Saturday, March 3, 2012

Where Does Environmentalism Stand Today?

For a number of years I studied the history of environmentalism as an academic subject, and the longer I pursued that goal I found it more difficult to understand the environmentalism of the current moment. Today, it is still hard to determine where things stand. It’s now possible to find organic products in Walmart and most any chain grocery store; some studies show that the United States consumes less gasoline  now than it did in 2008; and we all now use cfl lightbulbs, like 'em or not. But I can never determine if I should see these things as progress or greenwashing that makes us feel just environmentally friendly enough to justify deferring wholesale changes in our daily lives. 

The same situation exists on the pollution front: it’s been a while since a river caught on fire in the United States, and it’s now been 23 years since the Exxon Valdez coated Prince William Sound in crude oil, but in the past two years the Deepwater Horizon dwarfed the Exxon Valdez disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and we all bore witness to the world’s greatest peacetime nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. What environmental catastrophes have lost in frequency they have gained back in scale.

I have gone swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and I have seen many a Florida sunset sink beneath its waters; when the Deepwater Horizon was pumping hundreds of thousands of crude oil into it and Louisiana’s estuaries, I could feel the damage in my soul, but Prince William Sound and Fukushima, Japan are complete abstractions.  I understand them as I might understand a Chemistry textbook, but I don’t feel the loss of those environmental travesties.
I applaud those who can think and act globally (thank you, Al Gore) but to truly believe the world can change I have to narrow my focus--like to the food I put in my mouth. For my money, food is the most powerful factor in environmentalism today.  The plate and the fork are the unavoidable instruments that maintain our now largely invisible link to the nonhuman world of soil, sun, and water, and the plate and fork bind us all together.  Despite differing religions, political points of view, and economic statuses, we all eat. This may be the last thing we all have in common.  And today what we put on our plates can be genetically engineered, synthetic, raised by exploited laborers, fertilized with chemicals, sprayed with poisons, and shipped from Argentina or New Zealand. Or it can be organic and local; produced by expert farmers and artisans; and completely wholesome.  Each of us gets to decide what we eat, and the decisions we make reverberate into all the larger issues: food miles, national farm policies, fundamental issues about land use, the value and danger of GMO’s, the basic relationship we want to forge with the world around us. 

As basic as they are, eating and participating in an economy are always political actions. I thank God that Upstate Locally Grown gives me the opportunity to both eat and buy in ways that allow me to remain true to the values of responsibility and sustainability that I privilege above almost anything else.  

No comments:

Post a Comment