees, and local activist groups and non-profits — providing ideas, research, pressure and policymaking. Our town is dedicated to participatory budgeting and citizen participation as well as achieving zero emissions by 2050. On the local climate change committee, we all come with diverse expertise—from data savvy folks to social service providers, activists, educators and climate communicators, as well as a town councillor. Together, we are researching the strategies, policies, and measurement tools for mitigating emissions and adapting to climate change as it occurs. We are using our creativity to engage and educate our townfolk in needed actions. We are writing a Climate Action Plan. Front and centre is ensuring that households have equal access to affordable solutions, so no one is left behind or bearing the brunt of the changes to come.

For education and engagement, we are using a story or narrative approach. We know that fear, shame, and blame approaches have not been working in environmental and sustainability education or in climate communication, otherwise we would not be in this situation. As Denise Withers says in Story Design: The Creative Way to Innovate, we all have innate narrative intelligence. From the earliest beginnings of humanity and cave paintings, it is clear we humans have been telling stories. As Martin Shaw says in Courting the Wild Twin, stories are “not enchantment”, “not escape”, but about “waking up”. There is radical power in storytelling. We are excited about the story design approach - the clarity of thought it enables, and its power to gain public support and build momentum for change.

Our largest source of emissions is commuting, so we hope to offer group purchasing of EVs (electric vehicles), rebates for car shares, free transit passes, and a teleworking centre. The second largest is emissions from buildings. We aim to offer group purchasing and rebates for heat pumps for households and business owners to shift from fossil fuel energy sources. If 250 commuters and 250 building owners make these shifts, we will meet our annual target of reducing emissions by 7%, toward net-zero.

The overarching resolution of the story, however, is a transformation to a different way of living…a regenerative lifeway. The vision we are holding up in our story-making for local citizens, is how we can live together better. How we can regenerate a way of living within the capacities of natural systems, while rejuvenating the oceans and forests. How we can foster a livable, prosperous, inclusive, and just community. Desiring this more than what we have now, or what is coming, is what will motivate us to make the changes.

One Seed: Going Solar

For our personal contribution, we went solar this summer. Yes, we talked about it for nearly 20 years, pursuing energy conservation instead…a vital first step. When we recently did the cost accounting for solar, and contacted a local installer, it was clear that with the declining cost of panels and available rebates etc., it meant no more utility bills!! We can monitor our panels to see their energy production minute by minute and have great satisfaction that we are powering our own household. Further, it means we are providing net zero energy into the energy grid, helping shift the overall system. All our excess power generated during the summer and banked with the utility company, covers the costs of the dark days of winter when generation is minimal. Our next goal is to purchasing batteries to make us self-reliant during power outages. After that is an electric car....for our one car.

There are so many things we can now do individually. When these are added to a larger collective shift, the impact is significant globally! What seeds will you choose to gather, then plant? Together, we can co-plant seeds for the world in which we, our children, and our grandchildren yearn to live, life-giving for all.


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