Sustaining Life

In 1975, long before anyone had heard of the ozone hole or global warming, Ken Dunn founded the Resource Center of Chicago to introduce city dwellers to the simple values of conservation and respect for the earth he learned growing up in an Amish Mennonite farming community.

Today, the center–”with the still-spry 65-year-old Dunn at its helm–”has expanded into a network of nine programs with a common goal: to fight environmental and social injustice. Dunn sees these issues as two sides of the same coin, twin symptoms of a culture of wastefulness. From a food recovery project that collects unwanted items from caterers and grocery stores and distributes them to soup kitchens, to a recycling initiative that employs Chicago Housing Authority residents, the center’s programs all reflect Dunn’s belief in maximizing the resources–”human and material–”that others disregard.

Dunn began looking critically at industrial capitalism as a teen-ager, when he and his brothers were put in charge of managing the family farm. The boys acquired more land and invested in new technologies to maximize their production.

They soon realized they had made a mistake. “I found it totally lacking in its satisfaction for the farmer and its responsibility to the soil,” Dunn says of his foray into industrial agriculture. Intellectually curious by nature, he saw his experience as a gateway into understanding the central conflicts of modern life. “I went for a college education to figure out why we’d made those wrong decisions.”

He landed in a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he found the answer to his questions. “Our economy just is wrong,” Dunn says. “There are values that people have traditionally had that are more appropriate for how one should live one’s life.”

As an example, he points to the Mennonite mandate to do no harm to the earth or its inhabitants. “Industrial agriculture does violence to the soil, to the plants and animals, and to communities,” Dunn explains. “We have to get back to a place where we can be true to our values.”

For Dunn, this means being better stewards of the earth. That means revamping the global economic system that he says strips humans of their connection to the materials they consume–”starting with what they put in our stomachs. “There are few things that have built community over the ages as much as food,” he says. “Food production, harvesting, preparation, eating–”it’s sort of the center, the heart of the household and the community.”

In its fight against big agriculture, the Resource Center operates two City Farms in Chicago–” vacant lots that Dunn has converted, with the help of local youth, homeless and volunteers, into fully operational organic farms.

The Chicago Reporter recently met with Dunn at the City Farm at the corner Division Street and Clybourn Avenue to talk about his work.

What ideals do you run the Center based on?

Fundamentally, as a nonprofit, the Resource Center is a sustainability organization. But being mindful of its place, it’s in a city whose quality of life is primarily diminished because of social inequity, lack of social justice. One of the big focuses of any responsible organization in Chicago is to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. A lot of our projects locate on the boundary. We’re at the boundary between Gold Coast and Cabrini Green. Our first site was on the boundary between Hyde Park and Woodlawn. By inhabiting the boundaries, you can encourage participation of diverse populations and get started real communication.

All of the Resource Center projects seek to find resources, both human and material, that are not valued or respected properly, and ingeniously bring them together to bring a positive outcome or better utilization of both resources.

The vacant space in our city is definitely a resource that is often despoiled by dumping and disrespect. By cleaning it up, and the cleaning being done by people [who are] unemployed or homeless, that discarded land can be brought into productivity by the discarded population.

How does Chicago relate to the rest of the country and the world on these issues of poverty and sustainability?

Being a Rust Belt city, there is large unemployment; being a diverse population, there are a lot of haves and have-nots–”communities that don’t have and schools that don’t have. I think Chicago does happen to have, on a scale that cannot be dismissed, the problems that the entire world has or will have.

Some say that that the “green” lifestyle is a luxury that’s only available to the wealthy. Do you agree?

We have to admit that sustainability as it’s represented by the media and understood by the population is an elitist notion, and that we will not be able to sustain that for the entire population. I think a sustainability that focuses on place, that focuses on building a quality of life on local resources, would be the alternative.

Is it possible, in your opinion, for us to do anything to halt or reverse global warming?

It can’t be by waiting for the new technology. I think the dominant media is jumping on a new form of mass transportation–”hydrogen cars or hybrid vehicles. None of these will be our solution because an equitable solution relies on less energy being consumed. So a private automobile is out of the question in a sustainable society. That is, if you have a private automobile for everybody on the planet, just the amount of energy consumed, no matter what form it is, will be beyond what the planet can sustain. So our solution, to be a true one, has to be in our culture and the way we produce a quality of life. It cannot be, –˜How do we get each other to these mass rock concerts?’ We have to learn to enjoy music and conversation in our living rooms, rather than in concert halls and concerts that we fly to our drive to. So technology has no solution because technology is the problem.

Do you think the total overhaul of society is the only way we’re going to be able to make any headway? The idea behind this –˜market environmentalism’ is that you’re just not going to sell 95 percent of our population on an agrarian society, and that it’s about baby steps. But are the baby steps even worth taking, in your opinion?

Well, the baby steps are necessary, because we’re only going to alter our culture if we can continue with pleasures that we’re used to. So, instead of telling everybody, –˜All right, done with this–”back on the farm and no purchasing anywhere,’ most people’s enjoyment of life would greatly decrease. They have no experience on the farm, of how to take pleasure from working on a farm.

So, it’s going to take time; we’ve got to get people involved in baby steps. But at the same time, we don’t have time. Is it possible in the real world?

I don’t think so. Climate change will eliminate a lot of species before we really get it turned around. And so the question to us is, –˜Do we turn it around before our species is one of them that is eliminated?’ But what does a reflective and hopefully responsible individual do with such circumstances? You do the best you can. And you just ask, whether you succeed or not, –˜Was I on the right side as we went careening?’

It was a piece of graffiti that I saw in the early ’70s on a garage door in Hyde Park that got me to my major perspective. The graffiti read: –˜The party continued as usual, as the elevator plummeted from the 96th floor.’ I kept trying to figure out, –˜What does that mean?’ And then I noticed, “Oh yeah, all of these things that I have as reservations of modern society is the modern party. And we’re plummeting from the 96th floor.’ We have a little, very little, time. So that’s what made me say, –˜Let’s quit trying to figure out how to tweak the industrial economy or switch our teaching and our focuses of our universities.’ None of that can be tweaked. We just have to say, –˜We’ve been on the wrong track and the party we have should be not one that caused the plummeting. But let’s have a party.’

So often we hear this narrative about a tension between social and environmental justice: developing nations claim that they shouldn’t have to meet the same emissions standards as industrialized countries. In the congestion pricing debate, people claim that, if you charge $10 for people to get into New York City, that’s going to be unfair to poorer commuters. Is it possible to find environmental solutions that don’t unfairly burden the poor?

The conflict exists when the assumption is that we’re going to be able to keep our dominant economic system or remnants of that dominant economic system. As soon as you bring in how we’re going to eliminate congestion in New York City, you’ve got to be using our dominant economy, so you’ve got to find solutions that work in our dominant economy. But what we need to do instead is just rethink life starting with place and then think of what resources can support a quality of life. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve emphasized urban agriculture, in that we can eliminate a whole cycle of the dominant economy, or the dominant food system, by using the space that’s local and the resources of the rain and sun that fall on that space.

All of our urban farms have a farm stand. In order to pay the high price of production without exploiting either the soil or the people, we sell over half of the produce to high-end restaurants at top-tier prices, but we sell at the local farm stand to the local population at what they’d expect to pay.

Traditional peoples have throughout the ages met most of their needs in open air markets, and many people still do. Let’s assume that quality of life and human needs can be met in open air markets. And what characterizes them is you usually exchange things with the producer. You start appreciating the item; it’s got a deeper value because you see all that’s invested in it.

Start valuing everything in your life, everything you touch, because it has deeper meaning. In looking at farmer’s markets, how our social needs are met there, needs for beauty, culture, enhancement–”they can all be met in farmers’ markets. We’ve just got to start looking at the small examples of sustainable and equitable living and build something from there.

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