In its August 22 issue, the New Yorker published a piece, Africa’s Cold Rush and the Promise of Refrigeration: For the developing world, refrigeration is growth. In Rwanda, it could spark an economic transformation. August 22 happened to start my fourth month of my experiment disconnecting my apartment from the electric grid, which is to say 3.93 months longer than I expected to make it.
The article was about bringing more refrigeration to Africa. My experiment disconnecting my apartment traces one root to an article in Low Tech Magazine, Vietnam’s Low-tech Food System Takes Advantage of Decay, which described how other cultures use less refrigeration, focusing on Vietnam. It seemed to me to suggest healthier, more affordable, more local, less polluting food and a food supply system than ours. It led me to experiment unplugging my fridge, not expecting to make it more than a day or two. I mean, how can you survive without a fridge? How can anyone?
Living without a fridge
Instead, I made it three months. I started in December and took advantage of the winter cold to use my windowsill as a makeshift fridge. The following year I tried again, starting in November and making it 6.5 months, pushing as long as I could into the warmer months. Vietnam is hot and humid, so they didn’t use cold windowsills. I started learning and getting better at buying fresh, fermenting, and preparing food seasonally. It turns out intact, uncut fruits and vegetables stay fresh without refrigeration for a long time. Bananas ripen. Apples stay mostly unchanged. Squashes, gourds, and potatoes last months unchanged. Some do even better: lettuce grows in water. Waiting longer yields more than I paid for.
The following year I started even earlier. I unplugged my fridge last September 30, with a goal of making it eight months. As processes of continual improvement go, one change prompts another, which reinforces the first. In my case, unplugging the fridge led to unplugging the apartment, which improved my life surprisingly more than I expected, which led me to challenge myself through the summer with the fridge unplugged. The challenge turned out to be more delicious than difficult, and in three days I’ll reach day 365. That year of abundant success and developing skills may lead me never to plug my fridge in again. With cooling fall weather, I’m already feeling how I can relax into using the windowsill again, in home territory.
My greatest lesson was not merely how to salt foods to keep them from spoiling but how spoiled, entitled, and dependent my culture had made me. It would be one thing if refrigerators didn’t pollute, but billions of them are running 24/7. They force our utilities to think we need extraordinary uptimes, upward of ninety-nine percent, forcing them to create huge, redundant power grids that pollute, displace people (and wildlife) from their lands for fuel, and more. Seeing our system with fresh eyes, I also see what we use our fridges for: not fresh fruits and vegetables. More frozen pizzas and vegetables bought fantasizing, “this week, I’ll get healthy,” then neglected in favor of “I deserve a break; I’ll order takeout” again, rationalizing that single moms in food deserts don’t have time to cook, so they’re in solidarity with her. People decline to examine to see that spending money on takeout and doof drive the system that extracts wealth from communities causing food deserts. They are causing the problem they purport to sympathize with the people it hurts.
Buy fresh, people! If you live near a farmers market, CSA or coop, favor them over supermarkets. If you don’t, start them. If your first thought is that those things cost time and money, you’re as spoiled, entitled, and dependent as I was. I can’t criticize you, but I can share that experience overcame my limiting beliefs in ways I doubt words could, so I won’t waste them except to point out my year without a fridge. If you thought it was impossible, yet someone did it, you might reconsider the beliefs suggesting that impossibility.
Americans telling Africans food policy is like Los Angeles telling Amsterdam city planning
In the tail end of living and enjoying what I considered impossible, having smashed past eight months, realizing I’ll make twelve, and possibly forever, I read the New Yorker article saying that people in this polluting, spoiling, wasteful food and doof system producing heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, addiction, concentration of political power, corruption, poverty, dependence, ignorance, and so on wants to make a healthier, less polluting system more like ours? The ideas would have made sense to me before my experiment, but no longer. Now they read like Los Angeles suggesting city planning to Amsterdam: “you just need more cars, and to expand your roads to accommodate them, and build a supply chain to bring in more oil,” and so on. The LA people just thinking of the joy of driving along the Pacific Coast, somehow neglecting the time spent in traffic.
I had also read a New York Times piece in February 2021 When One Fridge Is Not Enough, learning that more than a quarter of American household have two fridges, which I new read as more dependence, but I know most Americans read as necessary and saving money, just like having two cars. We’re splitting atoms so people can avoid fresh vegetables, leading farmers markets to retreat in favor of more frozen pizzas, burritos, and stuff that causes hearts to seize and waistlines to expand.
So I wrote a letter to the editors of the New Yorker suggesting we lower our pollution and waste before trying to change others that pollute and waste less. I referred to my limiting-belief-smashing experience, which I suspect gave it credibility for publishing. They fact-checked it and edited it for length (that advance notice prompted my post yesterday My 32-Year Relationship With The New Yorker Magazine) and today they published my letter:
We can learn to pollute less from those who pollute less, but it requires humility and experimentation
Just as Los Angeles can change itself how Amsterdam did, as it was overrun with cars too a few decades ago with plans to build more LA-style highways to gut its downtown, this nation can learn to restore our unhealthy, polluting, impoverishing food and doof system. I know it feels more fridges feels like progress to someone whose never experience otherwise, including me until a few years ago, but people in Houston think of bicycles as equally impossible, yet by any measure except ignorance and poor past city planning, a city based on bikes serves everyone better.
In the meantime, I recommend unplugging your fridge, seeing how long you make it and what you learn in the process. Humans lived for 300,000 years without refrigerators, including where you live. Might you be more spoiled, entitled, and dependent than you thought? Consider that our polluting system kills people already (nine million annually from polluted air, only one way pollution kills), with projections dwarfing those numbers.
How healthy is your diet? How much of it consists of fresh fruits and vegetables? How much food and doof packaging do you throw out? What companies are you supporting in your food purchasing habits? How much are you concentrating wealth and power, corrupting government, driving small farms out of business? How much do you enjoy cooking?
If you think home-cooked takes time or costs more, like me before, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Not knowing how to cook takes time and costs more. If you think it was easier for me because I’m single, that’s your addiction speaking. I achieved no economies of scale. I had to cook and clean everything myself. I’ve also been carrying solar panels and a battery up and down eleven flights of stairs since May, which you don’t have to do to unplug your fridge.
Systemic change and polluting people being patronizing
When I talk to Americans about living more sustainably, they often say, “me changing is a big effort for little effect so it doesn’t matter, we need to change systems.” If they were only being lazy it would be one thing, but then they propose building and installing refrigerators across a whole continent.
In their minds, when other people change it’s systemic, when they change it’s an individual. Talk about being patronizing and double standards. Always someone else has to change, never them. They always think they’re helping when they dump their crappy lifestyle on someone else. When they have to change it’s too hard and ineffective, but when others change they’ll love it. They never think of unintended side-effects. They probably want to turn Amsterdam into Los Angeles.
Bottom Line: A Failure of Imagination and Leadership we can fix
The bottom line is that refrigerators are not necessary for health, convenience, life, longevity, flavor, or any necessity. They are necessary for our systems, but those systems are producing heart disease, obesity, dependence, concentration of power, corruption, and all I listed above and more.
We can change our systems. Holding us back is not time or money, since we’ll save both, but our limiting beliefs. Our self-imposed inability to make our food, doof, and power systems more sustainable stems from failures of imagination and leadership.
Making our systems more sustainable will put us in a position and mindset to take the next step of making them sustainable. Then we’ll experience freedom and liberation, living by the values our culture has abandoned regarding how we affect each other through the environment: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You (the Golden Rule), Leave It Better Than You Found It (Stewardship), and Live and Let Live (Common Decency).
Unplugging fridges in favor of the Golden Rule, Stewardship, and Common Decency is a trade that will always improve your life.
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