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Following the Pleasure Principle: How to Create a Sustainable Economy That Makes Daily Life Better

For too long, environmentalists have been viewed as self-righteous killjoys demanding that everyone overhaul their wasteful habits. It's time to change that.

While some people were taking advantage of the recent three-day weekend to hit the ski slopes or enjoy some time away from the demands of the classroom or the office, our volunteers were hard at work. On President's Day, our urban farm in San Francisco was packed with folks eager to get their hands dirty. And they did, in fact, get dirty.

Some people spent hours ankle-deep in mud, working on the native plant restoration in our stream bed and pond. Other volunteers were in the orchard, pushing heavy loads of manure up the hillside to fertilize our fruit trees. A few spent their time carefully weeding the medicinal herb garden. At the end of the afternoon we did a collective harvest -- just as we always do at the end of our community workdays at Alemany Farm -- and then split up a winter bounty of cabbages, beets, turnips, collards, kale and chard.

The excitement for all things having to do with sustainable agriculture is old news by now. In North Carolina, the New York Times reported last year, a phenomenon called "crop mobs" has sprouted up: willing workers converge on a farm and spend a day hammering out major projects; evidence, according to one organizer, of the momentum of the "young-farmer movement." The number of farmers' markets in the United States continues to grow, and now stands at 6,000, up 16 percent from a year ago. Micro farms have sprouted in the poorer sections of Detroit, North Philadelphia, Brooklyn and West Oakland as communities dig up ways to grow local jobs and good food. As I'm sure you've heard, even the White House has an organic vegetable garden.

In a recent online column, Time's environment correspondent, Brian Walsh, summed up the strength of the sustainable food movement: "What's amazing is how quickly the food movement has become a measurable force in American society. ... Even the Department of Agriculture -- usually a staunch ally of mainstream farming and the distributor each year of billions in often wasteful agricultural subsidies -- has gotten into the sustainability game with its 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' program, which connects consumers with local producers."

But if the contours of this budding sustainable food movement have been well charted, the roots (if you will) haven't been examined as closely. What, exactly, is spurring the trend? Why are so many people hungry to get closer to their food and meet their farmers? Why the fresh emphasis on food miles, production methods, animal welfare? Why are more people interested in starting their own gardens, or joining existing ones through volunteering? Or, as I've often wondered, what makes someone think shoveling horseshit is fun?

These questions aren't just an academic concern for foodies and farmers. If the sustainable food trend is, in fact, the most vibrant and appealing element of the larger environmental movement, then the answers have profound implications for the broader effort to create an ecologically sound society. The success of the sustainable food movement -- if it can be replicated and expanded -- opens a path to enlisting many more Americans in the effort for a green economy. Good food politics could be a key to open up other environmental changes. The trick is how to translate popularity into real policy achievements.

The most obvious explanation for the growth of the sustainable food movement is, well, the food. Simply put, it tastes good. Ripeness sizzles -- and it sells, offering a kind of gateway drug into the virtues of food produced with more natural methods. I've always thought the best recruiter for organic food is a locally grown tomato. Compared to an out-of-season, rock-hard, pale pink tomato, a tomato from your backyard or local farmers' market is so clearly superior in taste that it proves the lie of industrial agriculture. The abundance and convenience promised by conventional foods are shown to be a swindle. The difference in quality is so obvious that, having tasted real, whole foods, it's hard for people to go back to eating the ordinary.

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