Thursday, April 9, 2009

Oberlin Trashionistas: Old Clothing Finds Second Life

by Dea Goblirsch

The Oberlin Review April 3, 2009

Oberlin students constantly tread the tenuous line between wanting to live sustainably and wanting to be one of the cool kids. When it comes to the clothes we choose to wear, maybe these two things aren't mutually exclusive.

If the prevalence of holey sweaters and the rate at which items cycle through free boxes are any indication, old, ragged and torn clothing has found a stylish second life: on-campus recycled fashion. While vintage dresses, flannel and v-neck American Apparel t-shirts are trendy almost anywhere, including Oberlin, a contingent of Obies have formed a style tribe that interprets recycled and boho chic literally. In contrast to runway models in four-figure patchwork dresses and urban boutiques purveying threads designed to be disheveled-looking, Oberlin students are actually taking clothing from the trash (or at least from the rejections of someone else's closet.)

Like many other groups coalescing around a distinctive aesthetic, Oberlin's trashionistas are marked by a set of ideals that motivate their choices. Mainstream fashion encourages consumers to buy a lot, cheaply, so they can afford to throw it away when the next big thing emerges on the catwalk. Oberlin students who deck themselves out in recycled threads are opting out of this cycle and creating an eco-conscious alternative.

Trashion, as practiced on campus, is not a doughty rejection of style. Some of the most eye-catching members of the student body are those who skip reading Nylon and instead turn previously unwanted and unattractive items into poetically unkempt or childishly playful combinations. Students mix found earrings, bright colors, long skirts and ski caps into whimsical, slightly crunchy looks. I've seen Oshkosh B'gosh children's overalls and chunky grandmother knits fused to create enviable combinations.

College junior Kate Coury, an Oberlin College recycler, is one such dresser. Coury's passion for hand-me-downs and found items is fueled by personal philosophy.

"I have this theory," Coury says, "that if you really, really need something -- and if you think about needing it or wanting it or liking it -- you'll find it somewhere. It works for everything!"

Coury's theory may hold up at Oberlin, where an incredible infrastructure has been developed for the distribution of unwanted clothing, room decor and miscellaneous items. The Free Store, located in the basement of Asia House, is staffed by College Recyclers (including Coury), who make sure one student's junk becomes another one's treasure. At the end of each semester, dorm rooms are cleared out and students relinquish everything from woefully unattractive rainbow-knit hats to last season's chic shoes, skirts and dresses at the Big Swap in Wilder Main. Free boxes are located in all of the OSCA cooperatives, and Harkness has converted its former mailroom, adjacent to the house lounge, into a swap spot. The Recycled Products Co-op runs Procraftination nights, during which craftsters turn beer boxes, cardboard and other scraps are into hand-bound books and jewelry.

Recycled chic is often, and somewhat problematically, coupled with anti-capitalist beliefs. Oberlin's redistribution programs are influenced by freeganism, which advocates minimized participation in the United States economy through exchange and dumpster diving, but manifestations of these ideas are limited to the student body. Oberlin College exchange culture is undermined by its inaccessibility to community members. Free boxes, the Free Store and the Recycled Products Co-op are located on-campus -- the first two in buildings that require College ID card swipes to enter, the latter in Wilder Student Union. In a low-income town such as Oberlin, limiting this wealth of resources to the hip, often economically stable student body seems selfish.

In the Academic Commons and on Wilder Bowl, trashionistas flaunt looks that make dumpster diving seem chicer than boutique hopping. Environmentally minded organizers have created a simple, brilliant infrastructure for the re-distribution of recycled goods on campus. Isn't the next step obvious? Let's get out of the dorms and the Asia House Basement and make our incredible resources available to all of Oberlin.

Monday, March 30, 2009

D.C. Protest Redefines Environmental Activism

Oberlin Review March 13, 2009

The burning sensation caused by my thawing toes, curled around Toasti-Toes foot warmers, was overridden only by the protest chants that filled the frigid air. Raising our voices against coal power and liquid natural gas ("Come on people let's organize! No coal, no gas, no compromise!"), my group of about 30 activists stood outside of the Capitol power plant's front gate. Our banners spelled out "Climate Justice, Not Corporate Greenwashing" and "Stop Cliffside" (a coal-fired power plant proposed for North Carolina) in spray-painted letters. Behind us, a line of police officers tightly hugged the fence surrounding the plant. Across the street, a measly counter-protest made up of about 15 people held signs pronouncing, "Coal is cheap, Al Gore is evil and wrong."

My affinity group (defined as activists working together in direct action) was comprised of the most radical contingents in March 2's Capitol Climate Action, including Rising Tide, Earth First! and Mountain Justice. However, the justice theme that permeated the entire protest demonstrated a mainstreaming of the movement and the radicalization of many environmentalists. Orchestrated primarily by Greenpeace, a well-established organization, the broad-scale action focused on the human, as well as environmental, impacts of coal.

"What do we want? Environmental justice! When do we want it?! Now!" emerged as a rallying cry in the Spirit of Justice Park, the gathering point for all 2,500 participants. Appalachian communities and indigenous groups affected by mining and processing led the march from the park to the coal plant that heats the U.S. Capitol's water. After the march circled the entire plant, the impacted communities took my affinity group's place at the media-saturated front gate so that they would be the most visible component of the Capitol Climate Action.

By decompartmentalizing environmentalism and justice, activists are beginning to recognize the intersections of all forms of oppression and to question the structures that uphold them. It's difficult to claim that the capitalist extraction of resources is for the benefit of all of humanity and civilization when it's clear that mountaintop removal, coal mining and power plant pollution are destroying livelihoods right now.

The environmental justice movement first emerged in the 1980s, basing itself on principles of clean air, water quality, food access and unpolluted property for all people, but it has often been considered a niche cause. Throughout the 1990s and up until today, most environmentalism has been eco-centric and its relationship with social justice tenuous at best.

Growing up, the contemporary rabble rouser I remember most was Julia Butterfly Hill, who resided in a redwood tree between 1997 and 1999 to prevent its felling by a timber company. Each year, my elementary school teachers would collect pennies to "save the rainforest" from agriculture and logging. Prior to the Capitol Climate Action, Greenpeace's main goals have included fighting climate change, whaling, nuclear power and the destruction of old growth forests. Even radical environmental organizations, including Earth First!, have traditionally focused on the protection of wildlife refuges and national wilderness areas.

The shift from ecological warriors to climate justice activists has arrived in the wake of recent events and disasters. The rapid depletion of natural resources, staggering climate change statistics and food shortages have pushed environmentalism and sustainability into the media and onto the political agenda. This focused media lens, coupled with un-ignorable tragedies such as the devastation of New Orleans' lower-income and African-American communities after Hurricane Katrina, have made environmental injustices a larger part of the environmental conversation.

The Capitol Climate Action's tangible goals were simple and small-scale: To shut down the Capitol power plant for one day. The plant resumed normal operations on March 3. While the action was conceived to highlight the detrimental effects of coal, Nancy Pelosi announced on Feb. 26 that the plant would be switching to natural gas. (Natural gas, though cleaner-burning, is also unsustainable and unjust -- our supply is extremely limited, and pipelines are being driven through rural farms, creating risks of leakage and fires.)

However, the action advertised itself as symbolic, claiming preemptively, to be "the largest climate justice action in United States history." It was a statement against mountain top removal, coal-fired power plants and ironically-named clean coal technologies across the country.

With 2,500 activists on the streets of Washington shouting, "What do we want? Environmental justice! When do we want it? Now!" the Capitol Climate Action planted the seed of a truly radical movement. It hasn't taken root just yet. Many environmentalists still have faith in the United States' brand of capitalism and "democracy" to solve our woes. However, a new generation of young activists is coming of age at a time when, whether it be the economic crisis or the foolishness of cap-and-trade "solutions," the structural failures of our society are coming into full focus.

What warmed my freezing bones the most as I stood in front of the Capitol power plant on March 2 was watching the definition of "environmentalist" shift before my eyes -- tree huggers acknowledging that human lives are being uprooted, too. Let's go even further by fighting the hypocrisy and unsustainability echoing through the halls of that building -- you know, the one that the Capitol power plant heats.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Farming and the Global Food Crisis

The Oberlin Review, 2/21/09
"Global food crisis" has recently become a national buzz phrase, sliding out of the mouths of politicians and on to the front pages of major newspapers. Only a handful of vocal dissenters (including food politics poster boy Michael Pollan) have called for the dismantling of industrial agriculture -- most are suggesting research and implementation of slightly "greener" technologies that will enable farmers to grow more food, more efficiently.

Absolute reliance on science and technology has repeatedly proved fallible when addressing agriculture and food supply, especially in the long run. The ironically named Green Revolution, which followed on the heels of World War II, gave rise to the use of pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and lab-bred crop varieties in fields all over the world. While the environmental impacts of chemical- and petroleum-based farming are clear, the birth of industrial agriculture also had a hidden societal cost, particularly in the Third World. Large farms producing monocultures ripe for national distribution and export edged out subsistence farmers, who have traditionally grown multi-crop polycultures. Polycultures allow farmers to diversify their harvests, ensuring variety and food security -- if one crop gets a blight or is otherwise inedible, the garden offers many other options. While cereal production doubled in "developing" nations between 1961 and 1985, diets became based around just a few crops and nutritional values plummeted.

The first page of Wired Magazine's November 2008 cover article on food shortages (entitled "The Future of Food: How Science Will Solve The Next Global Crisis") brandishes the catchphrase, "It's time for a new Green Revolution." While the set of charts and facts that comprise the article suggests interplanting and crop rotation, Wired's strong support of genetically modified crops and biotechnology overshadowed these sustainable practices. Distribution, which has often been cited as a greater reason for hunger than sheer lack of food, is not considered. In a society where "our capacity for innovation is as limitless as our appetites," (Wired's audience is primarily middle to upper-class American, adding a hint of irony to its word choice) the unknown effects of technological experiments are seen as less risky than the loss of First World political and economic capital inherent in scaling back and re-localizing.

It would be wise for the United States, however grudgingly, to follow an unlikely example: Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, they were the major exporter of food and sole provider of petroleum to the Caribbean island. Over the next four years, Cuba's food production was halved and its people struggled to feed themselves on a quarter of the supply they had access to during the Soviet era. Food prices skyrocketed and calorie consumption dropped from 3,004 to 2,323 a day.

With no other choices afforded them, Cubans began feeding themselves. The methods they developed from the grassroots up were premised on a few simple tenets: localize food production, elevate the status of the farmer and institute organic agriculture. Farmers founded small, collectively and individually owned farms, many of them urban-based. (80 percent of Cuba's population is concentrated in its cities.) The Ministry of Agriculture supported the initiatives and 350,000 high paying agricultural jobs were created. Because they no longer had access to Soviet petroleum, Cuba's farms and urban gardens were organic by default, using natural and recycled inputs. Food access and nutrition began to steadily climb. The typical Cuban now consumes 3,547 calories per day, more than what is recommended by the United States government. Their prior export-import based monoculture food system collapsed under political pressure, but small gardens scattered across cities have been able to provide produce to most of the Cuban people for over a decade.

Havana alone has 200 urban gardens, called organoponicos, with 7,000 farmers manning them. They provide neighborhoods with mangos, plantains, basil, parsley, lettuce, garlic, collards, beans and sweet potatoes, 70 percent of which are organic.

Because farmers sell from simple tin carts, overhead costs are low, allowing garden-fresh food to be priced at affordable levels.

Cuba does maintain monocultures, but many of these also employ organic practices, resulting in 68 percent of corn and 72 percent of coffee being grown without petro-chemical inputs.

Cubans have managed to feed themselves in ways that are healthy for the earth and for their bodies.

Critics have suggested that Cuba's agricultural program is not an applicable model for the United States for political, geographic and demographic reasons. Cuba is a single-party communist state with tight government controls. Farmers do not have to compete with big, ruthless agribusiness as they do in the United States. Furthermore, Cuba is an island nation with a population of 11.5 million, as compared to 300 million Americans. And, like almost anywhere else, there is still a degree of hunger and poverty in Cuba.

Urban agriculture in Cuba did not, however, begin as a national government initiative, but rather as a grassroots movement of communities and individuals responding to the pressing lack of food availability. While government support certainly smoothed the path for development and expansion of a localized, organic food system, it did not initiate it. Likewise, solutions to an oncoming food crisis are unlikely to be top down. As petroleum-based farming and transportation become unfeasible, people in the United States and elsewhere will be forced to look locally for answers to shortages and hunger.

Oberlin's focus on local and sustainable sources, manifested in co-op produce fridges, town restaurants and some dining hall offerings, will put us in a unique position if and when food shortages begin. The knowledge of sustainable living that many college students and community members possess will prove invaluable in developing local sustenance strategies. There is much work to be done democratizing access to locally grown, healthy food -- especially during long Ohio winters -- but we are a step ahead of most of the United States. The government will never look to Cuba when preparing to deal with a national crisis, but we can look to the Cuban people for the tactics and resolve to build a truly inclusive network of sustainable food communities.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Che's Kitchen: Raw Foods For a New Generation

Wilder Voice, Winter 2008, Volume 4, Issue 6

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obies Take Scavenging Culture to the Dumpster

Oberlin Review, 11/21/08
When recent Obie grads David Brown and Greg Mann moved into an unfurnished apartment in Berkeley, California with no more than the clothes on their backs and camera equipment, they anticipated a struggle. What they got instead was stuff, and lots of it. Within a few weeks, they had not only food, clothing and mattresses to sleep on but also a neon Budweiser Beer sign and a shelf overflowing with books. These treasures didn't come from stores or yard sales, but from dumpsters. Brown and Mann were conducting an experiment: attempting to live solely on scavenged goods for three months.

The resulting feature-length documentary, i Love Trash, was conceived as a way to publicize dumpster diving. Also called dumpstering or skally-wagging, diving is premised on the idea that our capitalist society produces vast amounts of still-usable trash that is free for the taking. In the United States alone, 236 million tons of garbage is thrown away annually.

The film is low-tech and sometimes veers dangerously close to an art school project, with choreographed trash dances and a scene in which Mann, Brown and two friends re-enact an imagined pre-historic hunt, their arrows pointed toward a dumpster rather than a wooly mammoth. These parts simply distract from an otherwise poignant documentary based on solid research, a multiplicity of voices and Mann and Brown's spirited adventures. While many of their interviewees are college-aged bohemians, the face time i Love Trash gives to older divers shows that dumpstering can outlive youthful leftism to become a sustainable way of life. One man speaks of supporting thirteen of his own children by dumpster diving for fifteen years. Local artist Skip Schuckman builds architecture primarily from scavenged sources, the purchased exceptions being the occasional can of paint or sheet of plastic. The piece our filmmakers visit is constructed leaning against a boulder, with its ceiling beams merging curved wood with scavenged machine parts.

The message of i Love Trash is driven home by the culminating scene, in which Brown and Mann hold a free sale to get rid of everything they've accrued before moving out of the apartment. "Shoppers" swarm in, including a recent divorcee in need of furnishings and a girl who is most excited about taking home the branch hanging on a wall. Others take dishware, button-up shirts and Brown's garbage art creations. These "worthless" goods that never meant to find their way out of dumpsters get a third chance at life.

Four years prior to making i Love Trash, David Brown started dumpster diving while a student at Oberlin. During a winter term trip between San Francisco and Seattle, he and his traveling companions began eating out of the garbage to cut food costs. When Brown realized just how much perfectly edible produce and bread was going to waste, he began supplementing his diet with scavenged foods and sharing them with others. He also began dumpstering for clothing and art supplies, even centering some of his school projects on recycled materials. Philosophically, Brown was interested in the anti-capitalist stance dumpster diving takes, as espoused in cut-and-paste punk zines.

In turn, Brown and his documentary inspired two current students, David Greenberg and Saul Alpert-Abrams, to eat solely dumpstered food during the week of October break. They had already been foraging for wild mushrooms and wanted to explore the urban side of scavenging. Greenberg considered their experiment a chance to see whether dumpstering would be a viable option in his future, when he didn't have access to food communities like OSCA. While Saul mentioned that they went several days of eating only produce and then several of only bread, he saw that as a lack of planning rather than a failure of the dumpster gods. It took them about fifteen minutes to collect food for the day -- about as long as it does to pile a plate at Stevenson Dining Hall. For Alpert-Abrams, dumpstering is also a philosophical act, and he refers to it as making a "negative-negative impact"-- subtracting from the wastefulness of throwing away vast quantities of usable food.

As i Love Trash makes its way to the Wild & Scenic Environmental, Frozen River and Lake Country film festivals, Mann and Brown's dumpster diving gospel will spread beyond their friends and acquaintances. Viewers from all walks of life will be able to virtually accompany them on their three-month adventure and dream up scavenging schemes of their own. It has already been shown in Oregon's Bend Film Festival and an Oberlin campus screening is pending, potentially spawning a new generation of members for the Independent Garbologists Association.