Brahm Ahmadi spends a lot of time thinking about something most people take for granted: grocery stores.
But it hasn’t always been this way. As one of the founders of the nonprofit People’s Grocery in West Oakland -- the Bay Area’s most notorious food desert -- he and his colleagues started out with more affordable, less ambitious projects, like a mobile food delivery service and a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) box. But it quickly became clear -- as several grocery chains tried to enter the neighborhood and failed, and residents were left relying on corner stores or taking long trips by public transportation to other neighborhoods -- that the area needed a reliable, independent grocery store.
“Residents said, ‘What you’ve brought to the neighborhood is great, but it’s far from a complete solution,’” Ahmadi recalls.
So, he left People’s Grocery, spent time in business school where he became an expert on community grocery stores, and then secured a possible matching loan from the California FreshWorks Fund for around a third of the funding. Ahmadi then hatched a plan to raise the remaining $1.2 million needed to start the People’s Community Market through what’s called a direct public offering. In other words, he’s inviting California residents to invest in fresh food -- literally. For a mere $1,000, anyone in the state can become a shareholder.
Candied yams -- those deep orange, overcooked tubers that were too sweet and too uniform in texture -- were never a favorite of mine. Topped with marshmallows, the dish is often made with canned yams, earning them a comparison to candy. But the nuanced flavor and crispy skins of real yams or sweet potatoes can get lost in this "traditional" mid-century preparation -- not to mention many of the vitamins you get from the fresh, unpeeled version.
Sweet potatoes, or “yams” as they’re often called in the U.S. (true yams are something else entirely), are easy to find in most farmers markets this time of year, and I tend to prefer the soft, orange-fleshed varieties to the firmer yellow or white ones. Also in season in many parts of the country is maple syrup, nature's candy-like glaze -- and it's better than marshmallows. With the skins left on, real sweet potatoes can be sliced on the bias, basted with maple syrup and oil, and roasted until they are slightly crispy on the edges with an irresistibly soft orange interior. Unlike their canned counterparts, these treats are perfectly natural and pretty good for you too.
We need to talk about our national drinking problem. With more than half the country still devastated by drought, and all the experts saying we’d better get used to it, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss water conservation. Problem is, we're not too great at it: While much of the world lacks this most precious resource on a daily basis, we only need locate the nearest tap to quench our thirst -- and some of us still shell out cash to drink from a plastic bottle instead. How can we start to see water like the urgent issue it is?
In her book Taking on Water, Wendy Pabich explains the “diamond-water paradox”: “Although water is more useful than diamonds -- in fact, it is essential to life -- diamonds command a significantly higher price in the market.” She then quotes Adam Smith: “The things which have the greatest value in use frequently have little or no value in exchange; on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange frequently have little or no value in use.”
Of course, water’s perceived low value has a lot to do with its perceived abundance -- and that abundance, as Pabich reminds us, is neither universal nor eternal. Water scarcity is not out of the question for the U.S.: The Ogallala aquifer, upon which nearly a third of irrigated U.S. farmland depends, is being depleted faster than increasingly scarce rainfall can refill it. The story’s similar for many of the world’s most important aquifers.
While chronicling her painstakingly thorough efforts to first measure, and then reduce, her household’s water consumption, Pabich targeted not just her direct use (turning on the tap, flushing the toilet, firing up any number of household appliances) but her overall water footprint -- how much water goes into the food she eats, the clothes she wears, and the daily products she uses. She pats herself on the back after calculating that she and her husband each use an average of 154 gallons of water per day, somewhere in between the average daily water use for all Americans (99 gallons) and other residents of Idaho, where they live (263 gallons) -- but then cringes remembering that “the average person in Mozambique subsists on slightly more than one gallon of water per day.”
As it turns out, when you take into account all the ways we directly and indirectly guzzle water, our secondhand consumption makes up much more of the total; Pabich found her food alone requires more water to produce than what she uses directly. Which means that your speed showers and rocks in the toilet bowl, while worthwhile efforts, can’t make up for the processes that produce your bread and blue jeans -- things that are harder for individuals to control.
Water conservation, like so many other sustainability issues, inevitably begs the question of whether individual actions can have any impact within a larger water-dependent system. Agriculture accounts for 70 to 80 percent of water use in the U.S., and thinking of that as a systemic problem, Pabich says, means “we can put that out of our heads and think that we don’t have much control over it. But when you look at the impact of our aggregate choices, we absolutely have something to do with it.” She points out that it takes 1,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, “and in this country, we are consuming incredible amounts of red meat.”
While it’s a little frightening to see every element of your life as another leaky faucet, the good news is that cutting water use ends up conserving other resources as well.
On a cloudy spring morning, Ethan Ritter sat behind the wheel of a dump truck, lost in the maze of oil rigs northeast of Williston, N.D. Ritter, then 21, was hauling a load of gravel for his brother, who was doing road construction. He made a full stop at the tracks; there were no boom gates, only a crossing sign. His CB radio was off and all was quiet. Ritter looked both ways, then eased on the gas and headed into the crossing.
Next thing he knew, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine was shoving his truck down the track sideways at more than 40 miles an hour. “It was crazier than any roller coaster you can find, I’ll tell you that!” he recalls. “All I know is I got hit by the train. And that I was still kicking.”
In the past four years, the intersection -- the only access point to a handful of oil wells -- has seen four train-truck accidents, one of them fatal. Nationwide, collisions of trains and motor vehicles have dropped by 32 percent since 2006, but in North Dakota they’re up 67 percent.
Fracking relies on trucks. In its lifetime, a single well requires some 1,500 trips by semis, tankers, and pickups -- oil out; water, sand, and chemicals in. This is especially true in places like the Bakken Shale, where pipelines are scarce. On Williston’s crumbling roads, mud-caked semis jostle for space like massive bumper cars. Rush-hour backups can stretch for miles.
Vehicle accidents are the top danger to oil and gas workers, who are killed on the job at a rate nearly eight times the national average, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. As the number of rigs increases, fatalities increase in tandem.
When you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, I encourage you to give a thought to the people who grew the food on your table. Did they get a fair shake when they took their bounty to market? For the vast majority of Americans who shop at traditional grocery stores and supermarkets, which are supplied by large distributors and packers, the answer is probably no.
According to a 2007 study [PDF] from the University of Missouri, the four largest companies controlled 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing. In fact, so much consolidation has taken place throughout the food chain that it can be difficult for any one person to fathom the true effects.
The negative effects of this consolidation -- on the environment, jobs, and income -- in rural communities are tremendous. Yet for the last few decades, the government actively encouraged consolidation so that food production and distribution could benefit from economies of scale. Farmers complained about growing abuses from the handful of large companies that came to dominate food processing and distribution (and retailing) -- but never seemed to make headway with government regulators.
And that’s because low prices at the supermarket became the Holy Grail of federal policy. Nothing else mattered. We have a system designed to generate huge amounts of cheap food, no matter the collateral damage to the communities where this food is grown or processed.
This approach conveniently ignores the other side of the equation: food producers, who often can’t reach consumers directly and have a desperately hard time getting a fair price for their products when there are only one or two buyers. And those suffering producers are Americans, too, trying to make a living (so they can buy other Americans’ products and services).
Consumers have been pitted against producers. As a consequence, rising prices aren’t greeted as a sustainable development for producers, they’re treated as a symptom of a market that’s not “working.”
But in 2009, farmers finally caught the attention of the federal government when the Obama administration sent representatives from the Departments of Agriculture and Justice -- including Attorney General Eric Holder and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack themselves -- out into rural communities to register farmers' complaints. The blog Civil Eats described the struggles they voiced:
Across the country, the stories have been the same: grain prices so low they don’t cover the cost of [fertilizer and pesticides]. Milk prices so low they don’t cover feed costs. Non-genetically modified seed harder and harder for organic farmers to find. Families forced to sell their farms after generations on the land. Former farmers struggling with debt and unable to find work because they have no off-farm skills. Low-income consumers -- urban and rural -- with no access to fresh food.
On Nov. 14-15, the Climate Reality Project held its second annual "24 Hours of Reality" marathon, spending an entire day and night live-streaming events and panels around the globe to highlight various aspects of the climate crisis. (This year's theme was "dirty weather.") More than 100 people -- elected leaders, scientists, business people, and activists -- appeared on panels and millions tuned in to watch.
I caught up with Climate Reality founder Al Gore around hour 18 of his all-nighter and asked him about current U.S. climate politics, carbon taxes, and natural gas.
A. I heard the excerpts on climate, and [laughs] ... oh ...
A. No, I'm not going to go ahead! We have conflicting interests here! [laughs]
Well, I think it's too early to put a definitive interpretation on where he left it with that comment. I was genuinely encouraged that he said, in the first half of his answer, that he was going to conduct a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, etc. Many urged him to do it in the first term and I'm glad that he's pledging to do that now. That could take on a life of its own and have an impact how he thinks about it. And ... as I say, I really do believe it's premature to put a definitive interpretation on what it means about his intentions.
Q.Did you hear [White House press secretary] Jay Carney this morning?
In 100 years or so, when Google’s autonomous robo-historians write the book on their fleshy predecessors, they will no doubt try to explain why we blew it on climate change. Why, despite decades of ever-more-definitive evidence, did the human species not take even the most basic of measures to avoid a catastrophe?
They will find plenty of blame to pass around. Our political systems, they will observe, just weren’t up to the diplomatic challenges of mustering a multinational effort -- we couldn’t agree on whose fault it was, who should pay to fix it, even whether we should bother trying. Our brains proved ill-equipped to process the gravity of a long-range threat until it was too late. And our news media, the storytellers to whom this message was entrusted, were too easily distracted by more lurid dramas.
We didn’t see it coming, even though, on every other level, we knew it was.
This, as nature photographer James Balog tells us in the documentary Chasing Ice, is essentially a failure of imagination. Unless you have a glacier in your backyard, the earliest effects of a warming planet have so far appeared to most of us only intermittently, a signal lost in the noise of the daily weather.
If you're accustomed to roasting a winter squash and then scooping out the soft flesh to make soup, then you can create a pumpkin pie easily without canned pumpkin. You can roast the squash and let it cool while you're working on the crust. I won't lie; making an entire pie from scratch can take some time, but it gets easier with time.
The best thing about using fresh winter squash instead of the canned puree is variety of flavors. In my opinion, just about every other type of winter squash is better for pie-making than classic round pumpkins. Butternut, acorn, kabocha (the nutty Japanese variety), and most any other deep orange-fleshed squash works beautifully. Actual pumpkins tend to be fairly watery and stringy once cooked. For this pie, I used a carnival squash that had been adorning my apartment since the beginning of October -- it had green and white speckles on orange skin, and looked a bit like a fireworks display.
In the end, no one could tell what type of “pumpkin” I'd used in my pie, least of all that I had salvaged my Halloween decoration for this dessert. With a bit of caramelization, that roasted squash tasted much better than the average can o' pumpkin mush, and required less sugar than most recipes, too.
It’s one thing to pour money into your shmancy new gazillion-dollar, net-zero eco bungalow. It’s quite another to bring that design -- and the underlying philosophy that “green is good” -- to the multitudes of urban dwellers who are more familiar with subway schedules than they are with LEED certification or the Home Energy Rating System.
That’s where Gita Nanden comes in. The Brooklyn-based architect and co-founder of Thread Collective wants to take green building beyond the pages of Dwell magazine and into the realm of housing projects and urban farms.
“We don’t want to be the progenitors of gentrification,” says Nanden, whose firm recently completed construction on its new green office building, located in Brooklyn’s transitioning Bushwick neighborhood. Rather, she and her partners want to design eco-friendly buildings and spaces that are as likely to house people on welfare as they are to house upper middle class professionals.