Homo Economicus


Americans are finally, finally driving fewer miles. Have we come to our senses about cooking the planet? Have we stopped being annoyed by Al Gore’s tone and started listening to his message? Have we realized at long last that driving is the most stressful, dispiriting, middle-aged spread-causing-activity of modern life?

Absolutely not! We just don’t like spending $4.19 a gallon for regular.

In a similar vein, Americans are now increasingly interested in growing food at home. Burpee reported a 40% rise in sales of herb and vegetable plants and seeds in 2008. Local farmers right and left sold out of vegetable seedlings this spring. The media are suddenly all over the story: Imagine, there are actually people who know how to grow a zucchini!

Who’s to thank for this domestic revolution? Fritz Haeg of Edible Estates, who’s turned vegetable gardens into an art statement? Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International, who’s waging a campaign to replace the White House lawn with a vegetable garden? Barbara Kingsolver, who turned home gardening into a particularly insufferable form of saintliness in her bestseller Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Or me, who blogs constantly about my love for my vegetable garden, one of the transcendent joys of my life?

Definitely not! It’s the two-dollar green pepper and the four-dollar box of blueberries that are doing the job. The fact that nobody can escape Whole Foods anymore without spending $300. The fact that the affluent young mother who lives behind me told me about going to the Saratoga Farmer’s Market last Saturday and simply balking at the prices: “I just said, ‘I’m not paying that!'” The fact that a $1.60 package of seeds, on the other hand, will yield hundreds of pounds of green beans, or cucumbers, or basil, or tomatoes, or arugula, or pumpkins.

I’ve been trying to get my kids interested in gardening for years. Every year, I set aside a piece of my vegetable garden for each of them, a bed about a yard wide and 18 feet long. Every year, they are tremendously excited to pick out seedlings at the nursery–and then instantly lose interest as soon as the stuff is planted.

Until this year, when they are suddenly gripped by the entire process of weeding, harvesting, planning for next year, questions of crops, varieties, growth rates, productivity, flowers versus food. Have they suddenly realized how ineffably beautiful the cycle of life is?

Nope. They’ve figured out that by setting up a farmstand in front of our house in Saratoga Springs, they can make hundreds of dollars over the course of the season selling the stuff they’ve grown. My youngest has her eye on a $90 American Girl doll, something her sport- and book-oriented parents would not buy her in a million years. I think the doll’s in the bag.

Who are we, we human beings? Have we no soul? Is it all just about the money and the stuff? Is the fabric of our society so weak that we will do nothing for the common good, nothing for beauty’s sake, nothing to blaze a higher trail, only for our own pocketbooks?

The evidence points to yes. It would bother me, if I didn’t generally find worldly, hard-bitten, pragmatic types so much more congenial than virtuous ones.


  1. Aren’t we just are like any other animal on this planet? Don’t we want the most we can get out of life for the least amount of energy? Haven’t we all noticed that even our pet dogs take the shortest route from point A to point B?

    I think it’s cool that your kids have discovered that trading makes the world go round: I’ll trade you these veggies for this money, so I can buy what I want. Yes, that’s life, not all of it, but an important part of it, and our material well-being – being fed and housed and having the means to follow our interests, in your daughter’s case, that doll she craves – depends on this thing that so many like to look down upon: commerce.

  2. I’s bet on capitalism vs. do-good-erism anyday, but I also think there is something joyful in feeling worthwhile or valuable to others. (Speaking as a teacher)It’s a huge esteem builder for kids to be able to go out, do something with her/his skills and hardwork, that in turn is recognized by others. What a great lesson!

  3. Dear Countrygardener,

    I think you are right. If we live our lives in the way you describe, we are indeed no better than our pet dogs.

  4. We are a diverse bunch, us humans. Some are driven strictly by money- and, if channelled properly, this can be a good thing, but I’d disagree with the 80’s Greed Is Good mantra.

    Some are driven by art, creativity- a more ephemeral drive. And so on- there are probably many things that can drive our behavior. Then probably all of us are driven towards certain things for certain reasons due to experiences unique to each of us.

    I think we have a bit of a choice in the matter, but we all have limits…

  5. Surely the satisfaction one gets from growing vegetables and managing a farm stand doesn’t come only from the S$$$$ , but from the knowledge of a sustained effort brought to completion and of a job well done. I can just hear those kids 50 years from now, talking about When I Was Young, My Farmstand . . . .Pleasure, Skill and achievement are not always noticed instantly.

  6. personally, i don’t really wish to be better than the dog. most dogs are very considerate with people’s feelings in a way that seems to have escaped dustin.

    it also seems to have escaped dustin that capitalism beats the pants off tribalism, which is what had been making the world go round. suddenly everyone is worth talking to if they have money to spend, instead of based off their homeland or skin color. sure, we could do better. but who dogs a kid for wanting a doll?

    i miss having a dog.

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