Resilient communities with Jeremy O’Leary – the Technoccult Interview

Resilient communities with Jeremy O’Leary – the Technoccult Interview

April 1, 2010 8:35 pm 1 comment

Jeremy O'Leary

(Photo by Audrey Eschright / CC)

Jeremy O’Leary is a steering committee member of the Multnomah Food Initiative and was an initial organizer of the City of Portland Peak Oil Taskforce. He’s a member of Portland Peak Oil, Transition PDX, and the Portland Permaculture Guild. He’s a contributor to the online publication The Dirt and maintains his own blog Biohabit. You can view his presentation on “20 Minute Neighborhoods and Emergency Response” here.

Klint Finley: What do you think the biggest/most important food security problems we have in Portland are?

Jeremy O’Leary: During the City of Portland’s Peak Oil Taskforce, we had a conversation with the management of Safeway where we learned that, for example, an apple from Hood River would be driven to LA and then back up to Portland. I think this example indicates one of the many problems with the food system. Many of the food issue we have in Portland are similar in other areas.

One of the things we have discussed in the steering committee meetings for the Multnomah Food Initiative is our area has one of the highest levels of hunger.

Which personally I’ve always found odd as we are also one of the leading cities for the local food movement. The following is from Multnomah Food Initiative:

Why a Food Initiative?

Multnomah County is at the epicenter of the local food movement. There are countless food-related, grassroots efforts being made in the community, as well as numerous projects and initiatives led by local government. The prevalence of local Farmers’ Markets and growing interest in organic gardening indicate strong community support for local food, but we must do more. To achieve a truly sustainable, healthy and equitable food system, all partners must help reach a common vision and share responsibility for the implementation of a strategic action plan.

It makes more sense than ever to implement a local food initiative. Despite the energy generated by local food in communities throughout Oregon, statistics show that our food system is broken:

Oregon is ranked second in hunger by the United States Department of Agriculture.
About 36,000 Multnomah County residents access emergency food boxes each month.
Half of all adults in Multnomah County are either overweight or obese.
Chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are on the rise
Half of all Multnomah County children will be on food stamps at one point in their childhood.
Only a small percentage of the food that we consume is grown locally (estimates indicate 5-10%).
We lack a coordinated strategy to ensure the vitality of our local food system.

One thing I’ve been puzzled by is how if you don’t have food in your house for tonight, it is a social justice issue. However if you don’t have food in your house for 72 hours (standard Red Cross recommendations) it is an emergency management issue.

Just to narrow the conversation a little, as the food system is more than a little complex, just talking about organic food sold at places like People’s Coop, New Seasons, Wild Oats … the fact that stores only have a three day supply of date sensitive food is one aspect that I’m concerned about.

More broadly speaking I sometimes think that the best way to describe our food system is (mind you I have a somewhat dark sense of humor) is Death by Convenience.

MFI Goal Framework - Graphic 3-11

How is that even though we’re one of the leading local food cities, we still only produce about 5-10% of the food we consume here?

It is in the same vein as the discussion of Portland being the Greenest City in the US, basically we are being graded on a bell curve. I’m always filled with pride and terror when it is pointed out that Portland is leading the charge on sustainability.

Just how problematic is the fact that we only produce about 5-10% of our own food? Do we export a lot of food? And do you know what they’re counting as local? For example, would they be considering Forest Grove local?

This may seem like an aside but it is related….

In Yellowstone national park, analysis of trees prior to 1850 shows that 50% of the nitrogen was of marine origin. 50% of the nitrogen arrived in the form of salmon. So it is not as if a long supply is necessarily a bad thing.

Efforts like the 100 mile diet are interesting, but it really depends on how the food arrives. Grain shipped in via trains from the mid-west is considerably better then strawberries flown in from Chile.

As for what food we export, I don’t have specific information about that.

Taking a completely different angle on things… I did my own sociological experiment by going to the one of the local gun shows and talking about sustainability to self-described “right-wing gun nuts.”

Basically, if you ask whether it’s a good idea to take a typical single family house and re-design it so you can live without power fairly well for a week if it is January or July, to have a large pantry, rain water cisterns, veggie gardens, fruit trees, … the response to this was basically “duh.”

My conversations with the “gun nuts” led me to the view that it is much better to focus on what you want and stop. The key detail when talking about a problem: you can debate whether that problem is actually a problem then never actually start effectlvely talking about actions.

It seems like the environmental movement has progressed from talking about renewable resources, to sustainability, and now to resilience. What exactly is resilience?

I can’t speak for the environmental movement, just for what I’m focusing on which is community and resilience. I think part of the focusing on resilience is that it is a more accurate meaning of sustainability…. how you sustain yourself/family/community is a rather important detail.

Sustainability seems to have been mostly about a long term vision, which is great, but doesn’t do you much good if you don’t have a vision for tonight or next week.

I think resilience is an example of what folks want.

Based on your experience on the gun show, do you think there’s more overlap between the left and the right if you re-frame what you’re talking about as resilience instead of “environmentalism”?

On the community level, very much so. On the level of Washington DC, I have no idea.

Rainwater cistern

(Above: an example of a rainwater cistern at Columbia Credit Union in Vancouver)

What can individuals do to improve their community’s resilience – whether that be in Portland or elsewhere?

I would suggest one of the 1st steps is to re-enforce the school buildings to withstand an earthquake, use the food certified kitchens in the schools to process locally grown food, and store emergency provisions at the schools.

If you mount solar PV panels on the roofs and place HAM radios there you can be fairly sure of having islands of communication even if things go really sideways.

You would need to have rain water cisterns at the schools, which could also be used for the urban orchards and the veggie gardens.

More broadly speaking, knowing your neighbors and being on good terms with them is possibly the 1st thing to do. It’s only then that conversations about sharing resources can be possible.

It sounds like you’ve picked schools as the epicenter for resilience in communities. Why?

At least in the case of Portland, they are arranged so there is usually a school within a 1/2 mile of you at any point in town. Community centers, churches, a mall…. these would of course work as well.

Columbia Ecovillage

(Above: The Columbia Ecovillage)

Transition PDX is interested in applying permaculture principles to the city. Are there good working examples of urban permaculture already?

As applied to dirt, very much so. The Columbia EcoVillage would be a good example that is more or less open to the public. For me permaculture comes down to good design, which translates into other disciplines.

In the case of my backyard, I have things lined up so I’m getting fruit consistently from early may until late Sept. Once the Kiwi matures, I can get another harvest in late November.

People who rent, instead of own, single family houses can have a hard time applying permaculture to their homes. Is there anything at all people who live in multifamily housing can do in terms of applying permaculture?

Yes, for this I would refer folks with what Leonard Barrett has been doing – Permaculture for Renters.

Container Food Forest

Above: Image from the Permaculture for Renters post Create a Container Food Forest

So what Leonard is doing is also applicable in multi-family housing?

Admittedly I’m not the best source of suggestion around permaculture for folks who don’t have some land to work with. You can do some pretty nifty things with container gardening on a balcony for example. But there are also examples of folks finding ways to share resources or buy things in bulk together.

What is the minimum amount of space needed to grow enough food for one person to survive? And for one person to have a reasonably healthy diet?

Quite a bit fits inside. I would point to books by John Jeavons such as How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. I would also point to materials by Toby Hemenway such as The Self-Reliance Myth.

I guess we’re just about out of time, so I will ask one last question: If people reading this interview come away with only ONE message, what message should that be?

Using “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” as a point of reference, society seems to spend the vast majority of our focus on whether we are sufficiently amused. This is an arrangement that by definition is unsustainable.

1 Comment

  • NecroPsyChroNauTron

    I LOVED this article and will be pouring through the book and sites mentioned. I’m an apartment dweller myself, so the “Permaculture For Renters” is an excellent find.
    Good stuff.

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