Boycotts, action, and penance Oct 3, 2012
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. Read more
What’s “processed”? Sep 24, 2012
Suppose you want to eat less processed food. Given how and what most Americans eat, that impulse is probably a good one. But once we go beyond the obvious (cheese curls, sugar cereal, hot dogs) you find yourself down the rabbit hole. What about that bottle of salad dressing you use to perk up your unprocessed salad? Is hot sauce ok? What boxed cereal can you eat? You start squinting over ingredients lists, blocking the grocery aisle with your empty cart. You accept an invitation to a potluck and sit horror-struck by the potential dangers lurking in the dishes, feeling your appetite slipping away like blue cheese dressing off a greasy wing. To bolster your flagging courage, you read endless blog posts about why the things you’ve given up are killing other people’s children. You develop an evangelical zeal, gnawed by the fear that your friends will make fun of you the moment you step out of the room. You begin to wonder if you should get new friends.
And then you throw up your hands and dive into a bag of Doritos.
Now, I am the last person to advocate eating most of the food available in American supermarkets. I make my own jam and pickles, I bake bread, I cook practically every meal from scratch, I shop at farmers’ markets. After twenty years of living and eating like this, industrially processed food no longer really tastes like food. Forget health concerns; it just isn’t particularly satisfying.
But having lived this way for twenty years — and having put a great deal of thought into it during that time, and having done a lot of research on how foods were historically prepared — I’m painfully aware that any notion of purity about this business is foolishness. Cooking is, after all, processing, and humans have been doing that for what, fifty thousand years? We’ve been grinding grain into meal for five thousand years, and we’ve been processing and selling food commercially (mainly as grain, oil, and spices) for probably four thousand. I can, if I try, justify the natural origins of practically any edible substance — or find fault with the freshest of fruits. (What the heck is “food-grade wax”?)
Obviously, any sane and sensible person is going to draw a line somewhere. But any line we draw will to some extent be arbitrary; any principle we set will inevitably include some things that seem thoroughly unnatural and exclude others we can’t manage without. I’m going to consider some possible standards, suggest an alternative that’s (you won’t be surprised to learn) largely historical, show how difficult it is to apply even that comparatively objective standard — and then draw some conclusions about navigating this mess sensibly. It’s a long piece, but hit-and-run easy answers are exactly what we need to avoid. Read more
Local ground and rhetorical ground Apr 16, 2011
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. Read more