Sunday, June 20, 2010

Let us create something that we understand

Today is the day after the launch of our project. Seeing a large group of people celebrating the achievements to date and looking with us into the future felt rewarding and motivated me to continue on the path that I chose.

A few weeks back I flushed out a little concept for this post. I was going through some intense reflections about myself,what I acquired with my degree and my purpose after graduation, about value systems and how they can encourage us to engage in certain ways but also prevent us from seeing opportunities around us.

One thing every student realizes once getting involved in extra-curricular work is how big the divide between the reality that surrounds us and the ideal reality actually is. I studied Geography and Political Science and was amazed by how far academics have come and how little is actually applied in practice. Obviously there are so many factors (economic, social, etc) influencing this slow development, but here I would like to focus on the path itself rather than the problems along in. I would like to explore that space between now and a utopian reality that we are going for. This space in my eyes is creation, in the sense of making or invention. Before introducing my view on creation however I would like to give a little background in some systems theory that frames my thoughts.

How do we measure system deficiencies properly without completely relying on our scientific understanding of the world? The Green Revolution in the middle of the last century induced rapid changes in our agricultural systems and these changes were backed up by scientific legitimization. Working to change a food system at this point is similar I believe. The system is so large and complex, and so many players are affecting each other that it becomes very hard to read, or understand. I argue that in its entirety we are not equipped to fully understand such a socio-ecological system. Rod McRae uses the term “organizational ecology” to talk about systems like that. They are webs of players that are constantly shifting and changing and completely interconnected and interdependent, similar to purely ecological systems. In a complex socio-ecological system such as the one we are dealing with, precaution is one of the most important measures to apply, because we cannot be entirely certain about the outcomes that we induce. In terms of organizational ecology I argue that groups such as ours need to be careful in what ways we affect the system. To gain an understanding of the system at a reasonable scale , that we can apply some certainty to, is important at this stage to make changes that actually have lasting impacts, and don’t just disappear after a while. In the end we are trying to push a system back into its ecological boundaries without entirely knowing what the boundaries are. Systems theory now agrees on the fact that there is not that one threshold that once reached induces a system crash. There are many thresholds, and systems can flip and find a new equilibrium. The former theory brought us into this mess in the first place as managers started to apply command and control methods to the environment thinking that as long as your effect on the system is below the threshold, you are fine. We are now more concerned with containing our negative inputs so that we will not experience a system flip, that potentially can change the socio-economic and ecological conditions of entire countries with largely interdependent systems; the food system is one of them. Cameron has mentioned the honeybee. With a full collapse of the honeybee the system would change so dramatically that it would take decades or longer to find a new agricultural “equilibrium”.

Being relatively inexperienced with the food system at large, I am therefore asking myself: What do I know? What is it that I can change at Concordia that I can be certain of will have lasting positive impacts? Many people that are interested in food but might not have their academic focus on it might ask themselves the same question.

This is where creation comes into play. I believe that one thing that is quite obvious: consumers nowadays do not have a real tangible connection to most products that they consume. One of my goals is to break down this divide in a real way. Making people part of the production and distribution process of the product is one way of reaching this goal. Personal connections here are very important. It changes the way we consume as suddenly we already invested energy into the product before it goes into our mouth. Students at Concordia already have the chance to become part of food production with workshops and programs in the Greenhouse (Vert ta Ville, mushrooms, medicinal plants etc). Gardens, such as the People’s Potato Vegetable garden on the Loyola campus are looking for volunteers throughout the summer as well.

The Food Systems group is starting to develop more agricultural land at Concordia as we speak. Our Loyola campus has large green spaces that are ideal for this. The RealiTEA project, a 2000 sq ft mandala tea garden, is the first phase of this development. Future goals are the development of an incubator program at Loyola where we can teach students small scale farming skills.

Coming back to complex systems and the problems that come with such a large food system I argue that localizing parts of the production and creating tangible connections between people and their foods will move the focus into what we can understand. I understand that students are interested in farming, but often don’t have access to land. I understand that it feels great to eat a tomato that was self-grown. The existence of many localized systems that are all connected I compare to an ant hill. Each ant does not actually know that they are part of this large system. However, the larger pattern health can reveal localized deficiencies. In our food system, many people are not engaged in the ant hill anymore. They don’t even know about the ant hill anymore, they are only reaping its “benefits”, and even those have become unhealthy. I would like to make people aware of their interdependence with the ant hill and empower them to influence it positively by giving them the tools to do so, and these tools should be very hands-on and tangible and in that sense very complimentary to the theoretic foundations that we gain in our academic programs.

We are all part of this system. We are all interconnected and we all affect the organizational ecology of the food system in various ways. Changing an interconnected system calls for interdisciplinary action. We are in the unique situation where the University administration, students representing the whole political spectrum with various belief systems, and external partners can work together to reach this common goal. By focusing on how we can help each other, and not how we hinder each other we will speed up the development of putting theory into practice. Let us focus on creating together, respecting the diversity of all that lives.

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