It’s too hot to breathe. I’m sitting in Panera slurping down a smoothie instead of strolling the streets of Chattanooga, which seems charming and eclectic from the downtown view. Normally I’m a fan of hot and humid, but this is a bit excessive. This may not be the best summer weekend for a road trip on the east coast, when temperatures soared and storms took out electricity for 3 million people across 11 state. When Tennessee recorded the largest electrical usage ever in a single day and the temperature reached 110 degrees fahrenheit, I was glad to have power in this city. I usually think that I could live without air conditioning, as people in places without our cheap energy have always had to do. We would just be used to open windows and adapting to our surroundings. Seems idyllic and natural until someone opens a door and the furnace blast hits me in the face. Yesterday I told my husband that air conditioning was not his God-given right. Easy for me to say while I sat with the cold air blowing in my face.

We humans are incredibly adaptable, but for some reason it is far easier to adapt toward comfort and ease, and much harder to give that comfort up than it was to adjust to it’s arrival. What a hardship it is, for example, when the seedless oranges are $1.29 each st my grocery store, and consequently there are no oranges in my fridge. Oranges do not grow in my part of the country, but I have grown accustomed to the ease of my $4.99 bag of organic oranges on the shelf at all times. I have never seen an orange tree, or an “orange grove”, but I doubt they resemble the Tropicana commercials. I don’t know the man who picked my oranges, but I do know a 10-year-old boy who leaves my school every winter because his parents are migrant farm workers and they have picking to do in Florida. He returns in spring to finish out the school year, just in time to be tested on everything he missed. Did his mom pick my oranges? Was she paid a living wage and given a break every four hours? Not likely. Although my organic oranges cause less environmental damage and are more healthful for my family without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and orange dyes, they should not lull me into a false sense of self- righteousness. The cost of growing oranges naturally, paying workers fairly, then shipping them across the country or the world and stocking them on the shelves of my local chain grocery should certainly make this orange a luxury item, shouldn’t it? A special holiday treat? And how is it that it is available at pretty much the same price all year round regardless of the season?

Don’t get me wrong, I love good deals. I was raised to believe that scams like “buy one get one half off” were sinfully close to full price. A true sale was at least 50% off, but 75-90% off was a truly good price and worth considering a purchase. My mother and I would chuckle knowingly at my poor clueless dad, who would walk into a store for something without so much as glancing at an ad or clipping a coupon, and leave the store with a full-price roll of paper towels. Apart from the wastefulness of paper towels themselves, he didn’t even get the store brand! So I think you get the point that I appreciate low prices. Lately though, I have been thinking about the cost of those low prices. There is a cost to our earth and health, as products are produced fast and cheap with the use of dangerous chemicals, plastics, fumes and fertilizers that are pumped into our air, water, into our babies’ milk, and onto our toy and closet and refrigerator shelves.

 

I have long been considering the cost to our health, and doing my best to prepare and serve natural foods rather than processed ones and protest companies like Monsanto who would sneak under-tested and unsafe chemicals onto our food, genetically alter it in labs, then sue farmers who would save seeds from their own crops to replant.

But even beyond the long-term cost to the planet and the health of the next generation, what about the cost right now, today, to other humans? Take a look around the room. The lamp, ballpoint pen, end table, chew toy for the dog, throw pillow, t-shirt and tennis shoes, hair brush, coffee mug. If you could see where each item originated, it would be like a world’s fair. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Guatemala, Portugal, and of course, our favorite source of all things cheap, China. Even if the products they sent us were not full of lead and dangerous toxins to kill off our children, there is an immediate human cost. How old is the girl working the textile factory that made my t-shirt? Will the man who dumps waste at the plastic plant that formed my tv remote and toothbrush handle develop cancer from his duties which nobody bothered to tell him were dangerous? What about the woman who is injured at work from a faulty metal machine and has no recourse such as woman’s comp or disability? When she has to return to work to feed her family before she has fully recovered, will they have filled her spot with an able-bodied person leaving no opening for her? I don’t know her or her debt or her family responsibilities or her hunger. I don’t even know if she exists. I do know that it is dangerously easy to grow accustomed to my comfortable cheap American dream lifestyle, and never give a thought to the true cost. I don’t want to live blindly. I will concede that its not completely our fault. We are cushioned from the truth, separated by miles and oceans and sleek advertising. I have no way of knowing whether a slave built my flat screen t.v. But now that I have an inkling, I have a responsibility to look deeper.

It will make my life more complicated to not mindlessly grab things off the shelves, but I can take it one step at a time. I do not have wear Nike shoes if I am not sure of the conditions of the workers. Neither do you. I look at labels and choose not to buy most clothing on the store racks. My closet is pretty full already anyway. I recently found a website (http://www.fairindigo.com/) that sells fair trade clothing and ordered some things. I also paid a little more and purchased some Tom’s shoes (http://www.toms.com/), whose company┬ádonates a pair to a needy child for every pair you buy. I can encourage companies to ensure they have safe and fair facilities, whether in the U.S. or abroad. It adds layers of complexity and headaches to life to be ever vigilant over the origin of your socks and the ingredients in your cereal, but I would rather live consciously and troubled than oblivious and comfy. I believe that if Target and Sears and Reebok and Apple and Dole are pushed hard enough by the the public (that’s us), they would have to look into where they made and bought their products and be a little more open with the consumers (again, us).

I hope you join me in working to live a little more deliberately and compassionately, and pass on any good ideas or initiatives that you run across. Habitual comfort is hard to break, and we will need each others’ help. For now, the a/c is still running, but hopefully if I reach the point where I no longer have it, I can keep perspective and stay the course. It is quite possible the the people making control panel and transformer and fan parts for this air conditioner did not have access to chilled air themselves.