Posts Tagged ‘modern world’

A sure sign of a food system that needs help

This weekend, as I was reading up on gardening in Indiana while my boyfriend watched a football game, I caught a commercial on television for Pepsi Throwback edition, advertising that the product was “made with real sugar.” The first thing that came to mind at this commercial was not shock at the fact that regular Pepsi isn’t already made with real sugar; I am well aware of all the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that goes into our soft drinks. Instead, I was floored by the fact that the company was marketing something made with real sugar as a novelty item.

When foods made with real sugar, a natural product, are advertised as innovative, is this not a sure sign of a food system in trouble? A backwards system where foods made with the chemical, the man-made are normal, and those foods made with “the real thing” are out of the ordinary? Has our world really come to a place where foods that are “natural” or “real” are mere novelties? If so, we have all but finally reached the world of Sci Fi, where food has been reduced to a tiny, man-made, chemical-based pill, and real foods, like vegetables, roast beef, seafood, or, gasp, sugar are considered quaint and outdated.

When did we start eating a diet composed largely of man-made, highly processed and refined “food products” instead of real, live food? I cannot help but read the Pepsi commercial as Exhibit A in the case for food system reform.

Maybe the commercial struck such a cord with me because I had just finished reading Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry‘s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which eloquently makes the case for a return to real, sustainable foods: to fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy products. Lappe and Terry outline the problems with our current food production system, and, although their complaints are not new – in fact, the organic, sustainable, local, hippie (whatever) community has been making the case for food reform for at least two decades – their book is a succinct and accurate assessment of the problems with modern industrial agriculture and of potential actions we can all make to take back control of our food.

In circles of environmentalists and sustainabilists (of which I count myself a member), it has nearly become common knowledge that modern means of food production – industrial-scale vegetable and grain farming using a plethora of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and other fossil-fuel based inputs, factory farming of animals for mass consumption of (too much) meat, high processing and use of additives and preservatives in conventional “food products,” and the transport of all of these food items thousands of miles to their destination on our supermarket shelves – are unhealthy for both humans and the environment. Writers such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and others have popularized the problems with the way we produce and consume food in this country. Even the new Obama White House has begun an attempt to spread a message about the importance of eating locally and sustainably through the creation of a new organic garden on the Lawn.

So, if the ailments of our food system have become such a widespread topic of conversation, why is nothing substantive being done to change things? Part of the problem is clearly the downturn of the economy and insurance and real estate market busts that have distracted our national attention from the real problems with our government and economy, such as the issues facing a society reliant on cheap fossil fuels, and lack of access to affordable health care, meaningful education, and healthy, sustainable food. Grub authors Lappe and Bryant argue that in order to spur change in our food system at the national level, we need to start “voting with our pocketbook,” or so the phrase goes. We can start changing what our food system looks like (and what our waistlines look like, too) by buying only sustainable food options – less fast food and processed junk food, and more organic produce and whole grains. Though most people immediately assume organic food is more expensive than conventionally farmed and produced options, Lappe and Bryant show that if you buy whole organic, local, sustainable ingredients and cook more from scratch instead of buying processed, quick-fix foods, a sustainable diet can actually save you money. You can also grow your own food, no matter where you live, from just a few seeds and soil, for not only huge savings but also the assurance that you know where your food comes from and where it’s been.

This last point is the reason I was looking at gardening books this weekend. While my boyfriend, Paul, and I live in a city apartment, we have a small, west-facing balcony on which I plan to grow as many of our own vegetables as possible this summer. I am in the process of planning a substantial container garden to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, salad greens, peas, beans and kale this spring, summer and fall. Living in south-central Indiana, our growing season consists of more than 175 days of frost-free weather, which I can extend even further by planting frost-tolerant kale in the early spring and late fall. Though I am a novice gardener and this first season may not produce as much as I would like, I am hoping to produce at least some produce for Paul and I to enjoy through the summer and fall, to help us live healthier and more sustainably.

There are many things we can do individually to change the way we think about food; growing your own is only one of many things to do. You can purchase food directly from farmers at your local farmers market, ask your grocery store to carry more local, sustainable, organic or fair-trade products, eat less (factory-farmed) meat, start tracking the “food miles” traveled of certain items in your diet and try to cut back on fossil-fuel intensive products, and more. If more people adopt a sustainable diet, the entire food system will begin to be more sustainable. Maybe then we’ll stop seeing commercials advertising products made with the real thing – “real sugar” – as a novelty, and eating “real food” will once again become the norm.


Book Review: The Ecology of Hope, by Ted Bernard and Jora Young

Image credit: Indiebound.orgI’ve been meaning to write about this book for a long time. Though first published in 1996, its relevance extends beyond the decade or more since its release. Ted Bernard and Jora Young have written an inspirational manifesto for a sustainable world of all that’s wonderful, resilient, and, ultimately, hopeful in our communities. The book, fully titled, The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability, provides both an outline of the need for sustainable community action as well as an array of case studies from the United States.

The book begins with a brief but eloquent history and critique of the current worldview/paradigm merged into the context of American environmental history. The authors posit that our current worldview is individualistic and not community-centered, and that in order to create a sustainable world we must restructure our thinking to be more other-oriented, to focus more on community responsibility. Like other authors I have mentioned in my posts on community and sustainability, such as David Orr, Paul Theobald, and Wendell Berry, Bernard and Young are part of a growing sustainability movement that expresses the discontent and malaise that we feel with our current world, and works to engage people in their communities and their environment in an attempt to create a positive and sustainable future. This movement, instead of focusing on the negative effects human civilization and our consumer lifestyles are having on the environment and the great peril the earth is in due to anthropogenic climate change, encourages individual and collective action in our own lives to actively change our mindsets, our situation, and our world. In The Ecology of Hope, the authors cite examples of successful engagement and action, where people have worked to create sustainable communities – a holistic, economic, social and ecological version of sustainability.

The kind of collective action, cooperation and consensus these authors cite will be necessary as population grows, the climate warms, and human society exerts greater and greater pressure on our ecological life support systems, coming up against the limits of resource scarcity and pollution. Many authors have discussed the link between environmental scarcity and violent conflict (Homer-Dixon, et al.; a topic for another post), and as we face the limits mentioned above, we will be at an increased risk of war with one another. But building community through collaboration, cultivating a sense of responsibility towards one another, and encouraging communication and connection between human beings on a level that crosses both geopolitical bounds and psychological, perceived differences can allow us to transcend the risk of conflict and rise up like a phoenix from the flames into a just and sustainable world.

The Ecology of Hope is aptly titled. The word “ecology” in the natural sciences means the study of the interconnectedness of all things living in a given place, the study of relationships. In the study of climate change and world systems, this concept of “ecology” and interconnectivity can be extended to the entire biosphere, because we are all related to and interacting with one another and the earth somehow. In sociology and ecopsychology, the concept of ecology is sometimes applied to a community of human beings in a place – the intersection of humans and the natural world in that place. Where the concept of “ecology” is a scientific one, the word “hope” connotes spiritual and emotional ideas . “Hope” is a feeling of change, of progress, of better things to come, of optimism. The phrase “Ecology of Hope,” to me, means the interconnectedness of change, and optimistic phrase that makes me think of people and nature working in harmony to create a better world for all. This relationship component of change, this “Ecology of Hope” will be critical to a sustainable future.

And it will all start with action in our communities.

Yes! Magazine: Building a Just and Sustainable World

Yes Fall 2009 issue cover

Image credit:

Last week in the mail, I received the Fall 2009 issue of Yes!, a magazine I’d never heard of, and to which I did not subscribe. However, this magazine may be the best piece of unsolicited mail I have ever received. Subtitled “Building a Just and Sustainable World,” this magazine was filled with articles on building stronger community, retooling our education system to really educate people instead of just schooling them with how to stay afloat in the current everyone-for-themselves world, and inspiring stories of grassroots environmental activism. I don’t think I have ever been so accurately targeted with a piece of junk mail (unless someone secretly sent me a subscription to the magazine).

The Yes! Magazine website describes the goal of the organization to provide “inspiring solution-oriented journalism” and “connections with like-minded people.” If I may be allowed to judge from reading their Fall 2009 issue cover-to-cover, they have clearly succeeded in meeting these goals. The articles published by Yes! cover topics ranging from the holistic alternative education efforts in the place-based education movement, the community revitalization efforts of programs such as Detroit Summer, and the innovative inner life and education ideas of Parker Palmer. This issue is chock-a-block full of inspiring articles filled with real-world solutions to the problems of our communities, our schools, and our environment today.

This issue of Yes! reminds me what is truly important and amazing about our world: the capacity for change in the status quo. Our current, individual-, consumption-based society struggles with creating healthy, mindful, strong individuals committed to their community and the betterment and sustainability of our world. In an educational system and corporate climate based on test scores and competition, we seek to groom individuals for obedience, prejudice, competition, and to remain just far enough removed from the natural world so that we can destroy it without it weighing too much on our conscience. We can change this status quo. We can educate with the aim of cultivating individuals who know how to sustain healthy relationships, are not afraid to voice their own opinions and beliefs or to challenge others’ opinions, are intelligent but also mindful and think before they speak or write. The place-based education movement, with its aim of providing students with relevant experiences so that they are learning for a purpose and not just memorizing facts for a test, uses the community as a classroom and laboratory to encourage individual exploration and also connection with and responsibility to those around us.

These are the values key to creating a society that will work together to transform this planet into a “just and sustainable world:” a belief in lifelong education that comes from within and is nurtured by a vital community, a healthy sense of responsibility to others and to the earth, and a desire to see and create the positive change needed in the world. Yes! magazine tells the stories of change we need to inspire sustainable action in our own lives.

*Post script: My mother has fessed up to sending me the “unsolicited subscription.” Thanks, Mom! Now I can look forward to the next issue of the magazine.

Book review: The Land Remembers, by Ben Logan

The Land Remembers I just finished reading Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers. If any book I have read captures the ideals of stewardship of the land and preservation of family and community, this book is it. Logan writes beautifully of his childhood in the so-called driftless area in southwestern Wisconsin. One reviewer of the book commented that the book brought him to a place he wishes he remembered. This is immensely true; Logan’s boyhood home is a place I wish were in my past. With their order dictated by the flow of the seasons, Logan’s vignettes of home, family, the natural world, community relationships and more explore the fabric and definition of a full life.

Part-memoir, part philosophy, Logan writes of a communion between humans and the earth. Many of the vignettes in The Land Remembers state outright that the relationship most farmers in the first half of the 20th century had with the land was much more sustainable than the current interaction between modern industrialized agriculture and the land it exploits. The old way of farming relied on an understanding of the land that goes beyond just what it can give to humans. Logan’s farm family had a deep respect for the land and what it needs to stay healthy. Logan also acknowledges, however, that European farmers were not always on the land; long before Europeans or even Native Americans came to the hilltops of the driftless area, the land was there, and long after humans leave the area, the land will be there. There is a recognition of something larger than ourselves in Logan’s writing, similar to that found in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For me, the book embodies the strong sense of community that I hope I can someday cultivate in my own life and work. Logan’s story emphasizes elements of a strong community – I think intentionally so – and doesn’t hesitate to conclude that strong community and family ties are key to a healthy life and a healthy earth. Logan has strong ties with his parents and his three brothers growing up, and continued to maintain these ties throughout his life. There is also in the book a clear sense of connection between oneself and family and neighbors and other members of the community. Logan speaks often of the mailman, how this individual is more than just someone to deliver the bills but also a source of local news, gossip and entertainment. The mailman’s daily coming is a way to mark both the time of day and the passage of the seasons. Sociologists of education would call this extended role relations, or interacting on more than one plane with individuals in your community, a healthy way of learning new knowledge and about ones role in the community. In contrast, modern interactions between individuals within a community tend to be more limited (e.g. your see your teacher only within the classroom where she has the ultimate authority and encountering her outside the classroom is a rare and awkward experience; or, the mailman is just the mailman, without a name, personality or presence outside of his job). Logan’s experience is of a world that has a slower pace, more meaningful interactions between people, and greater ultimate purpose.

It is rare when one encounters a book so beautifully written and rich with narrative detail that you can actually see the place written of. But to have a book both beautiful and rich and that captures the ideals I wish to promote in my own life and career is a rare and wonderful thing indeed. I recommend Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers for both young and old, the modern and traditional, for those looking for something to entertain and those looking for something with deeper meaning.

(Photo credit: Barnes & Nobel.)

Conkey’s Bookstore is closing, the world is changing

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin.  Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey's Bookstore, in Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin. Taken during the first snow of the winter of 2006.

Conkey’s Bookstore – the oldest independent bookstore in Wisconsin, a critical part of downtown Appleton, my place of employment through my four years at Lawrence University, where my mom took me for a cup of hot chocolate after the Christmas parade when I was a little girl, the place so many Appletonians rely on year after year for their Christmas gifts, birthday cards, and unusual book orders – is closing after 113 years of business.

An article in the Appleton Post Crescent last week gave the details of the store’s reasons for closing, so I will not go into those here. For me, and for many, the closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is much more than a news item.

The closing of Conkey’s is more than the loss of another independent bookstore in a community. It’s the loss of a way to make a livelihood for the store’s many full-time employees. It’s the loss of a neighborhood bookstore alternative to heading out to the mall for the residents of downtown Appleton. It’s the loss of a place to get cards, books and gifts for its thousands of loyal customers. It’s the loss of an anchor store for the many local businesses located on downtown College Avenue.

The closing of Conkey’s Bookstore is also a symbol of the direction this world is going in. The McDonaldization of America is often used by sociologists as a metaphor for the takeover of the so-called standardized, predictable, mass marketable, and “economically efficient” in modern American society. McDonaldization as a concept could have just as easily been termed WalMartization. The Big Box stores and chain fast food dives are beating out the small local businesses and ma and pop restaurants. Add this to the recession that is taking its toll on all businesses, large or small, local or chain, and the closing of another independent bookstore doesn’t seem so unlikely or surprising to today’s reader.

But the loss of independent businesses of all types means the loss of the individuality and character that comes with the businesses. Conkey’s has been in Appleton for over one hundred years. It has that charm of an old business, and it used to thrive on the services it provides, such as out-of-print book ordering, and the knowledgeable employees who can recommend a book for anyone. There is an one of those old rolling ladders inside, the kind that nowadays is only seen in movies or in pictures of old libraries. It has the charm of a bookstore that has been there forever. Conkey’s has been in downtown Appleton for longer than living memory.

Countless articles and blog posts have been written about the benefits of independent businesses to communities. One of the more often sited facts I’ve come across is that for every dollar spent at a locally owned business, approximately 60 cents returns to the local economy through wages, investments, and more. Compare this to every dollar spent in a Big Box or nationally owned chain, only 40 cents of which returns to the local community, and it’s clear that locally-owned, independent businesses support community much more than chain stores. Local businesses are also more likely to give donations to charitable causes than chain stores, because there is less corporate mumbo-jumbo to hurdle to get the donation to go through. Local businesses also collaborate frequently with each other, creating a social network of individuals and businesses that can support and cross-publicize one another.

Customers have come into Conkey’s over the past weeks, since the news of our closing was published, and all have lamented the fact that we will be closing our doors after so many years. It really is a tragedy. The oldest independent bookstore in the state of Wisconsin is closing after over a century of business. I think deep down we’re all sort of hoping for a miracle, that some one will be interested in buying the place and keeping it in business. Or that by some sort of divine intervention, business will take a drastic upward turn and we’ll be able to stay open. Or someone will come up with a brilliant business plan to turn Conkey’s into a co-op, like a bookstore in Shorewood, Wisconsin will hopefully soon become.

For me personally, it still hasn’t quite sunk in. It can’t be really happening. The community will find a way to keep Conkey’s open. It’s been such a downtown icon for so long. I’ve had two dreams since I found out Conkey’s was closing. In the first, I’m walking down College Avenue in Appleton and nearly every store is closed and boarded up. In the second dream, I’m talking to customers in the store and I finally start crying, letting out all the welled up grief and tears I have for the fate of the bookstore. I woke up sobbing.

It’s especially disheartening to find the store to be closing as I embark on schooling for a career in sustainable communities. Integral to the health of a community is the health and sustainability of its local businesses. Without places like Conkey’s to provide valuable services like book selling in downtown districts close to where people live and work, residents of communities are forced to get into their cars and travel to large shopping malls for their everyday needs. Local grocery stores, hardware stores, clothing shops, schools – in a sustainable community, these every day places should be within walking or biking distance of every resident. But as more and more local businesses and shops close and are out-competed by the malls and the Big Box stores, community citizens become more and more dependent on their fossil fuel powered vehicles. How can we be otherwise, when stores are farther and farther from our homes, and public transportation in most smaller cities and towns is awful?

It’s easy to sit and lament all the things that will be lost as Conkey’s closes. To berate the Big Box stores and the economy and the internet for forcing the little guys out of business. However, when I become angry at the whole situation, I have to remind myself of what one of Conkey’s loyal customers said the other day. We should have a big party here, she told us. It’s sad that we’re closing, but Conkey’s has had a great run of it for 113 years. We should have a big party, with all of the community invited, to celebrate a century of life. When a 113 year old dies, she said, you don’t have a funeral, you have a party, celebrating a good, long life!

I will miss Conkey’s. I had been planning on coming home to visit the place when I come home for Christmas during the next few years for my yearly walk down memory lane. With the store closing, residents of Appleton and graduates of Lawrence will all have to rely less on the store as a place to conjure nostalgia for our childhoods, and more on the fond memories inside our heads.

“The Lawrence Bubble”: Just a PR problem?

(A version of this post will appear in tomorrow’s Lawrentian, but I wanted to post here as well.)

As I am writing this, it is a gray Thursday. I sit looking out over the Fox River, watching the seagulls swoop low over the moving water among the rocks. The white smoke from the paper plants melt into the gray-white sky that is rimmed with trees and smokestacks and radio towers. Though this view I have is far from natural, it carries a rich history that lends a sort of industrial beauty to the landscape.

As my time at Lawrence University comes to a close and I reflect, I regret that I have not learned more about this landscape that surrounds us. Though I am an Appleton native, I have not spent much time at all thinking about the Fox River—its ecology, industry, history—or the greater Fox Valley community during my time at Lawrence. Until this, my last, term at Lawrence, when I have been involved in a project on the history of the Fox River for Professor Monica Rico’s American Environmental History class, hardly a single class I’ve had at Lawrence has integrated this place Lawrentians call home into the academic subjects we learn here.

Lawrentians could easily spend four years here and never truly get to know the community’s history, ecology, politics, socioeconomic demographics, or current issues. Lawrentians joke about the “Lawrence Bubble,” and possibly lament the fact that they rarely get off campus into the surrounding community. We hear how the “townies” dislike the students for having loud parties on the weekends and riding their bicycles down College Avenue on the sidewalks, or stereotype us as being a bunch of snobby rich kids at private school.

Many on campus would make this out to merely be a PR problem—it is only because the surrounding community doesn’t know all the good things Lawrence students do: they don’t get to campus enough to see the “real Lawrence,” and only the bad things that get into the local papers. But is this really true? I argue that the issue of the “Lawrence Bubble” is more than just bad PR; it is also the lack of involvement and positive interaction between Lawrentians and community members.

True, programs like LARY Buddy and Habitat for Humanity do attempt to reach out to members of the non-Lawrence community and create a positive face for the University. Students are regularly encouraged to vote in local elections (though they may know little about the local issues on which they are voting). In the education program, student teachers are required to observe and teach at a local school. The Campus Center will purportedly be available to the community at large as a limited convenience store and for community events when requested. And some faculty, like Professor Mark Jenike through his research on nutrition in area schools, and the aforementioned Fox River project in Professor Rico’s class, are attempting to break out of the Bubble and use the surrounding community for translational research and experiential learning.

But for the large part, these are isolated examples that only reach a small portion of students and the community. There has been no comprehensive, University-wide effort to engage students in the Fox Valley community. If Lawrence is to truly prepare students that are prepared to be both world citizens and also contributing members of a community, it must start with encouraging students to be members of this community. We need to attempt to burst the “Lawrence Bubble” by engaging ourselves in meaningful ways in the greater community.

The Green Roots mission statement reads, “Responsible citizenship…requires…that we act in a manner that cares for the places in which we, and others, live and work. [T]he hallmark of an educated person…must be knowledge of the places we call home, an awareness of their interconnectedness, and an acceptance of our civic duty to act in ways that protect their wellbeing.” In order for Lawrence to truly create graduates that go out into the world with an understanding of “the places we call home,” it is necessary that our curriculum and civic outreach reflect these goals.

We must encourage faculty to use the Fox Valley as a “text” for academic study. We must educate students on the current local issues, so that they can become engaged citizens working toward a better community. We must teach students about the importance of local businesses in sewing together the economic and social fabric of the town. We must bring in more community members to share their knowledge about local and global issues with Lawrentians.

If we can develop students that truly know this place, perhaps they will go out into the world knowing the importance of place and how to live well in a that place, and contributing to strong vibrant communities. Only if we can take care of our own communities will we be able to extend that care into the larger world in the search for a global sustainable society.

(Many thanks to Stewart Purkey for exposing me to many of the ideas present in this article in his class Environment, Community and Education, and for suggestions on a draft of this article.)

Forced to take gadgets on vacation, the career-minded can never relax

ZDNet blogged this week about a company that is “recommending” that their employees “take your cell phone, laptop, pager and hand-held electronic organizer wherever you vacation.” This same company even suggests that employees request their hotel to have a fax machine installed in their room!

In today’s modern, high-powered society, it’s edicts like these that make us over-worked – chained to our jobs to earn money to support our consumer lifestyles (the so-called “paradox of affluence”). How, when your company all but requires you to take your Blackberry with you and check voicemail twice a day, can Americans really enjoy the vacations they spend all that time working to afford? We’re stressed and unhappy as a society because we don’t have enough time to relax. But as the ZD Net story indicates, even when we do have the opportunity to “relax,” we still wind up being bugged by work items: the last minute email or phone conference ties us to our desks even when we’re hundreds of miles away from the office. But, in the cut-throat competition of the modern corporate world, measures such as these are often necessary if you don’t want to lose your job or get passed up for that promotion.

What’s the solution for today’s over-stressed, over-worked slave to the corporate office?

Writer and Professor of Environmental Studies, David Orr, in his book entitled Earth in Mind, originally published in 1994, writes of the concept of a “calling” as compared to the modern idea of a “career” (2004, p. 22). A career, writes Orr, is often nothing more than a means to an end – and often that end is money that is then used to “support a ‘lifestyle'” of consumption of material goods (Orr, 2004, p. 22). Most modern jobs are along the lines of a career. A calling, on the other hand, involves an inner sense of “purpose” (Orr, 2004, p. 22). With a calling, there is an integration between “work” and play that means work never really seems like work because you enjoy what you’re doing. In a world where people act on their calling and not their career, there is no need to fill the void caused by a lack of purpose with needless, mindless consumption of stuff.

If we all could have a calling instead of a career, then perhaps we’d never feel that we need to “get away” from our jobs through vacations. We’d never need to “de-stress” or engage in activities designed to relax us. If we enjoyed work, perhaps we’d feel less chained to our jobs, with the sole purpose of our work being to make money. And if we value the work we do in and of itself and not just because it can be exchanged for money, work will become less arduous and more enjoyable.

But, how, then, is this an anecdote to those employers requiring workers to bring every work-linking device on vacation with them? Well, I could easily argue that if you enjoy your job, remaining connected with it on vacation should be a joy not a chore. One would be anxious to know what is going on in the workplace and to stay in the loop with any new developments at work. In all likelihood, any job that reflects a calling and a deeper sense of purpose, that integrates work and play in such a way that you enjoy what you do every day, and are not over-worked would result in a people that have time to relax on a day to day basis, instead of saving up all our alloted vacation time into long weekends and weeks away.

However, no matter how much you love your job, we all need to truly get away once in a while. And jobs that require you to remain connected while on vacation do not allow you to fully escape. But with a calling instead of a career, this need for connection will hopefully at least be slightly less onerous (and maybe you’ll only need to take one instead of five work-connecting devices with you on vacation).

Orr, David. 2004. Earth in Mind. Washington, DC: Island Press.