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Earth Hour 2010 – Reflections

Yes, I am indeed still alive!  Just barely, considering that after an insanely busy couple of weeks I am now battling sickness.  I never get sick, except when I push myself too hard, and clearly that’s what’s happening here.  I’m getting organized right now to climb (back) into bed and read quietly by candlelight for Earth Hour.

Appropriately, I am reading the book Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos by evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.  The book is apparently now out of print but available full text here on-line under a new title (just scroll down below the title image for chapter links).

I love this book.  It is both introducing me to new concepts and ways of looking at, and understanding the world, and also offers a framework that supports a lot of what I have been thinking already.  Sahtouris goes beyond James Lovelock, who still holds a mechanistic view of the world, despite his argument that Gaia operates ‘as if’ she were alive.  Sahtouris presents Gaia as a whole bigger than the sum of her parts, and offers insight into understanding how the parts can be the sum of the whole.  Confusing, perhaps, and since I’m fighting a nasty cold, I don’t have the clarity of mind to try and explain this any further.  I’m still a bit fuzzy on things myself, but as I understand more clearly, I’ll do my best to clarify.  It certainly is an appropriate book to be reading during Earth Hour!

I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Year of the Flood. A haunting and creepy novel about the near future, where humans have been all but wiped out by an intentional genetically engineered super plague.  What  makes this book so frightening is that it is really not a serious stretch of the imagination from where we are presently.  Atwood’s futuristic dystopia is replete with genetically engineered synthetic meats and uber-controlling pharmaceutical companies.  The Year of the Flood (a ‘waterless flood’ that cleanses the earth in a way not seen since the time of Noah) is set in the same world as the the brilliant Orxy and Crake.  Both books have very ambivalent endings: is there hope?  It’s not clear.

These books really resonate with me because this is exactly how I feel about our future.  I can’t help but feel optimistic because I think the human soul is optimistic by necessity.  But when my brain starts to work away at the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I really wonder how we’re going to get out.  I’ve been following a number of new blogs and Facebook groups fighting towards saving our water, oceans and drastically reducing plastic use.  While I’ve been struggling with these issues myself – most particularly the plastic problem – I have become so acutely aware of the catastrophe we have unleashed on ourselves in just the last few years that I can’t stop seeing it everywhere.

For example, last week I went into several fabulous local & organic food stores around the Waterloo area, and was shocked by all the packaging that was being sold along with the fresh veggies.  Green peppers were put on styrofoam trays, wrapped in plasticwrap, and then put into plastic bags.  I even witness someone buying lovely hemp produce bags, and the teller put them in a plastic bag!  Even worse, the customer didn’t even bat an eyelash.  I’m ashamed to say I kept silent in my horror.

Today I received an email updating some of the latest produce available in Waterloo region: yummy, local tomatoes months before tomato season.  How exciting for locavores!  However, all I can do when I see this picture is be shocked that these lovely tomatoes are being encased in plastic.  One-time use plastic at that.  How can we build a sustainable food system with such unsustainable practices?  I am hoping this can be changed, and soon!  (yes, I already wrote to comment).

Am I expecting too much?  Can we only take one step at a time?  I think we can grow food sustainably AND sell it without plastic packaging.  Just imagine these tomatoes in little brown paper bags with that label.  Or better yet, sold in bulk with a  ‘bring your own container’ sign.  Now, isn’t that a vision worth fighting for?

We can do better, I know we can.  I realize that there are shipping problem that results from the tenderness of tomatoes, but then we’re faced with the issue of producing in bulk and on large scale.  It’s a vicious circle.  So what’s the answer?  This is what we need to think about.  And resolve.  Surely buying tomatoes without plastic should be within our reach.

Enough ranting for now.  It’s time to turn off the lights…

6 Responses

  1. Yes, I think that you are expecting too much. Local as opposed to imported tomatoes is an important difference in its own right, and it is probably unreasonable to hold local produce to a higher packaging standard than imported produce.

    For what it’s worth, I have never seen grape tomatoes sold in anything except that clamshell plastic, and have a hard time picturing a distribution method with less plastic anywhere as easy as the current one. Particularly for a smaller, local producer. A different distribution approach could make the tomatoes more difficult for grocery stores to stock — decreasing market availability of local produce.

    “How can we build a sustainable food system with such unsustainable practices? … Can we only take one step at a time?”

    The way to build it is to focus on all the aspects, but not necessarily all in the same food or product. These things are hard and expensive, and doing one hard thing can be important enough. With enough people doing local, or organic, or less-packaging, it becomes easier and less expensive, leaving more resources for focusing on other aspects.

    A bit of an analogy: If you drive your gas-fueled car on a regular basis because that’s the only realistic option, that doesn’t somehow negate your choice to eat local.

    • Hi Michael,
      Thanks for your comment and for presenting the important argument that we must strengthen the economy before we can make things better. Whether or not this is a valid approach is an interesting debate; I know many subscribe to it. I, however, question whether we can attain sustainability through unsustainable practices. That said, I don’t believe sustainability (beyond economic sustainability) is the focus of these initiatives. My understanding is that the goal of much of the food movement is to keep farmers on their farms, producing local food. This is extremely important and I support the idea 100%.

      I am saddened, however, by the implication that since the bar is set extremely low, our only option is to shoot below it. I recognize that this is an economic reality for producers, and I agree with you that they should not be forced to bear the cost as the outcome will be disastrous for them (and as a result, for us as well). I’m surprised that something like little paper bags would be more expensive than plastic boxes, but perhaps that’s also a reality of today’s market saturated with cheap plastic.

      I really wish we could find a way to collectively push up the bar and set our standards higher. Replicating the dominant system on a small or local scale, in my opinion, is not going to lead us out of the mess we’re in. I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to develop the collective political will to make change.

      • There are ways to integrate several good things in one — if you step outside “the system”. For example, a local food buying club that uses less packaging where feasible, buys organic when possible, and keeps prices low by having a weekly neighbourhood pick-up. (The one I’m thinking of is Bailey’s Local Foods in Waterloo.) CSAs are another way.

        My point is that there’s also benefit to improving aspects of “the system” itself, and for that you do have to take into account current economic realities. If you force people to only choose between business-as-usual and local/organic/perfect/etc., the vast majority will choose BAU, and that’s not helpful. The middle ground is important.

  2. Have you seen this short movie about the life of a plastic bag?


    • Hi Al – yes, I just saw it last week. Terrific! I’ve been meaning to link it here. Thanks for putting up the link. I think I am going to restructure my blog somewhat to include a page or section on environmental issues, and include videos like that one. Did you see the video on seed that they also produced?

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