Bill McKibben

The environmental activist

October 7, 2008

When it comes to the environment, bigger is not always better, especially when you’re talking about big business, big populations, and big consumption.

Bill McKibben has been writing and thinking about how small is better for the environment for close to two decades. His first book, The End of Nature, was a wake-up call about global warming. He’s advocated for smaller families in Maybe One, and his latest book, last year’s Deep Economy, explored how smaller, local economies can help the earth.

McKibben was also on the leading edge of the locavore movement — while researching Deep Economy, he spend a year eating only foods local to his Vermont home.

Can you explain how local food and a local economy contribute to the health of the planet?
The average bite of food has to travel 2,000 miles to reach an American’s lips. That means it is, for one, marinated in crude oil and, two, tasteless.

We’ve agreed to this because the food has been cheap — but it’s getting less so now as the price of oil starts to soar. So if you’re interested in controlling global warming, one of the many things we must do is stop ordering takeout from the other side of the continent.

Bill McKibben

What’s the “food bubble” you write about in Deep Economy?
We are growing most of our food with oil at the moment — for fertilizers, for tractors, for transportation. And it’s starting to run out.

Based on the events of the past few months, like food shortages and high oil prices, do you think the food bubble is about to burst?
I think for the first time in a long time, those of us in the well-off world are going to start wondering a little more about where our dinner is going to come from.

Do you think the food shortages will be a wake-up call for policymakers?
I do. We’ve had food riots in 30 countries. Food security is the single most basic function of any government, and any government that doesn’t provide it doesn’t last.

How would you answer those who say that genetically modifying crops for higher yields is a good way to pull ourselves out of the coming global food crisis?
So far there’s been little success in modifying for higher yields — mostly because conventional plant breeding has already gone so far in that direction. I mean, a corn plant still needs roots and stalk — you’re not going to get an extra ear out of it.

So far, genetically modified food has mostly been about allowing Monsanto to sell more of its particular brands of herbicides — that’s what “Roundup Ready” means.

Did the recent farm bill rectify any of the conditions that support “big ag” in favor of small farms?
Not really. The conversation got started, but corporate agribusiness still basically wrote the farm bill. Next time around, perhaps, we’ll finally have a “food bill” and really begin the process of reform.

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I feel like there was real activism, as well as support from the news media, this time around with the farm bill. And yet, as you note, there was no real movement. What would it take to have real change in the farm bill? Do you feel a new administration would help?
A new administration might help, but the power of the big ag businesses will remain, because there are roughly 20 states, and hence 40 senators, that the big agricultural corporations control. Until everyone else starts to say that this is crazy, it will be hard to break that voting bloc and get real reform.

Do you think episodes like the recent chile-pepper-related salmonella outbreak and the seemingly endless meat recalls are making people more conscious of the drawbacks of industrialized food?
I think it’s a steady drumbeat. We’re no longer surprised by the latest outbreak of sickness. But as long as we insist on the cheapest possible food — in terms of time preparing and shopping, probably even more than actual price — these recalls and outbreaks will be pretty predictable.

Do you think that there is any way that the local-food movement can be co-opted by larger corporations in the same way the organic movement was?
Sure, but it will be harder. Really growing food in Vermont for Vermont shoppers doesn’t fit too easily with the Wal-Mart business model. And big companies like Wal-Mart have no interest in seasons; it’s always summer in the produce aisle at most supermarkets.

What about stores like Whole Foods, which note on signs what’s local, but still import organic raspberries from Chile in the winter? They seem to walk a middle ground, but are they part of the problem or part of the solution?
They can’t make up their minds, and we have to help them. Eat seasonally — and when you go to Whole Foods, tell them you’re not buying the Chilean raspberries because they make a mockery of the store’s commitment to doing something good for the planet.

Are there steps small sustainable farmers can take to prevent this?
Sure. Keep building those strong local ties — farmers’ markets, CSAs, working with churches and schools . . .

Aside from patronizing farmers’ markets and CSAs, are there innovative steps consumers can take to support sustainability in their regions?
Ask the waiter every time: What’s local? Don’t patronize any restaurants of which there is more than one. Drink water from the local ground, not from a bottle. Learn to cook so seasonality doesn’t defeat you.

Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications, and is the managing editor of Bitch magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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