In 2018, “sustainability” has become so much of a buzzword that it has almost been reduced to just that: a word. More often than not, we think that we’ve done our part by investing in hybrid cars, eating organic, or even just recycling. Material and technological solutions are presented as the be-all, end-all of sustainability amongst consumers. We are “voting with our shopping carts” while scientists, engineers, and lawmakers do the rest. But we are more than just consumers, and as a humanities student, I resent the notion that I must be a scientist, engineer, or politician-in-training in order to make an impact.
Sustainability is in fact a multi-faceted term recognized by scholars across disciplines. In order for a project, for example, to be considered sustainable, it must have some longevity to it; the ability to regenerate and support itself. Solar renewable energy is sustainable because as long as the sun keeps shining, we can keep producing energy. Sustainability incorporates three factors into a mutually reinforcing, ideally equilateral, triangle: environmental health and protection, economic feasibility and productivity, and social equity. This is not news to many of us, and yet the third pillar is often times overlooked.
Incorporating human welfare into sustainable policy should ideally include everyone, and yet there is a major disparity between those who benefit the most from clean air, water, and land (oftentimes the largest energy consumers), and those who receive a disproportionate amount of environmental risk (oftentime the consumers of the least energy, globally). This is the basis of the environmental justice movement. Its roots begin in the 1970s, when environmentalists were called out for their slow uptake to address the environmental issues of marginalized populations, namely African Americans and Hispanic peoples in the United States. For example, while people marched on the first Earth Day in 1970, there was little conversation about waste incinerators purposefully sited near urban communities of color, resulting in rampant air, ground, and sound pollution. The purpose of environmental justice is not to create hierarchy of causes, but rather to recognize the intersectional goals embedded in each activist communities’ agenda. It recognizes that the exploitation of the environment and the exploitation of marginalized communities comes from the same root of oppression.
What does this have to do with food? Or with us? It has everything to do with us and the systems contributed to, consciously or not. Migrant farm workers continue to face a plethora of environmental injustices including, but certainly not limited to, increased risk of illness and death from pesticide exposure, lack of protection under federal and state laws, and increased risk simply by working in the most dangerous professional sector in the United States. Our food choices make a difference to people’s lives: our use of recycled paper cup cozies may be a start, but industrial farms and agricultural policy damage far more than the environment.
As sustainability-oriented people, we have to look beyond our material carbon footprints. Raising this to an institutional level, such as in a community like the University of Rochester, expands the potential for change several times over. Supporting local entrepreneurs, kitchens, and farms places another option on the table. Programs like Local Foods Week and Bee Day raise awareness about the changes that our possible when we start to look on our plates. Next time that you look on yours, think about the human and environmental resources that went into producing it: what kind of life was required in the making of your food?
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Guest Post Written by Sophia McRae, Class of 2019, Dining Team Green Sustainability Intern