One of my great pleasures and privileges as a teacher and adviser at the University of Massachusetts is that I am surrounded by bright and passionate students who ask difficult questions. While many of the questions relate to “how do I graduate” and “how do I find a job”…. often the questions are “deeper.” This is a true story….
So a student shows up in my office asking the big question… “why bother?” You know, like “… why bother try to make a difference in this world when everything looks so bleak?”
This student wanted to know how I maintain a sense of hope when we are facing so many global challenges!
Rather than launching into my usual rap (which I stole from Michael Pollan’s near-classic essay, “Why Bother”), I chose to tell him about a novel I had read recently “about secrets, treachery and the arrival of peak oil” (according to the book jacket). Prelude by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced adventure and espionage story set in the context of “the end of cheap energy” and while a bit simplistic, the book keeps your attention.
One of my favorite scenes comes when Cassie Young, a rising star at a Washington, D.C. energy consulting firm asks her friend Victor Chernov (a former oil executive who helped her gain access to a secret report that proves global oil reserves are diminishing much more rapidly than anyone thought and climate change is more serious than anyone could have imagined)… “so what do we do now that we know the truth?” It is a moment of despair, that many of us who are aware of the ever-worsening oil/climate crisis have felt from time to time.
And Victor’s response……… grow a garden! It seems this former oil exec is learning to grow tomatoes at his Washington townhouse….. hmmmmmmmm.
While not destined to become a classic, the appearance of mass market books like Prelude suggests that common culture is beginning to accept the fact that there seems to be an energy/climate/economic crisis…… and yes, at least one of the solutions might be to grow food for myself, family and neighborhood.
Kurt Cobb (who is a well-respected environmental writer) seems to propose a simple and doable response to the crisis we seem afraid to face. Cobb reminds us that “hope trumps fear” and finding a source of hope is a necessary first step toward developing real solutions to a problem.
I believe that if we can’t imagine reasonable solutions to a crisis, then we are not going to look at the problem. In fact, denial of the problem is actually a quite reasonable response when you can’t imagine a solution. So yes, yes, yes, lets grow food… for ourselves, our family, our neighbors!
Following the story this very patient student asked me if I really believed that individual actions made a difference. He wondered (like many) if the government and scientists wouldn’t come up with a solution eventually. So, I took a deep breath and launched into the “do it anyway” soliloquy.
You know….. that’s the one that claims the quest for family and community self-sufficiency is a better way to live, even if there was no crisis. And if the crisis we were discussing slams us sooner than anyone of us would hope….. well, then at least we have begun to take some steps to be better prepared. So, yes…. lets learn to grow our own food. According to Sharon Astyk, we need to become a “nation of farmers,” (with farmers described as anyone who grows food for themselves and others). That might be anything from a single patio tomato to a family garden to a small farm. And the rest of us need to learn to cook real food!
At this point, my student brightened up and almost shouted “that’s it! That’s what Sharon Astyk calls the anyway theory.”
He remembered a reading I had assigned earlier in the semester called the “theory of anyway” and it brightened up his day. If you are curious, You might explore the “Anyway Project” (aka… “whole life redesign”). But the point for me was that something came alive in my formerly despairing student.
Of course not everyone wants to grow tomatoes, but we all can do something. I bake bread, make yogurt, grow food, and raise worms (for my backyard chickens of course). You pick your own sustainable thing to do! Ride a bike to work, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, join a CSA, hang your clothes in the sun to dry, anything …… but do something – and do something fun!
I told the student that Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her book, Small Wonder, …..people will join the sustainability movement because “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.” At which point we both smiled – and hope restored, we laughed.
After he left, I did a quick search for more information on the book I just recommended and found a lovely statement from Kurt Cobb who advised that if we are going to invite others to join the sustainability revolution, we need to be creative. He suggested that “….an alternative way of pressing your case is to do it in verse or in song or in the form of a play, a novel, a painting, or a stand-up comedy routine.”
And don’t forget to keep dancing…..
I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in a college program in Sustainable Food and Farming, check us out at UMass. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please “like” my Facebook Group; Sustainable Food and Farming.