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Monthly Archives: June 2014

The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

-Wendell Berry

My current job puts me at the margin of a household unit. The parents, both working, do not have enough time to accomplish all the mundane yet vital tasks of the household, so I’m one of several people hired to accomplish those tasks.

For the past few months, we’ve also had a carpenter and his assistant working on the garage to convert it to a guest house. Recently a team of workers came in and built a deck outside the kitchen. Every Tuesday a woman named Ruth comes and cleans the house. The toddler goes to a nanny four days per week.

Living like this is, in some ways, a real contrast from how I lived two summers ago, by myself on a mountain with chickens and rabbits and a garden. I did a lot of things for myself, from growing and preparing food to hauling water from my grandparents’ house since the water on the farm wasn’t safe to drink.

While I learned other things that summer–like how to drive a cranky stick-shift truck and how to butcher rabbits–the lesson that really has stuck with me is the certain knowledge that I do not want to live alone again. That said, I would take that kind of loneliness over my au pair life any day.

Late-night canning selfie with Dad.

Late-night canning selfie with Dad. Always good to have a canning buddy, especially at 3 AM!

As an environmentalist (disregard the blog’s title for a moment, please), it galls me to accept waste of any kind. I’ve never lived a “zero waste” lifestyle and in modern society that is really, really hard. Waste comes in many forms, from the trash that goes into landfills, to wasted energy heating empty homes when people are away at work, to the emotional energy wasted in toxic relationships. This is not all equally measurable, but it all contributes negatively to our lives.

As miserable as I was that summer on the mountain, something I really did enjoy was figuring out ways to amplify the farm using the materials at hand. I didn’t really have money, but I did have a lot of “junk.” Pallets my grandfather brought over from his hardware store made excellent compost bins, moldy old straw my uncle didn’t need anymore was perfect to mulch the garden, and the free range chickens did an excellent job keeping grass and weeds down where they hung out.

The big downside was that it all felt pointless. As much as I wanted to improve the condition of the farm, a lot of investment didn’t make sense since I was never coming back after August. There’s a saying about the best time to plant trees: 20 years ago.

Strawberry plants take two years to produce fruit. Berry bushes usually take longer, orchard trees still longer. Just to grow your own fresh fruit requires years of investment in plants. We live in a society where it is considered easier to come up with $3 for strawberries doused in chemicals and flown thousands of miles to our “local” supermarket than to spend two years protecting plants so they will bear fruit.

While it is easier, it’s not sustainable. Many sustainable choices seem to present this dilemma: the easy, unsustainable option requires money; better options require more time and effort or knowledge. The problem is that money, unlike apples, does not grow on trees, so how do we get it? In the U.S. especially, our work culture dictates all-out effort in our careers.

We are left with little time or effort to do things for ourselves. We are left to choose between options available in the commercial market, many of which are not ideal–or are downright toxic.

However, two people working together stand a better chance of being able to make more sustainable choices. We are social creatures and much of what we need to survive is meant to be shared: food and housing being two hugely important examples.

After my summer on the mountain, I had a freezer full of meat and a bookshelf full of canned vegetables and jams. Between this bounty and selective shopping at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets, I ate what felt like a pretty good diet, low in sugar (no high fructose corn syrup except for the occasional Oreo) and high in whole foods.

Cooking for one with this kind of diet was really a challenge, though. Since I had flatmates, I usually ended up sharing a lot of what I made–fresh loaves of bread, an entire roast chicken, a stockpot of soup. Over the year, I learned a lot of strategies (especially with strategic freezing), but it still felt ridiculous–and I ate a lot of leftovers.

It also doesn’t make sense for people to live alone. Why build, maintain, and heat an entire structure just so that one person is reasonably comfortable? Most of our available housing stock is ill-suited to a single person anyway, and it usually makes more sense to renovate than to rebuild.

Other tasks are also easier shared: child-rearing, laundry, cleaning, property maintenance. These tasks do not need to be divided by typical gender roles, but they DO need to happen. The more skills and personal energy we can bring to our lives, the better. Teaming up with a compatible person to accomplish these tasks can make it more possible to choose a sustainable path.

When we talk about environmental efforts, we talk a lot about what an individual can do or what can be done in society. We also talk about communities. Yet we rarely talk about a really fundamental unit of society: the household unit. Although a household unit doesn’t necessarily need to be composed of a married couple, a solid marriage can help solidify the ability of a household to make sustainable choices because, in essence, marriage is about commitment.

Sustainability is also, fundamentally, about commitment. If we live unsustainably, we are essentially admitting that we are willing to see this whole thing–human life–go up in smoke. We don’t care if it lasts. Committing to the planet, to our communities, to our families, and to ourselves, by contrast, requires us to make sustainable choices. Those are often, unfortunately, not the easiest.

While it is increasingly possible to go it alone and make some ecological choices, and it’s also quite possible (easy, really) to be part of a household that doesn’t work sustainably (I’m in one now), pooling resources with a partner in an explicit bid to live lightly on the earth can be a way of multiplying the power of both individuals.

There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, ‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours.’

This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction.

– Wendell Berry (continued from quote at beginning of this post)

Simpler than a commune, more effective than an individual: this is the beauty of the household unit.

There is basically nothing I would rather do than be in, on, or near water, but I have to say that typical, heavily-chlorinated pools do a number on my skin and hair. Yet being able to take a quick dip on hot days is a great way of cooling down–even just a few moments in a cool pool can really help feel refreshed, enough to be able to avoid using air conditioning!

Where I heard about this

This gallery contains 9 photos.

I have never seen so many snails in my life, but then again, I’ve never experienced spring in France before either. More precisely, the little dudes running amok (as much as a mollusk can be said to “run”) are terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusks–but let’s just call them escargot. *and friends (other species are also represented …

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Food is a necessity, yet it can also be a luxury–it depends. How we interact with and think about the idea of luxury is a central component of any conversation about sustainable food whether we address it explicitly or not.

In the United States, while our culture is quite far from its Puritan roots, we retain a degree of Puritan extremism. My personal understanding of luxury is that it is not desirable; it’s not necessary, and therefore it is too much. You do not want to slip into hedonism. And there are many, many names I’d rather be called before being called a–heaven forbid–hedonist.

Yet in France, hedonism is not nearly so poorly regarded; in fact, it’s something you could aspire to. From that perspective, it makes sense to want the best things in life–especially when it comes to food and wine. This idea of hedonism does not condone hurting others (in any way) to get the best things; it’s more about appreciating the finer things in life.

Beyond broad cultural conceptions of whether luxury is positive or negative, there is the much more fundamental question of what falls in “luxury” category to begin with. In conversations about our food system (and this is true both in the U.S. and France, though more so in the U.S.), one of the biggest questions is whether sustainable agriculture can adequately feed the world.

The crux of the matter is that organic food is now perceived as a luxury good. 

By contrast, many foods that once were considered luxurious are now commonplace. I remember reading about oranges in The Little House on the Prairie books–and how an orange was a big treat at Christmas. Now, I can eat an orange whenever I want, even in January, even though I don’t live anywhere near a climate that can easily deliver fresh oranges in January. It’s no longer a luxury item. The value of the orange is not intrinsic.

Something we need to consider as we work to shift the food system to one that is more sustainable is our definition of luxury. Right now, it seems like safe, healthy food is considered a luxury.

From Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed:

Within the first world, on a day-to-day basis, there is barely a struggle to obtain food. But obtaining clean food is a struggle.

One issue is that figuring out what is clean food is also a struggle. In the U.S., especially, with little or no American food culture to use as an anchor, we are easy prey for fads and highly idiosyncratic notions of quality or health. Yet what is clear is that a lot of food we see as commonplace is borderline (if not outright) toxic to our personal health. Furthermore, industrial agriculture creates numerous serious issues–not only environmental, but social and economic as well.

The irony is that, actually, for most of human history, we have eaten local, seasonal diets–and guess what? That wasn’t a luxury, that was normal life. Now, it is considered normal to have oranges year round even in Minnesota, yet food truly free of pesticides, preservatives, and packaging is nearly impossible to find where we now find food–supermarkets–and so it is a luxury.

Instead of asking how we can make more calories–because we already produce more calories than we need to feed the world–we need to ask how we can make more of those calories safe to eat. The fact that our system has degraded that much is pathetic, but it has.

Our current production methods are destroying the very materials needed to produce food (soil, water), contributing to climate change (which will make it more difficult to produce food, especially using monoculture techniques), and processing nutrition out of foods with the result of fueling one of the weirdest public health issues in human history: obesity.

Additionally, the entire system rests on a delicate scaffolding of transportation chains and complex systems of packaging and distribution. These are not only harmful in a material sense, but are a cause for concern about national security and the long-term sustainability of our current production methods as we run out of non-renewable energy sources.

Yet this is all considered normal. It is considered weird to kill the animals you will then eat or to can enough veggies to last through winter. But the tide is changing, which we can again see through examining our ideas of luxury.

As backyard flocks become more and more something people do as a “luxury,” because they want the luxury of fresh eggs (with low risk of salmonella and the knowledge that the birds who laid them have actually–shockingly!–seen the light of day), we see the idea catching on. No longer the domain of the truly impoverished, backyard flocks are becoming a “thing” in certain circles.

Where once it was considered a luxury to buy eggs, it is now considered a luxury to be able to collect them yourself, from your own backyard. But what we really need to do is figure out how to make clean food normal again, not a luxury.

We can do without a lot–we can own fewer articles of clothing, drive less fancy cars (or bike! walk! take public transit! work at home!), build smaller houses–but we cannot do without food. As we currently stand, we are at a critical moment in history. Clean food requires not only public support (in the form of people buying it, mostly), but knowledge, land, time, and clean growing conditions.

Fewer and fewer people know how to grow food using pre-industrial methods. Fewer are skilled hunters, fewer still are skilled gatherers. Meanwhile, we are losing diverse species of plants already adapted to micro-climates. We are losing arable land. We are losing the ability for young people to buy land and do the labor-intensive farming that typically requires youth. Finally, we’re polluting some of our most valuable, fundamental, and irreplaceable resources as we blow up more of the planet for fuels.

If we see clean food as a luxury, then it is not something that needs protection. If there were no more Rolex watches in the world, no one would suffer greatly. But no more clean food? That’s not only a recipe for public health disaster, but an environmental and human tragedy. Yet that is the path we’re taking.

One of my favorite aspects of my birthday is that, at least in temperate zones, June strawberries are usually ripe right around the time I celebrate. According to Wikipedia, garden strawberries were first grown in France, though wild cousins have been around (and appreciated) for ages.

Personally, as much as I love strawberries to eat, it’s the plant that really captivates me. Strawberry plant leaves are broad and not at all delicate. They serve as effective hideaways for the lovely blossoms which later yield the strawberries themselves. The whole process seems coyly done, covert.

Here, a vast expanse of strawberry plants at the Oxford Botanic Garden. More on that garden soon. If you happen to be living in or visiting Oxford, I highly recommend a visit. In the meantime, here’s a preview…

strawberry

A week ago I left Lyon for a trip to the UK. I’ve been to London and Oxford several times over the course of the past year to visit friends studying there. When people ask me if I’ve traveled much within France, I’m ashamed to say that really I haven’t. For the most part, I have done my best to absorb Lyon, but I haven’t branched out terribly far at all. Part of this comes down to practical factors and part of this is more due to my disposition.

Another big factor is the growing realization that our relationships are probably the most important “thing” we can invest in. This was especially reinforced on my most recent trip when, instead of taking a plane, I decided to take a series of busses. This is what this looked like:

22h00 Thursday night – leave my Lyon suburb, head to the bus station (Bus #1)
23h00 Thursday night – bus is supposed to depart (Bus #2)
23h30 Thursday night – bus actually departs
5h30 Friday morning – bus arrives in Paris
13h00 Friday afternoon – take bus from Paris to London (Bus #3)
19h40 Friday evening – bus arrives in London
17h00 Saturday evening – take bus to bus stop in London (Bus #4)
17h20 Saturday evening – take the tube (a bus) from London to Oxford (Bus #5)
19h30 Saturday evening – arrive in Oxford (walked from there to friend’s place)
19h00 Monday evening – take shuttle to Oxford (town) tube station (Bus #6 — technically a van? Van #1)
19h20 Monday evening – depart on Oxford tube to London (Bus #7)
20h40 Monday evening – arrive in London, try to find next bus station, wander around because was misdirected
22h00 Monday evening – board the wrong bus (that I didn’t know at the time was the wrong bus) to Amsterdam (whoops) (Bus #8)
00:20 Tuesday morning – switch busses right before the Chunnel train to the correct bus, headed to Paris (Bus #9)
07:10 Tuesday morning – arrive in Paris
07:30 Tuesday morning – depart from Paris (Bus #10) to Lyon
14:00 Tuesday afternoon – arrive in Lyon
14:10 Tuesday afternoon – take the local bus from Lyon to the suburbs (Bus #11)
14:40 Tuesday afternoon – arrive at the closest bus stop to the house, walk home from there

This seems absurdly complicated, but it’s not actually that much worse than flying (just getting to the airport from the house I’m living in now requires a walk, a 30-minute bus ride, two metro connections, and a 30-minute train ride, and getting to central London from either London airport is not much better). It was also the cheapest and least CO2-emitting option (with the exceptions of foot/bike travel or train, the former requiring too much time considering I covered around 1,270 miles, and the latter being cost prohibitive for me).

Human-statue interaction in Paris, France. June 2014.

Human-statue interaction in Paris, France. 6 June 2014.

Note well: this was still an extravagant trip as far as I’m concerned. In terms of emissions, by going via bus instead of plane, I saved about 100-150€ and emitted an estimated 0.26 tons of CO2 (by bus) instead of 0.98 tons (by plane). [This is according to this tool: http://www.nativeenergy.com/travel.html.] In terms of cost, I spent over half a month’s wages on the trip. I only had to ask for one afternoon off because of federal holidays, so that helped give me enough time to do the journey by bus.

I don’t love traveling. In a lot of ways, it seems very wasteful. Your human needs don’t go away when you travel, but the ability to meet them sustainably does. Temptations like fast food seem even more inevitable when you don’t have a kitchen or any idea where to go to eat. Beyond the fact that getting from one place to the other usually requires vast amounts of fuel, you have additional restrictions, you are stripped of most tools (so you’re unlikely to fix things that break or need mending), and you are often forced to accept disposable materials you don’t actually need (like plastic spoons at ice cream places).

goldman

Gold man’s commute. Paris, France. 6 June 2014.

If one of your priorities is living sustainably, travel can quickly become a nightmare. Yet, another side of sustainability is emotional, relational, social sustenance. Man cannot live by bread alone, or even bread and high fructose corn syrup.

The rest of this common expression, originally found in the Bible, is “but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God” (or variations depending on your version of translation). This isn’t exactly what I was thinking about while I was on eleven busses, but what mattered to me most about the overall experience was something equally intangible.

Other than my brief walk around Paris, I spent practically all my time off-bus with close friends. I spent a lot of time just hanging out with people I care about deeply. I went clubbing in London and played croquet in Oxford. And I also spent a lot of time sitting next to, in front of, and behind strangers on busses.

I took the trip to be able to spend time with my friends. I took the trip to celebrate my birthday, a birthday I wasn’t really in the mood to celebrate. I took the trip to see Paris (because, you know, I live in France). All of those goals were met.

In addition, I became entangled–if only circumstantially–in the stories of many others’ journeys. This is what was eye-opening about traveling in this slow, slow way. I began the journey well away from my fellow passengers. At the departure kiosk in Lyon, I was diffident, reluctant to fraternize. By Paris I was asking for directions (in French) in the Metro information booth (something that would normally throw me into a fit of anxiety), ordering meals alone, and then making small talk (also in French) with the bus driver of the bus to London.

By the time we were crossing the English Channel, the bus driver, his girlfriend(?) sitting next to me, and I were on speaking terms, joking about my birthday and whether there was video surveillance in the toilet (you had to be there). By the time I was headed from Oxford back to London, I ended up chatting with the bus driver when I stupidly tried to get off the bus too early, and then when I took the wrong bus from London I had the best transit experience ever: I made friends.

As I listened to the driver announce our destination (once we were already 10 minutes away from the station) I realized that we were headed to Amsterdam, and while my name had been on the boarding list somehow, I was on the wrong bus. Luckily I was in the front seat, so I just leaned over and asked the driver what was going on and what I should do. This, in itself, was a triumph for me, given that at some point in my life I would probably have been so shy I would have just stayed on the bus all the way to Amsterdam to avoid talking to anyone (let alone trying to figure this out in French).

Then, after the huge relief that I could just switch busses at the border crossing, the non-Francophone Dutch kid next to me struck up a conversation. It was the kind of highly soluble friendship that happens on busses, but it was friendship: for 2 hours, we chatted about bike-friendliness in different cities, public transportation in general, student life. He let me listen to music he had recorded with the friend he had been visiting in London; I slipped his headphones over my ears to be met by Norwegian Wood and then a series of other Beatles songs.

We progressed to singing softly our favorites while the rest of the bus slept–or tried to. At the rest after the border crossing, one man started complaining to the bus driver about a noise in the window that was preventing him from falling asleep. The three of us–driver, this man, and myself–then launched into a comparison of Paris versus London versus life in the countryside. (In French.) My bus showed up; the bus driver joked that it was time to say goodbye to my boyfriend.

At that point, I was still over seven hours from what I might as well call “home” these days, but I had started feeling at ease on these busses. We moved at a pace I’m used to from decades in cars, but with a solidarity that is still very unfamiliar. It wasn’t just me going where I wanted to go, it was all of us trying to get there together. Air travel isn’t entirely different–I often feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow flight-mates, especially on longer flights or ones with severe turbulence or delays.

Yet long-distance bus travel is different, because it takes a lot of time. It is different because it is so close to the ground. We are not united because we are all at least a tiny bit afraid the plane is going to crash; we are united because we are all people going the same direction for many hours.

Over the course of my bus rides, I had numerous other tiny interactions. I watched a bilingual family of four negotiate a 7 hour bus ride with two small children. I watched a different family get turned away at the UK border. In an airport, I would have been on my next flight or next train by the time they were sent back, but with the bus, we all had to wait.

The thing is, we’re in this together. I’ve written about my skepticism about conscientious consumerism before, but here’s another angle: when we talk about consumers, we’re talking (normally) about singular units: me. You. Not us. In my life, I often feel that isolated. Like my decisions really don’t matter, because they’re not connected to anyone else’s decisions. Like my decisions really do matter, because I’m an entity unto myself.

In reality, we are the ones driving climate change. We will be affected. In fact, for many of us in the ‘developed world,’ we may not be the first affected, and so it is even more important for us to feel a sense of solidarity with humanity, not only with our immediate neighbors or closest friends.

No bus is a perfect cross-section of humanity, far from it. Still, when you are on a bus, you start to see and interact with people you might normally never be in touch with or might even avoid. You sit, and you have little choice who you sit next to. As much as we talk about sustainability as an environmental question, it’s really a human question. The planet will go on whether or not we’re here. What’s in jeopardy is our own survival.

Also in jeopardy: our sense of community, of belonging, of connection to our fellow human beings.

~

While writing this post, I found two resources you might find interesting: