Post Carbon Institute's Asher Miller on the Sustainability & Resilience of Our Food System

Caption Asher Miller

Asher Miller. Courtesy Jodi Lynn Buckles.

Over the past eight years Asher Miller has served as Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute (PCI), a nonprofit think tank that supports the transition to a more resilient, equitable and sustainable world by providing individuals and communities with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated ecological, economic, energy, and equity crises of the 21st century. Read on to learn what three things led Asher into the sustainability field, what he sees as the biggest barriers to bringing about a more sustainable food system and what makes him hopeful that we can make things right.

What drew you to the sustainability field?
Three things, really, that came together at around the same time. The first was the influence of my wife who was always more environmentally-conscious and engaged than me. I mean, I recycled and bought organic and all that. But she was passionate about healthy and sustainable food, and wound up being a school garden teacher and the Executive Director of the School Garden Network of Sonoma County. She exposed me to a lot, and not just food-related.

The second was the birth of my first son. Like a lot of people, that led me think a lot more deeply about the future and what I was doing to ensure he had the same opportunities and fortune I had. And, third, just a few months after he was born, I watched An Inconvenient Truth. I had done nonprofit work for my entire professional career up to that time, but Gore's climate presentation lit a fire under my butt to engage in what was clearly the big crisis of our time. So my wife and I quit our jobs and started something called Climate Changers, which was focused on making it easier for individuals to make "climate friendly" consumer choices. It was through that that I was exposed to the work of Post Carbon Institute and others that were focused on the deeper, systemic forces at play. It didn't take me long to realize that, with Climate Changers, I had been swimming in the shallow end of the sustainability pool.       

Sustainability is a complex concept given the many aspects to it and its relationship to the concept of resilience. What does it mean to you and your work?
It's true that sustainability is complex, in that our sustainability crisis is the confluence of a number of complex, adaptive systems all interacting and influencing one another. This is particularly true in the hyper-globalized, modern world where, for example, fossil fuel extraction in Saudi Arabia creates sea level rise in Miami. But on the other hand, sustainability is really simple. A few years ago, my colleague Richard Heinberg laid out Five Axioms of Sustainability that are fairly obvious and self-explanatory if you think about them.

I feel inordinately lucky to be able to do this work - despite the fact that it often feels overwhelming or frightening.

Maybe I sound like a rabid fundamentalist but I think sustainability should be a guiding principle or foundational question for literally everything we do - government policy, investments, education, child-rearing, our economic system and so on. The Obama Administration recently announced that all federal government agencies are now mandated to factor climate change into their planning, no matter that agency's purview. This is a great start, but climate change is only one of the sustainability crises we face, though admittedly the most consequential. And actions that we take to mitigate climate change now may not themselves be sustainable in the long-term, or could even exacerbate other issues. A perfect example of that has been US policy to incentivize corn-based ethanol production, which created localized environmental risks from pollution and negatively influenced commodity prices around the world.

The same thing applies to the relationship between resilience and sustainability. In some ways, resilience has replaced sustainability as the concept du jour, but the two concepts are neither interchangeable nor achievable without the other.

Tell us about Post Carbon Institute.
Post Carbon Institute is a nonprofit think tank that supports the transition to a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable world. Through publications, websites, creative media and public speaking we try to help people more deeply understand what we call the E4 (economic, ecological, energy and equity) crises. Our 30 Fellows are each experts in a specific field but all share a common view that these issues are interconnected and can only be addressed through systems change. PCI also strongly advocates for and supports community resilience building and re-localization as key, under-resourced strategies for responding to these crises and putting society on a managed path towards true sustainability. In the long run sustainability is not negotiable; nature will force us to change or perish. But the journey and outcome will be a lot more pleasant and beneficial if we attempt to manage it.

Who or what inspires you?
Honestly, I feel inordinately lucky to be able to do this work - despite the fact that it often feels overwhelming or frightening. And one of the main reasons is because of the encounters I've had with some of the remarkable people working to address these issues.

I have huge admiration for people like Bill Rees, Wes Jackson and Dennis Meadows, who have uniquely contributed to our understanding of the sustainability crisis and spoken with courageous honesty for decades in the face of indifference or antipathy. I'm also constantly struck by (and envious of) the ability of people like Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Naomi Klein, John Michael Greer, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, Rob Hopkins and the guys behind Juice Media to communicate complex and difficult subject matter clearly or with wit and humor, or with infectious energy.

I'm also inspired by people like Tim DeChristopher, who have literally put their bodies or freedom on the line. And then there's all the amazing souls doing the hard work of inventing (or re-inventing) alternatives to the extractive economy, often with too few resources and little to no accolades. I only get to see the smallest glimpse of the amazing community of builders out there, but even that little glimpse helps keep me going.

In terms of staying sane, it's all about being present with my wife and sons, reading dumb fiction or cosmology, and finding as many opportunities as possible to laugh.   

What do you view as the biggest barriers to achieving a more sustainable food system?

Here's a quick list, in no particular order:

  • Dependence on fossil fuels in all aspects of the food supply chain. In the US we currently consume about 12 calories of (mostly fossil fuel) energy for every calorie of food energy we produce.
  • North American/European food consumption patterns and expectations - particularly of animal protein.
  • Population growth and growing demand from the "developing" world for Western levels of food consumption.
  • Top soil erosion and fresh water depletion.
  • Climate change.
  • The crash of fish stocks and ocean acidification.
  • The political influence of Big Ag corporations on food policy.

What role can individuals play in bringing about a more sustainable food system?

The big one, obviously, is shifting their own food consumption patterns. Depending on the person, that could mean any or all of the following:

  • Eating less meat and fish and more vegetables
  • Sourcing their food from more local growers, particularly ones that utilize organic, biodynamic/rotational and no/low-till best practices
  • Growing more of their own food
  • Eating in season
  • Composting and reducing food waste
  • Advocating for local appropriate local/state/regional/national food policy
  • Supporting the development of local/regional distribution and manufacturing systems
  • Helping to ensure equal access for all people to healthy food
  • Supporting early education programs like school gardens and
  • Deepening their understanding of the relationship between the food system and water, energy and equity

That list can seem overwhelming. But, really, it just indicates all the different ways each of us can play a role. All of it helps. And all of it is necessary.

Your organization recently hosted an important and thought-provoking conversation about fossil fuels and the food system. How are fossil fuels used in the current food system, and what do you think a food system in a 100 percent renewable energy future looks like?
As I mentioned earlier, it currently takes about 12 calories of energy to produce each calorie of food we consume in the US. Most of that comes from fossil fuels - oil, natural gas, and coal. To the surprise of many people, the majority of that energy consumption is not actually at the farm or used to transport the average item of food the 1,500 or 2,000 miles it takes to get to you. But fossil fuels are embedded in virtually every phase of the food system and many of these uses are very difficult to substitute with renewable energy sources. At OurRenewableFuture.org, Post Carbon Institute has a very brief but informative exploration of how fossil fuels are embedded in the current food system, using the example of a bowl of corn flakes.

In terms of what a 100 percent renewable energy food system looks like, that's hard to say with specificity. I think it will vary by region and by circumstance. And it will vary big time based on how proactive and systemic we are in our approach to the transition. What I can say with some confidence, however, is that in the aggregate it will be more localized, seasonal, appropriately scaled, plant-based, muscle-powered, water-wise, closed-loop and equitable. I think we'll see the trend of automation, consolidation and de-population of farmers go in reverse. More people in the US will be engaged in the act of growing food. I do think that appropriate technology will play a role but I'm skeptical of a Ray Kurzweil-esque vision of robots picking our almonds or super-productive vertical farms on city skyscrapers.

Are there any fossil fuel-free examples around the globe that we can look towards for inspiration?
You know, the most obvious examples of fossil fuel-free food production are in communities where modern, industrial food systems have yet to gain a foothold. But perhaps more applicable and of interest to us in the "developed" world is what happened in Cuba during its "special period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cubans were highly dependent on fossil fuel imports, including for their food system. Virtually overnight, these imports dried up and they were forced to figure out how to feed their population differently - especially because US foreign policy towards Cuba made it challenging to find alternate sources.

I suppose one of the few positives of having an authoritarian government was that the Castro regime rapidly implemented a program to teach organic farming and establish small scale farms and gardens throughout the country. It was not an easy transition. The average Cuban lost something like 15 pounds, and they were probably not obese to begin with. But they were able to prevent massive, catastrophic famine. It's obviously not a perfect analog for our circumstances here in the US, in terms of climate, political systems, social cohesion, etc. But there are a lot of lessons to learn from Cuba's experience. And if you look at indicators like life expectancy, calorie consumption, and GINI co-efficient, their transition was not a failure.

What makes you hopeful in regards to achieving a more sustainable and resilient society and food system?
A few things. For one, the relationship people have to food. Unlike a lot of other issues like the federal debt, projected sea level rise, or even sources of energy, we interact with our food system in a very immediate way every single day. So the opportunity for people to engage directly with it - to experience the benefits of healthier food or the fruits of their labor when growing their own food - is so much greater. It's no coincidence that the local and sustainable food movement is growing or that groups like Transition Towns start food-related projects more often than anything else. And I'm particularly excited and hopeful to see the growth of a movement of young farmers.

I am also hopeful that national and international policymakers will recognize the role that sustainable agriculture practices can play in mitigating climate change. Some fantastic research has been done in recent years that provides evidence of the huge potential for natural carbon sequestration and soil restoration through ecologically-minded agriculture.

Lastly, I see a bit of hope in the growing recognition of how absolutely ruinous industrial agriculture is - from the plight of bees, to risks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to aquatic dead zones from nitrogen runoff, to the inhumane conditions at CAFOs. The failings of industrial agriculture are becoming more and more alarming and evident. But in that crisis is opportunity.

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