Monday, January 4, 2010

Beyond Consumer Choice

Upon reading the quote from Sandor Ellix Katz's call to fermentation activism in my last post, a reader of this blog raised the concern that such an emphasis on food as politics might encourage laziness in other arenas. What if, for example, folks use proof of their organic purchases to exculpate themselves for driving a hummer? Or present loaves of home-baked bread to justify wasting water and leaving all the lights on?

These are extreme examples, of course, but, after mulling it over for a few days, I think there is some validity to the concern. I have to admit, I am regularly surprised to see, when waiting in line at my local food co-op, the shiny covers displayed in the checkout aisles, of such mainstream magazines as O and Women's Health. What kind of person shops here and buys those magazines? I ask myself. Clearly, there are consumers out there whose local and sustainable choices are not accompanied by larger cultural critique. I'm willing to bet, however, that their lack of cultural critique does not stem from, but rather predates, their awareness about food. What about the other set of co-op shoppers? Those who choose to patronize the co-op as part of a greater set of political principles - can stressing the activism inherent in their personal gastronomic choice perhaps promote apathy or inaction in other parts of their lives?

One aspect of the issue is that getting political about food largely means redefining one's role as a consumer. How political I am is defined by what I buy, and where I buy it (and what sort of bags I use to carry it home). Most of the advice offered by prominent food pundits (fundits?) like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle concerns how to be the right kind of consumer (join a CSA, shop at farmer's markets, read food labels closely). For some people, this just means positioning oneself as a non-consumer (you cultivate, bake, or ferment). Either way, one's identity as an eater or activist exists within or in relation to, profit-driven systems of food production.

I don't intend to decry or diminish the importance of being a conscientious and responsible consumer. Buying directly from local farmers, paying attention to what's in packaged food, and tending gardens and P-patches are superlatively important. But limiting our activism to the sphere of consumer choice is not only slow in change-making, but is also extremely isolating. And it is that isolation, I think, that is dangerous.

In his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben coins the term "hyper-individualism," in reference to Americans' increasing isolation from families and communities. He attributes the hyper-individualist trend to a range of lifestyle changes over the last 100 years or so, from cultural narratives about "making something of yourself," to suburbanization and 2-career families, to television and the Internet. I've found the concept poignant in thinking about food issues.

The call to food action in someways manifests McKibben's hyper-individualism, in that it primarily politicizes individual consumer actions and choices. An individual's consumer choices are just that: choices a person makes alone in the supermarket or in the kitchen, of what to buy and what to eat. There is very little community or interpersonal connection in consumer choice. [McKibben cites research showing that shoppers have as many as 10 times the number of conversations at farmers markets than they do at grocery stores, claiming that shopping locally will change your social life. I disagree - I have more conversations at the farmer's market because I make more transactions, not because I make more friends - food buying is still a rather solitary act.]

If eaters are not supported by or accountable to a community of food activists, their choices remain isolated, disconnected from any larger politicized story. Is spending 20 minutes in the meat section of the food co-op, agonizing over whether to buy 100% organic broilers, or grass-fed antibiotic free roasters, really a political act, if I'm just going home to cook the chicken for myself? Or does this endless emphasis on what to buy just make private martyrs of all of us? And worse, does the time I spend fretting about poultry purchases take away from time I might spend writing letters to senators, signing petitions, or attending rallies and meet-ups?

I want to say, let's worry less about each specific purchase (or non-purchase, as the case may be), and worry more about talking to each other and to the people who make food policy decisions.


  1. i like this analysis. every monday, i get together with a group of friends for what we call "family dinner" where we all bring what we've got in our kitchen or ingredients that we're excited to experienct with and then we concoct a meal together. aside from loving the social company on a monday night and not having to cook a full meal by myself, i appreciate the political discussions that we have while we cook together. we often talk about food or where or why we have the ingredients that we do and what we can do with them.

  2. How to grow an entrepreneur is coming to soon. It is a book called SAVE PEBBLE DROPPERS & PROSPERITY, also cited in The book shows how America prospered in a world unable to achieve freedom, prosperity and success, other than dictatorship and special interest elite bennies. It describes the psychological foundation of entrepreneurship and prosperity. The basic, simple elements of prosperity are listed in and are great Tea Party and Ayn Rand justifications for those new to politics. Many people are learning why and how to apply the brakes to Obama’s headlong rush to European Marxism, mercantilism and bigger government. The tradition of individualism and freedom is still too strong for the kind of centralizing power-grab we are experiencing today.

  3. In a speech made shortly before his assassination, Martin Luther King reminds his audience about human interconnectedness. Before you leave home for work in the morning he says, you may use a sponge that comes from the Pacific Islands, use soap from France, drink coffee from Colombia, put on clothes made in China, etc. The hyper individualism of consumption conceals the fact that we are dependent on people all over the globe.

    Now we can think of these interconnections in different ways. We can adopt the "buyer beware" principle, that everyone needs to take care of his or her own interests. That gets you people selling mortgages that the buyer cannot afford, which you then sell off to someone else before the deal unravels. You get yours--others see their homes foreclosed or their investments go bad. The current economic crisis is the effect of people thinking that any neighbors who are not looking out for themselves get what they deserve. That kind of selfishness makes a for a pretty cold world.

    The other alternative is to acknowledge that our interconnectedness is not only commercial but also moral and political. We owe each other respect, and that means that we do not take advantage of others. Only people who respect each other can live in a society that functions well.

    One may be careful about the food one buys and eats as a way of looking out for number one." Or it may be a way of taking care of our world for ourselves and others. Eating and buying right may be one more way of being self-centered or self-involved; but of course it can also be a way of trying to do our part in making this a good world for all.