Written 25 July:
Okay, so: organic farming, skating, and veganism: is my interest in them coincidental? Mais non! Though I like each for a variety of reasons, there’s one thing that they share: they’re each more-sustainable alternatives to incredibly damaging practices that are currently standard in contemporary industrialized society (and in many cases non-industrialized society, too). Specifically: industrial agriculture, driving cars, and omnivorousness. Like I said, there are definitely other reasons to do each—I’ll talk about some of those later on—but the common thread that runs through all three is trying to get our lives more in line with the carrying capacity of our planet, as opposed to the alternative, which is living like we do right now, and making the earth’s climate patterns unrecognizable, which would kill—at least—millions. And having foreknowledge of probable impending death that you can act to avert, but opting to not act, is some Hurricane Katrina shit. Some leaving the poor locked belowdecks on the Titanic shit. Murder. This isn’t minor business. So here’s my thoughts on these three things.
First: Farming. Farming should be a rad thing. It should be a “Hey buddy, come check out the tomatoes I just harvested from my block’s field! I’ve been tending ‘em real carefully all season, and they’re awesome!” or “Oops, I forgot the carrots! Could you run out front and grab me some?” or “Hey guess what? There was a major global wheat shortage this year, but even though people didn’t have as much bread and pasta, nobody went hungry, because the whole planet is back to complete self-sustaining food sovereignty at a local level. Remember the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? That shit was fucked up!” That’s what farming should be. That would be so cool! And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there should be no world-wide food distribution—a drought is a drought, for one, and aid should be sent in heaps; and mangoes are mangoes, for two, and should be brought (not by plane) to wherever I live—but there’s a difference between world-wide sharing of sustainably-grown food using sustainable forms of transportation and what we have right now.
What we have right now is an abomination. What we have right now sees the rainforest burned down on indigenous land in Brasil and replaced with soybeans, which are then sent to China to feed chickens, who are then killed and sent to the United States to feed McDonalds customers, on indigenous land again. What we have now makes the desert bloom, but not through permaculture techniques like catching storm runoff from roadways and carefully planting a variety of species across the contours of land shaped into swales to maximize use of limited resources, no; rather, it makes the desert bloom by turning rivers in other regions into skeletons, by draining underground aquifers faster than they can replenish themselves, by injecting petrochemicals into the earth and calling that soil fertility, even though it’s part of the nutrient-depleting, chemistry-distorting, microbe-killing process that makes the land utterly unfarmable without continuous use of those same chemicals. What we have right now hinges on using the same genetically modified species all over, impervious to pesticides but monstrously vulnerable to disease by dint of having DNA makeup identical to crops filling other fields, so that a disease that could kill one specimen is lethal to every other; and economically perverse, with Monsanto suing farmers into whose fields their Roundup-Ready seeds have accidentally blown—biotech companies hold patents on varieties of genetically engineered plant, patents on life. What we have right now, in short, is bullshit. Yes, it can produce enormous quantities of crops, but pointing to that and deciding it’s a good way to do things is like pointing to rising GDP in a poor country and pronouncing them no longer poor. Just like GDP rises when the rich get richer and the poor get nothing, simply producing a huge volume of corn is not necessarily helpful, when much of it is going to be turned into ethanol (a so-called sustainable fuel that takes food out of the mouths of the hungry and needs more energy input to create than it returns when it’s used—for these reasons, people are moving away from corn-based ethanol, but some are unfortunately turning to cellulosic ethanol, which is likewise no solution) or fed to hogs who will then be eaten by people, decreasing its efficiency by using more land to produce less food (a ton of corn will feed more people than the hogs fed on a ton of corn will, but the land used to farm the corn is still used to farm the corn—plus you’ve got the land, water, transportation fuel, and other energy used for the hogs themselves). And the current system cannot function without continual use of fossil fuels, both to power the machines that are necessary to maintain fields as big as the ones we work with and also in the form of petroleum-derived chemicals applied to the fields themselves. And a system that can’t function without something we’re running out of is soon going to be simply a system that can’t function. Further, when those chemicals run off of fields and into rivers, lakes, cricks, ponds and oceans with the rain, they devastate the ecosystems they pollute there. Add onto that the fact that industrial agriculture is not interested in maintaining real soil health—that is to say, a dynamic mix of minerals and organisms in the dirt that plants interact with reciprocally, consuming and replenishing different components of the system in turn through use of multicrop fields and/or sensible crop rotation—or even in maintaining soil—current practices promote erosion, stripping away what are sometimes the precious few inches of potentially fertile soil a region might have, which generally take an enormously long time to form, and leaving an unfarmable wasteland. Essentially, what you get is an industry that paints itself as being a thoughtful steward of the land, bearing needed staples for the hungry and tasty favorites for the rich, but is in fact turning our arable land into a corpse, our grocery stores into a joke, the farmers who try to fight it broke, and our climate systems into something that no one knows what will look like yet.
That should not be what we think of when we think of agriculture. That sounds like an evil empire out of a goddamn science fiction story. Proponents of this system—people who either, like the heads of Monsanto, get rich off it; or, like the farmers who use Monsanto’s gen-mod “crops,” use it to survive; or peopl who have trusted those first two groups, say that this is the only way to feed the world’s population, that the alternative to this system is mass starvation. That, to borrow a phrase from David Owen’s book Green Metropolis, “is exactly wrong.” Sensible farming— organic and local farming, permaculture, and other techniques interested in the welfare of the earth and its various species and lands—in many cases actually produces a higher crop yield per unit of land farmed than industrial agriculture does. The farms are generally smaller, so any given reasonable farmer’s output will be lower than that of a company shitting artificial fertilizers and pesticides all over vast tracts of biotech tomatoes, but the idea is that there should be more farms than there are now. Smaller scale, greater quantity, greater quality. (The larger number of farms and lower level of mechanization associated with sustainable approaches also mean that there are more labor-hours available to workers in a sustainable agricultural paradigm than in the current one.) Further, because farming that doesn’t use massive chemical input requires that a variety of crops use the same land and keep the soil healthy cooperatively, either through crop rotation (planting different crops each season, and sometimes letting a field lie fallow—unplanted—for a time) or through having different crops side-by-side in the same field at once, you get more crops coming out of the same location, making for greater nutritional balance in all-local or mostly-local diets, and greater food sovereignty (which protects against the risk of being unable to eat because of changes in global food prices) for that area. Which is the bomb. Also, I think sensible-scale agriculture is more fun. I don’t speak from experience, but I feel like operating industrial machines alone for hours on end is maybe not too awesome. Shoveling manure with a friendly coworker, though, is fun. Your boss asking you to come inside and cut—and also eat—strawberries is fun. Prising a 300-pound boulder from a dirt driveway in the rain at just-above-freezing temperatures by utility lights at night with friends is really, really fun (seriously, actually—that’s among my favorite things I’ve done in my life). Eating an organic tomato right off the vine, warm from the sun, is fun and extremely delicious. Riding standing in the bed of a truck with one hand on the rack behind the cab and one hand on the collar of a goat, keeping it from fighting with the other goat you’re also riding with—nervous, but still fun. (The digging-the-rock-out-of-the-driveway thing wasn’t on a farm, but it totally could have been.) Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like some perfect idyll—I really do not like weeding, and weeding is a pretty enormous part of organic vegetable farming; I so do not get excited about grooming horses, but if Umikaze didn’t groom their ponies I don’t think it would turn out well. There’s absolutely plenty of tedium and stress. But the fact that there’s also a lot of great stuff, and the fact that it isn’t bludgeoning the earth, make it pretty solid in the full picture. I know I’m guilty of idealizing farm work when I’m not doing it, and this is my day off, but even taking that into account, I really do feel that small organic farms, functioning around human labor and camaraderie, can be a pretty darn good time. So, in sum, for reasons animal, vegetable and mineral, (and social, economic, climatic, et cetera…) organic agriculture is the fuckin’ shit, and industrial agriculture is fuckin’ shitty.
Second: Skating (feel free to substitute bicycling at will). Automobiles do some great stuff: ambulances save lives, fire trucks do too, cars let people with disabilities be independently mobile and let everyone get to far away places buses and trains don’t go when we need to get there on short notice. But if you’re able-bodied and not an EMT or firefigher, how often do you really need a car? Not how often do you use a car, but how often do you need one? If you’re able-bodied, going to a grocery store five miles away does not require a car. Going to work ten miles away does not require a car. Going to a state park twenty miles away outside your town on your weekend does not require a car. I guess I’m getting a bit outside the realm of standard skateability there, but a forty-mile round trip on a bicycle is absolutely feasible for most people. If you’re too out of shape to do that, driving (or even public transportation) may be part of the problem. (Also, state/national parks are exactly the kind of place where interurban buses should eventually make stops.) Yes, not driving takes more time—often way more time, no doubt about it. A couple years ago, I was living in the south part of Austin, Texas, and working in the north part. I commuted by bus, and depending on when I was shifted, some days my bus ride would be only half an hour each way. But on other shifts, when the bus would have a lot more passengers and be moving through much thicker traffic, I’d have a two-hour commute in either direction—four hours on the bus, eight hours at work. That sucked. It totally fucking sucked, and I hated it. But you know what would have sucked more? Driving. I could’ve taken side streets and not stopped to pick up a soul, getting to work in way less time, but I’d’ve been kicking the planet in the face. And that’s not just an abstractly bad thing: that’s starvation, that’s population displacement, that’s increased warfare, that’s mass extinctions. So a four-hour round trip commute isn’t any fun, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we’re causing by driving and avoiding it.
Saying “Yeah, but I live in the suburbs and work in the city—I have to drive” doesn’t cut it. The problem in that situation is not that what I’m encouraging is unrealistic for that lifestyle, but that the lifestyle is unrealistic for our planet (something covered in way more detail in the aforementioned Green Metropolis,a book that I haven’t finished yet, but that so far is really good, except for the author’s assumption that population growth is inevitable). Where we live and work—at least so far as city/suburb questions go—is a choice. Some might think “Well, I can’t just quit my job and/or move to a new place tomorrow, so this is unfeasible.” I’m not talking about doing it immediately; obviously that wouldn’t work for many people. But try realigning your perspective so that environmental sustainability is a crucial criterion when you’re looking at places to work and live, and then start planning the housing and/or career changes you need to make. I don’t mean “need to make” in an “I’m gonna boss you around now” kind of way, but in a “if we don’t make these changes and make them right now, we are lost” way. Because that’s very much the situation we’ve put ourselves—and everyone else—in.
All these arguments hinge on the negative consequences of allowing car culture to continue. But what about the awesome parts of killing it off? They are legion, and they are rad as hell. For me the most basic, most foundational, is the enormous physical pleasure to be found in skating. I didn’t start riding for the planet, I started riding ‘cause it looked fun, and daaaammnnnn is it fun. The scary-giddy rush of hitting a good downhill; the fleshy, exuberant satisfaction of landing a trick you’ve been working on; the peaceful glory of gravity twisting underneath you and the wind flickering over you as you carve down a mellow slope; oh! I don’t know what I’m gonna do in rainy Portland winters. I hope I can find some good parking garages to ride, with big flat parts for street tricks, ‘cause skating is a good time like whoa. And though don’t find cycling quite as excellent, it’s still damn excellent—pressing low and fast into a banked curve through midwestern farm fields, leaves green and sky blue like I’ve never seen elsewhere; jangling stop-and-go down a skinny track in the woods, fingers twitching over the brakes and butt hanging over the back wheel; feeling your body fight and strive and win as you pound your way over a hill; slipping smooth circles in a parking lot, going nowhere but up. Even walking is good!—the freedom to clamber up walls, jump sailing over benches, slide down railings, duck through tiny gaps. There are whole worlds of good times to be had under our own steam.
And that’s just the physical side of it. Wrapped in multiple tons of steel, it’s easy to miss what the places you live in are really like. Skating to a store a couple miles from home, I move slow enough to really take in the neighborhoods I pass through, the people I see and greet. What things look like at five or ten miles an hour instead of thirty or forty, what they sound like how they smell, where the shade is, where I can find a water fountain. Some might say those things are unimportant, but I don’t think so. There’s something significant in having personal experience with your home. Being really acquainted with the land and the buildings and the birds and the trees and the neighbors and the sewer access covers and the people checking the streetlights, you care for the place more and you care for it in a way rooted in direct firsthand knowledge and experience. It would be easy to talk it up into like a transcendent spiritual thing, speaking with Walt Whitman-y rapture about the glory of American vistas and every citizen [editorial note: it used to say “the average citizen,” but I realized after the fact that that sounded like I was setting myself apart from everybody else, which wasn’t what I wanted to do—so in case you’re rereading and think you remember different language, you probably do], and though I sometimes get into that kind of a feeling, and it can be wonderful, that’s not usually where I’m at. I just think it’s important to really know your location, not simply where you’re located. I haven’t been to as many parts of Lincoln, Nebraska, where I lived for the past six months, as somebody with a car might have. But I bet I know the areas I’ve traveled through on my own more personally and viscerally—and, I think, more meaningfully—than I would have behind a wheel.
And finally, in the good-things-about-human-power-transportation segment of today’s episode, good health is a good thing. It makes you happier, it lets you live longer, it lets you do more great stuff. Why spend time, oil, and money driving to the gym when you can be in equally good shape by riding a skateboard or bike for your day-to-day errands and adventures? Inaccurately assessed short-term convenience. I try to skip that. Skating is radder.
Third: Veganism. As I mentioned in the section on agriculture, eating only plants is a more efficient food practice in terms of land and energy use. If we eat all the plants in a field, we get a lot more meals out of it than we would if we fed the plants to animals who would eat many fields’ worth of plants before we killed and ate them. On top of that you have all the extra energy, labor, time and monetary cost of keeping the animals alive, killing them and processing their dead bodies, which could be applied elsewhere. There’s also the fact that some animals—primarily cows—are actually significant contributors to climate change through the methane in their farts. No joke; that’s really true. We raise so many cows, and there’s so much methane in their farts, that they have a noticeable impact on greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Vegetarianism helps: it doesn’t demand that as many animal lives be first created, then supported, then ended for our gustatory pleasure. But dairy cows are still cows, and egg-laying chickens still need time, land, energy, et cetera, and both (as well as other milk- and egg-producing species) are still inefficient uses of potential food crops. And until industrial agriculture is over, vegetarianism still funds killing, because the brothers of young female calves headed for the dairy “farm” are killed for veal, and the newborn males chicks hatched in the production of eventual egg-laying hens are simply killed as soon as they’re sorted out from the females chicks, by methods like gassing and being ground up alive.
Brief aside: I am not actually vegan for environmental reasons. Those are like added bonuses to me. I’m vegan because I don’t believe in enslaving, torturing and murdering other beings because their corpses or byproducts taste good. To arrogate [thanks for correcting my misuse of “abrogate,” Carolyn—the original wording has now been abrogated] to ourselves the right to control and end the life of a once-free or would-be-free animal displays at once a frightening lack of compassion and a terrible hubris, both of them often-unexamined. I’m vegan because the rights of non-human animals matter and should be respected, and I could write a whole ‘nother post from that angle, or a super-mega-hyper-post from every angle that matters to me that talks about things like how I think we should eventually phase out the domestication of almost all animals, but this post is about environmental sustainability, so for right now, that’s where I’m focusing.
A further benefit of veganism, one that ties in with the transportation section, is that often—certainly not always, but often—veganism is healthier than omnivory. It can absolutely be done wrong, and I’ve heard awful anecdotes about well-meaning but nutritionally-ignorant parents malnourishing their children with unhealthful vegan diets, and there’s the story I head from my mom about the Romantic poet Percy Shelley feeling moved by compassion to not harm animals, but knowing so little about what his body needed that he would “eat nothing but lettuce for two weeks and then pass out,” which is unfortunate for Percy but a story I like all the same. But if you eat good, healthy, balanced food, veganism can be excellent for your body, delivering the nutrients you need without unhealthy aspects of animal bodies and products. Let me here mention that there are some people who have to eat meat out of medical necessity—there are certain things (I say “things” ‘cause I don’t know the specifics—I’ll find out what, exactly) that their bodies cannot create or process only from plants. That’s real, and it’s a bummer, but despite my convictions about non-human animal rights, I will certainly cop to being a speciesist insofar as I’d rather have those humans who need to eat animals be healthy, even at the expense of a small number of non-human animal lives. There are not many people like this, though—in twenty-two-and-three-quarters years I’ve met four—and for everyone else, veganism is definitely a way to meet our bodies’ needs. This connects with transportation—and sustainability—because the better-nourished you are, the more able your body will be to do things like skateboard and ride a bike to get where you need to go. So though the primary beneficiary is you, the planet and all life on it also get a bit of a boost from veganism’s healthiness.
So that’s (some of) why I’m into organic agriculture, skateboarding, and being an herbivore. These things are all quite doable, and though they are not in and of themselves a solution, they are steps towards one. And we have never needed a solution more direly than we do right now. So give ‘em some thought, please. You will find, or you already know, that doing them doesn’t make life worse. It makes it better. Not just in the big-picture sense, but in the little-picture sense too. It’s more fun to have walked on the land where your dinner came from. It’s more fun to skate and know what the neighborhoods between home and work are really like. It’s more fun to eat food that didn’t require suffering. The book No Impact Man, by Colin Beavan, makes this point clearly and repeatedly: the idea that living sustainably means we have to be cold and eat bland food and not do fun things and miss out on life, just sitting around being self-righteous and bummed out, is nonsense. Life is richer, life is more exciting, life is more satisfying, life is more fun the more we do this stuff, by and large. So, like MC5 put it, let’s kick out the jams!
Hey: if you have questions, comments, and/or corrections, I really want to hear them. If I can help you learn more, I want to; if you disagree with my positions, we should talk about it; and I care a lot about this stuff, but I am drastically far from being an expert, so let me know if I’ve gotten something wrong, and I’ll be glad to know more and to edit this post. And to read stuff that is from experts, check out the Energy Justice Network.
Furthermore: I know there’s plenty of hypocrisy in here. I got to Japan on a plane, a ton of my stuff’s made of petroleum products, I’m using a computer, et cetera. Obviously I’m not living without negative impact. But we’ve gotta start where we’re at to work towards somewhere better.
Lastly: I wrote this whole thing in one go, without many revisions, ‘cause I’d been on-and-off hacking around on an earlier draft for almost three weeks and wanted to finally get these ideas up on the blog, and it’s great that they’re here now, but I may’ve left out big chunks of my own motivations and beliefs. If I realize that after the fact, I’ll mention ‘em in a subsequent post. Also, there were some really nice turns of phrase in that draft post, and I’m gonna try and stick ‘em in upcoming things, so get ready! It’s gonna be rhetorically rhapsodic comin’ up here!