Read an Excerpt
I never expected to write this kind of book. In fact, I seldom read this kind of book. When I thought about that apparent inconsistency, given my interest in ecology and the environment, I realized that the book I wanted to read did not exist. I think that reading a book full of "shoulds" would be almost as tedious as writing one. Yet I also believe that it's worthwhile to share stories, trade ideas, and exchange not only encouragement but also down-to-earth advice with people who care about their own well-being and the health of the planet.
With that in mind, let me confess up front that this book is not without contradictions. In fact, the printed book itselfó100 percent postconsumer recycled paper and soy ink notwithstandingóis a contradiction. It took resources to produce it and get it to you. Every positive measure you take to help the environment probably entails a downside. You might order fair-trade organic cotton clothing over the Internet to support this worthy business model, but getting that item involves energy-expensive packaging and shipping. You might go out of your way to buy organic food, but driving farther means emitting more pollutants into the air and using extra fuel. It's fairly obvious that one can't be a "perfect" environmentalist. But that's okay. Perfection isn't the goal. A good life is. And a good life has a lot to do with who you are in the world, with your intent as much as with the end result.
I don't expect you to make use of every suggestion offered in these pages, nor do I intend it to be a definitive encyclopedia of living green. My aim is to inspire you as you read about people who have done some fascinating and sometimes hilarious things to live more in tune with nature. I hope that among the steps outlined at the end of each chapter you will identify those that are within reach for you. You are probably already doing some of them, and you might have suggestions for me, too. Enjoy yourself and live a little. If you slavishly reuse every paper bag that comes your way until it's a pulpy wad, go ahead and issue yourself some "environmental credits" to spend on taking a spin in your sporty guzzler.
A good life, after all, isn't one of relentless deprivation. Quite the opposite. I've discovered that caring for the world around me rewards me more than my small effort really deserves. So I hope it's not too crass to admit that my seemingly altruistic choices are not entirely so. The selfish benefits of living an environmentally conscious life are many. Through supporting organic growers by eating organic produce, I enjoy much more delicious and healthful food. When I walk rather than drive to run errands, I get exercise and sunshine (okay, I know I'm spoiled here in Santa Cruz). When I use biodegradable cleaners and detergents for my clothes and in my home, I reduce my exposure to toxic chemicals. And most of all, whatever small thing I do for someone else is often paid back many times over in humbling ways.
In the course of researching this book I discovered many things I didn't know. I came across suggestions for saving energy, water, time, money, and fuelóyou name itóthat were new to me. I also found myself more excited about practicing what I already know to do. As you browse these pages I hope that will be your experience too.
There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.
óM. F. K. Fisher
I was lucky to have grown up in an old colonial farmhouse with a garden and a few apple trees. My mom taught me to cook at an early age, and the ingredients we used came from our garden. The fruit of those trees ended up in our pies, and the eggs laid by our chickens went into cakes and omelets. My father taught me to fish, and we polished off what I plucked out of the Aspetuck River with corn and tomatoes from a local farm stand. My pa always had a good eye for produce. Early on, he showed me how to thump a melon.
But he still had some stubborn views about food. To him, organic foods referred to the hippie-dippy dishes my mom experimented with in the sixties, like nut loaf with yeast gravy. He was due for a wake-up call.
As my own food awareness grew, I'd gradually begun using organic ingredients in my cooking. And for some time I had been trying to get my father to add an organics line to his food company. But whenever I brought up the subject, he dismissed it because he didn't really understand organics. I was on a mission to change his mind.
My father expected a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and I was going to give him one. Sort of. One year, before leaving California to go home to Connecticut, I packed a bunch of organic foods from my local haunts. Petite pois. Sweet potatoes. Bread crumbs for stuffing. The whole bit, down to the turkey, packed in ice. I flew home with this cornucopia in my luggage and headed straight for the kitchen.
When the meal was over and I could see that it more than met with his approval, I leaned over and asked my pa, "How did you like your organic Thanksgiving meal?" He was floored. That was the day he learned that there is nothing newfangled about organic food. If anything, it's downright old-fashioned, and its rules for coaxing food from the earth date back almost ten thousand years, to the invention of agriculture. That was perhaps the most thankful Thanksgiving my family had enjoyed together up to that time. My four sisters and my mom were in on the conspiracy and supportive of my goal. We looked at my fatherócontent, well fed, ready to embrace the ideas of modern organics, which are instinctive and simple but require a new paradigm in order to be incorporated into our high-tech and complex food culture.
Most of the time, what we eat is removed from where and how it is produced. Convenience often takes precedence over taste, nutrition, and the consequences of production and delivery. Most of us don't know or don't think about where our food originates and are not aware that eating is, as the farmer, author, and poet Wendell Berry says, "an agricultural act."
The organic movement is gaining momentum. Today you can go to any major city in the United States and eat at top-flight restaurants where chefs use only organic meats and produce. You dine exquisitely in these places; out-of-towners book reservations months in advance. There are now two major natural-food-store chains dotting the country, and you can also order organic foodstuffs online. Americans are rediscovering their local farmers, either at regional markets or through an innovative concept called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
The chief difference between organic and conventional food is the method used to grow or make it. No long-lasting, synthetic pesticides or herbicides are sprayed on organic veggies and fruits. The livestock grow without hormones meant to fatten them quickly and without antibiotics to keep them from getting sick in overcrowded feedlots. The land and feed is also certified organic. On organic farms the soil, water, air, and all living creatures (including humans) are spared the stress of assimilating compounds that are proving unnecessarily complex and threatening. Biological reality has proven that volume and price are poor substitutes for a healthy ecosystem.
Few of us realize that the American way of producing food has become one of the biggest threats to the environment. The apple you buy in Maryland was picked in Washington State and flown, hauled by rail, or trucked to your store. Other foodsólike canned veggies and cerealsóare overprocessed, overpackaged, and over-preserved for this journey and extended shelf life. By the time you eat the typical bowl of cereal, the wheat, corn, or oats have been stripped of their nutrient value and coated with sugar and preservatives. Meanwhile, the harvesters, conveyors, packing machines, trucks, and other devices that make all this happen demand fuel, and so they too take their toll on our resources and the air we breathe. Yes, the food gets to where it has to go, but it's hardly efficient. By one estimate, for every calorie we eat, ten calories of energy have been used to bring it to us.
Modern farms grow food the way factories build widgets. Technology, not the earth's natural rhythm, is assumed to hold the answer to every problem. Want bigger yields? Use this industrial fertilizer. Want to eradicate bugs? Spray these chemicals. The irony is, after decades of these practices, the bugs are only getting stronger and the land is less fertile. In many parts of the country the soil is literally drying up and washing away.