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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 food economies if I must rehearse arguments well made by others. So, in lieu of argument, I make the following assertion, extensive evidence and arguments for which are found in sources I have already cited: Industrial agriculture and the global food economy prove to be uncommonly inefficient and extraordinarily wasteful of economic capital, unredeemably destructive of “natural capital,” as well as wasteful and destructive of “human” and “cultural capital.”

For the sake of argument, then, imagine that you are already persuaded that our current food economy is too damaging and too wasteful to be sustained. Imagine, too, that you are persuaded by arguments which maintain that the only way to have food which is “good, clean and fair” is to farm, exchange and consume food in accordance with certain principles of ecological stewardship and social justice. Imagine, too, that you accept that these ecological and just principles and practices likely will require more local and translocal relationships. But even were I lucky enough to have my words fall upon such a generous reader, this rarest of readers still would likely feel that “the local” represents no viable alternative to the current system.

Why might we feel that granting primacy to local and translocal relationships is as impractical or undesirable as most facets of the case made for it may prove to be undeniable? Why might we imagine that we have no alternative but to keep doing what we are doing regardless of how destructive it is? I think this common sense can be boiled down to a number of specific judgments, namely, that: 1) ‘the local does not exist’; 2) ‘we don’t have the power to bring about this alternative’; 3) ‘we do not have the resources (time, money, skills) to live that way’; and, finally, 4) ‘we don’t want to live that way’. I will consider each of these common sense judgments in turn, after some preliminary reflections upon nature.

Nature’s nature

We find ourselves in a condition of ecological crisis approaching the breaking point. By ecological crisis I refer not only to our relations with nature as we usually construe it–as something other than human and an “environment” to which we relate as an object. I subscribe to the nineteenth century insight, well formulated in their own ways by Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, that there is nothing outside of nature.8 To say that the human species is part and parcel of nature is not to deny that we human beings have distinctive capacities. Indeed, human beings have an important evolutionary role which both Nietzsche and Freud thought it our task to engage ever more constructively and consciously. We are a part of nature in which have developed affective and intellectual capacities that enable us not only to select among the parts of nature we prefer, but also to make ourselves aware, through art and argument, why we make the selections among nature we do and with what consequences.9

The crises we face are fundamentally ecological, then, because their taproot is a deluded sense of ourselves as a species distinct from the rest of nature and lords over nature. To say that we are approaching a breaking point is to say that we are on the verge of learning more deeply that nature is all there is, which is to say that we are on the verge of learning that, like all other beings, we are subjects of nature rather than its masters. I suggest that we will come to live in acknowledgment of our interdependence with all the rest of nature, in part because it is ever clearer that we will be decisively and, often painfully, instructed in its realities.

According to one rubric, the traditional concern of philosophy proper is to investigate those aspects of the human condition and reality itself which cannot be otherwise. Generally speaking, political philosophy has addressed these necessary and unalterable features as they apply to collective life. By contrast, political theory has concerned itself with what could be otherwise, here and now, with matters about which we have choices to make and actions to take.10

What the current ecological crisis reveals is that, on the one hand, what we have presumed to be unchanging is in fact an historically bound understanding and, on the other hand, what we have taken to be contingent and amenable to choice is more restrictive than we had imagined. More specifically, our historically bound, profoundly unrealistic understanding of nature, and of humanity’s relation to it, has fueled ways of life and organizations of power which in their destructive effects are teaching us anew about what is necessary. Today, as scholars in the humanities have been stressing for decades, we must come to terms with the contingency of what we have taken to be necessarily true. Yet we also must increasingly recognize that what we thought were available choices and viable ways of organizing ourselves may seek to defy natural realities which will not be denied. Nowhere are current distortions of contingency and necessity more evident than in our relations to food.

Our current ways of life, from our global and national political economies to our household economies, are founded upon a conception of nature as limitless, of its use as without cost, and of its capacity to absorb waste as unending. Global industrial food would be obviously too damaging and too wasteful if we calculated costs according to virtually any other conception of nature. For instance, this accounting scheme ignores both the long term ecological cost to water, land and air of a food economy which burns fossil fuels to grow and transport food across the globe and also displaces and hides the immediate costs of corporate tax subsidies for transportation or of obesity related diseases fostered by high caloric processed foods. Of course, the view of nature as limitless and without value is foreign to any ecological understanding. What is more, natural ecosystems are characterized by stability rather than by open-ended progress or infinite growth. According to an ecological economics perspective, then, the ways and means of our hyper-growth political economy are unsustainable because its aim of unlimited growth is founded upon a basic account imbalance between natural economy and human economy. What our hyper-growth political economy extracts from ecosystems and requires them to assimilate is simply unsustainable because of the nonrenewable resources used up and the permanent damage done.11

Before we can act to create forms of politics and economy which preserve and enhance the conditions of life, then, we need to revise our imagination of nature and our place in it. The challenge of altering our daily, willing, if often witless investment in the ways and means of hyper-growth political economy at odds with nature returns us to one of the primary tasks of philosophy before it became a profession, namely, philosophy as concerned with our way of life.12 For philosophy as a way of life, the political theoretical questions of ‘who are we?’ and ‘what are we to do?’ are inseparable from the philosophical queries of ‘who am I?’ and ‘who do I want to become?’ Today, addressing either set of questions requires coming to terms with the fact that we begin and end with nature. Yet it seems we have not even yet really begun to understand what nature is.13

“There is no local community”

The fact that it remains inadvisable and probably inadmissable in most humanities theoretical communities to speak of nature or of its realities without ironic and distancing rhetorical moves suggests just how far we have to travel, still, before we even acknowledge ecological crisis, let alone begin constructively to come to terms with it. Recent developments in post-humanist thinking are encouraging.14 Still, much of the humanities remain not simply anti-Darwinian but really pre-Darwinian in its attachment to the human as distinct from nature, or as conceivable as something other than nature or without continual, attentive reference to nature. There is one theoretical conjunction of this persistent humanist tendency which it is especially useful to challenge here, namely, the tendency for the rejection of a closed or substantive metaphysics to yield doubt about the advisability of acknowledging the reality of nature and, by extension, the existence of actual locales or land communities. How these theoretical elisions and free associations lead to a reflex rejection of the “local” as dubious reference and socially reactionary is well illustrated in J.K. Gibson-Graham’s discussion of “community economy” in A Postcapitalist Politics.

J.K. Gibson-Graham regard “community economy” as a crucial feature of any postcapitalist politics, which is to say of any set of concepts and practices which acknowledge our interdependence and are thereby inspired to inflect economic decisions with ethical reflection. Economy becomes a space of ethical political decision when we negotiate our own implication in the existence of others.15 But the most vocal advocates of community economy so far, Gibson-Graham note, have proffered a shared ethic for which community economic development “privileges care of the local community and its environment.” The trouble is not local and translocal economic practices per se, for Gibson-Graham note many such cases as exemplary ethical economic practices. The problem is the tendency to inflect community with notions of common being and, thereby, to draw upon “normative ideals of the community as a fullness and a positivity.” Their concern is that we resist “equating community economic development only with growing the local capitalist economy or with attempts to establish ‘small-is-beautiful’ green self-sufficiency or with achieving community self-determination through promoting homegrown, locally oriented community business.” Whenever we privilege geographic “commonality” or localism, claim Gibson-Graham, we tend to invoke, rely upon and, perhaps, eventually, demand a form of “common being” with the result that the content of community is specified in advance and economic diversity and differences in ways of living and being are precluded or excluded. In short, Gibson-Graham express profound theoretical, political and ethical skepticism about just the sort of “localism” I am proffering.

But there are good ecological reasons for granting primacy of concern and care to “local communities and their environments.”16 Land communities can be properly tended only by seeking to know and respond to their specific requirements and possibilities. For what the land requires and enables at any given place varies with that place. We can arrive at some very general concepts, as Aldo Leopold does when he elaborates the notion of land health and related concepts such as stability and diversity.17 But what is required and possible for the flourishing of land reliant life, including our own life, in any particular place, depends upon knowing and responding to that place.

Contemporary theoretical aversion to essential or substantive metaphysical assumptions is well founded. However, the further elaboration of this theoretical aversion into a rejection of notions of nature and its realities and, by further extension, a rejection of any suggestion that local communities are actual in any “positive” or “full” sense issues in paradoxical and unexpected consequences. Lets see how.

Contemporary aversion to substantive metaphysical assumptions, as Gibson-Graham draw from Jean Luc Nancy, is well founded because such assumptions are, among many other unfortunate effects, contrary to any post-Darwinian understanding of nature operative in the life sciences. That conception is of nature as full yet open, more plural than we can understand, yet limited in what it can bear and give. To stress the open, plural complexity of nature is not the same as saying, then, that habitats or land communities are not real. Nor is it to say that habitats are not striated by causes, effects and consequences which human beings will never fully know, let alone master, but which, finally, we will be required to abide.

Paradoxically, the rejection of substantive metaphysical assumptions by contemporary humanist theorists, which has resulted in our refusal of the actuality of nature and its realities, is predicated upon the unavowed presumption that nature itself is something known or knowable which we are in a position to refuse or ignore. To be sure, most contemporary theorists in the human and social sciences ignore or refuse reference to nature and its realities because they presume that any such reference commits one to essential or substantive metaphysical assumptions. But it is actually the disavowel of any reality to nature which projects an understanding of nature as “positive,” albeit as “empty” rather than “full.” Any practicing life scientist knows that any local habitat, let alone all of nature, is so vast and complex that we know very little about it, let alone about the complex causal conditions of species’ interactions with one another and their specific habitats.18

What we do know is that no species is global and each species evolves in relationship to distinct contexts so that ants or gorillas residing in one forest evolve different patterns of behavior and capacity when compared to their kind in another forest, even in the same country, let alone on another continent. It is surely one of the distinctive evolutionary developments of the human species that we can conceive of ourselves in abstraction from particular places and imagine ourselves as a global species. And given that so many of our daily actions have come to have such far-reaching effects, our capacious imaginative powers are needed and can be beneficial. But it remains to be seen whether our tendency actually to project ourselves everywhere, beyond where we each physically and spatially reside, move or relate by virtue of exchange, will not have the same consequences for us as such exponential power has had for every other plague species, which is to say, every other species which by chance finds itself with the power to destroy its conditions of life as it pursues life.19

To put the same point in more positive terms, while we surely can think abstractly and globally, an ecological perspective suggests that we would be better served if we think in terms of the specific biotic communities in which we live and upon which we depend. Much of the present trouble in which members of the human species strewn all over the globe find ourselves is trackable to our want to make nature everywhere fit for a single way of life for our species.20

A concept of the political

A concept of the political refers to what is of common concern and care.21 Today, we still imagine the space and time of the political in sovereign terms, which is to say that we think of time in terms of human world history and we think of space in terms of the globe. But it is precisely our presumptions about the relevant space and time of politics that ecological crises press us to question.

Because global warming is a problem affecting the whole earth, for instance, we presume that it requires a global solution executed by some combination of national and international actors. From an ecological perspective, however, nations and globe are abstractions which distort the actual conditions of life. Nothing is more worthy of our common concern and care than the land–which includes the soils, rocks, waters, plants, insects and animals (including human animals) which comprise every biotic or “land community.”22 The land should orient our sense of what is politically of most concern and worthy of our care because a land community is the basic context for all life forms. Yet our apprehension of our problem with nature in global terms keeps us wedded to a conception of the political which forecloses a beneficial relationship to land communities. The very space and time in terms of which we imagine ourselves and our world facilitate the very toxic relationship to nature which is the root of so many of our problems. Among other things, these sovereign notions of political space and time incline us to believe that politics takes place elsewhere, somewhere other than where we actually live. As a consequence, we tend not to heed the land community in which we find ourselves at the moment, and thereby tend to ignore nature and its realities and live as if we are no place, or as if every place can be any place. But we can begin to care for the land upon which all life depends only if we abandon the assumptions about space and time of this world historical conception of the political and begin to acknowledge and attend to the particularities of the land communities where we reside (the local) or with which we trade or by other means come into relationship (the translocal).23 Because no two places are alike, what their care requires and what they enable can only be discerned by those who are in a position really to attend to the place. The cosmological insight that this relatively small and fragile planet is alone fit for life as we know and can live it should foster concern and care for the earth as a whole. But we can only care for the planet by taking care of the innumerable land communities which comprise the earth.

Because the political is oriented by what is of common concern and care, it must be given and shared with others with whom one experiences oneself as thrown together rather than adopted by choice. If the political is delimited by voluntary association alone, then it is not truly common but partial. And a politics of parts rather than of a whole, in the end, will prove to be no more than an interest group politics, a politics of the strength of a group or series of groups joined together against others who are judged hostile to what is “common.” From this perspective, “local” politics is perfectly consistent with and likely to yield nothing other than the “enclave” politics which have characterized the American political scene.24 But local and translocal politics oriented by the causal realities of specific land communities only appear to take the form of enclaves. Only when viewed against the fantastical backdrop of the world history of a global species does “the local” appear parochial. In fact, it is “the global” which is actually nowhere and inhospitable to habitation.

To say it more positively, shared power which arises among those who care for particular places, places which are of concern to them because their lives depend upon it, will be compelled, practically speaking, to acknowledge their relations with all other beings who share the land. Or, at least, we must acknowledge these relations if we are to care for and draw resources from the land effectively and healthfully. This is not at all to say that a shared political vision arises from sharing the land. From omnivores at the top of the pyramid of life to microorganisms and soils at the bottom, every land community is a perpetual struggle between eating and being eaten. But what a concept of the political oriented by specific land communities gives us is a group of addressees which are delimited, at least in principle. As a consequence, with every political assertion comes the possibility of dissent, at least if we cultivate receptivity to all aspects of the land community we purport to care about.

If the nature of democratic speech is necessarily both an assertion of common interest and an invitation to affirm or dissent from that assertion, political speech emanating from particular land communities make for the real possibility of directing power in ways responsive to all who share in life there.25 From an ecological and evolutionary perspective, the drive to take care and cooperate in the power we exercise is impelled neither by moralism nor even by an ethical sense of obligation. Rather, we might be moved in our actions by a loving relationship to the land, love underwritten by a deepening acknowledgment that our survival depends upon all and every aspect of the land communities which touch us. As many evolutionary and ecological thinkers agree, love and survival, cooperation and competition, are not actually opposed but often can collaborate to sustain life.

“There is no local economy”

Still, even if a strong case can be made that the local continues to exist from an ecological perspective, hasn’t the relevance of the local been all but eclipsed from a political economic perspective? Increasingly our food, whether raw or cooked, travels anywhere from a continent to half a world away before it enters our mouths. Like other commodities, our food increasingly comes to us by global supply chains. From this political economic perspective, the call for local and regional food economies seems a nostalgic fantasy. Even if primarily local and translocal food economies are desirable, they are simply impractical. Regional, let alone local sources of food hardly exist. Abundant anecdotal evidence of this actual state of affairs is found even among the testimony of localism’s advocates, as in Carlo Petrini’s account of peppers once definitive of a native Italian cuisine now grown in Holland and shipped to Italy where they now grow tulips to be shipped to Holland.26 For Pertini, the example illustrates the madness of our system. But others might just as well conclude that it teaches the current meaninglessness of the local as political economic reference point.

But the claim that local sources of food do not exist is not as true as it first appears, although how true, of course, varies with the locale. And this is Petrini’s point. He and others entreat us to find and foster local cultures and providers of food. The message seems to be resonating with people, at least if the popularity of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are any indication, or the steady growth in the number of local farmers’ markets and community supported farms (CSAs), or the fact that “organic” food and products have been the fastest growing sector of the food economy for over a decade.

But this last example flags a problem. “Organically” certified food and products, when produced according to an industrial model and scale, are by no means necessarily consistent with good, clean, and fair food, if by “clean” we mean not simply free of synthetic chemicals or biotech processes, but also avoiding the destruction of particular land communities and their inhabitants (again, including the human laborers who grow and harvest the food). It is not enough to buy the same quantity of the same products produced according to “organic” standards which have been revised by industry to suit and serve industrial methods. What healthful food economies require is a radical change in our relations with land, labor and life.

Much of what is proffered as green consumerism is a sham, as Michael Pollan’s analysis of the industrial organic powerfully illustrates. Consider, for instance, the increasingly ubiquitous and incredibly carbon footprint intensive “organic salad mix.” From the way it is grown and picked, to the way it is processed, packaged, stored and shipped, it may be one of the most ecologically detrimental foods available for purchase.27 By contrast, greens grown on local farms during season or using only passive solar greenhouse techniques are an altogether different matter. Even better, from an ecological point of view, is to grow your own greens. Yet each move, from conventional to industrial organic, from local farm and farmers’ market to home-grown, demands an intensification of personal energy expended. Are more and more people actually using their attention, time and energy in this way? Certainly some are. But as Jamie Lionette notes, good and clean food is rarely fair food in American society where only the privileged can consistently afford “real food” and the majority of people who frequent farmers’ markets “go there to shop for luxury food treats (locally grown food) and get their staples at the supermarket.” When Time magazine proclaims “Local Is the New Organic” something is indeed going on, but one would do well to be skeptical that the trend represents a radical change in our relationship to land, labor and life.28

But there is the rub. Acknowledge that consuming merely different forms of the same products of roughly the same quantity from more or less the same establishments is not a food revolution. Acknowledge that we need to do much more to create an alternative to global industrial food which is a little acknowledged but highly significant contributing factor to current ecological crises. Acknowledge these things and, likely, you will be confronted by exasperated assertion that no more can be done, that we have not the time, energy, money or skills to do anything more or differently. There is something both terribly astute and deeply confused about this reaction.

On the one hand, the reaction reflects a realistic sense that our possibilities and actions are fiercely shaped by the current realities of political economy. On the other hand, this reaction disavows the role of the accumulations of our personal conduct in the garnering of the power of this dominant political economy. We misconstrue, to borrow a formulation from Simone Weil, how social structures, organized by nobody in particular, actually work. Begin with a Darwinian sense that every species, including human beings, adapt in reaction to external necessities imposed by current conditions of existence. Conditions of existence, says Weil, “act not by imposing a definite direction on efforts of each one, but by rendering ineffective all efforts made in directions disallowed by them.”29 According to Weil, then, our liberty is delimited principally not by outright constraint (though it sometimes is) but by the promise of inefficacy or failure should we choose to countervail what the current conditions of existence promote as necessary to success. Whether from a metaphysical, social or evolutionary perspective, we are free to act according to our sense of what is good or better and contrary to the preponderant force of social relations as defined by the current conditions of existence. But our actions are likely to be deemed successful only to the extent that we comply with those conditions. It seems we are powerless to do otherwise than those conditions prescribe. We eat, we are housed, we travel, we work, as the current conditions of existence necessitate, for this appears to be what is required for our survival, effective action, and success.

As Nietzsche and Freud are at pains to emphasize, however, what counts as efficacy or success are relative and variable. Indeed, it may be that we are de facto free only to the extent which we recognize that what counts as efficacy or success is contingent upon what Nietzsche calls our table of values. It is because what we take to be real and necessary are so deeply influenced by what we value, and vice versa, that, even after she underscores the determinate power of the conditions of existence, Weil then goes on to say that the “enlightened good will of men acting in an individual capacity is the only possible principle of social progress.”30 That is to say, personal conduct is the primary vehicle of collective betterment. The power exercised upon the world by our choices, moment after moment, day after day, determine the relative prevalence of what is good or better in the world.

Of course, Weil’s claim is not that if only we change our personal conduct then the world will be changed. If current conditions of existence can be changed, they can only be changed materially and politically, by means of significant coordinated, collaborative action. However, the collective actions that can change systemic, social, material powers can emerge only if there are shared changes of conviction and everyday personal conduct. The question is not whether individual actions are sufficiently effective to address ecological crises–they are not. Nor is the question whether we face insurmountable collective action problems when it comes to ecological crises. Both formulations represent a fundamental misconstrual of the nature of political action. Political action always begins with individual initiative, initiatives which then come into collaboration with the initiatives of others, which carry forward or amend our action, or let it drop altogether. The invocation of so-called collective action problems is an evasion not only of ethical responsibility, but also of the challenges to our imagination and courage which precede any innovative political action.

The amelioration of current crises and the betterment of the conditions of life for all beings is at once completely within our power and completely unlikely. Fundamentally changing our world is completely within our power because we collaborate in making the world each day and have the power to use the world differently in quite concrete ways. “Eaters must understand, says Wendell Berry, “that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable degree, how the world is used.”31 The ultimate source of power and legitimacy of the current food economy is none other than our intimate, ongoing, willing if often unwitting endorsement of the very organs of the political economic regime which induce our sense of powerlessness to do otherwise. If we personally and collaboratively conduct our lives differently, the current food regime could collapse from social causes rather than the natural causes of disequilibrium which are likely to do it in. What is more, we would have built alternative food economies underneath or along side it. To say it again, such alternative, parallel political economies cannot be built by an individual alone but require collaborative action. But more ecologically healthy and socially just landscapes, farms and factories, markets and stores, local economies and home economies will not arise or thrive without the countless daily choices in personal conduct which sustain them while at the same time drawing resources away from their destructive corporate competitors which currently horde our common wealth. If local and translocal food economies of good, clean and fair food are not viable, it is because we act together each day to make it so. What is fully within our power is completely unlikely without a transformation in our table of values, including what makes us feel effective and satisfied, free and well.

“We don’t have the power”

From the perspective of “world history,” the efforts of particular people in relation to particular places are either derivative or irrelevant. We are either doing the bidding of something on a scale that befits the wide world or what we do is judged to be without consequence. From the perspective of world history, and its attendant assumptions about the space into which our actions must enter and the passage of time according to which our actions must matter, we truly appear to be powerless. This world historical perspective, shaping our political imagination and daily habits, cultivates a pragmatic imperative in conformity with a global scale. We are relentlessly bombarded and effectively saturated by imperatives to consume and produce words and deeds which can have as direct and exchangeable an effect as possible.

But a global scale is not a human scale, nor is it really a political scale. The entire world and the expanse of human history cannot be objects of common concern and care. The political comes into being only in relationship to particular places and the beings whom inhabit them. To attend to the political, then, is to refuse the imperatives of the commodity. To attend to the political, then, is to experience inefficacy in a political economic culture that values efficacy above all else. To care for particular places and their inhabitants is not to cop out, but it is to opt out. And opting out, in order to generate shared power to care for particular places, may require appearing to fail, at least according to the measures of the dominant political economic culture. Yet some of our most popular narratives of political liberation and freedom have been interpreted in ways that obscure this uncomfortable fact of the disappointment and loss attending truly political actions which do not merely reinforce the current conditions of existence.32

Consider, for instance, how our imagination of power is still haunted by dominant interpretations of biblical narrative, a narrative we are as likely to have imbibed from the early Marx or its secularized versions in the liberal Enlightenment as from any religious tradition. This narrative imagines the ultimate victory of the weak over the strong, the victory of what is just and good over that which rules by force alone. But the trouble with many orthodox and popular representations of the victory of the weak over the strong is that they represent that victory as taking place without a radical transformation in our table of values. The trouble is that to imagine the victory of the weak over the strong, without a fundamental rejection of the table of values of the strong, is to imagine not only an impossible victory, but a worthless victory.

There is nothing about the logic of power or history which promises that we shall be victorious because we are weak according to the terms of the powerful. The most naive believe otherwise, namely that the weak will be victorious because their weakness makes them virtuous. The sophisticated simply invert this logic and declare the impossibility of true democracy, social justice or land stewardship and the naivete of believing we are anything but powerless in the face of the juggernaut of global capital. Either perspective is perfectly serviceable for the current political economic regime and both are cultivated without pause in the mass media. But, in fact, what makes the weaker ones worthy of victory, even as they are destined to be losers according to the conventional calculus of power, is their table of values, a table of values repudiated by the preferred forms of power. However, it is the actual practice of this alternative table of values which brings them to life, rather than mere proclamations contradicted by actual deeds. That is to say, in the case of a genuinely new table of values, winning failure is found in our continual efforts to refuse the everyday, ordinary ways we are made party to the production and reproduction of the powers we claim to oppose. Such winning failure demands unceasing attention to the table of values we actually serve in the ways we spend not only our money, but also our energy, time and intelligence.33

What I am suggesting is that to appear to be a loser from the perspective of the dominant table of values is the burden of a normative commitment that is antagonistic to that table of values. To appear to be engaged in a losing proposition according to the dominant measures of power is what it is to be determined to enunciate and enact what one deems good and better in the face of powers dead set against it. To opt out is different from being a failure, but it will never look like winning from the perspective of prevailing power. We might bear this in mind as we assess the prospects of local and translocal food economies and our desire for “good, clean, and fair food.”

“We don’t want it”

Most of us approach food and eating as we do other necessities, with the aim that they take as little of our time and labor as possible. If we are affluent, one way we achieve such reduction of time and effort, without compromising quality, is by spending significant amounts of money on food. If we are not affluent, then concern about getting the best price may be of greater importance. But for both the affluent and more economically taxed, convenience is usually a paramount value. Why? At issue here are perceptions of aesthetics as well as of necessity, of what we want to do as well as what we can do. The experience of being pressed for time is ubiquitous in contemporary U.S. culture. We use money to save time. But we also use money to consume rather than produce what we need or want in search of comfort, pleasure and happiness. So, increased convenience and saving time, at whatever price we can afford it, are matters of aspiration as well as necessity.

We feel that we must insist on being able to live a certain way and, generally, these ways have in common the requirement that the meeting of our material needs involve minimal time and expenditure of energy. In practice, we insist on our ways of life regardless of the evidence we encounter which suggests that they are too destructive to continue. To be sure, when we insist that we can and must live in this way, that we have not time, money nor energy to live otherwise, we are responding to the prod of powerful social necessities. For the writing, reading and lecturing class, for instance, there is the sense that we cannot succeed without spending most waking hours reading, writing and lecturing. The suggestion that we must take more of our time and energy to attend to our material life is seen as at once contrary to the requirements for success in the contemporary academy and anti-intellectual in spirit and aim.

Yet there is a lack of realism and naturalism in this insistence upon how we must live, which is to say a denial that nature exists and that there are limits which we will be required, sooner or later, to acknowledge. I shall return to this point in lieu of a conclusion. But first I want to attempt to address the delicate problem of our desire. My suggestion is that our desire may keep us attached to measures and means of efficacy and success about which we might have reason to wonder and grow disenchanted, if only we were able to experience forms of pleasure and joy we may have forgotten, or perhaps never known. For the ways of our desire, and the pleasures we take, are surely important to whether what we know leads to avoidance or acknowledgment. This subject matter is as large as it is touchy, but it must be broached, however briefly and at the risk of being taken to be preaching.

Our capacities for pleasure and joy are vital in the face of ecological catastrophe. Indeed, they may be the most vital resources for responding to our moment. If this claim seems absurd, one reason why may be that our hyper-growth political economy, which is hell bent on destroying land communities, feeds on our frenzied expenditures in pursuit of joy and pleasure. Of course, criticism of capitalism and contemporary consumer culture are ubiquitous in the academy and across the political spectrum. Left criticism of “capital” is perhaps most visible in the usual academic venues; but conservative criticism of “base” popular culture and its crass and greedy values percolates among those of the right as well.

Yet the perfectly obvious thing which the talking and writing classes from left to right all tend to ignore is each one of our daily investment in the great modern faith that money buys happiness. We of the talking and writing classes don’t profess this faith. Indeed, we likely denounce it. Perhaps it is an embarrassment that I even mention it. Yet I suspect most of us live our lives more and more as if this faith were righteous, taking advantage of ever new ways to pay others to take care of our material life–the needs of our bodies, home, family.

By living this way–always using what saves time or paying others rather than doing ourselves–we are not only destroying the conditions for human life on earth and wrecking land communities. We also may be killing joy. If we take the time to use our own bodies to produce rather than merely consume what we need and want, we may find not only that our lives are less toxic to ourselves and others, but also that there are pleasures to be had which we have forgotten or perhaps not yet imagined–pleasures to be found in cooking a meal from scratch, caring for our children ourselves, using a broom to sweep our house, hanging our laundry out to dry–in this register, our possibilities truly are limitless. In short, I am suggesting that we may be politically depressed, in something like Lauren Berlant’s sense of the term, to the extent that we pay rather than do, to the extent that we simply consume rather than have an active hand in producing our material lives. The remedy we may need is recovery of the joy to be found in physical labor–not only the pleasures to be taken from hard physical work, but also from intimate involvement in the sometimes intricate, often repetitive preparations of meeting the needs of our bodies, of those for whom we care, and the places we inhabit.

I am often heard to be saying that we must all move to rural lands and get our hands dirty growing our own food. Not at all. Indeed, urban living can be among the best ways to live healthfully on the land, if the particular land community does not overly tax its resources and those of near and distant land communities. But an urban environment which favors and fosters healthy local and translocal relationships cannot arise and thrive if our everyday personal judgments are oriented mainly by ease, convenience or apparently lowest price. A healthy urban land community requires critical mindfulness about the difference between what we truly need and what we simply want, it requires careful attention to our food chains and what our habits and choices waste or ravage. Local and translocal practices make such causes and effects knowable, global supply chains make them virtually unimaginable.

It’s hardly new to claim that we are mistaken to prefer having to being, and to equate happiness with having done for us rather than doing ourselves. But the only way actually to learn of our mistake is to undertake experiments in living otherwise. For instance, it may be a start, as Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver suggest, to have occasion to taste a tomato grown in your own garden, or by a local farmer, and to learn of the pleasures it offers that no tomato which has traveled across the country or world can match. Indeed, if one tastes such pleasing tomatoes enough, one might even forgo the poor substitute when tomatoes are out of season in one’s locale. I have already challenged the conception of the political and the table of values which lead us to conclude that what tomatoes we consume and when we consume them does not really matter. Consider that if some sizable portion of us only ate tomatoes we grew ourselves, or those grown by others in our locale, or processed by ourselves from that season, we would make a serious beginning to reducing carbon emissions and addressing global warming. The effect could be even greater, if we applied a similar logic to all our food choices and became what Barbara Kingsolver calls “locavors.”

No doubt, many of us will remain dubious about making such efforts, inclined to believe that such efforts cannot work, that they cannot make any substantial difference in the face of global capital, or that such concerns and avenues are only for those who are affluent, have the luxury of time, or both. But the sources of our troubles may go deeper than this convenient skepticism. What if we find ourselves unable to taste the difference between an actual tomato and those with features which enable them to travel across a continent or world? What if we cannot take pleasure and find joy in dirt, sweat or simply taking more time to do ourselves rather than paying another? Habits don’t change easily, they change in small steps and in slight ways, over extended periods of time. We need the capacities to pursue and the affects to register these pleasures and their variations. What if we have lost them?

Nietzsche and Freud both worried about our lost capacities for earth affirming pleasure and joy. And the antidote they both hit upon was commitment to a different table of values, a different table of values for which both Nietzsche and Freud found the child to be emblematic.

A child is allowed to be a child when the child can avoid the pressure to be in a hurry to become something in particular.34 For such a child who is allowed to be a child, there are many moments when she could not care less if she makes sense to you or prevails over the dominant determinations of reality. But how does the child keep on giving herself to life without demanding that her wishes become so real as to be globally exchangeable? I would suggest that the child experiences the pleasures of the moment available to her particular body in a particular place by being relentlessly committed to her sense of what is good and pleasing and what is bad and hurtful–a sense of what is good with which we all begin if we experience what, following D.W. Winnicott, we might call a good enough world.35

The trouble, of course, is that our current ways of life seem determined to destroy this good enough world. We want to be cool in the summer, live and grow food in the desert, and fill our days with unrelenting, physically passive, sensual stimulation. We are beginning to see the earth and life strike back at our efforts in ways that are at once humbling and inspiring. I think for instance of photos of cities, abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which are being taken back by the forest, building upon building with trees breaking through windows and doors and roofs–evidence of a living earth simply more potent than the fantasies of the human species even at its most destructively powerful.

What the child knows, or has not yet forgotten, is that he is one with and made of that impersonal, vital nature. Freud called the child’s sexual researches an effort to know the nature of the world experientially, without a care for what his adults call real or necessary to success.36 I would suggest that it is the child’s immersion in his body as part of nature in particular places that enables him to experience the world on such a human scale.

Paradoxically, it is the enormity of global capital, and the frailty and failure of our human bodies before its scale, that presses us at once to relive and repress the experience of being a child utterly dependent upon a world we cannot master. I suspect that we must avoid, rather than acknowledge, where we actually are, and the consequences of what we are doing, if we cannot bear to feel this painful yet awe-inspiring vulnerability we share with all other creatures.

To speak more affirmatively, what we can learn from the experience of the child being a child is that the world is good enough if we begin by attending to the land and its beings which our bodies can experience viscerally. When we act on this more human scale, we may find that our frail and always already dying bodies are powerful enough to protect and preserve particular places and their inhabitants, even as we may be doomed to look like losers from the world historical perspective of capital. To act in this local way is to choose to lose from the perspective of the dominant set of values–a kind of opting out. But to opt out is not to turn away from the world’s problems. If we look carefully, we can see that to opt out is actually to join a global movement of people who care for specific places and their inhabitants in order to produce new forms of power in accordance with a new table of values.37 The pleasures to be found in such laborious, joyful work may prove crucial not only to loving the world but also to our survival.

In lieu of an end

My friend the population geneticist gives me a wry smile. We are approaching the conclusion of our conversation which, alas, still unfolds in a fairly predictable way, even as I have made some noticeable progress in shedding my humanist habit of imagining us as separable from the rest of nature. In a moment which feels to me like defeat, but I expect feels to him as if I am finally beginning to understand, I say ‘it seems as if we will change our destructive food practices only when we feel that there is no alternative.’ And I am struck yet again by the persistence of the idea that we will behave differently than any other living being. Like all other living organisms, when the places we inhabit tell us that we can no longer go on in this way by denying us the option of continuing to live if we go on in this way, then we will change. Or, under those circumstances, we will change if, as living beings, we happen to be among the lucky ones who find ourselves in a land community which affords us that option.

But I cannot yet give up. So, I continue our conversation, ‘we human beings have evolved some characteristics and capacities which give us options apparently unavailable to other parts of nature.’ For instance, I say, ‘we have consciousness,’ by which I mean that our conduct can be changed by deeds we witness, words we hear, thoughts we think. My friend grudgingly acknowledges, ‘it does seem there is something to work with there.’ But, I think to myself, Nietzsche was surely right when he judged consciousness the weakest, last and least developed of the instincts.38

It is an odd idea, the suggestion that the way we live, work and play in our complex, technologically advanced world actually reveals us at our least mindful and most instinctively animal. Especially for those of us who read, write and talk for a living, it is at once irksome and implausible, this suggestion that what we insist we must do in order to function effectively and successfully in our world–namely, procure our basic sustenance with the least expenditure of time and exertion–actually reveals our weak and little developed consciousness. We would appear to be at our most conscious and human, and least animal, when we insist that meeting our bodily needs involve little time, tedium or attention in order that we may spend our hours and days reading and writing. But to live without awareness or heed of how our way of life denies and defies the conditions of life is the shared fate of every plague species. For reasons that were once random and remain thoroughly contingent and temporary, a plague species experiences exponential power to live as it feels impelled to live, until the tremendous power its conditions impart enable it to destroy those conditions and much of its life.39 It would appear that nature takes back the energy it grants, always, eventually, restoring balance–a balance which is right from the perspective of life, if not from the perspective of any particular species.40

But we are not only a plague species. We do have consciousness, weak and little developed as it is, and along with it those intellectual and affective capacities which Nietzsche acknowledged are rightly prized as manifestations of physis of the greatest nuance.41 The necessities we feel pressing upon us as a result of our location in the current conditions of existence are as real as nature. But there is a crucial difference. As we explore and learn about the realities of our bodies and the earth, opportunities and energy for altering the conditions of existence can become available to us. As different dimensions of existence arise in our awareness, with them may arise the possibility of different registers and measures of efficacy, success and pleasure. In time, we may find better words and ways to honor and heed the nature of living bodies and their places on earth.

They say that we are what we eat. And, for a time, given our power, nature will be shaped by what and how we eat. But we would do well to remember that we are no more than a part of nature, not the whole of it. And nature as a whole will have the last word.

Melissa A. Orlie

Melissa Orlie teaches political theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is currently completing two books, one on the politics of good after Nietzsche, and another, from which this essay is drawn, on the need for a new concept of the political if we are effectively to respond to ecological crises. She lives in the country where she experiences failure everyday in her efforts to practice what she preaches. She can be reached


1. Thanks to Chad Lavin for organizing this symposium and to Charles Roseman for his receptivity. I am indebted to Lauren Goodlad for opening the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory Colloquium to me where I encountered the timely encouragement and skepticism of Helga Varden, Shelley Weinberg, Anna Barnes, Eric Freyfogle, Bruce Hannon and other members of the audience, all to whom I am also indebted. I am perpetually grateful to Jill Baer, Kim Kramer and George Shulman for each of their sustaining conversation and example, and especially to Simon and Madeleine Orlie-Frost for helping me to acknowledge what I suspect I wouldn’t even know were it not for them.

2. See Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006).

3. In addition to Pollan, see, for example, Andrew Kimbrell (ed.), The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Sausalito, CA: Foundation for Deep Ecology, 2002); Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000); Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean and Fair(New York: Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2005); Norman Wirzba (ed.), The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2003); Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Boston, New York, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999); Wes Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1980).

4. For instance, see Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd Edition (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), Home Economics (New York: North Point Press, 1987), What Are People For? (New York: North Point Press, 1990); Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 1994), Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000); Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1994), New Roots for Agriculture (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1980); Eric T. Freyfogle (ed.), The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life (Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press / Shearwater Books, 2001); Norman Wirzba (ed.), The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2003).

5. For a definitive elaboration of this rallying cry of the international slow food movement, see Carlo Petrini, Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean and Fair (New York: Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2005).

6. See Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, Vandana Shiva (ed.) (South End Press, 2007) with essays by Michael Pollan, Carlo Petrini, Jamey Lionette, Prince Charles and Vandana Shiva. The volume also includes a “Manifesto on the Future of Food” and a “Manifesto on the Future of Seed” which were the result of a joint effort among participants in the meetings of the International Commission on the Future of Food, held in late 2002 and early 2003 in Tuscany, Italy. These meetings were succeeded by a gathering named “Terra Madre” in Turin, Italy in October 2004 which brought together 5000 participants from 1200 food communities in 130 countries and from which the essays in this volume were drawn. See also, Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007 and, earlier, Joan Dye Gussow, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2001).

7. For instance, see Stanley Cavell, “Between Acknowledgment and Avoidance” in The Claim of Reason, New edition (Oxford University Press, 1979), 329–496.

8. I develop this new naturalist reading of Nietzsche and Freud in “Impersonal Matter” in New Materialisms, edited by Samantha Frost and Diana Coole (Duke University Press, forthcoming). On Darwin and Freud, see Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories (New York: Basic Books, 2000); on Nietzsche’s naturalism, see John Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

9. See Phillips, Darwin’s Worms, p. 6.

10. See Hanna Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 289–90.

11. The “global ecosystem” is the source of all “inputs” feeding the economic subsystem as well as of all “sinks” for the wastes produced by the economic subsystem. Since both inputs and sinks are limited, we must attend to the balance between them if we are to avoid exhausting and degrading ecosystems. See Herman Daly, ”Sustainable Economic Development: Definitions, Principles, Policies” in The Essential Agrarian Reader, Wirzba (ed.), pp. 62–79; Toward A Steady State Economy, Harman Daly (ed.), (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1973).

12. See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Oxford OK & Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 1995); Alexander Nehamas, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998).

13. I speak of nature and its realities without qualification with the aim of unsettling our complacency. However, an embrace of “naturalism” or even “natural realism” does not preclude and indeed may require an understanding of causality which is anything but linear. For instance, see the recent work of Jane Bennett and William Connolly as well as Naturalism in Question, Edited by Mario De Caro and David Macarthur (Harvard University Press, 2004).

14. Here Elizabeth Grosz’s The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004) is exemplary.

15. We address our own implication in the existence of others by “cultivating an awareness of what is necessary to personal and social survival; how social surplus is appropriated and distributed; whether and how social surplus is produced and consumed; and how a commons is produced and sustained.” See J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis and London: University Of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 79–99; the quotations in the following paragraph are taken from pp. 88, 80, 86, 86 respectively.

16. The notion of nature as “environment” is contrary to an ecological and land community understanding because it suggests that nature is a context, a background from which we may separate ourselves.

17. See Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), pp. 237–264, For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/ Shearwater Books, 1999), pp. 198–226; J. Baird Callicott (ed.), A Companion to A Sand County Almanac (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Eric T. FreyFogle, Why Conservation is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 18–26; Julianne Lutz Newton, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press / Shearwater Books, 2006), pp. 177–216, 290–351.

18. Consider, for instance, E. O. Wilson. Wilson is among the most superstitious of contemporary life scientists in his faith that human beings will eventually know all there is to know about nature and reductionist in his accounts of the complexity of nature. Still, Wilson ceaselessly acknowledges all that we still do not know about nature generally and about species and habitats in particular; for instance, see The Future of Life (New York: Vintage, 2002), Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006). For a critique of the superstitious character of Wilson’s scientific reductionism, see Wendell Berry Life is A Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000).

19. For instance, see James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988), The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity (New York: Basic Books, 2006); John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Granta Books, 2002).

20. Water systems created so masses of persons can live and grow food in the desert is an illustrative example.

21. See Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics & Vision, 2nd edition, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

22. See Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), pp. 237–264.

23. It is important to bear in mind that urban environments are also “land communities.” The presumption that urban environments are not land communities is an unwarranted prejudice arising from the binary between the urban and the rural which does much pernicious work in U.S. political culture and which has been too little interrogated. For an incisive discussion of the divide and its political, social and economic effects, see Kingsolver, “Life in a Red State” in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, pp. 196–211.

24. See Romand Coles, Beyond Gated Politics: Reflections for the Possibility of Democracy (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) and Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision, pp. 585–87.

25. For a succinct summary of this understanding with reference to Hannah Arendt and Stanley Cavell, see Linda M.G. Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 171–72.

26. 25. See Petrini, Slow Food Nation, pp. 7–9.

27. See Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, pp. 158–69.

28. See Jamey Lionette, “A View From Behind the Counter” in Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, Vandana Shiva (ed.), pp. 109–110.

29. Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), p. 59). Our conditions of existence, Weil submits, are determined by the interaction between the natural environment, other living beings, especially those of one’s own species, and whatever “organization of the natural environment, capital equipment, armaments, methods of work and warfare” we have devised to shape the social environment in response to natural necessities. Thus, interactions between natural and social necessities define the conditions of existence which determine what is efficacious in any given context.

30. Weil, Oppression and Liberty, p. 60.

31. See Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” in What Are People For?, pp. 145–52.

32. I compare the disappointment inherent to political action to the satisfaction and sense of uplift we get from shopping in “The desire for freedom and the consumption of politics” Philosophy & Social Criticism vol 28 no 4 July 2002, pp. 395–417.

33. The notion of “winning failure” arose in the course of my formulating a response to Judith Halberstam, “Notes on Failure” presented at the Unit for Criticism Colloquium at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, April 13, 2006. Thanks to Samantha Frost for her comments on that piece.

34. I am elaborating upon David Elkind’s notion in The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1981).

35. See D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 1–25, 65–86; Adam Phillips, Winnicott (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 98–152.

36. See Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites (New York: Vintage, 1998).

37. See Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (New York: Viking, 2007).

38. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann (trans.) (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 84.

39. See John Gray’s discussion of Lovelock in Straw Dogs, pp. 6–12.

40. It would be a serious error to confuse this holistic view with some sort of romantic picture of the earth as a loving mother. Quite the contrary says James Lovelock: “Gaia, as I see her, is not doting mother, tolerant of misdemeanours, nor is she some fragile and delicate damsel in danger from brutal mankind. She is stern and tough, always keeping the world warm and comfortable for those who obey the rules, but ruthless in her destruction of those who transgress. Her unconscious goal is a planet fit for life. If humans stand in the way of this, we shall be eliminated with as little pity as would be shown by the micro-brain of an intercontinental ballistic missile in full flight to its target” (quoted in John Gray, Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government, and the Common Environment (London: Routledge, 1993, p. 173)).

41. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p. 107.

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