Monday, March 23, 2015

Traveling Outside the Comfort Zone

The yellow glow of dimmed lights gives the illusion of a film or photo shot in a bygone era. The mysterious automatic door to my right suggests a ghost roams during these hours when most humans have abandonned the station. And the infrequent passersby just accentuate my own aloneness, with only you dear reader and the security camera for company. I write this on a Saturday night from a quiet train station in northern France. It has been a rather unexceptional few days, until I consider what it is the I have done during those days. This lengthy séjour while waiting for le Megabus has also provide an extraordinary time to reflect and process, so I'll make a valiant effort to download some of that here.

First off, what exactly have I been doing? Well, I signed up to present at a small conference in Paris on gender, agriculture, and climate change. It seemed like a shame to forgo an extra couple of days in France - to translate in 'Rachel speak' this means I walked nearly uninterupted for 8 hours a day, just enjoying the ability to move, enjoy the outdoors, and perhaps peek into a museum or church. So this trip was unexceptional in that the plan was status-quo, including the stupidly uncomfortable travel plans (8-hour bus including border control & ferry + 3 hour 'layover' in London + 2 hour bus). Some magic day I'll grow up and take the slightly pricier train!

But what I wanted to talk about here is travel food, priviledge, and sustainability. While this excursion may have been unexceptional for me, it is attainable or one-in-a-lifetime for many others. After spending a day listening to and talking about all the elements that contribute to inequity and marginalization (our favourite topics in gender discussions...), I felt the luxury of just wandering for two days straight accutely. The minimal work I did after my presentation just augmented this (ok, in my defense I did spend a few hours at la bibliothèque commune d'Amiens). Sore feet and a dreaded coach trip ahead, and yet I still feel immensely fortunate and grateful.

One of several Saturday markets in Amiens, France.
This leads into the second topic: food (and a bit on sustainability). Travel, no matter how short of a trip, for some reason elevates my perception of food footprints. As a destitute graduate student, the sustainability of my budget is a key factor in food-related decisions, and so meals tend to be fresh bread and hummus, and maybe some fruit or veg if there are open markets (definitely the highlight of Amiens...). But traveling also means breaking many of my budgetary and environmental rules - not buying in bulk or unpackaged; using 'take-away' containers; not cooking; and buying coffee at the train station out of a machine! Alas for plastic cups, but the dangerous possibility of falling asleep and missing my 12:35am bus was too terrifying.

While travel eating almost innevitably costs more than home cooking, for me it is one more piece of evidence in the priviledge pool. While wandering around Amiens, I had at least half a dozen people ask me for change in order to buy food. Despite the self-imposed stringent food budget, these interactions made me feel the luxury inherent in my ability to buy food if need be. Perhaps this is because traveling takes one out of the library, office, etc. People always say that traveling provides important perspectives by confronting new cultures, but I wonder if this distracts from the more important service travelling provides. It doesn't need to be voluntourism building schools or anywhere exotique, but rather merely needs to push our comfort boundaries just a bit, taking us out of a daily routine so it's possible to actually notice something. 

Three hours in London = overpriced soy capuccino + work
From wandering aimlessly in a new city to sitting idly in a train station when there is nowhere else to go, breaking out of the bubble suddenly changes the interactions likely to occur under 'normal' circumstances. I like to think of travelling as weathering (oh dear ...) - a pebble suddenly exposed to the elements of rain, wind, waves, etc. changes, often drammatically. So maybe this analogy breaks down a bit when we think about what happens when the pebble is put back into the sheltered environment from whence it came; for many of us it is easy to fall back into an old routine and forget that we ever even left. 

If anything has come from this post, it is that you now have been subjected to a stream-of-consciousness post rather than my usual better organized and researched entries. The result of late-hour, cold train station circumstances. Hopefully, I have not been a frightful bore and instead given you something to mull over. One month until Live Below the Line!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Embracing Optimism on Women's Day

It's a slightly bizarre concept - an International Women's Day - when one considers that women make up essential half of global population (49.6% according to the World Bank). Despite near parity of population, it is pretty well-established that women in many places are marginalized, and afforded little or no decision-making power or voice in society. Even in the 'Western World', we still struggle for comparable salaries and employment status, and other less tangible social inequities. However, it is also rather amazing how much the discussion of gender issues has evolved, particularly within the international development sphere, since I started cluing in about five years ago. This year that 'Day' carries a bit more weight for me, as I grapple with writing a master's thesis focused on female farmers and climate change. It also means that more people have sent me interesting tidbits (especially within the agricultural realm) related to the theme of the day - 'Make it Happen' - around achievements toward greater equality.

In regions where a globally-traded commodity crop like cocoa is the main source of income, serious power dynamics can manifest. Perhaps it is in part a product of long practiced gender-based divisions of labour, and an undervaluing of those tasks traditionally allocated to women. Yet the transition to growing a money-maker like cocoa puts more at stake and can exacerbate an already unequal distribution of income and control. With consumers placing more responsibility on the metaphorical shoulders of corporates, greater expectation of efforts to improve working conditions, wages, and yes, women's equality. An Oxfam blog post provided some initial insight into what major industry players are achieving on this front, and the nacent 'commitments' by companies for a more sustainable future. More than anything, it's a reminder of how recently these concerns around gender have entered mainstream consciousness.

As you might have gleaned by this point, I spent the summer in a region of Ghana where cocoa dominates, chatting up farmers on a daily basis. It is currently uncommon, however rapidly changing, for a woman to control a substantial farm, and even moreso a cocoa farm. While I did meet women who felt powerless or underappreciated due their lower prestige lot, there were also seriously strong women who ran their own farms, found creative ways to provide for their families, and embodied a much more optimistic outlook on life. What empowers these women, and makes them different from others, is a topic of a future blog post (and to some extent, an academic thesis?), but it's important to note that hard work and strong drive play as much of, if not greater, a role as the accessibility of resources and inheritance of land. Instead of focusing primarily on the 'victims' (which is still important!), it is encouraging that the theme this year has narrowed in on the positive steps women have made. Perhaps this is the optimist in me, but success stories can go a long way to motivating additional strides.

On that note, I will also just add that from now until May, I will continue reminding you about the Live Below the Line Challenge. So, make sure to take a look at my page and the charity for which I'm fundraising (checking the gender, food security, and sustainability boxes)!

Read all International Women's Day posts*:
2012 - Women in Ag

* I never noticed before how uninspired these titles are!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Valuation for Poverty Alleviation?

Just as a mark of how quickly time seems to pass, I was about to begin this blog post in the same way as last year’s Live Below the Line intro. Oh, wait, I just have. Whether time appears to fly or not, it is perhaps humbling (or even disturbing) to note that the challenge remains the same. While the Live Below the Line challenge is in its fifth year of building awareness and empathy around some of the Millennium Goals set a decade and a half ago, those very same goals of halving hunger and reaching gender equality remain, for the most part, unmet. While the UN itself would argue we’ve made great progress, others argue we have fallen far short of making the changes that are actually needed. The extreme is Sub-Saharan Africa, trailing in each of the 8 goals and 21 indicators.  

However, my intention of this post is not to debate the merit or success of Millennium Development Goals in making the world a more equitable, healthier, happier place in which to live. Instead, I wanted to recall My Munchable’s original premise of drawing human-environment connections, and note how those goals of poverty and hunger alleviation and environmental preservation are in fact very much intertwined. The past week has proved particularly lively in discussions on ecosystem services - simply put, the benefits nature provides to humans - so I thought it might be an appropriate time to broach the topic here.

In fact, there has been quite a bit of thought on how nature and the environment - and services like clear water, soil health, pollination - contribute to things like reducing poverty and hunger. From the most basic application, where nearly half of global population is rural (47%, and let’s assume involved in agriculture) and 70% for the world’s poorest, ecological health underpins our ability to produce food. You can take it a step further back along the chain of cause-and-effect, to how pollution might lead to undermining human health or how insufficient access to ‘sustainable’ energy can spur on degradation of ecosystems. It’s essentially a cost-benefit balance sheet.

So when I said that ‘ecosystem services’ has been on my radar for the past week, what I really meant is the challenge of placing value on the services that, in our capitalist economies and global marketplace, nature seemingly provides for free. This is an important aspect in contemplating the poor and most vulnerable in the lead-up to living below the line. Why? Well, for one the beneficiary of exploiting the environment is likely not the same as the one bearing the cost, not realized in monetary terms. A mining company may benefit from disrupting an ecosystem and extracting resources, but a downstream community might ultimately bear the cost to health and livelihoods from mine tailings polluting water and fields. On the balance sheet, a company sees minimal costs because not all are priced in terms of dollars and cents. As a dispersed group of affected individuals (and a voiceless Mother Earth), it is next to impossible to bring these non-monetized costs to bear.

I want to make it clear that this is not an argument for attaching a monetary value to everything under the sun. That’s just working within our current system, and not thinking of creative ways to modify the system to be more just. There are many endangered ecosystem services that affect the lives of the poor (due to their greater reliance directly on natural resources for income) for which pricing might be feasible or the regulatory framework restructured in a way to change the incentive to exploit nature. The talk yesterday by a visiting researcher argued for a different mechanism to capture the less tangible values, the socially and culturally embedded ones in particular, which affect quality of life. These still elude me, but perhaps it’s a new direction of thought we should take.  
Moving back to Live Below the Line. This will be the fourth year in which I participate, once again living on £1.00 per day (almost equivalent now to the $1.50 in US) for a week at the end of April. Alas, my charity of choice for the past three years is no longer an option. So this year I am supporting The Hunger Project, an NGO using community partnerships to address poverty and hunger. Environmental integrity and gender equality are integral components to their approach, drawing together these two streams of ecosystem services and environmental justice. Help me contribute to furthering the effort. And of course, stay tuned to the blog over the next couple of month (or longer…)!!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What is Natural?
Lush, verdant forests. Majestic and imposing snow-capped mountains. Those valleys and creekbeds that seem as though they are worlds away from human civilization. These are the images that usually come to mind when I think of nature. But the funny thing is that few places (if any) on Earth have escaped direct human influence (and not one is safe from anthropogenic climate change). And yet we try to preserve the things that evoke these images of untouched wilderness. A few days ago, I sat in on a presentation (followed by a quite stimulating discussion) on cultural landscapes and the practice of nature conservation in the United Kingdom. The conservation paradigm here contrasts drastically with that of the US, where small scattered reserves amongst towns and farms are the default in the former, and large swaths of seemingly untouched terrain dominate the latter.
Protected areas (Tier 1 = highest protection) in England.
Before we go any further down this road, however, I did not set out to write a blog post comparing the UK and US national park system. Rather, I wanted to mull over the significance of our conceptions of nature on our cultivated landscapes. Close to the entirety of Great Britain was in fact cleared of forests during Roman occupation around 3,000 years ago. Crop cultivation and livestock grazing has dominated the island's landscape ever since. Despite the increase in forest cover in the past century, the UK holds the office of second least forested country in the European Union. According to a report on the UK, 70% of land is used for agricultural purposes (including farm woodland). Furthermore, while nearly 30% of the terrestrial land surface is now protected in some way, many of these are small and dispersed throughout the countryside to include towns and villages. If you look at the EU generally (though, the UK is quite distinct...), the majority of protected areas are under 100 hectares in size.
Protected areas in the contiguous US
Now take the United States, with its vast swaths of untapped potential out west at the dawn of the 19th century. Some protected areas (at 27% of the terrestrial surface), particularly the ones in the Northeast, resemble those in the UK, but many are comprised of large tracts of connected land. The really big ones are out West, stemming from a frontier mentality, reminiscent of the sense of adventure and wanderlust stirred by such stories as the Lewis and Clark expedition. From my perspective (and I don't profess to be an expert, mind you), one of the biggest differences between the approaches to protected areas and national parks in the two countries, is their degrees of 'otherness'. Sure, it's going to be quite a haul to get out to Lake District National Park in NW UK, but it's accessible by train and there are plenty of towns skirting the area. Did I mention that there are ponies in a national park in the southwest of England? Going to a National Park in the US often requires moving one's self from habitation and civilization to something out there, apart from people, an escape.

Getting a wee bit too philosophical? The inhabitants of the British Isles have had millenia of interaction with their environment, to modify it, to cultivate it, to recultivate it, to 'tame' and then mimic what was considered nature. Naturalists abound here - birdwatchers control the small reserves and woodlands that pepper the countryside. Pastoral characteristics of the countryside are accepted as natural, as being part of a common resource to ramble. It seems to me that the definitions of nature and agriculture have gotten intertwined, not from either a more enlightened or perverse perspective of natural, but rather out of necessity due to land scarcity and a long history of land cultivation and pasture.* Despite knowing that North American human habitation dates back at least 14,000 years, large animal extinctions were attributed primarily to humans at that time, and considerable associated landscape change has occurred, we still hold this conception of nature as distant and separate from us.

So getting back to my initial interest in this topic, I wonder how the relative proximities to what is considered nature influences our relationship to what the land produces. Though the proportion of large farm holdings is pretty comparable (around 20% of farms are over 250 acres/100hectares) in both the US and UK, size may not always be the best indicator of character, nor of how people connect their food to the environment. In the US, are we doing ourselves any favours by sequestering so-called nature in large reserves, removing people from a daily (or at least somewhat more frequent) interaction with a non-concrete environment? But in the UK, is there a misconstrual of the concept of 'nature', a conflation of a heavily managed pastoral landscape (which produces our food and other services) with something 'natural'? It's a hard nut to crack - determining where the manmade ends and the nature begins. But even more difficult is deciding if it even matters.

Decidedly more muddled than when I began, I humbly welcome any comments, thoughts, and ideas.

* Since my UK wanderings are still limited, I should note that I don't know the extent of ruralness in the country. However, considering I do live within an hour of London, and it is only a hop, skip, and a jump (or a ten minute run) to "countryside", the lines seem pretty blurred between nature and human inhabited landscapes.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Classist DIY

How is Chocolate made?Now this post is not meant to be critical or accusatory, simply observations and cogitation about their significance and implications. But have you ever notice the metaphorical chasm between categories of Do-It-Yourself projects? On the one hand, you have this ethos of self-sufficiency, of thrift. On the other, homemade has recently come into vogue, it has expanded its 'hippy' originas, become posh, trendy.

In the former circumstance is a time-worn tale. Take my housemate who mixed together a simple concoction of coconut oil and castille soap rather than fork over a heftier sum for 'natural' shampoo. Things like having a garden (DIY ingredients), canning surplus tomatoes (DIY Bertolli), and cooking dinner at home 'from scratch' (DIY restaurant), most of the times cut costs and are healthfully enjoyable. Plus, who hasn't learned some basic plumbing and carpentry to cut costs? (Ok, I haven't but that's not the point).

But Do-it-Yourself has also reached new heights. I write this after reading a New York Times article on making your own chocolate. Because of the involved process from bean to bar, making your own is not only more time-consuming than popping by a chocolatier (or supermarket), but also more expensive and potentially not as tasty. Even the subject of the article notes, "There is no rational reason for doing this”! Counter to the very practical roots of DIY, this is a seemingly superfluous activity.

Yet, we also should look beyond the purely utilitarian and economic arguments for and against certain "classes" of DIY projects. For one, the act itself of engaging in craft and hands-on past-times is enjoyable and rewarding. Sure, my mother spends much more on the yarn necessary to knit a sweater than she would a completed clothing item. However, there is something about the click of needles, the thought and artistry, and the pride at a finished product. Moreover, carrying out a process from start to finish is one way of better appreciating what is so often taken for granted. So no judgement, no normative proclamations about the merits of different types of doing-it-yourself. Regardless of motivation, it's good to see people in how and with what things are made. I still don't think making my own chocolate is in the future, though.

To avoid appearing to curmudgeonly in the wake of Valentine's Day, I thought you might want a DIY brownie cake to lighten things up...

1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1/2 cup natural peanut butter
1/4 cup oil or melted coconut oil
1/2-1/3 cup almond or other non-dairy milk
1/2 cup unrefined sugar
1/4 cup sugar or 15 drops liquid stevia 
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup flour (can use gluten-free or wholewheat)
50g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts or hazelnuts (optional)

1. Food-process all ingredients except flour and chopped chocolate bar (and nuts, if including) until smooth.
2. Fold in flour and chocolate, adding the extra milk if need to keep a moderately thick batter.
3. Pour into a small, greased baking round or pyrex dish. 
4. Bake at 360F/180C for 30-45 minutes, until it is firm to press. A knife will come out sticky, so this test doesn't work. You can serve warm (with coconut ice cream...yum...), but it won't adhere together as nicely as when cooled.