21 April 2008

Save an Iceberg, Plant a Vegetable

Yesterday, the New York Times published a new Michal Pollan piece. It's no secret that we're big fans of Pollan's stuff and this new article, "Why Bother?" is just as good as the rest. In it, he writes about the kind of hopeless feeling of doing too little in the way of being environmentally responsible. What's the point of changing a lightbulb or walking to work if some dude in China is chowing down on Big Macs while he drives his unregulated emissions car to his job at a coal mine?

Pollan's argument, essentially, is that you should feel good about making environmentally friendly choices, however small, because small changes are what catch on in society. After all, it was only a hundred and fifty years ago or so that some doctors bought into a crackpot theory about germs and started to regularly wash their hands, and we all know how that turned out. If we each turn off lights, plant a garden, or save gas, the outcomes will be positive even if they're initially tiny.

Basically, if you drink Al Gore's Kool-Aid, you're not going to hurt anything and you just might be the beginning of something big.

Here is something I've always thought about: What if everyone grew just one thing? A bed of lettuce, a tomato plant, some peas. Think about how much we'd save in resources if we put a small dent in the amount of produce that gets shipped around the country. What would happen if every single person with a porch or a plot of dirt planted cucumbers this year? So what if your cucumbers get demolished by squash bugs or eaten by nasty groundhogs? As long as one of your neighbors has a live plant they're going to have about a million and half more cucumbers than they can eat, so you can have some of theirs. American cucumber consumption in the 1990s was at about 10.3 pounds per person annually. What's that, like 20 or 30 cucumbers? You can grow that in one week in July.

Granted, a lot of the cucumbers in that figure are imported from South America or wherever in the middle of the winter, when most of the country can't produce their own fresh ones. Leaving aside for a moment the argument that no one needs fresh cucumbers in January, say each person is still responsible for coming up with half the cucumbers they eat each year—that's 1.75 billion pounds of cucumbers that aren't being trucked around. FedEx would charge $427 million to ship that from Florida to Pennsylvania, and that's with crappy 3-day ground service.

I'm not trying to bring down the cucumber industry or anything, but just think how much fertilizer, gasoline, emissions, road ware, traffic congestion, little "Cucumber 4062" stickers, and plastic produce bags we'd save if we all grew half our cucumbers. Hmm.

10 comments:

ourfriendben said...

Right you are, Meg! And just think, if everyone made their own pickles from the extra cukes their plants were producing...

Robbyn said...

I'm not hip to drinking anyone's Koolaid, but I love Pollan, and you're definately onto something with the thought of everyone just doing one or two plants. Think about it...if we simply tucked a cherry tomato plant, into a pot put mint under the foundation plants as a groundcover, and a few rattlesnake pole beans by the back fence...and in neighborhoods, those fancy landscapers included herbs and veggies among the other decorative plants (and they're just as beautiful), we'd all be overrun with squashes and fresh tomatoes and have rivalries going over who grows the best this and that. That's not so different from the way things used to be...and it's really not difficult! I vote for the "potager"...mixing some useful, gorgeous edibles in with all the boxwood hedges of the world...basically, eating our yards! :)

henbogle said...

Here in Maine it is Patriot's Day. I can't think of many more patriotic acts than planting a vegetable garden. Good post, Meg!

Meg's mom said...

Great post, Meg. I'm going out to get my cucumber and tomatoe plants now. So, tell me, what's a good alternative to a salad in the non-salad months?

Anonymous said...

Great post. It really can be that simple. I was surprised to learn that during World War II 25% of the nations vegetables came from Victory Gardens. That is an astonishing figure that was accomplished one back yard at a time. Last night I planted my carrots, beets and radishes. The sugar snap peas are starting to sprout and I transplanted all my leeks. And I'm getting involved in the first ever community garden program in my town.

Cindy

Anonymous said...

does that figure take into account pickled cukes? Cause we definitely eat more cukes than this in my family.

And, meg's mom, try growing mache under a cold frame (v. little space needed) during the winter months. That and some (home-made) sun dried tomatoes work well for us.

Tory

Meg's mom said...

Thanks, annonymous

Katie said...

I loved that he likened this movement to a viral video type thing on the web. Way to speak to gen Y.

Why is it that I keep seeing articles on the fact that we are quickly unable to produce as much food as we need? I don't get it. Once our garden starts producing, we'll have almost everything we need.

Except a cow.

Meg said...

Thanks for the compliments and suggestions, all!

Patrick said...

I'm just catching up on some blog reading, and I came across this. Great post by the way.

I think we do a lot more than we think by growing a few vegetables. Food production and distribution in the US uses more fossil fuels and generates more greenhouse gases than all the motor vehicles combined. In Europe, agriculture is probably the largest source of greenhouse gases. We just don't notice this in the cost of food so much, because it is so heavily subsidized. I think we're going to start noticing it more, because subsidies probably won't keep up with rising energy prices.

I think people don't understand how big a difference it really makes when you grow your own food instead of buying it, or even if you do buy it but making an effort not to waste it.