Friday, July 10, 2009

corn as far as the eye can see

Since I found myself in the car in the late evening yesterday, I settled in for Marketplace, one of my favorite shows on NPR. Of course they were discussing the fall of the American auto industry... a topic we are all too familiar with around here since Lander's employer collected most of their revenue from car dealerships. The story was about a machine from Canada which cut the price of a particular part, which used to be handmade here in America, from $14.00 to $2.50. The reporter tossed the term "handmade" about like a dirty word, and in this context, I agreed! I actually started questioning my devotion to all things handmade, or locally produced, and felt like I was somehow responsible for holding the entire American economy in the gutter.


I embrace technology in almost every other aspect of my life. Why then, would I shun mass made jewelry still stinking with the smell of sweat shops and child labor? Why would I support tiny farmers over the industrialized super farms with all of their pesticides and monoculture?

I do appreciate my own hypocrisy. Somehow, I think it's just fine to buy my clothing, toys, computers, and cell phones, etc. from China, but as long as I don't shop at Wal-mart, I buy organic food, and I make my own jewelry by hand, I still get to feel all superior. Most of the time it is very difficult and expensive to purchase everyday goods like food, clothes, diapers, and toilet paper which won't offend my body, my morals, or my carbon footprint. No matter how much I wish this weren't the truth, I don't think it will ever change, especially considering the sad state of our economy. Sales of locally produced, or organic food are plummeting. Skinny wallets have sent many of us running back to ConAgra with all their subsidies, artificial additives, and cheap ingredients which put cost ahead of nutrition and taste.

I guess the point to all of this rambling is this: why do I hold things like the arts, food, and all other indulgences which are good for soul apart from industry? Why do I think it's ok for the car manufacturers to make decisions based on the bottom line- that they would be ridiculous to continue making a part by hand, when a machine can drastically cut costs, but I am offended when the same principle is applied to dinner and diamonds?


Anonymous said...

I think the reason why you hold a double-standard when it comes to dinner and diamonds is this: You can control the origin of your dinner and, to a certain extent, your diamonds.

If you need a new car you can't help where it was manufactured. The sticker on the window may tell you the origin of the parts, and the countries where they were assembled, but if you want a new Toyota Venza you don't have the choice between the Venza built and assembled in Mexico and one built and assembled in Japan. There's only Venza. Sure, you could opt for a car that's built and assembled in the USA, but that may not always be a practical or financially feasible decision. (As an aside, Marketplace had a story a few days ago that said the majority of new car buyers are no longer willing to pay a premium to buy an American-built car).

When it comes to corn and chicken breasts you do have that choice. And, increasingly, you don't even have to shop at another store to make the choice. Organic milk sits side-by-side with the rBST laden SuperMilk. Organic apples and pears are next to conventionally grown apples and pears. The choice to choose organic is as simple as putting a different item in your cart, and opening your wallet a little wider. (Another quick digression: shouldn't produce grown using organic techniques be labeled as "conventional"? It wasn't until relatively recent times that farming involved huge quantities of nitrogen, pesticides, petroleum, and genetically modified seeds. Perhaps these foods should be labeled as "Industrially Grown").

The same holds true when it comes to jewelry. You could go to the mall and pick out something bright and shiny from Claire's or Nordstrom's. But, you can just as easily walk through your neighborhood farmer's market or arts festival to find something equally bright and shiny, and as a bonus it's probably unique. Or at least unique enough that you probably won't see other girls wearing the exact same piece.

The other bonus to purchasing organic foods and handmade jewelry is that you often see your money changing hands with the farmer or artisan. When you buy a basket of strawberries at the farmer's market chances are you're pressing your money into hands that are still caked with dirt. When you buy handmade jewelry you know the person on the other side of the counter is directly involved in the production of that jewelry. You don't get the same feeling when you buy a new car, or pick up a family-sized package of toilet paper from Target.