Articles Published in The New York Times Magazine
The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever “it” means. On a recent visit to a land-grant university’s spanking-new sustainability institute, I asked my host how many of the school’s faculty members were involved.
A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Soon after the news broke last month that nearly 200 Americans in 26 states had been sickened by eating packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli, I received a rather coldblooded e-mail message from a friend in the food business. “I have instructed my broker to purchase a million shares of RadSafe,” he wrote, explaining that RadSafe is a leading manufacturer of food-irradiation technology. It turned out my friend was joking, but even so, his reasoning was impeccable.
“Elitist” is just about the nastiest name you can call someone, or something, in America these days, a finely-honed term of derision in the culture wars, and “elitist” has stuck to organic food in this country like balsamic vinegar to mâche. Thirty years ago the rap on organic was a little different: back then the stuff was derided as hippie food, crunchy granola and bricklike brown bread for the unshaved set (male and female division).
Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground.
Carbophobia, the most recent in the centurylong series of food fads to wash over the American table, seems to have finally crested, though not before sweeping away entire bakeries and pasta companies in its path, panicking potato breeders into redesigning the spud, crumbling whole doughnut empires and, at least to my way of thinking, ruining an untold number of meals.
Late last summer, I moved from Zone 5 to Zone 9, or, to be both more and (at least to a gardener) less geographically precise, from southern New England to Northern California. We gardeners divide the world into zones of plant hardiness; the lower the number, the colder it gets; so to go from Zone 5, with winter lows reaching 20 below, to Zone 9, where it barely freezes, is, horticulturally speaking, tantamount to a change of planet. I’ve been gardening seriously for 25 years and have learned all sorts of things, yet I feel as if I now have to start from zero.
It’s hard to say whether an American hamburger was appreciably less safe to eat the day after a Holstein cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Washington State last month than it was the day before, but it had sure gotten less appetizing. The news cracked open a door on the industrial kitchen where America’s meat is prepared, and what we glimpsed on the other side was enough to send even the heartiest diner to the vegetarian entree or the fish special.
Sometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler than they look. Take America’s “obesity epidemic,” arguably the most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that today’s children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.