The glaring fluorescence of Atlantic Superstore lights must have blinded me. How could I buy a shiny, temptingly red – and cheap – Mexican tomato when I knew I could purchase local, organic ones at the Halifax Farmers’ Market?

Why did I do it? What possessed me to buy outside my foodshed? I’d like to deny responsibility, blame the whole thing on the fact that I hadn’t had my reusable mug of fair-trade, organic coffee, but I accept responsibility. Was it price? Was it laziness? Was it the seductive glow of glossy red tomato goodness?

As an environmentally conscious Buddhist, I should have known better.

Later, as I was eating my flavourless sandwich and feeling guilty about the pollution my tomato’s transcontinental journey had produced, I wondered: Why do sustainable choices often seem so difficult?

Surfing the web for an answer, I came across a group of “locavores” in the San Francisco Bay area trying to live by the 100-mile diet. Their site lists some of the usual motivations for eating locally: reduce air pollution, support family farms and invest in the community. It also suggests that the distance our food travels equals our separation from knowing how and by whom it was produced, processed and transported.

When looking at an orderly pyramid of Mexican tomatoes in a supermarket, I realized that I didn’t see the damage I was doing by choosing a cheap, conveniently accessible and shiny red tomato. The full costs were hidden from sight. Was the answer simple ignorance?

It couldn’t be. I understood the arguments for eating locally long before I felt the desire to buy that well-travelled tomato, but I still bought it. As Adria Vasil observes in Ecoholic, “You know you’d rather eat food that’s good for the health of the planet. … But let’s face it, most of the time we reach for whatever we’re in the mood for and what’s on sale.” The problem is that although there are many good reasons to buy local and organic food, “reason” is rarely in charge when it comes to buying stuff – “desire” is.

Knowing better doesn’t guarantee improved buying habits because our desire for cheap, convenient commodities is powerful, and, in one of those twists of fate, unsustainable products inevitably seem to be cheaper and more convenient than the sustainable ones.

Unfortunately, knowing my Mexican tomato’s travel itinerary wasn’t enough to curb my desire for it. It will take more than knowledge to tame my wanton consumer ways. But what?

Still feeling guilty, I did what any practising Buddhist does when stuck in a quandary: I sat my butt on a meditation cushion.

Initially, I wanted to blame the system. If the price of tomatoes included the costs of production and transportation, then a Mexican tomato should cost more than a local one. Problem solved.

Not so fast. On further reflection, it seemed to me that green economics – while crucial – do not fully address the psychology of our unsustainable consumer habits. My Buddhist instincts compelled me to dig down to the root causes of my action – to understand my desire. So as my body digested the tomato – as the fruit miraculously shed its own identity and became part of me – I tried to apply Buddhist philosophy to my question.

I wish I could say that I discovered an easy solution, but I didn’t. However, I did find that Buddhist philosophy provides a unique way of looking at how we might transform our commodity-driven desires that oftentimes result in unsustainable practices.

According to Buddhist tradition, transforming basic desires requires something radical. It asks that you change your basic understanding of the way things exist. In other words, to change your desires you first have to alter the way you look at the world. Long-time Buddhist teacher Judith Simmer-Brown says, “According to Buddhist teachings, it is never enough to address desire. … When the relationship between desire and ignorance is understood, then we can see that the way to transform desire is to transform ignorance.” In this context, Simmer-Brown uses the word “ignorance” in its Buddhist sense, where it refers not simply to a lack of knowledge, but to something more fundamental: a mistaken perception of reality.

And what is this mistaken perception of reality that we must transform? According to the Dalai Lama, it’s our belief that beings and things inherently exist. Buddhist scholar Jeffrey Hopkins explains that inherent existence “… refers to our ordinary sense of the way that things exist – as if they concretely exist in and of themselves, covering their parts.” For many folks, my tomato is simply the glossy red round object that the cashier weighs and stuffs into a plastic bag. What we believe we purchase is a whole tomato that is an independent, easily-exchangeable commodity. In fact, the entire buying and selling of tomatoes operates on the basic assumption that tomatoes inherently exist.

For Buddhists, however, on a fundamental level the tomato has no self-presence. Its individuality dissolves into what the Dalai Lama calls “a complex web of interrelated causes and conditions.” The seemingly independent tomato is completely reliant on conditions we would normally consider external to it. For example, think about how my tomato came to be ecologically. Consider all the causes and conditions that, as the locavores note, “produced, processed and transported” it: sun, moisture, soil, farmers, trucks, fossil fuels, pollution and so forth. All of the complex causes and conditions that made my purchase possible are part of the tomato. Remove any of them, and poof – the tomato and this situation never arise.

Now take this thinking a step further. Not only is the tomato incapable of coming into existence by itself, it is also incapable of remaining in existence by itself. For example, any produce manager will tell you that tomatoes require certain conditions to avoid disintegration. The temperature must be in the right range, the pressure on the tomatoes’ skin cannot be too great and so on. The more you think about it, the more you see that, as Buddhist scholar Francis Cook says, “… to exist in any sense at all means to exist in dependence on the other, which is infinite in number. Nothing exists truly in and of itself, but requires everything to be what it is.” You can imagine a tomato as an independent object – you can even imagine you’ve bought it – but you can never isolate that tomato from the universe that supports its existence.

The independent tomato we perceive then, is like a mirage – a misinterpretation of experience. Where we desire a solid, individual object, there is only an insubstantial confluence of conditions. Everything outside the tomato forms a part of it: there is no solid core within it, dividing the world absolutely between tomato and not-tomato, no solid core that makes it the same tomato from field to store to checkout to home. Such an independent core would, in fact, be indigestible. 

So how might the Buddhist view of the interdependent tomato help us make more sustainable choices? Unfortunately, Buddhism doesn’t give us superpowers. It doesn’t, under the glare of those Superstore lights, make us see the chemicals, pollution and working conditions that produced the tomato. It won’t make the Mexican tomato less appealing or more expensive than the local one. But it can undermine our commodifying perceptions; it can give us leverage over our desire for the cheaper tomato by destabilizing the connection between a tomato and its price. That desire is rooted in our belief that a tomato is nothing more than an individual object that a cashier weighs to determine its cost. But a tomato is much more.

When you realize the full interdependence of a tomato – that you can’t really separate it from the universe – the whole checkout process seems absurd. When you buy a tomato, you are actually buying a certain momentary arrangement of the universe. Can you really purchase the universe at $1.40/kg? The impossibility of putting a price on the universe dislodges a tomato from the seductive illusion of cheapness. The price no longer lures us because we can see that it only applies to a falsely imagined, independent entity – to a tomato that fundamentally isn’t there.

I’m not saying that becoming more aware of a tomato’s lack of independent existence will guarantee that we will make more sustainable purchases, but if we dislodge the tomato from its price, if we level the playing field in terms of desire, then the temptation that overcame me at the Superstore no longer dominates. Had I combined this insight with knowledge of the tomato’s environmental costs, I just might have put that shiny red embodiment of momentary universal existence back and passed by the checkout counter en route to the farmers’ market. 

At the time of writing, Douglas Vincent was a PhD student studying the works of Gary Snyder and trying to practice and reconcile the wisdom of Buddhism and environmentalism for nearly a decade.

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