Friday, July 18, 2014

The Green Rust Belt

There’s a weird piece of serendipity today – I browsed to, and to my surprise what do I see right up top but a long article on my home base of Milwaukee. Not only that, but it’s written by Richard Manning, who I was already planning to write a blog post about!

Manning is that author of what I think is the definitive book about agriculture – Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization. I was planning on publishing some excerpts from that book, but I’ll save that for another time. I was thinking about that because I recently heard an excellent podcast with Manning, which deserves a listen to:
“Agriculture is really the dominant system of 8,000 years, and it’s more than a way of growing food. It’s a way of domesticating humans and organising humans. It is ‘the’ system.” So says the environmental author and journalist Richard Manning in the latest podcast from The Eternities. “And the system that brought us here and made us sick is not going to fix us.”

Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, which argued that major world shaping forces, such as trade, imperialism and disease, were conditioned and driven by agriculture, both for good and ill. But, mostly ill.

Manning has now returned for another tilt at civilization with Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization, co-authored with John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of such titles as A User’s Guide to the Brain. Their new book attempts to show that our human physical evolution is lagging far behind civilization’s socio-cultural advances, significantly affecting health and well-being.

By drawing upon what we understand of our genetic heritage, the authors present strategies to tweak modern lifestyles, aping the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Paleolithic age, for which they argue we remain adapted.

In the podcast, Manning argues that his and Ratey’s work exists within the field of medical inquiry termed “diseases of civilization”.

“[This] began when the imperialists from Europe began looking at primitive cultures around the world. [T]hey found that the people that lived there didn’t suffer the diseases that were killing the Europeans. Things like cancer, heart disease, diabetes [were] virtually absent in those cultures. And it’s because of the way they ate.”

In terms of advice, Manning offers a place to begin. “Eliminate sugars and grain from your diet for a couple of months and see what happens to you. You’re going to lose weight and you’re going to feel a lot better.You’re going to find yourself feeling better in ways that you didn’t quiet imagine. And that’s the almost immediate pay-off to this. You don’t have to believe me, you can go ahead and try it, and you’re going to find out that your life improves dramatically.

The podcast also included discussion of such topics as the hunter-gatherer diet; the origins of agriculture; ways to improve modern agriculture; the rise of autism; and high fruit diets.

Anyway, the article makes Milwaukee seen like a great place for green living – and, in many ways, it is! I live next to a park, can go for days without using my car, and farmer’s markets abound. Because Wisconsin is mostly pastureland, I can get grass-fed beef easily, along with awesome cheese, fruits, and apples (but no raw milk!). Milwaukee is surrounded by farmland, which means getting locally grown stuff is easy, including a lot more Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA). We’re on a lake shot through with waterways, which is why I once pointed out the irony of having to turn to aquaponics for our fish (or flying them in from China). I'd also give honorable mention to things like Concordia urban gardens, Cambridge Woods, Will Allen's Growing Power, the Kompost Kids and Milwaukee Makerspace. Of course, it's not all good news - the train from Milwaukee to Madison, whose cars were to be built in old reactivated factories in Milwaukee, was killed by the infamous Tea Party governor Scott Walker.

Backyard gardening in Milwaukee
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is known for taking prickly offense at the term “Rust Belt.” Nonetheless, the belt fits. The old-line manufacturing cities of the upper Midwest preceded the rest of the nation in collapse by decades. Foreclosure, blight, drugs, failed schools, homelessness, brownfields, pollution, decay, and crime: there’s plenty to justify the term, and Milwaukee has it all. Or maybe had it all. Because a closer look at the city reveals whole vats of lemonade where once were heaps of lemons.

Wisconsin may be a national poster child for dysfunctional politics and red-blue tensions, yet Barrett, a Democrat, is serving his third term, winning reelection twice with more than 70 percent of the vote. Political scientists no doubt can explain his popularity in their fashion, but the more satisfying analysis comes from an ant man. Three decades ago, the reigning eminence of conservation biology, E. O. Wilson, offered up the biophilia hypothesis—biophilia, from the Latin, meaning love of life, all life, as in nature. In a 1984 book, Wilson argued that love of nature makes humans more attentive to their surroundings, just as affection allows attachment to and knowledge of a loved one’s face. In evolutionary terms, attentiveness and attachment confer fitness. Now this bit of arcane evolutionary theorizing has wended its way through a web of disciplines and experiments, through education and public health, landscape architecture, psychiatry, urban planning, and banking to become a playbook for politicians like Barrett, who is consciously using environmental science to loosen the bind of the rusty belt.

Wilson’s idea has given rise to the closely related concepts of biophilic design and biophilic cities, the latter actively promoted by Tim Beatley, a landscape architect at the University of Virginia. In interviews, Beatley and Stephen Kellert, Wilson’s co-editor on an early book about biophilia and a chief proponent of biophilic design, both stressed that the idea includes—but more crucially goes beyond—concepts like green building and simple sustainability to capture the innate human attachment to nature and increase well-being by honoring it.

Beatley has developed a list of criteria that includes this extension and has compiled a list of biophilic cities worldwide: Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Phoenix; Singapore; Wellington, New Zealand; Oslo; Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; Birmingham, England—and Milwaukee. Part of the reason for including Milwaukee, he told me, is the city’s explicit attention to and understanding of the larger idea. With that in mind, I went to talk to Mayor Barrett about the transformation that is under way in his city.
 Milwaukee Sees the Light (One Earth)

A lot of people are advocates of reinvigorating the Rust Belt, so it's nice to see it get some coverage. Unlike the Southwest, we have no shortage of water here. This is the kind of place Jim Kunstler thinks we should be moving back to. Incidentally, Milwaukee is the city where Kunstler's ideas might have had the biggest impact. Our previous mayor before Mayor Barrett became friends with Kunstler and became enamored with the ideas of New Urbanism (he is now the head of the Congress for New Urbanism in Chicago). He tore down a freeway in Milwaukee to free up space for development. It was a bold, visionary move whose ultimate results are still being determined.

Personally, I’m passionate about learning from and recycling the old industrial infrastructure into something sustainable and resilient (in fact I once pitched a building idea to Kaufman, who is also mentioned in the article). I was planning on doing a project that converted an old brick warehouse building on the river near me to a farmer's market, but they started tearing the building down, so perhaps it's too late :( . In any case, I really love the old industrial buildings for their aesthetics and resilience; many of them are designed to harness as much natural light as possible and be highly durable and adaptable. I should know, I work in one.

Kunstlercast episode with John Norquist
Urban Milwaukee


  1. Doing for a while without grains is good. I did it for 6 months. Eating too much starch gums up the intestines. I ended up missing crunchy foods.

    I think that humans have been eating some grains from way back in the Paleolith. It's just we eat too much of it now. Pasta, for example: dried starch. I've decided to skip it.

    But I no longer pay all that much attention to people who insist on self-denying diets and near religious dedication to the Right Way to Eat. Life is too short for that. I prefer to spend what life i have left eating things I love. Happily, that means fresh, cooked from scratch, flavorful things. :-)

    1. I could go without grains forever, it's just that *everything* comes wrapped in the stuff. The only thing I'd miss is pizza.

      But the funny thing is - in Italy I noticed that nobody is fat despite the fact that they eat plenty of carbs - pastas, pizza, paninni, bakery and so on. I think it must be portion control and lifestyle.


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