Food for Thought
by Joseph Heathcott
We live in a decisive moment in the history of our species. We have to make profound choices about how we will sustain ourselves into the next century. In most cases, the choices require that we take a close, intense, and introspective look at ourselves and our world. What kind of lives are we living? What sort of world are we fashioning? What legacies will we leave for those who come after? These questions are more than philosophical; indeed, tough and realistic answers to these questions could mean the difference between a healthy world, utter catastrophe, or a slow strangulation of the planet’s biosphere.
Of these options, the slow strangulation appears as the worst and most plausible outcome. In this scenario, human pillaging of the Earth’s natural resources proceeds unabated, unleashing great tides of erosion, cascades of toxic effluent, plumes of choking soot and smoke, armies of superviruses, and a cacophony of industrial noise. Typical of our global capitalist system, the elites of the First and Third worlds will be among the last affected by these developments, while the world’s “superfluous” peoples already feel the stranglehold of environmental destruction. Axiomatically, poverty itself the maldistribution of resources is the precondition for severe destruction, from the rainforests of Brazil to the fragile seas of the Eurasian plateau to the rapidly expanding Sahel.
While resource extraction proceeds apace, “advances” in biotechnology threaten to contravene 15,000 years of horticultural wisdom. Mass production agribusiness, rooted in the relentless pursuit of profit through artificial scarcity, whittles away at plant and animal diversity while poisoning the world with chemical inputs and toxic run-off. Bioaccumulation of most major toxins insures that those of us on the top of the food chain will absorb the full brunt of an overdeveloped industrial ethos.
Of course, settled agriculture has always made possible the extractive logic of surplus on which human hierarchies are constructed. Control over food the most vital means of reproduction has shaped human societies like nothing else. This is why the politics of food has long lain at the heart of poor people’s movements, from the Winstanley Diggers to the Russian Revolution to the anti-colonialist Mau Mau rebellion to the American populist revolts. Likewise, the struggle for democratic and egalitarian distribution of food resources (and indeed all the means of reproduction) should be at the heart of our search for just and sustainable human relations.
That settled agriculture lies at the root of inegalitarian social relations is by no means reason enough to reject it out of hand unless, of course, your vision of utopia includes a mass human extinction which only the well-placed and privileged could hope to survive. It is not feasible whether as a utopian goal or revolutionary strategy to call for a return to the pleistocene, an age long gone. Most human societies are based on some form of agriculture, and “radical” solutions that turn on a rejection of agriculture also reject the future for the mass of humanity who toil under the bootheel of the privileged, resource-rich North. Agriculture, like technology, like sexual relations, like the family, must be made to serve just, humane, and ecologically sustainable ends.
Sustainability, to be sure, is a term so overused in discussions of food and natural resources that it is difficult to recover a core meaning. Third world development is now “sustainable.” Petrochemical exploration and extraction is now “sustainable.” Timber harvests are now “sustainable.” Perhaps human societies will never be able to maintain a purely and endlessly balanced relationship with the natural world; but clearly there are far better balances to be struck than our current system so radically out of whack that we in the developed North have lost nearly all conception of our daily bread as the staff of life. Indeed, we purchase highly processed, nearly unrecognizable food products, molded and packaged in a bewildering variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, retailed through mass corporate industrial supermarkets and fast food chains. We pop trays of “food product” into microwaves because we are so rushed and stressed by our workplaces and schools. Worst of all, we construct elaborate, calorie-obsessed diets that plunge us into sick, mechanical relationships with what we put into our bodies. Food becomes a calculated roster of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates. Even vegetarian and vegan diets, steeped in narrow moral confines, threaten us with a loss of what is deeply and truly important in the way we eat.
The anarchist community has done a better job than most political groups in placing food close to our hearts, probably thanks to a strong infusion of environmental activists and social ecologists into the anarchist rank and file since the 1960s. Or, perhaps, anarchists just love to eat. At the same time, vegetarianism, veganism, and bioregionalism have made important inroads within the anarchist community, forcing us to confront our individual choices about food and to act with greater degrees of responsibility. In many ways, the intensely personal focus of these varied eating commitments made them especially ripe for absorption into anarchist politics a politics that, like feminism, recognizes that the personal is indeed political.
Yet the limitations of these diet choices have become increasingly evident, and mirror the limitations of anarchist politics more generally. While no one should denigrate people’s “lifestyle” choices, there is a real urgency to move forward with a synthetic political agenda that brings together personal choices with broader activist commitments. Merely being “vegan” is not enough. Not even close. In fact, strict and orthodox moral commitments to a particular diet may actually contravene responsible ecological food choices (using cane sugar as a sweeteners, for example, instead of locally produced honey; eating mass-produced and packaged egg-replacers produced 2000 miles away instead of a free-range egg gathered within shouting distance; refusing to eat a fish caught from a nearby stream while having no qualms about motoring through the Taco Bell “drive-thru” for corporate vegan burritos). Moral orthodoxy, whether in religious or dietary conviction, shuts down more studied and complex understandings of the world around us.
Practical Anarchy is a magazine devoted to heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy. Since this issue of Practical Anarchy is devoted to Food Politics, we will explore a range of critiques and alternatives to the current corporate capitalist food system. Our interest, as always, is to move beyond simplistic debates over “lifestylism,” to reject narrow confines and useless labels like “workerist” or “reformist,” to complicate narrow political choices about what we eat and how we come by it, and to bring a practical dimension to our political choices as an antidote to orthodoxy. We will look both at “negative” activism (activism pitched primarily against some component of the corporate capitalist food regime, which tends to be issue-oriented) and “positive” activism (activism which seeks to build alternative or parallel institutions). We see each of these activist approaches as important and mutually reenforcing.
Most of all, we at Practical Anarchy want to provoke more informed, nuanced, and pragmatic conversations about food and food politics, with the hopes of facilitating stronger activist projects dedicated to food issues. We want roadkill gourmands talking with vegan reichsters. We want environmentalists talking with labor activists. We want libertarian-leaning anarchists talking with social anarchists. Call us naive, say that we are Polyanna-ish, but we believe there is everything to be gained from supporting diverse approaches to food politics and food activism…and everything to lose by ignoring each other and miring ourselves in orthodoxy.