Realism over reverence: A loveable soil nerd’s advice for sustainable activism

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo via Facebook)

James Cassidy, a soil sciences instructor and faculty advisor to one of the longest-running organic student farms in the country, comes into his office at Oregon State University wearing a t-shirt that says “eat locals.” It shows a zombie chasing a guy on a tractor.

I’m here today to talk with James about food, sustainability, and the little things we can all do to make a difference in our food system. Now that there are so many different food organizations, sustainable farming projects, and trendy restaurants, the myriad of all things we “should” do when it comes to food can be overwhelming.

“A lot of people think you’re supposed to convert to sustainability like you have to join this religion or something,” James says. “But the creation of real lasting change isn’t about going full blast, it’s about doing little things over a long period of time. That’s what sustainability really means—an action that is possible for you to sustain for a long time.”

Doing small, reasonable acts to participate in sustainable food systems—like eating a little less meat than you might normally, or buying vegetables at a farmer’s market once a month—might not seem like much. But if enough people did these little things, it would make a big difference.

“If we could snap our fingers and get everybody to eat 5% less meat and 2% more whole grains, we could change the entire agricultural system overnight.”

It’s maybe not as sexy as becoming a full-blown urban homesteader with chickens and pickles and homemade soap, but that’s the point.

"Eat food, not rocks," says James.

“Eat food, not rocks.” (Photo via Facebook)

“Look, change is slow. And it’s not very dramatic or exciting. So you have to build activism into your life in a reasonable way,” he says. “The activism itself has to be sustainable.”

Less guilt, more fun

Having a whole bunch of fun helps too, he adds. Especially when it comes to mobilizing volunteers or starting community projects related to sustainability.

“You have to give an incentive for people to be there, not just tell them that they really ‘should.’ You gotta get the BBQ in there, you gotta get some music, you gotta make it actually fun and they’ll actually want to come. Less strict ‘eat your vegetables’ guilt-tripping and more birthday cake.”

Prioritizing reality over reverence has helped Cassidy’s student garden come into its own. In the early stages, he saw a lot of students sitting around having philosophical conversations about communities. It was too grand, too hypothetical. People kept dropping out because they weren’t having fun.

Now kids come out to the garden for a few minutes to pull weeds, have a warm meal together, and then get back to whatever else they want to do. It’s no pressure, and that works better for busy students who are more likely to come by if it’s not a huge commitment—and if they’re getting food out of the deal.

“Look, communities happen, they’re not built. And they happen if there’s a reason for them to happen. So if you can provide some reason or some opportunity for it—for us it was serving dinner to people who come to help—then you give it a chance to form itself.”

I ask him if there’s one thing he would want everybody on the planet to do or think about to help us become more sustainable. The simplicity of his answer surprises me.

“I think that every single person who lives on this planet Earth should put a seed into soil and water it and put it under a light or in the sun at least once a year. If everybody participated in this little tiny ritual, it would remind us how life on our planet actually works—seeds going into a porous media and swelling and growing and becoming something out of nothing. I think if everyone did this, it would actually improve people’s lives and change their perspective. I think it’s really as simple as that.”

If you need some inspiration for having fun and expressing ‘what’s on your mind,’ check out this Information Society video (NOTE: that’s James on the left with the big blue bass).

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