Jul 04 2007
One week ago I left Shanghai behind and my wife and I began our annual migration back to our summer stomping grounds, the Pacific Northwest. After 10 months living and working in a city of 18 million people with an industrial sector that ensures 365 days a year of a thick haze blank over the Shanghai, nothing is more refreshing than returning to the nearly empty mountains of North Idaho (“It’s a state of mind” is what they say around here).
Some of the highlights of life in Northern Idaho include the excessively blue skies, the sparkling Lake Pend O’reille, the ever green slopes of the Selkirk mountains, the bears, moose and deer with whom we share our beautiful trails, and finally the intimate sense of community that infuses the local economy of Sandpoint, our home town of 8,000 (you’d need 2,250 Sandpoints to make one Shanghai!).
In Shanghai, foreigners mostly shop at one or two boutique foreign grocery stores, packed full of processed foods imported from Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and other far corners of the earth. About the only things you’ll find that are “local” in these markets is the produce, which itself is of suspect quality given the large quantities of chemicals banned in most western countries used by Chinese farmers (not to mention the continued use of human feces as a fertilizer).
To eat like a foreigner in Shanghai is to be an active participant in the global, industrial food chain. The manufacture of the processed foods imported from the West involved industrial processes far beyond the comprehension of most consumers. The use of petro-chemicals infuses every step of this process, from the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and insecticides to the chemical preservatives to the petroleum burned getting the food from field to factory to warehouse to container ship to grocery store thousands of miles away. To eat like a foreigner in Shanghai is to contribute to the degradation of our environment, the warming of our atmosphere, and the destruction of a traditional way of life for local family farmers all over the West, as factory farms proliferate across the West’s fertile lands. Despite all this, my wife and I still eat like foreigners in Shanghai, and attempt to suspend our conscience while we participate in the industrial food chain we so despise.
For my wife, Liz, and I, returning to Sandpoint, Idaho is an act not only of spiritual and physical rejuvenation, but also of economic emancipation. We are freed from the destructive global industrial food chain on which we depend as foreigners living in China. To eat in Sandpoint is to participate in a sustainable, local, environmentally friendly food chain where organic, locally grown foods are available in every grocery store.
Our first stop when returning to Sandpoint is always Winter Ridge Organics, followed by a trip to Woods Ranch Meat Processing Plant (for me, as my wife is a vegetarian). Woods Ranch presents an interesting study in local foods. All of the meat processed at this small plant nestled in between Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains of Western Montana is raised in the rich grasslands of the Pack and Kootenai river valleys. In addition to grass fed beef, this plant processes and sells direct to the consumer pork, buffalo, and game meat such as elk and venison. During the hunting seasons it is not unusual to find bear and moose in their freezers, as the region’s mountains present local hunters with a plethora of wild game.
When I compare the intricate and energy intensive food chain of the foreign eater in Shanghai with the short, direct food chain of the local eater in Sandpoint (along the dirt road to Woods Ranch you pass the very cattle that are processed therein), I begin to wonder how our economy has woven such a tangled web of international trade and commerce. I am also thankful that I am in a position where I get to observe and participate in both extremes of the modern economy, both the local and the global. As a teacher of economics, this perspective may prove valuable as my students and I strive to put the complex web of today’s economy into focus.
Ultimately, I can say I wish I could have the best of both worlds. I wish I could take my wonderful job and school and classroom and students of my life in Shanghai and “import” them all to Sandpoint, Idaho. I wish we could all enjoy a more l
ocal existence; but the prospects of this way of life surviving seem weaker every year I return. A couple of summers ago the town just north of Sandpoint opened the first Wal-Mart in Northern Idaho. Reality check: globalization is everywhere! China haunts my idyllic summer paradise; I cannot escape it! At least the haze of Shanghai has not stretched its ugly reach to the Selkirk mountains, not yet, at least…
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