I read a piece by Heekyung Ahn, a Korean-American journalist for The Kyunghyang Shinmun, in which seven scholars across various fields weighed in on the socio-economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic. One topic that stood out was the accelerated shift to a more sustainable green economy. The pandemic forces us to rethink hyper-globalization in favor of glocalization (both global and local) and serves as a wake-up call for more socially responsible consumer behavior. The lessons learned from the pandemic could push us to work toward “economy as an art of living…aligned to nature’s and society’s life-giving processes,” suggests ecofeminist Vandana Shiva.
I thought about our church’s urban gardening efforts and our vision for the Jubilee retreat center/farmland in light of these changes. The economic structure in which a vertical monopoly buys up and down the channels of food distribution not only hurts local businesses and farmers but also disempowers people as passive bystanders. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have become passive consumers. In this context, even seemingly small acts like sewing and gardening become our acknowledgment that we are capable of solving some of our own needs, that we can influence culture with our conscious choices, and that we can play a part in overcoming global problems.
Little did I know five years ago, when I first moved to Flushing, that my neighbors’ front and backyards lush with edible greens have more embedded value than meets the eye. According to Wen Tiejun, China’s expert on social-economic sustainable development, one of the reasons why China suffered comparatively less damage during the COVID-19 lockdown was the basic food-sufficiency of the rural communities that make up nearly half of the country’s population. I’ve come to see my neighbors’ vegetable gardens in a different light.
At the heart of the transition from ego-centered to eco-centered world stands humanity as the image of God, entrusted with responsible stewardship of creation. We would like to put the blame on someone else, the government or businesses; but our consumption choices, habits, and demands have a bigger impact on the environment than anything else. We have heard that the livestock industry has a negative impact on the environment, but our demand for vegan meats and dairy alternatives also caused deforestation in the Amazon basin by GMO soy cultivation.
Perhaps our detachment from, and indifference to, our own food supply has indirectly contributed to four seed companies that now control more than 60% of the global market. Seed industry consolidation has led to less choice and higher prices for farmers as well as households. Such destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity have not only put highly processed, lab-grown food on our tables. It has also created conditions for viruses like Ebola and COVID-19 to emerge and bite us back.
A few days ago, I visited a food co-operative shop in Long Island to pick up some bulk greens. It was interesting to see how the co-op grouped interested consumers with farmers who cultivate their 5-acre farmland. Consumers make an advance payment at the beginning of the planting season, and the co-op served as a medium for farmers to deliver a variety of organic vegetables throughout summer and fall. Consumers were supporting a sustainable food system as direct shareholders, influencers of cultivating practices, and direct participants within the simple supply chain. The visit gave me some food for thought about the future possibilities of our church’s Jubilee farmland.
A local United Methodist congregation in Upper New York Conference has a “Blessing Box” in their parking lot for people to come and get the items they need. The slogan reads, “Take what you need. Leave what you can. Above all be blessed.” Opportunities for sharing abound if we are praying for and watching for them. Our Jubilee farmland will someday grow to share its harvests, and in the meantime, our weekly sharing of pantry and food baskets could become a bigger movement to reorient the way we live and relate with one another. Sharing can help change our consumption culture and reduce waste. It’s one of the many ways the church as a local community can bring about positive change in wider cultures and in service to its neighbors.
In the article, Wen Tiejun quotes the ancient wisdom of Chinese sage Lao Tzu: “Returning is the movement of the Tao.” For stewards of God’s creation, the return from ego-centered to eco-centered would mean participation in God’s joyous recovery and re-creation of our world. God invites us to take part, and with God we will exclaim: “It was very good.”