A Social and Environmental Movement Seeking Change
words and photos by Claude Christensen
Booths line the cafeteria of the church, run by enthusiastic twenty-somethings wearing Keen hiking boots and flannels, with dirt under their fingernails. They sell packages of dirt teeming with beneficial microbes, as well as organic mulching and recycling services. And they exude a confidence and vitality that more succinctly describes their credo than these words can: “This is our earth. These are our bodies. We are committed to the health of this planet.”
This is the Akron Permaculture Convergence, where possible solutions for the burgeoning environmental crises facing the U.S. and Akron abound. On this sunny Saturday in January, permaculture advocates from across the Midwest unite in Akron for the event, hosted by the Great Rivers and Lakes Permaculture Institute (GRLPI) at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fairlawn.
In between workshops and lectures at the Convergence, Ms. Julie’s Kitchen sells organic gluten-free chili, kale chips and elderflower-glazed donuts. While grazing, Convergence attendees network, compare notes and make WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) commitments. There are DIY books on building furniture from scrap steel and lumber, or raising the juiciest heirloom tomatoes, or how to solve common collective action dilemmas in environmentally sympathetic, if not active, communities.
First defined by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in 1978, “permaculture,” or “perennial culture,” combines a social and agricultural methodology that is intended to be infinitely sustainable. As defined by Merriam-Webster, permaculture is “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient, self-sustaining ecosystems.”
Through sustained community action and ecologically-conscious agricultural practices, permaculture is touted as a solution for a variety of social and environmental ills, ranging from climate change and loss of native species to food deserts and the lack of healthy organic products.
The keynote speaker for the Akron Permaculture Convergence, Peter Bane, author of the “Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country,” claims the need for more widespread acceptance of permaculture and its methodology for environmental and social renewal is urgent.
“We need a thousandfold increase in our numbers,” he says. “If permaculturalists could reach just 10% of the population, we could enact significant change.”
For Bane and the rest of the attendees at the Akron Permaculture Convergence, a massive shift in public attitude towards sustainable ecological is paramount.
“But the problem is that life right now is too comfortable,” Bane states. “Unfortunately, real action won’t occur until the U.S., and the world, is in the thick of a crisis too massive to ignore.”
That crisis could take many forms, one of which Akron is intimately familiar with.
Through the Cuyahoga River, Akron has a direct connection in the fight against pollution and the cultivation of more environmentally friendly policies such as the Clean Water Act and The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Although the 1968 Cuyahoga River fire, in which a spark from a passing rail car caused the murky river to ignite, is perhaps the most visible consequence of water pollution, the river itself still suffers from high numbers of E. coli bacteria and other waterborne pathogens.
During particularly heavy storms, Akron’s antiquated sewer system is unable to handle the high volume of runoff, and E. coli-causing sewage often gets dumped in the river. The recent EPA mandate to improve the sewers has the city boring the new Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel to contain rain and sewage water during storms and other periods of high-volume runoff. That project alone is estimated to cost $184.1 million.
Still, what if Akron would proactively combat pollution and other environmental concerns, instead of acting only when expensive lawsuits are brought by federal agencies?
“I believe that the Midwest, and Akron in particular, is well-poised to be at the forefront of the permaculture movement,” says Sabrena Schweyer, co-owner of ecological design firm, Salsbury-Schweyer, Inc., the sponsor of the Akron Permaculture Convergence and a GRLPI board member.
The Midwest could begin to combat issues relevant to the area in several ways. For one, we could integrate green infrastructure that would increase the number of wetlands in the area to handle stormwater runoff and to combat persistent algae blooms. A system of rainwater barrels could help to limit stormwater runoff. Unused properties could be reinvented.
St. Louis’s first sustainability award recipient, Whitney Sewell, describes her efforts in St. Louis to grow a variety of foodstuffs in an urban setting. From the diagnosis and neutralization of lead and other common soil contaminants to permit applications for farms in residentially-zoned areas, Sewell gives step-by-step instruction on how environmentally conscious and committed individuals can take advantage of urban decay to farm organic and nutritious crops.
In another workshop, Dr. Brett Joseph, executive director of the Center for Ecological Culture, Inc., lectures on how local communities could solve a number of social ills by printing their own currencies, putting their money in local banks, and starting cooperative businesses owned by workers.
Describing a number of problems affecting the U.S., from rising income inequality, expensive healthcare, and a lower quality of living, Dr. Joseph blames the rise of neoliberal economics (AKA free-market capitalism). The solution, he argues, requires local communities to reassert control of basic services for the collective good. He theorizes that local banks, currencies, and cooperative businesses are not susceptible to bubbles like one that caused The Great Recession in 2008, and are thus more stable and sustainable.
Although ardently supportive, the turnout at the Convergence is a little low: about a hundred or fewer. There’s a visible lack of local officials or large businesses in attendance. Few of the attendees seem to be new to permaculture. Discussions often lead to an affirmation of permaculture methodologies, rather than serious debate of their efficacy.
To reach the critical mass of support necessary for real change, the permaculture community must draw its supporters from a broader swath of the American population than the predominantly middle class and predominantly white population the Akron Convergence attendees seems to represent.
It must add to its ranks the disaffected and disadvantaged, as well as those with the resources and the ability to enact change. Or else it may lose its claim to permanency.
It must, somehow, become mainstream.
Claude Christensen’s best date-night ever occured on a warm summer evening when an ex surprised him with a picnic for two on a bank overlooking a secluded stream. Later, there were fireflies. The mosquitos stayed away.