In defense of living better

Sometimes I'm overcome with a profound sense of quilt. I listen to NPR describe the suffering of people aboard this small planet as I make jam, and I wonder why I decided to start this company in Brooklyn instead of working for the International Red Cross as I intended, or returning to my life of adventure, science and exploration.

But then I open my eyes.

The 20th century was all about exploration: space, the poles, the moon, mountain tops, globalization and corporate expansion. There was great invention and profound devastation, greed, waste and limitless consumption; a foolish Icarus fumble that civilizations can relentlessly expand, relentlessly consume without consequence.

But we, the inheritors of this debt, are changing direction. We have no choice. Here in America, at the cusp of the second decade of the 21st century, the state of existence can seem daunting as we face environmental crisis (pollution, species extinction, loss of wilderness, loss of farmland), energy crisis, economic collapse, and war. But not all is lost. Wendell Berry, that sage of our age, says in his essay "The Idea of a Local Economy":

The "environmental crisis," in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies. If people begin the effort to take back into their own power a significant portion of their economic responsibility, then their inevitable first discovery is that the "environmental crisis" is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an "environmental crisis" because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, theGod-given world.

The heroes and change-makers of the 21st century will be us. We will create solutions for renewable energy and fighting poverty, make tools that provide safe drinking water, create urban farms that make use of wasted space and teach us how to live better, smaller and healthier. We'll take back the kitchen, the town square, the city. The heroes of the 21st century won't need to leave home to be heroic, they'll make home better for all of us by relocalizing.

By now, we know this (right?). We know the tag line that local is better, we even have the overused term "locavore" to describe cultist farmers' market junkies (it was the word of the year for 2007 in the Oxford American Dictionary). "Sustainable" and "green" are so overhyped they've lost meaning, particularly when you can buy organic food at Walmart and "sustainable" products at Target.  They've become meaningless through their dilution, being used to describe simply another form of obnoxious soap-box consumer. But the reason they've been adopted into the vernacular of the zeitgeist is that their original definition holds meaning.

But what does it mean to "live better"? What does it look like to you? Here in Brooklyn, food from the rooftop farm soaring above your neighborhood tastes better because it gets a lot of love, and because the farmer is your friend and you bought that beautiful bunch of kale from him directly, you feel the love when you eat it. And it gets even better when it's all connected, when the web is such that everyone supplies something and the fate of vacuous employment and an aimless life dissolves. It dissolves through relocalizing your life. If you give everyone in the community a direct, long-term involvement and stake in the prosperity, health, and beauty of their home, they live better and honor this stewardship. Pete Seeger, the iconic folk singer, knew this years ago and proved it over the last thirty years with his incredibly successful efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York.

This is not to say that the rich won't keep getting richer and corporations bigger and greedier to dispense nature's blood-money for our happiness. But the way I see it, we can change this through reorienting our lives so that we don't lose what is most vital: the real experience, the practice of living fully and "eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves" by participating responsibly within our community rather than buying these pleasures as purely wasteful, wasted consumers.

Being a small-scale food producer in Brooklyn, I play a minor supporting role in the interconnected local economy. But everyday I learn new ways to deepen and enhance my involvement, whether it's setting up barter systems and trading for goods with other local vendors, creating venues for collaborative cooking, sharing jam at a friend's supper club or cooking at the soup kitchen. This is living better. Not just being a "locavore" consumer but being an active participant in your community. I encourage everyone to do it now--this moment, if not sooner. Don't let another moment waste.

Jam on.