Michelle Obama has it right

In honor of the First Lady on her birthday, I offer the following.  On a National Public Radio program last year, I heard Michelle Obama interviewed about the vegetable garden she has put in at the White House.  Throughout the interview there was a House Wren singing in the background, but it was what she was talking about that caught my attention.  She was emphasizing the value of growing some of your own food and being close to the land.  A week or so before this, I was at an event in the museum where Thomas Lovejoy and several others had come together for a lunch round table with selected museum staff.  The last question that was discussed was how we can ever hope to get people to listen to the concerns scientists have about the potential implications of changing climate so that we can actually do something about the issue. 

What does all this have to do with Michele Obama and her garden?  One point that did not come out at the round table was that I think the biggest issue facing Americans with respect to issues like climate change is that too many of us have no strong ties to the natural world around us.  We do not watch nature and too many have come to actually take some pride in that.  We certainly do not have much experience with the actual growing and harvesting of the food we eat. 

In February 2011, I went to workshop in Gashora, Rwanda as part of our MacArthur Foundation grant to study climate change in the Albertine Rift.  That workshop, organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society brought together stakeholders and grantees of the MacArthur Foundation to discuss climate change in the region.  When that workshop finished, I traveled on to Malawi where Dan Brinkmeier, Tom Gnoske and I did a workshop at the Museums of Malawi in Blantyre, Malawi.  The goal was to get museum staff from the six museums spread all over Malawi to come together to discuss what it means to be a museum.   As part of this, Dan wanted to do breakout sessions associated with planning an exhibit.  The subject for the exhibit fell in our lap when the museum director, Lovemore Mazibuko said he had been asked to think about educating people about climate change.  We had four breakout groups and after a day of discussions, the groups came together to present what each thought would be an outline for such an exhibit.  Each group stressed that food security under climate change was the biggest concern on their minds.  I think this would be true throughout Africa, but I will guess it would not be true in much of the U.S.  Why?  Because unlike people in the U.S., Africans are rarely more than a generation away from farmers and even as the cities get bigger, they still live off staples like corn and cassava that they often buy, more often than not, directly from the farmers that grew it. 

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Christopher Salema of the Musuems of Malawi leads a group of colleagues discussing themes to use in an exhibit about climate change.  Dan Brinkemeir led the workshop which was made possible by a grant from the Museum's Council on Africa.

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A small patch of corn, the staple of Malawi, being grown along a road in the city of Blantyre.

Americans (and I’m guilty) buy vegetables in bags in vegetable sections of large grocery stores that were trucked in from who knows where.  If we had more ties directly to farms and the crops they eat, I wonder if we would feel differently.  My sense is that in Africa, climate change is something people are willing to listen about because it hits close to home. 

While food is something everyone needs, just getting people outside would raise consciousness also.  For a number of years, I put in a backyard hockey rink at our house for my son Pete.  Just this little exercise creates stronger a stronger connection for me with respect to climate.  Adults who grew up in Chicago used warming houses and flooded parks throughout the region all winter.  In the 10 years that I have been doing this several of the winters have had as little as a week of time the entire winter when we had ice to skate on. Again, my point is that I think too many Americans just do not get outside enough to even experience the environment around them.  Michele Obama made an important point that day, if we all did do a little gardening, not only would we have some good food (and get some exercise), but we might develop the ability to appreciate the changes that are being documented around us to the extent that we would be willing to do something about it.

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Our backyard hockey rink (Evanston) in 2004.