Risk-free local food

Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, Animal Vegetable Miracle is a paean to a year of growing and eating local food at her family’s new home in the Appalachian region where she grew up. In the book, Kingsolver writes with admiration and hope about Appalachian Harvest, a network of organic family farmers who distribute and market their goods to area supermarkets. I looked up the organization on the web, and saw that the Appalachian Harvest packing facility was destroyed in a fire a few weeks ago. The group has resolved to keep going through this growing season (they’re taking donations to rebuild). The contrast between the Kingsolver family adventure and the Appalachian Harvest’s disaster got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the “Miracle” approach.
The Kingsolver family experiment took hard work. The family grew most of its own produce in a large garden. Much of their protein came from the chickens and turkeys they raised. The subsistence gardening required many hours of weeding, mulching, picking, canning, drying and home cooking, not to mention sex therapy for turkeys that have been nearly bred out of the instincts of breeding. Meanwhile, Barbara continued to worked as a writer for magazines, her husband Steven is a professor of environmental studies, and their daughter Camille’s was college-bound high school senior. The combination of subsistence gardening and day jobs made for long days. The experiment in local provision also brought many pleasures; forgotten rituals of neighborhood harvesting, the craft and sensory pleasures of home cooking, the family meals, the connections at the farmer’s market, the awareness of the seasons.
The experiment comes across as less of a stunt than Manhattan’s No Impact Man, who is blogging about his family’s experiment in a 19th floor apartment without grid electricity, elevator, plumbing, or toilet paper. The Kingsolver family began their experiment already experienced with gardening, household chickens, home cooking, baking, and preserving. The No Impact family are novices at the subsistence skills. They tried home composting and got flies. They tried gardening and killed the plants. (But they’ve got a book deal, a movie deal, and a Good Morning America gig).
The Kingsolver crew didn’t try to go off the system entirely. They have grid electricity, drove a hybrid car, and bought coffee, spices, and some nonlocal wheat flour. As a young adult, Barbara Kingsolver when through times on food stamps, and had no interest, to her credit, in revisiting poverty and hardship.
The No Impact family’s choices are far too extreme to be a role model. The Kingsolver lifestyle in its entirety is beyond the skills and lifestyle of most Americans, but it is close enough to serve as a model to learn from. More people could buy good food economically at farmers markets, which would create a bigger, more viable market for local organic farming. It would be a greater shift, but more people could garden in cities and suburbs.
The Kingsolver local food project was practical, given the skills and economic resources of the family. It was also lucky and risk-free. The weather was good, the harvest was bountiful. The vegetables, fruit and meat preserved in August carried the family all the way through the winter. The animals were healthy and the turkeys learned to reproduce. There was no drought, flood, fire, or pestilence. And if there had been, the family had income and savings. They could have replaced what they lost and headed to the supermarket.
Barbara Kingsolver’s tale of a year of living locally is romantic, heartwarming, lyrical. It is the home gardeners version of Henry David Thoreau, who had the freedom to tramp in the exurban woods around Concord when on break from serving as the steward, handyman and tutor for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s household.
The organic farmers of Appalachian Sustainable Development don’t have the same economic security. With the decline of tobacco, local farmers are trying to make a living by branding and packaging their food for supermarket customers. The packaging plant fire has put their livelihoods at risk.
The classic stories of American agriculture show even greater risks. Willa Cather and Edna Ferber wrote classic novels about the drudgery, drought, loneliness, hunger and despair of people who tried to make a living from the land.
Eating locally produced food, as subsistence or local market farmers has many virtues. It is more sustainable than the long-distance system we have now, which wastes vast amounts of fossil fuel, degrades soil and water, and is causing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We could stand to be a lot more local than we are today.
But when humans have no choices other than local consumption and local markets, the result throughout history is periodic starvation. The ability to transport and trade takes the edge off the risks. Valuing local food is good; worshipping it is excessive.

Consumer environmentalism or system change?

Are Menlo Park willing to make the changes required to really mitigate global warming and peak oil? The city has signed onto the US Mayor’s Climate Change agreement, vowing to reduce greenhouse gases, and has city staff and community members engaged in efforts to identify ways to get greener.
It seems like the most popular tactics are green buying on behalf of households, businesses and the city. It’s a fairly wealthy community, and people seem excited by the prospect of solar roofs and pools, greener lighting, cars and driveways. These things aren’t trivial. New technologies and processes need early adopters. It’s great to be in a community that’s willing to experiment.
But will people really get behind the lifestyle and land use changes needed to make the biggest dent in fossil fuel use? As in, drive less. Cars are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest consumers of oil. In order to really mitigate global warming and peak oil, people need to drive less, and that means less sprawl and better transit.
Infill development and public transit are much more controversial. For a newcomer, it’s hard to tell how much is sincere concern that useful changes won’t be a bad deal for neighborhoods, and how much is just plain nimbyism.

Not just Nimbyism – negotiated settlement for Menlo condo/retail near train

Last November, there was a referendum in Menlo Park about a controversial condo/retail development near the train tracks. The folks collecting signatures said that they didn’t necessarily object to the project, they just thought that the city council had negotiated a bad deal for the city. I wondered whether this was sincerely pragmatic opposition, or a cover for Nimbyism. The referendum proponents followed through on the drive to get a better deal. Six months after the referendum succeeded, the referendum proponents and the developer have come up with a settlement reducing the density from 50 to 40 units per acre, and providing a payment of $2 million to the city. The new proposal now needs to go to the planning commission for approval.

How doctors make mistakes

Recently read two books by physicians with different angles on the same topic: how doctors make mistakes. Jerome Groopman is an oncologist who writes in how Doctors Think about the prejudices, biases, and cognitive errors that result in missed diagnoses. Doctors make mistakes when they dislike their patients, when they like patients to much, when they fail to listen to patients enough; when they see the common and miss the unusual, when they are in love with their own expertise. Groopman focuses on the personal and interpersonal, the nuances the doctor-patient relationship and the thought processes in the doctor’s mind.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon who focuses in Better on system problems and process solutions; methods for mass immunization, saving the lives of wounded soldiers, combatting hospital infection, and extending the lives of cystic fibrosis patients. The two doctors advocate different paths to improvement; Gawande encourages increased measurement, system improvement, and standardization; Groopman encourages personal reflection and better communication with patients, and is distrustful (with evidence) of computer-aided protocols that lead doctors to override their better judgment.
While the two physicians have different takes on how to reduce mistakes, they seem both to be a part of an underlying shift in how doctors respond to mistakes. A desire to maintain authority and prevent liability discouraged doctors from acknowledging mistakes. The newer mindset sees that analyzing mistakes with a focus on learning rather than blame can help prevent more errors.
Both doctors criticize the impact of “managed care” on the quality of medicine. Groopman writes about how doctors are encouraged to rush, eliminating doctor-patient relationships, and how drug company perks affect doctors’ judgement. Gawande describes how insurance-company protocols are designed to reduce reimbursement rather than to improve care. Incentives in the US health care system for quality, cost, and accountability are not complementary. We keep paying more and get better technology but not on the whole better care.

Blessed Unrest:

I listened to a podcast of Paul Hawken talking on KQED Forum about Blessed Unrest his new book about an emerging, decentralized grassroots movement that combines environmental activism and social justice. Listening to the show, I wonder whether this represents a new trend, selective observation, or some of both. At the same time that local green and social justice groups are springing up around the world, with beliefs and agendas congenial to Hawken’s lefty preferences, there is a flowering of evangelical protestant groups oriented toward biblical literalism, capitalism, and social conservatism. Hawken sees global spiritual networks as something new in the world, but missionary Christianity has a long history. Yes, there is grassroots activism springing up around the world; is it possible that Paul Hawken sees the parts he wants to see? I’ve only heard the radio show and not yet read the book; perhaps the book addresses these concerns.