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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.
 
 
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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, theNew 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.

There are, I think, other explanations for the power of the sustainable food movement. For backyard gardeners and the volunteers I've worked with at Alemany Farm, a big attractant is enjoying the reward of work well done. Compared to the often-abstract tasks of our information and service economy, growing some of your own food provides a tangible sense of accomplishment. The work is visceral, the spoils edible. "The work that people do -- it changes the farm from week to week," Heather Davis, a regular Alemany Farm volunteer, has said to me. "You can really see the effect, you can see the harvest."

A sense of community spirit also acts as a lure. According to one study, on average a farmers' market shopper engages in 10 times as many conversations as a shopper at a supermarket. Suddenly, the weekly grocery trip goes from being a chore to an exercise in relationship-building; in shopping, you get to hang out with your friends. A similar community vibe animates the enthusiasm of the young people flocking to the crop mobs. As another Alemany Farm volunteer, Sally Smyth, put it to me: "I like that I am meeting people at the farm that I don't meet in other aspects of my life. ...There is a shared common ground in terms of doing work and being useful."

It feels good to be part of a shared task. It feels good. Therein lies the central reason for sustainable food's appeal. A trend has transcended into a movement because it involves a clear improvement in quality of life. A home-cooked meal made from local, organic ingredients is simply better than fast-food take-out. It's also a clear benefit to air quality, water quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions, soil health and human health. It is, in the words of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, "a delicious revolution."

If the larger environmental movement wants to reach more people and fulfill its political aspirations, it needs to internalize some of this mindset. For too long, environmentalists have been viewed as self-righteous killjoys demanding that everyone overhaul their wasteful habits. In a country where the mere mention of sacrifice is a kind of political third rail, this is hardly an image destined for success. To reverse that stereotype, greens should focus on convincing people that transitioning to a sustainable economy will make their daily lives better. Call it eco-hedonism. It's time for the pleasure principle to become one of the organizing principles of environmental advocacy.

Because it's such an intimate part of our existence, food is the natural starting point. But the pleasure principle can easily be translated into other environmental priorities. Transportation and urban planning is a good example. The average American spends 34 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, and in some cities such as Los Angeles and Washington, the number is as high as 70 hours a year. Not only is this a waste of gas and human productivity, it's also a major contributor to a person's stress; local traffic congestion is a significant factor in how people rate the quality of life in their community.

Building (or, as the case may be, rebuilding) our mass transit networks and discouraging sprawling housing development can also be promoted through the pleasure principle. Yes, this would meet environmentalists' goals of reducing petroleum use and air pollution. But to sell it to the public, greens are better off highlighting the quality of life improvements of walkable communities that foster community. The virtues of such a livability agenda are already obvious to many people, regardless of political affiliation. In the last election, voters approved more than three quarters of ballot measures involving mass transit -- including in deep-red states like Georgia and South Carolina. Even in crazy-conservative Phoenix, the new light rail system has been a huge hit, far exceeding ridership expectations.

Expanding the green spaces available for outdoor recreation is another avenue for using the pleasure principle to advance environmental priorities. As with food, it's already working. In mid-February, President Obama launched "America's Great Outdoors initiative," a plan to double federal spending on conservation efforts and the creation of new urban parks. When it unveiled the plan, the White House was careful to put as much attention on the recreation part of the agenda as on its conservation elements. This dovetails nicely with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, even as it meets up with the grassroots efforts of the Children & Nature Network, a coalition of parents and educators dedicated to getting kids outdoors. While the new federal initiative meets green's longstanding agenda of habitat conservation and wilderness preservation, it does so through a mainstream appeal that families and communities are healthier -- will feel better -- if they have room to be outside. The "environment," in these terms, becomes a playground.

The pleasure principle can even be extended to the effort to build a renewable energy system. The asthma and lung disease caused by coal-fired power plants certainly don't feel good to anyone. There's also an aesthetic case to be made for new clean energy infrastructure. A ridgeline of windmills is less intrusive to the landscape than a ridge that's been blown clean off to get at the coal underneath; rooftop solar is preferable to a natural gas well in your backyard. Once again, the transition to a green economy can be shown as an improvement in our day-to-day lives.

Of course, there are some risks to making the pleasure principle a central pillar of environmentalism. A livability agenda could all too easily devolve into mere lifestyle liberalism. Already there are complaints that the embrace of cloth shopping bags, hybrid cars and organic food has become a replacement for real political action. And eco-hedonism would be especially vulnerable to corporate greenwashing, which loves nothing more than to corrupt collective action by turning it into the individual coping mechanism of retail therapy.

There's also the danger -- and this can't be overstated -- that a livability agenda could come across as elitist, a charge already leveled against Waters' "delicious revolution." Aesthetes, after all, are unlikely to lead a mass movement, and ideas about what's attractive or desirable are subject to debate. No doubt some people like the look -- the power and the force -- of a coal-burning power plant, or would prefer to be trapped in their cars alone rather than sitting next to strangers on a train. If some people think small is beautiful, others think it's just puny.

That truth doesn't diminish the potential of a livability agenda -- it just makes it trickier to fulfill. If ideas about what feels "good" are subjective, well, so are values. By refocusing on the quality of life benefits of a green transition, environmentalists at least have a chance to tap into one uncontestable American value: the pursuit of happiness. It should be obvious enough by now that asking Americans to give up their comfort is something of a non-starter. Rather than keep swimming against the tide of American culture, maybe greens should go with the flow and make a full-throated case that happiness is best pursued by, yes, growing some of our own food, riding instead of driving, hiking instead of watching TV. An embrace of eco-hedonism is about showing that building an ecologically sustainable world doesn't have to be work. Rather, it's a form of play.

My friend and co-author Kevin Danaher has a great metaphor to explain what it's going to take to attract the number of people needed to build the green economy. The dominant system of resource extraction and human exploitation -- the gray economy -- is like the Titanic after hitting the iceberg. Rather than marching around the deck with a placard reading, "This boat sucks," we need to construct a life raft. A solar-powered, wind-powered life raft with an organic food buffet and awesome gardens for hanging out. If we can do that, we won't have to waste our breath arguing about the metrics of the Titanic. People will eagerly jump to the green economy boat: Not only will it be a lifesaver, it will look like a much better time.

Perhaps, then, the new motto for the environmental movement should be: "If it feels good, do it ... for the planet."

Jason Mark is a co-manager at San Francisco's Alemany Farm and the editor of the quarterly environmental magazine, Earth Island Journal. He is also a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.
 
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