THE BLOG

Bring it Back Now Ya'll: Turning to Our Traditional Past, Seeking Sustainable Solutions for the Future

03/01/2013 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2013

It's a strange world we live in today. We are more dependent on our advanced technologies than ever before, yet we remain deeply nostalgic for a past we never knew. This mentality most aptly personified by today's hipsters -- their fashion, music, gimmicky interest in quirky tchotchkes, hand-crafted items and artisanal food -- and our yearning for authenticity is evident through our modern forms of self expression. Today, Instagram has over 100 million users uploading 40 million photos daily, using their brand-new iPhones to post photos that look like they were shot with a 1980 Holga.

Perhaps in our tacit yearning for the past and the general acknowledgement that there are benefits to a more traditional lifestyle, we're embarking on the path towards embracing a more sustainable future. When it comes to dealing with climate change, the hipster mentality, perhaps ironically (wouldn't they love that?), represents an incredibly sensible approach. In order to create the innovative solutions needed to address the challenges of tomorrow, we must look to the solutions of yesterday.

Take food production, as an obvious example. Today most of our food is produced in distant mega-facilities so far removed from the dinner table that we have absolutely no idea what we're consuming. We can take down some juicy Ikea meatballs, assuming they come from traditional pork or beef, with absolutely no idea that we're actually chowing down on Black Beauty. That's horsemeat. And that's foul (hah). That red snapper you had for dinner last night? Not so fast sistah, because over a third of the fish Americans consume is mislabeled. Our beef is primarily corn-fed, when the grass-consuming bovines are preferable and our chickens barely resemble the animals we know from the farm. Our fruits and vegetables are genetically modified impersonators of the ones our grandparents consumed and don't even get us started on the ever-frightening pink slime we've grown to love.

Then there's modern-day transportation. This sector is the largest single source of air pollution in the United States, and when it comes to mass transportation the situation is even more dire. After the recent fire on a Carnival cruise the Triumph, passengers were exposed to over-flowing toilets and raw sewage leaking into cabins. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to take pause and consider not only the psychological damages these tourists have suffered, but the standard damages cruise-goers regularly inflict on the environment. In a single day, the EPA estimates:

"Passengers aboard a typical cruise ship will generate 21,000 gallons of sewage, 170,000 gallons of wastewater from sinks, showers and laundry, more than 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and expired chemicals, up to 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from engines, and a ton of garbage... and a standard 3,000 passenger ship generates the air pollution equivalent of more than 12,000 cars in a single day."

It's obvious that our current methods of food production and transport are simply not meeting modern standards. And yet, for each of these troubling trends, opportunities abound which could turn the tide on these commonly accepted modes of operation. We'll provide a few examples of how the past can teach us a thing or two about how to approach our future and we'll ask you to consider how we can all bring it back now, ya'll, in a sustainable way.

When it comes to food production, there are places like the New Amsterdam Market in New York City, that provide a unique counter-option to the mass-produced garbage most Americans consume every day. The New Amsterdam Market is a location where vendors offer artisanal crafted items with a low-carbon footprint. But this little gem is more than just your average neighborhood market; it's a part of a bigger vision for recreating a more traditional way of life. Their website says:

"The New Amsterdam Market is a reinvention of the Public Market, once a prevalent institution in the City of New York... [and] will incubate a new a growing economic sector: small businesses such as butchers, grocers, mongers, and other vendors who source, produce, distribute, and sell foods made with regional ingredients... [The] vision is to revive the historic Fulton Fish Market, a priceless public legacy whose two market sheds have remained empty and unused since 2005. By bringing residents back to the Seaport, we are reviving the East River Market District -- a rare fragment of our city's first port and oldest commercial neighborhood -- as a thriving, public destination for all New Yorkers."

If this kind of scene, one with handcrafted dairy products, unique types of bread and produce, and artisanal pickles galore, seems like the type of place hipsters would flock to in droves, it's because they recognize that this market is more than a place to buy groceries. It represents the quest for authenticity in a world of deceptive falsities.

But there is no trade without transport, and as we stated previously, our current modes of getting ourselves and our goods from place to place are simply unsustainable. In considering innovative alternatives to mass transit, there are ways we can avoid traveling aboard these waste producing cruise-slash-poop-floaters and still get our fill of open-water antics. We can restore the historic relics of the past. For example, the S.S. Columbia, currently docked in Detroit, is America's oldest passenger steam ship and is one of these true gems.* This magnificent old steamship is way more sustainable then these poopy-floaters we're rockin' around in today. Built in 1902, this historic vessel is inherently 'greener' in many respects then vessels from later generations, because the Columbia dates from a time when generating energy on board was not easy, and thus, energy was not wasted. The restored ship would be powered by bio-diesel, would have restored clerestory windows to harvest desired daylight, and would utilize natural ventilation and solar and geothermal systems to optimize heating. Sure, restoring the ship is a multi-million-dollar-megaproject, but nobody said the poop-floaters were being built for free, and how much do you think those traumatized Triumph riders would have paid to avoid their recent fate?

Our ever-present desire to return to a more traditional way of life indicates that we seek an escape from the constant hum of consumption and we feel wariness towards the inauthentic, increasingly engineered, wrapped-in-plastic world around us. In recognizing this, we should take comfort in knowing that the ingenuity of humanity has already provided many of the solutions we need in order to release ourselves from our man-made trappings. We know how to turn the tide, and now we must recognize these opportunities, restore balance where it is off, and ultimately reap the benefits of our revitalized communities, livelihoods, and -- for us big dreamers -- the world.

*Full disclosure, SD works for the nonprofit organization the S.S. Columbia Project, working to restore the S.S. Columbia and bring her to New York to revitalize the Hudson River Valley.