by Terry Sterrenberg

I’ve been finishing Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything.  I was reminded that I hadn’t finished the book when I heard the name several times on television referring to any number of popular causes, events, or facts.  Even a car ad used the phrase.  It seems that Klein hit on a title that everyone feels entitled to use in regard their own pet thing.  Anyway I am finishing it.  Reading books like hers awakens my mind to new thoughts.  Sometimes not even related to what I am reading.

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In this case I began thinking about what it means to grow older and about my relationship to my mother who died last year at the age of 94.  She had a stroke and died 10 days later.  The night before she died her children and grandchildren and some of their spouses gathered around her bed and her three children told stories of their childhood.  Some had been secrets.  It was a wonderful family gathering.

Since her death I have wondered if we did the right thing not taking her to the hospital.  This was her request and although we all knew what that could mean, we nevertheless felt a deep agreement and desire to do her bidding.  She had been to the hospital and she wanted none of that.  So when she had the stroke that we all knew was coming we were ready and so was she.

So at this reading of Klein’s book my thoughts drifted to her and to what it means for me to be growing older, and also to what I want to be doing with my life at this point.  Reflecting for me always is a kind of sad experience as I think about the great plans I had to change the world.  And how now feeling older I still have ideas (as a contrast to plans) of how the world can change.  I feel a lot like my mother when she said at the age of 90, “I don’t really feel old,  I still feel like I am 16 on the inside”, and then when I look in the mirror and am reminded of the life I have lived, I feel sad and I know I will not see those changes I know are possible.  Sometimes it seems that my life’s dream is just slipping by me.  And I remember times of missed opportunity that would have made “big changes” for everyone, and I remember a life I wish I had lived.

I need to let you know that I really love my life.  I am not despondent.  However I have a lot of disappointment when I see and hear how some people treat each other these days.  As I read in Klein’s book  about the extent of damage that has been done to our planet in the name of progress and what seems to be mindless, reckless abandonment  of logic and compassion in regard to planet earth and its inhabitants, and  I feel that in the USA we may have tipped the tipping point  for recovery.  There is so much division, lying, blaming, and suspicion of those that are different from us that I cannot see a way out of the mess we are in.  Where are the people who value honor, compassion, truth, cooperation   and the common good?  Where are the people who take responsibility for their actions and own their weakness and mistakes so the problems of society can be solved?   Where are the people whose hearts are full of life and (dare I say) love that are the midwives of our common future.

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I don’t think I am the only one who is looking for these people to have in my life.  Such a group generates trust.  Such a group generates affinity.  Such a group is the basis for a new kind of economy   that starts with the question “How can every person have what they need to thrive and excel in life?”  Not “How much does it cost or how much money can it make me?”  Such a group shares life stories and ushers in new life for all those who are around them.  Such a group does indeed change everything. Such a group is the foundation for the Villaging Project.

Fed Up

by Terry sterrenberg

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I saw the movie “Fed Up” a few nights ago and came home  rejuvenated about the Villaging project and our Villaging America movie.  There is of course a tremendous amount of information about how the food industry has contributed to the problem of obesity in the USA.  The main point of the movie is that sugar is the culprit that is the prime contributer to our weight problem as a nation.  There are several tragic examples of obese childen who get caught up in the food castrophe of this country.  The movie describes how when in the  1970’s fat was denounced as the menace to avoid,  the food companies started making low fat processed foods.  But as one person in the movie said “when you take out the fat, food tastes awful”.  So to make food taste better and  to keep up sales the food industry started adding sugar to everything to make the food more appealing.  If you are not aware take a look at the sugar on your food labels.  You will notice that sugar has no daily percentage listed.  That is because the food industry lobbied to omit the inclusion of the percentage of sugar as a maximum daily value.  That means when you buy a product you can see the amount of sugar in the product, but unless you are in the know about sugar you will not know how that amount of sugar will contribute to your nutritional needs.
Even “the healthy” foods have added sugar. The movie shows how the food industry has lobbied and testified before Congress consistently denying that there is any proof that sugar causes children and adults to be obese.  In order to make that case they need to ignore the evidence.  I came away from that movie experience thinking that this is just another instance where the profit motive has led big corporations to continually look after their own interest by ignoring what is good for the common good in favor of profit.

Over and over we discover that in every area of our lives there has been a string of history that has developed an attitude of “screw the public, it can’t be truth if it does not make a profit.”  Don’t get me wrong I am not one who believes in conspiracy theories.  However as I look into the development of the corporation over the last century I see a common thread of diminishing public good in favor of profit.  Our life style in the USA is a direct result of how industry and business has developed in this country.  David Graeber in his book “Debt: the first 5000 years” describes how this happened.  He describes how going into debt become a way of life in the US.

Watching the movie and reading Graeber’s book made me ask the question “How has the Corporationing (a word I just made up) of America affected us?”  Perhaps Corporationing is the opposite of Villaging.  I turned to the six elements of villaging we have outlined for the Villaging America movie. In general “corporationing” takes us away from direct involvement in the core processes of life.  For some reason we have let this happen and have actually made it OK for our corporations to be morally numb in  their business practices.

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1. Food Production: Toward the begining of the twentieth century “Mechanization brought farming into the realm of big business as well, making the United States the world’s premier food producer–a position it has never surrendered”  (http://america…ra/3_657.html)  Big farming has meant a vast reduction in the amount of family farms and local food production which means that most households get their food from over 1300 miles away. This reduces nutritional value of the food and has resulted in an abundance of processed foods full of added ingredients (preservatives and different forms of sugar).  Communities providing their own food supply would be a threat to food corporations.

2. Energy:  Reliance on fossil fuels is a direct result of our lifestyle.  Just as we are dependent on oil to stay warm and to go places, big oil companies  are also dependent on our lifesyle for their profits.  It doesn’t take much thought to realize what would happen to the petroleum business if alternative forms of energy were developed or if we found ways of living to use less.  Turning to local energy grids to service local communities would be a threat to energy corporations.

3. Perimeter:  The model for villaging we are using is the human cell.  Each cell has a function and a perimeter that defines its identity.  At present where people live – our house and location – is largely determined by our income. We have to be able to afford the house we live in as well as the transportation to our work.  Affordability of housing has resulted in people living in suburbia, at a distance from where they work, and has led to isolation and disconnection.  Feeling safe and secure in one’s neighborhood has also become an issue for many people. Having a village perimeter creates a sense of identity, and promotes connectedness, a feeling of safety and an appreciation for diversity.  The perimeter also sets a limit to the capacity of the village in terms of caring for its population.  The model of business in the USA is one of growth.   Graeber comments that  “Just about everyone agrees …  that capitalism is a system that demands constant, endless growth.. Enterprises have to grow in order to remain viable”.   The concept of a perimeter as a container for a set number of people that a village could support seems to be a threat to the very core of a capitalist system focused on growth.

4. Automobiles and Roads:  When Henry Ford developed the assembly line to produce automobiles, life in America was changed forever.  People  could now more easily travel to other places for recreation,  social support and income.   “By the time the Model T was withdrawn from production in  1927, … 15 million units had been sold, and mass personal “automobility” had become a reality”. (http://www.history.com/topics/automobiles) All Americans had their own individual transportation system. Every year car manufacturers have built stronger and better cars that keep us separate from one another.  This freedom of movement, however, has created the dependency on fossil fuels we live with today. Constructing walkable communities where individuals do not need to drive to work creates green living space rather than dangerous concrete pathways that reinforce isolation rather than community.   Localizing economies to reduce the need for commuting to work, and providing public transportation alternatives present a challenge to the automobile industry.

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5. Work:   Large business/coporations often seem to buy their way into communities with promises of providing local jobs and increases in local revenue.  This promise often is very hollow.  After construction, the company  transfers in its own managers from other places and purchases products from far away, thus taking revenue out of the local community, and providing no respite for local unemployment. One’s job  or career is a huge element that determines individual identity and purpose.   Still as Graeber points out, the relationship between an employer and employee tends to be impersonal.  This is particularly true in large businesses where profit consistently trumps the well being of the worker.  Strategies such as hiring people part time to avoid providing healthcare insurance or days off are becoming more common.  The impersonal nature of the work place strips the employer-employee relationship of any moral responsibility on the part of the employer. The employer’s only loyalty turns out to be related to the level of employee production.  Graeber describes how this happened in the last century as big business has grown and grown.  Worker-owned collectives give the moral imperative back to the workers who have a direct relationship to each other and to the success of the business.   If local businesses are thriving, there is no need for big corporations to infringe.

6.  Governance:  .  Democracy was originally intended to provide representation of the people in decisions affecting them.  In big business, governance is profit-oriented, and not necessarily in the best interests of the people.  Government in the USA has been influenced by financial considerations and big-business lobbying to the point that the voice of the people is no longer a determining factor.  Local governance that gives a voice to each individual in a Village allows for the ability to make decisions and solve problems for the local community.  This ability gives local communities the power to give preference to local workers rather than corporations,  develops trust and affinity, and addresses the issue of inequality locally.  Inequality dissolves when everyone ‘s concerns are taken into account. Who knows better the best solutions to issues than those who live in a particular community?   People need to learn how to solve problems non-violently.  With effective problem solving as a core value, self-governing Villages are able to particpate peacefully within the larger network of Villages.

Do You Have Enough

by Terry Sterrenberg

Not long ago we  traveled to the southeast  where we filmed at a small worker owned collective called Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC.  The collective has six worker owners with 21 additional sewers and workers who are in the process of becoming worker owners.  After working for a number of months and having many peer evalutions which include not only their productivity but also their ability to get along with their other team members, they are given the opportunity to buy into the collective. In this way new owners get “vetted” by the other owners. All workers including Ms. Hemstreet who initiated the collective are paid the same wage. We asked her why she decided to form a worker collective instead of a for profit bussiness with her as the owner.  She would clearly make more money if she hired employees.  “We have the best sewers.  I could never do what they do,” said  Ms Hemstreet. The implication is that likewise they could not do what she does.  “Everyone is an owner, has a stake in what is produced,  gains when things go well, and bears the loss when production falters.  We all have pride in what we do. Furthermore, there comes a point when one has enough.”

Wow! What a concept, HAVING ENOUGH.  Some people I’m sure would argue that one can never have enough. We always need more in case we lose what we have. What is enough anyway?  Enough of what? Money? Food?  Rooms? Stuff?  If you have enough does that mean you don’t want (deserve) more?  Is it the same for everyone or do some people need more than others or even deserve more than others?  And how is ‘enough’ determined? Do some people get to have enough before others have enough?

What happens when there is more than enough for everyone? What happens to the surplus?  In traditional business models this constitutes profit and goes to the owner.  In worker owned collectives the surplus goes to the worker owners or back into the business.

On another stop we went to a community called Village Homes in Davis CA.  This was a sustainable community designed and developed in 1979.  The original group was very committed to sustainability and built what has become the most luscious permaculture community I have ever witnessed.  The community is beautiful and the property values have risen to be the highest in the entire city.  What is “enough” for this community?  For the visionaries “enough” was an affordable  geographic setting that sustained life and nurtured not just the residents but the entire community.  They built a cost effective innovative environment. However, presently, unlike at the start of the project, the property values are now too high for young families to afford. This is a wonderful place to live and so property values went up.  Many of the original residents have moved out of Village Homes.  The new residents are attracted to the beauty and the organic gardens, but many do not know or understand the original vision.  They just want to live there and they feel entitled to do so because they have enough money to buy in.  But they feel no need or obligation to get to know the neighbors in their community, as did the original residents.

This case presents a basic dilemma for long term sustainable communities.   How can the vision sustain itself over many generations?  And how can we make the property affordable for young families and not lose  the original vision? Some have looked at the community land trust as a possible solution to  this issue.  (see winter copy 2015 of YES Magazine, Urban Farming, One Vacant Lot at a Time.)  

Perhaps to have enough is a personal declaration rather than something to be calculated.  Certainly for me a declaration has much more personal power than an external limit placed on me.  Everyone has enough if they say so. But clearly there are people who have too little, not enough food, housing, and life necessities; and those who have much more than the rest of us.  What is enough for these people?

For me, having enough is not about possessions.  We have given most of our stuff away.   Presently we have enough because we choose to have little.  Like a lot of other people we have enough  to live comfortably because we adapt our life to what we have.  We realized that the stuff we had and the lifestyle we were living was making our life more chaotic and stressful than connected and joyful. I have come to believe that the sense of “having enough”  is also a function of the community in which I live.  It is a product of participating in an interdependent, caring community.  We are looking for that community.    What we have done in the last few years with our life has not totally given us “enough” and that is why we are continuing our search..

I realize I have raised more questions here than I have answered,  but then again that is the journey we are on.