Wendell Berry once pointed out that if we believe that the ultimate reality is political, and therefore the ultimate solutions are political, we’re going to have a hard time doing right by the land.
I’ve been thinking of this as Vermont unrolls its new mandatory composting regulations. As of July 1, residents are required to keep vegetable waste out of the trash, though in reality ANR will not be searching garbage bags for compliance. If these composting regulations are to lead to a greater good, people will have to buy in and change their habits. The private sector will need to figure out how to absorb or pass on the extra costs. Homeowners will have to figure out how to discourage or live with more crows and skunks and coons and bears. Farmers are going to have to figure out how to incorporate finished compost in lieu of synthetic fertilizer, even though it’s more expensive and harder to handle. If people are going to be motivated to do this, they’ll need to see the earth as something more than dead matter upon which they drive to and from work.
Berry’s point is that when we see things through a political lens, it’s easy to sub out the hard work to others and then Monday-morning-quarterback the results. Politics – especially these days – also turns simple things into complicated, existential things. The relatively straightforward issue of not throwing a banana peel in the garbage can become an affront to our personal liberty and right to make a living, or a dramatic first step towards a worldwide eco-revolution. The reality is that the politics here are a nudge, trying to push society in a less wasteful direction.
If we’re to do the enormous work of learning to live within our means on an increasingly fragile planet, we need to start with simple steps that are manageable and that we can each be responsible for. For those of us who live in rural areas – which geographically speaking is the majority of us – we now have to scrape our food scraps into a bowl and walk it to the hedgerow each night. I can handle that.