Published by Kerry on 05 Apr 2011 at 09:00 am
WiserEarth editor Michael Sykes is not new to the sustainability movement. As a founder and co-owner of the SBA Farms Collective, a peace activist, and a champion of education relating to food supplies and getting off the grid, Michael stays busy. What has he learned from these many years of involvement? Read on!
Location: Winnie, TX, USA
Work at SBA Farms Collective
Michael Sykes and a non-residential collective of artists, academics and agrarians developed the 15-acre, organic SBA Farms Collective over 32 years.
Michael lives at the farm, near the Louisiana border of the Texas gulf coast. The influence of the local petrochemical industry presents challenges in educating the community about local food, the long-term health impact of industrialization, and going off the grid. “We are outgunned by the industry in terms of local awareness,” he says. “We fight and fight and make tiny little strides.”
Reception is divided. “Those in the corporate world are quick to label us as ‘hippie liberal radicals,’” Michael says. “But there are those [in the community] that welcome the information.”
They appear to be making waves. “The regional educational system and the community have been very receptive to our programs,” Michael notes.
They are pursuing nonprofit status, to enable them to partner at the national and global level, and to enhance larger educational programs with issues like sustainability, organic/hydroponic farming, and “vertical” farming.
Shifts of fate
Environmental factors in his region have had a strong impact on Michael’s life and work.
There are certain cancers that only occur in a few highly industrialized areas. “My oldest daughter died at 32 from a breast cancer directly linked to environmental toxin exposure,” he says. “It is the only incurable form of breast cancer, and the only common thread is environmental exposure to toxins. This brought about a renewed urgency in my personal life.”
After Hurricane Ike brought three feet of saltwater to the farm, the collective had a choice to make: “We could apply chemicals or wait two to three years for the soil to recover its natural pH balance,” Michael says. They chose the latter. Farming activities were put on hold.
This spring they plan to reopen their community garden and educate on rainwater collection, “solarizing”, getting off the grid, camping and being comfortable outdoors.
The collective has made collective awareness a part of their mission. During their waiting period, they began tracking the effects of Monsanto and other GMOs on rural farming and small family farms.
Awareness of the global space
Michael has tracked Monsanto’s effects in areas like Tibet and is in touch with journalists covering the issue. The article Harvest of Suicides, by Vandana Shiva, discusses the effect of GMOs in northern India, where there is no regulation: disintegration and collapse of indigenous populations with many sustainable farmers.
“These are the same techniques that Monsanto has brought back to the US and is attacking small family farms with,” he notes. “It’s illegal to do a lot of this research in the US, but the US allows tax credits and benefits to such organizations for the work they do internationally.” He adds that one major problem is US corporations being granted the rights of individuals, without the same limitations as individuals.
Such tightly interconnected international and local issues must be solved on multiple levels, Michael explains. He and the collective feel the international problem grows increasingly urgent and needs action in addition to their local work.
The intersection of peace and sustainability
When Michael worked with the peace movement nationally on his return from the Vietnam War, he realized that the sustainability movement faces the same issues: human rights abuses, access to education, and justice.
“There is no solving them on a local basis, they have to be solved on global basis,” he says. “I find that WiserEarth greatly facilitates that dialogue.”
He regularly writes and speaks on peace issues. He explains that he is a peacemaker, but not a pacifist: “I often wonder, who guards the guards, who protects the peacemakers? We have to address the security of people standing up in public and speaking out.”
He does not condone violence: “I have great respect for Gandhi’s approach to confronting oppression and imperialism.”
He discovered WiserEarth through a friend who runs an NGO in Kenya. Upon finding that WiserEarth was populated by people he knew and journalists he had long followed, Michael joined immediately.
He came in contact with several WiserEarth editors who encouraged him to set up groups specific to his interests. He began a WE group called On the Front Lines of Activism, with a primary focus on direct action.
Michael says that WiserEarth enabled his collective to make contact with the global sustainability movement “in a one-shot operation, without having to scan through every single organization that’s out there.”
His collective has been inspired by the multi-user portal aspect of WiserEarth and has modeled their own website after it. Michael describes WiserEarth as “an empowering tool for getting out of the fishbowl world that we all live in, and getting some exposure globally. It’s become an integral part of operations at our collective.”
He says that activists in his community often work in isolation, and hopes to bring about broader awareness of the big picture.
“We are able to share communications from a global audience with people that are local to us and vice versa. It’s a double blessing,” Michael says. “The more we share WE, the more positive our reception on a local basis. People are amazed that this [global movement] is going on, period, much less on this scale. They’ve said [WE] has made them stop and think, become more aware, a little more critical of media. ”
He is especially fond of the community: “WE seems to have succeeded in garnering the attention of committed, empirically verifiable, demonstrable activists from the academic world to the Nobel world to the on-the-streets, on-the-front-lines activists. It’s truly the most egalitarian community I’ve seen on the internet.”
Advice for making the most of WE
Michael’s tips include:
- Ask questions, go to the WE help desk, contact admins or editors!
- Join networks. Participate. You can always change groups, general ones can lead to focused ones. Just go see!
- Meet other people when you sign on, share your experiences with the community. Encourage others to do the same.
- Participate in other groups. Spend some time looking at what’s new on WiserEarth that is outside of your area.
- Wander, go walking in your virtual neighborhood, see what else has shown up since you were there the last time. It’s a discipline that keeps me broadly oriented on WiserEarth.
Many thanks to Michael. We hope you’ve enjoyed this WiserEarth tale!
Photo courtesy of Michael Sykes
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