Worldchanging Essay: The All-American Diet


12401223_c95a47a8b6.jpgOne of the unifying features of this time of year – of Thanksgiving and the winter holidays – is food, and lots of it. Although the traditional seasonal consumer excess will be curbed by economic pain this year, many people will still maintain the tradition of gathering with others around the table. This in itself isn't a bad thing: food brings us together, and to many people the experience of sharing a meal is a sacred act.

But Worldchanging readers know that all of this food raises questions from a sustainability perspective. And I can think of no aspect of our diets more controversial than meat .

Readers of this site, by and large, attempt to be good environmental citizens; it’s our unifying feature. While not all of us are vegetarian, most of us are aware of the environmental implications of eating meat – and especially red meat. The environmental degradation associated with raising beef cattle in the United States is particularly troubling, and it came up recently in a conversation.

Why do we eat beef in this country, anyway?

Because, really, it makes no cultural sense. There were no cows in America when Europeans landed here. The cattle we know today are here because we brought them here. This history lesson really messed with my head when I started thinking about it, as I realized how much of our culture, particularly the unsustainable aspects, come from thoughtlessly imposing an old culture into a new world, to which it was not well suited. Invasive species is an older idea than I realized.

We eat beef because the English ate beef.
We have lawns because the English had lawns.
Not just that they had them, but because beef and lawns were status symbols – they are relics of our ‘every man a king’ defiance of an old social order. A signal that we no longer need to work the land in front of our houses just to feed ourselves; we no longer need to use the inexpensive bits of the animal (better steak than haggis, yes?).

This train of thought made me wonder, if sustainability requires more thoughtful living, can one solution be to localize a little further by ‘eating American’? It is a small part of the large effort we are undertaking, but I am now personally attempting to eat an all-American diet. No beef, but I will eat buffalo. No chicken, but I will eat turkey. I will eat corn and squash and salmon. These things, after all, were meant to live here. Raising native species requires little intervention, little support. Could this be part of our push to restore the ecology of the United States? What would the benefit be of a nation that ate this way? Would it change our thinking about our stewardship of this land? Is there a wider application of the buffalo commons idea?

I am not implying that this represents a full solution to the question of eating (who among us will switch to only bourbon?), but I do think that the thoughtfulness this requires is useful. How intentionally can we throw off our cultural inheritance and honor what is uniquely ours? What historical baggage are we still carrying? How do we unpack it?

Justus Stewart is an urban planner and designer living in Seattle. He currently works on climate planning for local governments. Justus' main interest is the overlap and interrelation of fields usually held as separate.

Photo credit: flickr/trickofthelight, Creative Commons license.

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