The Totally Outsourced Life

It used to be that we made things in this country: you know, stuff, all kinds of things from heavy machinery to automobiles, clothing, furniture and electronics. My family ran a small woodworking and printing business in a mixed industrial and agricultural county in south central Pennsylvania. That factory was eventually shuttered, but for most of my formidable years we employed over 100 skilled workers, many who ran small farms in their off time and during the weekends. Gradually we Americans learned to “outsource,” a fancy term meaning that the owners of businesses and corporations maximize profits by moving operations wherever labor is cheapest and environmental laws are nearly nonexistent. This left us with the job of financing, designing, distributing, marketing, and importing the now outsourced goods — sending much of the money that used to remain in our own communities offshore.

The unmaking of the America that used to make things was a gradual wearing away. Early industrialization centered in the northeast. Then it crept slowly across the south, like a great blight, leaving a rust belt in its wake. (Before we outsourced overseas, we had a lot of practice outsourcing in our own country.) It is almost impossible for me to return to my childhood home anymore without feelings of deep despair. Economic development has all but stagnated. The woods and farms have long been carved up for golf courses and mutant housing developments (many unoccupied) that serve as a tax haven for commuters to Baltimore (an hour drive to the south). Nearly all manufacturing eventually moved offshore: first to Japan then Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Indonesia, India, China, Viet Nam, moving like a domino effect to wherever people are willing to work for less than the last outsourcing mecca. What wasn’t outsourced to Asia ended up in Central America, especially to the maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border once NAFTA passed.

The American financial system found a new way to grow the economy: credit. If everyone lived on credit, we could keep buying all the stuff that had been outsourced and was now piling high in malls and box stores, which had in turn outsourced most of the traditional local retailers as well. Once the credit ran out in America, the countries that were making the goods began extending the credit. We know all too well the outcome of that story when the bills finally came due. The banks were too big to fail. But millions of people lost their homes and without any manufacturing sector to speak of, or money to pay for stuff, the economy ground to a halt.

Global swings of money and economic power are not new to history or the international economy. In the nineteenth century, when a country’s worth and economy were actually based upon real assets like how much gold bullion and silver were in the government coffers, western trading nations became more than a bit rattled when vast stores of their wealth were being shipped off to Asia to meet rising demand for things like pepper, tea, silk, and other goods. The English retaliated by smuggling opium into China. This was done against the direct wishes of the emperor who cautioned his people against what a narcotic addiction would do to their cultural fabric. But like, credit and cheap disposable things that make life convenient, opium is a powerful addiction.

In a shameful effort to regain their vanishing wealth, the English bought opium from India and transported it into China only in return for gold. This way they cracked the nearly impenetrable fortress of the Imperial Chinese economy. Ultimately, it signaled the beginning of modernization, decade after decade of internal wars and revolution, and the end of dynasty rule in China.

Today, we Americans are faced with our own self-imposed addiction — we are strung out on the consumption of disposable products that fuel our convenience-driven lifestyles. Imagine that one of the biggest export items from California, among the world's ten most powerful economies, is recycled cardboard, from the boxes used to import all the cheap outsourced products. We are credit junkies, living by turning our houses and mortgages into ATM machines, and doing all in our powers to keep the faucet of cheap outsourced products flowing. Unlike imperial China, our economic leaders do not caution us to be more disciplined. Instead we are asked to grow the economy once more by consuming — keeping that addiction satisfied — rather than building an infrastructure to make things for ourselves. Consumption detached from production is an opiate, something that may satiate us from purchase to purchase, but keeps us from dealing with the real enemy at the gate. The totally outsourced life, in which purpose and the making of basic necessities has tragically gone missing.

Deep Ecology Champion Arne Naess Passes

Amidst the euphoria swirling around this historic inauguration was the passing of Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, on January 13. Perhaps best known for coining the term “Deep Ecology,” Naess was one of Europe’s most well respected and prolific philosophers of the 20th century. His writings and lectures spanned Spinoza, the nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi, and 20th century environmentalism.

Arne-Ness-250b-777682I cross country skied with Naess when he was in his mid-80s. On a sunny spring day, we strided and poled three or four miles to the Peter Grubb Hut at the base of Castle Peak, not far from Donner Pass. We stopped occasionally to take in the sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada, and Naess fanatically checked his pulse. At the hut, he insisted on shadow boxing and fooling around with my friend, the outstanding Norwegian skier, Jon Erik Brondmo, and me. In addition to his childlike high energy, I had this feeling that Arne had a special lens onto the world, that he was sensing and relishing in layers of aliveness that the average person could not see or experience.

Perhaps this is what helped him to discern the important differences between “Deep Ecology,” which addresses the root causes of biodiversity loss, and “Shallow Ecology,” that attempts to remediate environmental problems with end-of-pipe fixes. Naess very clearly stated his concerns about the growing human population, the rise of affluence and technology, and the reverence for all of the earth’s species. Among his more notable quotes, I remember him saying that he was a pessimist for the 21st century but an optimist for the 23rd century, when he envisioned that extreme changes in the human population, in ecological and social justice, and other developments would once again turn us toward a more harmonious way of life. But Naess believed in personal responsibility and urgency. “Every week counts. How terrible and shamefully bad conditions will be in the 21st century, or how far down we fall before we start on the way back up, depends on what YOU and others do today and tomorrow. There is not a single day to be lost. We need activism on a high level immediately.”

Below is the 8-Point Deep Ecology Platform drafted by Arne Naess and George Sessions:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life-forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

NY Times Obituary

Welcome to the 21st Century

For those who stocked their pantry with emergency provisions, purchased a backup generator, or were otherwise underwhelmed by the seemingly uneventful transition to Y2K eight years ago, let it be known that the unraveling of events in 2008 have more than compensated. Food riots are erupting around the globe. Rising fuel prices are affecting the cost of everything. Snow packs are down throughout the American West, Australia is suffering its worst drought in decades, and violent storms are gripping Asia. Up and down the West Coast, salmon fishing has been suspended for the entire season due to collapsing salmonid populations. The bubble economy inflated by paving over U.S. farmland to make way for cheap subdivisions has burst, sucking along global financial markets in its tailspin. The shocking headlines keep piling up. And it’s not even summer.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

These crises no longer seem like isolated incidents, but more like strands of interwoven trends that are settling in for the longer term. In his recent conclusion for the Pew Commission report on industrial farm animal production, “Putting Meat on the Table,”* farmer and philosopher Fred Kirschenmann suggests three troubling issues facing the U.S industrial food and agriculture system in the years ahead: the depletion of stored energy and water resources, and changing climate. “These changes,” writes Kirschenmann, “will be especially challenging because America’s successful industrial economy of the past century was based on the availability of cheap energy, a relatively stable climate, and abundant fresh water, and current methods have assumed the continued availability of these resources.” The only way ahead, cautions Kirschenmann, is the creation of a postindustrial food and farming system in which operations become localized and harmonized with the natural systems that support them.

The events of 2008 suggest that we inhabit a changed world. A great deal of the challenges we face in the 21st century no doubt arise directly as a result of the way we have conducted our lives and managed our societies over the course of the last 100 years. There really is no place to hide. No matter where we are, we can pick up a local or national newspaper and read about these issues of energy, water, and climate not as abstract concepts or far-off lumbering threats, but as harsh realities being brought right down to a human level. Here are just a few salient issues.

Feed versus Biofuels

More than 25 percent of the nation’s corn crop is now being used for ethanol production, despite the fact that it provides just a fraction of our overall liquid fuel consumption. This includes 10 million additional acres of corn than had been planted just a few years ago. Planting more corn means we have less acreage devoted to soybeans and wheat, and less acreage preserved through Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollments. Using corn for ethanol directly affects the cost of animal products, because the feedstock used for ethanol is starchy yellow processing corn, not the edible white varieties. And as wheat or rice acreage is lost in favor of expanded corn production, the price of food staples rises.

Food as Speculation

With the recent crisis in financial markets, capital has swiftly shifted toward tangible commodities, including food, also contributing to rising food prices. Governments are stockpiling foodstuffs. The value of arable farmland is soaring. Futures traders are hedging their bets on ever scarcer supplies of basic grains and oilseeds. Meanwhile, citizens around the globe feel the sting of rising food prices. Money is amassed by the powerful; others are starving. The ethics of feeding the world, not just with daily calories but with sound nutrition as well, along with generating surpluses to compensate for crop shortages, will increasingly come into conflict with the larger forces that dominate food production and distribution across the globe.

Escalating fuel costs

Imagine our contemporary food system without its massive machinery and billions of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, its energy and water inputs, all directly dependent upon fossil fuels. Consider that $200 per barrel oil prices are predicted to arrive perhaps as early as the end of this year. Now take your favorite food item and double its current price. Wipe the slate clean and begin to envision alternative ways to produce foods in your respective regions, communities, and backyards, in new ways that somehow deviate from our behavior patterns of the past, when we have literally been eating oil.

Climate challenges and droughts

The failure of the 2008 Australian harvest due to extreme drought sent a shock wave across world rice markets. Ripple effects have been felt everywhere. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Just this week, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released a sobering assessment on the impacts of climate change on the country’s bioregions. Hold on to your hats, this is a government agency document forecasting that: 1) unpredictable precipitation and weather patterns will disrupt crop performance an ongoing basis; 2) broad and potentially radical changes will transform some of the country’s most valued landscapes.

Food versus Wild Nature

As food becomes more precious, and food crop agriculture competes with an emerging agrofuels industry for scarce soil and water resources, the threats to wildlife and threatened habitats will escalate. Already we are seeing this unfold in the Salinas Valley, as the leafy green industry attempts to regain consumer confidence after industrial spinach became contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. Never mind that wildlife probably had nothing to do with the E. coli contamination of spinach. The science now suggests that the most likely source of the pathogenic batcteria was from feedlot manure transported by windborne dust. Yet in response to marketing orders from the leafy greens industry—not on the ground biology—miles of Salinas Valley riparian habitat have been bulldozed, fences erected, and wildlife baited and poisoned in the name of making the food system safe and secure. Conventional agriculture continues to miss the point. Our fate will ultimately be determined by how well we learn to coexist with other species, not by our efforts to obliterate them.

Eating Like An Activist

How did food suddenly surface—along with nuclear fallout and climate change—as one of the critical issues of our time? I guess when we all woke up and realized that we eat at least a few meals a day. And all of those individual food choices actually carry real world economic, social, and ecological consequences.

After all, we only get to vote once a year or even every few years for the handful of people who ultimately call the shots in politics, and by extension, the corporatocracy. Only so many of us are cut out to be congressmen, agribusiness CEOs, or fast food barons. But if we really thought long and hard about the state of our country and the challenges ahead of us—about our squandered resources and mismanaged opportunities for leadership—most of us would be out on the street engaging in nonviolent protest twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Which brings us back to food. It’s something tangible we can do something about. It’s something delicious that we can get passionate about. Eating is an act that grounds us to the present, to the future, to the land, to each other.

And it’s true, over the past fifty years the global food system has assumed Weapons of Mass Destruction-like propensities all its own. Fields are pumped with explosives-grade fertilizers. Wild areas have been devastated by the voracious planting of corn and soybean and wheat and rice and cotton and sugar cane monocultures. Mega-dairies and mega-feedlots unable to contain their toxic manure have driven people out of rural areas because they can’t breathe, can’t drink the water, can’t tolerate the countryside, can’t eat the fish, and can’t coexist with the flies. There are over 150 Dead Zones in waterways around the world. These are bays and gulfs and aquatic environs where agricultural nutrient contamination causes algae blooms that suck the life sustaining capacity out of the water. Fisheries collapse. Nothing survives. It’s eerily like nuclear fallout.

The maraschino cherry on top of all this is the obesity crisis. That economic disaster is just waiting to bankrupt state treasuries across the nation in the form of lost work days, drug prescriptions, doctors appointments, heart by-pass surgery and diabetes treatments, joint replacements, and hundreds of billions of dollars in other insured and uninsured annual medical bills.

But maybe there is a way out. “Eating,” wrote the Kentucky philosopher Wendell Berry, “is an agricultural act.” By that he meant that our food comes from the land, and that land is ultimately affected by the everyday choices and purchases of eaters. Berry might also have said that eating is an existential act. By this, I mean existential not in the I eat therefore I am sense, but in a more philosophical, why are we here? what makes us human? big picture kind of sense. Surely we eat to live. But how we accomplish this most basic and gracious and potentially spiritual act also says a lot about us as people—defines us actually—as a culture, as a species. Perhaps we don’t have to eat our way down to the last wild Chinook salmon, or reduce the Earth’s magnificent biological diversity to just a handful of species that satisfy our encroaching global culinary autism.

Something has to change. We simply can’t keep eating this way. We need to act, to start eating like activists: at the dinner table, at farmers’ markets, at our pre-schools and soccer games. How can our food choices influence the world we would like to live in, a world we would feel okay about passing on to our children and grandchildren? Here are a few rough compass points.

Wage your own personal battle against single-use disposable food and beverage containers. By this I mean plastic and paper packaging that will be used once, but is then destined to spend eternity afloat at sea, squashed in a landfill, or wasting away loathingly on the landscape. You can do this by shopping with your own reusable bags, staying in restaurants and cafes rather than taking out, buying food in bulk rather than single servings, making alternatives to bottled water and other disposable beverage containers.

Develop familiarity with the people who grow your food. Organic produce eaten out of season and shipped around the globe doesn’t count as activist eating. Buying food locally or regionally from farmers you know and whose farm practices you are familiar with is a good basis for a food ethic. Eco labels such as organically certified, shade grown, and biodynamic can help you identify good practices on items produced faraway—coffee, wine, grains might come to mind. But ultimately, familiarity with producers is the highest form of certification.

Help to dismantle the Industrial Animal Factory Complex. Mega-dairies and mega-feedlots that house tens of thousands of cows, chickens, and hogs in a single complex have become barbaric, unhealthy, and unecological modes of food production. Learn what you can about what goes on inside these massive operations, then do what you can to alter your diet accordingly. Maybe you’ll start with the industrial breakfast by reconsidering eggs produced by hens in crammed battery cages or bacon from hogs reared on cement-floored confinement sheds. These industrial production methods essentially thwart the animal’s every natural instinct. A healthy breakfast can lead to a whole day of sound choices around animal products.

Vote with your fork. Get political. Learn about the importance of the Farm Bill that is reauthorized by Congress every five to seven years. Meet your representatives and ask them if they have a “Post Cheap Oil Plan” to maximize a renewable farming system based on organic methods, and regional food production and distribution where you live.

Connect your eating and cooking habits with climate change. A recent University of Chicago study showed that eating a more vegetarian diet may be more influential in reducing an individual’s carbon footprint, even more than the car you drive. One main reason? The tens of billions of livestock living in confined animal factories produce nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This issue is not, however, entirely black and white. Livestock raised locally on a grass-fed diet may compare favorably, and organic produce shipped half way around the world, could arrive with a large CO2 price tag.

Wash your own heads of lettuce and other leafy greens. In the United States, more than half of all pre-washed, pre-cut leafy greens are grown in the nation’s Salad Bowl, the Salinas Valley. Unsafe production conditions there have resulted in isolated incidences of Salmonella, E.coli 0157 , and other pathogens entering the food system primarily through convenience-oriented pre-washed and bagged leafy greens. Industry has responded by waging a war on habitat and wild animals in that area, even though the most probable origin of the lethal E. coli 0157 was cows being fed a corn-intensive diet in the area.

Don’t be afraid to be radical. Newsweek recently highlighted a new group who call themselves the Freegans because they eat only free (surplus) vegan food. That’s pretty hardcore. But, hey, we can all start somewhere. Try growing some of your own food. Tear out some of your lawn and build a garden that becomes your hobby and your workout gym. Become a food artisan. Make your own bread and wine and vinegar and canned tomato sauce. Raise some laying hens in the backyard. There are a lot less worthy things to do with your time.

Make a place in your life for native bees. Three out of every four bites of the food we eat require some sort of pollinator to arrive at our tables. Most of this work is presently done by domesticated honeybees, but those bee colonies are on the verge of a precipitous collapse in agricultural areas all over the world. Native bees that have co-evolved with native plants (and their own sources of pollen and nectar) are our best insurance policy against a potential catastrophe and are best preserved with areas of healthy wild habitat.

When it comes to food, perhaps a word like revolution doesn’t have to seem ominous or pretentious or threatening. There is certainly plenty to be angry about—especially if you live anywhere near a 20,000 cow dairy or mega-feedlot, or follow U.S. Farm Bill politics. But there is also plenty to get excited about. The local food revolution starts at home. It can start right away and offer whole new ways of seeing the world and our rightful place at the table.

The Friends of Plastic Bags

I am clearly frustrated by single-use disposable packaging. You know, the take-out Styrofoam clamshell that you use for twenty minutes but which then lasts, wherever it ultimately ends up, longer than Michaelangelo’s statue of David. Or that plastic water bottle you picked up at the gas station. It's not going to rot in Hell. It might outlast Hell. So let's begin to call the wasteful stuff that makes our convenience dependent lifestyles possible by its true name. Single-use, disposable packaging.

Another fairly obvious point. There is a crystal clear answer to the paper or plastic conundrum: neither. Bring your own reusable bags with you wherever you go. If you want to choose between paper—the clearcutting of forests, grinding of logs into chips, pulping with harsh chemicals and boundless amounts of electricity—or plastic—the production of ultra-thin films made from petroleum or natural gas, then you'll always be choosing between the lesser of two evils. But it doesn't have to be that way. The humble reusable bag, preferably made of fabric scraps or organic cloth or something durable, will easily take the burden off your hands.

Early in 2008, China announced that it was outlawing the distribution and production of disposable plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags are known as "white pollution" in China. That's because they're used by the billions and blow around the landscape like albino tumbleweeds. Just two decades ago plastic bags barely existed in that country. A billion people did all their shopping on a daily basis and carried things around in cloth sacks and bicycle baskets. China now joins South Africa, Ireland, Bangladesh, Taiwan, the city of San Francisco, and a growing number of countries, municipalities, and corporations attempting to do something about the single-use disposable bag dilemma.

This sentiment is not universal. There are people, corporate conspirators actually, who don't want you to use your reusable canvas sacks, handy totes, folded up paper bags, and carefully washed produce bags. They call themselves by a number of names: the Progressive Bag Alliance and the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling. In essence, they are an industry trade group made up of plastic bag manufacturers, chemical producers, large retailers, and grocery chains who want us to continue buying plastic bags by the billions. For the sake of this essay, let's just call them The Friends of Plastic Bags. Their main argument is that plastic bags are "recyclable" and therefore "good for the environment."

That one single word—recyclable—is insidiously deceiving. It's true, theoretically, plastic bags are capable of being recycled. They can be melted into plastic decking (because we no longer have decent logs to harvest). They can be remanufactured into other bags too. But a plastic tote doesn't beget a new bag the way, say, an aluminum can or glass bottle so easily does. It is said that once recycled, an aluminum can returns to the shelf as a brand new can within two months. Or that an aluminum can tossed away in Brazil never touches the ground, so adept and prolific are that nation's trash recyclers, (and so coveted is that material). In contrast, worldwide just one percent of plastic bags are recycled. Most municipalities aren't set up to collect or sort them. And currently, there is no real manufacturing infrastructure for their reuse. For people dealing with municipal trash and the protection of wildlife, plastic bags are a number one pain in the ass.

Plastic bags are produced each year by the trillions. They are the world's top consumer item. Ninety-eight percent or more of the 100 billion polyethylene bags Americans use each year are simply tossed away after a single outing. (California alone is responsible for 19 billion.) They float into trees, clog storm drains, harm wildlife in waterways, and entwine themselves in the rollers at recycling facilities. The truth is we don't need them nearly as much as we may think we do or the Friends of Plastic Bags would like us to believe we do.

The Friends of Plastic Bags have deep pockets, a cadre of lawyers, and more than their fair share of lobbyists. This makes for a formidable and mean-spirited opponent. They not only want to ensure that plastic bags are here to stay permanently (because by design, they are). They want to take aim at the very democratic process itself. In order to maintain their market share, they have adopted an aggressive strategy known as "pre-emption." In California, lobbyists successfully introduced State Law AB 2449 which prohibits local governments from assessing a fee on plastic shopping bags. This means that even if a city government or town council wanted to assess a fee on shopping bags to reduce litter, encourage resourcefulness, or just get hip to the environmental realities of the 21st century, it is no longer an option. Plastic bags now enjoy a protected status within the Golden State. Sort of like the bald eagle or peregrine falcon.

This is why in April 2007 the city of San Francisco—burdened by white pollution problems of its own—had to choose the next best avenue. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors determined that all supermarket and chain drugstore checkout bags be durable, reusable, recyclable paper, or compostable plastic by November 2007. A year earlier, San Francisco's Department of the Environment had actually recommended that a 17-cent fee be levied on plastic bags to deal with the costs of recycling and cleanup. Studies show that economic incentives (or penalties) are among the most effective ways to shift consumer behavior. But the pre-emption on fees on plastic bags made that action impossible.

After decades of hard work, the city has developed one of the country's most advanced waste collection and recovery programs, including kitchen scraps and yard waste. The compostable bio-bags now required will also fit into the kitchen compost buckets most residents keep beside their sinks. This may help assuage "the ick factor" that many residents complain about household composting.

Cities up and down the West Coast had been waiting for San Francisco to make the first move on plastic bags. Many insiders expected cities to fall like dominoes, rolling out plastic bag bans from one side of the country to the other. As soon as the city issued their ordinance, the City of Oakland followed suit by adopting an almost identical ordinance. So did the town of Fairfax at the base of Mount Tamalpais. In Sonoma County, the town of Healdsburg took up the issue as well.

The Friends of Plastic Bags promptly filed a law suit against the city of Oakland for failing to properly complete a California Environmental Quality Act assessment before passing their ordinance. Fairfax received a similar legal complaint. Even before anything had been decided upon, Healdsburg city council members received letters threatening legal challenges.

Fairfax quickly repealed its ordinance. Apparently it only has a few large retailers and they were already complying with the change voluntarily. San Francisco and Oakland are moving ahead regardless. Healdsburg joined other Sonoma County municipalities and initiated a 6-month trial plastic bag curbside pick-up program and has launched a Promote the Tote campaign to vastly increase the local pool of available reusable bags in the community. Meanwhile, don't be surprised to find out that The Friends of Plastic Bags have successfully passed laws pre-empting local governments from taking such decisive action in a state near you.

The clock is ticking. Waste continues to mount, species are disappearing in record numbers, Antarctic ice sheets are breaking off in chunks the size of small countries, and corporations are waging legal battles to prevent citizens and officials from doing anything about it. China—in the mean time—has taken leadership on this issue.

It's time to decide which side you are on: The Friends of Plastic Bags or The Friends of Neither. And then roll up your sleeves and do something about it. Because if we can't find an elegant and universal solution to an issue like single-use disposable shopping bags, we don't stand a chance against more serious problems lurking right around the corner.

San Francisco Punts on a Shopping Bag Fee

A number of people have been asking me to weigh in on San Francisco's recent decision to postpone levying a 17-cent fee on paper or plastic shopping bags. Instead of a per-bag fee, in November 2005 the city set the goal of reducing 10 million paper and plastic shopping bags over the next twelve months. Seventeen cents was the amount that San Francisco Department of Environment researchers estimated would be required to cover both the costs of pick-up and disposal as well as to launch a campaign to increase the pool of reusable cloth bags.

San Francisco city residents use between 80 and 150 million paper and plastic shopping bags per year. The country's annual tally of polyethylene shopping bags tops 100 billion, according to Elizabeth Royte (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, p. 192.) Plastic bags become airborne, litter streets and snag on tree limbs, clog sewers and storm drains, and are a general bane to solid waste collectors. Because both paper and plastic have significant upstream impacts in their manufacture, and both are ultimately short-term disposables, the ideal solution is something that's durable and long-lasting rather than landfill bound. In other words, a system - not a preferred material.

Some countries have already banned plastic shopping bags outright. Ecologist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai has proposed that her native country of Kenya ban plastic bags because they blow around, collect water, and serve as ready breeding grounds for mosquitoes which then become vectors for malaria. Ireland has achieved radical reductions in plastic shopping bag consumption with a 10-cent fee at the counter. Other countries including Australia are following suit.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome's office began seriously considering the 17-cent fee on both paper and plastic shopping bags, people in Northern California, across the state, and the entire country took notice. Disposable plastics are becoming an increasing burden for municipalities everywhere. States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and others have already become waste depositories for states whose landfills are maxed out. The number one export to Asia from the West Coast is now used corrugated cardboard boxes. And this is not just a land-based quagmire. For many years, marine researchers have been reporting troublesome findings about the concentration of plastics in the stomachs of fish and sea birds and the contamination of beaches and seabeds. According to Dr. Charles Moore, the 500 square-mile area known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre contains at least 10 pounds of plastic for each pound of zooplankton. It's gruesome, really.

After some careful study, in November 2005 San Francisco's Board of Supervisors decided not to levy a fee on shopping bags. Instead, over the next year, the city will attempt to voluntarily reduce 10 million bags from its annual waste stream. According to a press release from the San Francisco Department of the Environment: "A reduction of 10 million bags will keep 95 tons of material plastic out of San Francisco's waste stream, and will reduce San Francisco's contribution of greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1 million pounds of CO2. This is equivalent to 44,000 gallons of oil or taking more than 14,000 automobiles off the road for a day."

Obviously, this is not the far-reaching initiative that many of us hoped for. Empirical evidence from around the world shows that the most effective way to shift behavior is through financial penalties such as the proposed fee on bags. In the mean time, the Department of the Environment will be allowed to carefully assess the progress of the experiment. After that time, the bag fee proposal can once again be placed on the table.

My preliminary investigations uncovered a few contributing factors leading to the decision. Realizing the domino effect that could take place if San Francisco placed a fee on disposable shopping bags, a coalition of paper, plastic, bag manufacturers, and retail grocery trade associations among others put up a considerable sum (upwards of a million dollars) to hire a lobbyist and launch a campaign to thwart the proposal. This is typical of the push-pull struggles between municipalities and private industry that have been brewing for decades. In Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws have successfully placed some of the financial burden for waste disposal on the businesses that generate it. So far in the U.S., corporate interests have won the battle, and waste disposal remains a civic responsibility and burden.

The coalition used a few key arguments in tipping the scale away from a bag fee. Concerns were raised about the impact on dog owners and pedestrians if there weren't enough plastic bags to scoop poop with. (No kidding.) Cautions were also raised about potential discriminatory effects that a fee might have on less affluent residents. A training program was cobbled together to help clerks become more effective baggers. Ultimately, the bag-fee opponents succeeded in shifting the debate from one of reduction to recycling, by arguing that the responsibility for waste disposal lies with local government rather than retailers and manufacturers.

On a brighter note, if the 10 million per year bag reduction is not met, there is still a chance that the city can be shown what a groundbreaking and important precedent this would set not just for Northern California, but for the entire state and the nation as a whole. Then and only then can we begin that journey of a thousand steps to put this legacy of disposability behind us.

Sustainability is a Fighting Word

Sustainability should be a fighting word. But like so many terms in our modern lexicon, "sustainability" has long been dragged through the mud, through the marketplace, through governmental and nongovernmental circles. We find it on corporate annual reports, in descriptions of modern agriculture, even embedded in tag lines of nonprofit publishing houses like Watershed Media. Along with other fighting words like "organic," "natural," and "biodiversity," sustainability wavers on a precipice above a void of total and complete ambiguity. (All good things will inevitably be co-opted and rendered meaningless.)

If we do take the time to examine this word, however, we find one of the juiciest, most fragile, and illusive onions one could ever hope to peel. At its core, sustainability implies, quite literally, the ability to sustain. So the operative question we need to continually keep in mind as we unravel the proverbial onion should be to sustain what? We hear all kinds of mega forces piggybacked alongside the sustainability train: sustainable agriculture, sustainable design, sustainable development - even sustainable growth. It is a testament to the power, the urgency, but also the inadequacy of the word, and perhaps ultimately, the inadequacy of language itself. Anyone for sustainable obesity? Or sustainable debauchery?

At its deepest and most fundamental sense, our vision of sustainability must transcend human concerns and embrace all of the life forms that make up this sweet earth. One need look no further than Arne Naess' principles of deep ecology or the lucid prose of one of our greatest living American writers, Wendell Berry, to find the real trajectory that the word should inspire. On a personal (and perhaps simplistic) level, sustainability implies the relentless nurturing of ever-deepening relationships. It is only at the level of direct interaction that we can adequately respond to the needs of the living world around us. At that point of intimate scale and connection, we become informed and inspired. And perhaps prepared to put up our dukes and defend what's worth fighting for.