Idealism is perhaps the best answer

Yesterday Greta Thunberg arrived in New York City, via sailboat after a two-week trip here from Sweden. She's a 16-year-old activist known for organizing student strikes to protest inaction on climate change and in NY to attend the UN climate summit later next month. Although personally I'd only heard of her recently, she is somewhat well-known. Still, The Guardian's live updates about her arrival in the harbor and the subsequent press conference sure did surprise me. I don't think the news story was so much about the fact of her arrival, but the method of her arrival--by sailboat! That was the only way to traverse an ocean without burning fossil fuels.

Greta's boat trip is an example of change outside the current system, rather than within the confines of our current expectations. But her trip is merely an example of that change--a way to show the kind of bold thinking we'll need in order to get ourselves out of this mess. Despite the idealistic statement of her arrival, two sailors will fly here from Europe to bring the boat back east. It seems that even an idealistic teenager can't avoid the downstream effects of something so modern as a transatlantic commute to a meeting.

I can't help but compare all this to the ideals surrounding CSA. Whether it's supporting ecologically sane growing methods or reducing the carbon footprint of food transportation, many people join the CSA, at least in part, for environmental reasons. And, just like Greta made major changes to live out her values, some people join a CSA to make a small changes in their lives to live out their own values. In turn, people reasonably ask how I can make small changes to CSA bag packing to make it more in line with our environmental principles.

In particular, people ask about plastic. We DO use plastic bags. We use clamshells for cherry tomatoes. Isn't there a way around that?

With this in mind, last year I transitioned from using plastic bags to using the paper lunch sacks in the CSA bags, which seems to be working well. I can see why opening the blue bag to find a sea of plastic baggies would be a bit disappointing. (When I asked people to return the clamshells so they could be reused, none of them came back—! I gave up on that idea.) Using brown paper bags certainly feels like the environmental choice.

But then I really looked into it... and guess what? The jury is out on whether single-use paper bags are better than plastic bags that get recycled. Or even whether using and recycling paper bags is better than using and recycling plastic bags. Paper itself is renewable, of course, but the processing is much more intense. (Interestingly, nobody's ever suggested I use more plastic bags, even though they are much more reusable at home and more recyclable too.)

Similarly, it feels ecologically sound for food travel only a few dozen miles from farm to plate compared to across the country, but my back-of-the-envelope math indicates that a full tractor trailer uses the same amount of fuel to move a vegetable across the country as my inefficient, partially-full delivery van uses to drive a vegetable around DC. People tend to think more about the fuel used in tractors, but the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel used by the farm is used to drive the food to the CSA pickup site.

We all try to live by our own values and want to feel like we’re helping to push the world in the direction we wish to see it move. Unfortunately, the reality is that while these incremental changes (paper bags vs plastic bags, driving shorter distances or longer distances, etc) are all better than the alternative, they are all fairly ineffective in the big picture.

As I see it, the real issue here is that there are no good alternatives with the way our world is set up. We can do what we can to change the inputs to the system, but the modern society we've developed is not a regenerative, balanced system. Since it's our consumptive, non-regenerative system that got us into this climate disaster in the first place, there probably isn't any solution to it that involves substituting one input for another while keeping the same system intact. If only it were so simple!

Greta Thunberg has been an accidental environmental activist for a year now, the face of the next generation of climate activism. She says, “In a way, I am more optimistic, because people are slowly waking up and people are becoming more aware of the situation. But also ... one year has passed and still almost nothing has happened.” And so, what to do? The best we can do may be to live our ideals as thoroughly as possible while not losing sight of the ways our own actions fall short of creating the change we wish to see. Even if that means throwing convention out the window and traveling by sailboat.