I had an epiphany a couple of days ago. An uncomfortable one. Namely, that I care more about the environment in theory than in practice.
It dawned on me partway through Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I’ve taken to reading in bed at night before I drift off. Gently, yet firmly, Barbara and her husband Steven Hopp build a case for eating local based on food miles and ecological footprints and petroleum reserves and such.
While I’ve been aware of these arguments, I’ve been buying more local food because it tastes good. Because I like shopping at the farmer’s market. Because I enjoy the challenge of designing meals around what is in season. As I’ve said in previous posts, eating well is fun.
But I’ve been realizing lately that the path that begins with eating more sustainably is a slippery slope that invites one into an ever-expanding awareness about choices, and the effect individual choices have on the world at large.
Doggone it, eating local is making me think!
It’s made me realize that for years, I’ve been paying lip service to environmental stewardship. I’ve blamed the woes of the planet on the “other guy,” the one who drives around in a Hummer, tossing Styrofoam cartons out the window as he peels out of a McParking lot. I’ve assumed that my small virtues put me in the Good Camp: I’m a fastidious recycler; I pull on a sweater instead of turning up the thermostat; I use organic cleaners instead of bleach; I make a (small) monthly contribution to an environmental group that does wonderful things.
But let’s be honest: “all that” doesn’t amount to much. I would guess that my ecological footprint, if measured, would be almost identical to that of my neighbor, who makes no such concessions, and only negligibly different than the guy in the Hummer. With the exception of food, I usually buy what I want, when I want, without a lot of thought about where it came from or what was involved in the making of it. I put thousands of miles on my car every year, usually driving solo. I like fresh towels and long, hot showers and green lawns and air conditioning.
And bottled water. I like bottled water a lot.
Sure, I was happy to read that Chez Panisse was switching to tap, and that Brett decided to do the same at Ollalie.
“That’s well and good for them,” I told myself, “But I need bottled water!” I rationalized my bin full of empties: Marin County water might be full of bad things. Tap water has fluoride in it, ick. What if I mysteriously contract a disease that turns out to have been spread via the local water supply?
Then, over the holiday weekend, I read an article by Jon Mooallem in the New York Times. It painted a vivid picture of the waste bottled water creates and told the riveting tale of Richard Chambers, founder of the first Bottle Bill. It also revealed this ugly statistic: this year, Americans will consume 30 billion single-serving bottles of water. Yes, that's billion with a "B."
Sadly, only 16% of bottles purchased in California reach the recycle bin. Most of them end up in landfills.
That was when I decided that if tap water was good enough for Alice Waters, it was good for me. As soon as my latest case of smartwater is gone, I’ll start refilling my glass Voss bottles with tap water while I investigate heavy-duty under-the-sink filters. Anyone know of a good one?
I realize that relinquishing bottled water is a miniscule step. The sum total of plastic bottles I will hereafter not use do not equal a significant environmental impact. I’m not patting myself on back, not by a long shot. As Jane Powell wrote in a recent Chronicle article, “try to be as green as possible - but don't fool yourself that it's going to save the planet.”
I am an eyelash on the gnat that lands on the butt of the elephant that is The Problem.
But I feel hopeful, and here's why: food can be a hook, a powerful entry point into a broader understanding of our impact on the world around us. Restaurants that began by using organic ingredients are now using local organic ingredients and sourcing reclaimed materials for their interiors. Chefs are stepping out of their kitchens and getting involved with the people who grow the produce they serve. Things are changing far beyond the scope of the dinner plate, but the dinner plate was the trigger.
Turns out that taste and goodness and fun can be powerful levers for all sorts of change!
I'm on board, truly I am; just don't ask me to give up my long, hot showers.