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CONSPICUOUS UNCONSUMPTION

No Impact Man is, in fact, having an impact. But probably not the one he intended.

“Don’t you just hate No Impact Man?” my friend Katrina asked over dinner last night.

There’s no denying it; No Impact Man’s tales of eco-extreme derring-doo chafe like cheap toilet paper, one of the many niceties No Impact Man has nixed in order to achieve notoriety. He, his wife, and their 2-year-old daughter are doing without everything from double espressos to disposable diapers for an entire year in order to reduce their collective carbon footprint while generating plenty of publicity; see last week’s NY Times profile, “The Year Without Toilet Paper.”

His pee-yew p.r. stunt is paying off; witness noimpactman.com’s blog entry for February 14th “There’s Going to be a Movie!”, followed a day later by a post entitled “There’s Going to Be a Book!” What a neat trick, turning austerity into affluence. Sweet!

Or sour, if you find penury for profit oxymoronic. The breezy gee whillikers punctuation implies that all this hoopla came as some kind of pleasant surprise to No Impact Man and his fossil fuel-free family, despite the fact that No Impact man’s literary agent had been shopping the No Impact concept around town, pitching the premise to publishers and movie producers.

Once upon a time, virtue was its own reward. Now, a vow of voluntary simplicity is just another entrepreneurial enterprise. The fact that No Impact Man’s ostentatious embrace of all things organic did not come about in, well, an organic fashion, is what bothers me. I say phoeey to phoney LOHASes.

LOHAS, for the uninitiated, is Madison Avenue shorthand for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. You have to be fluent in agricultural acronyms to be a LOHAS. If you belong to a CSA, boycott CAFO’s, and fear the advent of GMO’s, you, my friend, are a LOHAS. And your willingness to pay more for certified ethical eggs has all kinds of companies scrambling to find ways to give their products a green patina.

Unfortunately for peddlers of pseudo sustainable schlock, the LOHAS is a particularly discerning kind of bird, and highly allergic to mass marketing manipulations.

“Walden Pond, Fifth Avenue style,” is how the The NY Times characterized No Impact Man’s “haute bourgeois nest.” But No Impact Man’s conspicuous unconsumption turns Thoreau’s celebration of simplicity on its head.

No Impact Man’s wife admitted to the Times that the prospect of a year sans shopping sent her on a buying binge which included the purchase of two pairs of calf-high Chloe boots, whose cost was equivalent to “two weeks’ salary, after taxes and her 401(k) contribution.”

It made the whole thing doable, she told the Times. Now, No Impact Man and Co. are only permitting themselves “the occasional thrift shop purchase.”

As Thoreau might say, beware of all enterprises that require old clothes.

WEEKEND SPRING BLOGGING

We celebrated the arrival of spring this week in the traditional Manhattan fashion, by taking a trip to the Shake Shack. The fries—organic, no less--were golden and crisp. The custard of the day, coffee bean with brownies, was superb. The Arnold Palmers—that zingy, springy blend of lemonade and iced tea—hit the spot like a hole-in-one.

Ah, but what about the burgers and hot dogs? It’s the Year of the Grass-Fed Pig in Liberally Land, so we’re supposed to be boycotting factory farm meats. Why, oh why, can’t Shack Shake’s menu include some kind of humanely raised beef or pork for all us conscientious carnivores?

Owner Danny Meyer, whose eatery empire encompasses everything from the upscale Union Square to the populist phenomenon that is the Shack Shake, is one of America’s savviest and most progressive restaurateurs. We’re hoping he’ll follow in Wolfgang Puck’s footsteps to reduce his own culinary carbon footprint and raise awareness of agribiz animal abuse.

In the meantime, Matt copped out and got a burger. I stuck with the custard and fries, because I wasn’t that hungry, anyway.

But that other obligatory rite of spring, the Pavlovian and self-defeating pilgrimage to IKEA to buy more stuff in which to store our stuff, presented another ethical dilemma last week. I’m talking, of course, about the Swedish meatballs.

IKEA sells millions of meatballs everyday, and no wonder; after you’ve been lost for hours wandering around in that maze of artfully arranged DIY dioramas, you’re so hungry you can’t think straight.

I was saved by the bell, though—or, rather, the last bus back to New York from Elizabeth, New Jersey. The prospect of being stranded in those infamous industrial hinterlands was, unlike the meatballs, wholly unappetizing. So I dashed to the bus stop juggling three newly purchased eco-friendly reusable blue plastic bags full of essential things like a giant orange seahorse light fixture (don’t ask).

IKEA’s recent decision to start charging customers for plastic bags
reflects the Swedish company’s desire to be a more eco-friendly kind of business. That’s a great start. I just wish they could figure out a way to mass-produce their marvelous meatballs without using factory farm meats. I know that’s a lot harder than making a cool light-up seahorse for just $14.99. But it might just be more essential.

POISONOUS PET FOOD: THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW

When it comes to pet food preferences, Matt and our cat have a running battle to see who can be more finicky. Matt reads the fine print on every label, looking for suspect ingredients and fillers. Zuzu, our fickle feline, blows hot and cold about her Premium Feast Dinner from PetGuard. Some days she wolfs it down so fast it comes right back up; other days, she licks it into a little cigar-shaped blob and leaves it to dry out in her dish.

Like many Americans, Zuzu has been advised to shed a pound or two, and like the rest of us, she disdains dieting. We have tried and tried to find a reduced-calorie cat food that meets Matt’s stringent criteria and pleases Zuzu’s picky palate. I guess it figures that even our cat is a food snob. Her canned food is made from Coleman’s natural beef. It's not low-fat, but at least it's enhanced with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, aka "the good fats."

Most brands of pet food are filled with agribiz additives like animal by-products, corn, wheat, and soy—none of which benefit your pet, but all of which help companies cut costs. We did find a reduced-calorie kibble that Zuzu likes from a company called Wellness, which offers “holistic nutrition for your overweight cat” featuring “real food ingredients.” We pay more for our bags of Wellness and cans of PetGuard, but as the label on Zuzu’s Premium Feast declares, “Your Pet Deserves the Best.”

Or, at the very least, your pet deserves not to die a miserable death from acute kidney failure. But dogs and cats are dying in droves after eating contaminated canned food produced by a single manufacturer, Menu Foods, but sold under nearly a hundred different brand names.

The death toll is much higher than the 14 confirmed deaths that CNN is reporting this morning, and it’s sure to rise, as veterinarian Cathy Langston at New York’s Animal Medical Center told ABC News yesterday. The Animal Medical Center noted a sudden rash of pets suffering from kidney failure and traced the outbreak back to the tainted food. Langston expressed her dismay:

"I was shocked and surprised, acute kidney failure is not a common problem. I've already heard about 200 cases, and so I bet that there are probably going to be thousands."

So what’s the killer ingredient? ABC News reports that investigators have ruled out “the usual suspects,” i.e., mold or a heavy metal; now they’re focusing on the possibility that the wheat gluten Menu Foods uses as filler may have been tainted by chemicals or pesticides.

The pet food business is “self-regulated,” naturally, just like the growers of the greens that gave us the E. coli outbreak last year. The FDA had never set foot inside the Kansas factory where the contaminated food came from before this outbreak. The recall was entirely voluntary and seemingly somewhat slow, and lawsuits alleging negligence are piling up as fast as Menu Food’s stock is plummeting.

And just as the E. coli outbreak proved to be a boon for local spinach farmers, the Menu Foods fiasco is sure to benefit manufacturers of organic and natural pet food, whose sales were already growing, according to MSNBC:

Annual sales in the organic and natural pet foods market have swelled to an estimated $400 million in the United States, outpacing the growth rate of the nonorganic pet food market 3-to-1. But that’s still just a fraction of the total $14.5 billion U.S. pet-food market…

The fact is that it’s hard enough to convince most people to spend more money to buy decent food for themselves, much less their pets. Matt’s been haranguing our friend Karen for years because she swore by Science Diet, one of the 95 or so brands implicated in the recall.

“How can you feed that crap to Fergus?” Matt routinely asked, insisting that if Karen really loved her springer spaniel she’d buy a better brand of food. Poor old Fergus has since passed away—from old age, I should note, not tainted food—but his successor, Milo, a King Charles Cavalier, is probably eating the same stuff or something very similar.

But the Menu Food scare may just make Karen less cavalier about what she’s feeding Milo. I hate to say I told you so, but Matt will say it gladly. And annoy Karen immensely. Which is too bad, because we love Karen dearly. Maybe even as much as she loves Milo.

WOLFGANG GOES HUMANE

I’d like to give Wolfgang Puck a great big bear hug—the celebrity chef has teamed up with the Humane Society and Farm Sanctuary to set a higher standard for the treatment of farm animals. Together, they’ve crafted guidelines to counter the rampant animal cruelty of factory farming.

The nine-point program will be adopted by Puck’s entire culinary empire, which includes umpteen upscale restaurants, franchises, catering and consumer products. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, is understandably delighted that Puck is using his star power to shine a light on one of the darkest aspects of agribiz:

“The HSUS commends Wolfgang Puck, his chefs, and his entire executive
team for their ushering in of these historic animal welfare reforms. This
voluntary program—the most far-reaching and comprehensive we have yet
seen in the restaurant industry—will improve the lives of countless farm
animals. Wolfgang Puck’s policies send a strong message to the agribusiness
industry that it needs to start phasing out its most abusive practices.”

Puck was inspired to elevate his company’s standards after hanging out at his local farmers’ markets, “getting to know my vendors, their animals and their animal treatment programs. As my companies have grown much bigger, we must now develop formal policies to maintain our exacting standards. I want to be certain that only animals
who are able to freely engage in natural behaviors are used to provide the
products for our tables.”

So Puck’s saying au revoir to foie gras, battery cage eggs, gestation crates for sows, and veal crates. Menus will feature vegetarian and Certified Organic options; all seafood will be certified sustainable. And Puck will lobby poultry producers to adopt more humane slaughtering methods, while sourcing his chicken and turkey products exclusively from farms that are third-party audited for compliance with higher animal welfare standards.

“If consumers could see how abused these animals can be, they would demand change,” Puck noted. Puck’s support gives the grassroots ethical eating movement a huge boost. Thanks to cookbooks like Jay Weinstein’s The Ethical Gourmet and the brilliantly named website The Ethicurean (“chew the right thing”), there’s a growing awareness that animal abuse is one of industrial agriculture’s biggest by-products.

But it doesn’t have to be, and with a celebrity of Puck’s stature standing up for the animals, the factory farmers may soon feel as trapped by their backwards and barbaric practices, as, well, a crated sow.

So take your hat off to Puck, the HSUS, and Farm Sanctuary, and take a minute to send Puck a virtual pat on the back. Or a bloggy bear hug, like I did.

PLAYSTATION NATION

Tune in to the Colbert Report on Comedy Central tonight if you want to find out how our uber-consumer culture has turned us into a nation of overgrown teenagers whose narcissistic “me-thinking” threatens to destroy our very democracy. Stephen’s guest, author Benjamin Barber, has just published Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantalize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.

Barber, a professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland, was on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show yesterday, explaining how an “ethos of induced childishness” has transformed thoughtful, responsible adults into perpetual adolescents manipulated by marketing into making consumer choices that appeal to our most infantile instincts.

According to Barber, the capitalist system that once produced useful goods to meet our basic needs has morphed into a mass marketing monster that manipulates us into buying all kinds of nonessential nonsense, turning us into grabby not-so-grown-ups who opt for “easy over hard, simple over complex, and fast over slow” every time, in order to unload all the goods our economy relies on us to buy:

“…it’s been forced to create this kind of infantilizing ethos to try to get more and more people as impulsive shoppers, shopaholics, and that means dumbing down adults..and turning kids--all the way down to one year olds--into consumers…”

The Protestant ethos of hard work, delayed gratification, and saving for a rainy day has fallen by the wayside, run off the road by rampant capitalism that’s driven us into a ditch of debt over stupid consumer goods while “ignoring the real needs of billons and billions of people.”

As an example, Barber cites bottled water:

“Here in the United States, where every American, even the poor, have access in their tap, to clear, clean water, we sell billions of dollars of bottled water…in the Third world, they can’t get water clean enough even to wash their clothes in, let alone have their babies drink, their children drink. They haven’t got clean water, yet capitalism is busy selling bottled water to people who don’t need it and ignoring the needs for pure water in the Third world.”

Barber also addresses an obvious but often overlooked aspect of fast food’s appeal: speed. Kids hate to sit down to eat, Barber told Lehrer:

…“they don’t want to sit for two hours and have a conversation; they want to put something in their mouth and run around and play…

…fast food is targeting children the world over and turning adults into childlike creatures who eat, not as a social ritual, a family ritual, a religious ritual, but who eat to fuel up to do other things. That’s why, in the mall, very few restaurants, lots of fast food “pitstops,” so you can go on with your shopping…”

Barber claims that advertisers conspire to “get rid of the gatekeepers,” i.e. moms and dads. The voice of reason gets drowned out by a chorus of “gimme-gimme-gimme-I want-I want-I want.”

But our poor choices do more than just empty our wallets and fill our homes with dubious doodads; they’re downright antisocial, according to Barber. Our self-indulgent choices show a disregard for the common good and corrode our sense of civic duty; witness the way we’ve been snapping up gas guzzlers while marginalizing mass transit.

“What happens to citizenship when nobody grows up?” Barber asked Lehrer. Wait, I know the answer to that! You end up with leaders who take their cues from comic books and video games. Too bad running a country isn’t child’s play.

WE’VE SACRIFICED PLENTY

I’d like to recycle this sad little World War II puppy mourning his master’s fatal betrayal with a slightly altered slogan:

…because no one listened!

As the disastrous Iraq invasion enters its fifth year, it’s worth noting that every catastrophic aspect of this war was widely predicted, but the warnings went largely ignored—not only by the administration, but by the media and the American people.

Frank Rich laid out a devastating timeline of our march to war in last Sunday’s NY Times, with quotes from Cassandras like Richard Clarke, who noted that an invasion of Iraq would actually aid Al Qaeda recruitment, and wishful-thinking warriors such as the senior military planner who told The Daily News “an attack on Iraq could last as few as seven days.” Yes, or as long as seven years. Probably longer.

On March 17th, 2003, President Bush declared in a prime time speech that “Every measure has been made to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it.”

That, of course, was a lie; two lies, in fact. It’s been well documented that Bush was itching to invade Iraq even before 9/11 gave him a flimsy pretext for doing so. We know now that his staff was busily tweaking and twisting the intelligence to give the neocons cause to topple Saddam. Bush was determined to invade despite repeated warnings that the end result could be chaos and civil war.

As for Bush’s claim that “every measure” would be taken to win the war, again, a total lie. We sent an insufficient number of soldiers, ill-equipped and unprepared, to fight an amorphous and ambiguous war.

It’s true, technically, that President Bush hasn’t asked us to make any sacrifices for his Iraq debacle. But look at all the things we’ve given up as the White House wrecking crew takes its sledgehammers to the pillars of our democracy; the cronyism, corruption, mendacity, incompetence, flagrant disregard for the rule of law. Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead; thousands more maimed and scarred for life. Hundreds of billions of dollars down a sinkhole of fraud and waste, while New Orleans remains a war zone of its own.

The loss of life, the loss of our standing abroad, the loss of Constitutional rights, the loss of our country’s security and economic future, the failure to apprehend the people who actually attacked us on 9/11, it’s quite a litany of sacrifice, if you ask me. But, of course, that’s the point: no one asked.

THE REAL SECRET: MORE IS LESS

The French have a saying, “bien dans sa peau.” It means, literally, to feel good in one’s skin. We have no equivalent saying; the very notion of feeling good about oneself is, well, Greek to us.

“…self-consciousness about our abs or butts or faces isn’t just an individual preoccupation, it’s almost a social dictate,” to quote Huffington Post’s own glamorous Grecian gadfly Arianna On Becoming Fearless.

Actually, it is a social dictate, according to a study in the June issue of the journal Body Image—a mandatory ritual known as “fat talk,” as one of the study’s authors, Denise Martz of Appalachian State University, explained:

“We have found in our research that both male and female college students know the norm of fat talk—that females are supposed to say negative things about their bodies…

…Females like to support one another and fat talk elicits support,” Martz said. “An example would be one saying, ‘It's like, I'm so fat today,’ and another would respond, ‘No, you are not fat, you look great in those pants.’”

Sound tediously familiar? Women who express satisfaction with their bodies risk being ostracized and perceived as arrogant, according to Martz, who speculates that fat talk is a way of coping with our unrealistic cultural ideals. Why can’t we settle for being healthy and fairly fit, instead of torturing ourselves because our thighs can never be thin enough?

Because the fight against fat helps grease the wheels of commerce, that’s why. There’s a whole industry dedicated to making you feel bad about your body, and most of us buy into it; we reportedly spend some $33 billion a year on diet related products. But we just keep getting fatter.

The solution, according to the wildly successful, dangerously demented bestseller The Secret, is not to diet, but simply to stop looking at fat people. There are lots of theories floating around about what’s causing the obesity epidemic; everything from a contagious bacteria to a chemical found in some plastics. But Rhonda Byrne, The Secret’s author, has the most bizarre explanation yet:

…food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight....if you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.

Or just think about all those slender Sudanese. Call it the Darfur diet—think and grow thin! Byrne's book also applies an icky “spiritual” sheen to crass consumerism, à la the prosperity gospel, which preaches that God wants us all to be rich in wallet as well as in spirit. Apparently, Moses somehow overlooked the eleventh commandment: “Thou canst never be too rich nor too thin.”

Byrne’s promise that “the Law of Attraction” can bring you health, wealth and happiness has sent Americans to the bookstore in droves, making The Secret one of the fastest-selling self-help books ever. As Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, told Newsweek, "Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public."

It’s good business to make us feel bad, because it makes us buy all kinds of things. But the stuff we buy doesn’t seem to bring us any satisfaction, and may actually be making us feel worse, according to Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy. McKibben notes how much better off we are materially than we were a few decades ago, and then adds:

What’s odd is, none of this stuff appears to have made us happier. All that material progress—and all the billions of barrels of oil and millions of acres of trees that it took to create it—seems not to have moved the satisfaction meter an inch…

…there have been steady decreases in the percentage of Americans who say that their marriages are happy, that they are satisfied with their jobs, that they find a great deal of pleasure in the place they live…

McKibben, one of the key movers and shakers behind Step It Up 2007, the National Day of Climate Action happening April 14th, has been warning us about global warming for nearly two decades; his 1989 book The End of Nature is widely regarded as the first book on climate change written for the layperson.

Deep Economy is an equally seminal book, spelling out the disconnect between what we think we want and what really makes us happy. The things that give us the greatest pleasure can’t be bought and sold. They are, as MasterCard would say, “priceless.”

I wish Oprah would endorse this book, because it really could transform our lives with its “more is less” message. If the premise of The Secret is really true, I should be able to make Bill McKibben materialize on Oprah’s sofa. I just have to keep picturing it.

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

The latest thing in custom-built homes in America is his ‘n’ hers matching master bedrooms, apparently. Better to be divided by a wall of sheetrock each night than have your marriage torn asunder by a spouse’s sanitation-truck-decibel-level snoring.

But I’d much rather request a combination root cellar/bunker if I were building my dream house. Jon Stewart joked about building a bunker last week, as a response to our current administration’s apocalyptic approach to foreign policy, but really, what good is a bunker without food? And what better way to store provisions than a root cellar?

My dream root cellar would be filled floor to ceiling with Matt’s canned tomatoes, my friend Claire’s jams and salsas, spelt spaghetti from Italy, tins of smoked trout and herring from Trader Joe’s, and the kind of produce that keeps really well, like the single Queensland Blue Winter Squash we grew last year that we’ve been eating for weeks now.

The Queensland Blue belongs to a family of gorgeous and delicious Australian pumpkins that have the remarkable ability to overwinter in an overheated apartment. I only knew this because I read it in Elizabeth Schneider’s indispensable, encyclopedic Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini:

You can enjoy it for months, as I did in a warm city apartment, before cooking it.

Our Queensland Blue weighed in at about 12 pounds, so heavy we left it on the vine till our friend Amy could transport it in a rented car rather than hauling it from our Hudson Valley hovel to our teeny West Village apartment via Amtrak, our usual mode of transit. We were so proud of our pumpkin progeny we displayed it on the mantle for about four months before our squash started to show its softer side.

Once our Aussie squash’s resolve to remain firm began to waiver, unlike its prime minister’s steadfast commitment to keep Australian troops in Iraq, we had no choice but to carve it up and make a seemingly endless series of soups, stews, and pumpkin bread puddings. This thing could feed a family of five for like a month. There’s still a two-pound chunk of it left in the fridge (see image above.)

All this from a fifty-cent seedling. If you’re looking for a solid investment in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, I recommend stocking up on heirloom squash. Start planting those kabochas now, so you’ll be prepared when our economy goes kaput and our planet goes kaboom.

YES, WE HAVE NO BANANA REPUBLICS

I like to buy my food from socially conscious companies--you know, like Newman’s Own, with their camps for kids with cancer, or Annie’s Organics, which awards environmental studies scholarships.

But if you’ve been topping your crunchy granola with Chiquita bananas, you may have inadvertently funneled some of your food dollars not to terminally ill tykes or eco-geeks, but terrorists and druglords.

That’s why Chiquita’s just been forced to cough up $25 million in fines to settle a dispute with the Justice Department, which has been investigating payments Chiquita made between 1997 and 2004 to a rightwing paramilitary group called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials. From the AP:

The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia’s civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country’s cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the right-wing militia a terrorist organization in September 2001.

Prosecutors said the company made the payments in exchange for protection for its workers. In addition to paying the AUC, prosecutors said, Chiquita made payments to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as control of the company's banana-growing area shifted.

Left, right, whatever; Chiquita doled out checks to terrorists of all stripes. I don’t want to imply that Chiquita had some kind of right wing bent.

Although, funny story; coincidentally, speaking of rightwing rah-rah, at the same time that Chiquita executives were tithing a known terrorist organization in defiance of their own legal counsel--"Bottom line: CANNOT MAKE THE PAYMENT," read one memo--Chiquita’s vice president of corporate affairs, Joe Hagin, took a leave of absence from Chiquita to work as the deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race.

It’s not much of a stretch, I guess, to go from pumping up trigger happy terrorists to stumping for a faux-cowboy Crawford chump. But who could have foreseen that “regime change” would mean watching our own country turn into a banana republic?

After hearing the news about Chiquita, I took a closer look at those organic bananas I bought at Trader Joe’s the other day. Yup, Chiquita. From Ecuador, not Colombia. Are they tainted by association? Should they be evicted from our fruit bowl?

If I were a die-hard locavore I would have already sworn off tropical fruits, à la Joan Gussow, the pioneering foodie progressive whose memoir, This Organic Life, contains the following passage:

“…bananas fill me with ambiguity, and sometimes even rage. Like this very brief story that appeared recently in the New York Times “Metropolitan Diary”:

Dear Diary: Consider the street banana. Grown in a tropical paradise amid chattering birds and baby monkeys at play, it has traveled thousands of miles over land and sea. On trucks, boats, and trains it has ridden, handled by scores of people; yet its skin is unblemished, its fruit still sweet. You give the man a quarter. He gives you a banana. No change. No receipt. No bag. A transaction direct from the agora. A journey through space and time.

That little story demonstrates a desperate ignorance about how food is produced at the millennium, and at what cost. For this stroller’s banana was undoubtedly grown not in a tropical paradise but in a banana tree desert from which chattering birds and baby monkeys were long ago banished to protect the ripening fruit from our competitors. Blissfully oblivious to the real conditions under which her banana was grown, she is equally blithe about those thousands of miles her banana has traveled, “on trucks, boats, and trains” that spewed into the air combustion products that are helping warm the planet right where she’s standing…

But when it comes to bananas, there’s no such thing as buying local. What’s a banana lover to do?

Go native and plant paw paws, Gussow suggests. Paw paws, “the only tropical fruit tree to survive the ice age in the northern hemisphere,” were once widely grown in the U.S. and reportedly taste like banana custard. I say “reportedly” because I have never, ever seen one anywhere.

Lewis and Clark subsisted on paw paws during their expedition, according to Wikipedia, which notes also that “Chilled pawpaw fruit was a favorite dessert of George Washington.” Thomas Jefferson planted paw paws at Monticello, too.

So where have all the paw paws gone? Apparently, the paw paw has a short shelf life and doesn’t ship well. But unlike most fruit trees it isn’t plagued by pests, so it ought to appeal to organic farmers who sell their produce to local markets.

I planted a pair of paw paws in my garden after reading Gussow’s book five years ago. They’re coming along nicely, but they have yet to yield any custardy-banana-like lusciousness.

Should we abandon bananas in the meantime? Organic Chiquitas are grown without chemicals, but there may be more pernicious toxins lurking under those pesticide-free peels. I don’t really like the idea of supporting a company with ties to perpetrators of needless wars—or rightwing paramilitary groups, for that matter.

TURNING UP THE HEAT ON MEAT-EATERS

OK, so you’re a conscientious carnivore: no factory farm frankfurters for you! And that bacon you had for breakfast? It came from a happy hog that frolicked and foraged freely before being humanely slaughtered.

Seems like a win-win-win: you’re boycotting all those agribiz atrocities, supporting sustainable farming, and getting a healthier, tastier product. Hey, you’re even fighting sprawl! Those local livestock farmers couldn’t make a living off their land without ethicureans like you snapping up their sustainable sausage. Your willingness to pay top dollar for top round that’s grass-fed spares untold acres of pasture from being plowed under to grow rows of strip malls and condos.

But that pasture-raised pork may still be enough to get you exiled from treehugger eden, according to Kathy Freston, a self-help author and blogger who proclaims that “vegetarian is the new Prius.”

Freston’s latest pro-vegetarian post, “You Call Yourself a Progressive -- But You Still Eat Meat?” makes the case that eating any meat, regardless of how it’s raised, is grounds for revoking your green credentials:

“It'd be like driving an SUV that gets 15 mpg rather than 10, or driving an SUV three days per week instead of seven. Sure, it might be better for the environment, but with so many more fuel-efficient ways to get from A to B, there's no need to drive any SUV at all. Eating meat -- any meat -- is the same thing: With so many healthy vegetarian options that are kinder and far more eco-friendly than even the "best" meat products, there's just no good justification for someone who claims to be an environmentalist -- or to oppose cruelty -- for doing it.”

I’m one of those foodie activists who preaches the pasture-raised gospel. A tireless (and tiresome) proselytizer, I pass the grass-fed butter and pat myself on the back for spreading the word about ethical eating.

But Freston makes a compelling case for cutting out meat altogether. As a lover of bacon, it pains me to admit this, but most of her arguments are pretty much unassailable, and she’s not the only one making them.

A cat needs to eat meat, but for humans, it’s just a treat. We eat it because we like it, not because we need it. Our bodies function better without meat, in fact. “The meat industry’s big public relations problem is that vegetarians are demonstrably healthier than meat-eaters,” notes NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat.

Thirty years ago, our government actually tried to warn us to eat less meat. In a report entitled “Dietary Goals for the United States,” the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs recommended that we “reduce consumption of meat.”

But the beef lobby went berserk. That simple message got fed through the meat industry p.r. grinder and came out: “choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.”

In the decades since, meat consumption has risen dramatically while the USDA’s guidelines remain vague and convoluted. And the toll meat production takes on our environment has shot up significantly, too. A report last year from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” provided a startling look at the link between meat consumption, environmental degradation, and global warming.

Henning Steinfeld, senior author of the report, stated that “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago determined that American meat eaters are responsible for 1.5 more tons of carbon dioxide per person than vegetarians every year. But even one of the authors of that study, Gidon Eshel, doesn’t insist that we should give up meat entirely:

"It doesn't have to be all the way to the extreme end of vegan," says Dr. Eshel, whose family raised beef cattle in Israel. "If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you've already made a substantial difference."

Kathy Freston disagrees, stating that “if we're eating meat, we're making a conscious decision that is even more wasteful and polluting” than driving a Hummer.

But I don’t drive at all; I’ve never owned a car and rely mostly on mass transit to get around. Doesn’t that give me some kind of carbon offset, or at least a karma offset?

Freston claims that our craving for meat “can be largely satisfied by the luscious faux meat options out there.” Now, I like tofu as much as the next progressive, which is to say that if you marinate it and bake it or slather it with bar-b-q sauce and smoke it, it almost tastes like…something. But still. Can’t I have the occasional biodynamic burger with grass-fed cheese and pasture-raised bacon?

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