Privilege, Justice, and Sustainability

April 28, 2008

Over at My Moxie Life, Jacqueline writes about Why Food Isn’t My Politics (also mentioned at The Interdependent Web). She writes about how she and her family became vegetarian and…

Three years after that we moved to an intentional community in Missouri for a year. We, again wanted to experience living as lightly on the earth, community, and a back to the land ideal. It was while living with 70 other people from all walks of life that I began to shift my ideas about food…

What I began to realize was that food is only a choice for those who have the financial privilege to make that choice. It is an economics thing. If you come from a lower economic background or a definitive cultural background you will have food ideas around that. You MAY choose to break out of those ideas, but often, in the circumstances you CAN’T. You eat what is offered, and if you are lucky you are grateful.

It was the white middle and upper middle class kids that were offensively food oriented. THEY were making the RIGHT moral choice and they let you know in no uncertain terms that they were better because of it. Well, that screams of economic superiority, a bit of racism, and holier then thou attitudes.

These were CONSTANT conversations at East Wind while I was there and because of that tension and my wanting to understand where everyone was coming from I chose that food was something to be thankful for in whatever form it takes.

Education and poverty were more important to me then what someone served me at dinner.

So, we moved back to San Francisco omnivores… and have stayed that way.

I started to comment over at her blog, but the comment got a bit long so I thought I would post it here. I completely hear this idea that often liberals or other do-gooding folks go around being like, “Gosh, look at us. Shopping at Whole Foods, getting our vegetarian, local, organic food while we cruise around in our Prius. Golly, we are sure doing good by the world. Too bad there are those other people who are ruining the planet!” I know these people. I try not to be one. Probably I don’t always succeed.

So first, I want to affirm Jacqueline’s struggles with this issue and say that such struggles resonate with my experience (perhaps, um, too closely….). Yet, I think there are two important additional things to consider here.

First, I think we need to be careful not to set up a false dichotomy between “food politics”, and other (race and class or education) politics. Being attentive to the ways that our diet impacts the world around us – the natural world, humans, and other animals – is one important way to seek to live out our convictions related to compassion for suffering, non-violence, environmental justice, and human rights. Vegetarianism isn’t just all about saving the animals/lessening their suffering. It is also about trying to live more sustainably so that future humans have an earth to live on, and it is about being attentive to the ways that meat consumption, violence, the meat packing industry, immigration, race, class, food shortages, food riots, global warming, etc. are all related. Vegetarianism or veganism is, of course, not only way to address such concerns. But, I don’t see our food choices (to the extent that we have choices about our diet) as separate from bigger questions about justice, environment, class, etc.

Secondly, I struggle with the idea that if everyone/poor people/lots of people can’t do _________ (fill the blank with an attempt to be more sustainable/attempt at social justice activity), then it is a privileged thing to do and we are being too privileged/spoiled/snobby if we do this thing. I feel like this would apply to most volunteering, many if not most home energy efficiency measures, to many forms of education (expensive colleges/any colleges/many forms of homeschooling/private schools, etc.), buying organic/locally grown food, having the time and energy to grow a garden, driving a hybrid car, etc. The problem seems not to be that by doing these things (such as being vegetarian) we are not attending to the real problems like race or education, but rather that often our attitudes about our various “do-gooding” activities (like being vegetarian) are problematic.

The problem could thus be framed as the attitude that “We are doing the right thing (as privileged, liberals) while they (poor, others) are not,” rather then the problem being framed as the particular action we are taking (in the case of Jacqueline’s post, vegetarianism). If we look at it like this, the solution would not to be to stop doing action X, but to change our attitudes about action X.

For me, it is all about finding a balance between calling on each other and calling on ourselves to live as sustainably and justly as we can, while at the same time, being understanding that we can only do what we can do. I find it challenging, with vegetarianism, but also issues like hyper-consumerism, sexism, racism, classism, etc. to know how to best challenge my fellow humans try to live justly and more sustainably, while at the same time acknowledging the wide range of limitations to what each of us can do as individuals, families, communities, and countries. Certainly, to some extent, I believe all of us are called to call to humanity to be more just, more loving, less violent, and to live more sustainably, and to live out these principles in our own lives. But how much is too much calling? And how are we to do it without infringing too much on individual prerogatives, given that we cannot all do it all? And, are there different standards for calling upon fellow Unitarian Universalists, than, say, the general public?

Thanks to the post at Moxie Life for helping me to continue to grapple with some of these questions.


From The New York Times: Meat Consumption Is an Environmental Issue

February 1, 2008

NYTimes isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of vegetarian and environmental propaganda, so those leery of vegetarian overstatement can rest assured that this isn’t the same as if PETA came out with such an article. The times has a spotty record of publishing articles about vegetarianism and the environment, including a painfully misinformed article about veganism last year and an article that tells people how they can save the planet with easy, simple steps rather than actual sacrifice (I wish this was true, but it just isn’t – you can only slow down the destruction with easy, simple steps).

Anyway, they NYT has come through, however, with an impressive article about the environmental consequences of meat-consumption. Interestingly, the guy who wrote it is not a vegetarian. I always find that interesting that folks can have all the info in the world (hey, including myself) and know what is best, but not do it. It shows that rationality is overrated.

In “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler“, Mark Bittman writes:

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days….

Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S….nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”

Animal welfare may not yet be a major concern, but as the horrors of raising meat in confinement become known, more animal lovers may start to react [Elizabeth’s note – do we need to be animal lovers to want to prevent very serious suffering?]. And would the world not be a better place were some of the grain we use to grow meat directed instead to feed our fellow human beings?

I suggest reading the whole article, but those are some of the highlights. A good point that I came away with is that it isn’t like everyone has to become vegetarians (although, of course, I would like that!). But if everyone did some reduction, it would have more of an impact than if a small number of people became vegetarian. I found that once I started thinking out of the “meat is the center of a meal” box, I learned to eat a lot of things I wouldn’t have other wise. Like Michael Pollen (non-vegetarian) says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


New York Times Article “Five Easy Ways to Go Organic”

October 23, 2007

Here is an article in the New York Times that lists five steps families (especially those with children) can take towards going organic. Since I think many of us have given up the idea of large numbers of people making significant, big changes that are better for the planet, the best we can hope for is a lot of people making a lot of small changes. This will at least somewhat lessen and slow the damage – to ourselves and the planet – where possible. And articles like this are a great place to start.

I must say that the first suggestion in the article about milk seems important if you drink milk, but having switched to soy milk a few years ago (it does take some getting used to) you also might want to think about that. You can avoid the pesticides and hormones that way too, and its healthier for you and happier for cows. They have made great strides in soy milk (and they now have soy creamer which looks white just like milk which, for some reason I really like).

For other postings on the environment, you can see my post “I could keep living generally the way I wanted” which actually sort of contradicts my somewhat new-found resignation to incrementalism, reflected above. There was also a recent post on environmental legislation vs. personal conservation over at Looking for Faith. You can also read about how our clothes choices and food choices impact the environment here and here.
Happy planet saving!


Sustainable Flowers

August 20, 2007

I wanted to send my sister flowers and she is even more into making sure everything is sustainable and fair to workers and environmentally friendly than I am, so I did some research and I thought I would post it here in case anyone else wanted possibilities for sustainable flower sending. In case you wonder if regular flowers are all that problematic, you can go here to read about it. I’m not trying to be alarmist and make everything into “an issue” but just trying to be more aware of ways I can be more gentle on the earth and its people, while also keeping in mind that everyone doesn’t have the economic or time resources to be super-vigilant. It raises questions for me about how we can make sustainable practices not just something UUs or well-off do-gooding upper middle class people can do, but change systems so that a range of people can be aware of and do these things.  Just some thoughts. Onto the companies.

Organic Bouquet http://www.organicbouquet.com/Index.aspx

California Organic Flowers http://californiaorganicflowers.com/

Diamond Organics http://www.diamondorganics.com/prod_detail_list/84#524

Well, I thought there would be more, but that is it for online stuff. It, of course, goes without saying that buying local is best and local farms/farmer’s markets often have a good selection.

p.s. Another link about buying traditional flowers http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/realmoney/articles/flowers.cfm

 http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-05-04-organic-flowers_x.htm


The Greening of U.S. American Religion

July 22, 2007

This article in the Washington Post is about the increasing connection between faith and the environment.  They mention the Interfaith Power and Light organization, which I know our church has had a relationship with.  The article also talks about a vegetarian Jewish woman who organized a purchase of 450 pounds of meat that is local, grass-fed, organic and strictly kosher for her synagogue. Interesting article.


Shocking News From an Upcoming U.N. Report on Global Warming

April 5, 2007

According to the report, “Climate change is already having major impacts on the natural world.”

You can read the BBC article here.

I am glad about this “growing certainty” and don’t mean to be too cynical. It is just that lots of environmentalists and scientists were already “certain” a while back and if anyone would have paid any attention to them, we wouldn’t be in the huge pickle we are.  The evidence of global warming and its impacts (and potential impacts) have been clear for a long time. I just find it a bit irritating that it is like some sort of great revelation that the world is getting hotter and that this is actually impacting people’s lives.  Gosh. Who would have thought such a thing?  But, in spite of my sarcasm, I do recognize that it is a huge challenge to convince people and governments and businesses to do things differently until people are actually suffering from it.  It is just sort of too bad that things work that way.  Lets hope that people get psyched up enough about global warming and such to do a lot more than cover stories, documentaries, and reports………


The Simple Living Guide – Book Review

March 19, 2007

So I cover simple living and increased simplicity a lot here, and I wanted to suggest one of my favorite books for getting inspired to live more simply and save money. It is The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs.  I wish so much that there was a newer version of it – it came out in 1997 so it is a little dated in some ways.  Still – I have, for a very long time, wanted to save more money and live a life that is less driven by getting things done and one that is more focused on living life right now and enjoying those things that are important to me. I think a lot of time the right book comes along at the right time in our lives, and for me, this book was it. It provides lots of ideas – some about being just a little more simple and some that are about pretty drastic changes. This is not likely a book that people who want to live very radically simple lives would find valuable. This is for folks who still want electricity, maybe a car, some nice “things,” and so on. I found it very readable with lots of ideas, and also a very exciting philosophy – driving home the idea that we lose sight of the point of life – that for most people, it doesn’t make sense to work a lot, to get lots of money, to get a bigger house and lots of stuff. Rather, we can be more content (and have a lighter environmental impact) by working only as much as we need to in order to meet the needs that are basic and the needs that are most important to us. Thus, if having a nice car is important, save for that and cut down on expensive clothes. It encourages you to thin of life in terms of tradeoffs. If I work 50 hours a week, I can have a big house, but much less time to live in it or be with family. Is this worth it. It also helps to counter conventional wisdom about the kind of money it takes to live a “decent” life. This was big for me.  I loved the idea that it is not unreasonable to consider living on $40,000 with two children (okay, not in Boston) and not feel deprived. I know that lots of people live on much less than that, but the idea here was that you can live on much less than you think you can and not feel poor or deprived. It challenges assumptions and offers new way to think about things. The book did not come across as preachy to me. I think you can take from it what is helpful in your life – it is like a sourcebook or reference book. Take what works for you and leave the rest.

I won’t review here, but I also really liked Simplify Your Life.