Tuesday, March 31, 2009


April 2, 2009

Bernard Madoff's practical life may be over, but his lethal legacy lives on.
Among the many religious and philanthropic groups that entrusted their fortunes to the once-blessed Bernie was the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests and brothers. The province has not disclosed the extent of their losses, only that they were "significant." Fortunately, they did not go the route of many who were seduced by Madoff's charms and seemingly fail-safe performance; like all wise investors, they diversified their portfolio. Unfortunately, even diversified portfolios have turned sour of late, and there is much less money available for the Redemptorists' works these days.
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer was founded in 1732 by Alphonsus Liguori, a child prodigy from Naples, Italy, who passed the bar at age 16 and gained a reputation as a lawyer who never lost a case. In 1723, when he was 27, he finally did lose one, and that single defeat shattered his life. He gave up the practice of law, turned to penitence, prayer, and service to the poor and sick, and three years later became a priest. Trained in a profession dependent on the adroit use of words, he applied this skill to preaching, and gathered a band of men to serve as domestic missionaries, visiting local churches and re-converting lax Catholics through simple, inspiring sermons — still a major work of the Redemptorists of today.
Later in life, he turned to writing. His most influential work was his Moral Theology, whose major contribution to ethical theory was a defense of the role of the informed individual conscience over rigorist legalism in decision-making.
One wonders how this lawyer-saint would have responded to the Madoff case.
Besides their charismatic preaching, the Redemptorists continue the work of their founder through service to the poor and disenfranchised in inner-city parishes and schools and aid to the suffering worldwide; funding for their projects in the Baltimore Province will have to be scaled back or eliminated because of the losses in their endowment. "However," wrote Rev. Patrick Woods, the Provincial Superior, in an open letter to friends and supporters of the order, "we trust in God, and we will continue the mission of our Province."
The situation the Redemptorists are presently facing as an institution is something like the one St. Alphonsus Liguori faced as an individual: A heartbreaking reversal of fortunes forced a profound change of life, a shift in consciousness from self- reliance to self-surrender: "We trust in God."
It is this complete self-gift that characterized Liguori's life. A biography in the Harpercollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism recounts that as bishop of a rural diocese near Naples during a devastating famine in 1763, "he literally emptied the bishop's residence to feed whoever came. In his diocese alone there was no starvation." His latter-day followers surely have a similar commitment: Regardless of financial reversals, "we will continue the mission of our Province."
In the midst of all the good works money can accomplish, there always lurks the subtle danger of creeping dependence. In a life-change even more radical than Liguori's, St. Francis of Assisi renounced his family fortune, stripped himself naked in the town square, and vowed to live as Christ did, like the birds of the air and lilies of the field. The order that he founded began as a powerful witness against the high-living clerics and richly-endowed monasteries of late-Medieval Europe; embracing "Lady Poverty," they lived in utter simplicity, providing for their common needs by begging and working as day-laborers. Eventually, however, many Franciscan communities could not resist benefactors, with their generous gifts of land and money, entangling themselves in the very things Francis so unequivocally rejected.
It's human nature, the tendency to turn instrument into object, to turn means into ends.
Thus the curse of Madoff may be a blessing in disguise for the Baltimore Redemptorists. In pledging to continue their mission, trusting in divine providence and their own resourcefulness, walking the tightrope without the former net, they come once again to believe in miracles, to expect the impossible: "God will make a way where there is no way."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


March 26, 2009

Amidst the dense clouds of dismal news this early spring, a brilliant ray of sunlight just broke through: Michelle Obama and a crew of kids from a D.C. public school began digging up 1,100 square feet of the White House South Lawn for a vegetable garden.
As I wrote in last week's column, I wasn't sure something like that would ever happen, but there it was, all over the evening news, a picture worth a billion words of eat-local proponents over decades.
In a campaign and administration noted for its leaklessness to the press, the announcement of the garden was true to form, a complete surprise. But the plan had obviously been in the works for months, a carefully-designed space to demonstrate the versatility, productivity, and economy of organic micro-farming. This is a shovel-ready project if there ever was one, a soil-and- sun-based stimulus package with a materials start-up cost of $200 for seeds and mulch, and a prolific future yield of fresh-picked produce for the First Family's table, state dinners, and local soup kitchens.
The spring planting plan (the layout is available on whitehouse.gov) mirrors that of well-run community gardens and small farms everywhere in America: cool-weather crops of lettuces, spinach, broccoli, carrots, peas, and more, with colorful borders of nasturtiums (whose leaves double as a peppery salad-green) and insect-inhibiting marigolds. Year-round growth will include an herb garden and patches for berries and rhubarb. For pollination, two beehives will be installed (and wouldn't you covet a jar of White House honey?).
The summer crops have not yet been disclosed, but you can expect a rotation to all the favorites — tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, squashes, cucumbers, eggplants.
While most of the labor in the garden will be performed by the White House groundskeepers and cooking staff, Mrs. Obama pledges that her whole family, the president of the United States included, will get out there regularly to weed and harvest.
The power of the presidency lies not only in policy but in symbol, and nothing could be more symbolic than this little plot of ground. It represents and endorses a change in national attitude toward what we eat and how we produce what we eat. It raises the consciousness of the country not only to issues of health and nutrition but to the simple pleasures of working the soil and cooking creatively. That patch of berries may be a symbol-within-the-symbol, too: The Blackberry in your pocket just can't match the blackberry in your mouth.
But then again, there is that policy component, and how the Obama vegetable garden foreshadows shifts in federal agricultural priorities remains to be seen. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor once derided by environmentalists as a "shill for Monsanto" for supporting agribusiness, ethanol, and biotechnology, came out of the inaugural starting-gate a changed man, advocating school nutrition programs, regional farming, soil conservation techniques, and farmers' markets. The challenge will be to convince Congress, long lavishly lobbied by Big Agriculture.
But popular sentiment may force change in spite of agridollars, not just by petition but by practice, as more and more Americans abandon factory-farm "product" and processed foods and embrace the locally grown, the fresh and the natural.
The photo of Michelle Obama turning that spade-ful of dirt was a shot seen 'round the world. At the GreenThumb GrowTogether, the annual convention of New York City community gardeners held last Saturday at Hostos College here in the South Bronx, the thousand-plus participants were ecstatic and energized as never before. Across the nation, I am sure, people have started thinking of joining a community garden or digging up a part of their own lawns for vegetables. And countries long dependent on shipments of American grain are experimenting with plans leading towards food self-sufficiency.
Some very good news for spring.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


March 19, 2009

In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt had a portion of the White House lawn dug up and planted in vegetables. It was her way of teaching by example, encouraging Americans to contribute to the war effort in a most personal way: by growing their own food.
It worked. By the end of World War II, there were 20 million "Victory Gardens" throughout the land, supplying an astounding 40% of the vegetables produced in the U.S.
Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack applied a jackhammer to part of the parking lot at the Ag Department's main office on the mall in Washington, breaking asphalt for the department's own 600-square-foot Victory Garden, to be called the "People's Garden" — a project he wants to implement at all its facilities worldwide.
First Lady Michelle Obama, on her getting-to-know-you visit to Ag, approved. "I'm a big believer in community gardens," she remarked, "both because of their beauty and for providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across the nation and the world."
Eleanor again? Will Michelle prevail upon (or collaborate with) her husband to take food theorist Michael Pollan's recommendation to use five acres of the White House lawn for organically-grown fruits and vegetables? If FDR said yes, how can BHO say no?
"Making this particular plot of American land productive, especially if the First Family gets out there and pulls weeds now and again," Pollan wrote in his open letter to the presidential candidates last October, "will provide an image ... of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one's family and community."
The idea of a First Farmer does have a Peaceable Kingdom ring to it, a welcome counterweight to Commander-in-Chief. Whether or not it ever gets that far, this administration's positive attitude toward a new (that is to say, old) approach to feeding America and the world will further increase the momentum, slowly building for years, away from the factory farming and processed foods that are compromising both the environment and people's health, and toward regionally and locally grown produce and meats.
The crisis of the environment, now coupled with the crisis of the economy, is motivating people to re-evaluate their priorities, and it's not just about saving instead of spending — it's about the staff of life itself.
Folks are voting with their feet — and many of them with their hands as well. They're shopping at farmers' markets, cooking conscientiously, experiencing the simple pleasures of eating wholesomely. They are putting food under their own control again. It's the "ownership society" in a way the former president never conceived of it.
I keep thinking of that 40%. We could personally contribute to our country's food security and environmental health by planting our own Victory Gardens. It is surprising how much a well-thought-out and well-planted little plot can yield. Mel Bartholomew, whose ingenious method of "square-foot gardening" is the best I've found for those of us with limited space and attention-spans, has shown how a four-foot-square bed of soil can produce vegetables enough to feed one person throughout the growing season — which for you in Southern California is just about all year long. Multiply that space by two or more and you can feed a family.
His approach, as described in his 1981 book, Square Foot Gardening, in its recently-released sequel, All New Square Foot Gardening, and on his website, squarefootgardening.com, makes vegetable gardening comprehensible, manageable, prolific, and constantly interesting. Digging up a four-by-four space in your back (or front!) yard and getting the soil right is the only hard part — and you only do it once. After that, it's easy.
First you divide your plot into 16 one-foot squares. In the spring you start with a variety of cool-weather plants — several squares for lettuce and other salad greens and a square or two each for radishes, beets, carrots, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, herbs, whatever you like; Bartholomew tells you exactly how many seeds or seedlings to plant in each square. When you harvest one little croplet, you turn the soil with a trowel, add some compost, and rotate the square to a heat-loving plant — a pepper, an eggplant, or a bush bean, for example. You can also fit one border of your plot with a trellis to grow vining plants like cucumbers, squash, and (with some attention) even tomatoes. This approach can easily be adapted to container gardening as well.
I've used the square-foot method in my four-by-eight-foot raised bed in our community garden for years, with extraordinary results. Intensive, systematic planting, with closer, more consistent spacing than the seed packets advise, crowds out weeds, discourages insect pests, and gives a great yield. Rotating the little crops throughout the seasons replenishes soil nutrients naturally. And your miniature farm, with its diversity of color and foliage, looks as attractive as a flower garden.
This is only one way of small-space gardening; there are many other approaches that may suit you better, and plenty of books and courses to help you.
So if you haven't done so already, start your own Victory Garden. In addition to providing your family with fresh, uncontaminated produce, you are helping to balance the urban ecosystem by attracting insect pollinators and lowering heat and carbon dioxide levels. Most importantly, you are taking back for yourself your most intimate connection with nature: your food supply.
The First Farmer would be proud.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


March 12, 2009

Last weekend, the weather here in New York turned positively balmy — right up into the 60's — melting the cover of snow, revealing the first shoots of daffodils, stirring hope in frozen hearts. The bees in my apiary came outside, not just hovering in front of their hives but flying off in search of pollen — perhaps from the early-blooming pussy willows in the Botanical Garden and along the Bronx River.
The gardener's fancy turns.
In years past, gardening has been just a pleasant hobby to me, a way to relax, get dirty, and almost as a byproduct, reap those precious midsummer rewards: tomatoes so tender and sweet you wonder why you ever buy those tasteless pink cardboard balls from the supermarket, and little cucumbers crisp and fresh and perfect for pickling. This year, as I thumb through the seed catalogues and plan for the season, I feel different: Gardening isn't just a hobby anymore, it's an essential part of a new way of living that is making sense to more Americans all the time.
Not so very long ago, eating organically and locally was seen by most as the kooky fixation of a tree-hugging micro- minority, old hippies and the grandchildren of old hippies stuck on sprouts and tofu. But just as climate change moved from an obsession of the lunatic fringe to a matter of universal urgency, so too the question of where our food comes from and how it is produced is entering our consciousness with force. With every E- coli and salmonella outbreak, we wonder all the more whether the industrialization of food, which by the economies of scale have kept prices low, is such a wonder after all. People are assembling in their heads the pieces of the food puzzle, and the picture that's taking shape is not as beautiful as we'd long thought.
Aptly-named Michael Pollan, the chief apostle of what has come to be called "sustainable agriculture," has been laying out the problems and his solutions for a while now. In the October 12 issue of the New York Times Magazine, he published a lengthy open letter to whichever candidate would win the presidential election, urging him to treat the food crisis with the same urgency as the energy crisis — indeed, to see the two crises as interrelated. He points out that industrial food production consumes 19% of our annual fossil fuel use — second only to motor vehicles — and generates as much as 37% of our greenhouse-gas emissions — the hidden cost of single-crop farming and factory- type meat and dairy production. Petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, farm machinery, processed food, and cross-country transportation eat up oil and natural gas, and feed-lot animals, besides being at high risk of disease, "are now one of America's biggest sources of pollution" from their waste.
Further, he remarks, the shipping of produce across the continent, and the processing and chemical preservation of almost every type of mass-produced food, lowers nutritional value and is a proximate cause of an incongruous malnutrition in the best-fed country on earth. Pollan notes that improper diet is a major factor in four of the leading causes of death in this country — heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer — and cites a disturbing prediction from the Centers for Disease Control: one- third of all Americans born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.
Pollan's solution to these problems is a national commitment to old-fashioned "solar-based," rather than petroleum-based, food production. On the macro-scale, this entails an overall reversal of federal farm policy: the elimination of subsidies for massive single-crop farms and the regionalization (or re-regionalization) of agriculture through the support of small farms growing a diversity of crops regularly rotated to maintain soil health and retired periodically for use as grazing land for cattle, yielding not only better meat but natural fertilizers — in other words, a return to farming as it was typically done before World War II.
Of course, Pollan admits that this labor-intensive decentralizing of agriculture will result in somewhat higher food prices — but it will also result in a healthier population, thus helping to cut health-care costs. He also predicts that the "revival of farming in America ... will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of ‘green jobs,' which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy."
These ideas sound wonderfully romantic, even to confirmed urbanites. They also sound hopelessly romantic, until you realize how widespread the concern about food quality and safety is, and how vigorous the change toward organically-grown local food has become. During the campaign, President Obama made much over "politics from the bottom up" — he seldom mentions it now — and with or without his doing, this literally grass-roots movement, drawing support from liberals and conservatives alike, may soon be able to break the stranglehold of the big-farm lobby on American agricultural policy.
There is a more intimate component to our collective consciousness about our food, the one I feel as I contemplate the potential of my little plot of ground here in the South Bronx: It's not just the small farmer that's important to our national agricultural sustainability, it's the smallest farmer: you and me.
I'll write about this in the next column.


February 26, 2009

Why are the auto companies in trouble? Because individual people are deciding not to buy new cars. Why are the toymakers tanking? Because individual parents are deciding their kids can get as much fun from a handball than from a Hannah Montana. Why do Wal-Mart's profits continue to rise? Because ... well, you know.
It's Adam Smith's Invisible Hand: Millions of individual decisions about production and purchase create collective wealth.
Or, as we've seen lately, the reverse.
Smith, that presumably thrifty Scot whose treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,appeared in 1776 and established the fundamental axioms for classical economic theory, saw that economic life is primarily based on self-interest: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner," he wrote, "but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." Every individual — producer or consumer — "neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it...; he intends only his own gain, and he is led by an invisible hand to promote a gain that was no part of his intention."
Since Smith's time, things have grown a bit larger from the production side: By and large, the butcher is Purdue, the brewer is Budweiser, the baker is Consolidated. But from the consumption side, it is still the individual person or family whose choices guide the economic pantograph.
Smith was not ruthlessly calculating in his assessment of self-interest. Whereas his contemporary Bernard de Mandeville contended that a free market permitted, even necessitated, the exploitation of labor to cut expense and maximize profit, Smith believed that the humane treatment of workers fostered good will among consumers. That is, Smith understood that there were also more human factors involved in making economic decisions.
It is the human dimension of self-interest, as well as sheer calculation, that may be moving America's Invisible Hand today. Dire economic conditions force the reordering of personal priorities, often to the better. In last week's column, I reported that the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests and brothers, having lost much of their endowment in the Madoff debacle, are now compelled to live their vow of poverty — to be poor in fact as well as in spirit.
In other but related senses, that is true for most of us too. Evaporating investments, falling home values, threatened or actual unemployment, and loss of medical benefits are making people re-think what is really in their self-interest. Forced to scale down, many are finding a scaled-down life more attractive than they'd ever imagined. And when multiplied by hundreds of millions, the changes individuals make in their microeconomic life will alter macroeconomic life profoundly for decades to come.
Already you see it: Personal debt, still at 141% of disposable income, is beginning to decline; the savings rate, at .06%, is rising.
As spending beyond their means, which loose credit and soaring home values once made people think was normal, now looks positively unthinkable, those industries which fed upon it — the credit-card companies and the makers of mammoth, inefficient automobiles, among many others — will, or should, contract or even dissolve.
Adam Smith never foresaw John Maynard Keynes; he thought government's role in the economy was to register and protect property, period. But even as formerly free-market economists are now arguing for "necessary" government intervention, it is important to issue a caution: Do not try to arm-wrestle the Invisible Hand. It is ultimately self-defeating to prop up dying industries and institutions. The role of an enlightened government should be to work synergistically with the self- interest of the citizens, whose response to circumstances will chart a new direction for society — to promote a gain that is no part of their intention.