Bigger Versus Better

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Endangered Species, John Cheek, Philosophy, Sustainability, the Madfarmer | Posted on 06-10-2009


by John Cheek


49630_cowboys_titans_football Professor George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkley, has argued that language is structured around an indeterminate set of conceptual metaphors. Some of these metaphors are common aphorisms such as, “Life is a journey,” while others, such as, “Form is motion,” are explicitly spoken less often but are still important in the way we think of things.


Imagine driving on a two-lane highway through a verdant stretch of Oklahoma wheat fields in early spring. You might describe the scene this way, “The dusty road ran fortuitously between newly green fields.” But wait, the road ran? Roads don't run; they don't move at all, (forgetting for the moment the chunks that have fallen out of the I-40 cross-town in recent years…) but it's not uncommon for us to describe the form of a static object in this way. In fact sometimes we would struggle to describe form at all if we were restricted from using the conceptual metaphor.


Another conceptual metaphor that affects not just our language but our psychology is, “Size equals significance.” Think about “big discoveries,” “huge developments,” or just the screens at Jerry's World in Arlington. Unfortunately, I think this conceptual metaphor is a danger to sustainable thinking/living. Here are a couple of places where I think we should be careful about letting the size of things decide there importance.


Last Tuesday the banner headline on the BBC homepage read “Giant fish 'verges on  extinction.'” The story reports that a three-year search for the Chinese paddlefish has failed _46444231_paddlefish1 to yield a single sighting, the last paddlefish having been spotted in 2003. Now, I think it is important and grave when any species is on the brink of perishing, but why does the paddlefish warrant a front page story? Because it's the largest fresh water fish in the world? Think of how the threat to polar bears has caught the public attention where the plight of smaller creatures is ignored or even mocked (I found a spotted owl last week. It was delicious.). Now, I'm not suggesting this isn't an important story, but given how crucial creatures as small as bacteria are to all of the biological processes that keep us alive, you'd think we'd have equal appreciation for the little guys.


Another area where bigger is often presumed better is in business. We are impressed by profits in the billions and international distribution. This isn't meant to be a screed against corporations or business in general, just an invocation to look to the little guys. Large companies serve an important purpose in our society to be sure. It's hard to imagine how any of us could participate in the blog without a few big corporations. That being said, small companies present some unique advantages.


Think about a trip to the grocery store. If you’re interested in sustainable living, then you likely look for products labeled “Organic” or “Fair-Trade.” Those labels inspire some confidence that the food you buy is produced in a healthy, sustainable, and just way, but that confidence is pretty weak compared to my confidence in the quality of the food I take home from the Mad Farmer's fields. When I buy locally, from a producer I know, I'm not just helping local economy and decreasing my carbon footprint, I know that what I'm getting is the very thing I set out to get, much more than any label could ever show me.


So, as we go about trying to decide what's important to a sustainable life or a sustainable community, remember that size isn't equal to significance. Some things may be “too big to fail,” but they might also be too big to succeed if quality and sustainability are the goals.

To think or not to think sustainably

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Education, Environment, John Cheek, Nature, Philosophy, Sustainability | Posted on 08-09-2009


by John Cheek

Starting a graduate degree in philosophy invites a number of blunt questions, some from close family and friends uncertain of the plan’s wisdom, others from relative strangers snatching a bit more familiarity than seems entirely appropriate to my reclusive disposition. While my reasons for taking this path are incomprehensible to some, philosophy does offer some unique approaches to thinking about sustainability (and a host of other topics, of course). Philosophers have spent the last two millennia and change trying to convince the rest of you that we’re useful for something. There’s the tale Aristotle relates of the early philosopher Thales who, goaded for his “head-in-the-clouds” philosophical outlook, managed to corner the market on olive presses in his region and make a killing come harvest.

It’s a witty tale philosophers enjoy telling amongst themselves, (possibly to nurture the faint hope that any of them will ever make any money) but dark humor aside, there is one skill philosophers in general possess to a greater degree than any other profession. We can ask some tough questions. Socrates, perhaps the most famous of philosophers, was known for Socratic method (see, philosophy must be important if they named a method after one) in which he stripped away unsatisfactory explanations for common ideas by relentless asking pointed questions. Now depending on your disposition towards our subject, you may or may not have a very high opinion of the answers philosophers give to their own questions, but I’ll pose a couple of questions here and even risk an answer or two that I’d be quite delighted for you to criticize in the comments.

1. Is nature’s value intrinsic or extrinsic? In sustainably minded communities, we take for granted that our environment has value, but where is that value rooted? Is it intrinsic to the natural world, or is the natural world simply valuable in its usefulness to us? I’m fairly sure I know what trees would say if we could hear them talking, but it’s a good question to ask both of yourself and of others. If you are trying to enlist someone into a sustainable cause who believes the latter, then you’ll have a good idea of what arguments to pose and which statements to avoid.

2. How can we balance the needs of people with care for the natural world? It’s not uncommon to hear pie-in-the-sky statements from environmentalists, (I know, pots and kettles and all that) and that’s a good thing. Our goals should be ambitious as the stakes are quite high, but at the same time, it’s important that we consider the consequences different actions will have on the welfare of people in the short term. I don’t really have a great answer to how we balance these two aims, but perhaps some of you could help me suss one out in the comments.

Those are just two of the important questions that we face as a movement, and admittedly the answers can’t be handled completely in 500 words. So what do you think the answers might be, or am I even asking the right questions? Let us know what you’re thinking, and let me know if you’d like to help pay my tuition by renting an olive press …

Fresh, Green Goals For 2009

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in John Cheek, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Posted on 05-01-2009


by John Cheek

My good friend Leslie told me this year while describing her goals for the new year that calling them "New Year's Resolutions" is essentially equivalent to saying they're things you don't plan on actually doing. That resonated with me as most New Year's Resolutions seem to be vague nods at the things we should be doing but aren't likely to take up with consistency. In that spirit, I'd like to lay down a few tangible goals for Fresh Greens in 2009 that come year's end, hopefully will have fared better than the multitude of exercise-mores and read-more-classics.

  1. Launch the Fresh Greens Podcast. Starting in February, Fresh Greens will diversify it's media content with monthly audio and video podcasts. These productions will cover local sustainable happenings from a journalistic perspective, featuring interviews of local government officials and community leaders.
  2. Highlight weekly events in the local sustainable community. Coming soon on Tuesdays, look for a column discussing events and volunteer opportunities in Central OK.
  3. Revamp our front page design. This is a more long term goal that will hopefully take shape in the summer.

These are the projects I will be working on in the coming months along with my own personal and professional goals. I'd love to hear what you would like to see accomplished in your own life, the life of this blog, or the life of our community in the coming year. Happy New Year, and good luck to us all.

Four Months of Fresh Greens

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Community, Current Affairs, Finances, John Cheek, Politics | Posted on 10-11-2008


by John Cheek

In the four months since we started Fresh Greens we’ve seen bad news for the housing market turn into really bad news for banks into even worse news for us all. We’ve watched old divisions turn hot in places like the Congo and a new conflict erupt in Georgia. And now we’ve elected a new president as well as re-electing and ousting various members of state and federal legislatures.

Here in Oklahoma, voters held on to a Senator not particularly interested in sustainability, but I’m not really interested in writing that story now. Barack Obama and Jim Inhofe may well do great or terrible things for our communities and our planet. Both remain to be seen, just like the effects each of us may have on the stretches of earth where we walk and the much more distant places where our decisions echo through the years.

In his victory speech on election night, the President-Elect called for a “new spirit of sacrifice.” I can only echo that plea, and pray that we have not forgotten how to be a people of work, ingenuity, and prudence as all three will be taxed to great measure in the coming years. Last week Bob wrote about a food crisis that may very well be following the current economic disaster. Sadly, both crises are due to a vicious blend of greed and irresponsibility that have become the staples of American economy. The very fact that we can call our system of commerce ‘economy’ is insanity itself. A multitude of financial talking heads have gotten rich telling people what ought to be absurdly obvious: “Work hard” and “Spend less than you make.” Really? We need to read a book or go to a seminar to learn that?

When Phil Gramm suggested that we were a nation of whiners in reference to the financial crisis, the press savaged him and John McCain for insensitivity. That’s the way of presidential politics, but really, he wasn’t far off. I would say toddlers instead of whiners. Toddlers demand that they get what they want, when they want it. Toddlers will continue to eat poisonous fats and sweets until they vomit. Toddlers will scream and cry when not allowed to buy the newest toy. Credit cards. Processed food. New clothes, new cars, new houses. We’re babies, and it’s time to grow up.

Elections matter, and I hope the most recent ones will see our state, local, and federal governments move back in the right direction. What matters more, though, is every one of us, working, eating, teaching, living every day. We don’t need a saviour; we need to get to work.

Blogging in the Neighborhood

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Community, John Cheek, Weblogs | Posted on 11-08-2008


Why a local blog on sustainability? Plenty of blogs and other websites are dealing with sustainability issues at a national or international level, as well as plenty of bloggers here in OKC who write on trying to live sustainably. I suppose the real impetus behind this collaborative blogging effort, is a desire to employ the Web 2.0 phenomenon in creating a center of discussion specific to the Oklahoma City sustainable community and its geographical neighbors. In the spirit of Wendell Berry we recognize the essential value of grounding our efforts in the community instead of attempting to swim against the current of our culture alone.

We’re not pretending any special authority, though some of our contributors have vast experience and stunning accomplishments behind them. Instead, we offer our collective experience in a desire to spread what knowledge we have acquired and hopefully see the nucleus of our local sustainable movement grow. We read and write, just as civilized humanity has always done, in search of a better world for the people we love. We’ve recruited a slate of contributors who represent a broad spectrum of interests, ages, experience and industries. As this blog-journey progresses, we’ll discuss a myriad of ideas both familiar and novel, but the theme I’d like to establish here at our embarkation is local economy in an intentional community.

One of the forces that have pushed our species and our biosphere into dire circumstances is the specialization and segmentation of our society. While allowing for greater efficiency in production (and thereby consumption), this trend has also encouraged us to remove our livelihoods from our lives and the local community that once sheltered and sustained them. While consuming for the benefit of distant multi-national corporations has well documented deleterious effects on the health of our planet, working and buying in the local economy not only improves the quality of the community where we all live together, it shrinks the distance our various endeavors need to travel before they reach resolution. That means more time (both personal and professional) spent at home and less energy wasted on travel and transport. This simple arithmetic is more profound, though, than a method of reducing our commute times and carbon footprints. By living our lives primarily in the local economy, we take a step toward a safer, healthier, and more intentional community.

In the future I’ll look at specific ways I’ve found to “localize” my own life, but for now, I just want to step up to the microphone and shout what I’ve seen written under the gathering clouds of our many ecological crises. The changes we need for the future have to happen somewhere; in fact they need to happen in a great many somewheres. This one is ours.