Friday, September 25, 2009

Shades of Gray

When I first started on my humane/sustainable/green/social justice path, I was pretty rigid. I think that, like many people who concern themselves with the issues that I care about, I considered my carefully-crafted and well-researched opinions to be sacred and I had little tolerance for other points of view.

In my old(er) age, I've softened quite a bit. For one thing, as a mother of two young children, I no longer have the energy to get hysterical over what other people do, since the only thing I have any control over anyway is what I do. I have found that living an authentic life is the best PR around. But more importantly, I have become a student of diversity. Not diversity in the sense in which it is commonly used (i.e. a group of people with varying race, religious beliefs, cultures, etc.) but in the way that the word applies to the natural world.

Take pandas, for example. They eat one thing: bamboo. If something happens to the bamboo for some reason, like bad weather or some sort of invasive pest, the pandas are in big, big trouble. On the other hand you have rats, who can eat anything and will probably outlive us all (as a species). When you rely on one small niche for your survival, you are likely to run into problems at some point. If you can view all the world as your dinner, metaphorically speaking, you are in much better shape.

In the same way, I have come to see that there is no one path to compassion. Different people can move towards the same goal along very different paths. Take, for example, an article in the latest issue of Newsweek called "Are Locavores Really Green?" James E. McWilliams, author of a new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly argues that we need to come at the food issue from all angles - local food and global food system, organic food and pesticides and GMOs - in order to meet the world's needs.

While McWilliams supports local food and organic farming in principle, he thinks that we cannot possibly feed the entire global population using those methods. It may work for some and be sustainable, but we have to accept that the local food movement is not THE answer. (Nothing is THE answer, I would add.) It may take more energy, he says, to ship a few crates of food back and forth to the farmer's market than to ship tons of food over thousands of miles. When you consider that some of that non-local food may have been produced in a more appropriate environment for that particular plant, and therefore may have required less energy and water input, it may turn out that the net energy cost of a global food economy is lower than that of a food system built on local farms.

Maybe he's right. Personally, I think there is something to be said for his argument, to a degree. I happen to live in a part of the country where I can get much of my produce right off the farm, grown in season, for much of the year. Most of it is not grown organically, though I believe that a short farm-to-plate turnover renders it healthier than some organic alternatives on many different levels. I like to rely on local food as much as possible, but am not married to the concept. When I buy things that were not grown locally, I try to get them from neighborhood stores or small co-ops so that I am at least supporting a local business if not a local farmer. However, I also recognize that if I were a starving mother of six in Mozambique, some highly-processed GMO corn would look pretty darn good to me.

I think that any time we become really hard-core about anything, it is probably a good idea to take a step back and try to appreciate the nuances of the issue. Perhaps we are on the right track, and there is something to be said for passion and commitment...but there is also something to be said for diversity.

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