As I explained in my earlier post, it’s not back to school time in the bookconscious household, but we are learning all the time. In fact, witnessing and supporting my children’s autonomous educations has reawakened the life learner in me, and helped both Steve and I recall that magical feeling of discovery we all felt in childhood when we learned something we really wanted to know, something interesting, maybe even mind boggling.
My own mind has been boggled as I have studied the issues surrounding a book I’ve blogged about before, because after months of planning, we kicked off Concord Reads 2008 with a book talk Monday night at the library, where we discussed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am leading the brown bag book discussion of the same title at the library on Thursday, and I plan to play the devil’s advocate and challenge readers to discuss whether Kingsolver’s activist viewpoint causes her to oversimplify the “locavore” argument about food’s carbon footprint. And, whether the surging local food movement is really making a positive environmental impact. As a scientist (Kingsolver studied biology) shouldn’t she have made the scientific data on food miles clearer?
I have no doubt about her other arguments: that supporting local farmers and food producers builds community, helps consumers to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced, improves food security, increases nutrition (less travel and storage time means less deterioration), is healthier for farm workers (big agriculture isn’t known for its good working conditions), and even tastes better — anyone who has had just picked tomatoes from a garden or farm stand knows that. I think being informed is always better than the alternative, and knowing more about how food is raised might protect consumers from food borne illness, exposure to pesticides, or even just loss of knowledge about food traditions and regional growing seasons.
After all, when modern systems break down, as in World Made By Hand, having friends with dairy cows and chickens or knowing when to plant beans and whether your local climate is more favorable for corn or wheat may be essential to our survival! But I think in her sincere concern for the environment, Kingsolver does readers a disservice by glossing over the complexity of weighing the environmental cost of food choices. As I reread parts of the book to prepare for the discussion, I found the tone less nurturing and more didactic than I remembered.
Sure, Kingsolver says it’s ok to make exceptions and choose a few foods you can’t live without. But it had better not be bananas, which she writes about quite firmly as a bad food choice, environmentally speaking. Readers get the impression it is somehow virtuous to give up bananas. But as local writer Hillary Nelson, a panelist at an upcoming Concord Reads event, points out, not all bananas are bad for the earth, and there are even more complex ethical concerns involved. Like nearly everything else in our complicated world, measuring the environmental impact of food isn’t simple and may not be a matter of clear choices, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle occasionally strays a little too much into a black and white tone on a technicolor issue.
It’s an intriguing problem, because although Kingsolver by no means started the local food movement, she has given it enormous publicity, and like any movement, some people are jumping on the bandwagon without considering all the angles. The Greatest Story Ever Sold focuses on political journalism, but the behemoth media system that provides Americans with information manages to consume all kinds of stories, including environmental news, and spit them back out at us as dumbed down soundbites. Most of what I’ve read about local eating in the past few months has been that kind of simplified summary, cheering for a wholesome trend. But not all.
As bookconscious fans may remember, not long after I finished the book last summer, I read a New York Times op-ed challenging some of Kingsolver’s assertions about the environmental impact of local eating. Some recent scientific studies have confirmed what Frances Moore Lappe wrote almost 40 years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: meat consumption has a far worse impact on the environment, health, and world hunger than any other food choice. Articles in Salon, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Environmental Science and Technology and its accompanying website are delving into the issue of food miles. I’m heartened that the broader picture is available and that some retailers are actually responding to consumer demand and trying to make information available so buyers can make more informed choices.
Nelson, in her column on bananas, also brings up social and ethical questions, and some readers raised similar concerns last night at the book discussion. Is this a movement that leaves out the poor? Is the environmental impact of locavores traipsing around the countryside in their cars individually tracking down fresh produce worse than that of produce trucked to a central distribution point? Do we have an ethical responsibility to support developing world farmers who feed our year-round fruit cravings? Is fair trade food shipped from far away less harmful to the planet than greenhouse grown equivalents grown nearby or food harvested across the country by migrant farmworkers who aren’t paid a living wage?
Will the energy behind the local food movement make a difference as it is channeled towards lobbying industrial agriculture to take steps to be more environmentally and socially caring? Can we even do that, or is a profit based food system beyond caring? Do we really have accurate ways to figure out the carbon footprints of our choices? Should we even be wasting our time on all of these small things when no less a source than Al Gore tells us it’s way past time for individual action, we need massive, government level changes if we want to reverse the impact of greenhouse gas emissions?
Despite my quibbles, I still felt upon rereading it that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a good read and an important book. Kingsolver is a great storyteller, and her writing is excellent. She has certainly caused more people to think about food and where it comes from. I appreciate the way she exposes government involvement in the industrialization of agriculture and food production and the subsidizing of high fructose corn syrup — which, despite the claims of an appallingly duplicitous advertising campaign coming to a tv near you is not only almost impossible to avoid (it’s in everything from yogurt to bread to cereal as well as the more obvious things like sweets and sodas) but also nutritionally bankrupt. And she encourages further inquiry, listing resources and suggesting ways to become more immersed in the issues and to make changes or take action.
However, all of this confusion makes me want to seek relief in another novel. The one I’ve started isn’t promising to be much comfort: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. I’m reading it for the Gibson’s book discussion group; I’ve passed on it up to now. It was certainly widely acclaimed, touted as a best book of 2006 by the New York Times, etc. But reading about self-absorbed not very successful thirty somethings in the context of 9/11 may not be what I’m up for at the moment, even though at least one of the characters has me very curious about what he’ll do next. I’m only a few chapters in though, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Besides, it’s bound to be better than campaign sound bites.
However, I’m also keeping two nonfiction books close at hand to peruse when both the fictional world and the real one overwhelm. Perhaps I was moved by the stories of strong women in history my daughter and I listened to in the car last week, because both are about women who are “firsts” in their field. Annie Griffiths Belt, (who it turns out is a friend of Barbara Kingsolver and also uses her photography to promote the work of Habitat for Humanity, where Steve worked for five years, providing this month’s moment of bookconscious interconnectedness) one of the first female photographers at National Geographic, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (or any other church in the Anglican Communion), have both written inspiring books.
A Camera, Two Kids, and A Camel is Belt’s photo memoir, describing her life and work and in particular her travel with her kids, who she brought along on assignment all over the world when they were growing up. Besides the gorgeous photos that, like National Geographic, illuminate cultures and places in ways mere words cannot, Belt’s story is interesting and entertaining. She showed her children the good in the world, and shares that with us in her book.
A Wing and a Prayer: Messages of Faith and Hope is the Presiding Bishop’s collection of homilies, released in part to introduce her to the world after her election. It’s not really about her, though you get some glimpses of her life (she is a pilot and was an oceanographer before she became a priest). Instead this collection is just what the subtitle says — encouragement and reassurance that love, understanding, justice, and faith do have a place in the world if we let them into our lives. Schori is coming to the Diocese of NH in a few weeks, and I hope to hear her in person.
These last two books remind me that come what may, people will generally work to be their best selves when given the chance. All of the books I’ve read lately touch on that idea of our basic humanity seeking the humanity in others, however messy that process may be. People go on caring about each other, seeking relationships, expressing themselves, trying to make the world better for their kids, and always, always, finding ways to tell their stories. For that, I am grateful.