Enough Grows

By Mary Hendrie

Opinion

This post is excerpted from my blog Not an Activist, which I started in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Please visit the blog to learn more. Thanks!

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s really possible to “do enough.”

Yesterday, I realized that to some folks I may look like a real hippy-dippy, granola weirdo, which was a funny thought for me since lately I seem unable to shake the feeling that I’m simply not doing enough. I’m not living quite the eco-friendly lifestyle I thought I could. True, I’m working toward some major changes, but they all happen slowly. One doesn’t just become a yoga teacher and quit commuting over night. Rather, there is money to be saved, training to be endured, and a clientele to be built before teaching yoga is really a viable career option. And yes, that’s where I’m headed, but who knows when I’ll get there.

Meanwhile, I usually eat lunch near my office at one of the three places that are close enough to walk to during my break. But I get sick of the repetition, and yesterday I wanted Subway, which is a little further than I can reasonably walk in the amount of time I have. I joked somewhat lamely that I was really living on the edge by going to Subway for a change. The office administrator was kind enough to laugh unconvincingly, but truthfully, I felt pretty conflicted about going.

At Subway, I pulled up in my Prius, walked in and ordered a veggie patty on wheat bread, piled high with lettuce and spinach. I declined the use of a plastic bag to carry out my order and gently placed the paper-wrapped sandwich in my oversize purse instead. I did accept the combo deal … because I love Sun Chips. But I didn’t use a lid or a straw for my soda cup.

On the way out, I thought I felt the eyes of the other patrons on my back. It could’ve been because I was exceptionally well dressed, or they might have been thinking I was a real eco-douchebag (I promise you will love this article by J.B. MacKinnon, who is not a douchebag). But the funny thing to me was that while on the surface, perhaps to the uninitiated, I might have looked like a real do-gooder, I didn’t feel like one.

I still drove to get the food. I still used their waxy paper. I still used the paper cup. I still ate the chips from the weird composite bag.

Once you become aware of the materials you use on a regular basis, it’s hard to justify using them even once in a while. If they are non-recyclable, or if they are made from non-renewable resources every single use feels like a transgression. Yes, I was enjoying a vegetarian lunch, driving a hybrid and avoiding plastic waste, but the fact that I drove there at all felt like I was doing something wrong. It was a little like sneaking out of the house in high school, only without the devilish thrill.

So, as I was having what might have looked like a very green lunch break yesterday, I realized that there is a massive disparity between what most people probably consider “green living” and what I think is “doing enough.” And the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible for very many people to do enough. I think most of us are capable of making these surface changes like what I’ve made so far, but many people aren’t even doing that.

But how much of a difference could we make if all of us just did the very basics? Recycle, avoid plastics, drive less, eat less meat.

MacKinnon notes in his article that switching to power-saving light bulbs hasn’t had quite the impact on our electricity consumption that we hoped, which makes me wonder if what I’m doing is a waste of time or worse — hypocritical. Still, I can’t help feeling that not trying at all would be a far greater waste.

There are two questions for me now:

  1. How do I continue to make small changes that will add up to something meaningful?
  2. How do I (or can I) reach those folks who aren’t yet doing anything? After all, it will take much more than just myself to make a difference.

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

53 responses to “Enough Grows”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    One of the challenges for me, cognitively/intellectually, when it comes to living an aggressively “green” lifestyle, is that most of the “green” alternatives really aren’t too green. Or at the very least, not even remotely as green as they’re billed.

    So much of what is marketed to us as “clean” alternatives to “dirty” consumer products is actually just part of a shell game that hides the filth in some unconsidered location. “Green” is, at this point, an industry.

    The Prius uses less gas in and of itself, but the recycling of those batteries is horrifically bad for the environment. Uses an incredible amount of energy, which results in emissions, etc., which will only go up the more Prius batteries there are to recycle. Those CFL bulbs are full of mercury. I mean, I don’t know if the “contains mercury, please recycle responsibly” label is really quite enough to shrug off the reality that people may not. And what does the recycling of mercury do to the environment? I have no clue how that process works, but I presume they don’t use hamsters in wheels to power it.

    Have a rechargeable electric car? Where does that electricity come from, provided you don’t have solar panels, and even if you DO have solar panels, it is unlikely they’re made of hemp.

    I don’t mean to say, necessarily, that it’s hopeless. That’s not really my game here. My point is that I do what I can, but refuse to abuse myself over what I don’t do. A looooooong time ago, I wrote a blog post…or maybe a facebook note…it all blends together…about how there is a limit to how much any one person can give a shit about.

    It said something about how it’s unfair and unrealistic–potentially even counter-productive–to try to do everything or care about everything or to expect other people to. Better to pick a cause or small handful of things you can really concentrate on and make your stand. That’s been my basic philosophy for a while, anyway.

  2. Richard Cox says:

    Similar to the story Becky describes above, I wrote a short piece on MySpace once about how I got stuck behind a truck on the highway that was farting an obscene amount of black smoke from its clearly-broken muffler, and when I finally passed it I realized it was carrying a giant load of plastic and glass items meant to be recycled. This caused me to fall into a depressive state from which I feared I might never recover.

    Or maybe it didn’t happen quite so dramatically but you get the picture.

    And lest I be accused of dry-humping Jonathan Franzen once again, a fairly important subplot of Freedom has to do with conservation and particularly overpopulation. The idea being that what little any of us can do to curb consumption is overwhelmed by the sheer number of humans being added to the world every day. And though I’m not quite finished with the novel, it seems clear that Franzen sees no real hope for change, that it will take cataclysmic disaster to alter our present course. I’m not inclined to disagree with him. We’re a fairly thoughtful species but our primitive desires and urges are still in control of the ship.

    I still recycle and eat mostly organic and cook most of my food at home. I try to consume less. But mainly I do these things to make myself feel good. I think Becky’s right that it’s largely a shell game we’re playing. Which is depressing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    • Gloria says:

      Franzen? Jesus… Somebody get out the hose…

      • Gloria says:

        And, of course, I’m kidding. I disappear from the boards for days and show back up just to make trouble. Jeez…

        Hi Mary! (I’ll read your piece when I get home.)

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, wtf. For months I went into global warming conversations with that argument. It all coming down to one very simple thing: We can rush around all we like to stave off the inevitable, but resources are finite and eventually there’s just going to be too many of us. Period. End of story.

      When I did it I was called a cynic and a pessimist and fatalist and whatever other lazy and half-assed insults people could conjure up. Franzen says it and he’s hailed a genius.

      Fuck that guy, Man. Seriously.

      • Mary Richert says:

        People hate being told we should stop breeding. Some of my family members are alarmed because I’ve told them I don’t want to have children. More accurately, I don’t want to give birth. I’m not opposed to adopting. I think it’s all in the approach, though. You have to tell people, “Look, we already have more people than we can reasonably feed, educate and house in this world, so why would I have a kid when I could adopt someone who is already here and needs a home?” Or maybe not adoption. There are lots of ways we can care for our fellow human beings without having babies. Not that I dislike babies. They’re pretty rad. I just don’t want one of my own.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, see, and I kind of do. It’s tough. Theoretically, though, you (or I or anyone) could compromise: Just have one.

          If you have two, you replace you and your partner on planet earth.

          If you have one, two people replace themselves with one person.

          Of course that leads to a bunch of type-A, spoiled-rotten, center-of-the-universe, only children running around, so maybe it’s not so much of a win after all.

    • Mary Richert says:

      RC: I thought of you as I was driving home last night behind an 18 wheeler bearing the Whole Foods logo.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Well I suppose even Whole Foods employs regional or national distribution. Some products are obviously more suited to regional than local.

        Though I think it would be funny if that truck’s bumper was plastered with Buy Local Grow Local stickers, though.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Mary?
    Becky?
    Richard?

    Relax.
    Deep Breath.
    You are all just wound so tightly.
    It isn’t healthy to make yourselves so miserable.
    You just do your best to make the world a better place
    and then sit back now and then and be calm and tranquil,
    then go back and try to make things better again.
    Just don’t forget the deep breath and relax part, eh?

    • Richard Cox says:

      I’m not miserable, Irene. I’m totally happy. But that doesn’t mean the world isn’t headed for disaster. Everything is destined to fly apart. It’s basic physics.

      Now I’m going to have a few drinks with my friend, Emily, and laugh the night away.

      I’m the guy who wrote about “Bewitched” and Xanadu, remember?

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I thought that’s what I said, Irene.

      Do what you can.

      Don’t sweat about trying to do it all.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Irene: I actually didn’t realize this piece was such a stress-inducing one.

      I have been trying to think of a reason you shouldn’t worry about me, but the truth is, I’m a bit if a nutcase, so you can go ahead and worry if you’re so inclined.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Whew! Thank God for the Singularity! It will wash everything before it in a flood of enlightenment and save us all. And we’ll all be kings!

    Especially me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity

    • Richard Cox says:

      Only if we don’t blow ourselves up first, Simon. Don’t forget about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I don’t know… human resilience and ingenuity shouldn’t be counted out.

        Despite all evidence to the contrary.

        Ugh.

        Freakin’ monkeys.

        I mean, uh, [hopeful statement here].

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          Mary, this piece does one of two things:
          My brain will either shut off completely or spin its wheels forever.
          These are reactions to provocation, so as the writer, you’ve done your job.
          I never considered skipping the lid on my soda. Nice touch.

        • Mary Richert says:

          Thanks, Lisa. I really didn’t mean to make everyone so insane, just to review the little bit of progress I’ve made and to compare it to this idea of “enough.” I find it an interesting question, in a way, although it does make me ask the next logical question, which I didn’t directly address here, which is: What’s the point? The world’s going to end anyway. All civilizations will find their way to dust eventually. We’ve always known that. We’ve been trying to predict the end of the world since we first grasped the concept of time. So why try to save the world? Why do we do this?

          I’m not trying to be a downer, really! I just wonder.

    • Mary Richert says:

      I am so with you, Simon.
      Is it sick that I occasionally fantasize about the end of the world?

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I prefer fantasizing about me being in charge of everything and making all the right decision, which a grateful global populace welcomes, staggered by the wisdom and foresight of my easily-actioned, unilateral decisions.

        One World Government for the win! An end to war! And I’ll be king!

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    Those are all good questions, Mary, and you’ve presented them in your usual excellent manner.

    You do what you can — as you are — and I think the important thing is that you’re wondering which of the things you might do are effective and which are eyewash. Thinking about it is key. Too many people (on both sides) are reflexive, which generally means thoughtless (in the strict sense of the term).

    As for your question #1, Mary, what I do really goes into two categories — the small stuff that seems to make a difference (CF bulbs nearly everywhere in my houses, and I’m willing to accept the mercury-recycling tradeoff), turning lights off, keeping the thermostat at 60-65 in the winter, much colder at night, and then the large stuff, such as high-efficiency furnace, no air conditioning (I never liked it, actually), driving a car that over 95,000 miles has averaged 24.5 MPG, having on my 1.5 acres a minimal amount of lawn and a maximal amount of trees and long grasses and shrubbery, and then, for me the biggest one, taking great care to convert any house I own into a high-efficiency, super-insulated place. Whoever gets the Colden place (or any of the other houses I’ve owned) after me won’t have to worry that stuff, because I’ve already done it. When I got those houses they were wasteful, and now they’re not. It’s good for me and it’s good down the road.

    I won’t claim I haven’t wasted energy and resources in my life, because of course I have. And I indulge my electronics habit more than I should, it’s true. And, by choice, now I live where I have to drive to get to food stores (but for 35 years I always lived within walking distance of my job).

    As for #2, I think that in this country, in these times, appeals to the common good aren’t effective. So I think the way to get people started looking after things is to get them thinking about their own money. They have to be able to see what the payback is — it might be too long for some, sure. Too much up front, too long to get it back. But you have to give people a chance to look at those numbers, and help them see what they mean. The longer you keep that Prius, the more good it’s done, not just for you but in terms of cutting down the recycling cost per mile.

    As Richard points out, the population thing is going to bite our children — the world’s children — in the ass. I have no doubt about that. The only question is how soon.

    In the meantime, we might as well do what we can, shell game or not. For anything more, we need serious political/economic action, the probability of which is very low, but non-zero. And for that non-zero probability, I’m willing to work.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Don, you and Irene both leave wonderful, soothing, encouraging comments. As I mentioned to Lisa above, I do find myself wondering about the point of it all, so to speak, and I go back and forth as far as conviction that any of it matters.

      Getting people thinking about money … hmm… I wish I had a head for numbers.

      I think also talking about disease makes people realize how pollution and certain chemicals in our food/water/cosmetics makes people wake up a bit.

  6. Dana says:

    I do what I can – composting, recycling, planting trees to shade the house, eat vegetarian (offsetting the carnivore I live with) and not breeding. On the other hand, when I’m hot I want a/c and when I’m cold I want heat and the electronics in our home are a little over the top for two people.

    Just try not to be too judgie. Of me or of you. 🙂

  7. dwoz says:

    There’s really three valid responses to the green dilemma:

    buy from an artisan.

    Source as locally as reasonably possible.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff.

    Illustrated: I learned from my grandfather that I need to use as little toilet paper as I can. His concern was having to pump the septic tank. I now realize that over the course of my life, I will have my septic tank pumped about 25 more times. If I assiduously manage my toilet paper consumption, it will not result in even ONE SINGLE FEWER times that the tank needs pumping, over my life. I’ll still continue to use only as much as I need though.

    Illustrated: I have a unique and interesting coffee mug at work, made by a local artisan. It saves about 800 paper cups a year. It is the coolest thing on my desk and makes me happy every single day.

    Illustrated: I buy my apples from an orchard nearby where I have to pick them myself. I save approximately one plane ride from Chile to New Jersey, every 4 years. One plane that doesn’t have to burn 11,000 kilos of K1.

    Pick the big fights, not the little ones.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Mary, I love that you show us our culture which has made us feel guilty for the least infraction of constructing a slim carbon footprint at the same time as it insists that we buy bazillions of dollars of stuff to stuff our garbage cans, tons of landfill and several Venusian moons.

      Is it just possible that our USAmerican economic system, especially fine-honed during its “flowering” industrial revolution, has gotten a bit out of whack? Is it just possible that we’ve been robbed by Robber Barons, their hand-in-glove relationship with “our” political and military hierarchies? Is it just possible that our souls and bodies have belonged for more than 200 years to a well established mechanism that has no heart or soul—-that is proud of its sensitivity to wealth but not to people?

      • Mary Richert says:

        Judy, I’m no expert, but I do think our economic system is out of whack. For the economy to thrive, the way it is right now, we have to always be buying things. On Marketplace the other day, they were talking about how imports are up, but exports are not as high, and there’s some concern because purchasing is not up in proportion to imports. In other words, we’re importing a lot of goods that no one seems to be buying (at least, according to the statistics, but I think there are a lot of things statistics can’t show accurately).

        Anyway, when the economy first took a dive, I though, “Hey, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. We need to learn to consume less, anyway.” But then I realized that as a result of the slowed economy, I couldn’t switch jobs, couldn’t get paid decently to write, couldn’t get the raise I felt I deserved, etc. I really don’t want people to just buy crap for the sake of buying it. I believe we need to build a more sustainable culture, and that means buying LESS, which also means probably making less money, which means we’ll need to breed less in order to have to feed fewer people.

        However, I don’t think I quite share your strength of feeling about the economic powers that be. I don’t have much fondness for politicians or corporate types, but I believe they are all human and at their best, they do all want to live and be happy, just like the rest of us do. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think they are villains for being rich, although I do think they may be misguided about the source and nature of happiness.

        • dwoz says:

          The real problem is that a global supply chain does not really allow for a concurrent local supply chain. They’re antagonistic to each other, and the global will win.

    • Totally agree with this, Dwoz. Every day I use my own (Starbucks bought) metal coffee container, instead of a paper cup and a plastic lid. Yes, it is a pathetic assuaging of my need to be fractionally less impactful. But, you know, I feel better. Little fights? Ultimately meaningless. But the little is often the achievable.

      • dwoz says:

        Little fights should still be engaged, of course!

        I consider the logistics of my daily routine, to result in the smallest possible driving loop.

        I do use the smallest amount of paper I can get away with, both for hygiene and for communication.

        I do put on wool socks instead of bumping up the thermostat.

        I do choose the minimally-packaged item instead of the over-packaged item.

        I use manure on my field from local animals, instead of buying chemical fertilizer.

        etc.

        When I say “buy from an artisan”, it accomplishes two things: first off, it localizes the monetary flows. This is actually far more important than anything else. Secondly, it ensures that the environmental costs/impacts of the transaction ALSO remain local.

        Think of this: why is it even CONSIDERED to buy a computer that comes from China? Just putting it on a boat to bring it back here has got to be a huge expense, right? The answer is that yes, it is a big expense, but it’s less than the expense of two things: first, the price of labor here (i.e. social costs), and second, the ability to externalize the environmental costs. Building a computer requires high skill but no intelligence: anyone can be trained to do it. But the real savings in the supply chain, is that building a computer is an extremely “dirty” process. And China is, for now, willing to look the other way, and allow the pollution to occur, in the name of economic progress. So manufacturing in china allows the supplier to avoid social costs, and externalize environmental impact costs.

        The only way to actually make this work, is on a large scale. Large scale operations require large scale investments. In doing this, the large scale global operations haven’t actually produced any product at any lower cost than doing it locally, but they’ve managed to externalize those costs, i.e. shove them off onto society. When the same investor is investing in the oil industry, it makes a lot of sense to transfer the social cost of labor into the cost of transport fuel…the money stays “in the family”.

        The answer is to avoid buying products (when you can) that are created via a large scale investments. Thus, local, and local artisan.

        Every single time you buy something “cheaper”, you’re really just participating in this externalizing or offsetting to “some other place” of a portion of the REAL costs. That cost doesn’t really go away.

        It’s exactly the same with food products. But locally raised meat. Avoid factory-farm meat. Factory farms are essentially superfund sites that animals live in for a short while.

        I am of course generalizing, and there are many specific instances where larger scale does result in significant efficiencies, but look instead to the places where it isn’t actual efficiency, but offset or externalized costs, that drives the lower price.

    • Mary Richert says:

      dwoz: I really appreciate your thoughtful big-picture approach in both your comments. I think that’s much healthier, since I *can* fight the little battles, but obsessing over every one of them really begins to wear on my sanity.

      Question for you… What do you do with the apples? We have places to pick apples locally, but I don’t eat that many apples by themselves. Do you preserve them? Make cider? Bake pies? Do you get sick of apples? Do they replace other fruits, snacks and juices in your regular diet? I mean, no one grows oranges in Maryland as far as I know, so do I have to give up oranges? I like them a lot more than apples. I’m just saying. Is there an ethical way to have morning orange juice?

      • dwoz says:

        Mary…

        I think the part that needs to be CONSTANTLY emphasized is “to the extent that you CAN”.

        I mean, I live in NH.

        We don’t grow avocadoes here. OR cilantro.

        Does that mean I never eat a semi-almost-authentic burrito? NO NO NO.

        It means I have to exercise awareness, and maybe choose an apple over a banana, here in October, when they’re falling off the trees here.

        And, yes, we overdose on apples. Applesauce, apple pies, apple crisp, apple with pork, etc.

        We make up the pie filling for DecemberJanuaryFebruaryMarchApril, and freeze it. We jar applesauce which is easy to make. No, we don’t operate our own cider press, though that may be changing next year.

        It’s a bit about commitment to saying, “yes, I love kiwifruit, but I live in goddamn NEW ENGLAND”.

        Let’s not just march back into 1875, but let’s also try to get our heads out of this LCD screen with electrons flying at us from across the globe, and see what’s up our own damn street.

        • Mary Richert says:

          That one made me grin as I was reading it. I do like the idea of preparing pie filling in advance. Maybe I can try that. It’d be fun to be able to bring home made pies to holiday gatherings. 😀

          I think the place where I start to get confused is with that word “can.” Yeah, there are a lot of changes I can make, but some of them do require perhaps living with a little less convenience and comfort. So, there’s a constant weighing going on in the back of my mind. Every decision I make goes on the scales. That can be tiring, though so some things just get decided in advance. Example: Rather than always have to determine the source of any meat I’m eating, I will opt to eat vegetarian any time there is a reasonable, affordable vegetarian option available to me. If I’m out somewhere and there’s no good vegetarian option, I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over having consumed a bowl of chicken soup.

        • Judy Prince says:

          You have a wise take on it all, Mary; to do what you can and not sweat it if you can’t.

          Regarding your and dwoz’s and others’ efforts to preference local products, Litsa Dremoussis’ recent TNB post, an interview with Kurt B Reighley about his book, _United States of Americana_, gets to the point quickly and effectively. She writes about the book:

          “USA is essentially a wit-dipped, nostalgia-free instruction manual to skills our forbearers had because their forbearers had them, too. Of course, as technology pervaded each aspect of our culture, grandma’s method of salting pork became quaint, unnecessary in terms of survival, and we stopped listening. So while most of us can perform textual and photographic magic on our laptops, few of us could live through winter without Whole Foods or Safeway. And that’s where Reighley steps in.”

          She then shifts to Reighley:

          “I had a journalist ask if the people reading this book would also have iPhones,” he says, bemused.” And I explained, of course they have iPhones. Readers want to learn from the past, but they’re still contemporary.”

          Litsa’s reaction:

          “I mention one of USA’s strengths is the way it integrates bygone talents with how we live today, referencing web sites on everything from butchering to soap-making, and Reighley notes this was intentional. ‘It’s great Martha Stewart has a fleet of interns, but most people don’t. They have to acquire these talents themselves and that frequently involves the web. Then they often find putting this knowledge to use is even more fun in a group, swapping tales while small-batch canning. With canning in particular, you discover if you’re able to work together because you can kill someone if you make a mistake,’ he says, referring to the threat of botulism that looms over the process.

          These ideas have immense appeal, and I’ve noticed them taking off with many folks who are finding creative ways to make and purchase “home-made” locally produced items because of their strong commitment to going “green.” I love Reighley’s example of small-batch group canning, and I can so easily see it alongside other group actions that are gaining importance, attention and popularity such as clothes-designing, making and selling in small groups, as well as those groups marketing their items on various websites that represent them.

          What characterises USAmericans is their creativity and resourcefulness. I’ve read that major changes are usually begun with a very few individuals whose new thinking and actions spread to ever larger groups, eventually bringing the idea-baby into the world and seeing it so thoroughly accepted by most people that it seems the most reasonable, natural thing to do.

          You, dwoz, Litsa and Kurt Reighley are individuals whose creativity and resourcefulness are bringing into being to what I believe will be our new norm for aims and actions.

        • dwoz says:

          There’s an interesting point to be made about obsolescence.

          Today I heard that school systems are starting to drop the teaching of cursive writing.

          It’s a skill that is losing relevance in today’s world of iPhone texting. Much like the skill of knowing how to take basic care of a horse has lost relevance in our day-to-day lives, because we don’t ride them to work or use them for work.

          Or, as you say Judy, learn how to do basic subsistence farming/gardening/food preservation. It’s an antique skill, like shoe repair.

          Its getting hard to find a mechanic that can fix a carburetor. They know how to REPLACE a carburetor.

          There was an article once, (which has been many-times-copied) talking about the 10 things that a man ought to know how to do. Along the lines of, “build a house”, “dress a wound”, “cook a thanksgiving dinner”, “find north”, etc.

          are we losing these?

        • Irene Zion says:

          @ dwoz,

          I hope not.
          (But I think so.)

        • Judy Prince says:

          dwoz, you really touch a nerve with this: ” . . . basic subsistence farming/gardening/food preservation” being “antique” skills, like shoe repair, and . . . “Its getting hard to find a mechanic that can fix a carburetor. They know how to REPLACE a carburetor.”

          What riveted me, especially, was: ” . . . much like the skill of knowing how to take basic care of a horse has lost relevance in our day-to-day lives, because we don’t ride them to work or use them for work.”

          As much as I love cars, especially sports classics like Austin Healeys or Triumphs and the like, not to mention the imposing Bentleys……nevertheless my absolutely ideal mode of transport (after bikes, meaning motorcycles) would be horses. A Gary Larson cartoon makes the point of the anachronism of horse-transport by showing a horse crashed into and wrapped around a tree, its teenaged rider sprawled on the ground, his buddy saying “Wait’ll your dad hears about this.”

          Researching for a play about Elizabethan England, (and yesterday watching the great flick _Robin and Marian_ ), I became nostalgic for what I’ve never known: commuting to work by riding a horse, riding past hardworking (organic) farmers—–the LAND, needed and worked——the connection of people to their land. I now better understand the dedication of the French to their farmers, their pride in centuries of working their sections of land for uniquely-produced food and wine.

          I suppose I’m wondering what so many are now wondering: Will we “go back” to the wearying hard work that local and organic farming requires? We *can* do it, of course, but *will* we do it?

          I’m living now in Darlington, northern England, where raising sheep, ponies and pigs are thriving, serious occupations, as well as making cheeses and raising crops. Old and new techniques, of course, are used, and Brits overwhelming favour local products. Every city, village and town sits next to land where crops and cattle are raised. A typical 5-minute drive will show you grazing sheep and horses, even inside the cities and towns themselves. It is a nation that remembers having to import food during the 2nd WW, for which it only recently managed to pay off its financial debt to the USA. Brits love their back gardens, and the government subsidises many “allotments,” land on which individuals can grow food and flowers and have a tool shed for it if they don’t have enough land of their own.

          I appreciated your run-through of the economics involved in producing and selling local goods, as well as your commitment to buying local. What do you see as specific actions and trends, perhaps local to your area?

        • dwoz says:

          Unfortunately, for my area I see a continuing trend toward box stores and national franchises pushing out local businesses. Olive Garden franchises, wal-mart, etc.

          However, people are finally starting to get it, I think. realizing that money spent at wal-mart GOES AWAY. It goes to Arkansas, or someplace in the caymans, more likely.

          Here where I live, we’ve always had limited local crops. Apples. Squash, corn. precious little else. NOT a lot of dirt-farming going on.

          THere used to be a big dairy operation around here, it’s dwindling. Even with price supports, local small farms cannot supply milk at a low price, to make any money.

          Local farmers are getting squeezed. I spoke with my hay supplier, who regaled me of the tale of the last five years, each one a “fifty-year bad year”. Meaning, it isn’t uncommon to get a bad year, but it’s just unprecedented to get five bad years in a row. Drought….rain, but at the wrong times, or all at once. etc.

          Upshot is, the yields have been low. Add to that, the price of inputs…diesel for the tractors, fertilizer has TRIPLED in cost…and the math just does not work.

          People are being driven off farming, and being driven off their land.

          This year, I bought a side of beef from a local farmer…just bought 3 bushels of apples from the local orchard, bought all the animal feed locally. I probably spent something like a 20% premium for it, over non-local options.

          Hay costs $5 per bale. In 1975 dollars it costs the same as it did then. Inputs required to produce that bale have gone up five-fold.

          I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that when I give money to a neighbor, instead of to some asshole in arkansas, the world is a very slightly better place.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          If anybody talked about “CSA” (consumer supported agriculture) I missed it.

          We belong to a CSA, which means that we buy shares (in advance) of an organic farm’s produce. They deliver it to a pickup point once a week approximately May-November.

          It’s not cheap, and what you get isn’t always what you want, that week, but it’s good food, properly grown, and it keeps the farmer in business. It’s also a reminder that the weather and other factors strongly influence what’s available to eat. What they bring is what’s ready to pick or dig out that week. If something attacks a crop, or it’s too rainy or too dry, well — tough luck. Whatever it was, we don’t get it. It’s nice to get to know the farmers themselves, too.

          I’m not against middlemen — we have an excellent supermarket chain here (Wegman’s) that has organics as well as the regular stuff — but obviously the supermarket has to take its cut, and the organic farmers surely make less when selling to a supermarket than they do when selling via CSA.

          I don’t see any downside to CSA, except that it’s more expensive than a supermarket. But it’s probably not more expensive than a specialty organic store (we don’t have a Whole Foods here, so I can’t compare), and anyway, we don’t care because it supports family organic farms.

          So in terms of Mary’s questions — supporting CSA is something worthwhile. Sorry I didn’t think of it until just now. Reading Dwoz and Judy’s latest comments made me think of it.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Responding to dwoz and Don’s comments, I’m thinking that key to most of this discussion is making sure that small and mid-sized USA farms survive and thrive.

          Some thoughts about it:

          1) USA has the space to grow huge farms, which amount, in many respects, to agricultural corporations. These agricultural corporations can trump bad weather’s effects because of their varied locales and crops, superior machinery and sufficient number of workers.

          2) Europe (including the UK) has little room to support huge farms, as it already has in place centuries-old small and mid-sized farms that specialise in produce unique to the each region and its singular soil and climate. These products are marketed worldwide as coming from distinct regions, and the government strictly controls and monitors every aspect of that kind of farming.

          3) USA’s agricultural corporations can afford to lobby more effectively for subsidies than mid-sized and small farms can, whereas in Europe (though less in the UK, it seems) the mid- and small-sized farms often have strong unions that lobby and gain a larger percentage of the subsidies.

          4) Does this mean that lots of space in a country leads inevitably to the demise of small farms and the dominance of huge corporate-styled farms?

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Ahem. That’s “Community Supported Agriculture,” of course. Sorry.

        • Mary Richert says:

          Don: I’ve been thinking about joining a CSA. I think it sounds like a pretty good, practical step. I’ve been sticking to buying from farmers’ markets lately, anyway, so a CSA makes sense to me. I do wonder about some logistics, though. What about the weeks when you’re out of town? Or what if it’s rainy and you don’t make it to pick your stuff up? Does it go to waste? Does it get sold? Can you recoup the following week? I’m sure these are all questions to ask the local CSA groups when I go to the market this weekend…

  8. Mary, I think it sounds like you’re doing a lot.

    What I think you’re feeling is that you need to do EVERYTHING because of the fact that the vast majority of the people in the world are doing nothing. But one person can’t do everything. Even if you do things a zillion times more rigorously than you currently are, you still won’t be able to make up for the millions of people who, on a basic level, do not even recycle yet, live in suburbs and commute by car 2 hours each way to work everyday, flip the A/C on the minute it hits 72 degrees outside, and eat meat every day with every meal. A huge percentage of Americans still live this way, and there are other countries (China, with an even bigger population) where some of the things that are becoming “common knowledge” here are not even on the largescale cultural radar.

    There are countries that contribute far less to the environmental problem than the United States or China, of course. But what I mean is, there are a shitload of people out there just between our two countries alone who don’t think of any of the stuff you think about, not one iota. And failure to use a plastic lid at Subway just can’t override them. Nothing can, unless people change on a truly global level. I don’t have much to contribute to the general dialogue here in terms of whether this will ever happen–I don’t feel without hope, but sometimes it looks unlikely. Sometimes it feels scary. I do have kids–2 adopted and 1 biological–and thinking about their future can feel crippling.

    And yet what I wanted to say here is that I believe that if everyone on the planet acted as you act (even on your “bad” Subway days!), we would not be in the mess we’re in. And we could dig our way out.

    What I mean to say is that we are all accountable for OURSELVES, but not accountable for everyone else on the planet.

    You are already doing “your part.” You shouldn’t have to do mine. Or the asshole with the Hummer’s. (I know, they don’t make those anymore at least.)

    I don’t do as much as you do. But I have to admit that I’m with Becky and some others on this in that I know I try, I know I do things differently than I used to, and I feel like I am doing what I can. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t do more. But there’s never a limit, really, to how much we “could” do in theory. I feel we each have to do enough that we believe if everyone on the planet did what we did, the situation would improve. I feel this is our obligation–and then after that, it’s more a matter of choice and disposition.

    If you want to do more, by all means more power to you! Thank you! But pat yourself on the back and accept our thanks, rather than feeling crappy about yourself. You’re one of the good guys, truly.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Thank you, Gina. I really have to stop being so negative. But I’m glad it’s sparked some good discussion here. I do always feel like I could do more. And I don’t really think everyone in the world is going to do even the little easy things, but maybe… what if just the majority of the people I know are making some small effort? That can be encouraging. The truth is, if the planet and the human race are damned, then it’s really no use beating myself up about it. But in the event that we’re not damned, I’m going to do what I can to keep things from going that way.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    I want to say something else about this, something that occurs to me every time I go grocery shopping and buy organic food.

    How in the heck do I really know if the chickens who laid these eggs are really being treated humanely? I’m paying more than twice as much for the organic eggs as regular eggs, and part of me feels like I’m being punk’d.

    I know the USDA Organic label is supposed to be the gold standard when it comes to “organic” foods, but what assurances do I have that even that means anything? Philosophically? Part of the problem you bring up is lack of education and awareness, which is an important discussion. But another issue you touch on is even among people who are educated, there must lie a great deal of malaise or disconnect from the good we are supposedly accomplishing by living greener and conceivable “better.”

    I’m not arguing the benefits of doing so. As I said above, I try hard where I can. I just mean the benefits of me eating organic eggs versus not are difficult to pin down, on a personal level, besides the smug feeling I get when I pick up expensive eggs and see some (theoretically) ignorant woman next to me purchasing 18 evil eggs for half of what I’m paying for a dozen. I’m buying those eggs on faith. And I’ve read all about the poor treatment of chickens. I’ve driven through western Arkansas and smelled the filth first hand. And still I wonder if somewhere there isn’t a CEO fanning himself with hundred dollar bills because I’m buying eggs from his golden, too-profitable chicken machine.

    And how much effort am I willing to expend to find out the truth? And where am I going to find the time to investigate all the food I buy?

    I’m not. And I know Irene will come here and tell me to calm down, but I’m not overly worried about it. It’s more of a thought experiment. If I’m thinking about this stuff actively and still asking these questions, what sort of education and motivation will be enough to change behavior on the part of people who believe living green is a stupid, liberal idea whose main point is to infringe upon the liberties of the true, freedom-loving Ammuricans?

    Not to be depressing about it. It’s just something I think about while I’m at the store. Then I go home and turn on iTunes and type some words into my computer and hope I might dream up something people will actually want to read.

    And smugly eat organic eggs.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Well, I wanted to read what you wrote, Richard, and you state very well what I think every time I buy organic eggs or chicken (though you stated it much better than my half-formed thoughts).

      This will sound stoopid, but I always recall this, that I read somewhere: “All foods were organic 100 years ago.” It makes me simultaneously happy, relieved, sad, energised, frustrated and angry.

      But, then, few things worth pursuing are easily gained. Yet those few things will always pop into psyches and itch there until enough folks are ready for change……and then that time becomes the right time for that particular (r)evolution. My thinking’s that with or without a cataclysmic cause for “going green” in order to survive, many more people have gotten much closer, during my lifetime anyway, to going green and organic and local.

      Anybody know of a book or two that you think is very wisely informing on the subject? I have a couple in the States, can’t recall their titles, but would know them if I heard them or the authors’ names.

      • Richard Cox says:

        To be honest much of what I learned about the food industry I learned from reading Fast Food Nation. I’m sure there must be much more comprehensive books out there than that, but at the time I was pretty well uninformed. Food, Inc. is a good place to start if you want to watch a film.

        Surely others here would be far better read than me on the subject, however.

        • Gloria says:

          Have you seen The Meatrix?

          http://www.themeatrix.com/

          It’s narrated by a cow named Moopheus. I’ve also heard tremendous things about Food, Inc, which just came out last year.

        • Judy Prince says:

          The little vid, “The Meatrix” is hard-hitting, clear and practical; thanks, Gloria!

          And, Richard, I’ve just ordered Eric Schlosser’s _Fast Food Nation_ from amazon.co.uk for a pence, plus postage. Also, I added the DVD “Food, Inc.” with Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, to my rental list with LoveFilm here in the UK.

          THANKS!

    • Mary Richert says:

      Richard: I had someone mock me once for saying I was going to buy something at whole foods. They thought I was trying to say we could buy our way out of an environmental catastrophe, and they thought I was naive and oblivious to the fact that while whole foods sells organic and “healthy” foods, they actually have a pretty hefty environmental impact themselves. Actually, WF was just the only place I knew of that sold the particular item I wanted. Further, I do trust WF when it comes to their organics being truly organic. Their business model or what have you might not be my ideal, but if I want bulk quinoa, I know I won’t find it at any of the other local grocery stores, so I make my compromise and buy the damned quinoa using my reusable muslin bag (not the provided plastic produce bags), and I say stuff it to the guy who thinks I’m an asshole for making what he considers an insufficient effort. This doesn’t stop me from feeling a touch guilty for driving to the store in the first place but… we pick our battles the best we can. So far, the car is still winning, but I’m working on that.

  10. […] I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong. […]

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