Times of Crisis Demand Counterstories for Change

Eva Perroni | 05.30.2020

The world is currently bearing witness to a unique historical moment. Profound and catastrophic environmental, economic, and health crises are exposing many vulnerabilities and inequities in both society and the natural world. These unprecedented disruptions, including the Australian mega-fires of 2019/2020 and the global health COVID-19 pandemic, are clearly evident within the food system, with a massive reorganization of the food supply chain from farm to plate across local, national and global scales. On one hand, these crises are compounding the suffering for millions of people, with the World Food Program (WFP) estimating that 265 million people could be pushed into acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 as a result of COVID-19, conflict, and the effects of climate change. On the other hand, these complex crises can bring people together through our shared humanity, making the most of the shared knowledge and experience we already have in developing long-term sustainable solutions to some of the greatest challenges of our time.

Two people working to build food security for their family and their community in an era of ongoing uncertainty are Jade and Charlie Showers of Black Barn Farm, located in Stanley, North East Victoria, Australia on Pallanganmiddang country. The selection of this location was a very conscious decision that took the better part of a decade for Jade and Charlie to make. During their search for the perfect location on which they could apply permaculture principles on a much larger scale, Jade and Charlie worked to develop a business model that operated on the shortest supply chain possible, ensuring transparency and trust between farmer and consumer while providing a diverse range of educational opportunities. They consider and weigh every on-farm decision with a deep compassion and care for the health of their ecosystem of soil, plants, water and animals that naturally expands into a care for the wellbeing of their local community. It’s a holistic approach to sustainability that integrates the physical and social needs of local people within the ecosystem.

Jade is mindful not to pigeonhole herself into any one ‘alternative’ agricultural approach or ethos but rather grounds her work in a purpose, vision, and set of core values that support long-term change; interconnectedness, community cohesion, diversity (above and below the soil), regeneration, and holistic health. She recognizes that there are multiple pathways towards building a sustainable local food system:

“Realizing that there’s probably truth, untruth, bias, and political longevity in everything…that there’s never a definitive right or wrong way of doing things. I think the less dogma we have in the way we live, in everything we do, is possibly one step towards the solutions we are seeking.”

Part of the challenge of deconstructing dogma, Jade identifies, is finding the right language or narrative to clearly articulate their vision and values without alienating people or perpetuating the existing polarization within agriculture. This polarization, which can very broadly be conceptualized as ‘conventional’ and ‘non-conventional’ or ‘alternative’ approaches to agriculture, represent not only different types of farming but also differing sets of agricultural values. Beginning to bridge the gap between these approaches and support the transition to more sustainable forms of agriculture will involve deep changes in the social, economic, political, and ecological settings that influence and shape farming and food systems. For Jade, a crucial dimension of the sustainability transition of farming systems is cultivating a socio-cultural story that is both promising and powerful; one that outlines new modes of relating to ourselves, each other, and the Earth.

Indeed, changing language and changing culture are complementary processes. Language has power. It makes up the shared framing stories that embody the rules of a culture and the aspirations of those who live in it. It helps define our shared values and priorities and the interpretation of current events, the questions we ask, and the options we consider.

Sustainability philosophers claim that “we are at an impasse of stories, finding ourselves in a blank chapter between the old and the new.” The old story, characterized by individualism and competition rooted in a profit-driven free-market economy, and human superiority over nature, structures our most powerful institutions to drive, rather than resolve, structural inequality and ecological collapse. But now, more than ever, more people are coming together and organizing around the articulation and sharing of a new narrative, a counterstory defined by (comm)unity, cooperation, sustainability, and equity.

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Unlike other frequent Australian bushfire experiences that often affect small populations and isolated farming regions, the scale and severity of Australia’s recent bushfire crisis was “a whole-of-nation experience” that manifested into “this national collective grief that took a lot of the country away from being apathetic and paralyzed to being galvanized and engaged” in social and environmental issues, reflects Jade.

“We can no longer be apathetic or ignorant to the impact of climate change. Our need to adapt and build hardened ‘in-this-together’ resilience feels like it’s being chewed over in every conversation,” Jade asserts.

“We each need to look hard at ourselves and consider how reliant we are on extractive industries. How much waste we generate. How committed we are to our localized food systems, how much we contribute to the well being of our communities. How much we consume. What happiness or success really looks like. How much knowledge we really have about the natural world. Whether we respect the seasons. And most importantly assess our genuine desire for change.”

As Jade alludes to, bushfire hazards and disasters are enmeshed in other enormous, complex socio-political-ecological problems that require equally complex responses. The immediate urgency of responding to a major natural disaster like a bushfire, however, heavily skews government resources towards short-term solutions focused on reactionary responses or post-disaster recovery, which do little to mitigate against the social and environmental impacts of such disasters and may even set back longer-term, more substantial change.

“Unfortunately we live in this world of short-termism where we [all must] work in these three-year blocks based on political voting structures. So we actually don’t ever give ourselves the ability to look longer-term, to use a whole range of lenses and look whole-system. Government departments, firefighters, community development workers, and agriculture workers are siloed, operating in little echo chambers. No-one ever sits down with someone outside of their chamber and asks ‘what’s the whole-system solution to this’,” says Jade.

Rather than communicating and calculating value and loss in purely economic and physical terms as governments and institutions regularly do, current global crises are calling on individuals, communities, and social movements to redefine the values and objectives of a more conscious, sustainable, and resilient society.  A values-based approach to food system transformation necessarily goes beyond crafting and communicating this new narrative to also assess and transform the many drivers of values and behavior, including policies, institutions, and the lived experience of farmers more broadly. For Jade and Charlie, this work begins at the grassroots level and is imbued in the art of practicing the change they wish to see in the world on Black Barn Farm and in local food advocacy, where their daily on- and off-farm practices emphasize mutual interdependence and care between individuals, communities, and the planet. There is transformative power in aligning what they say they value with what they show they value to everyone who visits their farm.

“Despite my now deep dislike of the summer season and the inevitable fires that come with them, I have my house, my garden, my family, the most incredible support from the community with daily messages, and a country who is rising. Rising on the desire to see genuine change,” proclaims Jade.

Cover photo by Sascha Grant (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)