Saturday, March 03, 2007

Two Monks and a Turning Tide

Two monks were arguing about a flag.
One said: "The flag is moving."
The other said: "The wind is moving."
The Buddha happened to be passing by.
He told them: "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

Mind is moving. And does it cover some ground.

It has taken me a few days to re-connect all my bodies from the rigors of long haul flights and doing family large in the States, and except for its minor physical setbacks, the trip has left me mentally and intellectually invigorated.

It feels as though the tide is turning.

Sympathetic vibration is not a term I use frequently, but it seems to encapsulate much of the feeling I got recently in the States from those whom I spoke, from the places I visited, and what I read. It has been a long 6 years, and the momentum for change, the drivers for change seem in place and almost like an idling race car at the starting line, ready to roll.

In particular I refer to the inextricably linked lifestyle of excess fossil fuel consumption/global warming/ industrial food system that has been chugging along at a totally unsustainable rate for the last 60 years with disastrous consequences. George Bush's administration have in some ways ironically helped the catalyst for change by "throwing fuel on the fire", instead of looking for ways to dampen the flames. It is now a raging inferno, and many more can see it, including some in his own political party.

But as Al Gore states emphatically in his Oscar winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", it is "moral issue rather than a political one". That really got me thinking. I have a daughter, she will someday have children, and what is it that we will be leaving them in terms of a planet? What kind of biodiversity? What kind of atmosphere? What kind of society?

Although Gore has his fair share of critics (both about the message and the messenger) no one in my opinion has done more in terms of educating and raising awareness of the causes and solutions to the most pressing issue of our times than the man who won the popular vote for presidency in 2000. He may be leaving a larger carbon footprint at the moment, but his message for action is getting through, and that will reduce everyone else's (including his) in critical mass.

Partly because there is a new race on, and partly because of the Oscar success, he is everywhere in the media now. Rolling Stone explains why he should run again, and how he can win; The Guardian argues those who criticise him as hypocritical need to look at the bigger picture; and The New Yorker sums up his overall situation quite articulately as usual.

Back here in New Zealand, food miles are a big issue for our growers, and as I have often written, the food traveling around the globe is not going to last. Start getting used to eating what is in season. Time magazines cover story this week is calling local food the "new organic". Our Prime Minister is weighing in big time, positioning the country as a sustainable and efficient place in which to purchase produce, most of which is shipped by sea. Perhaps. But this is political posturing for the most part, in order to do something about a growing fear from our food exporters that they may be cut out of important markets in Europe etc. She may be correct that we do have more efficient production methods due to our favourable climate, but is missing the point really. Why are we exporting our kiwis and apples to Europe, and buying ones from Chili and California in our supermarkets? Our lifestyles and habits need to change on a personal and societal level, and the markets will respond.

To protect the markets by continuing to support unsustainable practices is the same thing the U.S. did after WWII with all the extra ammonia nitrate. As Michael Pollan explicitly talks about in his best seller The Omnivores Dilemma, a new industry was set up to utilise all the leftover chemicals from the war and it essentially replaced agriculture. , As efficient as it may have been in producing more food and reducing prices, we might as well have been sipping petroleum directly, for it has had about the same results economically and physically .

When I say the tide is turning, it comes from the heart of change in the U.S. the State of California, and from there, the Bay Area has always been a leader in social and cultural issues. Local Food Challenges such as the one Locavores have instigated have done much to raise the awareness of those in the outlying areas how they can eat in season, and where they can get the food they need any time of year. Both the SF Chronicle and the Pt Reyes Light, places I have just recently visited, have articles here and here supporting their efforts. Brilliant.

Whole Foods, the once proud and mighty chain of stores leading the organic movement in the States, is even coming under increasing fire from many sides as it tries to reconcile its growth with the original core values of supporting local farmers and providing quality organic food.

Again, Pollan from Omnivores Dilemma in describing Big Organic now in the States:

"For better or worse, these are not the kinds of farms a big company like Small Planet Foods or Whole Foods does business with today. It's simply more cost-efficient to buy from one thousand-acre farm than ten hundred-acre farms. That's not because those farms are any more productive, however. In fact, study after study has demonstrated that, measured in the amount of food produced per acre, small farms are actually more productive than big farms; it is the higher transaction costs involved...The industrial values of specialization, economies of scale, and mechanization wind up crowding out the ecological values such as diversity, complexity, and symbiosis".

And so it goes. Buyer beware.

Once Wal Mart decided to start selling "organic", one had the suspicion there would be a direct effort to manipulate the focus from local and quality to price and distribution as the main driver. Sure enough, that it what has happened, and in the world of food politics, one has to move quickly to counter such efforts. These local groups and blogs are doing a wonderful job of disseminating critical information.

Can you meet
all your dietary requirements within a 100 mile (160km) radius?

Something to think about and plan as we start to enter a new paradigm around living on this earth in a way that will allow others to use it after us.

1 comment:

James Samuel said...

Thanks Michael, for your beautiful writing. Your question/challenge at the end reminded me of something I wrote in my end of year reflections, I would love to do an experiment one day - perhaps starting in six months or a year - to see if it is possible to live off only food grown on the island.

It will quickly show up where the holes are in our community's ability to be much more self-reliant in food - largely free of dependence on food with massive fossil fuel miles attached.

Let's get together soon.