Monday, September 14, 2009

The decommodifying effects of culture

Daniel and I would like to think that the title of our blog plays off of Adams' famous closing argument without being exactly like the umpteen other blogs out there entitled "Facts are Stubborn Things". In addition, it signals that things other than dry facts are stubborn or in some sense resilient within the scope of reasoned argument. All that's to say, don't grumble about this week's narrative emphasis and focus on lived philosophy. Is/ought and fact/value distinctions recognized, the latter half of these distinctions will always be important fodder for reasoned discussion, and will always be the locomotion behind the bare facts.

My wife and I checked out the audio version of Barbara Kingsolver (and family)'s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for a longish drive a few weeks ago, and have since finished it up over a few sittings at home. The book chronicles a family's year of living on a farm in the Appalachians, growing their own food and buying exclusively from local, sustainable sources. We loved the book- we've also broken into some Wendell Berry over the past year, tried our hand at growing a few herbs and an heirloom tomato plant ourselves, and are generally beginning to break in to educating ourselves more properly about food culture, agriculture, and other more tangible senses of "cultured" life than I might find in the intellectual cultures where I normally spend my thinking hours.

The book presents a compelling argument against industrialized farming and its adverse affects on the economic life of communities, and I think that the particular way it chooses to do this is its most important contribution.

In many critiques of commodified agriculture, an apocalyptic tone pointing out to us just how far we have come since the early 20th century in destroying American farm life is an important wake-up call for us all. But this in itself will often simply shock a consumer into helplessness rather than into any sort of action. Or, if it does goad on to action, the result may limit the opposition by defining it solely as opposition. What should be a cultured life is reduced to activism against the evil factory farms or a capitalist foe... it results, that is, in someone with whom you can't sit down for a chat without getting frustrated by their missionary zeal.

Kingsolver approaches the issue quite differently. While there are plenty of informative asides that put the stakes in grotesquely sharp perspective, the focus of the book is a straightforward look at how a family lives in an alternative manner. The concern is less about fixing a system and more about making a home or a community, which will in turn work towards fixing the system. The mode of discourse is pre-political. One might also say that the cultural mindset has a decommodifying effect.

As such, it avoids typical critiques from capitalist perspectives to local food cultures. Although there is no opposition to the idea, Kingsolver's point is not, "we need to radically break-up large industrialized farms and impose strict ethical regulations on how agribusiness functions" ...rather, it is "our family would rather buy the lumpy tomatoes from the guy down the street who works a half acre than the artificially pretty (but tasteless) one from that guy who's never grown a tomato in his life." That's just consumer behavior at work. Rational? Irrational? Regardless, it's difficult for detractors to critique the local and sustainable food culture as a family or personal option without resorting to ideological reactions against it, because such a culture simply doesn't operate on the level of political vying for legislative support or economic imperative. It's just how the Kingsolver family (or the Kuehn family, or others) has decided to live their life... or even just this week, or this grocery store trip.

Presenting any sort of culture in this way may at first glance appear less compelling- there are no meta-analyses that would universalize the point that is being made or offer proper justification for following such a lead on an larger scale. But getting caught up on this lack misunderstands the basic way that culture functions, I think. It over-professionalizes our consideration, and the tendency to do so comes largely from the fact that this is the way that we're accustomed to assuring a reliable imprimatur on our approach to life. One day, however, we may very well wake up to realize that we've ceased to be able to consider our life in a reflective manner without the help of official studies and analytical justifications. This leaves us not only vulnerable to the tyranny of the expert, but also to the whims of the emotive and spiritual resources that we've always had but no longer know how to direct or control.

This isn't to say that there aren't rational reasons to critique or reject the industrialized food industry, or that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle does not present these reasons- there are, and it does. But even when the stubborn facts are laid on the table, one still must choose how to prepare dinner in a wise manner.

Culture, costs, and one critique

I think Evan's post is largely on the mark. First I'd definitely agree with him that visionary reworking of an entire system is usually the wrong way to go about change. The system that we have now is an emergent result of the decisions of millions of households and communities. While systemic institutional change is always important, we need to recognize that change will ultimately rest on the decisions of individual households. Even if you have a great degree of faith in top down institutional change (which sometimes isn't entirely unwarranted), you can expect a great deal of social strife if we don't adjust our expectations of normal life in concert with those changes. Evan and I often critique blind adherence to the idea of atomized individualism on this blog. I think this is an important place to point out the situations where we think individualism is appropriate, and where individual and family level decisions not only are the fulcrum of change - they are also intimately tied to real change at the level of the community or the collective.

I'd also like to highlight one economic efficiency benefit of taking a cultural approach to food, rather than just a commodity approach. When economists worry about "sustainability", they're often primarily worried about what are called "externalities", which can be either positive or negative. An externality is a cost or benefit which because of property rights arrangements are not factored into a market price. For example, the trees of the rain forest may belong to someone who can sell them to farmers who cut them down so that cattle can graze. But some of the benefits of the rain forest accrue to everyone - not just the owner of the trees and land. For example, they help to clean carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This is a very real, valid benefit. If the owner of the trees were trading away his air quality alone, then we would expect the free market to provide him with the best possible tradeoff between the money he could get from selling the rain forest and the quality of the air he breaths. But the owner of the rain forest is also trading away other people's air quality, and he has no incentive to efficiently trade that because it's not a benefit he enjoys. In this situation, a private market would cut down too much rain forest to grow beef for McDonald's. The market, because of the imperfect structure of property rights, is inefficient.

What does this have to do with culture? When we take cultural considerations into account, we are by definition considering costs and benefits beyond our own individual costs and benefits. This is obviously no guarantee of a perfect solution either, but it does help to more efficiently arbitrate between private preferences and the costs and benefits impacting society as a whole. Market exchange enforces a culture of reductionism that works wonders in efficiently distributing the many products that have only private costs and benefits. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that commodification is thus a universally applicable way of understanding our world. "Culture", however amorphous, is another perfectly acceptable prism through which we can view the world - particularly when we are concerned with something like food, which enmeshes us in a broad community not just of other human beings, but other species, which are all affected by our decisions, and yet don't always have a say in those decisions.

I'll end on a critique, though. Despite my insistence that commodification isn't always appropriate, I'm not about to suggest (and I don't think Evan was either) that food isn't to a large extent a commodity or that markets aren't an appropriate way to distribute food. It's also important to point out that aesthetic primitivsm on the part of the well off is dangerous if it is promoted as an ethic for the entire world. I'm reminded of this point after hearing news of the death of Norman Borlaug: botanist, Nobel Prize winner, and driving force behind the so called "Green Revolution". Borlaug worked to genetically modify plants to increase their yields. He was also a proponent of the use of pesticides, so long as they weren't deleterious to human health, and criticized environmentalists that opposed all pesticides and genetic engineering on principle. In doing so, Norman Borlaug broke the back of much of human starvation and allowed economies to develop beyond their rudimentary agrarian bases. To put it simply, Borlaug made food production very cheap. Now, I don't know enough about his work to know if his advances contributed to the problems that Evan's book describes. But he highlights the danger of pursuing primitivism for primitivism's sake. It's great that more people want to eat organic vegetables grown on small plots, or free range chickens. That's wonderful. But six billion people cannot survive on that form of production. Perhaps the relatively well off can buy everything at a local farmer's market. But when the relatively well off think about the wider food culture they really need to consider the people that can't buy there. We need to consider the tradeoffs and compromises we're willing to make. Maybe genetic modification by cross breeding to feed India is OK, but changes at the genetic level are too dangerous to rush forward with (note to readers: we already have rushed forward with those sorts of changes - this is just a hypothetical). Maybe instead of taking up lots of land with a free range chicken farm we should just decide to not eat chicken, or eat it far more rarely. There are very real reasons why men like Borlaug launched the Green Revolution. This seemingly corporatist venture was launched out of compassion, not concern for profits. As chic as primitivism is today, the human race hasn't historically enjoyed it's experiences in the vice of the Malthusian dilemma - and many of the strongest proponents of primitivism are the ones that are the farthest removed from their ancestral peasantry. But ultimately, an informed cultural (rather than commodified) approach to food will recognize this. It will recognize that family farms are valuable to the community, but that ample food supply is too. Indeed, I think taking a bird's-eye, cultural approach to these questions is the only thing that can strike the appropriate balance.