The Call and Times, Column 15 – Joy to the World

9 02 2015

(December 5, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Joy to the World

I hope everyone enjoyed a reflective, family-filled, homegrown Thanksgiving holiday. Christmas is around the corner, and as we move into the holiday season, what the economists and lending institutions must surely call “the most wonderful time of the year”, I see it as a timely opportunity to write on a topic that I’ve been waiting a long time to share.

If you’ve noticed, this column has taken on a common theme over the past few months. This idea is that it is our responsibility, as consumers, co-producers, and (most importantly) urban farmers, to guide the local and global economies toward a better state than the present one. As we’ve discussed previously, this can be done by reducing waste, by “solving for a pattern” in our production and consumption of goods, and by buying food responsibly, with sustainability as the key measure of value.

As consumers, we shape our economy through the products we purchase and, in doing so, support a production system that either heals the environment, local communities, and our fellow human beings, or further damages them. In the spirit of that motive, and to put a nice finish on my theme this Fall, I want to discuss three general but interconnected habits of consumption: buying local, buying used, and repurposing whatever we can.

To my pleasant surprise, this is a concept that has really taken off in the past few years. The idea is that, by shopping at locally-owned and –operated businesses instead of chains and big box stores, whether you’re buying products you would otherwise buy or, better yet, making a point to buy things that are locally-manufactured, -made, -grown, and –raised, your purchase stimulates your local economy. It’s hard to exactly quantify this effect, but the American Independent Business Alliance (amiba.net) has found that an incredible 48% of money spent at local, independent businesses is recirculated through the community, in stark contrast to the 14% of that spent at chain retailers. This means that spending money at local, independent businesses is more than three times as stimulating to the local economy than buying equivalent products elsewhere.

Given the nature of this Urban Farmer column, my first suggestion is, of course, to buy food from farms (urban and commercial alike) in your area. Because food is the most basic good we need to survive, it is important for all communities to have a resilient and sustainable local foodshed. But beyond food, it is imperative that we, who know what sustainability really means, buy from local businesses whenever possible. Most communities are home to independent businesses offering basically every good and service we could need to purchase – from building supplies, to handmade art and jewelry, to electronics repair, it’s better to shop local. For those of you in my area, the Blackstone Valley Independent Business Alliance (buylocalbv.org) is a trove of information about businesses in the area, and serves as a much-appreciated advocate for the local economy.

It took an insightful email from a reader, Mary, for me to start thinking about this, and I’m so thankful for her correspondence. As a perfect complement to buying local, it is hugely beneficial for consumers to buy lightly-used and repurposed goods wherever possible. Depending on what’s available locally, these can include used books, electronics, tools, and even lightly-used clothes and furniture, all just as good as if bought new, but often at a small fraction of the price.

We live in a throw-away economy, where the availability of cheap labor and the efficiency of mass-production catalyze the flow of cheap, low-quality, plastic goods from developing countries to our shores and our stores. It is very easy, almost second nature, for us to buy and throw away these goods as quickly as their low cost can justify, forgetting the strip mines, sweat shops, and immeasurable pollution that it took to make those widgets. But this system can, and should be, turned on its head.

To switch our buying habits from mass-produced goods to high-quality, lightly-used ones would yield some pretty significant benefits. It saves money, of course, while delivering an identical or superior product. It saves energy and natural resources, by making the manufacture of an additional laptop or the printing of an additional book unnecessary. In this way, buying lightly used also does wonders for environmental health: less waste is produced, less fossil fuel is burned, and less mining is done. As an added bonus, because buying used generally means buying from a locally-owned business, and because the greater durability of American products is often a given, doing so stimulates our national and local economies as well.

This concept is probably where the skills and ingenuity of the urban farmer come in most handy. If our goals are to reduce waste, eliminate unnecessary consumption, save money, help the environment, and (though this week’s weather makes it hard to imagine) produce food efficiently and naturally in our own urban farms, then the practice of repurposing is absolutely necessary. It is pretty self-explanatory, but repurposing is basically finding new uses for old or otherwise used materials and goods, which serves both to keep them out of the landfill and eliminate the need for the manufacture of whatever it is that is being replaced.

There are countless examples of this, but in keeping with the Christmas spirit, here are a few good suggestions for repurposing. For the past few years in my home, I have been using newspaper instead of wrapping paper for my gifts. Not only does this reduce my house’s consumption of shiny, colorful paper that will ultimately be discarded after little practical use, but it also makes use of something (newspaper) which already served its initial purpose, and which would be recycled anyway. The next example involves the fate of a Christmas tree. Instead of being hauled to the landfill (something that I can’t believe is still being done), a Christmas tree at the end of its life can be treated like any other plant material: the needles, dried, can be used as a great mulch for acid-loving crops like blueberries; the skeletal stem and branches can be used as a trellis or stake in the garden; and at the very least, the entire thing can be composted into some great humus for next year’s garden.

Being stewards of the Earth means consuming as little as possible, buying goods that are responsibly made and secondhand, and making our home economies more productive, and definitely more sustainable, than the national and global ones in which we’re forced to take part. That old mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” has served its purpose, but I think it needs a little update if it’s to be applicable in our modern economy. Instead, as we’ve discovered over the past three months, how about we “Reduce, Reuse, Buy-used, Repurpose, Recycle, Up-cycle, and most of all, Compost”.

In our role as co-producers (maybe it’s time to drop that title of “consumers” now, eh?), it is our unique responsibility to vote with our buying power, and push the economy off of the ruinous path that it’s currently on, and towards sustainability and resiliency. It’s time to kick the idea of “rational self-interest”, the single motivation that economists assign to you and me, straight to the curb. We have to choose to operate our economy by the crazy notion that it can’t exist without the Earth. And if we can view the surface of the Earth not as a strip mine and a garbage heap, but as our only home, then it stands to reason that the less we take from it without giving back, the better.

To all my readers, I want to wish a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a joyous holiday season. This is the time of year when those of us who toil under the Sun, who understand the beauty and mystery of Nature and the simultaneous insignificance and danger of destructive human endeavors, are given a chance to rest. Rejoice in the natural and supernatural lights which burn bright in our wonderful world, and let the season restore your faith and hope in the year to come.

And with Christmas less than three weeks away, I’ll leave you with a classic but relevant quote. In the eternal words of Dr. Seuss, “It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!” Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’”

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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