Freedom From Want

Summer evenings in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia are something to behold. The air is thick, almost stagnant, and astir with crickets—literally a galaxy of them, whose nightly chorus goes uninterrupted, save the occasionally obnoxious car stereo thumping through the dark. No matter—whether the low frequency percussion of some hormonally-charged adolescent male’s souped-up Honda Civic, or the din of a thousand insects of similar intent, my family hears it all. As oppressive as the heat has been thus far this summer, I’m proud to say that I’ve yet to even install our window air conditioning unit, let alone plug it in. Somehow, between the frugality of my Hungarian wife, and my own sense of enviro-masochism, we’ve managed to soldier through it—undeterred by several near 100 degree days (and a drought to boot). Yes, we’ve entered into eco-martyrdom.

It wasn’t long ago when I, like so many Americans, was utterly convinced that the natural homeostatic temperature of my surroundings must lie somewhere between 69 and 74 degrees (oddly, 69 was more apt for summer, whereas 74 was more befitting of President’s Day). My naivete extended to an affinity or, rather, obsession, for long, hot showers, which, by long, I mean 20-30 minutes of steamy indulgence to be interrupted only by the cessation of any remaining hot water.

It wasn’t long ago when I, like so many Americans, had a bevy of excuses for why, exactly, the temperature needed be adjusted just so. “I get headaches in the heat.” “I lose my appetite when it’s hot.” “I can’t sleep.” “My allergies drive me crazy when I have the windows open.” Not to diminish the very real physical ailments of the comparatively few, but it really is remarkable how elevated the allergy syndrome becomes relative to the arrival of less comfortable temperatures. The inverse winter reaction is something along the lines of, “turn the thermostat up, I think I might be getting sick.”

I could go on and on about my own many wasteful endeavors… endeavors that managed to subsist in my life despite the fact that I truly considered myself to be an environmentalist (a label I whole-heartedly aspire to wear). The point is this: somewhere along the line I lost sight of the fact that being an environmentalist, conservationist, whatever you may choose to call it, must take some amount of sacrifice that extends beyond the pop culture, dime-store notion of “everyone lives downstream.” I, like so many Americans, was utterly convinced that, as long as I recycled, I would receive absolution for my ecological sins. As long as I purchased organic foods from some lip service corporate supermarket chain targeting clueless, status-oriented yuppies, any other transgressions I might commit against the natural world would be forgiven.

For me, the greatest impetus for changing the way I looked at the world had little to do with saving it (not initially, anyway). You see, upon graduation, I, like so many Americans, had significant student loan debt that predetermined the lifestyle I would have to lead once I’d left the confines of that uterine bliss known as college—a bliss prolonged by a few more years of grad school. Add to this the fact that my final year of grad school concluded just before the economy took a nosedive, meaning a potentially extended period of unemployment, and, hence, frugality became my new raison d’etre.

Embarking, as it were, upon my newfound “freedom,” it wasn’t long before I realized that frugality and environmentalism are almost innately complementary. You wouldn’t know this, of course, given the price of organic foods at most supermarkets—prices that are invariably geared toward the wealthy and, through associated advertising, manage to identify class divisions as much as any other type of related industry (e.g., designer clothing, luxury vehicles, wine, etc.). Too often, what individuals are buying when they fork out money at those prices is a perceived lifestyle—a label, in this case, the do-gooder environmentalist. Ultimately, however, $6 for that 16-ounce bottle of organic pomegranate juice says less about the environment than it does about the person and their economic standing. For, although they may have some intention of doing good by the environment, more often than not, consciously or sub-consciously, they want to be seen as someone who can afford to buy it, or someone who is sophisticated enough to understand what makes it the virtuous purchase, or both.

It’s doubtful that this is what the creators of Earth Day had in mind nearly 40 years ago, or what Aldo Leopold intended when he scribed A Sand County Almanac. Yet, this is what it has become: one more market for industry to exploit—one more product to sell, one more item to be consumed. There are those who would argue that this is a good thing, no doubt. All that is needed is to incentivize the market! Give the consumer what they want and the celestial hand prophesized by Adam Smith will guide them towards it. There is peace and harmony in the light. Thus, it was written. Oh, for my blasphemous ways!

Yet, in reevaluating my own perceptions of conservation, via a constrained wallet, I discovered that convenience vis-à-vis the consumption function was almost always the greatest purveyor of environmental degradation. This is particularly true in the American landscape, broken up and spread apart into the illogical and disjointed web of roads, parking lots, subdivisions, malls, and big box stores as it has become over the last 50 years. Every trip to the store means more fuel burned, more air polluted, more consumed—even before our intended grocery list has been placed in the cart. Need a half -gallon of milk to complete that recipe? No worries, just jump in the car and zip two blocks over to 7-11. The idea of waste, not want is lost upon our modern, if fleeting, market-driven utopia.

For my family, given our financial position, we had no choice but to make conscious decisions about not taking those gratuitous trips to the store. We understood that, firstly, every trip would undoubtedly mean more money spent (we never really purchase just that one item), and, secondly, it was obviously wasteful. Instead, we carefully planned our errands to be completed in one fell swoop in the car. When we did arrive at the grocery store, we purchased less—much less. In fact, between the two of us we spent, at most, about $50 a week on food in 2008 (even less nowadays). We also avoided the organic isles and purchased only staples.

To compensate for our lack of vegetables from the grocery store, we found relatively in-route area farm markets with local fare that tended to have reasonable prices. They weren’t, necessarily, organic, but an organic apple shipped from the state of Washington to a supermarket in Virginia is a far cry less environmental than a locally grown apple raised with standard farming techniques. This is particularly true when one considers the amount of fuel needed to ship the product, likely by truck, and the additional pollution generated as a result. Not to mention the collective cost to society of having more vehicles on the road, creating more traffic, causing others to consume more fuel, and generally giving some poor schmuck in, say, Chicago a headache for the additional commute time on his way home from work.

As soon as we had enough of a yard, we set about creating a high-output organic garden. Not that I’m exclusively for organic (see above), never cared for zealotry much, but it did seem cost effective to not have to buy so many chemicals with which to douse my crops. To compensate for the lack of chemicals I used what has been dubbed the “biointensive” gardening method, which is basically a lot of backbreaking work that translates into higher crop yields.

Was all this extra effort inconvenient? Absolutely! Yet, we hardly noticed or even cared. Ultimately, the satisfaction and overall entertainment the garden provided throughout that first season was more than worth the effort. It’s difficult to describe this sense of achievement to a non-gardener, but I suppose this is what some might call the Jeffersonian ideal—an innate connection between the farmer (or gardener, in this case), and their land. Mind you, what we have is really not much land at all (about 1/5 of an acre—rented), but it was, through the magic of root cellaring, enough to provide ample food during much of the year for my wife and I, even on our first try. But, I digress.

Transfixed as the American public may be with the unfolding tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, it should, undoubtedly, serve as a reminder that we are all, in part, responsible. Our wants, the desire of many to be seen as affluent, or our inclination to forgo any inconvenience—all of this has undermined our ability to lay blame without revealing an air of hypocrisy. As we swelter on these long summer days, contemplating where we might take our next annual vacation, we might stop to consider that one person taking a long-haul flight across the United States results in that person emitting nearly an entire year’s worth of carbon into the atmosphere. In other words, if one person were to take six such flights a year, they would be producing enough carbon to equal what six people use in an average year, sans flying. The implications for waste production as a result of air travel are just as bad.

There is a reason that, for so long, the United States used 25 percent of the world’s resources, despite the fact that it makes up only 3 percent of its population. Much of this undoubtedly has to do with our affluence, which has thereby driven our voracious appetite for more of everything; naturally, it would seem, the more affluent the individual, the more they consume individually. Beholden to our corporate handlers’ designs, we are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a nation of consumers who’s blueprint is now being mimicked by the likes of China and India, as they endeavor to conform to some far-east template of the American dream. A lack of resources may, of course, thwart such grand ambitions, but, nonetheless, that won’t stop them from trying.

Simply put: the more we spend, the more we consume, the more energy we use, the more resources we use up, the more we waste, the more harm we cause—not only to the environment, but to our own sustainability as a species. Even recycling, as noble a cause as it may be, does nothing to quell our excessive consumption habits. Some of the foremost research on the subject indicates that, by itself, it serves as nothing more than a crutch, according to William Rathje of the University of Arizona.

As we enter a new decade, questions abound with regard to how we may tackle our energy issues. Many predict that it will get much worse before it gets any better. There is a sense that we are now on the precipice. Hence, one would think that the ongoing dilemma in the gulf would serve as a wake up call for the error of our ways. Given our collectively short attention span and the relatively short lives of crises in the eyes of our ratings-driven media establishment, it’s difficult to imagine, however, that this will be enough.

Ultimately, environmentalism must be reconfigured in a way that makes it not just another marketing ploy—and that may mean abandoning many of the conveniences we’ve long held so dear. It might also mean resorting to vacationing more like our grandparents did (so-called “staycationing”); on beaches a few hours drive away or even in our own backyards. The idea of conservation and environmentalism must be re-imagined to accommodate not just the wealthy, but those less fortunate, as well. Abandoning the classist implications of the expensive Whole Foods-type “organic” label and embracing the everyman “locavore” ideals practiced by past generations could be far more inclusive, price wise, and have far greater effect. If not this crisis, then I shudder when thinking about how grave a disaster it might take to shake us out of our complacency.

SAM WELLINGTON is a freelance author whose work can be found at his website, Midnight in the Land of Plenty. He has an MA in International Affairs from American University, and a BA in History.