Earth Day is a holiday that should be celebrated every day. But after April 22, many organizations and individuals forget about their pledges to renew and protect the earth.
Cumulative daily environmental changes can’t be reversed in 24 hours. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine recently hosted a festival emphasizing the environmental aspects of food called The Value of Food. The festival featured art exhibitions and talks focusing on food security, accessibility, and sustainability, and highlighted the environmental crises we are now facing.
Karenna Gore, Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, spoke at the festival on the importance of efficient waste infrastructure and its effect on the environment. The Center for Earth Ethics brings global spiritual and religious leaders, activists, scholars and scientists together to address the urgent issues of climate change.
Paste spoke with Ms. Gore on the intersection of climate change politics, awareness, and grocery shopping.
Paste: How do you think climate change affects food?
Karenna Gore: The way that I think about it is on a broad, brushstroke level about consciousness and how humanity views its relationship to the rest of the natural world and to the planet. It seems to me as if it’s a little bit reverse-ordered — that food has affected climate change, in that so many people don’t know where there food comes from. We’ve gotten really disconnected.
Paste: In what sense?
KG: In the sense that food comes in packages from stores, from around the world—for a lot of people in the United States, it kind of leads to a sense of disconnection. You don’t know where the trash goes, where the waste goes. You don’t think as much about the consequences of your actions or the connection of your own sustenance with the health of the air, water and soil around you.
Of course, large scale industrial agriculture takes a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste. This often involves transporting things around the world, and it’s a system based on profit and quantity, and not on the actual nutritional value or cultural significance.
Paste: What role does consumer choice play in the politics of food?
KG: Consumer choices are changing, but policy is taking longer. People feel disconnected to the political process. Our entire political process is corrupted by money, and people giving large donations are more likely to influence decisions in the national government. Food and Water Watch are really making a difference to the advocacy on policy.
The consumer choices are great — I don’t mean to belittle that. The market has shown what people want and are willing to pay a little extra. But the thing is, you shouldn’t have to pay extra. The reason it’s more expensive to buy a local, nutritious product is because of policy. It’s not natural at all. So we need to move the policies with the desire of the public and consumer choices.
Paste: How can the general populace create change?
KG: It’s really hard to rely on individual choices. We need to be engaged in civic conversations in laws. It needs to be not the government imposing, but us deciding, through a democratic process, that we value the common good of our soil and air. We have to change the framework about that and so with individual companies, there are so many doing things because their paradigm is based on profit.
Paste: How does the Center for Earth Ethics help shift that framework?
KG: We are very focused on changing measurements—we’ve had a couple of workshops around the idea of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as the way of measuring health of a society. GDP is what people mean by economic growth, but it means products sold — turning the trees and the oceans into things in plastic wrappers that we can sell. It doesn’t necessarily measure well-being.
The Center for Earth Ethics is in the same city as the United Nations, so we’re able to be engaged in the debate of the sustainable development goals around the United Nations. Through that, we’re part of a coalition that is trying to argue that we need to factor in environmental and social costs with how companies measure their success, and also how countries measure their success.
Sometimes it seems that you should be an economist to talk about it, but more often it seems like we all need to be talking about it. For too long, it’s a conversation that’s ceded to people who say, “No, no, there’s an invisible hand of the market, and it takes care of everything.” And it doesn’t.
There’s vast inequality. The economic growth situation could be that there is a new factory and everyone has a job now, but no one has a role in their community, and the stream is being polluted. These things aren’t measured in economic growth.
One way the Center for Earth Ethics is doing it is that we’re weighing in on the sustainable development goals and advocating for measurements of well-being rather than just GDP and economic growth.
Paste: So what can people do on a micro level to support macro changes in government?
KG: On a micro level, people can educate themselves about who makes decisions about food policy in their community, city and state. If you have knowledge and pay attention, your power to make change will follow. Opportunities will present themselves.
I think in some ways this is more important even than individual consumer choices because we need to affect things at a policy level and find ways to speak up for more vulnerable people. But individual consumer choices are important?too. Suggesting to your favorite stores and restaurants and stores that they make good sound choices in their sourcing and their serving ware or packaging can help.
Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author, and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Top photo by Anthony Albright CC BY-SA. Preview photo courtesy of Karenna Gore and the Center for Earth Ethics.