Has sustainability reached minute 14 in its 15 minutes of fame?
Bringing knowledge to the surface of public awareness is an essential function of any political movement that wants to change the system. Over the past decade, the Local, Green, Sustainable and Slow Food movements have brought a shift in public thinking about food. For us, the hope is that this shift is analogous with the social justice movements of the 1960’s that dared dream of inclusiveness, fairness, and equal rights for all. Looking out into the world today it is a great comfort to see that Sustainable is no longer a fringe movement.
Indeed, local, green, and sustainable are words that have migrated far beyond the arenas of food and agriculture. Just two weeks ago we read about slow and free-range parenting in a NYTimes Sunday Magazine piece by Lisa Belkin, Let the Kid Be. Reading the terms in this new context really got us to thinking. In this instance, the nomenclature of one movement is being used to fuel another. The fit between the words, philosophy, and practice seem here to be a good fit.
However, Green and Sustainable as descriptors are very close to reaching a saturation point in media. They are ubiquitous: try to find a product or corporate website that doesn’t use them as part of their marketing. Television ads by Exxon feature earnest employees talking about their commitment to the planet. Though we are thrilled that many businesses truly care enough about the values of their consumers to join the movement, we also feel uncomfortable and have a good degree of skepticism, perhaps even cynicism.
How many of these overtures toward more environmentally sound practices are merely token gestures intended to create the illusion of change and defuse the current sense of outrage and urgency? The current system of industrial food production, although in the long term not sustainable in its farming practices and environmental degradation, remains a remarkably resilient self-perpetuating system.
The current cachet attached to the movement is now being used to “sell.” How we spend our money is a political act, and we are certainly more apt to choose an item that we believe to be sustainable. For us, these words carry an emotional and moral load. We worry that the marketing of goods as ‘green’ or ‘organic’ may also serve to de-fang the sustainable movement. If those products are convenient, plentiful, and cheap, the same habits of consumption that created the current system may be perpetuated along with the associated abuses. Check out this white paper from the Cornucopia Institute titled: Wal-Mart Declares War on Organic Farmers (PDF), for a close look at how “organic” may become problematic when adopted by an enormous, profit-making machine. Or this passionate and angry piece from Jamey Lionette for the National Expositor, Mass Production of Food is Ruining Our Health local on why he feels mass-market organic is an oxymoron.
Our fear is that finding Sustainable and Green on every company website and product brochure makes it appear that the movement has succeeded in achieving its goals. We can now just relax, right? But we’re not done. The soil is malnourished, our water supply is in jeopardy, landfills are still growing at rapid rate, the American diet is a killer and hunger remains a real problem.
Sustainable has to be more than a criterion for buying. Otherwise, the marketing of Green serves to lull us into a “happy consciousness”. Going green takes a remarkable amount of education and willingness to examine one’s lifestyle on an on-going basis. It can be tedious to determine the “best” choice in many situations and time-consuming to parse all that information. In a culture where we are constantly bombarded by competing messages, it’s all too easy to tune out. For the movement to be successful, it has to be a way of life and not just a marketing message.
Next week: the cutting garden: the other reason to garden. Cut flowers in the house are truly a joy, but purchased bouquets are in many cases neither sustainable nor ethical. TwoJunes have a created a space in the yard dedicated to flowers for the house, an old tradition that really deserves a revival. We’d love to know your thoughts on the matter.
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.