By: Jared K
If one thing has become abundantly clear during the first four weeks of this program, it’s that our food system is broken. The American landscape is dominated by corn, a crop that, for the most part, does not get eaten. It is either made into feed, fuel, or sweeteners and starches that add no nutritional value to processed foods. There is obviously a market for this corn, but there is altogether too much of it. Most corn farming towns routinely fill their elevator with enough left over to allow a full grown man to climb up and slide down a mountain of excess. Meanwhile, many Americans face hunger on a daily basis, or eat only the cheap food that they can afford, In addition, this entire industry wouldn’t be making money if not for enormous government subsidies. If you’re a farmer in the midwest, measuring your success by the metric of profit, you should be growing corn. This would not be true if the government was not subsidizing corn so heavily. Essentially, we are growing an excess of something people can’t really eat and not growing enough crops that people can eat? This is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. No one person is going to be able to fix it. That’s where my dad comes in.
My dad is a conscientious middle aged liberal man living in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. Ever since Hurricane Katrina, he has been constantly focused on reducing his carbon footprint. When Toyota first released the Prius Hybrid, he bought one. He researched ways to drive it efficiently, and when it was warm enough, he would bike to work instead. He kept his Prius until last winter, when he purchased an electric Chevy Volt as well as a high efficiency charging station. A good deal of electricity comes from solar panels on his roof. When he can, he hangs up laundry to dry outside rather than using his drying machine. If you were to visit my dad in the summer, he probably would be running around opening and shutting windows at different times of the day (not pausing to consider if his son is sleeping in a room with one of the windows) in accordance to a Jefferson era method of using the outdoors to heat and cool your house.
My dad purchases his food organically, for the most part. He has farmshares with several local organic farms, and when he has to get food that is not local, he’ll go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. He tries for the most part to eat vegetarian, although he indulges and has fish occasionally. Whenever we are anywhere besides home, he has already Yelped the best local organic restaurant to eat at. He is living as sustainably as he can, but is it all worth it? Is anything he does actually going to improve our food system, or any other broken system, just because he’s making a more “sustainable choice”? Or is my dad causing no positive impact; is he merely deluding himself into thinking that he is making a positive impact so that he can sleep well at night? Am I writing too many rhetorical questions?
Before I can analyze my dad, I first have to present an analogy. Suppose you are standing near a river. You see a baby floating down the river, doomed to go over the waterfall downstream and probably drown. Naturally, you go into the water and save the baby. Good job. You’ve made a positive impact on the world by saving a baby. However, right as you finish patting yourself on the back, you see another baby floating downstream towards imminent death. You jump in and save that baby too. Soon, you’re in and out of the water between the stream and a preschool’s worth of babies that you’ve saved. How many babies have to come down the river before you think about the source? Clearly, there’s no accident that this river is full of babies. Upstream, there must be somebody throwing babies into the river. However, to investigate it, you have to leave the babies that are in the river to die while you find a path up the river. Can you live with yourself knowing that your actions, while positive in the long run, are directly responsible for the death of several babies?
If we then apply this analogy to the world, we can view all of the problems in the world as different streams of babies. Any time you focus on one particular stream, you are trusting that someone else is in another river saving other babies. My dad, being affluent and educated, can afford to spend more of his time and resources saving babies in the stream, compared to someone who barely has the means to save themselves, much less a baby. Cynics of my dad might claim that he is self serving in his altruism by saving babies whenever he can, but never going the extra step and trying to find the evil maniacs who are throwing babies into the stream. He is merely voting for people who claim that they are going to go upstream and stop the madness.
Are both kinds of people not needed? We can’t all go upstream and try to find the source of the babies, because a lot of babies would wash downstream in the process. Also, the analogy fails in how easy it makes finding and fixing the source of injustices. The people who knock my father for his lifestyle that barely causes any change claim that we need big changes in our institutions and psychology in order to get anything done. This would require government intervention and drastic changes in the way people consume.
Obviously, if someone could get this to happen, that would be incredible. However, to put it bluntly, the current government is a clusterfuck. People can not even agree on the same set of facts anymore. There is no way the government will manage to solve these complex problems with the urgency that they are needed to be solved.
Meanwhile, my dad will continue to live the way he lives. I don’t know if he thinks that he himself is making a huge difference, or if he knows that most of the benefit of his lifestyle goes to him. Maybe he’ll convince three other people to start living like him. These three people may go on and convince three new people to adopt the lifestyle of Jared’s dad. While it may not be a lot, it can add up eventually, and it beats waiting around for major institutional change.
There are a few arguments I can think of against that last paragraph. First off, if my dad cares so much, why doesn’t he work to change institutions? Currently, my dad is a doctor. Cynics might claim that this fits his lifestyle perfectly. He treats sick and unhealthy people, rather than investing his time into researching why people are sick and unhealthy in the first place. Obviously, if he wanted more than anything else to solve the food system or other problems, he would become a lobbyist. Maybe he values the security of his home life enough to feel comfortable in his lack of consumption. However, we can’t all be lobbyists, and everyone, regardless of their chosen profession, should at least try to live a life like my dad.
Can everyone do it, though? Obviously, it is my dad’s affluence that allows him to consume less. All of the electric cars, bicycles, farm shares, and solar panels that allow him to save a lot of money have significant upfront costs. People struggling to get by can’t afford the luxury of being able to think about the carbon footprint. However, as more and more people who can afford it decide to focus on their carbon footprint, firms will take notice. They will see the increase in demand and start an arms race to try to sell environmental sustainability at the cheapest price possible, to the point where a majority of Americans will be able to afford it. Don’t believe me? It happened with automobiles, refrigerators, televisions, and smartphones. Why can’t solar panels or farm shares be the next big market to become increasingly available to the public?
To return to the baby metaphor, my dad is most likely not going to travel upstream anytime soon. However, he’s inspiring people with the way he lives, including my brothers and I, to spend as much time in the stream saving babies as he can afford to. I leave you with one thought. If we all get into the stream together, we can work our way upstream without letting any babies get past us and eventually stop the cause of all the injustice. This all starts with people like my dad.