Monday, April 16, 2007

Farmers Markets, Eating Locally, and the Environment

Sometimes, it just takes a few words to make you look at the world differently: a few good statistics, a few important points. This article, for instance:

What a Real, Living, Durable Economy Looks Like, by Bill McKibben
(Linked from the Virtual Earth Blog, of all things)

This was a funny article to find the day I get back from my first trip to Portland. It was Shauna, Nikki, Steve and I tooling around the city and the Columbia River Gorge. We were all impressed at the light rail going most of the places you'd want to go (downtown, local attractions, the airport), and commented that it was a very German way to go. Also funny, I had just been talking with Shauna not a few days earlier about how the real problem was Americans not wanting to admit they had to work together to get by and survive. And it's just what McKibben has to say:
And here's what I think the outcome boils down to: hyperindividualism versus community.
Let's say you go to the farmer's market; on average, you use ten times less energy to feed yourself. But, as a team of sociologists discovered a few years ago, you also have ten times as many conversations as you would at the supermarket. An order of magnitude less energy, and an order of magnitude more community. Those are numbers that might start to add up.

That's staggering. I had never appreciate farmer's markets as more than just novelties before, nor local bookstores. Suddenly I'm looking at the economy in an entirely different light. I've been saying for a long time that chains are bad, local businesses are what make a place interesting and worth leaving home for, but it was abstract, and more about goods than anything else. And I'd known that it's more interesting to talk to someone at a local bookstore than a Borders, but I'd never really hooked it up: those are the things that make a community: you create together, you trade together, you discuss together, you discover together.

But can such solutions really spread fast enough? Or is the momentum of the Wal-Marts simply unstoppable? A few years ago I'd have answered gloomily, but working on my new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, has convinced me we've got at least an outside shot. And for an odd reason. Because people are finally starting to ask the most basic and most subversive question about our economic system: is it making me happy?

Boy, there's another thing I've been saying for years: what good is making more money if you don't actually have a better life? We went from one partner/parent working 40 hours a week to both working 60-80 hours a week, from having savings to carrying debt, from having what we needed plus maybe a few entertainments to having mounds and mounds of stuff, and then had to buy a bigger house just to put it all in.

Take that with your blood pressure medication pills (which you also have to pay for).

It's as if we've run a controlled experiment, in fact, on whether money buys happiness, and the results are now in.

But why? The answer seems to be: we feel an incredible lack of community. And if you think about it, that makes sense. More money meant we could live in bigger houses further out in the suburbs — i.e., that we could be more isolated. It meant we could embrace technologies — the endless parade of screens — that keep us occupied by ourselves. As a result, Americans have far fewer close friends than they did a generation ago. We spend far less time with friends and neighbors and relatives.

It occurs to me that an interesting anniversary is coming up: ten years since the first time I went online. I don't even know exactly when it was, but some time during late 1997 (working on a project about Joan of Arc for a history class). And I've been sort of bothered, most of the time since, thinking about what would become of my generation, which spends so much time interacting with strings of text from halfway across the world and not actual people. That was not abstract. I remember clearly one day in late 2001 when I was chatting with a random person in Argentina, and later that day, saying hello to my neighbors for the first time, even though I'd lived in that house for several months. And I thought, My God, there's going to be something wrong with my generation, and this is how it's playing out: we're trying to substitute things for people, and it's working about as well as Hollywood's attempt over the past few years to substitute computer graphics and special effects for dialogue and character development.

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