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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Rethinking eating, etc.
December 4, 2011 - 5:38pm

One of the challenges in trying to get folks to understand how a future can be both more sustainable and subjectively better than what we're used to is getting them to step back from what they "know" to be true.  Simple basic facts like "more money is better than less money", and "efficient is better than inefficient".  For some reason, most Greenback students have trouble challenging either of those ideas.  (Of course, so do most Greenback faculty.  And most Backboro residents.  And most everybody I've ever met.)

The key to moving past "more is better than less" as an absolute good is to realize that it's not how much you've got, it's what you're measuring.  What you're counting.  How you score the game.  Who is was who decided that that's the way score would be kept.  Why they chose that payoff algorithm.  But that's a conversation which quickly gets too abstract for most people, so it rarely leads to any sort of epiphany.

So for the past year or so, I've often shaped the discussion in terms of food.  Everybody likes food, but (at least in developed countries) there's an acknowledgement that more food isn't always better than less food.  More calories, more trans-fat, more sugar, more sodium isn't necessarily good.  Not even when ithat's what our palates have been trained to crave.  The common realization that with food there are at least two payoff algorithms (quality and quantity), and sometimes they're in conflict (if you fill up on crap you won't be able to eat what you really enjoy, to pick one simple example) at least helps people break out of the simplest form of "more is better" thinking.

But, by and large, the learning I've been able to stimulate with this sort of discussion has been pretty superficial, pretty trivial.  By the following morning, it's probably evaporated entirely.  In part because -- let's be honest here -- the entire curriculum at Greenback (as at almost every school) is based around the idea of more.  Earn more credits.  Raise your GPA.  Have more fun.  Earn more money.  Drink more beer.  (Think about it.  When was the last time some frat or sorority hosted a juried microbrew tasting on your campus?  On mine, keggers (as the name implies) are about quantity, not quality.)

So it was with great joy that I tripped over a couple of TED talks by Dan Barber.  Dan is a well-known chef in the New York City area.  He's also a major voice in the organic/natural/local/sustainable food movement.  And he seems to be falling in love with Spain.  (Although maybe that's just happenstance.)

In 2008, Dan spoke to a TED conference on the subject of foie gras.  But it wasn't really about goose livers, it was about goose farming in a manner like no poultry farming I've ever seen, nor even imagined.  It was about a goose farmer in Spain who doesn't force-feed his geese as has been done for thousands of years, yet produces the best -- without exception, the best -- foie gras in the world.  He farms about 30 acres and doesn't maximize his financial gain in any year but, because he farms in a way that can continue forever, he maximizes the long-term benefit to himself, his heirs, his customers and the geese.  (Actually, it's mostly about the geese.  Follow the link.  Watch the video.)

Then, last year, Dan spoke to TED again.  This time, it wasn't about geese.  It was about fish.  Again, the example came from Spain.  Again, the methods used are sustainable.  Not just for a long time, but (as much as can be imagined) forever.  The product quality is without equal.  Customers benefit.  Fish benefit.  Flamingos and other birds benefit.  Algae benefit.  Even the water benefits.

What I like about both of these examples is that they're easily understandable.  And they're real.  Now.  Not sometime in the future.  The logic they exhibit clearly undercuts a great deal of what modern American culture has taught us to accept, and expect, and value.  Yet it's inescapable.  It points the way to a future which is better (certainly, better fed) than the present.  It also points out just how profound a rethinking we'll likely have to do to achieve similarly sustainable benefits in other areas of our lives.

Not, of course, that I expect Greenback's curriculum (either explicit and hidden) to foster that sort of rethinking anytime soon.  Would only that it did.


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