Magazine article Alternatives Journal

The Buddhist and the Tomato: Why Sustainable Choices Are Often So Difficult

Magazine article Alternatives Journal

The Buddhist and the Tomato: Why Sustainable Choices Are Often So Difficult

Article excerpt

THE GLARING FLUORESCENCE of Atlantic Superstore lights must have blinded me. How could I buy a shiny, temptingly red--and cheap--Mexican tomato when I knew I could purchase local, organic ones at the Halifax Farmers' Market?


Why did I do it? What possessed me to buy outside my foodshed? I'd like to deny responsibility, blame the whole thing on the fact that I hadn't had my reusable mug of fair-trade, organic coffee, but I accept responsibility. Was it price? Was it laziness? Was it the seductive glow of glossy red tomato goodness?

As an environmentally conscious Buddhist, I should have known better.

Later, as I was eating my flavourless sandwich and feeling guilty about the pollution my tomato's transcontinental journey had produced, I wondered: Why do sustainable choices often seem so difficult?

Surfing the web for an answer, I came across a group of "locavores" in the San Francisco Bay area trying to live by the 100-mile diet. Their site lists some of the usual motivations for eating locally: reduce air pollution, support family farms and invest in the community. It also suggests that the distance our food travels equals our separation from knowing how and by whom it was produced, processed and transported.

When looking at an orderly pyramid of Mexican tomatoes in a supermarket, I realized that I didn't see the damage I was doing by choosing a cheap, conveniently accessible and shiny red tomato. The full costs were hidden from sight. Was the answer simple ignorance?

It couldn't be. I understood the arguments for eating locally long before I felt the desire to buy that well-travelled tomato, but I still bought it. As Adria Vasil observes in Ecoholic, "You know you'd rather eat food that's good for the health of the planet.... But let's face it, most of the time we reach for whatever we're in the mood for and what's on sale." The problem is that although there are many good reasons to buy local and organic food, "reason" is rarely in charge when it comes to buying stuff--"desire" is.

Knowing better doesn't guarantee improved buying habits because our desire for cheap, convenient commodities is powerful, and, in one of those twists of fate, unsustainable products inevitably seem to be cheaper and more convenient than the sustainable ones.

Unfortunately, knowing my Mexican tomato's travel itinerary wasn't enough to curb my desire for it. It will take more than knowledge to tame my wanton consumer ways. But what?

Still feeling guilty, I did what any practising Buddhist does when stuck in a quandary: I sat my butt on a meditation cushion.

Initially, I wanted to blame the system. If the price of tomatoes included the costs of production and transportation, then a Mexican tomato should cost more than a local one. Problem solved.

Not so fast. On further reflection, it seemed to me that green economics--while crucial--do not fully address the psychology of our unsustainable consumer habits. My Buddhist instincts compelled me to dig down to the root causes of my action--to understand my desire. So as my body digested the tomato--as the fruit miraculously shed its own identity and became part of me--I tried to apply Buddhist philosophy to my question.

I wish I could say that I discovered an easy solution, but I didn't. However, I did find that Buddhist philosophy provides a unique way of looking at how we might transform our commodity-driven desires that oftentimes result in unsustainable practices.

According to Buddhist tradition, transforming basic desires requires something radical. It asks that you change your basic understanding of the way things exist. In other words, to change your desires you first have to alter the way you look at the world. Long-time Buddhist teacher Judith Simmer-Brown says, "According to Buddhist teachings, it is never enough to address desire. …

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