By Robert Turner
We in America wisely set aside a day in the year to reflect and give thanks, and this year that day falls on November 28. Things have changed since the Pilgrims first arrived—and while we still have problems to solve including hunger, equity and poverty, we have a lot to be thankful for. Like a good apple pie.
Our farm was about to celebrate our annual Fall Harvest Festival, so I went down to the Baked Pie Company in Arden to pick up a few freshly baked apple pies (made with local apples) from my friend Jordan who happily works there. Jordan runs a very cute little pie shop—a great place to sit with a friend to enjoy coffee and a slice. A perfect apple pie is one thing to be thankful for, but finding someone who loves her job, like Jordan, is truly inspiring.
Allow me to digress into a deep time to look at things for a moment. When the Pilgrims arrived on this continent, life was much harder, and you didn’t really get to pick your job; you were born into it. The average lifespan was cut short, averaging just 35 years, from disease, hunger and brutish hard work under dirty, risky and unsanitary conditions. Most people were uneducated and ignorant. Simple things like traveling or choosing a career didn’t exist.
In a split second of human time on this planet, less than 200 years, all of that changed radically. Billions are “rich” now in comparative terms: well nourished, healthier and living much longer, an average of 70 years worldwide, double the lifespan of previous generations.
In 1820, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, an astounding 84 percent of the world population lived in what we consider now “extreme poverty.” By the 1980s, that number dropped to 44 percent. Currently, it’s below 10 percent. While extreme poverty may never be fully eradicated in the world, we’ve made great progress in recent decades. The world population that lives on fewer than 2,000 calories per day dropped from 51 percent in 1965, to 3 percent in 2005.
In just over two decades, between 1990 and 2012, almost one-quarter of the world’s population got access to clean drinking water; that’s more than 1.5 billion people. With that came a dramatic 41 percent reduction in childhood mortality rates. The biggest historical killer of humankind, smallpox, has been completely eradicated from the face of the earth, with other deadly diseases like measles and polio nearly wiped out.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s caused an explosion of wealth, prosperity and population. The global economy, the amount of goods and services produced and sold around the world, is 250 times greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
But we must also recognize that our progress has come at some cost to the environment. And there may be some economic cost to fix to those problems, like conservation measures and reductions in CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, but our economy can handle that. Conservation and protecting our natural resources is simply the prudent thing to do, and that effort is never going to throw us back into the Middle Ages. Growth at all cost is not prudent behavior.
Reducing food miles by purchasing local fruits and vegetables and trying to eat a little more organically and sustainably are simple steps in the right direction. Sustainable agriculture, including crop rotation and cover crops in winter, happens to be one of the most cost- effective ways to capture carbon from the atmosphere. There are plenty of things we can do, and must do, to tread a little more lightly upon the earth.
In this season let us be thankful for the apple pie, the apple grower and the baker. We live in a time where most people can choose what they do for a living, and many have chosen to do what they love. The truth is, if society continued to advance to the point where no one had to work anymore, I think a lot of people would get bored quickly, and I think Jordan would still go to work to bake some pies. We all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning. She just gets up a little earlier than most of us.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.