“Historically, we’ve tackled the biggest challenge—that of meaning, and the question of how to live a life—through the concept of ‘practice’ in the form of a religion, cultural tradition or disciplines like yoga or martial arts. Given the stark facts, this approach might be the most useful. Practice has value independent of outcome; it’s a way of life, not a job with a clear payoff. A joyful habit. The right way to live.”
—“Stopping Climate Change is Hopeless. Let’s Do It.” Auden Schendler, Andrew P. Jones, New York Times, 10/6/18.
It’s the time of year when we celebrate the harvest with a great big feast. In gratitude to the living earth who feeds us, let’s make that feast not a burden to our parent planet, but a blessing.
So, local organic, grass-fed everything? That’s only a start. Unfortunately, a large part of food’s carbon footprint is on consumers. It’s not just transcontinental trucking. It’s us, driving from farm to farmer’s market to supermarket to the corner store for the essential thing we forgot. It’s inefficient home appliances and habits of food preparation.
Kind of a downer, right? But we can make the harvest meal a time to re-examine and improve our practice.
So local, yes. Home-grown is best. When my parents were younger, Thanksgiving included home-raised turkey, potatoes, squash, pickled vegetables, blueberries, apples, celery—a serious bounty.
Most people don’t grow that much food, but if you grew and preserved something this year, put it on the table. Pesto? Jam? Homemade pickles, sauerkraut, and horseradish? Why not? You’re proud of it, and thankful to have it. Change up the traditional feast to include a taste of your own bounty.
Wild turkeys are everywhere these days, strolling through the woods and across suburban lawns. I don’t hunt, but when I see a turkey I feel hungry. If you’re a hunter, go get one. It doesn’t get more free-range!
Pasture-raised turkeys are getting easier to find, and their grazing contributes to soil carbon sequestration. The price will be higher than a supermarket turkey, so resolve to get your money’s worth. Use or share every bit of the meat, freeze leftovers, and make a nutritious broth from the carcass.
Plan your shopping to minimize driving. Build some shopping into other trips. Drive your electric or hybrid vehicle. Go with a friend who also needs to shop, cutting the impacts of each of you in half.
What about bags? The plastic grocery bag we’ve all learned to hate actually has a low carbon footprint, compared to cotton tote bags. You need to use a cotton tote 327 times to achieve the same per-use carbon ratio, according to Noah Dillon, (The Atlantic, 9/2/16). (Each paper bag needs to be re-used 7 times.)
So if you have cotton tote bags, use them forever. If you don’t, don’t buy them. You can make handsome, colorful totes from pet food, birdseed, or grain bags, using instructions that are easy to find on-line. If you do end up using supermarket plastic bags, reuse them a few times, then recycle them. Most supermarkets have a place to do so. Plastic bags may be a decent carbon bargain, but they’re still a petroleum product bad for wildlife, and in the environment basically forever, so minimize their use.
Prep several dishes ahead, and cook them all at once, to make efficient use of your oven. Use the microwave where appropriate; it can cut energy use by 80%. Unplug small appliances when not in use. Many of them use energy whenever plugged in.
How about the refrigerator, the big kahuna of appliances? To improve efficiency, locate it in a cool spot out of the sun. Defrost regularly. Let food cool before putting it in the refrigerator.
You may be able to do more. If the year has been a bountiful one financially, consider replacing your older refrigerator. New ones are far more energy-efficient. Your state may have an incentive program to offset the cost. Even if not, you’ll see a noticeable drop in your electric bill. A new refrigerator typically pays for itself in about three years.
That said, Thanksgiving’s biggest carbon hit is travel. Can you take public transport? Drive a fuel-efficient car rather than fly? And honestly, is this a trip you really want to make? Political discussions may be particularly difficult this year. Your relationships and the planet might both benefit if you stayed home. Use the money you save to upgrade your refrigerator.
Or follow the example of the young woman in Michigan who, dreading political arguments on Thanksgiving 2016, got her family excited about something they could all agree on, ending gerrymandering in the state. They started a petition drive that put the question on the ballot this fall. What could your family agree on? Deep down, there’s usually something. Maybe that disparate group around your harvest table could transcend their differences and start something similarly big to help cool the climate.
According to Schendler and Jones, “We’re perfect for the job. If the human species specializes in one thing, it’s taking on the impossible.”
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.