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Ashland High student, Sam Levin, discussing deforestation and cattle ranching in Panama. Photo by Nina Egert

Act Locally: Climate Solutions class looks at giving thanks by consuming carefully

"It's coming on Christmas,"Joni Mitchell sang. And, indeed, the season approaches, replete with the promise of gifting and feasting. So how might individuals, concerned about pulling the planet back from climate change, participate in holiday activities in a conscientious manner? While this was not the specific topic of Jim Hartman’s Climate Solutions high school class forum at ScienceWorks on Sunday, Nov. 18, several of the papers delivered by students offered helpful ideas that can be implemented during the next few weeks.

Material for the speeches was based on the course’s two text books, “Drawdown” by Paul Hawkings, and “Switch” by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. The forum’s overall focus was on how dialing back on excessive consumption might serve to mitigate the amount of carbon emissions we release into the air.

Perhaps most telling of these ideas was that we should reduce the amount of beef in our diets. Student Sam Levin poignantly mentioned a trip to Panama in which he witnessed first-hand the troubling deforestation of Central American jungles in order to create additional pastureland for cattle intended for the U.S. market. (The loss of trees not only disturbs habitat of indigenous animals, but reduces the amount of leafy plants that draw carbon out of the atmosphere.) Additionally, cattle produce large amounts of methane gas during the process of digestion; bovine methane is a key component of the greenhouse gas effect.

Following Hawkings’ thinking on the matter, several speakers suggested that we opt for finding alternate protein sources. This does not mean giving up on meat altogether — just choosing to dine primarily upon poultry, pork, seafood, or plant-based sources like legumes and nuts.

Fortunately, this dietary adaptation will have little direct impact upon this week’s traditional Thanksgiving meal. But perhaps readers might consider shifting to a primarily plant-based diet on a regular basis, if they haven’t already done so.

The other key action emphasized on Sunday was the well-known adage of “shopping locally.” Purchasing items produced from within a 200-mile radius significantly reduces the amount of fuel expended upon transportation. Of course, as student Ryan Glover astutely pointed out, shopping locally and healthfully is contingent upon a community having sufficient economic resources, as well as an availability of quality food markets. Not everyone in this country is as fortunate as we are here in the Rogue Valley. (Something for which to express thanks on Thursday.)

In any case, the issue has no simple answers. When questioned by an audience member as to whether it would be more environmentally friendly to purchase a locally produced, non-organically-grown item or an organic product from a non-local source, Rianna Koppel, sustainability manager for the Ashland Food Co-op, was momentarily thrown by this Procrustean dilemma. As much as the Co-op tries to supply its customers with local produce, many of its organic products are imported from overseas during off-season months. Koppel suggested choosing organic produce in season as often as possible, and looking for in-store labels that indicate locally sourced items.

Have a lovely Thanksgiving, and don’t make yourself crazy trying to adhere to any of these expressed policies. The holidays are about love and gratitude. These behavioral changes will only effectively reverse carbon emissions if we can assemble a critical mass of individuals to participate. As the Heath brothers posited, getting people to switch their attitudes or habits involves connecting with them, appealing to their hearts, not their heads.

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s. Act Locally appears the first and third Mondays of the month in the Tidings.

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