In the last week, I’ve been exposed to some inspiring projects that offer real possibilities for slow but meaningful change to our world.
The Amah Mutsun, a tribe of Native Americans recognized by California though not by the federal government, have started a land trust even though they do not, as a tribe, own any land. Their purpose is to bring back the Native Californian land management practices that kept this area fertile and healthy for many centuries before European conquest.
To that end, they are working with state and federal parks, and with some farmers who have similar goals, to restore native plants and to use the old methods – including fire – to keep the forests and grasslands healthy. They are also seeking ways to obtain land that can be held in trust on which they can do similar work.
According to their traditions, Creator charged them with the duty of caring for the Earth, and they are working to carry out that duty, using a combination of modern land trust systems and ancient practices.
I find it particularly inspiring that a group of people would reclaim their path by restoring the damage done by others to their ancestral land. But not only are they revitalizing their own culture with this project, they are making possible the kind of wild preserves that Edward O. Wilson argues for in his latest book, Half-Earth.
Wilson says we need to make sure at least half the Earth is in a wild state to offset the damage we are facing with climate change. Given that we still don’t have a grasp on all the species on the planet, much less on which ones are absolutely vital, we need to preserve as much of the natural landscape as possible to ensure that necessary interactions continue to happen.
In Northern California, the removal of high level predators, such as wolves and the California Grizzly, meant that elk and other herbivores overgrazed, which in turn caused an imbalance in plant life, dangerous fires, and the like. Likewise, a reduction in beavers affected wetlands management. It appears that conscious humans, working in concert with the other species in an area, can keep things in healthy balance.
Urban Tilth is an agricultural project, not a land management one, but it offers something very similar. It takes unused, or underused, land in the city of Richmond, California, and involves local residents in farming it.
Not only are they doing urban gardens and garden projects for schools – and even putting salad bars in school cafeterias – but they are working with scientists to figure out how to rebuild the soil in their area. It’s part working with people, part producing healthy food, and part restoring the Earth.
The core of Urban Tilth is African American. Like the Amah Mutsun, they are working to solve problems that were not of their making. And like the Amah Mutsun, they have a vision that is larger than simple needs.
Slow Money, a nationwide network of local organizations, is bringing entrepreneurs and investors together to help fund similar sorts of projects. The Amah Mutsun Land Trust and Urban Tilth are nonprofits, which seek donations, but there are other programs that hope to make enough profit to pay back investors with a small return, including such things as organic farms and restaurants that incorporate sustainability into their business.
There are many things like this happening worldwide. They are small, and it takes awhile for them to achieve any results, but they are the kind of thing we need to develop a world that not only survives the disasters of climate change – not to mention the destruction of many years of what Naomi Klein and others call the extractive economy – but allows the positive ways humans have evolved over the millennia to continue to develop.
We need millions of projects like this. Doing them on a local scale is good, so long as the local groups are talking to each other worldwide and learning from each other’s mistakes. Big is not better, but communication is vital: otherwise, everyone reinvents the wheel. It’s a wonderful invention, the wheel, but we need to move on beyond it.
Not all these projects need to be about environmental sustainability, of course. Book View Café is a good example of new ways of publishing – we’ve brought the producer co-op into a new line of work. The sponsorship program at Borderlands Books in San Francisco shows another way of keeping a bookstore in business by recognizing that its value to the community goes way beyond selling books.
All these things are good and all offer the kind of change that will lead us to a better society, the kind of slow change that can erode the non-sustainable, inhumane ways of the world. As one who went into co-op development as a result of being part of efforts against the Vietnam War, I believe strongly in this kind of change. I am currently working on stories set in a world in which this kind of work brings the Earth and humankind a positive future despite our current struggles.
But as I look around at all the systems and money in place that make it excruciatingly difficult to take even baby steps to fix the excesses that led to climate change (and massive inequality among the humans on the planet), I begin to wonder: Do we have enough time to do this the slow way, the right way?
On the other hand, I’m not convinced any other way will work.