07/24/2007 10:41 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Pleasurable Choice is the Ethical Choice

I was happy to be reminded that Lady Bird Johnson, who died this month, started the campaign of "beautification" that helped bring Americans to stop littering. This memory is useful not just for the story it tells about her, but the story that it tells about us. Once upon a time, not that long ago, we thought it was normal to throw empty Coke cans and hamburger wrappers out the windows of our cars. My children hear this story with disbelief, as though I'm recounting a tale of primitive pre-humans.

This helps me take in one of the hopeful ideas of my radio conversation with Barbara Kingsolver. She says that however grim the man-made crises of our time appear, we do keep getting some things "more right." And, Kingsolver advises, we must treat hope itself as a renewable resource, something we put on with our shoes every morning.

But she also says, reframing an equation many of us are internalizing, that it is not the job of the next generation to right the grand, looming environmental crises of the present. The work has to start here and now with our daily routines. Barbara Kingsolver has made one kind of beginning with her family's "food life." Her latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle recounts a year her family spent eating primarily what they could grow or raise themselves.

There is an irony in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver's move to a simpler, sustainable life required a certain level of social and economic privilege, just as the ostensibly back-to-basics idea of organic food remains beyond the range of choice and budget of many. For me, the adventure related in her book -- of giving her family's life over to planning, planting, weeding, cooking, freezing, storing, and harvesting both plants and animals -- appears immediately impracticable in light of another "drought" in American life and in my own, a drought of time.

Kingsolver helps put this into perspective by reminding me that the cheap and easy habits we take for granted -- lettuce for salad all year round, strawberries in January -- began as luxuries for the very rich. What her family did for a year, living off what they could grow and raise on the land around them, is the way most human beings have lived forever and many in the world still do.

The real irony is that the way most Americans eat is elite in the extreme. This is hard to grasp, as the crops behind some of the cheapest, easiest staples of American life -- including that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup -- are underwritten by government funding. The real costs of much of our food do not turn up itemized in our grocery bills, but hidden in our taxes. And then there are, of course, the environmental costs, harder still to see and calculate and that we confer as a debt to our children. Some people give up meat, Barbara Kingsolver says; she has given up bananas, no longer willing to live with the fossil fuel footprint that is necessary to bring them all the way to her in Virginia.

But this conversation is not really about what we have to give up. U.S. culture has fallen into "the language of sin," Kingsolver says, when it comes to discussing changed eating habits. We steel ourselves to replace what is bad for us with what is good for us; we grit our teeth and enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. What surprised Kingsolver most in her year of local eating was how pleasant it was for her whole family, really, once they had retrained what felt like habit. They became focused in the most practical, daily way not on what they did not have, but on what they had -- what was in season, what the garden was yielding plenty of today. It became, she says, a long exercise in gratitude.

I'm very aware that the details of my life -- including the northern climate of the place I inhabit -- limit my ability to follow Barbara Kingsolver's experiment in totally local eating. But this summer I began to frequent the farmer's market for the first time in my life. I've planted a vegetable garden, made pesto from basil I grew, tossed my own home-grown lettuce, and watched tiny green tomatoes bud with the rapture of an expectant mother. I'm living some new questions about food life now, to paraphrase Rilke; as Barbara Kingsolver might say, I'm getting it a bit more right. And I'm delighting in the truth of my favorite line in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: "Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."