- There Is No Alternative1
What we eat is grown, produced, distributed and consumed in ways that are not sustainable. To say that our food economy is unsustainable is to say that, sooner or later, it will collapse.2 The dominant food economy, in both its conventional and organic, industrial forms, cannot be sustained for ecological as well as economic reasons. Simply put, the dominant food economy is both too damaging and too wasteful.3
These charges against industrial food are not new. Ever since the restructuring of the post-World War II economy gave birth to U.S. federal policies that subsidize the industrialization of agriculture, critics have cited its destructive effects upon nature, economy and community. Wendell Berry is perhaps the best known representative of the contemporary critical tradition which has sought to defend land stewardship and human scale farming and food economies. Revered by some, Berry and his compatriots have been regarded as nostalgic crackpots by many more. Little if any heed has been paid their warning of the dangers to all posed by the destruction of rural land, labor and life.4
But undeniable ecological and economic crises are beginning to change all that. Long standing criticisms of industrial food are gaining a broader hearing today. Most surprising is the increasingly mainstream play given the claim that the alternative food economies we need must be more local if we are to have “good, clean, and fair food.”5 From Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver to Carlo Petrini, Vandana Shiva and Prince Charles, “localism” is now represented as viable, hip, even necessary.6
Yet we are in a curious situation. The madness of the global industrial food economy is increasingly difficult to deny. At the same time, that economy and its main powers as ceaselessly expand and tighten their grip on the mode and means of food production and delivery. One reason for this consolidating power is that so many of us feel that we have no alternative but to participate in the current system. In some cases, ignorance of the facts of the matter underwrite this participation. Yet the curiosity is that even once the facts of the government subsidized, oil drenched, climate changing, land destroying, wasteful, corporate controlled conventional and organic food economies are known, local and translocal alternatives are often dismissed as impractical, impossible, reactionary, undesirable.
What I find curious is the mix of passivity and power, of denial and refusal with which the facts about corporate controlled industrial food are greeted once we know them. In some sense, we don’t acknowledge what we know. To acknowledge what we know is to feel it viscerally, until what we know guides our action. When we don’t acknowledge what we know, then, what we know can build defenses which actually block awareness of what we are doing, defenses which issue in actions which we know are destructive, but which we seem unable to help but do. When we avoid rather than acknowledge what we know, our knowledge may lead us to squander promise and possibilities which we know better than to waste, yet still do.7
My aim is to unearth the roots of this debilitating attitude as it arises in our relations to food by considering the common objections we make to the call for a turn to local food economies. I aim to show the contestable conceptual and normative commitments which inform these judgments. But to do so will require more than simply restating the by now routine arguments against industrial food and for more ecologically sound local and translocal food economies. Underwriting our at once knowing, and willing, yet perpetually forgetful participation in destructive practices are concepts and values about which we might wonder and eventually grow disenchanted. Arguments alone are hardly sufficient to change our habits. But we are unlikely to feel inspired even to undertake investigation, let alone experimentation in changing our habits, if we cannot truly see our situation or feel the need for an alternative.
In lieu of an argument
I want to cultivate new ground in this essay. But I cannot turn over new ground to more ecologically sane and socially just...