4/25/2006

But where do we start?

To Do:
  • Reclaim food.
  • Wash clothes.
  • Finish drawings for portfolio
  • Return library books.
  • Shift paradigm.

Engaged as we are in the pursuit of a safe and sustainable future for all, the question often arises of where do we begin? When you start to think about all the problems we face (climate destabilization, genetically-modified foods, privatization of the commons, peak oil, persistent environmental toxins that mutate babies at parts per trillion, an ever widening gap between the rich and poor, the break-up of Phish, and the discontinuation of many fine Ben and Jerry's flavors to name but a few) it begins to feel like nothing short of a massive change in pretty much every aspect of our lives is going to save our species from annihilation. Unfortunately, Paradigm Shift Inc. isn't hiring and we are left with the same debate of where to start. Do we begin with business? Education? Medicine? Biology?
Here at the world renowned Ecosa Institute the concentration is, for the most part, on buildings and construction. Since almost half of the energy the U.S. uses goes to the construction, maintenance, and operation of our buildings, this seems like a logical area to focus our efforts. If ideas like passive solar design, day lighting, alternative building materials, and environmentally benign finishes could be brought into the mainstream the effect could be HUGE! But the majority of us don't necessarily have the opportunity to build a straw bale house, construct a LEED certified office building, or install super-efficient windows in our homes. However, there is something we all do everyday that has great potential to be a catalyst for change, we eat. We get three votes everyday, more for some of us, to cast either in the ballot box of industrial agriculture (the current winner by far), or for locally-supported, organically produced farm goodness.

Ahhh industrial agriculture. From the nitrogen fertilizers, to the chemical pesticides, to the tractors, trucks, and trailers, an incredible amount of energy goes into producing, processing, packaging, and transporting our food. Most estimates come in around 10 calories of fossil fuel burned for every 1 calorie of food produced. To provide the food for a family of four eating an average diet would require the equivalent of 930 gallons of gas a year, or 34,000 KWh per year. By contrast, the same family would use on average 10,800 KWh of electricity to power their home and 1,070 gallons of gas driving a year. Wow.
Tracing that energy back to the farm, the majority of it goes into just three crops, corn, wheat, and soy that, for the most part, are completely inedible without further processing. While most of this is used to feed livestock anyways, about 45% of all corn grown becomes sugar, high-fructose corn syrup to be more precise, that winds up in 3/4 of all our processed foods. Mmmmmm - fructorific. When you add in the amount of water used in irrigation, the loss of topsoil, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the replacement of diverse ecosystems with monocultures, opting out of industrial agriculture seems like a pretty good way to reduce one's personal energy consumption. (Apparently you can save more water by not eating beef than you can by not showering for an entire year!)

Getting back to those three votes a day, what if we used just one of those on locally produced organic food bought at the local farmer's market through that wonderful idea of Community Supported Agriculture? Food seems like such a wonderful, and more importantly feasible, leverage point for the whole environmental movement. It has great potential to save energy, it's local, it supports community, it is usually very delicious, etc. So don't stop fretting over which light bulb to buy, what color to get your Prius in, how to recycle the computer you bought 4 months ago that is already out of date, how many toxins are in your paint, or how you can afford that sweet, custom, straw bale home, but in the meantime, grab some friends, head over to the farmer's market (better yet the farm!) and sit down together and enjoy a delicious, home-cooked feast.

Further inspiration:
We Are What We Eat - Michael Pollan
Fossil Food: Consuming Our Future - Tom Starrs
The Oil We Eat - Richard Manning
A Tale of Two Apples
No Bar Code - Michael Pollan