August 11, 2013

We Could Be Heros

Five years ago, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization published a report called "Livestock's Long Shadow," which maintained that 18 percent of greenhouse gases were attributable to the raising of animals for food. The number was startling. [Some reports say that number is even higher.] 

What [matters] is that few people take the role of livestock in producing greenhouse gases seriously enough. Even most climate change experts focus on new forms of energy ...and often ignore the much easier fix of adjusting our eating habits.

The earth may very well be running out of clean water, and by some estimates it takes 100 times more water (up to 2,500 gallons) to produce a pound of grain-fed beef than it does to produce a pound of wheat. We're also running out of land: somewhere around 45 percent of the world's land is either directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, and as forests are cleared to create new land for grazing animals or growing feed crops, the earth's capacity to sequester greenhouse gases (trees are especially good at this) diminishes.


I could go on and on about the dangers of producing and consuming too much meat:  heavy reliance on fossil fuels and phosphorous (both in short supply); consumption of staggering amounts of antibiotics, a threat to public health; and the link to many of the lifestyle diseases that are wreaking havoc on our health.

Here's the thing: It's seldom that such enormous problems have such simple solutions, but this is one that does. We can tackle climate change without inventing new cars or spending billions on mass transit or trillions on new forms of energy, though all of that is not only desirable but essential.

In the meantime, we can begin eating less meat tomorrow. That's something any of us can do, with no technological advances. If personal choice enacted on a large scale could literally save the world, maybe we have to talk about it that way. We could be heroes, like Bruce Willis in "Armageddon," only maybe the sacrifice is on a more modest and easier scale. (You already changed your light bulbs; how about eating a salad?)

Mark Bittman - We Could Be Heros



The act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. In fact it's one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness.
A great many things happen when you plant a vegetable garden, some of them directly related to climate change, others indirect but related nevertheless. Growing food comprises the original solar technology: calories produced by means of photosynthesis. Years ago [we] discovered that more food could be produced ...by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. 

Yet the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious). And while we're counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. 

What else? Well, you will probably notice that you're getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym. (It is one of the absurdities of modern life that, having replaced physical labor with fossil fuel, we now burn even more fossil fuel to keep our unemployed bodies in shape.) Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way "solutions" like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. 

Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we're all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.

But there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden. At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. 

Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools. You will have reduced the power of the cheap-energy mind by personally overcoming its most debilitating weakness: its helplessness and the fact that it can't do much of anything that doesn't involve division or subtraction. The garden's season-long transit from seed to ripe fruit — will you get a load of that zucchini?! — suggests that the operations of addition and multiplication still obtain, that the abundance of nature is not exhausted. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.
- Michael Pollen - The Way We Live Now
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