Friday, May 14, 2010

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Eats

The Christian Science Monitor has a thorough article about the promises of purchasing carbon-offsets: most significantly, they do not make quantifiable differences and in some cases are causing more harm than good. This seems suspiciously like the Catholic Church's 16th-century sale of indulgences: those who have money to purchase them don't have to suffer mentally as much.Photograph by Mary Knox Merrill

The Urban Land Scouts were born out of healthy skepticism towards carbon-offsets, Priuses, and recycling. It's not that these things are bad in and of themselves (although the CSM article certainly pushes the carbon-offsets towards "bad" in my mind), it's that they are a panacea that assuage our guilt about environmental destruction and imbalance. We make these small gestures to make ourselves feel better and skip over decisions that may demand more of us. For example, air travel. Although experts claims air travel accounts for only 3% of global CO2 emissions(1), flying is not globally sustainable method of travel. Nor, for that matter, is driving solo. I know all this, but I've already flown twice this year, have at least one more cross country trip planned, and very regularly drive myself less than four miles to work. I hear that Barabara Kingsolver (author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) only flies once a year, but I'm not ready for that. I don't want to have to choose. Or rather, I don't want to limit myself.

The same goes for vegetarianism or limiting meat intake. There are many ways in which I could make better environmental decisions, but do not because I privilege the comfort and familiarity of my life. What then, should I do?

In contrast to the invisible (and possibly fraudulent) carbon-offsets, I propose that we engage in activities whose beneficiaries are local and visible. Residents of Knoxville have plenty of opportunities to volunteer for a number of social and environmental causes and I would like to add one more to that list: the Market Square Farmers' Market.

The market is just over five years old and, despite the burgeoning development downtown, it's one of the few places in the city center where one can buy fresh produce. Certainly, one of the only places selling locally sourced groceries (with the possible upcoming exception of Aisle Nine). In the last two to three years the market has boomed: more vendors, more variety, and many more customers.

With that boom comes an increase in the duties and responsibilities of the market manager, Charlotte Tolley. Ms. Tolley and a dedicated team of four to five core volunteers are at the market twice a week from start to finish. In addition to the face time of running the market, Tolley puts in long hours fielding queries from possible vendors, health inspectors, and event planners; working with the city; and, perhaps most importantly, fundraising for the market. It takes a lot of time and energy: more than one person can sustain for very long.

The market needs volunteers and needs them now. As with the activities promoted by the Urban Land Scouts, volunteering at the market is a reasonable step for modern urban people. It's halfway between not-giving-a-damn and giving up air travel for the rest of your life. Maybe more like a quarter of the way, really, but it's a start. As a volunteer you can expect to show up an hour before the market starts (8 am on Saturdays, 10 am on Wednesdays). You duties might range from helping vendors unload trucks and set up their tents, to doing crowd counts, taking photographs of events, assisting vendors at their booths and support special events. The best part is that you will gain greater intimacy into one of the systems by which you are fed.

If you're interested in volunteering with the market, you can reach Charlotte by email at charlottetolley (at) hotmail (dot) com. (Replace the words (at) and (dot) with @ and . respectively.) You will see exactly how your time and energy benefits your immediate community.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In the Thick of It

A friend pointed me to this small tempest over the USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program. Susan Schneider, the blog's author, does a good job picking apart the language used by Senators in their complaint. For the record, the Senators are: Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia, Ranking Minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee), John McCain (R-Arizona) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas). Their complaint sets up two damaging stereotypes of the people involved in producing and consuming local food. They are, "small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets." It's interesting to read the comments following both the YouTube video of Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack introducing the program and the original post on the Agricultural Law blog. You can watch the video here, but you'll have to go to YouTube to read the comments. It's worth a browse.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Earning Patches

The gallery display of the Urban Land Scouts is now closed, but the project continues in the hands of the fifty or so people who signed up. I remain curious about follow through-- I estimate about 30% of the signees will actually send in documentation to earn their badges. We shall see.

One such Scout is Jessie Van der Laan, who blogged about the project and her progress. This earns her the Level Six badge (pictured here):

You can read Jessie's post and keep up with her progress, in life as well as Urban Land Scouting, here.