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April 16, 2009

A Spiritual and Ethical Challenge on the Great Plains

For Darryl Birkenfeld, a long-time resident of Nazareth, Texas, the commons is not just a call to develop better economic models or protections for nature. It’s a spiritual and ethical challenge as well. Can we speak to a person’s deeper nature and long-term interests, and help align them with those of nature and community?

A former Roman Catholic priest and part-time food producer with a passion for sustainable agriculture and community development, Birkenfeld directs Ogallala Commons (www.ogallalacommons.org), a small nonprofit community resource network with a visionary agenda: to help people in the central and southern Great Plains recognize how much their well-being depends upon the commons.

Ogallala Commons refers to the region that overlies the vast High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer. This water commonwealth is the largest (by volume) freshwater aquifer on the planet…underlying 174,000 square miles that spreads across parts of eight states: most of Nebraska, most of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, western Kansas, eastern Colorado, eastern New Mexico, southeastern Wyoming, and parts of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota.

The Ogallala aquifer stretches across a vast portion of the Great Plains.

Birkenfeld is passionate about what he calls the “twelve commonwealths.” These foundational assets are present in any human community. Commonwealths can be identified as some of the basic gifts of nature — the water cycle, the soil and mineral cycle, renewable energy, wildlife and the natural world and the foodshed. There are also the more human-oriented commonwealths of education, health, leisure & recreation, arts & culture, history, a sense of place, and spirituality.

“These commonwealths belong to all the community,” the Ogallala Commons website asserts, “and if nourished and cultivated, they create widespread, enduring wealth, rather than prosperity for a few and impoverishment for many.”

Birkenfeld has an abiding concern for the Southern High Plains bio-region as the natural basis for communities. “What is this place we live in?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s the largest isolated, non-mountainous geological area in North America. It’s probably the largest flat landmass in the world. It’s our bioregion.”

It is not surprising that Birkenfeld, who has a Ph.D. in social ethics, sees economic development as a matter of promoting the integrity of the whole community. He points out that conventional development strategies fail by trying to woo outside investors whose projects tend to extract resources from a locale. Invariably, this leads to an outflow of money and people from the region and a vulnerability to booms and busts as global markets fluctuate.

Ogallala Commons is pushing for a more enlightened development strategy ?” one that is more enduring and stable, and more respectful of nature and humanity.

An admirer of H. Richard Niebuhr, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackson and Thomas Berry, Birkenfeld approaches questions of agricultural policy and environmental protection from an ethical perspective. He once concluded a presentation by citing the farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully and reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”

But Birkenfeld is no dreamy idealist; he is a pragmatist trying to get things done. While focused on immediate and mid-term challenges, he realizes that changing the cultural mindset that got us into our current predicament is the real goal.

“Ogallala Commons is not pursuing a one-year or five-year plan, but rather something that will take twenty or forty years, or perhaps a lifetime he says. “That’s hard for funders to accept, because they like to see incremental gains. But the big picture is that it took us several generations to get into our current predicament. The point is to show movement toward resilience and sustainability for the long haul, and to get a new discourse going.”

That discourse is centered on the twelve commonwealths and projects that attempt to make them more vibrant. So far, twenty-five communities or counties in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas have joined with Birkenfeld in pursuing a commons-based vision of community development. These “Commonwealth Communities” pursue a holistic approach to development that combines sustainable agriculture and business development with stable communities and a sense of history and culture.

Ogallala Commons — its Board of Directors and Advisory Council ?” works in partnerships with a wide variety of advocacy groups, communities, and government entities in the central and southern Great Plains, especially in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. It works with such groups as the Center for Rural Affairs and National Farmers Union as well as with local schools and state agencies.

“We are a collaborative network,” said Birkenfeld. “We don’t have a membership. You’re already members ?” three million of us! — you just don’t know it. You become active by participating.” Ogallala Commons wants to develop a radically different paradigm for growing an economy, protecting the land and nurturing community.

It does this by focusing people’s attention and mobilizing them to take action. Through the annual Southern Plains Conference, people learn about shared concerns like waste disposal, water and land use.

On the dry plains, responsible stewardship of water is always a major concern. Ogallala Commons has lead an effort to help protect more than 60,000 seasonal wetlands known as playas. “People have no idea that so many forms of life are dependent upon these playa wetlands,” said Birkenfeld. “There are any number of agencies in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas that are responsible for these wetlands, and still, 70 percent of them are degraded, and they’re getting worse.”

To educate people about the water cycle, Ogallala Commons has organized a series of “water festivals” for fifth-grade schoolchildren. Going beyond “turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth,” the project teaches kids about how water circulates in the central and southern Great Plains, and how humans need to actively work with nature to protect the water cycle.

Twenty schools now host an annual water festival, a number that is rising every year. Birkenfeld finds that the project helps educate parents, too, and opens new doors to working with landowners to help them protect the water cycle.

Ogallala Commons hosts convenings each year that explore each of the twelve commonwealths. Last year, the convening looked at “foodsheds,” or local food production and distribution. Next year, on the 75th anniversary of the cataclysmic “Black Sunday” dust storm (April 14, 1935), the convening will look at the soil and mineral cycle in the region.

The economic woes of the Great Plains make it difficult for many communities to keep their young people, who tend to leave for big cities once they finish college. The “rural brain drain” virtually assures that many rural communities will never revive themselves, let alone survive. So Ogallala Commons has helped start a series of summer community internships to help young people envision new possibilities for themselves in their hometowns.

“Internships are an important stepping stone for young people,” said Birkenfeld, “so we wanted to create some new forms of summer employment that pay better than baby-sitting and that help young people imagine ways to build livelihoods around the twelve commonwealths.”

At “Youth Engagement Days,” young people are invited to rediscover the twelve commonwealths as cornerstones of a healthy economy. “Kids sit with a facilitator in the school gym and get assigned to a group devoted to one of the commonwealths, and they come up with their own concrete examples of the commons.” The process helps them name what might otherwise go unacknowledged ?” the local commons in their midst that are essential to the community’s well-being.

One student intern who is studying landscape architecture wants to protect the prairie landscape. Another is doing research on historical markers in his community, while another is helping organize water festivals. To date, with help from CHS Foundation and local communities, Ogallala Commons has created eighteen internships in four states. The idea is spreading to other communities as interns use Facebook and other social-networking tools.

Because of its limited resources, Ogallala Commons’ projects tend to be modest in size. But a modest budget of $200,000 does not mean a limited vision. In the next few years, Birkenfeld wants to double the number of Commonwealth Communities, hire full-time staff and expand the internship program. He also wants to deepen the institutional and grassroots networks dedicated to the twelve commonwealths.

As the failures of conventional economic development become more evident, in fact, it is likely that Ogallala Commons’ vision of “holistic development” will attract many more adherents. But Darryl Birkenfeld has no illusions about the hurdles that will have to be overcome and the old habits that will have to be shed.

No matter. He is a patient food producer who has faith that a better, richer harvest can be grown. But first, some new types of seeds must be planted.