It Takes More Than a Tangerine

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John, is a member of the save-the-earth-from-global-warming club that consumes like there’s no tomorrow — and maybe there won’t be now that I think about it. Ms. Edwards recently announced that in order to reduce her carbon footprint, she is going to stop eating tangerines. She is choosing to eat local, which should be interesting, since the main crops of North Carolina include melons, corn, peanuts, cotton, berries, poultry, soybeans, cattle, hogs and tobacco. I see a few vitamins here and there, but I’m guessing Ms. Edwards’s diet is more varied than that. She could buy local if she flew to Maine on her private jet to eat lobster or to Hawaii for pineapple — technically. Eating local could keep her awfully busy, however, if she is a big fan of tea, coffee, chocolate and fine wine. There are other options for her family. They might want to dig a catfish pond next to their 28,000 sq. ft. mansion, or even sell it and move into a cabin that doesn’t consume the energy of a small town. BTW, were the building materials used for their place produced locally? Unless the structure is made entirely of pine (no teak, walnut, mahogany, etc.) it probably isn’t.

Ms. Edwards is a powerful and intelligent woman who has the country’s ear. I realize that she is working for healthcare reform along with her husband even as she battles cancer, and this cannot be easy, but I fear that she is overlooking the Americans who can’t even afford to buy citrus anymore, especially in the off-season. These are folks who are more concerned with putting food in their kids’ bellies than they are with the global warming debate, and some of them are also ill but have no medical insurance or treatment options.

Now there is talk of adding a carbon tax to foods that require transportation, but that seems a bit regressive to me. We all have to eat, even the poor who are invisible to the rich. The tax should be added to the cost of private planes, yachts, second homes and maybe even campaign trips. Perhaps a tax break should be given to those of us who grow some of our own food. That’s about as local as you can get. There could be a new tax form to file for a GWGC (Global Warming Gardening Credit) onto which we could calculate the size of our smaller footprints. Of course, very few of us can grow citrus, especially in the north, but we could use the tax savings to stock up on cans of refried beans and bags of Ramen noodles and take our chances with scurvy.

John Edwards talks about worker rights. Does his wife have any idea how many workers would lose their livelihoods if the jobs of growers, pickers, packers, truckers and store clerks were eliminated by a mandate for locally grown — or because of reduced sales because consumers couldn’t afford to buy as much food? Locally grown is best, especially as transportation costs soar, but the government does nothing for the small or subsistence farmer, except tax and regulate him into bankruptcy. I’d be interested in knowing if Senator Edwards has proposed legislation to help the owners of the small farmsteads he passes in his travels. With the proper aid, these growers could expand their operations and provide food for more people. For the good of your own family and the food supply, you can support your local producers listed here:

How about a mandate that we all cut back on our meat consumption just a little. According to a report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), meat eaters are responsible for 1.5 more tons of carbon dioxide per capita per year than vegetarians, and meat production is expected to more than double by the year 2050. The growing and processing of livestock is responsible for 9 percent of all CO2 emissions, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide. Methane has 23 times and nitrous oxide 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. By cutting down on meat, we could reduce our CO2 burden more positively than we would by trading our traditional cars for hybrids. Animals produced for food also consume huge quantities of water and grains that require vast acreage, land that could be better used to grow produce for direct consumption. And the rain forests get smaller and smaller as trees are cut to accommodate beef cattle. Animal waste piles up as efforts to deal with it fall behind. Small producers enrich the soil with manure. Big producers pollute our waterways with runoff from improperly managed manure lagoons. I’m not suggesting that we meat eaters become vegetarians, but we could fit in a couple of meatless dinners or reduce meat portion size.

If the federal government really cared about the environment instead of the food giants, paper and plastics industries, gas and oil companies, and the crap producers and importers who screw over the consumer, and, oh yeah, the giant ag corporations they pay to switch from growing food crops to growing corn for ethanol, leaving the rest of us unable to afford corn chips, they would mandate that there be a recycling program in every town in America. And they/we would fund it. It isn’t just the recycling, it’s also the mindset that goes with it. In small towns where the dumps charge a fee for every bag of trash but also have bins for recyclables, families pull up on Saturday with just one bag of trash and at least twice that much in deposits to the recycling center. Everyone does his part to save money and the environment. Is there a compost bucket under the Edwards’s sink for their vegetable peelings and coffee grounds? Do they have containers for cardboard and paper and bottles, cans and plastics? Do they think using energy-saving light bulbs and wearing bamboo fiber pajamas fulfills their obligation to the planet?

Speaking of recycling, is a nonprofit, grassroots movement that spans the globe, made up of local subgroups of people who give away what they don’t need or want. Posts begin with “offered/promised/taken” and the name of the town where the item is offered or needed. Since no money changes hands and no bartering is allowed, no taxes need be collected or paid. When I made a recent move, I separated out inexpensive belongings that would cost more to ship than to replace at the other end. I listed everything from flower pots to an old vacuum cleaner that had only one condition attached. The person who took it had to wait till I did the final cleanup of the apartment before my landlord came to inspect. Many wonderful people came by, some of whom simply couldn’t afford what I was fortunate enough to be able to give away. Freecycle items go straight to those who need them. Even local charities usually charge for used clothing and household items. But here you can give away anything from an old door to used fencing to children’s outgrown clothing. If you go to the site and don’t find a group in your area, you know what to do.

Elizabeth Edwards is on the right track, but she and other wealthy environmentalists may be too far removed from the problems to comprehend the solutions. They often consume enormous amounts of energy just getting their word out or living lives that are not remotely similar to those of us who scold the kids for leaving the lights on when they exit a room. The people with the power need to dig deeper if real change is to occur. It is said that ignorance is bliss. I say it could sink the mother ship.

Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in Northwest Massachusetts. Her work is informed by decades of experience with unions, agriculture, public health, politics and her support of populism. She welcomes contact by email: Read other articles by Sheila.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on July 30th, 2007 at 5:00pm #

    However useless or even stupid the small gestures of public figures are, they serve the vital purpose of making ecology “respectable” and make it a lot easier for people at grass roots level to become concious of political ecology, which will probably be the dominant ideology of the 21st century. No real ecologist would ever be so rude to a horse as to look him/her in the mouth!

  2. Wes S said on July 30th, 2007 at 8:20pm #

    I’d love to be rich and consume. Just like most of you would. Unfortunately I cannot, so I can only complain about those who do it. Of course my moral values are higher then the rich folks but at the end, who cares.. It’s the money that talks.

  3. Judy said on July 31st, 2007 at 5:18am #

    Before you get excited about freecycle, I hope you’ll read the following articles. Freecycle isn’t the wonderful thing they’d have you believe it to be.