Connecting the Sustainabilty Dots

Are you a vegan? Do you shop locally? Buy organic food? Belong to a time bank, co-op or informal sharing collective? Avoid plastic? Collect water in rain barrels? Buy electricity from a renewable producer? Use local currency? Commute via bike or public transportation? Live in an eco-friendly home?

There are countless ways to become more sustainable in our daily lives …and plenty of social movements advocating for one approach or another. Most of us begin the journey toward sustainability by focusing on one or two issues that mean the most to us. It may be keeping our families safe and healthy. Or preserving family farms and open space. Or reducing our carbon footprints and impact on trash. Or finding ways to live happily with less.

It’s not easy to do it all. But nearly every sustainable step can offer benefits beyond those we set out to pursue.

Just consider the doors opened by edible gardening.

A lot of us are growing some of our own fruits and veggies these days… or even raising a few backyard chickens. The edible gardening trend dates from the Great Recession, when many of us were seeking ways to live on smaller incomes. Another motivation was the desire to know the origins of the food we eat. But backyard “farming” also can help us live more sustainably in a host of other ways.

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1. Organic food, health and the environment. Growing our own food makes organic an affordable choice. That can help us improve our health by reducing our exposure to agricultural chemicals. It also can allow us to have an impact, however small, on global warming. According to studies by the Rodale Institute,* soil left in its natural state contains fungi (microphages) known to act as natural “carbon sinks.” The fungi allow soil to provide the same “eco-system service” as trees and oceans, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. Gardening or raising chickens organically also can be part of a “permaculture” approach that encourages respect for the laws of nature. When we grow food according to permaculture principals, we can enjoy multiple benefits from a single activity. For example, by planting vegetables together that provide each other with mutual protection from pests (i.e., “companion planting’),  we can eliminate the need for toxic interventions, encourage healthy plant growth and enjoy a well-balanced harvest. Similarly, raising chickens can cut down on non-beneficial insects in the backyard while providing us with fertilizer and two great sources of protein.

2. Food security, sharing and community building. You’ve probably heard the stats on America’s “food insecure,” an astoundingly large population due to relentless unemployment — and years of national neglect on the issue of poverty. Growing our own food gives us an opportunity to address this issue by donating fresh produce to local food banks. Participating in a community garden or urban farming project can involve teaching others to grow their own food and become more self-sufficient. And putting up jams, vinegar and other non-perishables can help us address short-term food scarcity due to extreme weather events.

When we share stored foods with neighbors in need, we can not only help solve an immediate problem, but also participate in building stronger, more resilient communities. We may even decide to formalize these sharing arrangements by forming or joining a food co-op or perhaps a tool-lending library for garden tools. Increasing local food production (through gardening, but also by buying food directly from farms or joining CSAs), can help us achieve what localist economists call “import replacement.” Producing more of the things we once “imported” from someplace else can strengthen our local economies and reduce the carbon footprint associated with shipping food around the globe.

3. Getting back to nature and protecting the environment. Many of us already have a strong connection to nature that drives our desire to make eco-conscious choices about what we buy, how we power our homes and so on. But not everyone has had the opportunity to build a strong bond with Mother Earth. Gardening takes time…and gives us time to enjoy the warmth of the sun on our backs, the feel of cool Spring soil, the aroma of fresh herbs and greens. That, in turn, can give us the resolve to become more eco-conscious in our everyday lives. A sustainable lifestyle may take root in the garden, not only with organic plantings, but also with rain barrels to harvest rain, composting piles to produce healthy fertilizer and a “no-till” gardening approach to protect and preserve our soil. Our new-found sustainability around gardening may even carry over into other activities, such as choosing a renewable energy supplier, replacing kitchen plastics with glass or stainless steel, or getting involved with an organization that protects open space and preservation of local farms.

Future posts will explore other ways to make our lifestyles more “holistically” sustainable. In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you’re doing to connect the sustainability dots.

*”Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming,” Rodale Institute, 2008

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