Let’s split hairs.
I’m delighted that labeling any product “organic” seems to be the greatest thing to hit food marketing since sliced bread. That Walmart, for example, is using its position as a powerful economic bully to mass market what amounts to thousands and thousands of acres of organic fields is superb. Think of all the chemicals, fertilizers, and overall crap that are not being leached and run-off into the global water cycle, into the skin and lungs and eyes and endocrine systems of field workers across the world! That cleaner, cheaper food is also getting into more people is also a great success and relief.
However, it still feels more than a little gross that a megacorporation gets to use the word organic. Sure, an increasing number of their vegetables are produced in accordance with national standards of organic growth practices, but there is something about an international giant business model built on expansion and growth and profit and world dominance and denial of workers’ rights that seems decidedly against the spirit of the word. The organic certification process is a strangely regulated minefield, and often, too expensive and absurd for smaller farms to participate in. Agribusinesses, however, have little trouble making the grades, and I imagine that the agribusiness lobbyists are rather more aggressively persuasive of our national policy makers than the organic lobby.
A few nights ago as I listened to several architect friends—all of whom have a strong interest and background in sustainability and green design—swap horror stories about various firms in their field, I got hung up on how misused “sustainable” is as a term. It may be officially green and sustainable to ensure the VOC levels of the paint and the new carpets in your LEED and historically certified restored structure, but when employees are working 80 hours a week, eat at their desks, and maternity leave is scoffed at, it seems dishonest to use the word “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” to describe the work. I am all in favor of creating more energy efficient spaces to live and work, but light bulbs and solar panels alone are not enough.
It may come down to the fact that I just don’t trust anything that seems based primarily on profit and status, rather than on kindness and common sense.
In pointing the misappropriation of these words and good intentions out, I am being fussy, persnickety, elitist, snobby, greenier-than-thou, and best of all, idealistic and demanding. What do I want the world to be, perfect? For food to be grown in ways that is safe for the workers, the planet, and the consumers—in that order—by workers who are paid a living wage and have appropriate voice and agency in their workplaces? For consumers to be self and world aware and make the best choices their souls and budgets allow? Do I want all companies to treat their employees as humans first, and as employees second, so that there is time and money to be informed and make those choices? Do I want the fossil fuel, coal, and natural gas industries to wither and die from disuse as we turn towards renewable, cleaner and more efficient ways to power our way of being within the world?
I don’t care about buzzwords and labels. In fact, when those words start to get bandied about, I tend to get quiet and angry. Or I just leave, and go about my life, refusing to buy into and be judged by a set of beliefs that I find harmfully ridiculous. It’s Walt Whitman, leaving the astronomy lecture to go look at the stars.
What is actually green, organic, and sustainable cannot be quantified or labeled or certified by a third party, or by any temporarily powerful authority. Is it more sustainable and better for the planet to ride my bike to Whole Foods and stock up on organic everything, or walk to the Shaw’s with the solar panels on the roof? What if I take the bus to Market Basket where the prices are cheap and any random aisle is alive with more human diversity than my entire hometown? Or I could do research and drive to whatever grocery store treats its employees best and pays them decently. Shall I only eat what I can grow, hunt, forage, and barter for in my eco-system?
No one can answer that for me—there is no third party for these questions. There is only me to answer to and for. And, among those choices I am lucky to have, there are no bad or wrong or lesser answers. No one best answer, either—there are no platinum, gold, or silver certifications for how to be. The right answer is what I find to be right, that day. All answers are better than dithering in indecision, waiting for someone else to say what is right for you to do.
True metrics of sustainability are pretty close, I find, to the metrics of our morals—what is sustainable is what feels the most right to how we each wish to be in the world, and how we wish the world to become, and what small steps are part of the larger journey towards that goal. While, chemically at least, organic does have a more distinct meaning, in the larger and smaller sense, what is organic is also more personal, what is organic is what feels most appropriate and natural for you, trying to maintain a connection to the big beautiful everything.
What is more organic than trusting and following your own heart out into the world?
It is a knife-edge between self-awareness and narcissistic-aggrandizing. Cleaving devotedly to the joyful path of your heart is the sweetest thing, but there is a danger in becoming blind to how your life and choices and path interact and crisscross others, how everything collides and connects. People who fuss about only eating organic, or only feeding their children organic food, irritate me in this way. They focus so much on the precious temples of their own bodies that they don’t seem to have energy left to see how their being fits in with the rest of the world. When we all “discovered” quinoa a few years ago, there was a shortage in the Andes, where it has been a staple basically forever. (And, yes, there is quinoa in my pantry and organic milk in my fridge—I am a little of what I despise. Aren’t we all?)
Friends, the revolts against the green-washing and untrue articulations of the words are sprouting. The revolution is, sweetly and practically, in progress. The farm I work on is organic, but at present the farmers seem disinterested in pursuing the official label—the price and process takes too much time and energy away from the work itself, of growing the vegetables in the first place. My architect friends have mostly left the firms with rigid hierarchies, where the young are eaten by the male dominated leadership, and have forged greener pastures in workplaces where families are supported and collaboration and creativity are valued. In academia—from kindergarten to Phd. programs—other friends find and make and teach more interdisciplinary and connected worldviews. And so goes the quiet shift of paradigms, of values over profit, of doing right things for our own right reasons.
Everywhere, in so many ways, we are putting our hearts first, and refusing to play by rules that are twisted away from what we each know to be right and true. What we’re building and growing by doing so, each of us in our different fields and ways, with the decisions of our hearts and talents, is beyond any label or standard. We are organically making the defiant and joyful worlds that cannot be defined and will be sustained.