Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.

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Organization of the week: Edible Front Range

February 22, 2010

In keeping with the spirit of sustainable and local eating, I want to mention today a resource I have used for finding local food producers in the Boulder, Colorado area: the website for the magazine Edible Front Range. Although I prefer to highlight non-profit, non-commercial organizations, I have found the resources on this website useful, so I think it is worth mentioning. Edible Front Range is a “quarterly magazine that celebrates the abundance of local, seasonal food in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and towns in between. Through our magazine, website and events, we seek to connect the people who produce, sell and cook local food with those who care enough to seek it out.” I have found the local resource guide particularly useful; it lists farmers producing dairy, egg, produce, honey, meat, and poultry in various regions of the Front Range, including Boulder. The website also contains articles from the printed magazine, recipes, a list of farmer’s markets, local food events, a bulletin board (which looks mostly unused), and blog posts.

Edible Front Range is part of the nationwide Edible Communities, which has magazines for many regions around the country – check it out, there may be one for where you live!


Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

February 13, 2010

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, may be a memoir, but it is far from light reading. Phew. I thought I was familiar with all the horrors of the food industry from having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really makes it hit home. It is the story of how Kingsolver and her family embark on a year of growing and raising almost all of their own food, and obtaining the rest from as local as possible sources. They are lucky enough to own a farm in Virginia, and thus had the setting to make such an experiment work. Along the way, they comment on many of the ironies and horrific practices of the food industry. Despite the at times depressing content, the book is wonderfully well-written, with plenty of humor and entertaining passages. I recommend it! If you want to know more about the content of the book and my reflections on what I can do differently, read on.

Barbara Kingsolver and her husband and daughter make the eloquent point that we Americans have become extremely detached from the very thing that sustains us, and that there is much to be gained in rediscovering food from the source. One thing that I had thought about before but had never quite sunk in was how very strange it is for it to be snowing outside but to be able to go to the grocery store and buy fresh lettuce. Our industrialized food system has removed from us the need to know when different fruits and vegetables are in season; fresh fruits and vegetables of all sorts are transported from all over the world to allow us to have things like fresh lettuce in January in Colorado. The enormous environmental impact of this process of moving food around (not to mention the conventional methods of growing the produce, with oil-based fertilizers and pesticides) is highly ignored in our society. As Kingsolver says, “The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.”

Kingsolver goes beyond the lower environmental impact of eating locally, however. Going into their experiment, her family anticipated deprivation, as many people would: no peaches in April, no lettuce in January, etc. However, they discovered that the pleasures of eating fresh produce in season far surpassed the deprivations. Asparagus grown locally and eaten fresh in April tastes far better than asparagus grown halfway across the country in January (note, I did in fact see asparagus at the grocery store the other day, and I was not tempted to buy any). Winter was not a deprivation either: they canned tomatoes and froze many other vegetables and fruit when they were fresh, to eat all winter along with winter squashes and root vegetables that they stored in their root cellar. Furthermore, many of the fruits and vegetables they grew were heirloom breeds that are not found in the conventional grocery stores, and which have much greater variety and more flavorful taste than the ones that have been bred for the industrialized processes. Kingsolver makes a passionate and compelling case for cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients and reconnecting to the source of our sustenance.

So, am I going to make changes in my eating habits after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? I find that thinking about doing so is a little overwhelming. It is a far from easy thing to do, because the impact of continuing to buy non-local and conventionally-grown food is not tangible. I know, intellectually, that it is having a negative impact that I do not like, but it is easy to disconnect my knowledge of that from my actions and continue to buy that broccoli in January that was grown conventionally in California – in fact, it takes a purposeful effort to make the connection and change my habits because of it. Furthermore, it is difficult to get good information about how sustainably grown something actually was. I know, especially from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the big industrial organic companies are sometimes only marginally better than conventional ones – and that they continue to push for loosening of the organic rules.

Kingsolver does point out, thankfully, that the middle of winter is probably not the right time to start thinking about eating more locally. She is right. My town has a fabulous farmer’s market that runs from the beginning of April through the end of October. I do make an effort to buy much of my produce from the farmer’s market during those months, although I don’t succeed 100%. I am thinking that this year perhaps I should try freezing more fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market for use during the winter. Canning scares me (and I don’t have the equipment for it), but freezing is simple and, although my freezer is not that big, currently it is usually not very full. I would also like to stock up on locally grown winter squashes and root vegetables in the fall, but I am not sure I have the proper place to store them long-term, that would be the right temperature and humidity. The final change I am thinking about looking into is a local source for milk and eggs. We eat a lot of both and it seems so illogical to transport them great distances (and, I would much prefer to know that they came from free-range cows and hens raised and treated in a sustainable and humane manner).

A final thought on changing my habits: I am going to make an effort not to feel guilty, but to just remain aware of things and make changes in one area at a time when it feels doable. So many factors in the structure of our society are against eating locally and sustainably, so it takes more effort and time, at least initially, than just going to Safeway and buying anything I want. I only have so much time and effort, so I can only do so much. The most important thing that I must remind myself, the reason that the effort is worth making and the time worth spending, is that we are talking about what we put in to our bodies. Food is the very core of our existence and we should not take it lightly.

I will conclude my ruminations with a little admission. There are three items that I am highly unlikely to give up any time soon, even though I know that they are transported ridiculous distances to get to me: bananas, avocados, and chocolate. I just love them too much.

In case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It will definitely make you think, and perhaps make you look at your grocery store a little differently the next time you go.


A grassroots campaign for sustainability

July 1, 2008

I’ve been reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, recently, and it has been getting me thinking in particular about locally grown food. I think eating more locally is going to be critical to future sustainability – it just takes too much energy to transport (and keep fresh during the transportation) mass quantities of food, not to mention the energy it takes to grow food in an industrialized manner. Growing food locally allows for (in fact, requires) a single farm to grow diverse crops or raise diverse livestock, which is much more sustainable and, if done right, require far less (possibly none) artificial pesticides and fertilizers (which take energy to make). Go read the book and you will see what I mean; Pollan describes a farm with an incredible amount of symbiosis going on, such that the only thing the farmer has to purchase in order to raise beef cattle, pigs, chickens for eating, and chickens for egg laying, is some chicken feed.

As I was thinking about these things, I remembered a booklet I had picked up at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago from the Boulder County Going Local organization. I flipped through it and found an article about a really awesome grassroots community farm. Called Community Roots, it exists in a suburban community: the farmland consists of several front and back yards of standard suburb houses. You can volunteer your yards for their project and they will farm them for you! I think this is such a cool idea. Although I love lawns, they are really a bit of a waste of energy, especially in a semi-arid climate such as this one – they require watering and mowing and don’t provide anything in return. Turning them into food-producing pieces of land is a great use of space. I am even more thrilled about this community farm because it is only a mile or so from where I live! Unfortunately, I don’t have a yard to contribute, but I am definitely going to look for their booth the next time I go to the farmer’s market. I love the idea of buying food grown so very locally.

The thing I struggle with about trying to eat locally is that produce, the primary thing that it is easy to buy locally, does not make up the majority of my diet (although perhaps it should) – breakfast cereals, bread, milk, eggs, cheese, nut butters, and a variety of canned goods play a large role in my diet as well, and it is not so easy to obtain such things locally. I have bought some cheeses at the farmer’s market, but they are expensive artisan cheeses only, not something I would necessarily want to use for my run-of-the-mill scrambled eggs or burritos. I saw in the booklet I was reading that there is a farm that sells eggs at the farmer’s market, so I will have to look for them. However, I fear that there are still going to be many things I buy at the supermarket for quite a while still.