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The 100-Mile Diet

I suppose you could say that I'm going through a midlife crisis. That term isn't entirely accurate, since it evokes images of guys buying red sports cars or something. Besides, "crisis" is far too dramatic a word. Perhaps a better phrase might be "midlife adjustment" or "reassessment" or something. Whatever.

Three books have played important roles as catalysts in my thinking.
  • Jared Diamond's book Collapse got me thinking a bit more seriously about protecting the environment. I've long contributed to various environmental causes and have done my bit, such as recycling and replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescents. However, his book highlighted for me the importance of "sustainability" and of thinking more long-term. (Perhaps becoming a father also had a role in that.)
  • Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone (and, to a lesser extent, the followup book Better Together, written with Lewis Feldstein) got me thinking about the importance of personal relationships and of building strong communities, as well as the need to address local issues rather than just "big picture" national and international issues.
  • Lastly, Plenty by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon provided what I think is a small part of the solutions to the problems raised in CollapseBowling Alone.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

In Collapse, Jared Diamond examines several civilizations which rose, peaked, and then collapsed. He explores the causes of those collapse, with obvious parallels to today. The typical scenario is a civilization growing, reaching the peak of its power, then running out of some essential resource and collapsing, often quite suddenly.

Generally, a lack of "sustainability" is the key problem.

Suppose there are 10 million fish in a sea, and each year that number grows by 10% (i.e. 1 million fish). If you harvest 1 million fish each year (i.e. 10%), you'll never run out of fish. That's sustainability.

However, if you harvest 1.1 million fish each year, you'll eventually run out of fish, even though the population isn't noticeably smaller from year to year. It's an unsustainable rate. The population will slowly shrink, and eventually you'll have kids listening to their grandparents talk about how "there used to be so many more fish than there are today".

What really got me thinking about our situation is the explanation that, if the Third World were to achieve the living standards of the First World, the environmental impact would be the same as if the population of the world had increased by a factor of 12. In other words, imagine all of the resources required, the pollution produced, and the environmental damage caused by a population of 72 billion people. Obviously that's not something that would be feasible.

We are unlikely to convince the rest of the world to just accept their place in life, so the best alternative is to make the First World lifestyle sustainable.

Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documents the sharp decline in recent decades of a wide range of community participation. The decline includes involvement in formal activities, such as attendance at club meetings, volunteering, and voting, as well as informal activities, such as having friends over for dinner, or playing cards.

The term used for the value of social networks of friends and acquaintances is "social capital". Just like "physical capital" (stuff) and "human capital" (knowledge and skills), social capital is valuable.

Communities with high social capital have higher education levels, fewer teen pregnancies, less crime, more wealth, are healthier, live longer, and are happier with life. Conversely, communities with low social capital have more kids dropping out of school and skipping class, more teen pregnancies, more crime, more poverty, more health problems, shorter lifespans, and are less happy.

As a massive oversimplification, think of a high social capital community as being like a small town, where everyone knows their neighbors and helps them out, while a low social capital community is like a big city, where people might live somewhere for 20 years and not know anyone else on their block.

There are several causes of the steep decline in social capital in recent decades.
  • One cause is the two-income household. Once upon a time, women stayed at home all day, which meant they had time to meet the neighbors, join clubs, get involved in their child's school, prepare meals to entertain friends, etc. Not anymore.
  • Another cause is that we now tend to live in one community, work in a different community, and shop in yet another community. Before sprawl, we tended to live, work, and shop all in the same community, so we had much more of an interest in what happened there.
  • A big cause is electronic entertainment -- TV, video games, and the Internet. We spend many hours these days interacting with one of those 3 screens. Add them up, then imagine what you could do with those hours.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, is the passing from the scene of the so-called Greatest Generation. (Yes, it's an annoying term, but you know who I mean.) World War II had the effect of energizing lots of people to be involved in their communities. After the war, many people felt inspired to seek out some other Great Purpose to be a part of. As a result, large numbers of people joined clubs, volunteered, etc. In the decades since, there hasn't been a similar catalyst to propel large numbers of people to become involved.
There's much, much more to this book than I can summarize here. It's a book that I want to give to everyone I meet and say, "Read this! It will change your life!" (Maybe I'll go door to door like the Mormons or something, or start leaving copies in hotel rooms.)

Anyway, I feel pretty sure that the decline in social capital is a very big reason for the dissatisfaction that many people feel with "the world today".

After reading Bowling Alone, I was motivated to become more active in the local community. Previously, I had always focused more on national and international issues (in part because those are the ones you see on TV and read about in news magazines).

One bit that caught my interest was his description of "checkbook membership" -- in other words, "joining" some organization where your entire degree of involvement consists of writing a membership check every year. That definitely described my membership in numerous organizations. Activism has become professionalized. We no longer tell our politicians what we want; we pay professional activists to do that for us.

My interest in the environment led me to decide to join the local Sierra Club and to start attending meetings, rather than just sending money to the national organization as I had in the past.

Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally

Lastly, I read Plenty and found another way to combine my renewed interest in protecting the environment with my new interest in social capital.

The short version is this: Eat more locally grown food.

How does that help the environment? Well, the ingredients in the average American meal have traveled anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 miles or more, on average, by the time they get to your plate. We're buying hybrid cars, recycling, and replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescents, but then we're eating apples shipped from New Zealand!

I remember seeing an article on the Internet several months ago that pointed out that, if you walk 3 miles to the grocery store, the energy used to produce the food needed to replace the calories you burned in walking to the store is greater than the energy that would be used to drive your SUV to the store instead.

This was immediately misinterpreted by the Digg crowd as a defense of SUVs rather than as a way to highlight how much energy is used to grow, process, package, and ship our food.

In addition to obvious (and probably defensible) things like importing citrus from South America in the winter, there are truly weird examples of waste. For instance, the peak season for importing strawberries to California is the same time period as the peak season for harvesting strawberries in California. Rather than selling berries grown right next door, stores are selling berries that were grown thousands of miles away!

Even more bizarre, many foods are harvested locally, shipped hundreds or thousands of miles away for processing, then shipped back for final sale to the public. For example, crabs caught off the west coast are shipped 4,000 miles to China, where the meat is removed from the shells, then the crab meat is shipped 4,000 miles back to the west coast, for a total journey of 8,000 miles for a locally caught food.

The authors of Plenty decided to go an entire year eating only food that was grown within 100 miles of their home. They called it the 100-mile diet and they found that, contrary to expectations, they ate a much wider variety of foods than they had before. Out of the 30,000 species of edible plants, just 20 species supply 90% of the world's food. It's a very good book, and I highly recommend it to everyone. (This is another book that I'll be leaving in hotel rooms all over the country.)

I can't find the quote now to confirm my memory, but I seem to recall reading that a regional food system could be 17 times as efficient as the global food system we have now (but don't quote me on that).

So that's how eating local is better for the environment, but how is it good for social capital? Well, if you buy locally grown food, you're more likely to talk directly to the farmer who grew the crop, raised the chickens, or tended the bees. Even if you buy at a specialty grocery store that sells locally grown food, chances are it's a small, non-chain store, where you're more likely to establish a relationship with the employees of the store.

I'm not ready to commit to the 100-mile diet yet, but I am interested in trying to eat more locally grown food. The dead of winter is not the best time to start, because what you tend to eat during the winter are things that you harvested and canned earlier in the year. Plus, since we're renting this house, planting a garden this spring is pretty much out of the question. However, we can buy locally grown food at the farmer's market when it opens in May, as well as buying directly from local farmers once spring arrives. And we can look into growing some things in containers (tomatoes, herbs, etc).

The biggest challenge for me will be learning how to actually cook, as opposed to "cooking" aka "reheating precooked prepared foods". Before I can really do that, we'll need to work on clearing out the kitchen and getting it a bit more organized, so that cooking doesn't involve more time searching for utensils and counter space than it does actually preparing the food!

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