…on hauling water, fringe sustainability practices, and the act of trending

Howdy y’all. My name’s Ben, and I move cartloads of buckets of stuff around for something like a living. I prefer to shrug off the notion that I am somehow a farmer, (not trending in this economy) though the end result of my work often yields food. Mostly what I do has much more to do with land care and reallocating resources, material resources, nutrient resources, and fertility resources.

I haul twenty gallons of water to the cows and milk goats, fifteen gallons to the homestead for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, then I haul five to the scrub goats down in the bottoms, five to the sows out under the big oak tree on the old fence line, ten to the growing piglets, five to the chickens, five to the ducks, five to the dogs… this is all fairly regular in the wintertime, without any well placed ponds on our land yet, and with weather conditions too cold to risk leaving out the labyrinth of hoses which carry captured rain water between all these systems, plus our gardens and trees, in the warm season. And carrying all this water, along with all the desiccated pumpkins and sprouted grains for the pigs, the honey locust pods and home-baled hedge leaves for the goats, the loads of eggs, manure, bones, ash, trash, firewood and more water, I have a fair bit of time to contemplate my own relevance.

Is it relevant to carry my own water, eke out my own simple living, care for plants, animals, and land, and hopefully leave behind a few nice tree plantings and a couple of skilled children before I perish? In a world where women carry a majority of the water, I’m happy enough to haul my share, and some for others as well. According to UNICEF, 2.1 billion people do not have access to fresh water in their own home. Of those folks, over a quarter billion of them must travel at least half an hour to collect it.

Pushing my cart through mud and brush, back and forth, I am, for one, thankful to have access to a spigot providing clean, municipal water, which is more than a lot of folks can say. Hauling one’s own water will tend to build some appreciation in the drinker for whatever they can get. Only in enclaves of relative privilege do folks turn their noses up at a little fluoride. Perhaps these folks can just afford a trip to the dentist. Some of us cannot.

Anyhow, I was thinking about whether or not what I’m doing is even relevant, in the face of climate instability, social unrest, total abject poverty, famine, and the global trend towards nationalism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. I’ve hauled plenty of water, but probably not as much as any fifteen year old girl in Sub Saharan Africa. My chances of stumbling upon a better way to collect water are minimal.

In the meantime, the affluent Western world’s relationship with sustainability is immaterial at best. We have some vague notion that there is some type of way forward through policy. There are slogans, ideals, and advertising campaigns. We all need a liveable planet, and we’re supposed to make our way there with reuseable straws and Impossible Burgers. Those options must feel like a joke to the starving and destitute.

I do believe that there are technologies and techniques that can aid in creating some type of level playing field for the human race. The affluent Western world needs to vastly power down its consumption, and reorganize into scaleable communities where fossil fuel use is minimized and carbon emissions are actively negated by restorative land based activities. We cannot expect the developing world to ignore what we have and want less than that.

Often, I marvel at the simplest of items that have improved my survival in this experiment. Chief among them are bearings and pneumatic tires. Without durable carts and wheelbarrows, the majority of what I do would be back breaking. Lo and behold, a lot of folks don’t have access to these things, let alone the batteries and solar panels that have enabled me to intensively graze animals, pump water, see what I’m doing, and communicate with all y’all. Quality carts to ease the burden of hauling water can leave more time for other things among subsistent folks. If something as simple as portable electric fencing were easily available to the world’s herders of goats, cattle, and sheep, different forms of management that we’re healthier for both livestock and land base could be performed. It’s just a thought, but in the face of an ever intensifying social media culture that seizes on fads until they’re sucked dry, where keywords, hashtags and memes drown out the actual exchange of ideas, my tiny notions about raising chickens among mulberries or incorporating pigs into nut tree plantings are irrelevant, suitable for a fringe audience at best. Somehow I doubt very much that the ideas that will save humanity, or at least lessen our struggle, are going to be ‘trending’.

Our culture isn’t prepared to value this necessary, if unsexy, work, nor the ideals behind it. Most folks would prefer to stay comfortable, even in expressing their progressive attitudes. But the comfort that’s being marketed as guilt-free cannot exist without a global economic system that is ultimately based on resource extraction. Nothing’s going to change if we keep waiting for the next electric car or plant-based burger to save us.

Perhaps veganism is a good example. I heard the advice recently to try to appeal more to the vegans. To be clear, I’m not picking on all vegans. (#notallvegans) I have plenty of vegan friends who I appeal to. I myself was vegan for several years, and I believe that the evidence is mostly clear that eating a plant-based diet has a less negative impact than one including animal products, speaking in general, conventional terms. I’ve also learned that it’s really hard to raise large amounts of vegetables and grains without manure, and that obtaining fats and oils from vegetable products is difficult in temperate North America without either tilling huge amounts of land for oil crops, or using huge amounts of fuel to import sketchy products like palm and coconut oil from the tropics.

I believe that domesticated animals have an important role in relation to human communities, and that the potential to utilize marginal lands for food production as well as sequestering carbon through thoughtful, intensive grazing practices is worth considering. It doesn’t mean that I advocate eating large amounts of animal products either. I’m not wealthy enough to go paleo. I just know that if I have my druthers, (and I do, I do have my druthers!) I’d chose to consume fat in the form of cheese from my cow or lard from my pigs that I can walk out the door and look at right now, rather than in the form of an avocado that was almost certainly harvested in unfair labor conditions, 2000 miles away from here. Besides, the affluent Western world isn’t about to go vegan, and neither is China, for that matter, where meat consumption has skyrocketed alongside the economy. Everyone wants a scrap of our decadence. There’s likely more potential in leveraging farmers to provide animal products that take into account humane, climate smart, restorative practices than getting Uncle Dale to eat Tofurkey.

But this is not what the conversation about diet in America is about, or has ever been about. Taking a moment in every meal to just consider what we eat and how it got there is, I believe, infinitely more helpful than the tendency towards labelling, trends, and identity politics surrounding food and diet.

I love food. I love growing it, preparing it, sharing it, and eating it, and I have many deeply held values around it that I’ll express some other time. No, dear reader, my goal today is to warn you of the pitfall of following trends. Trends, in this day and age, are often the fabrication of a vocal minority, yielding clout and media savvy to their own benefit. Perhaps you too have a practice you are deeply passionate about, that could benefit people and the planet, but isn’t sexy enough for a hashtag campaign. My unsolicited advice is to keep at it, regardless of the prevailing trends. In fact, run away from the trends as fast as you can, because there’s sure to be a lot of other people doing the same in short time, and some of them may end up looking for a more authentic solution when they do. That’s where you come in. Our contributions are too precious to be scrapped for clout.

To be fair, perhaps the revolution will be Tweeted. I dunno. We’ve seen it before, in the Arab Spring, before that went south into quagmire territory. We’ve also witnessed the rise of woke figures like Greta Thunberg. But the world needs those of us on the ground, making our own unique fringe contributions to sustainability and social justice too. It can’t be marketed, which makes it about as relevant as hauling your own water. Pretty damn relevant, at least to some people.