It’s only in fairy tales, apparently, that our heroes don’t eventually disappoint us. In the real world, Alice Waters, previously untouchable high priestess of the sustainable food movement, has really been taking a beating—from the most devoted among her congregation, no less—for her contributing role in the new Ameya Preserve/Development in Montana (check out the Wall Street Journal’s article highlighting the hullabaloo.)

Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, a local in Livingston, Montana, the site of the alleged crime, has accused Waters in a blistering jeremiad in the Ethicurean, of having “sold out the people of a town she’s never even visited…that will not be enhanced by the ‘amenities’ enjoyed by a bunch of separatist wealthy people up behind a gate.”  

Okay. What’s really being debated in this catfight? Class conflict, for one. Dokken certainly wasn’t going to make himself any friends by blaming “class envy” for the loud local objections to his “private national park that you can live in luxury in.” (“The real anger of these letters and blogs seems to be class envy directed at people who have had more success in life,” Dokken said, with all the finesse of a Mack truck, and continued, “Perhaps they were smarter. Perhaps they worked harder. Perhaps they were more ambitious,”ad nauseam. Not a smooth move, dude.) Freeman, representing the locals, is nervous about those she presumes Ameya will attract: “second-homeowners who will fly in and out on their private jets.” Both parties are eyeing each other with marked distrust and disdain, despite the fact that everyone involved considers conservation a fundamental value. So why the strife?

Aha, semantics! What do we all mean by conservation? How much greenwashing (a fightin’ word in these circles) is going on here, and is a bit of it forgivable if it contributes to a greater good? Dokken’s development plan is patently more progressive than the other, typical, faux-log McRanch developments littering the Rockies (and everywhere else). But are carbon offsets, donations to a local museum, and pledges to Habitat for Humanity sufficient to make a luxury development sustainable, or are Dokken’s tree-planting schemes just lame pacifiers, lip service? Is Dokken’s development an excessive, resource-devouring wolf artfully cloaked in green sheep’s wool?

Which brings us to notions of luxury and its place in a sustainable new world order. Are luxury and sustainability “contradictory values,” as Freeman believes? Does conservation necessarily entail sacrifice and denial? Or…should we be happy that some of the millionaires out there looking for vacation homes—because let’s face it, most millionaires are going to buy vacation homes—want ones not built with blood, baby seals and asbestos?

What’s keeping these two camps—not just in this debate, but in many others like it—from resolution are fundamental differences in standpoints, although their values, confusingly, are all called by the same names. On one side are the purists, shocked and disgusted at what they consider the watering-down of the sustainability movement—which, it must be noted, is a direct result of the movement’s current cultural capital and success. (For which, it must also be noted, many of the purists are responsible.)

On the other side are the positive thinkers, pollyannas if you will, who applaud the organic transition of Midwestern or Chinese acreage, even if Wal-Mart, not the farmer’s market, is selling the produce—or who are psyched that a neurotic stockbroker with a bonfire in their bank account wants to write checks to Wade Dokken.

The purists think that the pollyannas’ acquiescence to diluted ideals is the first step down a slippery slope; the pollyannas believe that the purists’ refusal to negotiate will suffocate any hope of a critical mass taking shape for the movement.

Why, though, is this story garnering national attention? Because Alice Waters, whose loud-and-proud modus operandi has always been uncompromising purism, may have just been caught…compromising. (As cultural commentator David Kamp noted in the WSJ, “No one would bat an eyelash if this were Emeril or Wolfgang Puck or Mario Batali.”) What she said to the WSJ, resignedly I imagine, was “Whenever you take money you’re compromising yourself. Most people who have money have strings attached. There are definitely better and worse ones.”

I’m just glad that everyone gives enough of a damn to argue. It makes me happy that blowhards like Wade Dokken are building even semi-sustainable McDevelopments; it makes me happy that furious whiners like Charlotte Freeman are up in arms about it. The purists and the pollyannas need to keep fighting—that’s how the future of sustainability, which lies somewhere in between, will figure itself out.

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

In deep Waters
Alice Waters, previously untouchable high priestess of the sustainable food movement, has really been taking a beating.