Saturday, January 05, 2008

Hope's Edge

Sitting beneath a healthy stand of sprawling oaks today, I launched into one of my new library books, Hope's Edge. The author, Frances Moore Lappe, wrote the previously referenced Diet for a Small Planet (the book that compelled me to become a vegetarian years ago). In Hope's Edge, she teamed up with her daughter, Anna, to revisit the concept of hunger in America. Times have changed since 1971 when Lappe argued against corporate agriculture and the misuse of our country's resources. Now, not only is America witnessing epidemic proportions of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a new generation of cancers linked directly to genetically modified foods, pesticide use, and rGBH, but our resources are being stretched to the limit. All the while, the country's food supply is run by a handful of unregulated multimillion dollar companies whose goal is not to provide the country with affordable, healthful food, but to make insane amounts of money.

Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet offers hope of sustainability through example. Lappe visits community gardens, Alice Waters of San Francisco's Chez Panisse (the chef who brought the values of fresh, local food to the table in the 1970s), farmer's markets, lenders from Bangladesh's microcredit Grameen Bank, L'Etoile, the fancy Madison restaurant that strives to offer as much local food as possible. She provides examples of people breaking out of the consumer-specific mold that we, as a society, not as individuals, have accepted for so long. Lappe wonders: Would you, as an individual, intentionally allow a child to become obese? To become dependent on heart medications at the age of 12? Would you, as an individual, intentionally destroy so many species in this century that it would take 10 million years to recover? Would you, as an individual, decide to create a greenhouse effect which disrupts life in ways that we are only starting to understand? Or, would you, as an individual, intentionally design a community in which half the world's wealth is possessed by 1% of the population?

How can it be, Lappe asks, that as individuals we have created a world that at the deepest level we can't even recognize as our own? Culturally, we have lost sight of individualism; within the culture of individuality, we are able to make conscious decisions for a community. However, individual creativity is no longer celebrated in schools, in culture. Many Americans no longer nourish their souls with music, art, literature. These are the very souls which guide us to do what is right for the community, to solve problems and create solutions, but instead they are the willing targets of $600 billion advertising dollars. If we, as Americans, can't thrive in a community, pursue our creative arts and think outside the proverbial box to find solutions, then we must find nourishment in stuff. Billions of dollars of stuff, in fact, none of which satisfies our souls, our deep yearning to express individuality. So we buy more. At least we feel satisfied when we have more than our neighbor.

We no longer think as individuals but instead are governed by what our society accepts, which is largely dictated by the market economy. So, we, as a society, are not surrounded by individuals playing real, satisfying roles in our community because we don't see others doing it, but seeing what the market economy dictates. Until we see regular people developing their own personal creativity and power, we won't create our own. The problem is that the media never show us those people. Lappe's book introduces the reader to people stepping out of the mold, people using creativity to conserve resources while building sustainable, fulfilling communities. Specifically, she invites us to meet people who don't see food as a commodity, but as an integral part of building a community, people who hope to change the country's mindset through their own personal change and journey. It's a scary proposition, that of inviting change. Chef Alice Waters never had any culinary training before she opened her restaurant. She had to turn away almost 100 patrons the first night her restaurant opened because, in short, she didn't know what she was doing. Change, stepping out of our comfort zone, is scary. Waters really wanted to run a restaurant. She didn't know how at first, but took that first step way back in the early 1970s and since 2001, Chez Panisse has been consistently rated by Gourmet as one of the country's Top 3 restaurants.

For most Americans, what will it take? What will it take to recognize that we have a serious problem with the current economic food system that positively must be changed? When will we realize that the fabric of our community, once held together by sustainable agriculture, sharing, and healthful living, is no longer there? When we see these problems as real issues, then must we think of change. When we realize that we are not living our lives for ourselves, not living our lives for a purpose which is good and driven by personal passion, not contributing to our community, we lose hope. But in the moments of dissonance, the moments when life as we know it is unacceptable, we face fear. To question concepts and ideas which we have lived by and accepted for years takes courage. Fear, unfortunately, is not accepted in America. Stress, anxiety, anger are almost celebrated in this country, almost veritable badges of courage which represent success, that one must be doing something extraordinary if stress/anxiety/anger are felt. But fear? It's a sign of weakness in our culture. It takes inordinate amounts of motivation to face fear. To find that motivation, we must look deep within...but since we no longer nourish that part of our lives, our very deep soul, the reserves aren't there to motivate us. The farmer who won't grow organic because his neighbors think it's hogwash? The kid who wants to drop out of school to open a bike shop? The 31-yr.-old who wants to stop working for others and open his own pizza place? The theatre major who can't summon the courage to audition? They all have to face fear. Fear of failure, of the unknown, of ridicule.

Stepping out of our comfort zone to face fear is scary. However, our cultural life as we know it is unsustainable and our emotional, physical and cultural resources are running dry. Americans are the most unhealthy people in the world (and are regularly ridiculed by the French because of it). We spend more annually on mental health than any other developed country. Ironically, it's not getting us anywhere. Instead, we continue our old line of thinking. Now, it is incumbent that we step out of our current way of thinking, of accepting that buying crap will make us happy, that buying products wrapped in three layers of plastic is acceptable, that we can eat as much junk food as we want and live healthful lives, that our very actions don't really play a role in the larger picture. We remain, at our core, individuals, but our modern society, largely driven by a handful of corporate advertisers and a misguided government, has ignored that. To find answers to modern problems like childhood obesity, diabetes, people who can't get insurance because they're too fat, we can't rely on a market driven economy. We must be creative, but to be creative, we must nourish our souls, use our creative energy, think, and accept fear--nay, face it head on. We must have the courage and the hope to develop changes and contribute to our community, that soul-satisfying collection of people and ideas.

So, what does this have to do with the Ozark Highlands, that lovely uplift of dolomite and limestone? In the next few posts, I'll profile people who have stepped out of their comfort zone to make the Ozarks a better place for everyone involved. A cheese maker who was told repeatedly that his ideas had no place in the Ozarks. An organic farmer who was told he would fail, miserably, if he didn't use Sevin dust. When the fear of accepting life, as sad and as miserable as it might be, outweighs the fear of change, only then will we make a difference. Only then will we change.

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