readings for garden project class (spring 2010): jessica prentice's full moon feast; michael pollan's second nature; barbara kingsolver's animal, vegetable, miracle; novella carpenter's farm city; and michael pollan's the omnivore's dilemmaPhoto by David Silver / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

It's been fascinating to watch the reactions to our recent rebroadcast of the Barbara Kingsolver. Last year we had a wildly positive response. This year, more than a few listeners experienced Kingsolver's account of her experiment in a year of eating what she could grow herself — and my interview of her — to be elitist at worst or impractical at best.

Full confession here: I was more surprised by last year's response, because I also felt that the odyssey Kingsolver undertook necessitated all kinds of basics that elude me and most of the human beings I know — a stay at home job where you set your own hours, a wildly cooperative teenage daughter, a farm you just happened to inherit — and that's not to mention the southern climate. Still, I was compelled by her insistence that we can't leave these problems to the next generation, and by her descriptions of the delights of homegrown food.

I did plant a garden last summer of the first time in my life, and loved it. I've made more of an effort ever since to buy food that has not traveled thousands of miles to get to me. But this year I haven't managed the garden. I've become more acutely aware of how hard — if not impossible — it would be to live on what I could grow year round in Minnesota or even buy at coops or farmers' markets. And I've learned about some of the ironies of this issue of food globally. For example, that New Zealand is producing such ecologically friendly food that, on balance, the kiwi fruit they produce might be an ethical choice for me to purchase. And on and on.

So here's my question to you, to all of us: Is sustainability sustainable? Part of the challenge, it seems to me, is to be focused and mindful and accept the limits of what each of us can humanly do in the circumstances in which we live right now, and accept that in ourselves and others. Are we suffering from too little practical guidance on how the routines of our imperfect, already complicated daily lives can truly affect the environment? Or are we facing a debilitatingly guilt-inducing overload of information?

I'd like to hear others' ruminations on this. What happened to the listening public's excitement about eating locally between last year and this? Many of you asked if Barbara Kingsolver herself is still living this way. If she's not, does that negate the whole effort? How can we stop sustainability fatigue from setting in?

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I find the idea that Kingsolver's project was elitist to be quite an odd one. Yes, she did have access to more land than most of us have, but consider to what unproductive use most suburban homeowners put the land that they do have. Many communities have garden plots that are open to all, and in my limited experience in the inner city, there's a fair number of empty lots that could be put to work. Also, CSAs allow us to borrow, in effect, space from rural areas to urban centers.

I hear what you're saying about Minnesota winters. I live in central Illinois and we have a fairly harsh winter here as well. But there's an old technology that allows us to borrow time from the summer in the winter - canning! Remember what Kingsolver said about this labor, that she resisted it when she was young as an embodiment of women's oppression, but came back to it later as joyous work, done entirely on her own terms and acting as a force that helped the center to hold in her family.

I know that time has become the limiting factor in our society, that it seems as if we can't squeeze any more time out of our days between working, commuting, raising children, taking care of the home, being involved in the community (if we're lucky) and all the other little hassles of life. But that's a question of priorities and of context. Perhaps moving some of our energy from the money economy to the home economy would yield great benefits. What if some men started staying home and raising children? That would help to break the stigma of "woman's work". What if more of us became teachers? The school calendar still follows the seasons.

I've been reading a lot about this lately, and from Michael Pollan's writings on the state of our industrial food system to Eric Schlosser and Morgan Spurlock's work on the unhealthiness of our American diet as presently constituted to Kingsolver's experiment in self-sufficiency to Wendell Berry's meditations on the erosion of rural America (literally and figuratively), I've come inescapably to the conclusion that our food system must return to the decentralized production of the pre-WWII era. The industrial system will break down when petroleum becomes too scarce. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. So it's a question of how we adapt - with forethought and prudence, preserving the health of the land and recreating local distribution systems while we still have plenty, or scurrying around like chickens with our heads cut off when the good times end.

Now I'm going to go get dinner from Subway. Oh well. :)

As her assistant told me, Barbara Kingsolver is still living on her family farm in Northern Virginia.

I both read Barbara Kingsolver's book and listened to the show. I didn't hear that she was expecting anyone else to adapt her lifestyle. I think she is asking us to think and consider about our relationship to what we eat and to the earth. I'm sure we haven't found all the "right" answers to sustainability. There is so much more exploring and wondering and creating to do. What we know is how we've been doing it is not helpful, and so then we can ask, what is our next step? Possibly it will be small steps for awhile as we find our way. Ms. Kingsolver and her family have presented one possible picture with pieces anybody can pull out and adapt for their own use.

Ms Tippett, I agree with your assessment that Ms. Kingsolver's lifestyle is simply not achievable by most of the world. We are all gifted with specific talents and abilities. It is one of the miracles of our society that we are able to each specialize in jobs that maximize those talents and abilities, and specifically that we are not all forced to try and feed ourselves directly. It is this specialization that has removed uncountable amounts of human suffering.

That Ms Kingsolver gets joy out of her lifestyle is sufficient for her to live in it. But if it were to be imposed on the entire world, we would reintroduce all of the human suffering that specialization had removed.

I would like to recommend a podcast that specifically talks about the values that come from division of labor and specialization:

There are many other podcasts from that source that are informative to this topic.

I was fascinated by the episode of Speaking of Faith on July 6th looking at the ethics of eating.

After listening to the first half of the show, my mind began to extend the logic of such ethical eating choices to the wider world.

So my big question of "ethical choice" is how can I do so while considering others? Not just those who reside in my local area. Not just those who have available to them the sort of land that Barbara Kingsolver moved to in southwest Virginia. The ethical question for me morphed to “What about the others? "

The question I can still not get out of my head is can her suggested method, a large extension of the locavore ethic, work for the 6.7 billion folks in the world today?

I can see how it might work for many of us in the developed world who have the affluent means to do the sort of thing that Barbara Kingsolver did with her family.

Recall that such local methods of food production were, of course, the only means available to the vast majority of the world in, say, 1800. At that time, a significant number of thinkers in Europe calculated that the world was reaching its productive limit and would soon run out of food ( population was a bit short of one billion.)

Ms. Kingsolver asks about the effects of our consumption, a good question. And she is concerned about the contribution of our consumption on global climate change, a worthwhile concern.

But I ask a different question. What will happen to the other five billion people who are alive today if those of us with the affluence to pull it off return to local production that is so much less productive than the world food production "system" that is in existence today? If food productivity drops, much less food will be available to feed the planet. The “other” five billion persons will not be able to continue to sustain life using the local food ethic and the productive capabilities of 200 years ago. The vast exchange network that exists today, it would appear, has facilitated a much larger world population than would be possible with a locavore ethic.

Take just one example. The 28 million persons in Saudi Arabia depend on worldwide exchange of goods, and free trade of food, in order to sustain themselves.

Ms. Kingsolver asks: "Do you think you can keep doing this without paying some kind of price?"

What about the price of the potential demise of large numbers of people? Will those of us in the West who are rich enough to pull off a local food ethic be interested in "the price" of hunger and gradual starvation of large swathes of the existing world as we pursue our locavore food ethic? And if we are not, how is that, to use Kingsolver's words, "cruelty free"?

Kirk Dameron

This is the only sensible comment here! The issues you point out are exactly what is wrong with the "sustainability" trend, the organic trend, etc. The only ones that can really do it and "live better" are those who are rich or those who live in an environmentally rich country. I love my large farm garden, I love preserving as much food as I can, I take good care of our cows (and that includes vaccines and *shuddergasp* antibiotics when necessary) and I love heirloom tomatoes for their delicious flavor and interesting appearance. But I am not kidding myself into thinking that everyone in the world can live the way I can. The world cannot return to everyone working the land...there are just too many of us now, and too little land to feed everyone the way these types of people suggest.
I think people like Dan Barber are super pretentious and don't really think about the repercussions for the rest of the world.

True sustainability would require a complete cultural shift. A lot of what we talk about these days is sadly elitist -- but only because of our current cultural set up. There was a time when this is just how people existed.

But -- the truth is that people have for centuries imported good unavailable where they lived. The key is get what you can locally and consider what you can actually live without.

That's really the key to me. Our current culture doesn't accept limitations. Boundaries are bad. But sometimes containers just help us to realize what we have. So while I may be technically able to get raspberries in December that are flown in from South America (and are now flavorless), do I really want to eat them. Can I accept that this is something that I only get to have during a few months of the summer? For me the answer is a big yes.

I can't get locally grown Vanilla beans under any circumstance, so I chose to purchase imported goods. Kiwis? Not really a native fruit -- nor is it an every day purchase.

Food should be fun. Eating should be fun. It's something we need to do to exist and it's a wonderful gift that this necessity is fun!

For more than 3 years I have worked for an organic farmer at various markets in Maryland. Two of those years I worked in Baltimore. A fair number of women who were in the food stamps program (WIC) would buy their greens from us. These women who would readily sign over their coupons even when there were plenty of other less expensive vegetable options for them at the market; they knew quality when they saw it. Because WIC coupons can only be spent in $3 increments without change refunded, the owner of the farm would price certain greens at $1.50 a piece so they could buy a couple of bunches of whatever they preferred.

I do my part, especially when it comes to public transportation and eating locally. And, I would not say it’s an excitement I get from doing this, its bare-bones facts; eating locally tastes better and it helps support those nearby. I do, however, think we won’t achieve a good balance in taking care of our environment until those with lots give some to those who have little.

Is sustainability sustainable ? Yes, it is, on a miniature basis. So ... okay, I live in South Florida, and I can garden to my heart's content from October through March - but then again, I cannot during the oppressively hot summer months. But yes, I can grow the best tasting tomatoes which put the local supermarket ones to shame, and freeze the sauce I make. Is it enough, as in the case of Ms. Kingsolver, to feed my family for several months - well, no.

BUT: it is the little drops that wear down the stone (or something like that), and if we all make just a few changes in our lifestyles, then, yes, sustainability becomes sustainable.

Here's the rub: It took nearly 8 years of my life to make it through graduate school and become a college teacher - will I stay home and can instead of teaching classes ? Heck, no ! I remember my grandmother in Germany growing, harvesting, canning (with all of her 12 grandchildren's help, by the way !) during the summer. Yes, her basement looked awesome, and the fruit over ice cream for Christmas cannot be replicated. BUT: that is all she was doing - and I cannot, and will not, give up my academic job to do this.

Then again - Kingsolver's book was an absolute, total delight. I have read it four times by now, and still underline things that I previously overlooked for underlining. It is great fun to listen to her turkey girl story, and many, many things I can identify with, feel, laugh at, etc., etc.

What I am doing, though, is that I have joined my college's green committee, that I recycle religiously, that I have become more of a minimalist in my life. No more plastic bags - brown bags are cheaper, and do just fine.

So it is in the little things that we can make a difference.

HOWEVER - I also have to say that to try to get my 16-year old daughter interested in ANYTHING Ms. Kingsolver has to say would be like trying to teach our new puppy Terrier to obey. And yes, it is a lot easier if you have access to land, and a ready-made farm, and (I assume) the necessary income to do as she did. I do not have this kind of material cushion, nor the luxury to spend as many hours in my small raised garden plot as I would like to.

Love her book, nonetheless

As an engineer, I've always had a problem with the concept of environmental sustainability. To my mind, sustainability is analogous to perpetual motion - a thermodynamic impossibility. The concept "environmentally friendliness" is equally misguided. I prefer the term environmentally astute.

Is sustainability sustainable? We will find out. The answer to that question will dictate how our children, grandchildren, and subsequent generations live.

I don't believe that Barbara Kingsolver is advocating that every American becomes a farmer; instead, she is pointing out how far from our food we have traveled. A hundred years ago, people were eating local, sustainable, seasonal, fresh food....and now we (as a nation) largely eat packaged, processed, anything-but-local food, and we don't even remember what real food tastes like. I think that Kingsolver is trying to remind us of these facts, and point out one alternative. Her case is relatively extreme - nobody will pay me to write about my garden! - but that doesn't mean that it is without merits. She did, after all, grow all of this on a mere 3000 sq. feet of land (or something like that), according to her calculations.

I think that what Kingsolver does, and effectively at that, is inspire excitement to do something differently. As a result of her book, and of my own interest in the subject, I planted my own garden this year for the first time ever. I'm now eating garden lettuce, radishes, and sugar snap peas in abundance, and my tomato crop brings a smile to my face whenever I see it.

I learned through my gardening what some foods are supposed to taste like. Did you know that a fresh strawberry dribbles juice when you bite into it? I'd forgotten. I was used to it being firm...not delectably juicy.

But gardening is only the tip of the iceberg. Kingsolver demands a paradigm shift, not that we all become gardeners. She is telling us to question our food sources, to question our purchases, to question what our impact on the environment is. She gives reasonable advice that anyone can follow: support farmer's markets, for example. And she has good rationale for doing so, as well.

I'm refusing plastic bags. I'm having "no drive" days. I'm line drying sometimes. I've got a little garden. I'm using the library more. I know that these steps don't fix the earth's problems, but I am convinced that they help. Baby steps are better than no steps.

I actually find those arguments based on taste to be some of the weakest and least compelling. I agree with Kingsolver that in general, produce from the farmers' market or from my garden does taste better, but in the balance it's not nearly enough of a difference to make it worth the effort, or especially, worth the self-righteous indignation that she spends on dissing bad tomatoes.

Your example of the strawberries also seems germane here. I'm a big enough klutz as it is and have enough trouble keeping my clothes clean: most of the time I'd rather, in fact, not have to worry about dribbling juice on my shirt when I'm eating strawberries. Similarly, my kids snack on "baby carrots," another target of Kingsolver's scorn. Surely that's better than their snacking on Doritos?

I remember when I got used to drinking skim milk. I hated it for a couple of days, it "didn't taste right," but now I'm so used to it that it's whole milk that doesn't taste right. Taste preference is somewhat malleable and rather than embracing one's inner picky eater in the name of sustainability, I think there's a lot more to be said for getting over oneself and getting used to eating foods that one doesn't necessarily think one likes.

ravena, you mentioned you don't eat for pleasure, merely to sustain. there's also an argument that best tasting food, contains the best concentration of nutrients. im sure you can appreciate it from that standpoint, no?

I had the experience of simultaneously enjoying the book and feeling annoyed by it. I have had a small vegetable garden in my backyard over the years and her book motivated me to expand it by adding asparagus (but now I have to wait 3 years to pick and eat the asparagus I planted! That's okay, I have time). I've done other things, too, like helping with publicity at our local farmers' market and helping implement a few weeks of a sustainability curriculum in the Religious Education program of our church. And I learned a lot from the book--I learned what "heirloom" varieties are, and the concept of the "vegetannual" was great. Like Kingsolver, I am a PhD biologist, and I enjoyed that aspect of the book.

But I still don't cook much, and I cook almost nothing from scratch, ever, because I still hate to cook. Nothing I read in her book changed that; if anything, her descriptions of canning and cooking and the recipes and all that just made me more thankful than ever that I live in an area with a good Trader Joe's nearby. And nothing she wrote about raising your own animals made it sound appealing to actually do, either (as opposed to read about, which was relatively interesting, but mostly because you could put the book down and stop reading if it got too gross.)

I think that "knowing where your food comes from" has the potential to be a double-edged sword. I would never eat meat again if I had to raise and slaughter my own animals. That may not be a bad thing in and of itself, but I've also struggled with not getting enough protein when I didn't eat meat, and have found a strict vegetarian diet to be almost impossible to follow . My kids too are quite thin and just don't eat much in general. They're healthy, but off the bottom end of the BMI scale rather than the top. I find that adding more baggage to my family's food choices makes our lives just too much about procuring, preparing, and eating food, which, to us, is, well . . . boring. We generally eat for fuel, in order to sustain life so that we can do other things that interest us more. We don't eat for comfort, or for love, or as a substitute for something else that might be lacking in our family life. Our family life is rich--just not so much around a dinner table.

In the end I decided that Barbara Kingsolver and I probably wouldn't be friends or even necessarily get along if we ever met, but that doesn't matter. She wouldn't invite me to her dinner parties, and I'd be just as happy, maybe even relieved, not to have to go.

One more issue that I didn't think receives enough treatment by Kingsolver or elsewhere is the possibility of making certified "locally canned" or "locally frozen" food commercially available in the grocery stores on a wider scale. In cold climates in February and March, the farmers' markets are all closed, there's a foot of snow on the ground, but you're still trying to eat healthily and locally. What then?

Kingsolver had one chapter in the book where she wrote about a sticker that local farmers could put on their produce. Shoppers in the grocery store could look for the sticker and it would help inform their food choices. It seems to me that such a program could be expanded to include canned and frozen vegetables, if not other foods. Shoppers who don't or can't raise their own animals and can their own vegetables (which I think constitute the majority of shoppers) could then still more easily shop locally, especially in the (significant) part of the year when farmers' markets are closed. Maybe some of the food (jolly green) giants could even help with this, and open local canning and processing centers. Or small, local processing companies could open up and buy local produce and can/freeze it on a medium scale and distribute it to local stores. There could even be a role for government in facilitating these kinds of local processing centers through tax breaks (local food "enterprise zones"?)

Anyway, regardless of the specifics, to me that seems like a much more viable model than expecting everyone to do their own canning, especially in cllimates with short growing seasons, such as the one I live in.

But I found that chapter to be one of the most annoying in her book. It presented the idea of the "locally grown" sticker as very impractical and seemed to dwell unnecessarily and negatively on all the complications and difficulties for the farmers in adhering to the plan, and then to top it all off, the chapter ended with a sarcastic dig at "happy grocery store music." It was that chapter's snide, negative tone, more than any other part of the book, that made me think Kingsolver was more interested in pushing a personal agenda than really helping the situation.

Interesting program, and interesting comments. We certainly cannot all feed ourselves from our own gardens; I have a patio on my small condo with tomato plants. I could consider moving to a larger property with a house and land, but I console myself with the smaller carbon footprint I make here. I thought that there was another point that could have been mentioned. During the Spinach scare a couple of years ago (preceding the recent Tomato scare) it was pointed out that all of the people who got sick from the California spinach lived in states where spinach could easily grow. By relying on factory farms in centralized locations we put our health and our environment at greater risk. And yet I see local farmland in outer suburbs being turned into townhouses and golf courses every day.
I think we turn to individual efforts such as the one the Kingsolver family undertook, because we aren't able as a community to make sustainable decisions in our zoning policies. It is hard for local governments to make decisions in the best interest of their constituents if those decisions result in fewer taxes and reduced services. Just as it is hard for individual farmland owners to turn down millions of dollars from developers.

Sustainability will never overtake self-interest as a human motivation.

I work in sustainability communications and have recently been told by a client that employees were manifesting signs of green fatigue. Wanting to research this, I have just fallen upon your blog and found it very interesting.

My perception as a communications professional working in sustainable development is that green fatigue is entirely anchored in perception and not reality. The regular person's life hasn't really changed in recent years. What is new, however, is the guilt factor many are starting to feel because the sustainability message is out there in a big way and the trivial changes seem too trivial to bother with and the big changes seem too big to undertake. Hence increasing feelings of powerlessness in the face of growing scrutiny.

What my clients' employees need are top ten instructions of what to do on a daily basis at work, what impact those actions will have and regular updates on how the organization is doing. Add simple training on how to quickly determine the environmental impact of their programs and operations to help consider solutions and you have the beginnings of an anti-green fatigue recipe. Maybe :)

I found the interview with Kingslover to be irritating in that she sounded so certain she was "right", and yet I find the whole discussion both compellingly important, while also confusing.  Is all trade across regions problematic because of fossil fuels?  Or is only some of it problematic?  Are we ignoring the economic needs of developing regions when we focus on only consuming from our own, already rich regions?  Trade is hardly new, and yet many of the ethical food conversations seem to have the idea that food trade across regions is a new development.  What about the silk road?  What about the old salt trades?  Old fashioned economic theories focus on how trade can empower people to make the most of their own resources, by focusing on producing what they do best, and selling their excess to others, and then using the profits to diversify their resource base.  While this has its flaws, I am not sure that simply focusing on one's own region is necessarily the most ethical route to take.  I found your interview with Dan Barber to be more nuanced and thoughtful, but once again I do not find it necessarily obvious how I should make my own choices in the most ethical manner.  Most of all, I appreciated his focus on the reality that when one prepares their own food, one usually shifts toward more ethical consumption.  Please do keep these sorts of shows coming, because hearing these thoughtful folks reflect on their own choices is the best way for each of us to sort things out for ourselves.

Thanks for the comments, Rev Emily. There were many others who made similar objections to Ms. Kingsolver, which are valid points, but your challenging the basic assumption that eating locally is not the "most ethical route" is something I'd like to hear more about.

I love, love Barbara Kingsolver...I had no idea she had another book! Yea!!!!!Since I have found out about my Celiac...I have bemcoe much more interested in food production, ect. I am probably going overboard right now, but I suppose you have to swing hard before you get to a happy medium. I had forgotten that she is a foodie freak too. Thanks!!

You can absolutely make a commitment. It is this half hearted, easily de-railed type of mentality that enables large corporations such as Nestle, McDonald, Monsanto, etc to wear down 99.9% of the general population. It is a challenge to eat healthy - it is an even larger challenge to eat locally grown- especially as you indicate if you live in an area where the growing season is short. However, that does not absolve us from attempting to live "sustainably". What do you think your ancestors did in Minnesota? I am attempting at every corner to make these resolutions stick- I learn more every week about how I can do it.

Sustainability as a lifestyle is just that....a lifestyle. We probably cant merely add on "sustainability" to otherwise too full lives. I think that one impoertant aspect of sustainability is its systemic nature. Foe example, food sustainability requires a sustainable approach to time and energy and other requirements in life. It all connects and all must connect at some point: community, jobs, attitudes toward material possessions, food, economy, property, family...... All things working together is almost the definition of sustainability.

I'm a big advocate for a holistic and sustainable lifestyle. I have a magazine dedicated to it- A Green Beauty magazine. So this topic is very interesting to me: Whether we can truly live sustainably? But the truth is that as society has evolved and the industrial revolution set in we became used to a the bounty of food and goods that traveled from thousands of miles away. I think we all bathed in the magic of convenience and luxury, and now we are becoming aware of the down side to this lavish way of life. Going back to ploughing land or the hunter gathered lifestyle is not attractive to us, its time consuming, back breaking and hard work considering that we are always looking for ways to make life easier and less stressful. But having your own vegetable patch and treating the soil in your back yard with love and care makes a huge difference on many levels.

Firstly the nourishment that goes into the soil in your garden is absorbed by the vegetables you plant, which in turn goes into your blood stream, and the blood stream of your children, so you are not only taking control of your health, and future generations, but that of the planet also. I truly believe that what we need is balance and intelligence to guide us to a healthier way to thrive.

Eating seasonally helps our digestive system as well as farmers who make their living from the seasons harvest. You may not be able to have your own garden but thats why we have farmers, and local farmers, who are not making a huge amount of income, can provide us with sustenance in doing what they love to do. Its a collaboration and community that enables us to live a more sustainable lifestyle, doing it on your own is a difficult path to take.

Most of us search for purpose in our lives and in many cases people find it, like yourself Krista. The passion that goes along with a purposeful life has little time to pursue yet another venture, like a garden. But a garden can also be the place that offers quiet reflection, alone time, meditation, and a tactile bonding with nature. These things are very important to our mental and physical health.

I think we all have the inherent intelligence to work on a sophisticated and balanced lifestyle that will become as sustainable as we can possibly make it for now. If not, the whole planet and our existence will be compromised, global warming was created by humans and we need to own it and stand accountable, so my advise is do what you can, when you can and stay focused, it can be incredibly rewarding.

Just a quick ending note: I started composting recently by refrigerating my vegetable waste and taking it to the green market each week, I can't tell you how great that makes me feel. I had no idea the guilt I was carrying by throwing away rotting food in plastic bags that took years to decompose in a landfill. Its silly that such a small thing has such a deep effect, but I smile each time I through scraps in the compost section in my fridge. Amazing !!! Thanks for reading.