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Design Impact » Agriculture

Feeling Green

The evening of Earth Day I listened to a piece on NPR by David Gorn (Ban The Burger, Save The World). He describes how numerous caf├ęs and cafeterias are participating in earth day by reducing or eliminating beef and cheese from their menus. It turns out that these foods have a large carbon footprint, and have adverse health effects beyond the direct consequences of consumption (energy and carbon intensive foods contribute to pollution and climate change).

Gorn interviewed diners who sounded pleased to be doing their part for the environment by skipping beef and cheese. This effort certainly brings more awareness of the current state of our agricultural system, and perhaps paves the way for substantive changes. The last line, however, was a bit disappointing. Gorn developed reasonable rationale for cutting back on meat, cheese, and other carbon and energy intensive foods, and then concluded that this rationale “makes giving up a cheeseburger one day a year, seem a little easier to swallow.” It almost sounds like skipping a cheeseburger once a year is sufficient to make a big impact. I’m on board with events like this to get us thinking, but they need to be followed up with clear acknowledgment of steps that would bring real change. Otherwise, efforts like this leave participants feeling green, but accomplish little else.

Last month Joseph Romm scrutinized a New York Times article ‘Five Beginners’ Steps to a Greener Homehere. As with the once-per-year cheeseburger ban, Romm reveals that the ‘beginner steps’ may have far less impact than expected, and explains that advice like this can actually be counterproductive. Following these easy steps helps someone feel green, but may placate aspirations to make meaningful change. Romm outlines his core climate solutions here. Notice that energy efficiency is at the top of the list (which can be strengthened through better engineering design). Romm also states that his top suggestion for individuals is to “get political, since the changes required can only be driven by national action.”

Going back our food system, we need to take a broader view when planning reform. We need to design better agricultural system, supported by sensible agricultural policy. We need to develop more detailed awareness of this topic across our society to foster support for meaningful change. Michael Pollan has proposed some compelling changes in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and in his open letter to President Obama, Farmer in Chief.

The media attention paid to green initiatives right now is truly fantastic. However, it requires a discerning citizen to separate the superficial from the substantive. What do you think about the way sustainability issues have been addressed in the media recently? Is it helping move public dialogue and opinion in the right direction? What ideas to you have for accelerating our shift to a sustainable path?

Posted: April 23rd, 2009 | Filed under: Agriculture, Green FAIL, Sustainability | 2 Comments »