Volume 21, Number 3

The Last Sheaf Standing

Elisabeth Willmott

While discussing the bleak prospect of achieving ecological stability in our lifetime, my friend recently suggested I write a column about sustainability. I consider myself reasonably conversant on the topic. I sell produce, actively sourcing and promoting organics. I compost both in the workplace and at home. I can spin fiber into yarn, grow my own cooking herbs and greens, bake bread, darn socks, even put up herbal medicines. I live in a house built partially with salvaged materials. Should give me plenty to talk about, right?

In fact, too much to talk about. Like the blind men with the elephant, there are many notions in the scientific community, pop culture, blogosphere and within government agencies about what sustainability constitutes. The best definition I could find was at Sustainability Wiki, which defined it as a “means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals in the very long term.” Yet this definition is vague about social aspects of sustainability; in order for this to work, it must also be just.

We must be clear about the distinction between sustainability as a buzzword and the real cyclical durability I'm hoping we can introduce and nurture in what must, by necessity, include local and global systems. I worry about corporate-fostered notions that we can somehow buy and consume our way there when clearly a key step in achieving this goal is to drastically reduce consumption, more than we can imagine at present, much less embrace.

How vital it is to build an activist community—to push for public policy supporting swift efforts to stabilize our use of resources while demanding social justice! Yet in reaching out to friends involved in this movement I found we were often focusing on developing our “mad skills.” Not trusting government to change course mid-stream, too alienated to tackle the political discourse necessary to initiate change, many of us were planning, in a dreamy and abstract way, how to cope in some theoretical collapse. I know as a plantswoman with academic experience in the climate field this subject is urgent. We need to keep honing even the language around it, all the while reaching out to build allies in environmental fields, agriculture, alternative energy and local governments as well as lobbying for effective policy and planning.

Before we can even begin to address what a sustainable world will look like in terms of cars we might drive, fuel they should run on or food we should eat, where and how it is grown, what we should do with our cities that have emptied out and the exurbs that are so far from the places we work, we need to think about that work itself and its meaning or lack thereof. I have read where our workers are now dismissed as producers since so much factory production has moved overseas. I don't believe this is a permanent situation. As fuel costs increase, I believe the trades will necessarily undergo a renaissance that we should plan for now.

Much of the language about sustainability is exclusively scientific and so has been co-opted by corporations and governments alike to describe some unholy trade-offs in population dynamics and resource exploitation. How much environmental destruction are we willing to live with until a threshold is reached that pushes things past “sustainable?” Not unlike the frightening analysis that goes on in wars: how much starvation is allowable under sanctions, how much collateral damage can be endured before a populace turns against an occupier.

Two images in recent weeks have haunted me while I pondered our challenge in growing this movement. One is the face of Afghani Bibi Aisha, her nose cut off in retaliation for trying to flee an abusive husband. Bibi's nation is being exploited for mineral and energy potential even while the torturers she called family are coddled by the Karzai government we support. When I think about the harrowing concessions that Afghani women are expected to make just to get unlikely parties together at a table, I can't help equate this to environmental agreements and concessions we are all expected to make, sacrificing watersheds for jobs or greenspace for polluted overcrowded roadways, real change for profiteering in carbon credits.

The other jolting image is a picture from the New York Times business page of a mountaintop, graded and leveled, exploited for extraction. This hole in the Earth is as bony and exposed as Bibi Aisha's empty nasal socket. Yet on the business page it seems much less viscerally shocking. It would be quite so if you were to encounter it amongst the wooded summits of the Appalachians. These noble peaks team with some of the greatest species diversity in the world, having once been refugia for countless trees, plants and wildlife while the North American ice sheets retreated. In Appalachia more than 500 mountain tops have been removed to get to the coal below, the tailings left strewn in valleys leaching toxic compounds into the drinking water of a people already challenged in so many ways for jobs, health care, and education.

A key ingredient in the struggle for a sustainable paradigm is our ability to sustain “hope.” My attorney told me the other day that he mistrusts all invocations of hope, calling it a “Disney” concept. When hope is discussed he feels that someone is most likely trying to pull something over on someone. Bruised by the betrayals of the Obama Administration, I can see how “hope” can become suspect. Yet without recruiting young people to build this movement, how are we to influence the future in a sane way. And why should we?

After 30 years of Reaganesque budget cuts in education, who even conceives of a hopeful future for our disenfranchised, chronically underemployed youth, let alone urges them to reach for it? If sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations, can we bring those generations on board if we reject their own belief in the promise of their stake? For inspiration, I think, how does a young woman held captive by her own family sustain hope? How do you sustain a willingness to be an instrument of change when you need to work for the coal company that is literally blowing the lid off pristine mountains that have been your family's home for generations?

The Internet is rife with some kind of ignorant libertarian awakening and a backlash against communitarian solutions to problems that seem by their very nature to require collective and organized responses. If these movements have their way, we are headed down a path toward a sad, narcissistic clannism that denies climate change, resists taxation at the expense of programs that help foster sustainability and could lead, under dire circumstances, not unthinkable at this point, to our own future warlordism and thug violence as the rule of law becomes too challenged to maintain.

If there is to be a collapse or, as I hope, a reshuffling of our industrial capitalist priorities, there will have to be a massive shift in paradigm. If “community” or “teacher” are now dirty words, then one of the first steps towards stability has to be a resistance against a paradigm where greed is good, capitalism is freedom, and civics is dead. We cannot infinitely befoul our own nests without eventually leading to the threatened the health and livelihood of all. This seems simple but the enclosure movement of the late 18th century that saw commonly farmed lands fenced off and deeded to the rich continues to this day with our highways sold off to private road contractors, wild land leased to mining corporations, even our schools de-funded and the sick or imprisoned turned into ways for companies to make a buck. A single man can own a mountaintop and alone decide to change the shared skyline for hundreds of miles around for the sake of personal enrichment or to achieve liquidity.

Prior to both the medieval and modern periods of enclosure in England and Wales open fields were considered arable farmland and harvested in common. Communities toiled together to “bring in the sheaves.” At the end of the grain harvest the final sheaf would be left to stand. No one individual wanted to be the one to cut it down since it was believed to contain all the spirit and regenerative power of the grain, the responsibility too much for one person to bear. That final sheaf contained the genetic promise of the grain and a promise of stability in future harvests to come, the opposite of a world where our seeds contain terminator codes to switch them off. The last sheaf standing was instead harvested in common by throwing sharp scythes until it fell on its own, no one person having laid waste to it.

The modern challenge of the sustainability movement shows that ownership and enclosure are myths. Our resistance starts this way by reasserting our stewardship of the commons, and the commons includes our shared hope. If we all cast our scythes together, who will know who felled the grain?