“That man is rich whose pleasures are the cheapest.” - Henry David Thoreau
The best things in life are free. We went to the beach this week. The weather was perfect and the clean, clear water of Lake Superior was not too cold for swimming. I was reminded of how precious the lake is for all of us and how important it is to keep this resource pristine. A perfect summer day by the big lake is priceless.
Summer also brings good things from the garden. Rhubarb, strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers, fresh peas, fresh greens, and vine ripened tomatoes that you can’t buy in the store at any price. These aren’t free. There is a lot of work that goes into raising them, but they taste a lot better than the corporate, shipped-from-god-knows-where stuff in the stores. As Guy Clark says in his song “Homegrown Tomatoes,”
“Homegrown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
Wha’d life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things money can’t buy
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes”
At least the honest, hard work in the garden is real. It is tangible. There is a visible result. When I think back to all the worthless stuff I did over the years to “make a living,” I am reminded that shoveling real bovine BS for the garden beats shoveling metaphoric BS at the office, factory, or the big box. So as Guy Clark says,
“Plant ’em in the spring eat ’em in the summer
All winter with out ’em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ & diggin’
Every time I go out & pick me a big one”
Too many of us spend our work lives engaged in meaningless, and often harmful, economic churning for the sole purpose of making money. We spend our lives making, transporting, selling, shuffling, and throwing out plastic crap for the landfill. Too many of us rarely, or never, experience the tranquility and beauty of being in nature – of a Lake Superior beach, a Boundary Waters paddle, or a walk in an old growth forest. As a society we suffer from nature deficit disorder.
As a result not only are these wild and scenic places under constant attack, but the clean air and water essential to human life is being threatened. We would throw it all out for a few, ephemeral jobs. Why are we so short sighted? Why is it so difficult to understand that we are part of nature and we ignore this reality at our own peril? Why is it so hard to see that we could live in ways better and healthier for all of us and for the natural world?
Our lifestyles and our consumptive economy are choices. Every choice has alternatives. Every choice has costs. Some of these are the costs of production – what you make, what you take, what you waste. But there is also the cost of what you could have had. Economists call this the “opportunity cost.” Part of the cost of any choice is the loss of the alternatives. We could choose to organize our society in ways that are better for people and the rest of the biosphere.
In the past our best achievements as a nation – our true moments of greatness – were when we made choices that were good for people. The creation of a liberal, representative democracy with specific individual rights is one example. The fact that 250 years later we are still struggling to fully implement these ideals does not diminish the original achievement. America was great when it established free public schools in every community. These schools were not all they should have been, but they did provide basic educational opportunity to all children. Later we established land grant colleges, public universities, and technical schools. In the 1950’s and 60’s we made great progress in expanding access to these educational opportunities. America was great when it created Social Security and Medicare. America was great when we funded hospitals that served rural communities, minorities, and the poor. America was great when we stood for civil rights, equal opportunity, and welcomed “the huddled masses yearning to breath free…” There was a time when America was a beacon of hope despite our many failures to live up to these ideals.
America was once the leader in environmental protection. We invented the idea of national parks and forests. Yellowstone was created in 1872 and was the first national park in the world. American visionaries like Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold were the founding fathers of the conservation movement. The landmark environmental legislation of the 1960’s and 70’s made huge progress in cleaning up the damage from the unrestricted greed of the Industrial Revolution. America is great when it continues this vital work. A great America could be leading the world on solving climate problems instead of being the primary stumbling block to progress.
The size of a country’s war machine, or its stock market indexes, are not the ultimate measures of greatness. Mahatma Ghandi is attributed with saying “the greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member.” Hubert Humphrey was more specific when he said ,“the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Another moral test of a great nation is how it treats the natural world. A great nation would leave a clean, sustainable environment for posterity.
We can choose to clean up after ourselves. We can choose to make companies be more responsible stewards of our natural resources. We can choose to develop new technologies that don’t pollute. We can recycle more or consume less. We can create jobs protecting our water, air, beaches, and forests instead of mining and destroying them. We can choose to have less consumptive lifestyles. We could have more homegrown tomatoes. Most of us would be happier if we did.