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Our Worst Enemies Aren't Terrorists: Rethinking National Security on a Sinking Planet

The chances of being affected by a terrorist attack are slim, but disruptions to our far-flung supply lines for food, water and energy are a reality.

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As chef and author Alice Waters has demonstrated so practically, schools can start "edible schoolyard" gardens that cut lunch-program costs, provide healthy foods for students, and teach the principles of ecology. The food-growing skills and knowledge that many of our great-grandparents took for granted growing up in a more rural America have long since been lost in our migration into cities and suburbs. Relearning those lost arts could be a key to survival if the trucks stop arriving at the Big Box down the street.

The present Department of Homeland Security has produced reams of literature on detecting and handling chemical weapons and managing casualties after terrorist attacks. Fine, we needed to know that. Now, how about some instructive materials on composting soil, rotating crops to control pests and restore soil nutrients, and canning and drying all that seasonal bounty so it can be eaten next winter?

It's not just about increasing the local food supply, of course. Community gardens provide a safe place for neighbors to cooperate, socialize, bond, share, celebrate, and learn from one another. The self-reliant networks that are created when citizens engage in such projects can be activated in an emergency. The capacity of a community to self-organize can be critically important when a crisis is confronted. Such collective efforts have been called "community greening" or "civic ecology," but the traditional name "grassroots democracy" fits no less well.

Ideally, the greening of homeland security would mean more than pamphlets on planting, but would provide actual seed money -- and not just for seeds either, but for building greenhouses, distributing tools, and starting farmers' markets where growers and consumers can connect. How about raiding the Department of Homeland Security's gluttonous budget for "homegrown" grants to communities that want to get started?

Here's the interesting thing: Without federal aid or direction, the first glimmer of a green approach to homeland security is already appearing. It goes by the moniker "relocalization," and if that's a bit of an awkward mouthful for you, it really means that your most basic security is in the hands not of distant officials in Washington but of neighbors who believe that self-reliance is safer than dependence. In this emerging age of chaos, pooled resources and coordinated responses will, this new movement believes, be more effective than thousands of individuals breaking out their survival kits alone, or waiting for the helicopters to land.

Actually, relocalization is an international movement and, as usual when it comes to the greening of modern society, the Europeans are way ahead of us. There are now hundreds of local groups in at least a dozen countries that are convening local meetings as part of the Relocalization Network to "make other arrangements for the post-carbon future" of their communities. In Great Britain, an allied "Transition Towns" movement has sprung up in an effort to spark ideas about, and focus energies on, how to wean whole communities off imported energy, food, and material goods. With a rising sea at its front door, the Netherlands has taken a further step. Its national security plan actually makes sustainability and environmental recovery key priorities.

In the U.S., "post-carbon" working groups are beginning to sprout across the country. In my backyard, right in the heart of red-state Utah, a diverse group of citizens calling themselves the Canyonlands Sustainable Solutions have come together to generate practical plans for insulating the remote town of Moab, 200 miles from the trade and transport hub of Salt Lake City, from future food and energy price shocks and supply interruptions. Such local groups are often loosely allied with one another, especially regionally, through websites and blogs that report on the progress of diverse projects, trade ideas as well as information, and offer lots of feedback.