Limits and conscientious consumption

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

Lincoln, I was informed when I was nine years old, freed the slaves. I learned that lesson well; I was an excellent student. Lincoln freed the slaves and, in my northern curriculum, that was that. Reconstruction, Redemption, sharecropping, the bought election of 1876, Jim Crow didn’t fit the narrative of American glory and the Ultimate Triumph of Liberty.

I know better now, but at some level it remains inconceivable to me that slavery still exists in the world. It was so deeply ingrained in me that we had progressed beyond such primitive miseries that I have trouble getting my head around it, no matter how much evidence I see to the contrary. And so it was that, a decade ago, when I read news reports about “human trafficking” in the global chocolate industry (a pleasant euphemism, as if the poor dears were merely stuck at a long red light), I assumed, with a last thin strand of youthful faith in my fellow human beings and the institutions meant to protect us from the consequences of our faults, that this problem had been “taken care of.”

But of course it hasn’t, because our boundless need to consume—even something as ultimately trivial as chocolate—trumps everything. Continue reading “Limits and conscientious consumption”

Boycotts, action, and penance

Last week, walking across campus to the library, I was interrupted (I don’t want to say “accosted”) by a woman in her early twenties wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt.

“Are you on your way to teach, or do you have a minute to help save the environment?”

“No,” I said, smiling, “I’m not on my way to teach.”1

So I let her tell me about Greenpeace, and about an initiative to protect rainforests by convincing KFC’s parent company to quit buying from a company called Asia Pulp and Paper, which is alleged to log protected rainforests illegally. Other fast-food chains have quit buying from them, and Greenpeace is pressuring KFC to stop too.

I have this mental image of Greenpeace activists rowing up to an oil tanker in, I don’t know, a Viking longship or something, and attacking it with pea shooters. Quixotic, misguided, but romantic. There was no romance in this little chat on the sidewalk, no adventure, no grand visions, just procedural details of corporate malfeasance. It felt very… oh, bourgeois. Very proper, very polite, very accepting of social and cultural norms, very work-within-the-system.

On the spot I couldn’t articulate why, precisely, I couldn’t bring myself to care. Or maybe I could have, but it was too complicated a conversation for an early-autumn dusk on a sidewalk under the oak trees. I mean, sure, all things being equal, if we’re going to blow through forests to create mountains of single-use cups and napkins so we can eat mindlessly while we race from here to there in our cars that are irrevocably altering the planet’s climate and then bulldoze rural landscapes so we can bury those cups and napkins in landfills, if we’re going to do all that anyway, then sure, we ought to do it… more… um… sustainably? Well, maybe you see my point already. Continue reading “Boycotts, action, and penance”

  1. Full graying beard, ponytail, corduroy jacket. How could I not be a professor?

Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school. Continue reading “Keep home economics in the home”

Local ground and rhetorical ground

Benjamin Cohen writes on Grist this week (“What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement”) about some issues I’ve been mulling over since getting involved in the “local food movement” a decade ago — namely, the terms of the debate. Cohen takes on writers who have reduced ethical consumption to a single metric — typically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or energy efficiency — and who have then used that metric to deny the value of eating local. The problem with this approach, Cohen says, is that no single metric can assess the value of something as complex as a food system; as he puts it, “regionally configured food systems are about more than energy.”

So, for example, Stephen Budiansky argues that the damage done by the fossil fuels he consumes driving back and forth to the farmer’s market negates the good he does by buying food locally; Cohen responds that Budiansky takes fossil fuel use as a given — something most local food activists would like to change — and deliberately removes taste, freshness, and community from his rhetorical framework.

I’d go further in my critique, and it’s a critique that cuts both ways. Continue reading “Local ground and rhetorical ground”

Can we just eat, Mom?

Is anybody else getting tired of the constant drama about what we should and shouldn’t eat? Maybe it is because I have been thinking about this stuff for fifteen years and I am just tired of it, but it seems that everybody, now, is telling me what I should or shouldn’t eat. Many of them are growing increasingly angry about it. Others are going further and further into the speculative thicket. Here’s a sampling of what my Twitterstream and blogroll have pointed me to just in the past three days: Continue reading “Can we just eat, Mom?”

Forget the USDA

I try to avoid politics on this website, but there has been so much hand-wringing this week in the sustainable agriculture community about Barack Obama’s agriculture choice for Secretary of Agriculture that I feel compelled to respond. I can’t find much good to say about Tom Vilsack, but I have low expectations for the job he’s filling, and I would have been surprised had Obama picked somebody I really liked. Continue reading “Forget the USDA”

We Dare Defend Our Rights

Read enough history and you find yourself crowded by the dead. They mill about as palpable as the living, and more numerous. Stoop to retrieve a slobbery tennis ball and assailed by the recollection that your yard was once a great plantation you may rise to find yourself surrounded by toiling slaves whose worksongs are insufficiently energetic for their driver. Hiking past a grave you may see a dead woman seated on her grave, her face like a hologram appearing old or young depending on the angle, and her legs accordingly decrepit or dangling childishly. Mention this to others and you will be regarded as the boy in the movie who claims to see ghosts or hear poltergeists, and to be fair, there may be only the finest line between historical awareness and otherworldly madness: either way, you see things that aren’t there. Continue reading “We Dare Defend Our Rights”

No such thing as a free lunch (literal edition)

It never ceases to amaze me that people are surprised by things like this: Kids in England don’t like the healthy lunches the schools are serving them. Why are they surprised that kids will happily accept a change in their routine that is shoved down their throats. (Of course, the same people who pushed for these changes are equally happy to shove things down the throats of adults they disagree with, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by any of it.)

As I see it, there are four major variables that contribute to the quality and desirability of food:

  • taste
  • healthfulness
  • ease of preparation
  • cost

The contribution of each variable to a food’s desirability is dependent on the individual in question, obviously, but as a first approximation, desirability is directly proportional to taste, healthfulness, and ease of preparation, and it is inversely proportional to cost. In other words, people tend to want food that tastes good, is good for them, is easy to prepare, and is cheap.

The problem is that these are not independent variables. Ease of preparation requires preprocessing that degrades healthfulness (unless you want to eat all raw foods). Cheap ingredients don’t taste as good and aren’t as good for you as expensive ones; as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheapest and easiest way to take cheap ingredients of poor quality and make them taste good is to add fat and sugar — both of which our biology attracts us to, because humans evolved in times of scarcity not abundance — and salt, which enhances whatever flavor is present. All three in too great a quantity are bad for you.

To make everyone happy in the school lunch wars, we’d have to serve lunches that meet all four criteria. Activists and most parents want food that’s healthy; kids want it to taste good; schools need to keep the preparation as simple as possible; and schools and most parents want to keep costs down. But there simply isn’t much food that is tasty, healthy, cheap, and easy. I agree that schools ought not be serving junk and calling it dinner, but anyone who wants to improve the overall quality of school lunches needs to start from a realistic assessment of what’s possible and be prepared to work within those constraints.

Why people vote

Last fall I had a running argument with friends that voting ought not be made too easy because voting is an act of civic participation and therefore part of the fabric that binds a democracy together. People making atomized decisions in their living rooms are not participating in anything; they aren’t given the opportunity (or, perhaps, forced) to see themselves as part of a democratic society. The act of going to a polling place and voting in the presence of one’s fellow citizens, on the same day and in the same place, is as important to a democracy as the vote itself. Continue reading “Why people vote”