Is it Possible to be an avid LOHAS Consumer and a diehard LOCAVORE at the same time?
by Paul E McGinniss
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987
THE EARTH DAY 2011 INVITE
Last week on Earth Day I left the bucolic countryside of Ulster County, New York and attended a media lunch hosted by Ted Ning and LOHAS at the restaurant, Rouge Tomate, in NYC. Rouge Tomate is a soaring, elegant space hidden just off bustling 5th Avenue in the East 60s. Barneys Men store is across the street, a place where you could easily spend 400 dollars on what are, basically, sneakers. Just to give a non-New Yorker a sense of the territory.
I'd been to Rouge Tomate before - the first time for the swanky Eco-Luxe happening, a luxury off shoot of the more pedestrian national eco event series called Go Green. If you had to explain the difference between Go Green and Eco-Luxe, I'd say Go Green was more New York Post and Eco-Luxe was more Wall Street Journal - same focus of "going green", but different economic strata and spin. Underneath the consciousness raising, both of these green events were essentially about shopping. And, I wanted to mention this because the concept of green shopping is at the heart of my current reflection.
So, I was happy to head back to Rouge Tomate again. Despite being a native of New York City, I chose the refuge of living upstate in Ulster County, NY--land of post 911 NYC refugees who have fled the hyper-tourist consumerism of the ever-expanding Big Apple. As a “noveau townie”, I still love hopping on the low carbon footprint, everyman Trailways Bus from crunchy New Paltz to enjoy a splashy day out with my ex i.e. New York City.
William Burroughs once said about heroin, (and I paraphrase), which I think really applies to New York City: "Doing heroin is like being in a relationship. Even if you break up with your lover and don't see each other for a long time, when you see them again, in the back of your mind, you know you might just end up sleeping with them again.”
So, my point in telling you all this is this. Ever since moving upstate to the Hudson Valley and becoming somewhat of an obsessed enviro-journalist, green-truth-seeker-of-all-things-on-how-to-have-no-impact-and-save-the-planet, I have been in a conundrum of sorts. Let me explain.
Image of poster for the film "No Impact Man." The story revolves around Colin Beavan and his family's attempt to live as much as possible without consuming all that modern society has come to rely upon.
THE EARTH DAY CONUNDRUM: ON THE BUS OR OFF THE BUS?
Standing on the asphalt parking lot at the somewhat dowdy bus station in New Paltz, on my way to the LOHAS media luncheon, I'm thinking of Ken Kesey's line from "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test": On the bus or off the bus? I'm waiting for the bus. To NYC. Happy to get out of Bumbletown--as my friends in Long Island call upstate NY. (Actually, for them, anything north of Central Park IS upstate.) On the bus I decide to get a little “light” reading in, namely an article entitled “Temporary Recession or End of Growth” by famous Peak Oil prophet, Richard Heinberg. (Heinberg is on the list of people I plan to interview for my book "Survival Cool", so I needed to brush up on his thinking.)
Heinberg proposes that we can not shop and consume our way out of the current world dilemma and, in fact, continuing to consume like we do now, no matter how "green", is not remotely sustainable. The opening of the text I read on the bus is: "Everyone agrees: our economy is sick. The inescapable symptoms include declines in consumer spending and consumer confidence, together with a contraction of international trade and available credit. Add a collapse in real estate values and carnage in the automotive and airline industries and the picture looks grim indeed."
Picture: Book Cover for "Pipe Dreams" which is “dedicated to the people of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey who are linked by a post-Soviet oil pipeline." The haunting photos in this book explore the negative impact the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has had on the region.
Heinberg- a die hard locavore if there ever was one – goes on: “Thus a high priority must be placed on the building of community resilience through the preferential local sourcing of necessities and the maintenance of larger regional inventories, especially of food and fuel.”
As I read his exquisitely argued text, essentially an attack on much of modern culture and commerce, (I am not sure Heinberg thinks there is a difference between modern culture and commerce), I pause and think about what is going on in upstate New York, where I live, and elsewhere and around the country. There is a whole back-to-the-land/back-to-the-garden kind of migration. There are more and more people like me who have tried to flee the rush rush of modernity for something a tad more simple, a tad more affordable on both economic and stress related levels. A tad less consumer focused,as well,I hope. I keep musing on all the people who author/advocate Nick Rosen writes about in his excellent book, “Off the Grid”, people who want to set up a life system where they have the basics covered, people who are secure even if laid off, even if peak oil makes many things we now take for granted unaffordable...people thinking of how to be safe and secure even if Fukushima happens here....
Book Cover for Nick Rosen's new book - a must read for anyone who wants to be on the pulse of what is going on in post-peak-oil America.
The final stretch into Manhattan requires a descent that takes our bus down the tube (tunnel) and under the Hudson River before being hurled into the canyons of New York City. Paradoxically, it's more like a take-off than a splashdown. I always liken the experience to being catapaulted into the future so fast we don't even realize it is happening, the Singularity , as Ray Kurzweil calls it.
My head is spinning, no, swimming with the idea of hob nobbing at the expensive and luxurious Rouge Tomate. But, as I start to salivate on chilling with the media elite invited to LOHAS' shin dig, there is that gnawing feeling in my gut about the compound in the woods. That current obsession I have; I can not get it out of my head or ignore. The fact that what I really want to do with all my heart is create a grid-connected but grid-independent community that grows its own food and generates more energy than it needs without fossil fuels, a community that is removed from mega malls and strips malls and shopping centers or anything even remotely resembling anything “retail”. A place, though, that stays connected and has its own servers connected to independent satellite channels and even has flying robot drones that look like real birds which circle above to keep watch on the compound from above. A magical, secure, secluded place that will protect me from strife and literally change my life.
As my bus pulls into the Port Authority, Heinberg's text goes on and I hear it as if this mad max academic is reading to me: "A case can be made that dire events having to do with real estate, the derivatives markets, and the auto and airline industries were themselves merely symptoms of an even deeper, systemic dysfunction that spells the end of economic growth as we have known it."
SO WHAT DOES END OF GROWTH MEAN FOR THE LOHAS MARKET AND FIFTH AVENUE, NYC?
So, I get to the Big Apple and all I can think about is if the world is going to destroy itself if we don't stop shopping so much and end growth AND what is going to happen to 5th Avenue and all the luxury shops? It would be just my luck that just as I could afford luxury it would be gone. And, if growth ends, what is going to happen to Rouge Tomate? From my readings on the bus I gather Heinberg thinks that ending growth could mean endless recession. Everywhere. But, what are the alternatives?
Now, all this intense economic theory should have been my sole and primary concern while walking through the 21st century streets of Manhattan to Rouge Tomate. And, until recently, there were semi-quiet streets, even in midtown, on which deep thoughts could be indulged. However, now, walking the streets of New York is somewhat of a battle, not because of crime, but because of congestion. I had to pay close attention to defend against getting run over by a double decker bus, or the more difficult to avoid groups of tourists or being clipped by bikers both in and out of the bike lanes multiplying in every city like New York. Considering the incredible, astounding amount of human beings on the street before me, I really needed to stop thinking about Heinberg and sophisticated economic theory - which I barely understood anyway - and pay attention to the dangers at hand.
I weave my way through the current bursting-at-the-seams insanity of New York. I walk across 42nd street and up through Times Square. It is teeming with throngs of people from all over he world. They are eating and buying and walking and spending time and money and talking on their phones and texting and moving like one large organism in unison. I wondered in amazement whether these individual "consumers" of the brand that is New York realized that THEY were part of an unending, unified sea of breathing consumption.
I laughed at myself, now in control, walking like the New Yorker I am. Surely, I was NOT part of this consumption machine, was I? No way Jose Cuervo. I was a lone enviro commentator trying to make sense of the world at the dawn of the 21st Century. NOT. Despite my “neo Thoreauvian” Walden Pond sincerity, I absolutely had to marvel at the astounding amount of screens and moving images before me. So much for the endless trees of the Castkills and Adirondacks! Ha - this was human nature at its finest! Before me was a digital forest, whole buildings as TV screens – block after block of virtual reality merging with the street reality. As I pass through the madness of Times Square, the organism continues. In Central Park there are more crowds, unending crowds, all vying to take the right picture of themselves to send through the atmosphere to friends back home. Look! Here I am consuming New York!
As I get closer to Rouge Tomate, off 5th Avenue, I wander past the Apple Store thinking I could cruise in there and look at the latest iPad which I have my eye on. Lo and behold the store is literally too crowded to enter. No more people could physically get into the store. It was like the ark was so full not one more pair of animals could get on board to be saved from extinction. Too hyper to wait to get into the APPLE wonderland, I continue on, like an amoeba circulating in the blood stream of a huge all encompassing entity. Instead of checking out the Apple technology, I end up killing some time perusing the latest, as David Bowie would say, "fa fa fa fa fashion" at DKNY and ARMANI, art gallery-like shrines to "feel good looking" shopping.
THE LOHAS MEDIA LUNCH
At Rouge Tomate, almost first thing, I meet Ted Ling--Mr LOHAS, as he calls himself. Ted was as cool as an organic cucumber mask, in a good way. You could tell he was master of his game. His resume almost seems eco fiction to me. Some excerpts from his bio: international expert and lecturer to CEOs on “green” i.e. LOHAS consumerism. He's, naturally, an outdoor enthusiast, his family developed a nonprofit that helps impoverished women in Vietnam and Guatemala through micro credit financing. He's studied Chinese, in Asia. Lived in Japan where he was a ski coach during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. I mean, you couldn't make this stuff up if you were a Hollywood screenwriter and coming up with the back story for a green wonder boy! And, here's part of his bio close to my heart: Ted's a member of a community supported organic farm where he gets his meals, he recycles and composts to reduce family waste and lives in a green built home powered by solar.
Ted Ning, otherwise known as “Mr. LOHAS". Ted has been the executive director of the LOHAS Forum, executive editor of the LOHAS Journal and www.lohas.com and is the epicenter of all things LOHAS. He is a strategist, key trend spotter and guru of the expanding $290B LOHAS marketplace who teaches effective communication strategies to businesses on LOHAS consumers and the integration of LOHAS values into corporate cultures and personal lives. (Via Lohas.com)
As the mini crab cakes pass by, Richard Heinberg and Peak Oil is the farthest thing from my mind. I have a quick chat with Jack Walsh from ECOBonus.com (Penny Wise Planet Brilliant) which is a new incentivized shopping system where you can get points and rewards for eco conscious purchasing choices. He tells me that they have a relationship with the well respected GoodGuide - a credible web site that gives you the LOHAS lowdown on whether green products are bxxxsxxx or not, a kind of "Cradle to Cradle" Consumer Reports.
As the artful appetizers glide before me, my mind is racing for story ideas. It is a media lunch after all and I'm thinking, as my grandmother used to say, "There's no Free Lunch." A few crab cakes later, I'm introduced to Susan Alpin from Bambeco, (Hot Style for a Cool Planet), purveyor of products made with sustainable materials in a sustainable way. I check out the catalog for Bambeco. I'm thinking my friend, Nan (The Mistress of Hospitality on Long Island who calls upstate Bumbletown), would absolutely adore the Bambeco organic cotton tablecloths that had intricate weaves and color designs, fabric art that would make any meal a feast for the eyes.
As I sipped an intoxicating green mint tea concoction, a beverage that was sure to be anti-oxidizing something, I forgot about about melting ice shelves, Libya or the fact that I lived within 50 miles of a major nuclear power plant. I forgot about the latest bloodbath in Syria and the robotic spy drones that looked like real birds circling over my yet-to-be-Fukushima-proof compound.
For the luncheon I sat at a table with, among others, Caroline Chin, Director, Integrated Solutions Digital, Whole Living. We chatted a bit about Martha's green venture with KB Homes: a venture that got some criticism from certain green enviro commentators for being a bit of green washing. (I do not particularly agree, because if anyone can help sway the masses to build net zero energy homes, it's Martha.)
Picture of Net Zero Energy Concept Home called KB Home GreenHouse™: An Idea Home Created with Martha Stewart. Image courtesy Builder Magazine Concept Home
At the table I also sat next to Jenny Cross, Global Sustainability Director for Mohwawk Industries, one of the sponsors for the event. Mohawk makes many products including rugs and flooring and was one of the many corporations out there that had people like Jenny working full time on how to be more sustainable and profitable at the same time. I told Jenny I wanted to do a Skype Q & A with her about sustainable business practices and product development at Mohawk for "Green Real Estate Daily." She happily agreed to talk with me after I got back to the garden, back to the country and continued my Skype search for all things green and sustainable.
Thus, by the end of the LOHAS lunch, hidden behind the exclusive walls, mere steps from Central Park, I managed to completely forget about the looming doom and gloom and end of growth concept, the end of glorious unending shopping. I forgot about "The Long Emergency" as James Howard Kunstler would describe it. I forgot about gas heading toward $5 dollars a gallon and global warming. In fact, the enthusiasm and forward thinking of one of the sponsors I met helped to sway me towards the positive. Steve Davies, Director of Marketing & Public Affairs for NatureWorks LLC, provided hope for my post-peak-oil worries as he heralded the development of a new bio plastic venture called Ingeo. (Ingenuity from plants, not oil.)
Upon leaving the fancy, eco chic restaurant, my mind was at ease, momentarily. Half way back to the Port Authority, I was back to clawing my way through the hungry tourist throngs, maneuvering around tiny "Earth Day NYC" booths scattered haphazardly around Times Square, booths almost invisible in the ocean of consumption. Once again, I was happy at the prospect of returning to Bumbletown and disappearing into the woods.
Photo Jeff Greenbery, Courtesy NYC & Co.
BACK ON THE BUS: THE LOHAS vs LOCAVORE SHOWDOWN: Does one or the other really have to win?
So, yes, I am back on the bus. On this leg of the proverbial journey I decide to
reread parts of "Beautiful and Abundant" by Bryan Welch. Bryan is a contributor to the dialog about how to grow this little planet of ours up, so to speak. He lives on a farm all the while running Ogden Publishing which issues, among many titles, "Mother Earth News."
Bryan says in the book: "Abundance is healthy. Excessive consumption for consumption's sake is a kind of pathology." Aha! I start thinking. Maybe there is a healthy a way to consume. Maybe I don't have to worry about 5th Avenue. Maybe we can have abundance without cutting off our Rain Forest nose despite our Dolce and Gabbana meets Lady Ga Ga Polaroid glasses face.
As I get lost in this must read book, I realize that Bryan Welch is indeed addressing the same concerns as Richard Heinberg. Bryan, like the peak oil worry warts, was also looking at the kind of eco conundrum we are in. Welch says in his book: "As our economies are now structured, we depend on population growth. The rule is so deeply ingrained in our economics that it's seldom acknowledged. As population grows, so grows the demand for housing, food, automobiles, refrigerators, furnaces, Tupperware, movie theaters, restaurants, airplanes, hotels, computers, toys, clothing, shoes and jewelry."
Toys, clothing, hotels, theaters! OMG,Bryan was talking about New York City. NYC. The Big Apple. All that wonderful abundance. Welch's book washed over me and was a kind of antidote to the Peak Oil paranoia I felt on the way down to NYC. Bryan Welch was talking about the same thing as Heinberg,but in a different way. Welch speaks about how to solve the conundrum: "We love to climb. But, the first step in our journey toward true sustainability is relatively simple. If we are to form the global consensus, we will need to support sea changes in human attitudes, in economics, and culture, then we need to visualize, as individuals, and as a species, successful outcomes."
Image of ceramic product found in Cyprus during an episode of Sundance Channel's TV show Man Shops Globe.
VISUALIZING SUCCESSFULL OUTCOMES: WORLD IN A YOGA POSE
So, there I was lost and then finding myself on the bus. I started to think I was beginning "to get the conundrum" of the avid LOHAS Man Shops Globe vs Locavore showdown. From what "Beautiful and Abundant" seems to be saying, maybe, there does not have to be a showdown between shopping and end of growth. Sustainability is a new way of living that we have to find together. We are not sure what the answer is yet, but we are now asking the right questions. Maybe I don't have to choose between being an advocate of the LOHAS approach and that of the die hard - I'm freaking out -the-world-needs-to-stop-shopping-before-it-drops hermit in Walden 2.0.
Now I am thinking - thank God I don't have to abandon fashion to be a peak oil activist locavore off gridder. I mean, the anti consumerism - head - to the commune -sixties were cool, but my God that awful hair. (Not to mention the bell bottom pants!)
As the bus left New Jersey and barreled northward toward the Catskill region, I thought about Bryan Welch's advice to visualize the future. And, I visualized the change that I needed to make. I saw myself at my neighbor's Yoga Studio. I visualized that yoga pose where you stand like a tree on one leg and balance with your hands behind your head.
Then, I visualized the world as if it was a person doing yoga. Yes, that was it. We need to all visualize the world in balance and doing its own kind of yoga. It was like what Bryan Welch said: "The First step toward sustainability is relatively simple." Just like yoga is so simple. You can do yoga just by moving and breathing if you know the stances and poses. It is that simple.
But, then, the secret shopper within me starts to grin. Surely, if I am going to do yoga again, I'll need to get a new yoga mat. And, while I am at it, I'll need a really cool t-shirt made of bamboo, dyed organically. I mean, if I am gonna sweat that much, I want to look good. Who wants to look like a schlep when pointing your backside skyward in a downward facing dog? (Hey, that god like guy up there wearing the Prana outfit is pretty hot. And, I love that backpack with the solar PV on it!)
Why should I feel guilty because I want to do sun salutations and stand on one leg while ordering some new things via bluetooth. I mean, I'm sure even the Dalai Lama has more than one of those awesome robes he wears. He must with the travel schedule he keeps. (I do wonder if he considers the carbon footprint of his jetting trails.) And, he surely must have an iPAD by now to keep in touch with his followers at the KTD Monastery in Woodstock, near where I live in upstate New York.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Dharamsala, India, on April 22, 2011.
SILENCE OF THE GREEN LAMBS.
As I race through New Jersey and the glamour of the Upper East side fades away, I stop to ponder one last time. Am I cornucopian or dsytopian? I realized then, even if momentarily, that I didn't care anymore if my green glass was half full or half empty. Do I even have a glass? (Maybe I lost it at the party and picked up someone elses instead.) I don't have to choose between being a No Impact Man and a globe trotting shopper of all things cool a la the TV show Man Shops Globe. I want my vegan flourless chocolate cake and I am going to eat it too, thank you very much.
As Exit 18 on the New York State Thruway neared and I was getting closer to my Bumbletown, the many green voices inside my head began to quiet down. Despite all the contradictions and opposite ends of the spectrum that all the obsessed greenies like me were looking at the world from, it occurred to me that all these people were looking at how to make the world a better place. I mean, I'm not naive. Lots of these "voices", these change agents, were making money or wanted to make money. We all have to make money. The point is that all, in their own way, big and small, are trying to help the world figure out how to get through the next Tornado, the next Tsunami, the next Fukashima, the next Holiday Season with the in-laws, the next Day After Tomorrow.
I'm not going to snub my green nose at the LOHAS marketers and the LOHAS consumers because I'm one of them and I want to shop, therefore I am shopping.
Granted, I'm not going to live in a mall and spend the majority of my time thinking about buying stuff. But, I mean, who does? The fact of the matter is, the majority of people, even in wealthier countries, have to work so much now to make ends meet. And, most of these "consumers" aren't exactly raking in so much dough they have nothing better to do than throw their hard earned money out the window as mindless consumers trying to rape the planet of natural resources. They're just trying to get by and put a little comfort and beauty in their lives whether it be falling in love, getting some make up at Sephora, doing some volunteer work or wanting to buy a really nice house and fill it with nice things.
BACK IN BUMBLETOWN
Picture of a Diver descending from the cliffs outside New Paltz, New York into the glacial Lake Minnewaska.
The bus pulls into the New Paltz parking lot. I see the Mohonk Tower in the distance, a vantage point from which one can look out over thousands and thousands of acres of preserved land on and below the Shawangunk Ridge. Just a stones throw from where I stand are glacial lakes with "National Geographic" photo worthy waterfalls and views to die for. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Starbucks across the street. And, there are a string of restaurants catering to the SUNY New Paltz crowd. Everything from pizza pies to Thai, shawarma, falafel, burgers and beer, sushi, pretty much anything you'd ever want to eat from around the world. Yes, this is the nouveau country, bliss at the end of the road with the rest of the world creeping in. The whole world trying to get away from each other and ending up back together again.
Standing at the bus stop, waiting for my ride, I hold my Chico bag full of LOHAS promotional items. I turn on my new iPAD and check out one of my favorite REM songs, actually a video of it on YouTube. The manic, magical, frenetic, fun words of Michael Stipe wash over me like the pineapple sorbet at Rouge Tomate:
"Uh oh, overflow, population, common food, but it'll do to save
yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs,
listen to your heart bleed.....
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine."
And, I do. Happy Earth Day 2011. My Earth Day greeting is a little late in coming, but here none the less.
Copyright Paul E McGinniss 2011
Check out REM performing "It's the End of the World As We Know It" on the streets of Toronto.