Sustainability for a middle class American is an oxymoron. Our entire way of life is premised on unsustainability. We live in houses bigger than we need (even those of us in “small” houses). Americans own more cars than households; in fact, more cars than drivers. We are blessed with constantly fully-stocked shelves at the grocery store or even the farmers’ market, which simply leads to mountains of trash to make way for the new stock coming in. We have instantaneous access to any product we need; if we can’t get it at our local Target, it’s on the website.
We live in caverns of trash that we call our homes–basement, storage shed, attic, closets, full of things we might even use, but don’t really need.
And the strangest manifestation of this is what I’m calling “conspicuous sustainability.”
If you only buy t-shirts made from organic cotton, or hemp, but you have 9 of them, you’re indulging in conspicuous sustainability. Your full CSA share, where you end up discarding half the box because you don’t know what to do with all that kale. Sending your child to Eco Camp, three states away. Buying a Volt, when you have a perfectly functional ’07 Saturn in the garage.
The oddest manifestation of conspicuous sustainability is the seed swap.
The sustainability cred is immaculate–it’s barter, it’s local, it’s communal, it’s green things. It’s gardening.
The first seed swap I went to I got completely wrong. I’d been gardening for decades in isolation and didn’t know about “seed fanatics”–people who love seeds for their own sake. I thought seed swaps were for seeds you couldn’t buy, so I brought carefully packaged seeds that I had saved.
People showed up with huge boxes, systems even, of commercial seeds. They were for the most part bona fide sustainable–organic, small producers, heirloom varieties. No Burpee’s here. But commercially packaged, and people had dozens and dozens of them, far more than they could plant unless they happened to be the head gardener at Blenheim Palace. They would then lament at how they always bought too many, and would proceed to swap with other addicts, as often as not leaving with even more seeds than they’d come with.
I never used to do the seed catalogs much. I’d see what I could find at the garden center, then supplement with a couple of packages from Pinetree or Territorial. I had no idea that there were people who spent fifty or sixty dollars (or more) on seeds Every Single Year no matter what they still had in their stash.
It disturbs me.
It isn’t sustainable just because you’re buying from a sustainable merchant for a sustainable purpose. Part of the point of sustainability is to not consume, or produce, more than you need. Seed swaps bother me. I find them at best inconsistent, and at worst a little stomach turning.
There’s a thing in fiction writing called “internal consistency.” The best fiction creates a universe where people behave believably; a universe without deus ex machina fixes, or the convenient sudden appearances of long-lost cousins (can you tell I’ve been watching Downton?).
Sustainability is not a “lifestyle choice.” It’s not a fashion. It’s a philosophy that requires consideration about decisions and actions and purchases, from the tiniest seed to the hybrid Hummer. Perhaps it’s a little self-righteous of me, but I believe that every life should be internally consistent. If you want to live lightly on the earth, all of your actions should be consistent with that goal, to as great an extent as is possible.