I’m so excited for the opportunity to spend another summer in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, interning for the Donella Meadows Institute. One of my tasks at DMI has been to comb through the archives of Dana Meadows’s writing (yes, that includes 167 Dear Folks letters, 32 articles and papers, 738 global citizens columns, and 11 books—where did she find the time to do it all?!) and hunt for the gems of wisdom Dana imparted to us, of which there are many. This quotation search has been energizing and inspiring and has also resonated with conversations I have had with some of the many social and environmental advocates of the Upper Valley.
This past fall, a Qualitative Methods of Human Geography course at Dartmouth College allowed me to research really anything I wanted to explore in the Upper Valley. In my brief time living in Hanover NH, I have become somewhat smitten with the numerous harvest festivals, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture programs, food cooperative membership opportunities, farm stands, etc. that the area has to offer. But I’ve also frequently wondered how these local food outlets, designed as sites of community-building and local empowerment, may end up excluding low-income populations from participation in these costly experiences. I set out to better understand the food landscape of Norwich and White River Junction, Vermont. I hoped that conversations with local directors of food banks, nutrition programs, farm banks, and community gardens would shed light on local food insecurity, how it is being combatted, and what community-wide food sovereignty for the entire Upper Valley would look like.
Again and again, themes of Meadows’s work presented themselves.
“There are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything,” Meadows wrote in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. My research continually reminded me that the Upper Valley is not an anomaly in an otherwise functional food system or a place separated from the processes that shape it; food insecurity results from larger national and global structures, systems, and policies. Thus, it is much more effective to find a place to intervene in the system where a simple tweak could create radical changes. During one interview with a farm manager, I was getting bogged down in the details of farm subsidies, global trade agreements, and food banks. He laughed and said, “Kylie, if you think we are going to adjust each branch of the entire system, starting at the bottom and working all of the way up to the top branch, you are sorely mistaken; it will be exhausting, you will reach resistance at every turn, and the work will distract far too much from the behavior shifts that must happen. Planting a new tree? Easy. You plant the right tree and it will thrive.” He challenged me to imagine a shift in the paradigm so that food sovereignty for every single individual was a top priority.
As Meadows explained in one of her weekly Global Citizen columns, “The way it is usually told, the message Everything is Connected to Everything Else is not fun to hear. It is intended to cause repentance and reformation. More often, of course, it causes guilt, fear, and an uncontrollable urge to avoid environmentalists. What we are rarely told is that solutions are as interconnected as problems. One good environmental action can send out waves of good effects as impressive as the chain of disasters that results from environmental evil.”
This notion really struck home with me. The Everything is Connected to Everything else idea can be fairly paralyzing when imagining that one wrong move, even when well-intentioned, will set off a string of disasters. However, it can be quite empowering to envision the amazing ripple effects of a positive action. In my research, I was surprised that interviewees from all fields continued to site education, and specifically ecological literacy, as a leverage point. The more and more I listened, however, the more I came to believe in the potential power of ecological literacy to instigate a paradigm shift, alleviate health issues, engender a sense of community and empowerment, strengthen relationships with local landscapes, alter waste management behaviors, and so much more.
It has been lovely to find much of Donella Meadows’s thinking still so alive and well in the Upper Valley. I look forward to more exploration of how local individuals are carrying on her legacy in their everyday lives and professions and imaging how her legacy can manifest itself in this wonderful community in the future.