Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hey, Chelsea Green, adjectives matter

Chelsea Green - in general one of my favorite sites - is running a campaign right now that is making me crazy. "Meatless in May." The premise being that meat production is responsible for huge greenhouse gas emissions and we should recognize that.

But when you dig a little deeper into the website, you find out that they're talking about something else. Here's what they say: "When one takes into account the chemicals, the grain, the fossil fuels, the medications, the shipping, the storage, the packaging, and the medical aftermath associated with eating a diet full of corn-fed, industrialized meats..."

In other words, the villain here isn't red meat, it's industrially produced red meat.

If I sound defensive here, it's because I am. I am, after all, a card-carrying member of the Park Slope Food Coop, home to an astonishing number of New York's vegetarians, vegans, raw vegans, and heaven only knows what else. (I once overheard a food coop shopper telling a friend about all the foods she had given up and complaining that she still didn't feel any better. It was a long, long list, and I felt like suggesting that maybe she should try eating....)

A few years back, the Coop decided, after a considerable battle, to start selling local, grass-fed, humanely raised meat. During the debate, I was astonished at how many of the anti-meat-selling contingent seemed to have drawn all their ammunition from the entirely valid arguments against industrially raised meat, and didn't even seem to have noticed that was not what the coop was proposing to sell.

If you believe that it is morally wrong to kill animals for food, then of course you won't eat meat - in May or any other month. But if you simply want to raise consciousness about the dreadful environmental effects of industrial meat production, why don't you at least point out that there are other kinds of meat available? From animals that spend their lives as nature intended, eating the grass they were created to eat, treated with love and respect? And that the people who raise them struggle against considerable odds, and need all the help they can get from environmentally conscious consumers?

If, instead of giving up meat in May, Chelsea Green's readers were to buy only locally raised, grass-fed meat, they'd not only be doing the environment a favor. They'd also be doing the local farm economy a favor, helping their communities become more self-sustaining, helping to preserve open land and a varied landscape...the benefits go on and on.

Not all meat is the same. Adjectives matter.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

New York's right hand, meet your left - or actually, please don't

My husband the beekeeper spent yesterday at Union Square with his bees (some of them, anyhow), promoting bees and beekeeping. He'd been invited by the New York City Parks Department, which was sponsoring the event, and at least while I was there, his table was the most popular of all. People really love to look at bees.

There's a serious irony to this invitation, though. Whether the Parks Department knew this and ignored it, or didn't even know, they were inviting a law-breaker to their event. Beekeeping is illegal in New York City.

When John first took up beekeeping, that fact made both of us very nervous. Early in his career, his bees swarmed, landing on a lamppost a block away. We could see them clearly out of our back windows; we could also see the police looking up at our house as bystanders pointed us out as the people with bees. We expected the cops to come knocking at our door any minute. But nothing happened. Nothing ever has happened, even though John has been actively and very publicly promoting beekeeping - and getting a lot of press coverage - for several years now. This has got to be the least taken-seriously law in the entire New York City legal code.

It's a pretty recent law, passed - as I understand it, (and I'm not entirely sure of my facts here, so this may be an urban legend) - under the anti-nuisance regime of Rudy Giuliani, whose recognition of the importance of bees to just about every plant in the city was, I would guess, limited if not entirely non-existent. But times have changed, and now just about everyone knows not only that we need bees, but that we're losing them. A while back, Haagen-Dazs launched a public-service campaign to help the bees, as a result of which John ended up with several thousand packets of wildflower seeds to give away and a Flip video camera to memorialize it all.

More usefully, from our perspective at least, Just Food, a marvelous organization devoted to making sure New Yorkers have as many opportunities as possible to get food grown as locally as possible - is spearheading a campaign to make beekeeping legal. (Just Food also helps people learn to keep chickens - but not roosters. They're illegal in New York too.)

As a result of all this political activity, John and his still-illegal hobby are getting even more attention. He and his bees will be at the Brooklyn Food Conference this Saturday, entertaining kids, informing adults, and giving everyone a chance to play Find the Queen (it ain't easy). The conference is food-star studded (Anna Lappe, Dan Barber, Nina Planck, Raj Patel) and free, so if you are in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Our big lie

Fortune's Carol Loomis just did a great interview with Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation (which, not being a car-owner, I only just now learned is the country's largest auto retailer) in which he says gas is too cheap, and we need a gas tax to push it up. But what struck me most wasn't hearing an auto salesman say we need more expensive gas - stunning as that is. It was this:

The biggest lie in American politics is the following combination: "I care passionately about America's dependence on imported oil and we must do something about it, and I'm passionate about global warming--and I strongly believe we should have cheap, affordable gasoline."

We see that lie all the time - it's just that the last bit of the sentence changes. Maybe it's "and I strongly believe that America needs cheap food," or "and I strongly believe that we can't afford not to use coal." If we're honest, we all have our own lies - anything from "and Fresh Direct is such a time-saver " to "and I really can't stand a cold house." (Here's my dirty little secret - turning my computer off at night and - even worse - back on in the morning, and then waiting while all my programs, email, and all the rest of it finally make their way onto the screen, just seems like too much trouble.)

The thing that's really scary, though, is that so often the people making a statement like that
really believe both halves of it at once. Sometimes, of course, they're just giving lip service to the first half because it's The Currently Acceptable Thing To Say - but often, I think, they really do mean it. And they certainly mean the second half.

But they've spent so much of their lives honing their talking points that they've forgotten how to even listen to what they're saying, let alone think about it. And until they start thinking about what they're saying, they can't begin to get a grip on the hard truth: that life as we know it is going away. Whether we want it to or not. We can either try to shape the inevitable changes, or we can keep trying to stay where we are. But if we don't shape the coming changes, they're going to shape us - and it's not going to be a pretty sight.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Are we hard-wired selfish - or just inefficient?

I am a huge fan of Zipcar, the company that's enabled us to live without a car for the last decade. Especially since they put a bunch of cars four blocks from our house, we use them a lot: mostly for necessary errands, but, once in a while just for the hell of it, because we simply don't feel like getting on the subway.

The magic of Zipcar is that - apart from the minor inconvenience of having to book the car for a pre-specified block of time - it's exactly like owning your own. You stroll over to the garage, unlock the car, and drive off. You don't have to pay for insurance, garaging, or even gas - just an hourly rental charge and - if you go far enough - a small mileage charge. Of course, there is a certain Cinderella-and-the-coach aspect to it. If you don't get it back by the time you've promised, the car may not turn into a pumpkin, but you are stuck with a hefty surcharge.

But though Zipcar cars are shared, it doesn't really feel like sharing. The company does its best to make Zipcar users feel like members of a community - addressing us (regrettably) as Zipsters, offering an online forum and even hosting the occasional party - but it doesn't really work. I do grin when I see another Zipcar, but I rarely actually talk to the driver. And other Zipcar drivers show no particular desire to talk to me. I did get into a Zipcar conversation four months ago, with the guy at the tree stand who carried our Christmas tree to our Zipcar pickup. Turns out they use Zipcar pickups for their deliveries too, and we agreed, in a most un-Christmaslike spirit, that Hertz (which had just started a carbon copy of Zipcar in midtown Manhattan) deserved to fall flat on its copycat face.

But that was the exception. Basically, Zipcar users are customers. Pure and simple.

So - partly prompted by a post by Rob Hopkins a while back about living without a car and partly by working on a story for MSN on sharing stuff in general - I've been thinking about what would make for real, community-oriented car-sharing. And the conclusion I've reluctantly come to is that you can have ease of use, or you can have community, but I'm not at all sure you can have both.

Take my recent experience with Jolly Wheels, a company that began its business by going Rent-A-Wreck one better (the car I rented from them a year ago or so had really scarily erratic brakes). Since then, they've adopted a new business model, in which people who own cars but don't use them regularly can rent them out to others. Jolly Wheels takes care of the bookings and (I assume) the insurance. All the car owner has to do is drop it off when the rental starts and pick it up when it's over. It sounded like at least a step towards real, genuine car-sharing.

But judging by my experience, it's not working very well. Even the $50 or so a day that Jolly Wheels renters pay owners for the use of their cars doesn't seem to be attracting ordinary car-owners; the guy whose car I was supposed to get owned a whole fleet which he rented out himself, using Jolly Wheels to fill the gaps in his schedule. And he seemed perfectly willing to leave Jolly Wheels in the lurch when a more attractive rental came along; I discovered when I called to check on my rental that my puny three days had been cast aside in favor of a more lucrative five-day deal - and that this wasn't the first time this particular owner had done that. (Of course, why, after the first experience, Jolly Wheels was still using him.....really desperate for cars, I'd guess.)

In his post, Rob writes about still another model that's more like carpooling than a car-share. People post trips they're planning (with or without a car) and the site tries to match car-owners with ride-seekers.

To make any of these concepts work - indeed, to make any sharing model work - you need volume. Because if sharing stuff involves even the smallest amount of friction, most people won't bother. (I believe in sharing, and I'm unlikely to try Jolly Wheels again. However much I like their business model in theory, in practice it was nothing but a pain.)

Yes, the truly dedicated simple-lifestyle crew will sign up quickly. But if it doesn't work right - from the get-go - even they will be driven away. If car-sharing is going to change the driving and car-owning habits of even a significant minority of drivers, let alone a majority, it's got to be so easy that it's a clear and immediate improvement on owning. And how to do in a community-oriented model, without having to spend the enormous amount of money that only a corporation can come up with, is a problem I don't think anyone has yet solved. (Except Craig Newmark, and it took him a year or so just to move from emails to a website. And let's face it - when it comes to other people and your stuff, selling's a one-night stand, but sharing is a marriage.)

The idea of sharing large, expensive, and often infrequently used items like cars, bikes, and tools is so enormously appealing - on economic, social and environmental grounds - that it seems like a no-brainer. As Jeff Boudier, a co-founder of the rent-anything site Zilok, said to me when I talked to him for the sharing article, "Instead of having 10 people rush to Wal-Mart and buy a $30 drill made in China that will break in 5 minutes, wouldn't it be better for one person to buy a very good quality tool and have a way to share it with others?" Of course it would - better for the planet and better for our credit cards, too.

Unfortunately, a no-brainer is just what it isn't. Somehow, we seem to be wired in such a way that anything short of owning - even owning something like an electric drill that we hardly ever use, don't keep in repair, and can't even find when we do want to use it - feels like a diminishment. Wherever did we get that idea - and how on earth can we be persuaded to let go of it?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The seductive temptation of top-down

I've been reading Bill McKibben's Hope, Human and Wild - in particular the chapter about Curitiba, a city in Brazil that seems to have about as low a carbon footprint and as vibrant a community life as a city could hope to have. It sounds wondrous.

But, I thought to myself regretfully as I closed the book, it is in no way a model. Why? Because all the wonderful things the city has done seem to be the brainchild of its mayor, Jaime Lerner, and the band of young and enthusiastic architects and planners he's assembled. Turning a street into a pedestrian mall over a weekend (and against the fierce opposition of the street's merchants), getting people in the slums to collect garbage by paying them with bags of food - it all looks - from afar, anyhow - like redesign from the top down.

I think there's a limit to just how far top-down can get us. And to how long its changes can last.

Start with the practicality. In a city like, say, New York, there's no way those kinds of programs could be instituted just on the mayor's say-so. Frankly, Mike Bloomberg doesn't have much of a say-so. Any major initiative requires state approval; it also requires him to successfully navigate an intricate web of political pressure groups inside the city, all of them empowered by a regulatory process that's designed to give just about anybody a chance to have their say and - in many cases - to gum up the works. Just look at the fate of congestion pricing, or the ability - currently on depressing display - of a couple of state legislators to block a plan to bail out the transit system.

But I think the problem with the top-down approach goes deeper than the bureaucratic gridlock that afflicts long-established cities. Maybe I've been hanging out too much with Transition Town folks (I just spent two weeks in Totnes and had a chance to talk with Rob Hopkins, founder of the movement, a conversation I'll report on as soon as I've transcribed the tape). But I am skeptical that changes directed from the top can, by their very nature, be sustainable.

As McKibben describes it, governing Curitiba seems to involve a constant struggle to keep on top of the next manifestation of human nature or economic pressure that could destroy the town's carefully created culture. While the public transportation system is astoundingly efficient - and very heavily used - lots of people are still wedded to their cars (and delighted by the relative lack of traffic). McKibben quotes one resident as saying, "In some ways we remain spectators of the town." It sounds as though the town's culture is - so far at least - the creation of its mayor, more than of its citizens.

Top-down is a tempting model. A lot of us long for someone - President Obama, Mike Bloomberg, anyone - to impose sanity on us and our maladjusted, carbon-dependent, super-individualistic lifestyle. Take away our cars, take away our fast food, stop us - because we don't seem to be able to stop ourselves.

But if changes are really to take hold, there's no escape from the slow work of bringing people onboard. It is frustrating and maddening; I often feel like taking the whole population of the United States and just shaking them awake somehow.

Unfortunately, when you shake people awake, most of the time the only thing they really want is to be allowed to go back to sleep again.

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