America has never felt more divided. But in the midst of all the acrimony comes one of the most promising movements in our country's history. People of all races, faiths, and political persuasions are coming together to restore America's natural wealth: its ability to produce healthy foods.
In Food from the Radical Center, Gary Nabhan tells the stories of diverse communities who are getting their hands dirty and bringing back North America's unique fare: bison, sturgeon, camas lilies, ancient grains, turkeys, and more. These efforts have united people from the left and right, rural and urban, faith-based and science-based, in game-changing collaborations. Their successes are extraordinary by any measure, whether economic, ecological, or social. In fact, the restoration of land and rare species has provided—dollar for dollar—one of the best returns on investment of any conservation initiative.
As a leading thinker and seasoned practitioner in biocultural conservation, Nabhan offers a truly unique perspective on the movement. He draws on fifty years of work with community-based projects around the nation, from the desert Southwest to the low country of the Southeast. Yet Nabhan's most enduring legacy may be his message of hope: a vision of a new environmentalism that is just and inclusive, allowing former adversaries to commune over delicious foods.
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A Land Divided
Have you ever felt so rooted in a place that it was hard to remember where it began and your own body — or consciousness — ended? It is that feeling of oneness, of psychic safety, that pervades you when you feel in sync with your home, your landscape. Some of my Mexican American friends use the word querencia for such a feeling: that their deep affection and longing for the place where they grew up and the people who have nurtured it have come into some perfect alignment.
This is the feeling that this book hopes to instill: that by restoring the land and the connections with others in our community, we ourselves will feel healed and invigorated to do more tangible work on behalf of the many other lives around us.
It is also what my teacher, the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, calls our "earth house hold" in his classic book by the same name. Sister Sharon Zayac, director of the Benincasa ecology and spirituality center in Springfield, Illinois, reminds us of the roots of that term: "Eco comes from the Greek word oikos, which means 'household.' It means 'home.' And home refers to the entire house — the whole planet Earth. Ecology means understanding all the relationships that make up the household. And humans are not the only denizens of the house ... Economy refers to managing the household, a task at which, it is safe to say, we are miserably failing."
For a few moments, let us remind ourselves just why we are failing. To a large extent, it is because of the unbridled divisiveness we are experiencing in North America today compared to even a quarter century ago. And when I refer to "North America," I imagine our continent not as some homogeneous landscape seamlessly stretching "from sea to shining sea" but as a diverse patchwork of peoples of many colors living in wet and dry, steep and flat landscapes reaching from the Arctic Circle down to the Tropic of Cancer ... or even farther south, to where Mesoamerica fully takes hold.
Yes, we've always had cultural differences, and those differences inevitably lead to social and political countercurrents as well as periodic conflicts. But that fact does not mean that we are fated to live on a battleground where stalemates keep our best intentions from being realized.
Today, you don't have to look very far for evidence that more and more Americans are "bowling alone," isolated from even their closest neighbors. Many of us now live in a bubble of sameness (surrounded by many other bubbles!) made possible by the silo-like nature of social media, cable television, ethnic enclaves, religious sects, and ideological cells.
Of particular concern to me is the palpable anger on either side of what James Gimpel has called "a gaping canyon-sized urban- rural chasm." This urban/rural divide has reshaped both state and national elections into "us vs. them" battles to determine who controls access to natural resources and social services.
For years, Daily Yonder founder Bill Bishop has warned about the clustering of like-minded citizens in ideologically isolated rural and urban areas. And now Bishop's prophetic warnings are being discussed, if not heeded, by many who formerly hid within their bubbles.
Why now? Well, it seems that the integrity of America is today so frayed that its citizens are afraid that it may fall into tatters. We have become the "house divided" that Abraham Lincoln warned us about, if our sharply divisive elections are any indicator.
In the national elections of 1976, only a quarter of US counties declared landslide victories for one party or the other, with the winners outdistancing their rivals by 20 percent or more of the vote. In the 2016 national elections, 80 percent of the counties in the US had landslide victories. In most of those counties, one dominant political party ran a full slate of like-minded souls, and they won every seat up for grabs.
You know how it goes: A Democrat might win most of the large, urban counties in the US but few of the 2,920 rural counties. If a Republican can win 2,500 of those smaller counties, he or she can dominate the electoral vote.
And if we know anything at all, it is that those different cohorts of voters looked through very different lenses at legislative actions like the Endangered Species Act, the Paris Climate Accord, offshore oil drilling, the Sage-Grouse Recovery Plan, the designation of national monuments, and the release of genetically engineered organisms.
One might justifiably argue that the two cohorts are not actually looking at the same thing at all.
Beneath headlines announcing the political victories of 2016 lay a disturbing subtext: the country's voters were split nearly fifty-fifty, with each party moving toward more extreme positions that were deeply distasteful to the other.
As Bill Bishop has concluded, "We have a geographically- fractured nation ... We do seem to be splitting into two Americas where people can't comprehend the politics of the other side."
Of course, rural versus urban is not the only division plaguing our country. You yourself may be most concerned about one or more of America's other deep divides:
the worsening relationship between African Americans and the "white" communities that often surround them;
the fear of Native Americans that multinational mining companies and gas pipelines are running roughshod over their sovereign lands and sacred waters;
the growing share of Hispanics who say that opportunities for La Raza are far more limited today than at any point in the new millennium;
the unprecedented level of fear among Canadian and Mexican citizens as well as refugees from the Middle East and Africa about how the US policies will affect them;
the increasing rates of hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals; and
the growing sense among blue-collar workers, elderly people, and college-age youth of being left behind economically as America's white-collar "one percent" gets tax cuts and bonuses.
By these and so many other indicators, Americans appear to be at war with one another rather than at work with one another. This trend has dire consequences for the health of both our communities and our landscapes.
More and more, the jefes and henchmen of gated communities, political lobbying groups, exclusive resorts, holier- than-thou churches and temples, wonky think tanks, and universities of privilege are not attempting to quell this unrest. Instead, they are feeding into and breeding deeper distrust of their neighbors. Our neighbors.
And that, my friends, brings us back to the profound shifts in American views of environmentalism that occurred in the wink of an eye after the first Earth Day in 1970.
As noted in Jedidiah Purdy's recent environmental retrospective, After Nature, 1970 was the year in US history when environmental issues had the very best chance of becoming the common ground on which all citizens gathered: "The new idea of ecology also promised a unifying challenge for a divided time. In his 1970 State of the Union address, President Nixon argued that environmental responsibility could unite Americans who were than split sharply over race and war. Picking up the cue, Time described the environmental crisis as an attractive 'problem which American skills ... might actually solve, unlike the immensely more elusive problems of racial prejudice or the war in Viet Nam.'"
I experienced this hope personally when, while still a teenager, I served as a rather sleepy and disheveled Earth Day intern at the national headquarters in 1970. The summer following the first Earth Day event, I also worked as an unpaid environmental journalist and cartoonist for the nonprofit that was then known as Environmental Action.
Environmental Action was spearheaded by a young activist named Denis Hayes, whose charisma and visionary work has now enriched discussions in our society for four decades. Drawing on a motley crew of just a dozen of us in a small office on DuPont Circle, Denis set an inclusive tone and built a dynamic infrastructure for the first Earth Day.
This unprecedented planetary event magnanimously engaged more than twenty million Americans in celebrations, teach-ins, and sit-ins during April 1970. It became the largest environmental education event honoring mother earth in the history of humankind up until that time.
As a cub reporter for Environmental Action, I covered everything from the lead poisoning of children in Rust Belt factory towns to pesticide effects on birds and bees in midwestern farmlands. At that time, I sincerely believed that issues of environmental health would unite Americans, transcending lines of race and class. We would be galvanized by our desire to see both the government and industry get on with doing "the right thing."
Now, I personally wasn't exactly sure what that right thing would be. Nevertheless, I was assured by the more seasoned activists I worked for that grassroots political action on behalf of the environment and its many peoples could change America's moral trajectory.
Many of the staffers who mentored me were veterans of the civil rights summer in Selma and organizers of antiwar rallies held in Washington and across the nation. They believed that we, whether we lived in cities or rural towns, could come together to create healthier food and water, healthier families and communities, and healthier habitats for fish and wildlife. We seemed poised to make the environmental agenda a "shared space" in which people of all walks of life could participate.
Now fast-track ahead to nearly fifty years after that first Earth Day. To my surprise and remorse, between 1991 and 2016, Gallup Polls have tracked a 38 percent increase in the number of Americans who proudly (or cynically) proclaimed that they were not environmentalists.
As late as 1991, 37 percent of adult Americans surveyed claimed they were strong environmentalists, while another 41 percent conceded that the environmental label somewhat fit them.
But a quarter century later, only 23 percent of adult Americans claimed they were strong environmentalists, and another 19 percent reluctantly owned up to affiliating with one kind of environmental group or another.
A significant portion of the American public seemed to sense that something was terribly awry in both the government's natural resource agencies and the environmental movement as a whole. Those with misgivings had increased from just 19 percent in 1991 to 57 percent in 2016.
Think about it: that is an extraordinary shift in values over just twenty-five years. Has any similar change in public perceptions ever occurred that quickly? That shift has probably occurred in fits and starts, but it seemed set in concrete as the Great Recession leveled our economy in 2008. That's when many lower- and middle-class Americans began to wonder whether environmental regulations came at the expense of jobs and their own economic well-being.
Let me mince no words: individuals of all classes and ethnicities have felt increasingly disempowered by the prevalence of top-down decision-making about lands, wildlife, and plants that they had known and loved.
In many cases, they have become disenfranchised from policy- making processes that ignore their local knowledge, dismiss their cultural or faith-based values, and disregard impacts on their livelihoods.
By 2010, we had hit an all-time low point in this country's mood. Just 46 percent of Americans felt that the government was doing enough to protect the environment in ways that actually benefitted them. To most, government agencies' manners of regulation no longer make any sense.
Whenever I have visited rural communities over the last decade, I have noticed signs, placards, and bumper stickers that express a feeling that residents have "lost out." In coffee shops and taverns, I have overheard seething frustration that environmental decision- making was increasingly being done by some confederation of self- appointed experts that hardly seemed to care whether their communities were engaged.
I could feel a perplexing disconnect between people's love for their home ground and their disillusionment at having no ability to shape what would happen to it.
That very disconnect prompted a number of students of environmental conflict resolution to look at whether top-down "expertocracies" were having any more success in protecting environments than grassroots efforts. When E. Franklin Dukes and his colleagues compiled their findings in a landmark book called Community-Based Collaboration, Dukes himself came to four somewhat startling conclusions:
Programs and plans that are imposed upon resource-based communities without authentic community participation in crafting those plans tend to fail miserably.
Programs and plans involving natural resources that fail to develop understanding and caring within affected human communities lend themselves to abuse.
Programs and plans involving natural resource protection that do not develop communal capacity to solve problems and resolve conflicts tend to fail.
Programs and plans involving natural resource protection that do not provide for ways of learning and adapting to change tend to fail.
And yet failure, despair, and a sense of being disenfranchised do not provide the entire picture. At the time I write this (in early 2018), Americans' level of concern about the environment and its relation to our food security are approaching an all-time high.
Despite all the dire trends the pollsters have laid out, most Americans still want to see conservation and restoration advance, but through a completely different paradigm, one rooted in true community engagement.
While many Americans express ever-deeper skepticism about the tactics of government regulators and environmental experts, they still seem to care deeply for "all of creation" and the richness of life on earth.
In 2017, 59 percent of Americans expressed alarm that the government was still not providing enough protection to threatened landscapes, plants, and animals in ways that they could sense where they lived and worked.
Didn't I hint a bit earlier that America might be suffering from some bipolar disorder?
To capsulize a complex story in very few words, America is not divided about whether the environment deserves restoration. They are not divided about whether our communities require social healing. What divides us is who gets to decide how this work is done, who does it, and how much it should cost. If we can come to terms with these questions, by means other than more regulation, all the more people will be fully onboard with conservation and restoration.
And that, methinks, is how community-based collaboration in biocultural restoration can bring people of diverse viewpoints together in a place we now call the radical center.
It is how we can bridge that (virtual) Grand Canyon–sized chasm in our society that some call the great divide.
It is where we can start healing the wounds in ourselves, in our communities, and in the land.
I am not alone in believing that this approach can move us in the right direction. I can hear it in the words of Melissa Nelson of the Cultural Conservancy in California; of Will Allen of Growing Power in Wisconsin; of Winona LaDuke of the Anishinaabeg on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota; of Miguel Santestevan at Sol Feliz Farm in New Mexico; of Peter Forbes, founding director of the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont; of Veronica Kyle of Faith in Place in Illinois; and of Courtney White, who founded the Quivira Coalition in New Mexico.
In a seminal essay called "The Promise of Community-Based Collaboration," E. Franklin Dukes seems to share in my optimism: "There is an absolute need for such work. If we are to have communities sustained ecologically, socially and economically, it is essential that a capacity for productive, collaborative, place-based decision processes be developed."
And so, in this humble little book, I will argue that one of the best ways to heal the divisions that have been plaguing us is for people to work hand in hand to heal the land. By doing so, we can reduce the depth of the divides in our communities, not just the gullies in our landscapes. And when we have done so, we can then celebrate our work around a shared table with the fruits of our labors.
But in order to accomplish such work wisely, we need to understand the importance of collaboration. Without it, we are left with the top-down approaches still used by some natural resources managers — approaches that leave communities feeling dispossessed and disempowered. Collaboration, as an alternative mode of action and decision-making, moves us away from the shout-downs that have given both monkeywrenching environmental activism and the Tea Party resistance to it their bad names.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Food from the Radical Center"
Copyright © 2018 Gary Paul Nabhan.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction: Conservation You Can Taste Chapter 1. A Land Divided Chapter 2. Farming in the Radical Center Chapter 3. Will Work for Dirt Chapter 4. Replenishing Water and Wealth Chapter 5. Bringing Back the Bison Chapter 6. Teach a Community to Fish Chapter 7. Plant Midwives Chapter 8. Strange Birds Flock Together Chapter 9. Herders of Many Cultures Chapter 10. Immigrant Grains Chapter 11. Urban Growers and Rare Fruit Chapter 12. Return of the Pollinators Chapter 13. You Can Go Home Again Appendix. The Conservation Couplets Literature Cited Index