October is Food Month

How we produce, consume and dispose of food is critical to creating a sustainable future for cities.

image courtesy of www.dur.ac.uk
image courtesy of http://www.dur.ac.uk

October is a hotbed of foody action for you to explore, with anything from organics, nutrition, carbon footprints and food security all getting an opportunity to promote their value. Jump on-line to explore in more detail:

Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?

My Mum passed on a book she thought I’d be interested in the last time we caught up, which is a pretty simple act in the context of a modern and technologically sophisticated world, but remains a powerful method for sharing ideas and challenging the status quo.

Image courtesy of Penguin Australia
Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

In this case the book was an essay by Luke Slattery – ‘Reclaiming Epicurus: Could an ancient philosophy of happiness save the world?’, published by Penguin Specials in 2012. To place him historically, Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who predated Christ by three centuries, and it was fascinating to read that centuries later the movement remained robust, active and relevant. So much so that it was in direct competition with the evolving Christian religion for the spiritual hearts and minds of the local populace, perhaps even had the better of, before it was overtaken and largely forgotten. One of those sliding door moments that could, perhaps, have led to a radically different world to the one we inhabit today.

The essence of Slattery’s writing is that Epicurus’ teachings suggested happiness can only be achieved through a simplification of our lives, to want less, to need less, to find joy and fulfilment through friendship, simple pleasures and living in the present. He also, radically, rejected the Gods, the concept of fate or an after life, extolling to his followers the capacity they had for personal agency within their own lives and communities, and that nothing mattered but the here and now – no paradise came after.

Slattery takes these ideas and transposes them onto the biggest challenge we face today, unsustainable development. Relentless, exponentially increasing consumption is at the heart of our global economic system, constant growth as a necessary force for attaining prosperity, for social justice and equity. The question is, can we decouple human development, fulfilment and happiness from this desire for more stuff? Because if we can’t, our future appears to be very bleak, both for the civilisation we have created and our species as a whole.

What fascinates me about this book is the timeless quality of human frailty. Almost 2,500 years ago the people of ancient Greece were worried about the impact on our wellbeing of a propensity for greed, of striving for power, of desire for wealth and material goods. These concerns are not unique to our time, to our own manifestation of neoliberalism, consumerism, globalisation, industrialisation and free markets. We aren’t special in that regard, as Epicurus’ concern is both deeply spiritual and enduring – how do we achieve human happiness? What is unique about our modern world is that greed and desire on a global industrial scale has the capacity to significantly alter or destroy the eco-system services we rely upon to supply our life giving needs – air, food and water.

The key question for me is how do we create the required transformation of our socio-economic system? How do we shift billions of people away from a life based upon material aspirations? My sense is that this is not about a search for answers. Epicurus, amongst other philosophical traditions, has provided a sound basis for living our lives sustainably. Similarly, climate change as an issue could be largely resolved with the technology and knowledge we already have available, it is only the political will that is fundamentally lacking. We have to want to change, we have to be motivated to change, we have to be given a positive vision of what change will mean and look like. Perhaps most of all, we need to know that we are not on this journey alone, that we are part of a broad community movement. I’m not a practitioner of any organised religion, but I recognise the urgent need to emotionally engage and unite society with the biggest challenge it has ever faced, and the potential of religion to teach us how to bring people together for a common moral/ethical cause. It’s a funky collaboration, science and religion, but if the process isn’t collaborative and inclusive what chance do we stand?

Walking to School Month

I don’t read my local newspaper with too many expectations. Stories seem to sit on the extreme ends of a spectrum – either outrage and indignation (think local government planning decisions) or sugary sweet (remarkable escape and return of family pet from tree/stormwater drain/garbage truck). There must be a tried and tested formula because its been done this way for as long as I can recall, across the numerous suburbs I’ve called home. But they do come into their own sharing community information that isn’t going to make the headlines anywhere else. Case in point, I was flipping through the pages of a recent edition and came across a story from our local Council promoting an event I’d never heard of, Walk to School Month. As a parent of a Grade 2 and soon to be Prep, I thought I had my finger on the pulse regard the complete range of available events and activities for children, assisting me in either avoiding them at all costs or to donate my own children for experimentation.

Its a straight forward program, VicHealth encourages students to walk, scoot or ride to school throughout October to help them achieve their 60 minutes of physical exercise per day. As its 2015 there’s a website and an app, and competitions and prizes to engage and motivate the participation of the kids and parents, which say’s something fairly significant about our current relationship with the original method of human transportation. More interesting to me are the benefits associated with participation. Improved health outcomes are obvious, and with rising levels of obesity in the developed world, as opposed to the malnutrition prevalent in many developing countries, its a community and social issue we need to be right on top of. From a sustainability standpoint I was immediately hooked by the opportunity to take cars off the streets, the reduced congestion leading to easier and safer access to the school, and the associated reduction in air and noise pollution. Lastly, the potential to improve parent/child relationships is also promoted, a very different and unique dynamic being in play when you walk or ride alongside each other as opposed to the inherent distractions of driving.

At this point I should put up my hand and declare that we are serial walkers/riders to school. As a one-car-family it is partly born of necessity, but more influential is my own experience as a student. Going to school on the Northern Beaches of Sydney in the 1970’s and 80’s meant a return walk of 5km’s on my little legs with Mum, and when there was enough money and I was deemed responsible enough, I got a bike and was on my own. Eventually a bus option became available, but we were feral and frequently in trouble, and being driven to school was a rare and exotic treat. So riding (or walking when the bike was either intermittently broken, missing or stolen) was always the best option. It meant being responsible enough to be on your own and the personal freedom that entails, it meant meandering conversations with my group of friends as we collected each other along the way, it meant uncountable bike races, bike crashes, and the freewheeling glide down the hill from my house, before the long climb back up in the afternoon.

Its sounds idyllic but lets face it, life was different. There was more time, more space, less material things, less organised activities and lessons to improve and advance your children. I wanted my boys to experience a little bit of my own childhood, perhaps in meek response to them growing up as Victorians and AFL obsessives. We’re certainly not the only family that walks or rides to school, there are a number of die-hards who we regularly meet or pass on the way regardless of the weather or season, but the traffic congestion on the streets surrounding our school at drop off and pickup times is increasingly intense, a battlefield to find a parking spot while passing traffic builds up and makes increasingly hazardous attempts to squeeze past.

I might be lucky but my eldest son loves to ride his bike, picture Elliot in E.T., without E.T. in a basket on the handle bars.

Image courtesy of Sean Powell
Image courtesy of Sean Powell

It’s an extension of his body and his personality – always smiling, always contemplative, always finding a way to beat Dad at something. We take our time to and from school, we feel the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain, and make appropriate complaints and recriminations to the weather gods. We stop and temporarily supervise road works and trench digging, memorise the make of vehicles by their badges, check out for sale signs on houses and fight over who’d get the biggest bedroom, pick up sticks and run them along fences, or pinch flowers overhanging footpaths and growing on nature strips to bring home to Mum. Nothing very deep or consequential, just hanging out and watching the world go by together.

If anything is going to successfully motivate necessary change in the 21st century its going to be the inherent joy and happiness felt through experiences and activities like this. As a motivator for walking or riding to school, its good to know that its helping to keep us healthy, and my personal sense of superiority is enhanced by the environmental do-gooding but none of these are in themselves motivating enough to make it part of our every day lives. We’re too short sighted, too busy, too lazy, too easily distracted or led astray. We do it because it makes us happy, because it clears the head after a day of toil and gives some precious personal time with my children whilst they’re still young enough to think thats a good thing. We do it because in combination, factors like this make it the best option. Instilling the necessary attitudes and habits to ensure that many of todays challenges are stabilised, reduced and even eliminated in the future is best done at an early age. It worked for me.

People’s Climate March November 27-29 2015

Coming up in November is the world wide ‘Peoples Climate March’ event. With momentum building towards the Paris Climate Conference, what better way to get involved in your nearest city (and way cheaper than a ticket to Paris). From what I can ascertain on the web and the airwaves, every group you can imagine engaged with the environment or issues of social justice and equality is facilitating participation at the event.

Image courtesy of www.climateactionmorland.org
Image courtesy of http://www.climateactionmorland.org

Check for your local arrangements, put the date in your calendar, and if you’re in Melbourne (November 27th, 5.30pm) I hope we’ll be standing shoulder to shoulder.

World Cities Day October 31st 2015

Is it coincidence that the UN’s World Cities Day falls on the same day as Halloween? I’m imagining a zombie apocalypse tearing through the streets of New York as a fantastic awareness raiser.

Image courtesy of www.bloombergview.com
Image courtesy of http://www.bloombergview.com

This years theme is based on promoting togetherness and harmony, making our cities and neighbourhoods inclusive and liveable (definitely not Zombies then).

FareShare Kitchen Garden

“Urban agriculture is about food reliance: it involves creating work and is a reaction to food insecurity, particularly for the poor… Many who move to urban areas do not find the jobs and opportunities they seek. Therefore, adopting UA is a common survival strategy used by the poor not only to deal with food security and poverty, but also to organise with fellow citizens and improve the quality of life of their communities.” Mark Redwood

I had the good fortune to intern with FareShare in late 2014 and saw first hand the amazing work they do to rescue food that would otherwise end up in landfill, and cook 1 million+ meals to feed those in need in and around Melbourne.

If that wasn’t challenging enough, FareShare has recently announced a new project, to grow its own significant quantities of fresh vegetables and produce on vacant land found within the city boundaries.

Image courtesy of www.fareshare.net.au
Image courtesy of http://www.fareshare.net.au

This need exists because urban expansion and the evolution of globalised, industrial-scale agriculture and food supply chains have led to the virtual disappearance of agriculture from many cities. Consequently, many cities face huge logistical challenges in importing food from distant locations and are left vulnerable to changes in food production in these locations, to rises in food transport costs or disruptions to the supply chain. The resulting reliance on imported food has a large social cost, as poor urban residents are the most vulnerable and have the greatest difficulty in accessing affordable food, along with significant environmental impacts.

The potential benefits of supporting urban agriculture are huge:

  • Creation of greater food security, and employment, especially for the poor
  • Saving of transportation and infrastructure costs
  • Mental health and wellbeing
  • Social capital and community pride

Worldwide examples of urban agriculture include:

The urban environment doesn’t need to be a barren, soulless place. Far from it, as cities become increasingly more dense and complex, food as a force for restoration, nourishment and replenishment will only become more important to the people and communities that inhabit our cities. When combined with other key elements such as nature and water, we can create a holistic and synergistic approach promoting health and wellbeing, vibrancy, biodiversity, and an urban metabolism that mimics nature.

Newsflash: If this wasn’t enough, FareShare have announced a new initiative, ‘The Garden Collective’, with three pilot schools (Fitzroy High, Northcote High and Glenroy Neighbourhood Learning Centre) all contributing food from their harvests to the FareShare kitchen. Another great example of combining community resources to achieve a more sustainable city.

Brompton Urban Challenge

I’m a massive bike fan. For ease of use and positive engagement with the environment around you there is no better transport option (other than walking possibly, but lets save that argument for another day). If you are in the market for an inspiring piece of writing on the power of the bicycle as an instrument of experiential understanding, even enlightenment within cities, you can go no further than Kasey Klimes.

Image courtesy of www.brompton.com
Image courtesy of http://www.brompton.com

And thats what I love about the Brompton Challenge, it combines a machine that is the perfect bicycle for the city¹ with an event that helps us to experience and understand our city with a deeper level of intimacy.

If you’re looking for a little adventure this coming weekend (Saturday 10th October) in Melbourne, you would be hard pressed to find better.