Category: Sustainability & the individual

Keeping Compassion Local

black buddha w:mirror web
‘Black Buddha’ oil on canvas © J.H. Hart ’17

Every day for years now, I wake up with the thought, “today I will do better!” but I seem unable to do that. On the other hand, I see very few people able to curb their appetites or live sustainably. We are like fish caught in a tight net of desire that this economic system has thrown over us, and we are thrashing on the floor of the fishing boat, gasping for air and struggling to extricate ourselves!

Some of us are closer to the advancing disaster, but there are so many things that the society throws up to distance all of us from what is right in front of our noses. The news of those things are particular distractions for those of us who think of ourselves as “global citizens.” These realities that we can only know second hand are actual tragedies in far away places: wars, famines, droughts, disease, pollution, all of which are forcing whole populations to flee for their lives.

The irony is that there is very little that we can do for people who are at such a great remove from us. The difficulty understanding the complexities of their experience; the great geographical distance that dissipates our best efforts to help; the flattening and simplifying of their misery and deaths in abstractions and statistics means that our compassion and energy can never be awakened to the degree that it can be at home.

So while I fight the urge to run away; to find a safe quiet small town with kind people where I can grow a beautiful garden; and to hide from the coming catastrophe, I know that the reality is that even if I were lucky enough to find myself in a relatively safe haven, it is an illusion: there is no safe haven! The forces that are destroying a world that was perfect for our species’ survival (is this a second ejection from Eden?!) are operating within the circle of our influence.

So it is here, in our backyard, with the people whom we can help face to face, with the simplification of our personal lives, and with our firm resistance to greed and violence, that we have the chance to save the Earth and ourselves; and where we can most effectively make our stand.

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The Future of Food*

organic veggies 2-22-18 copy
Organic local carrots, winter radishes, & kohlrabi. Watercolor pencil & gouache on paper, 15″ x 11″ © J.Hart 2018

Instagram is filled with seductive photos of food from high end bloggers, chefs, and assorted foodies. Some of these creative food aficionados were even kind enough to respond to my recent posts. A thank you to all the bloggers who commented and responded!

Now, as a practicing foodie, I appreciate both the pleasure of food sensually and visually. However, our present huge interest in using food as a creative outlet gives me pause. It seems to me that it  rests upon a faith that the supplies that support it, the diversity of crops, both vegetable and animal, coming in from all over the planet, will continue to exist, certainly through our lifetime. I think that is very unlikely: what is more to be expected is that we will lose, in the very near future, many of the foods that we take for granted:

http://www.businessinsider.com/foods-that-may-go-extinct-2016-6?r=UK&IR=T/#chickpeas-2

In our present situation, it is heat that is, in the next couple of years, going to radically change the way we eat and drink. It is going to mean that the huge fields of corn, soy, and wheat-with which the mammoth industrial corporations support their empire of fast, processed, and cheap food-will be burned and destroyed by fire and drought. It also means that smaller crops like barley which supports the cheap beer that is the main alcoholic beverage in the States will also be affected.

https://thefern.org/2017/12/climate-change-threatens-montanas-barley-farmers-possibly-beer/

Very high temperatures during the growing months will make harvesting basic crops like strawberries by hand very dangerous.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/ucdavis/protecting-californias-farmworkers-as-temperatures-climb/

The short-term solution will probably be night harvesting, and, of course, the development of robotic harvesting:  https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/07/437285894/4-labor-intensive-crops-farmers-wish-they-had-robots-to-harvest.

Not only heat, but lack of water or too much water at the wrong time, will affect basics like olive oil:

The systematic destruction of the soil and ecosystems will eventually eliminate crops like cocoa:  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/13/chocolate-industry-drives-rainforest-disaster-in-ivory-coast

Finally, the change in the weather and the creation of what Elizabeth Kolbert calls the new Pangaea – the unimpeded spread of microbes, fungi, and insects carrying diseases throughout the globe – are leading to the destruction of crops and the disappearance of foods we have learned to take for granted like bananas and oranges.

This does not even begin to cover the destruction by industrial fishing of ocean habitats that support the seafood we are all encouraged to eat for better health. (Here in Dallas, the grocery stores sell a relatively inexpensive shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, I am hesitant, knowing what I do about the dead zones and massive pollution in the Gulf, to buy these shrimp!)

So one issue is that cooking as if the whole world is one’s grocery store is a reflection of a fossil fuel dependent mentality that refuses to imagine that this way of living will shortly end. Even health books promote, without being aware of it, a static delusional world view. Recipes, such as those I just found in  Dr. Mark Hyman’s Eat Fat, Get Lean cookbook (which advertises a combined paleo and vegan diet), depends heavily on foods, like coconut and avocados, which have a huge carbon footprint for North America.

The other more difficult problem is that cooking as a commodity for consumption by the wealthy (food as art!) normalizes habits that are destructive to the planet.  I can imagine in the not too distant future millions of poor people worldwide starving; the middle class here paying much of their income for food and being disappointed that the wide diversity of food they were used to is no longer available; and the superrich continuing to eat as if there is no tomorrow!

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/11/mass-starvation-humanity-flogging-land-death-earth-food

(This is probably the best opinion piece on the coming food catastrophe. It is not the first time that I have posted this, nor will it be the last!)

So my suggestion, as always, is to move away from the exotic and expensive in cooking as in life: to focus on your area’s food traditions and local crops; and grow some of your own food. Your recipes will become more wholesome if less photogenic and novel, but the planet will thank you!

*Warning: this post is what I call a Cassandra Report. As many of you may remember from Greek stories, Cassandra was a beautiful woman with whom the god Apollo fell in love. He gave her the gift of prophecy, but she rejected him. Enraged, he cursed her with the ability to tell truth about the future, but the inability to have anyone ever believe her!

So my modest guesses of what the future will hold for us are Cassandra Reports. As a disclaimer, I do not believe that I am clairvoyant. However, I do believe that anyone with a good imagination and the courage to accept change, can “foresee” the future: you do not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows! (Bob Dylan)

Compost Orphan

compost watercolor

This is my lovely bucket of kitchen scraps: lemon rinds, coffee grinds, avocado pits, carrot ends, beet skins, and Chinese cabbage leaves.  One half of all the garbage I generate in my kitchen is from my mainly plant-based diet. But I am bereft! I am a compost orphan. I wander the streets of my very well kept, highly manicured neighbourhood looking for a place to dump my compost!

Occasionally a landscaping company comes through the condo compound where I live; and the guys with the loud leaf blowers kindly allow me to add what they call my “organics” to the bags of leaves that they collect and haul off to some distant leaf composting station which I have yet to locate.

But I generate too much compost too fast, and I am on my second bucket by the time they come back two weeks later. I have tried neighbours, but no one here gardens! (It is a lovely community artfully landscaped, but a virtual green desert.) I went and asked at all the local groceries including Whole Foods: no joy! Even the local juicing place doesn’t compost (sigh*).

I will admit to being very spoiled. When I lived in the country in Vermont, I had composting piles out back by the garden beds. Even in Providence, Rhode Island, a good sized city,  I was able to build a small compost heap behind my apartment building. And then, of course, there is Montreal, which just instituted curb-side compost pickup (be still my heart!) last year in my neighbourhood (Verdun).

I have even considered starting a worm farm in my apartment. But though it would take care of the kitchen scraps by turning them into fabulous worm castings, perfect for fertilizing a garden, I would then be reduced to trying to find a place to donate the worm fertilizer. Also, this is a temporary stay for me, and my daughter is adamant that she will not adopt the worms when I return North.

It is times like this that I have the unsettling feeling that I have moved to an alternative reality!

 

 

 

 

The Weight of One

 

new year's (2018)card lilies 2017 web copy
Holiday Bouquet © J.Hart ’17

There have been a number of articles recently complaining that the individual decisions and actions that people are being encouraged to take and to do are irrelevant and possibly counterproductive as they lull people into a false sense that they can ameliorate or even prevent the coming climate related disasters by their personal choices.

These opinion pieces come from both sides of the political spectrum, but they all fail to understand a basic fact of capitalism and our present exploitation by multi-national corporations: whether drugs, fashion, sodas, fast foods, plastic water bottles, or gasoline, all sales of stuff depends on the individual deciding to spend her or his money for something that will enrich the wealthy, impoverish the person, and destroy the earth. And the 1%, the wealthiest in the world, have made their fortunes on these millions of our small individual choices.

The problem, as I see it, is not that sustainable actions for individuals are ineffectual, but that they are unworkable at the scale and with the depth of determination with which they are now practiced. Recycling, minimizing waste, taking shorter showers, not using plastic bags, not drinking anything in one time use plastic bottles, etc. are all good, but are too little too late.

It took barely two generations in the U.S. to go from a relatively modest lower middle class living situation for most people to an untenably wasteful and destructive lifestyle that is sickening and impoverishing much of the population. It took a concentrated media blitz with television shows and advertising to convince people that a wasteful and “luxurious” way of living is to be desired, is a sign of success and even virtue (sic!), and, more importantly, is “normal” and an important indication of progress.

The reality, as we have finally discovered, is quite the reverse: in order to live on the earth and protect our future, we must reduce the cost of living on this earth; and revert to a much simpler, slower, and more modest lifestyle. And if we, the mass of separate individuals, created the wealth and are complicit in the destruction of the planet, it stands to reason that we, as individuals, can make the choices that will save the planet and redeem our species.

But which of us is really willing to do that? What culture in history has stepped back from the brink by reducing its consumption and its power? What individual has willingly walked away from comfort and wealth? The only one I know is Siddhārtha Gautama, the scion of a wealthy family who gave it all up to find enlightenment and become the Buddha. Buddha followed and preached what is called “The Middle Way”, a lifestyle that is neither luxurious nor impoverished. But what was “The Middle Way” in Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE, would probably look like the poorest most uncomfortable way to live in the 21st century AD!

So how do we, the well educated, the solidly middle class, the believers in climate change and sustainability, step out of our boxes? How do we disengage from the non-stop voice in our heads that repeats and repeats that we should never be inconvenienced, made uncomfortable in the smallest manner, or in any way voluntarily limit our appetites or desires? We have been taught that we deserve the best of everything, even if it means the end of the world as we know it. It is what Bill McKibbon calls “hyperindividualism” and it is a very hard habit to break!

So here are some modest suggestions for better choices for healthier habits in the New Year- a way to practice for the coming hard times, disengage from large corporations, and realize a more human lifestyle:

  1. Stop shopping. Don’t shop for recreation or to feel less depressed or less lonely or to alleviate boredom. And if you, as I, were raised in a household and a culture that prioritized shopping, and you are having trouble breaking the habit, here is a link with a helpful psychological tip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDpyS2HN5SA No joke: just stop it!
  2. Don’t buy, eat or drink any processed food. Eliminate all sodas, fast foods, and packaged foods with ingredients that your grandmother would not recognize. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as commercial food is created to be, for want of a better word, addictive. However, if you drink only water, tea, or coffee without sweeteners, and you cook and eat locally grown and harvested produce, eggs, and meat, you will find your health improving within a short time.
  3. Unplug from your phone, television, and the internet for as much of the day as you can. Apple, Google, Facebook, and all the other large tech corporations, want you to believe that you can’t live without their products; and their products, which mainly provide entertainment, increase desires and decrease the ability to delay gratification. They also create a mindset that expects speed in all things: information, relationships, and solutions to problems. Neither speed nor tech will be the answer to the dilemma we are facing.
  4. Make your connections to other people locally and in person.  Politics too should be rooted in your community.

I don’t know if enough of us will make the necessary changes soon enough to save our species. But I do know that I would rather make the choice now of my own volition than be forced by disasters to live in straitened circumstances later. If we are committed (and lucky!) we might live to make a more mature and Earth-centric human culture. May we all find peace, joy, & compassion in 2018!