Cloth or paper napkins? Local or organic? Save the rainforest or build a school? Everyday we make dozens of choices - hundreds if you count all our food choices - that are influenced by our desire for “sustainability.” We yearn to do the right thing - to be mindful of our impact on the planet - but it it doesn’t seem that straightforward.
That’s because it isn’t.
It turns out that it sustainability really all a matter of time and space perspective along side personal values.
Geographic sustainability: I lived in Colorado for 18 years where the relationship with water was totally different in that semi-arid state than it is here. Did you know that in Colorado it is illegal to collect rainfall in rain barrels? It interferes with farmers’ water rights. Out West, paper napkins might be a better choice than cloth - especially if you can compost the paper - since cloth needs water to get them clean.
Cosmic Sustainability: Now let’s widen the view of who or what we are sustaining... One could make a case that plastic in the waste stream is unsustainable. But last year, students from Yale discovered the fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora that survives on a steady diet of polyurethane and does this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment - something like the bottom of landfill. Plastic-eating bacteria has also been found feasting on what we call plastic “garbage” in the ocean. From this perspective, what do we know? Maybe the next great species on the planet will evolve because we made plastic? Granted, that is a pretty wide net, but I would argue if we broaden our perspective to include the widest range of species, it is not without merit.
Short Term Human Sustainability: Focusing in on the human experience, let’s talk about food - specifically a product that is massively consumed.  In the 1940s, Norman Borlaug, a plant pathologist embarked on what would become the “Green Revolution” - the development of the genetically modified Dwarf Wheat that skyrocketed yields and helped to stave off potentially apocalyptic famine in Asia and India. It seemed a miracle.  In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It has become the basis for most of the wheat consumed on the planet.
However, The Green Revolution has left a conflicted legacy. Social justice concerns around farm consolidation, issues of environmental disaster related to irrigation and the pollution of the huge quantities of synthetic fertilizers needed to grow the crop... today, 50 years after what looked like a miracle, we see mostly dried up or polluted water systems. More concerning, from a digestive human health perspective, wheat may turn out to be The Major Culprit in much of our modern day disease. Cardiologist William Davis ("Wheat Belly" Rodale Press) believes that modern wheat — including whole wheat — has become so uniquely destructive to multiple body functions that more than 80 percent of us could benefit from giving it up all together. Dwarf wheat was sustainable for 50 years, and then not.
The Personal Values of Sustainability: The local versus organic is a challenging exercise and brings us to the subject of personal values. If what you value most is to eat the “cleanest” food from a molecular perspective, organic may be the factor that carries the most weight in your sustainability equation... but take care because there are organic companies that use otherwise unsustainable practices - killing weeds with blow torches that destroy topsoil in the process, not providing decent working conditions or basic benefits for employees, using energy to maintain frozen products as they ship - out of season - halfway around the world. Local, know-your-farmer may be overall more sustainable - even if they are spraying a little - if you hold high the value of community and personal relationships..
Although for some products organic trumps local for me (google the “dirty dozen”), I have come to discover that the factor that usually carries the most weight in my sustainability equation is relationships. Last month I bought a lamb from Erdenheim Farms and even though the pastures are not certified organic, I can drive by and see them grazing in the gorgeous grasses.
It has become part of my sustainable practice to follow breakthrough research, to listen to my gut, to get to know my neighbors and in general to err on the side of simplicity. I have decided not to be too hard on myself for the choices I make nor to judge the choices of others but rather to applaud our human desire to repair the world.
Books I am reading this month -
Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham
Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It by Gary Taubes
Vertical Vegetables & Fruit, Creative Gardening Techniques for Growing Up in Small Spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart
(photo crdit: Jennifer Conley)
Personal Choices of Sustainable Practice
Friday, August 10, 2012