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October 4, 2007

My Journey to Sustainability

By: Rowan Wolf

By Tom Nielsen

I had an "aha" moment the other day. I was reading an interview of a couple with an organic farm who use draft horses instead of tractors. They were asked what other alternative energy sources they use. Their initial response was that they've been waiting for that question. Their real answer was: gasoline. When I read that I realized how I have been looking at energy in terms of what is most abundant and most readily available for use instead of looking at natural energy like solar and wind as resources that are even more readily usable and available.

hope I can offer you a similar "aha" moment by telling you about my journey into sustainability, and through the telling, help you see how to start becoming more sustainable yourself. This journey is not one I took alone. My partner, Phil, was with me for the ride, so it's really our journey, and it began around 1997. Both of us have always been environmentally conscious, but in no way were we activists. We didn't belong to Greenpeace or the Green Party. We aren't hikers (despite the large forested park directly behind our apartment building), nor are we tree huggers, or vegetarians. In fact, at that time we were somewhat oblivious to environmental concerns. We shopped at the local super-giant grocery store: bought their well-traveled, mass- produced and minimally- flavored tomatoes and strawberries, and satisfied our various food cravings: Mine was Pop-Tarts, and Phil's was chocolate-stripe cookies. We would leave, like everyone else, with everything double-bagged.

Even at home we were clueless about some of our major purchases. When we remodeled our kitchen we bought a new refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher. They were all Energy Star appliances, but we weren't impressed by that. We bought them because their black and steel design matched the counter tops and cabinets we'd chosen (we also were more stereotypically gay, then too). So the point I'm making is that we didn't always live sustainably. However, we did make an effort. Phil has always been a stickler for recycling, going so far as to keep a special 9 x 12 inch box handy for letter-size waste paper, which will be bound neatly with twine and set out with the rest of the recycling.

In the summer of 1998 we discovered farm stands at the eastern end of Long Island. The more we explored, the more stands we discovered. We enjoyed talking to the farmers and exploring their wares: vegetables, fruits, muffins, jams, pies, relish. Soon, we became regular customers at the stand selling lemonade and fresh corn-on-the-cob; at the bakery with the luscious chocolate cream pie; at the tea shop where we'd buy tea and scones with jam and whipped cream then drive down the road to a little park and eat them under a big oak tree. It was on one of those trips that we discovered an antique shop with a beautiful roll-top desk. It was perfect for our small one bedroom apartment because it had drawers only on the right side. We bought it and it's now our indispensable retro computer desk. So although we were largely oblivious to the environment, we were consciously recycling and reusing old furniture.

Between 2001 and 2003 though, things changed and so did we. We entered a kind of germination period where we started looking outward at what was going on in the world instead of fixing our gaze inward at ourselves and our possessions. Several things happened to bring about this change. 9/11 had a deep affect on our household, emotionally and financially. We felt helpless and angry but unable to direct that emotion anywhere. We also lost one income. Phil was a consultant, a computer programmer for a financial services firm downtown Manhattan, and although he was not at work on 9/11, his contract was not renewed in December, 2001 and he has been unable to find work as a programmer since then.

Through 2002 we received special 9/11 health and financial benefits, but like the economy, our household had a dark cloud over it. In March of 2003 that cloud turned darker when the U.S. invaded Iraq. As peaceful people, Phil and I again felt helpless and angry at the death and destruction happening there. And that summer the earth itself seemed to make its discontent known; record-setting heat killed tens of thousands in Paris and made life in New York City almost unbearable. On August 14, 2003, the entire northeastern U.S. lost electricity. I walked 10 miles home from my job in midtown Manhattan. Phil was luckier. He caught a bus; however, there was so much traffic that we got home within minutes of each other.

Consequently, we had a long weekend to think about the blackout and all the things going on in our lives. We realized how dependent and powerless we are. How we have very little control over where we get our energy and food; how we are dependent on foreign countries for oil to run our cars, and large corporations or huge factory farms to provide our food. How we are also oblivious to what we do to the environment in order to have all the comforts we enjoy: leisure, travel, exotic foods, air conditioning. It only takes a blackout to snap out of the mindset that we are entitled to all these things.

So we decided to try to gain a little control over our lives and the one area we knew we could take some control of was what we ate. No more Pop-Tarts and chocolate stripe cookies; we were headed for purely organic food. We already had a head start with our trips to the farms stands. But come December we had to find organic food to keep us through the winter, so we joined the Park Slope (Brooklyn) Food Co-op. In exchange for a four-hour work shift every 4 weeks, we could purchase organic food and household products made with organic ingredients by small producers. We've since learned that many of the organic brands stocked in our co-op are subsidiaries of or in strategic alliances with multinational food companies like Kraft, Cargill, and General Mills. These companies have no qualms about shipping foods hundreds of miles to their point of sale. We choose not to buy their products for two reasons: They require excessive amounts of oil to ship to consumers, and their processing renders them less nutritious than locally grown foods. (You can find out more about who owns organic foods at the Cornucopia Institute: cornucopia.org/index.php/who-owns-organic/)

Two other discoveries we've made have proved to be benchmarks in our journey to sustainability. In May, 2005 we joined a CSA or community supported agriculture group. As part of a CSA we buy a share in a farmer's harvest, paying around $400 in the spring and in exchange we receive fresh seasonal vegetables (and fruit for another $300) on a weekly basis from May to November. This arrangement helps the farmer prepare financially for another growing season and benefits the consumer through six months of fresh produce, more than enough for two people to get through the week.

Our second discovery was raw milk. We were introduced to raw milk at a cheese making event at an upstate New York farm, and we've loved it ever since. Raw milk is unpasteurized milk and as such, it still contains much of the good bacteria that help your stomach digest food efficiently and thoroughly. Since we found out about raw milk we've joined a milk club in Manhattan where we can pick up raw milk directly from the farmer. We do not pay the farmer when we pick up our order however, as state law forbids the sale of raw milk except on the farm. We supplement our milk club purchases with trips to our dairy farmer friend, Deb Tyler of Local Farm in Cornwall, Connecticut. On-farm sale of raw milk is legal in our neighboring states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania and ever since meeting Deb we've fallen in love with her calm gentleness and her herd of 15 Jersey cows. Deb organizes and teaches workshops in old style life skills like soup stock making, chicken butchering, keeping a family cow, lacto-fermentation, and identifying wild edible plants. Learning these skills has led to our feeling both empowered and less dependent. Now we have the resources to control more of what we eat, and in doing so we have more say over our health because we know where our food comes from. In fact, we've even purchased beef from Deb and another farmer in Cornwall. The beef came from cows we interacted with on the farm, and through our purchase Deb and her neighbor earn a living. It's a nice feeling to know that the meat you are preparing and eating was grass-fed and came from a farmer you know and not a mystery feed lot hundreds of miles away.

Perhaps you're wondering at this point what this has to do with green living. Obviously, Phil and I are not just practicing green living, we're trying to live sustainably. We see green living as basic environmental awareness in which one acts on a moral compulsion to do what's right for the environment. Often this means doing what others tell you is good for the environment, like buying Energy Star appliances, replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, using canvas bags and taking mass transit instead of your car. These are all good things that we can fairly easily act on in our lives. What Phil and I are doing is taking sustainability into our own hands. We have investigated opportunities and taken advantage of those we can fit into our lives, such as purchasing beef, chicken, milk, and seasonal vegetables and fruits directly from farmers. We've also learned how to preserve the harvest so we aren't as dependent on our co-op for food in the winter.

Does living sustainably require that we drive more? Yes, it does. Does living sustainably cost more than regular trips to the grocery store? Yes, it does. Do we feel less dependent and more fulfilled through the relationships we've established by living this way? Yes, we do. It gives us great satisfaction to know the farmers we buy things from. They are small producers and make a point of being organic and sustainable themselves. We feel fulfilled because we've taken our food purchases and health into our own hands. We also feel fulfilled by supporting a small local producer instead of a multi-national conglomerate. That multi-national won't talk to us about the health of the cows and the pasture grass when we visit, or show us how to bottle-feed a calf or move a chicken tractor. Our farmer will.

So living sustainably has introduced us to a whole new world we barely knew existed, but it's also helped us recover our sense of self and connect us with others who want to live sustainably. It's also given us the confidence to go beyond food to try to affect change in a sustainable way in our local community. As part of this, Phil has created a not-for-profit focused on educating communities about food, energy and economic issues. He organizes film screenings for neighborhood groups in New York City, offering over 50 different independent films, mostly documentaries, such as, "The End of Suburbia", "The Future of Food", "Black Gold", and "Maxed Out".

We've also discovered permaculture which is a design system for creating sustainable human environments. Permaculture focuses on the beneficial relationships we can create with plants, animals, buildings and infrastructure that are ecologically sound and economically viable. Permaculture imparts knowledge that Phil and I can use to reduce our dependence and powerlessness, and become more self-sufficient.

Another important aspect of sustainability is to fortify local communities. We roll our eyes when we hear people cheer the new Whole Foods in their neighborhood or that Wal-Mart has started selling organic food. What these folks don't understand is that the dollars they spend at these big box stores are dollars that leave their local community and starve local merchants of their livelihood. Just like the antique store we bought our desk from, we are working to support local businesses by patronizing them. Another way we do this is to save land from development by creating a community land trust or CLT. A CLT is a legal entity that we would use to purchase land and control its use for the foreseeable future. The mission of our CLT is to grow organic food, run a CSA, educate the community on sustainable issues, and preserve the land for future generations.

Now that I've said all that, maybe you can see where I'm heading here. All the talk of meeting farmers (and cows) and owning land to run a CSA using permaculture principles begs the question: Is this really possible in the city? We say no. In our view, cities are not sustainable, nor can they be made sustainable. We understand that this is a debatable point, but our minds are made up. We've come a long way on our journey to live sustainably, but in the city we're still tethered to infrastructure beyond our control. We'd rather be able to grow our own food, nurture our local community, generate our own power and keep moving forward toward self-reliance even if that means leaving the city. In the end, we've all got a long way to go.

Some of the sustainable practices I've discussed here may be unfamiliar so further explanation is provided below as well as some information-rich resources.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Community supported agriculture is a movement to help small farmers remain in business by easing their financial burden. Instead of shouldering the cost of farming themselves, farmers share the cost and the risk with community members who then share in the farmer's harvest. Interested community members pay for a share in the spring when farm expenditures are highest, then receive a weekly distribution of fresh vegetables (and other produce like fruit and flowers, depending on the farm) usually from May to November. The distribution often consists of seasonal produce, for example, spring greens in June and hearty greens like kale in November.

The CSA that I belong to is coordinated by a non-profit organization by the name of Just Food. Just Food links organic farmers in our region with neighborhood groups willing to organize and sustain a CSA. You can search for a CSA near you at the Local Harvest website (www.localharvest.org/). For a more complete list of informative resources about CSA, consult the National Agricultural Library's, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml.

Raw Milk
Unpasteurized or raw milk is controversial. Health officials insist it's a health risk, and farmers defend its taste and nutrients. Honestly, both sides are correct. Before pasteurization was mandated in the US, milk was not as heavily regulated as it is today. Consequently, the potential for more health problems was due in large part to the high number of producers. Today, raw milk dairies are miniscule in comparison to industrial-sized dairy farms, and that smallness translates into greater control over what a herd eats, when they are milked and how often. It also means that the farmer can more readily observe a distressed or sick cow and exclude their milk from that of the others. We buy raw milk from dairy farmers we know personally and who aren't afraid to let us see their processing system. The raw milk comes from the same cows eating the same grass from the same farm. Pasteurized milk is a mixture of many cows from many farms, eating we know not what, and being given antibiotics and growth hormones to keep producing milk. Which would you choose? For more information from both sides of the aisle, wikipedia provides a thorough overview under "raw milk".

The best place to start for more information about permaculture is the Permaculture Research Institue or PRI. Permaculture was founded by Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren in the 1970's, and today, the concepts and principles of permaculture are taught within the structure of a design certification course. PRI is the organization that grants this certification. Their website is located at: http://www.pri.org.au/. There are also several good books that explain permaculture. Earth User's Guide to Permaculture, by Rosemary Morrow, and Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay are two inexpensive but thorough beginning texts. The definitive text on permaculture is Bill Mollison's, Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Reader beware, this text is dense.

Community Land Trusts
Our efforts to form a community land trust are based on our desire to do two primary things: to set aside land that will remain pristine but also provide for those living on it, and to educate folks who want to learn how to provide for themselves on a piece of land. The key to succeeding in attaining both these things is community. Not the type of community Phil and I live in now where we talk to our neighbors a couple times a week when we see them outside our apartment, but a working relationship where we are living and working together to advance something we believe in. You can find out more about community land trusts through several organizations working to preserve land at the national level:

Land Trust Alliance - http://www.landtrustalliance.org/

American Farmland Trust - http://www.farmland.org/

The Nature Conservancy - http://www.natureconservancy.org/

Tom Nielsen is a librarian, currently working for a library consortium in New York City, but dreaming of the good life outside the city, with books, cows, chickens, a couple good cast-iron pans and a small community of like-minded people.

Posted by Rowan at October 4, 2007 9:12 PM Category: Alternatives