Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pamphleteer in Purgatory

Dear Readers,

I'll be back shortly after the new year, refreshed and rejuvenated, and with some luck, something to say.

Meanwhile, I invite you to explore three years of essays, photos, and insights. Come on, take a chance. Type something into the search box and maybe you'll get lucky.

Or check out my series of photo essays on the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Lots of original photos, a few observations, a couple of films, and at least one drawing by yours truly.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Thank you for visiting my blog. See you in 2011!

James Polk

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What is Sustainability?

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

The concept of sustainability has been sustaining the earth for as long as it’s been around – that’s why this planet is still here. Yet there seems to be some disagreement among twenty-first century humans about the meaning of sustainability.

Some people claim that sustainability is a collection of costly boutique solutions only affordable to the extravagantly wealthy for the sole purpose of elevating guilt about how their retched excesses are allegedly destroying the planet. Wrong. Sustainability is not an isolated tactical solution here and there; it is set of interdependent principles that work to sustain the life of the planet and its inhabitants. Here are a few hopefully-not-so-boring concepts:

Sustainability is self-perpetuating. In a sustainable world, life goes on naturally as the decayed remains of the old feed the next generation of growth. In a sustainable world, there is no waste to be buried in a landfill. The last phase of one cycle is the first phase of another. As architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart put it so poetically in their classic book “Cradle to Cradle” - waste equals food.

Sustainability is holistic. Isolated solutions are inconsistent with sustainable practices. The history of man is full of unintended consequences as a result of isolated solutions. Use DDT to control pesky mosquitoes and you wind up killing humans, channelize a river to prevent floods and you deplete rich farmland of important replenishing nutrients, kill off a species here and another codependent species dies off, and the list goes on and on. Even when it’s not apparent, decisions in our physical world are never truly in isolation . In a highly sustainable environment, everything is connected to everything.

Sustainability is organic and dynamic, and nature is the best example of sustainable growth. In nature, growth happens where renewable resources abound. In the wild, diversity is a constant. Life flourishes when multiple species of flora and fauna exist in close proximity. Nature encourages integration and coexistence. The most sustainable places on earth are where, naturally, the greatest diversity occurs. A suburban lawn - limited by choice and Roundup weed killer to one grass species - by contrast, is one of the least sustainable micro-systems on earth.

Sustainability takes the long view, and is not necessarily efficient in the short run. “Slash and burn” expediency has quickly enriched many a businessman, and the pressure of tomorrow’s stock price is no friend of green solutions, but sustainability is the one thing that is essential for our long-term survival. Non-sustainable solutions are like sparklers: fast spectacular burn - then nothing. Sustainable solutions, by nature, endure and become stronger with the passage of time.

And most important, sustainable solutions are not necessarily costly. In fact, Mother Nature has been providing no-cost solutions long before humans lurched at the reins. By taking our lessons from nature, we have a ready roadmap to all things sustainable.

Put away your GPS and, instead, take a good look at the world around you.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Compost This

This weeks newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

My tomato plants lived a long and fruitful life. May they rest in pieces … in the compost pile.

More and more, people are starting their own backyard compost piles. Far from being a Johnny-come-lately idea, humans have practiced various forms of composting for millennia. Early farmers found that a mix of animal waste, straw, crop residues and other organic material would gradually turn into a rich, fertile, soil-like substance that was very good for growing crops. Archeological evidence shows signs of deliberate composting in Mesopotamia a thousand years before the birth of Moses, and George Washington - father of our country – was so much a proponent of compost that he constructed a special structure solely devoted to composting.

What is compost anyway?

When green organic material – grass clipping, table scraps, animal waste, etc. – containing large amounts of nitrogen are combined with brown organic material – dried leaves, wood chips, etc. – that have lots of carbon, a curious thing happens. Microscopic bacteria and fungi go to work to speed up the decomposing process, and the material breaks down into a dark, fertile blend. Mother Nature does this all the time; active composting just speeds up the process.

So what are the advantages of composting?

When added to the soil in your garden, compost supplies necessary nutrients lessening the need for synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers. The highly organic nature of compost holds moisture keeping your garden from drying out too quickly on hot summer days. And the loose structure of compost helps aerate your soil facilitating healthier plant growth.

On a broader scale, what goes into the compost bin does not have to be picked up, transported, and buried in a landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that lawn clippings and table scraps comprise over a quarter of all the waste that winds up in American landfills. And who pays for that? You do. In an age of clamor for smaller government and lower taxes, composting on a grand scale can reduce public expenditures. Many cities in the US have instituted city-wide composting programs that are reducing the cost of trash pick-up and disposal.

You can purchase a home composter, and there are plenty of good ones on the market, but if you’re a budget-minded do-it-yourselfer, you may want to consider making one. All you really need is about a three foot by three foot space in your back yard. Choose a location that is convenient to your garden, has good drainage and has at least partial shade. You can construct a bin out of wood and chicken wire, but it really can be as simple as layering dried leaves and table scraps on the ground. Turn the bin or stir the pile regularly to keep it well oxygenated, and if it dries out, add a little water.

Think about starting a compost pile when you turn in this summer’s garden. Add table scraps, fall’s falling leaves, and even this newspaper, and by spring, you’ll have a healthy and inexpensive head start for your next garden.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A More Perfect Union

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American)

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

When taken to heart and followed up with action, this is one of the most empowering and result-generating quotes I’ve ever come across. Of course, these words of wisdom were uttered by a meek, 90 pound man who was credited with breaking the will of the mighty British Empire and gaining independence for the nation of India - one Mahatma Gandhi.

On a more personal level, some years ago I was with a friend and mentor of mine – architect and futurist Doug Michels – when someone asked him if he was going to attend the big protest for I-can’t-remember-quite-what. He replied, “Absolutely not. People can protest if they want – I really don’t care – but I don’t think it does any good.” Doug went on to say, “I spend my time designing the world I’d like to see and I think that makes a much bigger impact.”

Imagine what TV news would be like if, instead of criticizing the motivations and actions of others, talking heads offered up discussions about their vision of the future and provided solutions to the issues of the day. Imagine the richness of the discussion if, instead of flame-throwing accusations and hyperbolizing about how the other guy’s policies are going to destroy everything, we had real visionaries collaborating in good spirit on ideas of how to make our lives better. I gave up television years ago exactly because of the divisiveness it fosters, but that would be television worth watching!

But divisiveness – “compare and contrast” is the gentle euphemism used most often – is what drives TV ratings, you say? Maybe so. Not politically smart, you say? Maybe so again. But where has this intellectual food fight in the form of constant criticism and assailed motives gotten us as a nation? Not very far. In fact, the more divisive we become, the more it seems we move backwards as a society.

I am old enough now to notice a discernable change in the way people argue. Once upon a time, there was an openness to ideas and a more collegial give-and-take when it came to debating issues. Now, it seems that arguments are more like football games: “My team is for this and your team is for that and I’m never for anything your team is for because we’re locked in mortal combat. Go team go!”

For a change of pace, try forgetting completely what you don’t like about something or someone, and detach from ‘who’s for this’ and ‘who’s for that,’ and focus on the things you would like to see in the world. You may find that you have much more in common with those you oppose than you think.

When ‘show me your birth certificate’ is replaced with ‘show me your vision, and by the way, here’s mine,’ we’ll be well on the way to realizing a more perfect union.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feng SHe Launches Today

There's excitement in the air. Today is the launch of a brand new website devoted to achieving a balance of masculine and feminine energies in all areas of our lives. It's called Feng SHe.

And, I'm delighted to announce that I was selected as a regular contributor to the site. I'll have a weekly column exploring aspects of feminine/masculine balance in all areas creative. Click on the Creativity icon to read my articles.

So please click in to FengSHe.org on a regular basis and join the discussion.

Directly from the heart - thank you!

James Polk

Monday, August 2, 2010

Buck Up, America

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

“If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.”

Attributed to Henry Ford, this is one of my favorite quotes, and it’s especially applicable to the current debate over fossil fuels and renewable energies.

Voices arguing against moving away from traditional dirty energies – most notably oil, gas, and coal – in the direction of clean energies proclaim that running America on renewable energy is a pipe dream, a fantasy – “pie in the sky!"

But I ask you: Whatever happened to that good old American “can do” spirit?

True, Henry Ford took a lot of ribbing for his idea of bringing horseless carriages to the mass market. (The buggy whip manufacturers were especially skeptical.) “What a silly idea,” they said. “Who would want to ride around in one of those things? They’re too expensive. They’re ugly. There are not enough roads to handle automobiles. They can’t possibly work for everybody. Pie in the sky!”

But we got over it, and by the mid-twentieth century, the automobile had transitioned from pipe dream to the American dream. And the buggy whip manufacturers somehow managed to make the transition too.

And now look at us arguing against our own ingenuity once again. This time, it’s not horseless carriages taking the brunt of the mocking criticism, it’s solar panels and wind turbines and alternative energy technologies we’ve only begun to explore. I don’t believe for a moment that we, as a society, are incapable of transitioning to clean energies; it’s simply a matter of will.

The vision of a clean-running America may very well be out of reach for those who close their minds off to the infinite creative possibilities lying ahead of us. But American innovation can only be throttled for so long. Eventually, either we advance as a nation, or we’ll be leapfrogged by the rest of the world. China, with its substantial investment in renewable energies, sustainable cities, and high-speed rail is on the verge of doing just that.

But everybody isn’t quite as down on renewable energies as are the current crop of nay-saying politicians and oil men. Right now, all across the US, in garages and labs, innovators and entrepreneurs are positioning themselves to be the next Henry Ford – this time, in the area of renewable clean energy.

That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of renewable energy. That’s why, regardless of all the negative talk, regardless of all the “here’s why we can’t” diatribes, this country is about to go through a fundamental revolution in the way we produce and use energy, and we’ll all be better off.

Years from now, our children will look back and wonder why we put it off for so long.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Food For Thought

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hatteisburg American)

Most Americans are very sure they know exactly where their food comes from: the Grocery Store.

That’s right. We drive to the supermarket when convenient and fill ever-larger shopping carts with seemingly endless varieties of familiar and exotic edible offerings. And why not? It’s easy and predictable. Today’s corporate agribusinesses have become so very efficient at factory farming, processing, and the logistics of moving things from place to place that it’s no wonder most citizens are disconnected from the source of one of our most essential necessities of life - food.

Of course, much of what is on grocery shelves isn’t exactly food, or at least not simply food as we would recognize it growing on the earth. Most groceries might be more accurately described as a “food-like products.” Look at the list of ingredients on the packaging and you will find dyes, hydrogenated oils, and chemical preservatives - which humans would never consider eating otherwise - inserted for the sake appearance or for extending shelf life of food that was grown half a continent, if not half a world, away.

The result? A high calorie, low nutrition American diet that is, in part, responsible for record levels of obesity and ill-health.

It wasn’t always this way. Up until the mid-twentieth century, most of the food we ate was grown within a one-day driving distance. The pre-World War II landscape was full of family farms. Outside every city, town, and burg was farmland, with much of the crop going to feed local appetites. If you did not grow up on a farm, you certainly knew someone who did. People were connected to the source of their food, and fresh seasonal produce always graced the dinner table.

Now I’m not saying we should get rid of grocery stores; they are quite essential. But there are many sustainable reasons to eat locally grown food.

Let’s take a quick tally. 1) Locally grown food uses less fossil fuel getting to market, 2) fresh fruits and vegetables are healthier than packaged foods, and 3) buying locally grown food supports your local economy possibly keeping your would-be deadbeat friends employed.

My favorite reason to eat locally grown foods is the taste. Go to a farmers’ market and load up on freshly picked tomatoes, bite into a raw crisp green bean, take home some succulent zuccinni and eggplant to stir-fry – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more delicious meal.

It’s hard to have a conversation about eating locally without addressing the reality that fruits and vegetables are seasonal by nature. But instead of thinking about what isn’t available at some point in the year, get excited about what is in season. In summer, celebrate watermelons and tomatoes. In winter, enjoy cabbage and broccoli.

So a little food for thought: What local food can you incorporate into your diet?