I recently decided to start listening to audiobooks. They're nice when traveling, and after listenting to Leo Laporte talk about Audible for months, I decided to give it a shot. Not with Audible though, as a Linux user, Audible isn't interested in my business. Luckily, eMusic has an Audiobooks section, which is 100% DRM Free.
As one of my first books, I grabbed Max Brooks' World War Z, which is billed as "An Oral History of the Zombie War." It's amusing, though not really funny, considering that it's a book about a fictional apocalyptic war, and the voice acting is fantastic, consisting of voices like Alan Alda and Mark Hamill.
So, why on Earth and I talking about a book about a fictional Zombie War on a day where I normally talk about Sustainability?
It has to do with the chapter where Brooks "interviews" Arthur Sinclair, voiced by Alan Alda. Sinclair was appointed by the President to head an organization meant to reorganize America. The Zombie War begins in a time exactly like today, where most people don't know their neighbors, don't know how to do anything outside of their comfortable little lives, where most people's skills are barely conducive to survival.
He tells stories about Hollywood Marketing Executives, who need to be retrained to be janitors or the like, usually by the very people who used to work for them. The problems faced in the beginnings of the Zombie War are exactly what I know would be faced in the event of infrastructure collapse. Transportation becomes difficult and dangerous, food becomes scarce, and people can't maintain what they have.
In short, with thousands dying, and the infrastructure falling apart, our current way of life can't work. We can't consume uncontrollably. We can't get our goods from China or South America. We can't go on living in our own little silos, trying to protect ourselves from everyone around us.
Sinclair describes communities coming together. He describes people who had high-powered management jobs before the War, pointing at simple goods; clothes and shoes, that their neighbors are wearing and beaming with pride that they had made those. In short, their lives had become built around sustainable, local ideals.
For them, it was a matter of necessity. The old way of life simply wasn't possible. For us, it's a choice. We can choose to buy local. We can choose to support what we feel is sustainable. We have the luxury to do for ourselves, produce instead of only consume.
But what really constitutes sustainable? There are a lot of arguments regarding what that means from a agricultural standpoint, regarding the strains of foods used, the methods of production and harvest, and the types of resources consumed in food production. However, I think that those particular arguments generally miss the point.
There are many who believe that what we consider to be "organic" agriculture, can't possibly feed the entire world. Given the ever growing population, I suspect that's true. But what I view as the primary problem with the traditional definition of organic, is the blanket fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food.
I'm not arguing in favor of GMOs per se, but careful modification of plant genomes can successfully increase crop yields significantly, and generally at very low risk to other indigenous crops. The question here, so far, is sustainability. Quite a few GMO and Hybrid crops are wholly unviable, unable to reproduce. Depending on your point of view, this is either horrible, or fantastic. Fantastic, in that it's highly unlikely the GMO crop will infect indigenous species, horrible in that the crop seeds need to be purchased yearly.
However, what I believe is far simpler. With current methods of food production and land use, where we have vast tracts of lands growing grass for purely cosmetic purposes, we'll never be able to feed everyone. In the US, particularly in the western US, a quarter acre lot is common, and yet that land is largely unutilized in this day and age. In World War I and World War II, due to food rationing, people began planting "Victory Gardens" to supplement the rations, taking advantage of those large yards, vacant lots, or whatever else they can find. As Apartment Dwellers, Catherine and I don't have the benefit of a yard, but we've joined a local garden where we have a 400 square foot plot that we plant on. Last year we didn't do as much maintenance as we needed to, which combined with strange weather led to a lower yield than we might otherwise have faced, but we were able to gross quite a bit of food from the garden. With proper maintenance of the garden, storage of the yield, and so on, I bet that we could easily have met our vegetable needs off that plot for the two of us.
And the Victory Garden idea is making a comeback. This year, the Victory Garden Drive began at FoodShed Planet. I found about it via Ethicurean, as they've been talking about it for months. We started gardening solely because my wife loves to garden, but the long-term social implications of gardening are important. It's about being a little more self-reliant. It's about being a little more responsible regarding resource use. Victory Gardens were before an issue of necessity. As we face what many view as the biggest resource crisis, as well as climate crisis, ever seen by mankind, gardening is one excellent method to use land more efficiently, reduce transportation overhead for our food, and get us outdoors and busy.
Want to go a step further, and butcher (or even raise) your own meat? Michael Ruhlman spent a recent weekend butchering a 180 pound (hanging weight) pig. For Christmas, my mother-in-law is buying us a chest freezer, and one of the first things we'll likely do is go buy a quarter of a cow (since we're not buying the whole cow, it'll most likely come dressed, which is good, because I don't have room to process that much beef), but once we have some property to work from, we'll likely be raising our own chickens, rabbits, and perhaps eventually larger livestock (pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, etc.). All of this depends, of course, on the space to do so, and luckily the smaller livestock require very little of that. But the point is to use the land more effectively. Will we have a yard? Almost certainly, but it need not consume the entirely of the lot.
The world needs to change. Resource consumption is high, re-usability is generally low. The consumer economy we've built is the ultimate example of building a house on a poor foundation, which is why so many Industries are starting to struggle right now. And for those people who complain about a poor distribution of wealth, it is exactly this consumer culture which has led to this. Consumer cultures create an illusion of a healthy economy, because sales are strong, however, while sales are strong, the majority of people in a Consumer Culture are unable to survive without working, which is the real reason for the impending problems identified regarding the baby boomers retiring. The Bonfire of the Brands project created the following shortfilm to describe this culture.
If you think that was horrifying, you're right. But most people do precisely these things. We, as a people, must become more self-sufficient, both by doing things for ourselves, as well as doing things for each other. The global economy is important, but we must find a way to support that global economy in a more sustainable way. My only hope, is that it won't take a large-scale global catastrophe to bring about that change.
Sometimes it's hard to hope.