“…it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer…”
James E. McWilliams “Food that Travels Well” The New York Times August 6, 2007
Say what? I thought better of you, NYT. While McWilliams does raise some valid points, this mentality falls short in two major ways. His assumptions mirror outlooks about sustainability I have often encountered which also apply to clothing, building practices, transportation and more. Good thing there are Solutionaries on the case.
1) This view doesn’t look far enough back. Transportation of food over long distances is a relatively recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of things. There was a time when everyone ate food that was more or less local. Then refrigerated transportation happened, and the industrial revolution and agri-business squeezing out small farmers and before you know it, local is a novelty. This all happened in the course of a century or two. Is inertia so strong we can’t get back to this way of living? Judging from past moments in history, such as WWII when many Americans started Victory gardens, I beg to differ.
2) It doesn’t look far enough ahead. Oil is what fuels our transportation system and alternatives like corn ethanol aren’t looking so hot. Oil is running out, and fast. Since 1968, the world has been using more oil than it has discovered. Just this month after a cabinet meeting, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah answered a Zawya Dow Jones Newswires reporter’s question: “I told them [the cabinet] that I have ordered a halt to all oil explorations so part of this wealth is left for our sons and successors, God willing.”
McWilliams doesn’t think about all the subsidies that have made oranges and coffee beans in New York City cheaper than swiss chard from a Hudson Valley farmer. The subsidies and the artificially suppressed cost of gas for transportation all create a false sense of economy in far-flung production. When the U.S. starts paying an arm and a leg for the last dregs of oil fields, local won’t look so much like a “choice”.
A big part of being solutionary to me is a type of long-term thinking that McWilliams sorely lacks. I’m not just in this for my generation. If I were I might focus on R & D of energy resource extraction. And I’m not just in it for my kid’s generation. I’m in it to figure out a way that humans can co-exist on this earth alongside all the other species we haven’t wiped out yet, indefinitely. This takes looking way back in the past before looking too far into the future. Humans have lived without fossil fuels for all of our history except the tiny blip of the last two centuries. I’m not saying we have to go back to the Stone Age, just that the Earth can support a human population that doesn’t suck it dry.
One of my neighbors kept apples and potatoes all through last winter in her basement, no fossil fuels required. Local apples in a Minnesota February; it can be done, no science degree required. I’ve spun and knitted wool from Maryland sheep into hats and mittens that never left their state of origin in production or use. I joined St Paul high school youth, the Lily Springs Farm crew and other Solutionaries working on a natural fence in Wisconsin this past weekend. Just pine trees, brush and some hard labor will keep rabbits out of the crops. Summer of Solutions is helping Sibley Bike Depot get bikes to people so they can get around without fossil fuels.
And what’s so beautiful to me is these changes feel like anything but sacrifices. It’s taking our future out of the hands of corporations, institutions and bureaucrats and into our own hands. To me, being Solutionary means transforming the world so my life is more prosperous than it ever could be in our current, broken and unjust system.