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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2006
Table of Contents
Interview: Jaime Lerner
Photography of Hope
Decoder: See No Evil
Year One
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Good Going
Sierra Club Bulletin
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's January 1, 2006, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail

Food Feud

Hey Mr. Green,
In the September/October 2005 issue of Sierra, you very adeptly dodged Craig's question about eating organically on a budget. If there were any doubt that the Sierra Club caters to an upscale market, your answer dispelled it!

One of the many unspoken rules of environmentalism is "Pretend that organic food is roughly the same price as conventional food." But the organic celery I bought this evening was $3; the conventional equivalent costs $1. The price differential is similar for organic meat, dairy, fruit, juice, processed foods, cleansers, and body-care products (my Tom's of Maine toothpaste is about $3.50; Colgate costs one-half that). This is true for all of the areas I've lived in.

Your advice to "shop locally and in season" was just as ludicrous. Most Americans--rural, suburban, and urban alike--do not live near a farm stand, farmer's market, or trendy upscale grocery store that stocks local produce. And driving 45 minutes to such a vendor pretty much defeats the purpose of buying locally.

Your final suggestion, that cooking is an enjoyable pastime, is again targeted to the comfortable who have the luxury to enjoy "simple pleasures." Most working families do not have the time, energy, or disposable income to garden or cook from scratch.

The truth is, organic and/or locally grown produce is currently a luxury of the middle and upper classes. Until the market undergoes a fundamental shift, the nonaffluent will be left on the sidelines. You owe it to your readers to be honest. Leave the political spin to the Republicans. --Paul in Chicago

Hey Paul,
Craig's question clearly implied that organic food is costly, which is why he asked for shopping tips, and I certainly don't contradict that claim. I attempted to give him sound advice for reducing his overall costs by avoiding the nefarious gimmicks used by the food industry to boost its profits. Certainly, the upscale market is guilty of many of the same bad practices: It offers all sorts of prepackaged, processed, and often pretentious products you can easily make yourself (my salsa takes about 10 minutes), while importing from all over the world to pamper consumers who insist on product availability 365 days of the year. Someday, food snobs will be buying mushrooms grown in "natural caverns on Mars, using rare Martian water from subterranean, crater-fed springs, naturally aged in transit through the solar system." That doesn't mean we have to buy into the hype.

I recognize that many people do not live near a farm stand or a "trendy" store, but they can certainly inquire about the source of products at any store. They can also look into various delivery options from nearby farms. has extensive listings for finding sustainable grown foods all over the country.

I strongly disagree with your assertion that most working families do not have the "time, energy, or disposable income to garden or cook from scratch." For many, many years, I've been part of a working family of five, in which both spouses have generally been employed full-time--or more--and spent at least an hour a day commuting. But we still find time to garden and cook from scratch--and actually save a considerable amount of disposable income by doing so. The average weekly price of food for a family of five, according to the Food Marketing Institute, is $136.40. By eschewing highly processed, advertised, and packaged products, I feed my family on about $75.

It can even be made into an enjoyable family activity if you're so inclined. Tell the kids to turn off the TV, unplug the video games, yank out the earphones, and get their worthless little butts in the kitchen and chop. Who knows, they might emerge having learned a marketable culinary skill. Better to lose a finger in the kitchen than a mind to television.

Yes, millions of people work long, hard hours. But my point is that we've been conditioned to think everything demands too much time and energy because we've been brainwashed by advertisers to perceive simple, everyday activities as burdensome and tedious. As a culture, we suffer not just from overwork but from a socially constructed weariness--some of which is no doubt a result of the dreadful diet foisted on us by the same industry that claims we're too beat to cook. A fascinating vicious cycle.

For more on my dim view of the food industry and its scandalous ruses, read "Who Grows Your Food? (And Why It Matters)" in the November/December 2004 issue of Sierra.
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
I enjoyed your September/October 2005 column, and I agree with all the points you made to Craig in Los Angeles.

I have raised vegetables every year since 1972, when my children were small, and canned or frozen the unbelievable amount of produce the garden generates each summer. I now live alone, but this year I "put up" more than 250 containers of food from my garden, from raspberry jam to lima beans. I am dealing with the late-summer glut of tomatoes and still have butter beans to go. I LOVE IT!

Not only do I have all this great food on the shelf for winter, I also know what is (and isn't) in it: no preservatives! I'm a champion recycler too: I reuse the jars and freezer containers year after year. My canned goods add beauty (may I call it art?) to my pantry. The taste is the best too.

The gardening way of life can't be beat. And in case it sounds like I am out of touch with 2005, I have earned my PhD and work full-time as an administrative faculty at a university. One summer, I worked full-time and took a full course load in the doctoral program--and still preserved my garden produce. It's that important to me. I can't imagine having to buy all that food in the grocery store. Thanks for letting me share. --Elizabeth in Harrisonburg, Virginia

Hey Elizabeth,
Thanks for proving the point made above. Us environmentalists always love affirmation. (Not that we haven't had our share in recent months, what with the grim satisfaction of seeing our direst prophecies fulfilled. But it's not much fun to say "we told you so" in the face of hurricanes possibly caused by global warming and certainly made more lethal by a multitude of rotten environmental practices, ranging from deforestation to overbuilding on wetlands and coasts.)

Canned foods have suffered far too long from a bad rap. Many foods do not lose as much nutrition in the canning process as is popularly believed. It is also a fabulous practical way to store solar energy. The solar benison concentrated in your vegetables could be lost if it weren't for the invention of canning in 1795 as a method to feed Napoleon's troops. Oops. Strike that. Faster than you can say "oil slick," Bush and company might use the promise of another such discovery as a new argument for war: "Military research has had very beneficial consequences, blah blah blah." Just be sure to keep recycling those cans.
Mr. Green

More Car Talk

Hey Mr. Green,
Your response in the September/October 2005 Sierra to Brian in Washington regarding auto expenses was extremely comprehensive.

For additional information about auto costs and subsidies, an excellent resource is The Elephant in the Bedroom: Automobile Dependence and Denial: Impacts on the Economy and Environment, by Stanley I. Hart and Alvin L. Spivak. --Howard in Fair Oaks, California

Hey Howard,
Thanks for the tip. Now that even George W. Bush has acknowledged that we ought to try to save energy, maybe the ideas in this book and others, like Jane Holtz Kay's fabulous Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, will finally slosh into the great crankcase of the American soul.
Mr. Green

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.

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