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Interview With Derek Wallace From

Sustainability Photo + Video + Film Food + Drink
by Ian MacKenzie Jan 2, 2007

As previously mentioned, Derek Wallace is a guy on a mission.

He’s embarking on a world-wide tour working on organic farms to write a book about how other cultures have tackled the issue of sustainability, and to bring back methods of organic communal gardening that United States citizens can employ to help combat their addiction to petroleum-based produce grown on factory farms.

I caught up with Derek to interview him about organic versus factory farming, peak oil, the war on terror, and the future of sustainability.

BNT: First off, what exactly is organic farming?

Derek Wallace: Organic farming is about growing crops without the use of artificial pesticides which can have seriously harmful effects on our health and the environment.

Organic farmers emphasize the concept of “feeding the soil not feeding the plant” – but it isn’t just limited to consumables, though. The cotton in the clothes we wear, the grain we feed our livestock with and even natural pharmaceuticals (ginkgo biloba and aloe vera, for example) can all be grown organically.

In addition, organic farming emphasizes a desire to find an equilibrium with the surrounding environment, which is known as “sustainability”.

Sustainability can best be described as a moral and ethical design system applicable to food production and land use, as well as community design. It seeks the creation of productive ways of living by integrating ecology, landscape, architecture, agroforestry and green/ecological economics.

Taken to its purest form, it is known as “permaculture”, which aims to create human habitats by following nature’s patterns.

How is that different than factory farming?

Factory farming emphasizes quantity over quality. It’s the mass-production, assembly-line version of farming, which means is that many, many safety and health corners end up getting cut that hurt consumers.

For instance, the pesticides and ammonia-based fertilizers used by factory farms can cause acute health problems like abdominal pain, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting as well as skin and eye irritations. And that’s just symptoms found in farmers who work around the chemicals. Just imagine eating fruits and vegetables that have absorbed them!

You just don’t find anything natural about industrial farming, whether the product is crops or livestock. Soil needs time to absorb nutrients and injecting animals full of anti-biotics because you’ve crammed hundreds or thousands of them into close quarters only breeds super bacteria that are immune.

What epiphany pushed you to start this project?

I actually know the date that it happened: it was the fourth anniversary of September 11th. Hurricane Katrina had just struck a week before and I was fed up, I mean absolutely sickened to my stomach, by my government’s response – or rather, lackthereof.

I logged on to MySpace and made a blog about how convenient it was for the Bush Administration that something like this came along to distract Americans from the harsh reality that four years had passed since the World Trade Center Attacks and there was still no sign of capturing Osama Bin Laden.

Either we were totally incompetent, or we weren’t looking. And so I started doing internet research. That’s when I stumbled upon Life After The Oil Crash and my heart skipped a beat.

The site explains very simply the issue of “Peak Oil” – that there is a finite amount of petroleum in the ground and that eventually we’re going to hit the halfway point, or “peak”. When that happens, resource wars will kick into overdrive.

This “War on Terror” was just a smokescreen to secure U.S. oil interests in the Middle East before that big crunch happened.

At first, I thought, okay, so hundreds of years from now it’s going to be “Mad Max”. So what’s it matter to me? But then I read further and learned that the leading geologists, physicists and investment bankers agreed that, much like global warming, peak oil wasn’t going to happen in the far flung future – it was going to happen somewhere in most of our lifetimes.

This “War on Terror” was just a smokescreen to secure U.S. oil interests in the Middle East before that big crunch happened.

With that site as a jumping-off point, I gained a better understanding of how important petroleum was to each and every single aspect of modern human civilization. It not only runs our vehicles, but it’s also what makes our huge factory farms possible in the first place.

Approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the U.S. Pesticides are made from oil, farming implements such as tractors and trailers are constructed and powered using oil and food is distributed across oil-powered transportation networks. In the U.S., the average piece of food travels almost 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate. As the website says, “in short, people gobble oil like two-legged SUVs”.

Over Christmas break of 2005, I did some real soul-searching and I decided that enough was enough.

I couldn’t keep complaining about the state of the world while I was contributing to the very problems that it was wracked with. Maybe I wasn’t as big or as influential as ExxonMobil, but dammit, I was still doing my part to pollute the earth and perpetuate international wars for oil.

And I figured that if enough of us changed our lifestyle habits, well, that would be like enough drops of water forming a tidal wave of positive change.

So I spent the next six months figuring out what I was going to do to in order to enact that positive change in my own life.

What are some ways you changed your lifestyle?

The first thing I did, the simplest thing, was I cut down on shopping at grocery stores and eating out at restaurants. I started getting my food from local farmer’s markets, where I could talk first-hand to the people who grew the food I ate. I could also barter on the price, which you’re just not able to do at Ralph’s or Piggly Wiggly or CostCo.

I figured that if enough of us changed our lifestyle habits, well, that would be like enough drops of water forming a tidal wave of positive change.

The next big step was getting rid of my vehicle – which is tantamount to social suicide here in car-crazy Los Angeles. But ya know what? It wasn’t that difficult, actually. Duane Elgin wrote an incredible book that has influenced me deeply and it’s titled, “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich”.

Elgin gives the example of two people who have to ride their bike to work. One person couldn’t afford the payments, so it was repossessed. Now, every peddle turn is sheer agony to him, because he misses his car so much and longs for the freedom of mobility that came with it.

The second person was tired of sitting in traffic, wanted to get in better shape, hated polluting and preferred to save the money he’d spend on car payments/gas/maintenance/parking/etc. Now, every peddle turn is sheer ecstasy to him, because he loves all of the physical, social and financial freedom he has gained by giving up something that hew viewed as unnecessary.

Same end result but different perspectives.

Knowing what I knew of Peak Oil and global warming and filled with a strong desire to make a difference, I decided, I’m going to start documenting sustainable lifestyles and business for people who are unaware that Peak Oil is even an issue.

And in my research for that, I came across wwoofing and couchsurfing, two forms of social networking many people don’t even know exist.

What is the Wwoofing network and what kind of experience do you need to join?

WWOOF stands for “World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms“. The organization is a facilitation network that enables people to learn first-hand about organic growing techniques while helping farmers make organic production a viable alternative.

Many major countries have a national WWOOF network and those that don’t often have WWOOF independent groups that operate the same way as their larger sister networks. The great thing about these networks is that they provide safety for both the hosts and the guests, so that neither side gets taken advantage of. Think of it as eBay for farms, only the item for sale is your time as a volunteer!

As far as experience, none is needed! I myself have very little exposure to farming practices, yet I’ve been welcomed with open arms! The WWOOF organizations can help put you in contact with the right host for what you want to learn.

One example is the “chinampas” system of farming, which the Aztecs used in the shallow lake beds of the Valley of Mexico to help overcome the main limits to agriculture in the Basin of Mexico: variable rainfall, frosts and soil fertility. It is estimated that food provided by chinampas made up one-half to two-thirds of the food consumed by the 200,000 inhabitants of the city of Tenochtitlán until the destruction of the dams and sluice gates during the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Now that’s something I’m extremely interested in and just wouldn’t get exposed to without the help of WWOOF!

You also mentioned you’ll be “couchsurfing” during your trip. Have you ever done it before or met someone who had?

Couchsurfing is something that most everyone is familiar with – sleeping on the couch of a friend or family member while visiting another town or country.

But the website takes it one step further and helps people offer this opportunity to kindred spirits they haven’t met yet. There are several safety features set up so you and your guest or host can make sure they know who is coming to stay with them and for how long.

Since August 1st of 2006, I have personally hosted over three dozen people for time periods ranging from just one night to an entire week. Sometimes it’s been just one person, once I had FIVE BELGIANS with me all at the same time! The whole living room was just filled to the brim with Europeans and backpacks and sleeping bags.

The beauty of couchsurfing is that you get to determine the level of involvement with your guests, whether that’s taking them on guided tours of your city and cooking meals with them or just giving them a place to sleep and saying “have fun!” while pointing them in the direction of the nearest restaurant.

Also, I can’t emphasize this point enough – each and every single person who came to stay with me while I was hosting was a sheer joy to be around. They were smart, funny, kind, courteous guests who made every day an adventure.

I had visitors from all around the globe – places like Australia, Denmark, England and even right here in the United States. I’m going to be doing some couchsurfing of my own over the holidays while I’m in Charlotte, North Carolina, Chicago, Illinois and San Francisco, California.

You quickly get over that initial fear of, oh no, what am I doing? I’m staying with a complete stranger in a foreign area! Especially once you realize that these people aren’t truly strangers after all, since the friend-of-a-friend phenomenon is happening.

What’s the longest trip you’ve been on in the past?

Believe it or not, I’ve never been out of the country! I lived here in Los Angeles for five years and never even crossed the Mexican border! And that’s a shame, a real shame.

I’ve spent a week here and there in cities like New York and Chicago and San Francisco, but never an extended time away from home like this. And especially not in a strange new country where I don’t know the language and the customs!

But I grew up moving around a lot, so I’m no stranger to travel. A lot of people are afraid to leave the confines of their homeland for fear of being ostracized, and that’s a valid fear.

But in my experience, I’ve found that it’s usually the other way around – people want to talk to you because you are new and mysterious and have experiences in far-away places that they can only fantasize about. And lemme tell ya, that’s a damn good ice-breaker!

You have quite an itinerary for your trip. Do you think you’ll have problems hitting every single country?

You should’ve seen my wish list itinerary! I think it was something like 35 countries, which would’ve equated to about five days each! After I realized, hey, there will be other trips, no need to go overboard, well, I started narrowing it down based upon countries with highly-regarded and long-established WWOOFing networks.

But, I’ve already hit a few problems along the way. As you can imagine, many under-developed countries in regions like South America, Asia and Africa have a hard enough time with subsistence farming, let alone organic farming. So I begrudgingly had to substitute in different countries that were nearby or cut their regions out of my route altogether.

One example I can give is Fiji. If they don’t sort their military coup out, it looks like I won’t be visiting there after all. Which makes me sad, because I’ve really wanted to visit Fiji for about a decade now, ever since I saw a National Geographic special about it. Something has always called out to me about a region that has over 2,500 uninhabited – yet habitable – islands.

You have a music section on your site. That’s a pretty cool idea to highlight the music of various musicians you meet on the road.

I thought that would be a neat touch to help give subscribers as much of an authentic feel for the areas I visit as possible. I want my website to be an all-senses adventure for visitors: there are pictures for the eyes, music for the ears, recipes for the tongue and for the nose and even an interactive GPS location system for the hands.

Music has always been this really fantastical thing to me that magically arrived on earth from the handiwork of wizards and sorceresses. I’d hear people talk about “backbeats” and “tempos” and I’d just scratch my head because all I knew was, “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been unable to control my desire to make it myself. I chalk that up to the time I spent making 5-minute-long independent television shows for here in Los Angeles.

It’s this awesome group of indie writers, directors, actors, special effects artists and musicians who don’t sit around waiting for Hollywood to give them permission to make the kind of shows they want to see. They pick up a camera and just do it, man.

That was really inspirational to me and helped set me on the path to crossing over from being just a consumer into the realm of “creator”. I’m really hoping I’ll get a chance to work with some musicians on my travels, because that’s one area I haven’t really branched out to yet.

Why is re-learning how to organic farm so important today?

>I think it’s so desperately important because if we don’t sidestep the big double-whammy of Peak Oil and global warming, a lot of people are going to suffer needlessly.

Many already do in this dog-eat-dog world of free-market capitalism and war profiteering. But the ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor that’s eradicating the middle class of our economy means that we’re looking at Hurricane Katrina on a global scale.

If I can do something, anything, to help change the course of destiny and avert it from that outcome, I’m in. Sign me up. It’s go time.

So that’s Derek Wallace in a nutshell.

That’s me, the guy who wants to give up everything that is unnecessary before he loses everything that’s of true value. I want to eat healthy food, I want to be a conscious consumer, I want to leave this world a better place than it was when I came into it.

I want to be that harvester that Charles Read wrote about when he said “Sow an act, and you reap a habit; sow a habit, and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny.” Because that’s what it’s about, changing our habits and creating our own destinies, instead of just following what corporate advertising tells us is “right”.

None of this is “real” or “the way it has to be”. Change what you can, however small. There’s no reason not to and nothing holding you back but your own addictions and your own habits.

The reason I’m documenting my journey is so that I can help inspire others. Because if I can do it, you can do it.

Visit Derek’s website to learn more about his project and get involved. Also, keep your eye on this magazine for an upcoming guest post by Derek on peak oil, sustainability, and the fate of the human race. Sign up for your free updates now.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on this interview in the comments!

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