I wrote the other day about aiming for some sort of middle ground with regard to where our food comes from. I can picture how readers might have nodded in agreement as they read that post, but then thought—but how do we achieve that “middle of the road” food system? The answer, I believe, is the same as the answer to virtually every other question about how to effect change—by changing demand. In other words, by voting with your dollars (or your yen, or euros….).
Another way to put this— stopping your junk mail is important, being involved and voting in elections is important, composting your coffee grounds is important, bringing your reusable bags to the grocery store is important, being an activist can be important. BUT— on a day-to-day basis, none of these things has as much impact as what we do with our money. None. Not one.
A metaphor for all of this—I really like Cesar Milan’s show “The Dog Whisperer”. We have two large dogs, a German shepherd and a rottweiler/doberman mix, and they’re both integral parts of the family. But something Cesar says all the time in his show has application here. No matter what you do with your dog, he says, “everything is a conversation”. Your energy, your mood, the way you carry yourself, whether you’re tense or not, your expectations—all a “conversation”. Well, with regard to all of us and the direction the planet is going in, it’s likewise— “everything is a conversation”. Everything we do is pulling the planet in one direction or the other, and this is particularly true with regard to how we spend our money. We vote with our dollars every day. Those votes can be for more of the same, or they can be votes for change. With regard to buying food or anything else, how we spend can have large impacts. We can choose buy fair trade tea or bananas (link to one of these groups), which insures that farmers get fairly compensated, or we can choose the cheapest we can find, and end up abetting unfair labor practices and pesticide exposure and business as usual. We can buy the .99 cent per pound chicken, and reward those companies that produce it in inhumane ways, or we can pay a little more for a better product, and support practices that are more sustainable. (And I realize this isn’t always easy to do, in real life, but that’s yet another topic).
So we need to be intentional when we spend, just as we need to be intentional as to how we live our lives in general. Markets are incredibly powerful forces, but they are amoral. Not immoral, but “amoral”—they are neutral; they don’t inherently deliver results that are good for society as a whole. Markets can benefit the criminals and the cigarette companies just as they can spur the development of renewable power. So if we spend without thinking, and just buy the thing that is convenient, or cheapest, with no accounting for external effects, then no change occurs. This is the status quo; this is what people do now, and this is one of the causes of humankind’s dangerous path.
This idea of intentional spending has quite a few ramifications, each of which could easily be separate posts on their own. But here’s a short version—
1) Wealthier people have more power to effect change than the poor. They have more “votes”. And, by extension, I believe that they have an inherently bigger responsibility to the planet, an environmental noblesse oblige, if you will. The wealthy just wield a bigger financial stick, for good or ill.
2) For all of us, financial discipline is important. To just put it somewhat bluntly—it’s hard to spend money in ways that are good for the planet if you’re sending it all to the credit card companies every month (and trust me, they aren’t concerned about sustainability). Even if you aren’t going into debt, wasteful spending often directly equates to environmental destruction, because our economy isn’t decoupled from the environment. Yet. (Discussion of decoupling in my post the other week “Free Lunch and the Holy Grail“).
3) Also important, understanding that what we earn and don’t spend goes somewhere, and “everything is a conversation” applies to this money, too. (Discussion of this in May in my post “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift“). I don’t agree with some of the directions that Bill McKibben thinks we should move in (ha, yet another post- “Respect and Admirations, But… “), but something I agree with him fully about is his divestment push (one of his articles). He understands this point about money—money drives the system, and we can use it to feed one part of the system or starve another. In terms of personal investing and/or where all of my state and city savings for retirement go, I don’t know enough about this, but it’s on my list of things to figure out. It doesn’t make sense for me to spend half of my income responsibly if the other half is being invested in a system that is perpetuating the status quo.
So, I’ll leave this here and save a more detailed look at the “middle of the road” food system for another post. But this idea about money is really important; it is an understanding that underpins effective choices.