A Lexicon of Sustainability
Half an Hour
This is a summary of a talk at the Hewlett Grantees' Meeting, San Francisco, March 25, 2015. Errors (and typos, etc) are my own.
Lexicon of Sustainability
Our food system is opaque. We asked people to develop a lexicon around food sources
We started with the word 'sustainability'. That is one of the most opaque words. I asked a native hunter - he said he watches what the animals eat; they always leave something behind. I asked a farmer; she said it was about survival. I asked Miguel, who started growing organic food because it was too expensive.
How to tell these stories? Photography is great, but it only captures one image at a time, one moment in time. I looked at a place where he grows fishg in boxes, the waste is used to grow tomatoes, and he also grows worms. How do you tell that story in one photo? You can't - I made a composite after taking thousands of photos.
What if I had him tell me what the word 'vermiculture' means? You can combine the words with the picture and tell a good story.
So we went around the United States and created a lexicon of sustainability. We created a book - the focus groups came back: "Nobody knows what 'lexicon' means."
The power of graphical ideas: thought bombs. Photo composites with words all over them. By making things graphical and textual at the same time you engage people's left brain and right brain at the same time. You create a deconstrucive nattarative. Thing Sherlock Holmes: "all the answers were in this room. We just had to piece them together in the proper order." From a passive learning experience to an active learning experience.
Knowing words - learning what they mean - can change the way entire industries work. A loaf of bread - a list of ingredients - most pof them did not exist 20 years ago. The Bible used to be written in Latin only - that is what an opaque religion looks like. But what if we published the book in the language that we speak?
Eg. rBST is the name of a growth hormone fed to cows. A farmer sold milk without rBST - he was sued by Monsanto (they eventually lost). Or consider - what is the "cage free egg"? What does it mean? I asked the producer what it means. Pasture raised. But nobody knows what that means.
What is the real cost of cheap food? People growing food according to values are competing against an industrial system that has externalized all its costs. The concept of 'true cost accounting' looks at hpw much something really costs. Consider a river - it provides free energy, and can be used to dispose of waste. We always pay when we get things cheap.
The best example when we look at food is the 'cow to pickup truck indes' - the value of a grass-fed cow compared to a truck. How can these compete against an indistrial system? Convincing people of the value of voting with their dollars. There's this idea of organics and eating locally.
There's a movement to have producers say whether food contains GMO organisms. It would force food producers to be transparent. It is opposed by Monsanto and others who benefit from an opaque system. GMOs aren't always bad - eg., a variant of papaya that was resistant to a disease, which was in danger of being wiped out in Hawaii. People talk about GMOs as privatizing seeds, etc - vbut that didn't happen here; he open-sourced the seeds.
Or another term - 'antibiotic free' - 80% of the antibiotics are fed to livestock, and they're not even sick, because they gain weight quickly. So there's going to be a movement to lable antibiotics in meat.
In fisheries, the term 'red snapper' doesn't mean you're getting red snapper. There's always the pressure to give you fish close enough to what you always get (so fish are predictable like tomatos). There's an initiative to tag a fish so you know where and how it was sourced.
The concept of 'identity preserved' gives us a sense of where the food that is grown goes - for example, wheat grown in California that is shipped to Italy to become pasta.
Before the second world war we spent 30 of our money on food. But after the war we applied economies of scale to everything. Everything was centralized. Everything was based simply on price. How do you reverse hat? It's a big challenge.
There's a town called Greensboro that died. They went and asked an old man what ahppened, he didn't know, but he said they they used to be able to get a pie of pie in a pie shop. They re-opened the pie shop, and the town began to grow again. You can't have commerce without food. Peopl are beginning to apply the principle of 'terroir' - the idea that everything has a place - to the food industry (in the shellfish inustry it's 'aguoir').
'Community Supported Agriculture' (CSA) - is where they get a box of food every week that is locally sourced. They are being more connected to their food, who grows it, where it's grown. Or a pie shop in San Francisco set up a CSAA for fish. This used to be commonplace. In Italy they knew to never buy fish on a Monday - wait until Tuesday when it's fresh. This is an example of people being connected to their food.
A regional food hub - people are rebuilding what was dismantled when the industrial food system came in. People in the community selling for many producers. Producers pooling transportation costs cooperatively.
There is the concept of a 'food desert' where there was no food in a 6-square mile range. I wenmt to a local supermarket - no food - just candy, chips, alcohol, etc. Consumers non't know they have other choices. There's a new 'corner store' movement - inserting places to buy local food in these corner stores.
It's a system that is made by people. The average age of a farmer is 57. People are scrambling to educate young farmers. The concept is 'green collar' - they give people land and training, for a period of time (then you have to find your own land). It's a 'farm incubator'.
And there's a 'kitchen incubator'. Setting up people with kitchens, business training, etc. - that's how you reinvent local food systems. Systems that are based on value.
So - what's the verdict? I'm not pessimistic when I see seed swaps. Upswaping, to convert lamnd to farmland. We took this to Mexico - in Mexico 'organic' didn't mean aanything. Every Mexican, though, knows the meaning of GMOs - because corn in their national food. We learned, we need to speak to people in their own language.
We do projects based on protability - PDFs you can distribute. We do puppet shows. We do food conferences. We help with street events. You can go to our website, you can download our resources. We have a website, launching next month, the 'lexicon of food'. All resources open sourced and free. Showing what people farms. Doing projects teaching people about aquaponics. We do 'market makeovers'. We have kids in Mexico making inages to explain their food system.
It's very powerful because it's made by people. It's people-sourced.
What will be your 'Road to Damascus' moment?
Q: what about school lunches?
A. people are confronting that problem. Politicians won't spend more money on school lunches until they see the value in it. Right now that's opaque.
Q. I don't know a lot about food, but what I do know about is beer. What I've seen taking over Virginia is craft breweries, where people grow their own hps, etc. Peo[ple are willing to pay $9-$9 per glass.
A. They say people always centralize industries but that's not true. Another example is the music industry.
Q. Often discussion of open educaation is overely cerebral. But food today is your #1 cool thing. You can convince poeple with photos with food, but in education it's harder.
A. Our projeect is not about food, it's about climate change. People don't identify with climate change. But you take all the ideas that contribute to climate change as clear as possible, so you can't mistake the message overall. The idea of the taxonomy is to pinpoint all the individual ideas of a thing and make them clear.
Q. We are using terms in education that people believe they already know and we are using them in different ways. How did you grab people and help explain the complexities.
A. First we make everything as conversational and without jargon as possible. And second, we say we are not out to make the definitivee lexicon of things. Wiords are shifting and changing. It's our biggest problem with Wikipedia - it doesn't have enough context to show all the contexts a term can be used in.
Q. termss - like taxonomy - can acquire baggage over the years. Eg. GMOs - we read all our foods are genetically modified over time. You see that in education all the time - all the different terms for 21st century skills.
A. We did a show; they kept asking for a list of all the images and we set them. It was only at the last minute we set up the GMO image of papayas. They said "what are you thinking?" There was a lot of opposition. All of these terms should elicit the fact that it's not a fixed idea, it's a dynamic idea.
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