What’s on Your Plate?
David R. Weiss – August 12, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #36 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
I think I surprised myself as much as anyone in the room—which would mean everyone was caught off guard by the uncompromising tone of my voice. I’m usually a pretty soft-spoken person, retiring even around groups. And this voice was neither soft nor retiring.
We were discussing my step-daughter Megan’s electric stove, which was hers not by choice but because it came with the house they bought a little over a year ago. And because when she checked the cost to put in a gas line to connect to a gas stove it seemed exorbitant, so she’s begrudgingly getting used to cooking on electric. I told her she was ahead of the curve, and that we’d be looking at electric next time our stove needed replacing. To which Margaret responded, “Um, No, why would we do that?” And that’s when I mildly exploded, “WE’D DO IT FOR THE FUTURE, FOR GOSH SAKES!”
Okay, everyone calm down. First, our gas stove isn’t all that old and it still works fine. We’re not in a position to just scrap it and replace it with electric. So Margaret and I have several years to sort out our feelings about this. And the amount of gas we use in food preparation is not huge. But, like Megan, I’m not indifferent to exorbitant costs—and, for me, the exorbitant ecological cost to my grandchildren of buying a new gas oven is one I will not bear. But honestly even I was surprised by the demanding urgency in my voice.
Maybe it’s the timing of that conversation. This past week the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report declared unambiguously that what we put on our plate today—from the food we choose, to the way it gets produced (and transported) at every step along the way to our dining room table—will directly impact the climate our grandchildren inherit tomorrow. And right now we’re literally eating their future.
The report details the way that land degradation (much of it from ill-conceived food production practices) contributes to the climate crisis … while the climate crisis also drives extreme weather that can irreparably damage the ability of ecosystems to produce food. Additionally, new studies reveal that food produced with higher CO2 rates in the atmosphere becomes less nutritious—both rice and wheat have lower protein and vitamin content. And while a few areas will see better food production as a result of a changing climate, most will see production fall—and in countries already food insecure, declining production will have cascading health, social, and political effects … that will inevitably cross borders. Rising threats to food security anywhere will become threats to national security everywhere.
More bluntly rising threats to food security pose threats to human security globally. This isn’t an argument for secure borders; it’s an argument for wiser and more equitable choices about how we produce (and transport and prepare) our food and the land we grow it on. The IPCC report notes that empowering women farmers and strengthening the land-security of small-scale farms is an evidence-based way to support the health of the land. And relentless deforestation must be checked or we will mortally wound the planet’s ability to store carbon at a level that conducive to human society (and to many creatures besides us).
The report criticizes an “extractive industrial system” that secures food for us in ways that fail to secure the soil’s integrity—either as a supplier of nutrients or a keeper of carbon. Tim Crews, one the authors, commented, “We’re not thinking holistically from an ecological point of view. We’re not thinking of our food producing farms as being ecosystems themselves. The natural systems that existed before agriculture have a lot of the answers. We should really start paying attention to that.” That’s a pretty direct shout out to permaculture. (See GITs #26-32.)
Meanwhile, Eric Holthaus, author of the Rolling Stone piece, echoes this sentiment and goes one step further: “In speaking with a half a dozen authors of the report, there was a single transformational thought that underpinned the urgency of their findings: Until we realize that we exist as part of an ecosystem, that we are part of a living planet, we will continue to destroy the soil that makes our existence possible.” And that, in large part, is the task of cosmology: having a grand story (religious or otherwise) of who we are that places us wholly within the web of this world.
The IPCC report describes a food production system that is wildly out of touch with a finite planet and a sustainable society … and one that operates (mostly) beyond the reach of actual food eaters. But not entirely. The report does make this much clear: we will not stave off climate catastrophe without slashing the amount of red meat we consume. This is non-negotiable for a livable future. Hence, in the U.S. in particular, we must make a real—population-wide—shift toward plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan diets. Or we must at least acknowledge we are damning our grandchildren to a bleak and dreadfully over-heated future because we’d rather eat as much meat as we wish today.
If enough of us rethink our meal choices we will reshape food production priorities. And, if we don’t, our grandchildren will perish. And if not ours, someone else’s—I’m not trying to melodramatic, I’m trying to be emotionally and unmistakably concrete. We can eat exactly the way we’ve been raised to eat … exactly the way we prefer to eat … and it will kill future generations. It’s time to stop pretending that personal diet choices remain personal. They are choices with cross-generational consequences, which makes them political. They reflect how people choose to share (or withhold) power in a community—including communities stretched across time.
So, maybe having all that on my mind explains the edginess in my voice in discussing oven choices. I’m largely vegetarian (occasionally eating sustainable seafood). But I have plenty of areas of choice in my own life to press myself on. One is eating “closer to harvest,”: lessening my consumption of processed food. Another is continuing to increase my consumption of (and support for) organic produce. Another is becoming more savvy about growing and preserving foods myself. And, yes, one more, is being willing to question the way I heat the food I prepare in my own home.
Jim Skea, one of the lead authors of the IPCC reports states, “We know about the huge challenges of climate change, but I don’t think we want to get across a message of despair. We want to get across a message that all actions make a difference.” That’s worth remembering as we choose what to put on our dinner plate today. Because whatever choices we make, our plate also holds one more thing besides the food: tomorrow.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 A recent NPR story discussed natural gas and climate: www.npr.org/2019/08/05/745051104/give-up-your-gas-stove-to-save-the-planet-banning-gas-is-the-next-climate-push
 The data I cite from the IPCC report comes from these articles: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/03/ipcc-land-use-food-production-key-to-climate-crisis-leaked-report