Sustainability Today: Does it Make You Need a Beer?

I’m going to be appearing on stage next week, at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, as part of the Current’s “Policy and a Pint” discussion series. What are we discussing? Thinking globally, eating locally, sustainability, and what it means today. Come! Tickets are only $10, or $5 if you have a student ID. You get appetizers from the Loring Pasta Bar with your ticket: Buy here.

There’s a lot to consider about sustainability today. For instance, why do we have this swine-flu pandemic? There’s a great article in the UK Guardian tracking a part of the story that American media is ignoring.

Here’s a little taste of the excellent article by Mike Davis on “the planetary catastrophe of industrialized and ecologically unhinged livestock production.”

“In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million U.S. hogs on more than one million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.”

That’s why I get all my pork from the VanDerPol family in Kerkhoven, Minnesota.

Wonderful people, wonderful farming practices. Also, their pork makes industrial pork taste like cardboard dipped in ammonia. So I live in a world both guilt-free and yummy. Yet I pay more for meat than people shopping at big-box stores. I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to do this. How to make the world behave more like me without being an elitist, preachy jerk? Maybe we’ll figure that out.

Other topics to consider: The oceans are still over-fished and fisheries are about to collapse. Since writing on the topic last year… (“No Guilt Fish”)

… I’ve more or less restricted my fish intake to Alaskan seafood, domestic catfish, oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops, certain crabs, and a couple other non-over-fished species like hamachi. And yet I still can’t get on board with tilapia, which I know is the fish that will save us all, because it eats plants, not other fish (like most other farmed fish). Stewart Woodman, from Heidi’s, posted a great video on how to cook tilapia under a salt-crust—a recipe I know will be more delicious than tilapia fillets. But even this does not have me running out the door to buy tilapia. What will push me over the edge from knowing tilapia is good to actually wanting to eat it?

Scott Pampuch, the chef and owner of the restaurant The Corner Table, will be on stage with me for the event. I talked to him on the phone yesterday about what he thought the big issues in sustainability were right now, and asked him whether the current economic panic was going to make sustainability it a secondary concern. He told me he thought quite the contrary: His receipts are more or less what they were this time last year, meaning he has the same number of diners, and he thought that rising prices for commodity foods was actually leveling the playing field between sustainable foods and non-sustainable ones.

I’m going to be making phone calls this week checking in what other people think about sustainability today, in all its guises. Should Minneapolis have given all those Block E leases to big corporations like Snyder Drug, Border’s, and GameWorks, all of whom have bailed or are bailing, when locals like Jason McLean, owner of the Loring Pasta Bar, desperately wanted in? Wouldn’t local stakeholders have created a more sustainable city? Do people feel that the USDA Organics is important to them, or has the luster on the concept faded with big, bad-faith players like Horizon Organics in the mix? When it comes to wine, do you put your money behind sustainable wineries like Napa Valley’s Honig, or do you give up on warm-climate varietals with thousands of years of European history like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon and cultivate a taste for cold-hardy Minnesota wines?

Where does economic justice fit into all of this? There’s the ever-problematic tip-credit issue. (This is about whether tipped employees could get a lower minimum wage: Fine dining restaurants lament that they can’t afford to give their cooks more money because they keep having to pay mandated minimum wages to servers taking home hundreds of dollars a night in tips. On the other hand, the number of servers actually making those big bucks is small. The vast majority of servers in this state are working in rural diners, suburban chains, and so on. If you put in a tip credit, maybe some Minneapolis fine dining cooks get their pay raised from $10 an hour to $13, but a server at a truck stop in Blue Earth sees her wages plunge from $6.15 an hour to $3-something.) There’s the issue of whether you support restaurants that provide a living wage and health insurance for their employees, like The Modern Café in Northeast, or just let the chips fall where they may. Do you care about slave-tomatoes?

Or do you just want tomatoes on your burger and not have the one oasis in your hectic week polluted by these big questions? Where does your own right to sustain yourself, emotionally, intellectually, financially, and otherwise, come into sustainability in the macro sense?

I will give definitive, conclusive answers to all of these questions Wednesday night. Probably at 6:17 p.m.

Okay, you know I’m kidding, right?

My big fear for this discussion is that people are going to come and hope for one answer. But I don’t have that one easy answer. My big hope is that people come and bring their own good ideas, and are up for hashing out one of the big questions of our time. Hope to see you there!