From Conservation to Environmental Governance

I will be teaching environmental philosophy and ethics this fall, and it has gotten me thinking about how I arrived where I am academically. I started off interested in environmental conservation, but these days, I generally tell inquiring minds that I research environmental governance, and particularly the role of science and technology in mediating relationships between people and nature. It is a difficult field to describe, since more properly it is a cluster of fields – political ecology, governance studies, and science and technology studies – which themselves don’t enjoy wide recognition among the public.[i]

Through hard experience, I’ve have found that I can’t quickly explain what I do by approaching it at the level of formal abstraction. There’s a lot of esoteric theory and conceptual material to cover, and while that may be how I myself understand what I do, it has taken me years of study and tens of thousands of pages of reading to take this long path to understanding. As a teacher, I can help students to find and follow that long path, but for the merely curious, I need a short-cut. Stories might be the best short-cuts, and so I present, for your reading enjoyment, a story (of sorts) of my own progression from conservation to environmental governance.

Embracing Conservation

The library at my elementary school used to display a rack of kid’s magazines, with the latest issues on display to entice us into actually sitting down and working on our reading skills. I no longer remember any of the titles except the one which caught my eye, Ranger Rick.[ii] Filled with eye-popping, full-color photographs of wildlife from all over, the magazine helped make a strong case to my impressionable young mind for the intrinsic value of all the life which co-inhabits our world.

Ranger Rick Cover, September 1991.

Ranger Rick Cover, September 1991.

It was in the pages of this children’s magazine that I also discovered the many ways in which all of that beautiful life is threatened by things that people do. Whether in an article about animals killed in collisions with automobiles, driven to extinction by the clearing of tropical rainforests, or choked to death by the old plastic six-pack rings, the message was clear—wildlife (and more broadly, ecosystems) must be protected from people’s destructive practices.

This conservation imperative was driven home as I witnessed first-hand the clearing of local forests, prairies and farmland for housing and commercial development in and around my home town in Illinois (one such instance I describe on the About Me page). Perhaps some photographs of what happened across the street will help convey a sense of how I felt. The first image is a map of showing how the land where I grew up is in use today. I lived on Atlantic Drive, on the left.

A land-use map of the intersection near where I grew up.

A land-use map of the intersection near where I grew up.

As you can see, there is now a large shopping center near the intersection of the two major highways, with a large subdivision of houses just to the south. Take note of the street names which were invented when the subdivision was built, keeping in mind it’s less than a decade old. You see names like White Oak, Hemlock, Laurel, Sweetbay and so on, which are all names of trees and plants that once grew here. Not so much anymore, as this Google streetview image of the intersection of Heritage Woods Dr. and Post Oak Cir. shows.

Heritage Woods Dr and Post Oak Cir

It’s an odd way to celebrate natural heritage by cutting it down and putting up a green and white sign. It speaks to a certain nostalgia for what we used to have, but destroyed in our haste to claim it.

The landscape used to look quite different. I recall a stand of old oaks at this highway intersection, along with a farm field. I couldn’t find a photograph from the 1980s that would do justice to my earliest memories of this land, but you can see the early days of that woodlot in this aerial photograph from 1939.

59 and 64 in 1939

Today, none of that landscape near the southwest corner of the intersection has escaped the bulldozers and earth scrapers. In this photograph I found on a commercial real estate website, you can see what was done to the land as it was prepared for development (the area bounded in red and marked “SITE”). That bare patch of land—from which all the top soil was scraped into a big pile and sold off—is still sitting unused, eroding, and desicating even after ten years have passed. It’s up for sale again, but will anyone want it now?

59 and 64

It’s hard to describe in words the intense emotions brought on by witnessing what I viewed as such needless and blind destruction and waste. It seemed quite clear to me that there must be a better way. Why cut every tree down and scrape away all the topsoil before constructing homes and businesses? Why make plastics that don’t degrade when they are released in the environment, so that they kill marine wildlife in all sorts of horrible ways? Why put a motorway through every wilderness area, inviting animals to collide with cars and trucks, and not even consider a migration tunnel? Why discard perfectly recyclable aluminum cans or perfectly compostable food scraps in the trash, merely to fill up our limited landfills? Why broadcast herbicides wholesale on lawns—risking the health of birds, mammals, and other wildlife not to mention children and pets—just to achieve a uniform green carpet? All these and many other questions plagued me then, and still do.

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

I am certainly not the first person to shake my head at people’s frequent tendency to be wasteful because it’s easier, faster, cheaper, or simpler (even when I myself sometimes do the same). Conservationists have recognized wasteful practices in the relation between people and nature for a very long time. Recently, in preparation for teaching, I’ve been reading Aldo Leopold’s famous 1949 work, A Sand County Almanac [iii]. He notes that we treat land like property: our relation to it is “a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong” (237).

The first three-quarters of the book consist of a series of vignettes laying the foundation for this observation. Over and over, Leopold contrasts the richness of connectivity among living beings with the destruction wrought by people speeding toward “progress”. It becomes a litany of cases in which the ecosystems he sees as both beautiful and bountiful are impoverished and wasted. I’ve typed up one such passage at length here to give a sense of the sentiment of his argument. In this short story, he is reflecting on a memory of killing a wolf as a young man and watching the “green fire” go out from her eyes:

“I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn… In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

―Aldo Leopold, A Sand Count Almanac (1949 [1966], 139-140).

Leopold’s response to witnessing the future washing into the sea (a reference to rampant soil erosion) was the idea of a land ethic to govern our relationship to land and the ecological relations irreducibly bound up in land. An ethic, he postulated, was an ecological necessity, “a limitation on [our] freedom of action in the struggle for existence” (238). While individuals have long known that “despoliation of land is not only inexpedient [in the long run] but wrong,” society has trailed behind in realizing—that is, acting upon so as to bring into a reality—that wisdom (239). Society, he thought, needed a set of principles that would return a sense of right and wrong to land use, a framework laying out the proper relationships of people to nature.

Leopold made a basic leap of logic in developing the land ethic. He realized a gulf between an ecological knowledge of land and the way that society acted upon that land. He realized that simply knowing the complexities (and beauty) of ecological relationships, on an individual basis, would not be enough to shift humanity off of the destructive path of “progress” and onto a path toward what he sometimes referred to as “the good life” (163). Leopold proposed his ethic, then, as “a kind of community instinct in-the-making” (239) that could bridge the gulf. While his writings have been influential in the US, but clearly hasn’t solved the basic problem of our society’s tendency toward metabolic rift.

Ethics to Governance

I think that Leopold was on the right track in noting that knowledge and action are not necessarily one and the same, just as a collection of individuals are not necessarily the sum of their parts. While a community ethic is a one step toward dealing with gulfs and rifts in our approach to living well with and within nature, I believe that we need a deeper appreciation of the complexities of turning individual knowledges into collective actions.

At some point, a decision was made to cut down the stand of trees and scrape up the topsoil at the intersection of Route 59 and North Avenue. A decision was made to clear the land all at once, regardless of whether it needed to be cleared right then. Prior to that, a decision was made to develop the land. A land sale was agreed to, permits were applied for and granted, land was surveyed, businesses were courted, the town councilmembers were convinced, and so on. Before any of that, the farmland that had been there was squeezed into economic marginality, hemmed in on all sides by an expanding wave of would-be-suburbanites fleeing inner cities and rural backwaters alike to flock to the promised land of suburbia. The farmer likely already felt the fatigue and debt of running the technological treadmill[iv] that is corn-soy agriculture, and needed to get out. Land prices were likely looking good with the development, and the town probably needed new influxes of land tax revenue to cover all the services (schools, roads, police, etc.) needed by all the new people moving in. And on and on.

The point is that although it is an indisputable fact that the land was cleared and developed into houses and box stores, it is much more difficult to pin down exactly why the development occurred when, where and how it did. In other words, the land was not conserved, but why not? Without knowing why, it is difficult to look at the case and consider how it might have been handled differently. Who should have known better, decided more wisely, or acted otherwise? At what point in the long and complex history of events, circumstances, and decisions leading up to the development does the crux of the matter of conservation lie?

Considering that fundamental question has led me, through a long and circuitous route, from a commitment to conservation to the study of relationships between government, science, environment and economy—what I call environmental governance. Over the next several posts, I will discuss the idea of environmental governance in greater depth, starting next time with a series on common sense, science, and government.



[i] There are many different fields of “social science,” though only a few like economics or sociology are household names. Increasingly, sub-fields and cross-disciplinary fields dominate the academic landscape, and the old distinctions between the traditional fields – political science, sociology, economics, anthropology and so on – are becoming increasingly irrelevant (despite a certain tendency within disciplines to redefine their boundaries and thereby protect their turf). It is during this period of transition that the social sciences and humanities (another blurry distinction which unfortunately is often too sharply drawn) have lost a great deal of their public legitimacy and have come under attack in various ways, usually through funding. At some point I’ll post about that topic in greater depth, but for the time being suffice to say that what are generally referred to as the social sciences are in desperate need of a rebranding and PR campaign. Too many people don’t understand what we do, why we do it, and why we think it’s important—a problem which, in my own way, this blog hopes to address.

[ii] The magazine, a publication of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is still around, I discovered. Although Ranger Rick and his friends have developed a slick 3D dimensionality courtesy of CGI, it looks about the same as I remember.

[iii] Named for a region in central Wisconsin formed of an old lakebed formed by Ice Age glaciers which deposited huge amounts of sand there. I was driving through this area recently, and sand mining is quite common. Leopold, Aldo. 1949 (reprint 1970). A Sand County Almanac: With essays on conservation from Round River. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.

[iv] The “technological treadmill” idea was developed by Willard Cochrane. It basically postulates that farmers are caught in an economic trap of progress that sees the benefits of technological development accrue to the vendors of technology (in the form of high input prices) and the general consumer (in the form of low food prices). High input cost and low output price, of course, mean bankruptcy for farmers, which is one of the primary reasons for the drastic and continuing decline of farming as an occupation in the US. There are other types of treadmill effect associated with agriculture that compound the situation, such as the pesticide treadmill in which increasing application of pesticides merely drives increased pest resistance – in this case, chemical companies and pests benefit, while farmers and the environment lose out. Philip Howard at Michigan State University has a nice graphic of the various treadmill effects: Reference: Cochrane, Willard. The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.


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Metabolic Rift

The concept of metabolic rift is a powerful frame through which to understand the history of relations between people and nature, especially to highlight a contrast between the modern industrial era and a more organic past. I will primarily use the example of agriculture—the growing of food, feed, fiber and fuel to use for human purposes—to explain this frame.

Unbroken Cycles

Metabolic rift draws a metaphor from biology and the metabolism of living organisms. Metabolism refers to the chemical and physical processes by which a living being breaks down some substances to produce energy and uses that energy to produce other substances. The complex flows of energy and materials across ecosystems can similarly be thought of as metabolism on a larger scale. If human societies are included in these systems of exchange, the concept of metabolism as applied to something like agriculture begins to make sense.

We should keep in mind that in order to think about there being a rift, or a break, in this metabolism, we must first assume that there used to be an unbroken cycle of material and energy flows. Frequently, this assumption is justified by reference to ancient or “traditional” societies. For example, in their article Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History, and Soil,[i] scholars J.R. McNeil and Verena Winiwarter write of an organic nutrient cycle maintained by people living thousands of years ago:

Neolithic farmers, in southwest Asia and elsewhere, depleted soils of their nutrients by cultivating fields repeatedly, but they simultaneously enriched their soils once they learned to keep cattle, sheep, and goats, pasture them on nonarable land, and collect them (or merely their dung) upon croplands… When a population lived amid the fields that sustained them, the net transfer of nutrients into or out of the fields remained minor, as after shorter or longer stays in human alimentary canals and tissues, nutrients returned to the soils whence they had come.

Another example is given by environmental historian Richard White in The Organic Machine,[ii] in which he writes about the complex social and technological system by which peoples indigenous to what is now known as the Columbia River basin in the Pacific Northwest made their livelihoods from salmon:

For thousands of years Indian people had recognized and understood the blessings of a world in which small fish left the river, harvested the greater solar energy available in the ocean, and returned as very big fish. These fish always returned at the same time to the same place, and in their return they followed paths which took to the spots where human labor secured their capture.

The annual harvest of the returning salmon, rich in nutrients and calories gathered from the open ocean, supported one of the densest populations of people in North America before Europeans colonized the continent, and had done so for a very long time.

What is common to both of these stories is a narrative of cyclical flows—what leaves in one form returns in another, and that which is used in one stage is renewed in another. Along the way, people and other organisms can draw off some of the energy to make a living without interrupting the overall capacity of the cycle to bring the same benefits back the next round. Basically, this is the definition of sustainability.[iii]

Breaking Cycles

However, there are many historical examples where cycles which lasted for hundreds if not thousands of years have been broken by people eager to enhance productivity (and profit) even further. In the case of the Columbia River, the wealth of salmon did not last long once white Americans began to oust indigenous peoples and collect the fish for themselves. In fact, Americans so thoroughly disrupted the cycle that had existed that, “[I]n the face of such regularity and bounty, the Americans began breeding the fish in factories and setting out to sea to catch them.”[iv] Later on, of course, the annual bounty of the returning salmon faded from the economic landscape of the Columbia, replaced by the promise of raw power in the form of hydroelectricity and irrigation.

Farming systems also experienced rifts in the metabolic cycles that had sustained agricultural productivity for thousands of years. The concern that soils were becoming “worn out” or “exhausted” was a major concern for Europeans in the 18th and early 19th centuries.[v] Observers at the time cited the physical separation of farms and cities, the sites of production and consumption respectively, as a primary cause of metabolic rift. American farmers breaking sod in the North American plains to grow grains for shipment to eastern cities such as New York or European metropolises like London were doing little more than “robbing of the earth of its capital stock”, as George Waring wrote in an agricultural census report published in the 1850s.[vi] On the other side of the Atlantic, the German agronomist Justus von Liebig, often referred to as the father of agricultural chemistry, argued fervently in the mid-19th century that selling food to distant cities, which never returned the material (i.e. as manure or “night soil”), inevitably degraded the soil.[vii] The further separation of plant crops from animal livestock into separate production systems further broke up the cycle—manure, like human sewage, was no longer being returned to renew the soil. Ironically, the buildup of human and animal waste created a new, separate problem: what to do with all the hazardous material![viii]

The Law of Return

People have long recognized the wastefulness of breaking metabolic cycles, and have often not hesitated to condemn social and economic systems that incentivize this sort of rift. One of my favorite denouncements of the emerging industrial mode of agriculture comes from the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, writing in 1947 (note the parallels to the ways in which sustainability, and unsustainability, are discussed today, see endnote iii):

The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple. Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.

Howard had a different vision for how to practice agriculture, which embraced unbroken energy and nutrient cycles as the key for land to sustain its productive benefits for people. He conducted a multi-decade study of composting practices in India that laid the groundwork for his Law of Return, which he describes eloquently in this passage from a 1947 publication:[ix]

The subsoil is called upon for some of its water and minerals, the leaf has to decay and fall, the twig is snapped by the wind, the very stem of the tree must break, lie, and gradually be eaten away by minute vegetable or animal agents; these in turn die, their bodies are acted on by quite invisible fungi and bacteria; these also die, they are added to all the other wastes, and the earthworm or ant begins to carry this accumulated reserve of all earthly decay away. This accumulated reserve—humus—is the very beginning of vegetable life and therefore of animal life and of our own being.

Any break in this intricate cyclical process would carry dire consequences for soil fertility, and by extension the health of plants, animals, and people. Howard believed that human health was linked to the condition of the soil: preserving the Law of Return and maintaining healthy soils would eliminate the source of most diseases. “Soil fertility,” he wrote, “is the basis of the public health system of the future.” For this reason his Indore process for composting is minutely concerned with recycling wastes back onto farm fields, and preserving organic material and live organisms in the final product. Howard recognized that all agriculture must be an intervention into natural processes, but he drove home that the farmer operated within limits set by the cycle of life: “The first duty of the agriculturist must always be to understand that he is a part of Nature and cannot escape from the environment.” The proper method of agriculture, in his view, involves the careful attention to and maintenance of autonomous metabolic cycles. These processes could be adapted somewhat to benefit people, but people also had to adapt to the processes.

Bandaging the Rift

However, repairing or reconnecting the broken cycles has historically not been the solution of choice for metabolic rift. Howard wrote at a time when the concept of people adapting to the metabolic rhythms of nature did not receive much public support. At the close of WWII, America was about to lead the world into a wave of agricultural development that embraced not the law of return, but the law of economies of scale. Rather than treating farms as embedded within living, dynamic systems that cycled energy and nutrients to the mutual sustainment of all, per Howard’s vision, farms would be factories,[x] a stopover on a one-way passage from mines and wells to waste dumps. Crucially, in order to transform farms to factories for food, fiber and fuel, more concentrated inputs of energy and nutrients were needed than the organic metabolic cycles could provide. By organic, I refer to those materials and energies that were wrapped up in living ecosystems, as opposed to materials and energies lying dormant in underground reserves of fossil water, fuel, and nutrients.[xi]

In his classic history, The Development of American Agriculture, the agricultural economist Willard Cochrane wrote that this transformation required a host of external inputs into agriculture. The list of industrial inputs needed to replace the organic inputs is illustrated in this passage:

The petroleum industry, the tractor and farm machinery industry, the fertilizer industry, the pesticide industry, and the livestock feed industry had to develop the production plants and distributive organization – the infrastructure – to permit and facilitate the capital transformation on farms.

The consequences of this industrial relation between people and nature can be deferred so long as people are able to fill the rift with stuff mined from the earth. However, many worry about the looming limits to these resources: it is more and more common to hear the phrases peak oil, peak phosphorous, and peak water. Meanwhile, just as city planners discovered that the buildup of human sewage in cities created a crisis to parallel soil exhaustion in the countryside, contemporary environmental scientists are discovering parallel crises to dependence on limited supplies of fossil resources. The release of vast quantities of greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuel and the unchecked runoff of vast quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous compounds into marine ecosystems, for example, threaten to exceed a “safe operating space for humanity.”[xii] Thus, framing relations between people and nature through the lens of metabolic rift alerts us to the possibility that certain long-standing problems, while temporarily mitigated, may arise again with magnified consequences.


Metabolic rift is an attractive frame in part because it effectively combines environmental, economic and moral values. Breaking soil nutrient, water, or energy cycles by importing mineral substitutes—fossil fuels, aquifers, mined phosphates, and so on—degrades ecosystems and inhibits the autonomous natural processes that provide manifold benefits to people (such as the salmon returning year after year, fattened from their time in the sea, to the same stretches of river to be harvested). People reap the surplus benefits from those ecosystem services, which form a foundation for all of our livelihoods. Metabolic rift thus also represents a break in the social and economic cycles that maintain and renew the means by which people produce goods and services. Lastly, the concept of metabolic rift is deeply infused with moral judgments about the right and the wrong way to go about making a livelihood. When 19th century observers spoke of “robbing the earth of its capital stock” or Howard called out “banditry” in the 1940s, they were pointing to the immorality of disrupting what were otherwise functional, elegant, and beneficial cycles. In other words, metabolic rift offers a powerful argument for what causes problems between people and nature and how to fix those problems that draws on both technical and moral reasoning.

It can be tempting to look back across history and read cases of metabolic rift as the parable of the goose that laid the golden egg.[xiii] In the (misguided) hope of speeding up agricultural metabolism and unleashing an even greater bounty, people broke the beneficial cycles through a reckless binge on fossil energy and mineral nutrients. Armed with hindsight and a contemporary awareness of global environmental crises, it might seem that in the process modern industrial society has killed the golden goose.

Drawing this conclusion from the metabolic rift frame oversimplifies history, however, and lends a greater continuity and uniformity than can be seen on close and careful examination. Nature, like people, is always changing, as is our relation to it. While the concept of metabolic rift powerfully reveals a number of interrelated problems and consequences at the nexus of ecosystems, economic production, and moral sensibility, it also tends to divide the world into binaries: traditional and modern, organic and industrial, closed and broken cycles, and so on. I think it’s important not to be too quick in condemning or too hasty in dismissing certain practices. The distinctions between organic and industrial, the natural and the mechanical, as Richard White makes clear in his book, are always blurred on close inspection. As is the rational or sensible with the mad or insane. I’ll close with his final observation on the collapse of the salmon cycle:

Each step of the process that led to this result was logical. It was only the result that was mad. Like many kinds of madness, this one looked quite sane from the inside. One thing followed quite understandably from another until both a kind of environmental insanity and a bitter social conflict were achieved.


[i] McNeill, J. R., & Winiwarter, V. (2004). Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History, and Soil. Science, 304(5677), 1627-1629.

[ii] White, R. (1995). The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 47.

[iii] This is a bit disingenuous, since sustainability actually doesn’t have a unique, universal definition—its meaning is constantly argued over and debated around the world. However, compare the sorts of metabolic cycles described here with the definition of sustainable development proposed by the 1987 Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in Our Common Future (one of the foundational texts for sustainability thinking): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

[iv] White, p. 47.

[v] See for example, (1) Foster, J. B., & Magdoff, F. (2000). Liebig, Marx, and the Depletion of Soil Fertility: Relevance for Today’s Agriculture. In F. Magdoff, J. B. Foster & F. H. Buttel (Eds.), Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment: Monthly Review Press; or (2) Foster, J. B. (1999). Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology 1. American Journal of Sociology, 105(2), 366-405.

[vi] Quoted in Foster, J. B. 1999. “Robbing the Earth of its Capital Stock”: An Introduction to George Waring’s Agricultural Features of the Census of the United States for 1850. Organization & Environment, Vol. 12 No. 3, 293-297.

[vii] “This enormous drain of these matters from the land to towns, has been going on for centuries, and is still going on year after year, without any part of the mineral elements thus removed from the land ever being restored to it… It is perfectly absurd to suppose that the loss of these matters… should have had no influence upon the amount of its produce.” Letters on Modern Agriculture. 1859.

[viii] Foster, J. B., & Magdoff, F. (2000) at note v.

[ix] Howard, A. 1947. The Soil and Health. The Devin-Adair Company: New York. Howard’s collected works are available publicly online at

[x] For more on this trend, see Deborah Fitzgerald’s Every Farm a Factory. 2003, Yale University Press.

[xi] Historian E. A. Wrigley, in Continuity, Chance and Change: The character of the industrial revolution in England, describes the transition from an organic to an industrial economy as the shift from wood and muscle to coal as the main sources of energy which people could utilize in making a livelihood. I merely expand on this observation by adding that people have also introduced other fossil fuels (which store ancient solar energy in the molecular bonds of hydrocarbons for millions of years underground), fossil water (which stores thousands of years of rainfall in underground aquifers), and fossil nutrients (underground deposits of plant nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium which have to be mined to made available to living ecosystems).

[xii] “Since the Industrial Revolution, a new era has arisen, the Anthropocene, in which human actions have become the main driver of global environmental change. This could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environmental state of the Holocene, with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world.” Rockström, J; Steffen, W; Noone, K, et al. 2009.  A safe operating space for humanity. Nature. 461(7263): 472-475.

[xiii] Interestingly enough, I found that the Wikipedia article on this fable also references another fable, The Farmer, which is quoted as reading, “A farmer, bent on doubling the profits from his land, proceeded to set his soil a two-harvest demand. Too intent thus on profit, harm himself he must needs: Instead of corn, he now reaps corn-cockle and weeds.” Thus I am not the first to make the connection between metabolic rift and killing the golden goose!



Filed under Basic Concepts

Commenting on Food Safety Regulation

Last Friday, the public comment period closed for the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed produce rule[i]. When finalized, the rule will establish mandatory standards for growing produce—i.e. fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts—intended to improve food safety and protect public health.  The agency released the proposed rule in January 2013 as one stage[ii] in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which President Obama signed into law on January 4, 2011.

To give you a sense of the scope of this law, FSMA enacts an expansion of federal authority on the same order of magnitude as the big environmental protection laws of the late 60s and early 70s—the Clean Air and Water Acts, for example, or the Endangered Species Act. However, in addition to its progressive promise to better protect public health, FSMA also opens the door for misapplication of government authority: if poorly implemented, it could be an agricultural version of the Patriot Act. The produce rule, in particular, has the potential to discriminate against small-scale organic farms and to impede ecologically-based farming practices. And that is why I and thousands of others are trying to convince FDA to amend it. In the rest of the post, I will briefly discuss the background of the rule, explain how the Federal administrative process for such rules works, and will conclude with the comments that I submitted to FDA.

Major reform of the nation’s food safety regulatory system has been brewing for the past decade or so[iii]. The tipping point came with a series of deadly and high-profile outbreaks, in particular a 2006 multi-state outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that killed 5 people and sickened another 200. This and other outbreaks triggered a wave of industry and government reforms. This is a long story that I won’t get into here, but SF Gate published a nice summary of the basic plot this past weekend that will catch you up to speed.

But let’s return to the closing of the public comment period. If you are not familiar with the way Federal law works, the short version is that most legislation merely provides a general framework, the details of which have to be worked out by one or more Federal agencies through a process known as rulemaking. Agencies belong to the executive branch of government, and ultimately answer to the President. Examples include the FDA, USDA, EPA, and so forth.

However, an agency such as FDA does not have complete freedom to work out the details of a law such as FSMA as it wishes. Rather, the agency must comply with a whole series of legal requirements, some of which are included in the law itself and others of which come from administrative law, a corpus of laws that set universal requirements for any rulemaking. One of the most important administrative laws is the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 (APA). The APA requires that any time an agency intends to alter an existing regulation or introduce a new one, it must publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register. This publication marks the start of a period (generally three months) during which any member of the public—including individual citizens, organizations, and even other agencies or other nation-states—may submit comments on the proposed rule to the agency. The agency is required by law to respond to each and every comment; this does not mean that the agency has to follow or agree with every comment, but it must at least justify its response. Once all comments have been addressed and the agency has revised the draft rule accordingly, it will release a final rule that will then be the law of the land.

The public comment phase of rulemaking is a critical part of American government, as it is one of the few ways that the public can participate directly in the governance of the country. It is also a key avenue to educate regulatory agencies about the potential impacts or oversights that a rule might have. For the produce rule, 13,390 comments were submitted to the FDA between January and November of 2013. One of those comments is mine, which I will share with you here to give a sense of what participating in a rulemaking process in this manner might look like. (Note that the version I submitted to FDA was on Berkeley letterhead—formality matters with these things!).


To whom it may concern:

I am writing to comment on the FDA’s proposed rule, “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” (hereafter, the rule) in my capacity as a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, where I am researching and writing my dissertation on US food safety governance and risk regulation. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) currently funds my research in this area, and in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of ecologists and social scientists I have another grant application in review with NSF to study socio-ecological dynamics of food safety practices on California leafy greens farms.

From this vantage point, I express my hope that FDA will take the opportunity presented by the mandates of the Food Safety Modernization Act to demonstrate to the American people that the United States government can engage in sensible, well-reasoned, and participatory modes of regulation that effectively protect the public from food borne hazards while equitably distributing the costs and benefits of such protection. Toward that end, I raise five points:

1. The rule must be more flexible and scale-appropriate. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) directs FDA to “provide sufficient flexibility to be practicable for all sizes and types of businesses” (21 USC §350h[c][1][B]) and to “be appropriate to the scale and diversity of the production and harvesting of such commodities” (21 USC §350h[a][3][A]). The current rule does not reflect this mandate, and the “qualified exemption” provided in §112.5 is insufficient (see comment #2). The rule must recognize that there are many different types of farms in this country, operating in many different contexts. The geography, culture, marketing channels, consumer preferences, and labor situations vary dramatically, as does the risk profile for food safety. If the rule does not provide scale-appropriate requirements for all of the different types of farms and contexts in which they operate, it will hurt farmers, rural communities, and local ecosystems. If this happens, the rule will fail to benefit the public good.

I would like to give you a sense of how this rule appears to a small-scale, Latino farmer in California, who has worked very hard for many years and even gone back to school to learn how to start up his own fruit and vegetable farm, which sells to markets in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. I provide a direct quote from Javier, whom I met at a focus group meeting[iv] convened for immigrant farmers affiliated with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) to share their experiences in complying with food safety requirements. I have translated it from the original Spanish:

“Food safety is first and foremost a worry. Or, if you want, a risk. I worry not only for me as a farmer, but also for the recipient who is going to eat the food. And this worry includes many things: the cost, the time it takes to fill out all the papers, all the demands that are out there, and there are no differences [in what is demanded] between small and large. This is what has us upset… there is no difference between a large company and a tiny one, and the large company has all these resources to pay someone to do that, and we don’t have the resources… <pointing to other farmers in the room> He knows what he has to do. She knows what she has to do. Ensure that the product goes from the field to the crate in a safe manner. We don’t have a problem there. The problem we have is the bureaucracy and the cost. This is the problem.”

To reiterate, the ten farmers at the focus group meeting discussed in great detail the many concrete steps they take to ensure that their products will not make one of their customers sick. They understand and practice the appropriate risk prevention methods: regularly washing hands with soap and water, wearing gloves, sanitizing equipment, carefully inspecting the fields, packing houses, and other farm facilities, and so on. Yet the expected amount of record-keeping, laboratory testing, paperwork, and audit costs imposes an extensive burden on the farmers, and they do not believe these bureaucratic requirements actually contribute to making the food any safer for their customers.

FDA should, in greater collaboration with food producers of all backgrounds from across the country, revise the rule to set multiple equivalent standards at each stage of farm production―soil amendment, irrigation, equipment sanitization, worker education and hygiene, record-keeping, harvest, etc.—that are appropriate for different farm types and contexts. Merely allowing producers to “establish alternatives” (§112.12) to the baseline standards provided they have “adequate scientific data or information” (see comment #3) does not provide sufficient flexibility and is not appropriate. The provision at §112.12 places the burdens and costs of identifying and proving the viability of alternative measures on producers, when it is clear from the language of the law as quoted above that Congress intended FDA to take a lead role in identifying viable alternatives.

2. The rule must not inadvertently create the misconception that some farms are unsafe because they have been exempted from the requirements. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kathleen Merrigan, a US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who stepped down earlier this year, when she visited the Berkeley campus. She emphasized that the rule must not create a category of farm that is publicly perceived to be exempt from food safety regulation, and I strongly agree. Doing so risks unduly damaging the reputation of these producers and may undermine the integrity of this rule by creating the appearance of a double standard. Rather than simply grant small farms that sell direct and locally a “qualified exemption”, per §112.5, from the universal requirements laid out in Subparts B through O, FDA should foster further dialogue with these farmers to collaboratively develop a set of food safety requirements, possibly including voluntary risk prevention practices to comply with 21 USC §350h(f), that best suits their particular risk profiles and also takes advantage of their operational strengths. Many small farms are operated with a degree of substantive, effective care—daily oversight over the farm by owners and top managers or hand harvesting―that is unique to their scale of operation. These practices of care should be recognized as valid and legitimate risk-prevention measures in the same way that water quality tests (Subpart N), treatment of biological soil amendments (Subpart F), or worker hygiene training (Subpart D) are for larger-scale farming operations.

3. The FDA must take on greater responsibility for identifying and evaluating alternative risk prevention methods. The burdens and costs of producing “adequate scientific data” in support of alternative methods of risk-prevention, per §112.12, should not fall solely on producers, some of whom may not be able to bear these costs because of their limited resources. FDA should work with other government agencies, scientists, and stakeholders to identify and scientifically evaluate other methods of risk-prevention and protection of public health. For example, FDA could take the lead in evaluating the risk-prevention potential of shorter or less centralized supply chains. A shorter supply chain (i.e. measured as time from harvest to consumption), such as for a farmers market or a consumer supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement, in principle reduces the risk of a consumer contracting an illness from produce: less time in storage and transit translates to less time for pathogens to incubate. Similarly, a non-centralized supply chain that does not process or mix produce in large batches (such as ready-to-eat bagged salad mixes) in principle reduces the risk that contamination will lead to an outbreak, and also in principle reduces the possible magnitude of an outbreak if one were to occur.[v] In addition, FDA should clarify what is meant by “adequate scientific data,” specifically detailing what criteria will be used, and by whom, to judge its adequacy. Lastly, the standards referenced in the rule should be shown to adhere to the same criteria once defined .

4. The rule should avoid an overly narrow definition of safety, and acknowledge potential tradeoffs of food safety with other demands on produce. The rule must recognize that there are many different, and at times competing, qualities that the American public expects from fresh produce. Furthermore, there is no one universal definition of safe food that everyone will agree on. A low risk of pathogen contamination is important to many people, but so are environmental sustainability, support for rural livelihoods, fair and just labor practices, nutritional content, local sourcing, reasonable prices, organic production, and a product that tastes good, to name a few. The rule must explicitly take into account the potential impacts that pathogen-oriented risk prevention standards may have on these other qualities. For example, §112.31(b)(1) directs farm operators to exclude a sick employee from work “until the person’s health condition no longer presents a risk to public health,” but provides no instruction that indicates that the health and well-being of the employee should also be a concern. Preventing a worker from earning money at the same time that he or she is sick, and may have to pay medical bills, could have severe consequences for the worker and his or her family. Not only is this bad for the worker, but it may also encourage workers to hide symptoms of illness, perversely introducing additional risk to public health. FDA must recognize that it will not serve the American public to have pathogen-free produce if at the same time ecosystems are degraded, small-scale farmers are forced out of business, and the healthfulness (nutritional) and quality (aesthetic) of the end-product is ignored.

5. The rule should not unduly burden producers for whom English is not a primary language. Many farmers in America do not speak English as a first language, and neither do their customers. Promulgating and enforcing the rule in an inaccessible manner, for example by failing to communicate in a language in which producers are fluent, will unduly discriminate against these farmers. Research on the experiences of Hmong farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, shows that culturally inappropriate labor regulations can produce racialized discrimination against immigrant farmers[vi]. Studies in progress by the same researchers have uncovered preliminary evidence that assessment of compliance with food safety standards may also be racialized, not least because of language-based communication barriers. In addition to my first comment, I add that at a minimum FDA must ensure that the rule, and all associated forms, instructions, and avenues of assistance are readily available in any language and format that a farmer or producer needs. In addition, FDA should include a clause in Subpart Q (Compliance and Enforcement) with a statement to the effect that all compliance and enforcement actions will be conducted in a language in which the farmer or producer in question is fluent.

I would like to conclude by urging FDA to recognize that American farmers care about the quality and safety of their produce, and want to grow safe food for their customers. FDA’s mission, as mandated in the Food Safety Modernization Act, is best served by a more cooperative approach to facilitating the adoption of better food safety practices among farmers. The proposed produce rule as written adopts a command-and-control approach to food safety that will likely lead to an antagonistic relationship between FDA and producers. Less emphasis on filling out paperwork and more emphasis on actually practicing better agriculture could go a long way toward ameliorating this antagonism. I end by noting that establishing trust and mutual respect between FDA and produce farmers will be necessary to adaptively build domestic capacity for food safety, as required by Sec. 110 of the FSMA (21 USC §2204).


[i] For brevity’s sake, this is the short title by which most people refer to the rule. The official name of the rule is Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption. You can find the full Federal Register (78 FR 11: 3504) notice here:

[ii] FDA has issued at least eight rules, some proposed and some final, related to implementation of the FSMA. It has also issued a number of “Guidance for Industry” documents, which serve as sources of standard, authoritative information for the private sector. One such guidance document from 1998, the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, provides the official scientific basis for much of the regulatory developments surrounding food safety for produce.

[iii] The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added “Revamping Federal Oversight of Food Safety” to its “High Risk List,” basically the office’s list of priorities for government action and remediation. The GAO has been issuing reports on the topic since at least 2001. In addition, President Obama created the President’s Food Safety Working Group in 2009. Its initial report concluded,

 “Unfortunately, the nation’s food safety system is anything but flexible and coordinated. Our system is hamstrung by outdated laws, insufficient resources, suboptimal management structures, and poor coordination across agencies and with States and localities. At least a dozen Federal agencies, implementing at least 30 different laws, have roles in overseeing the safety of the nation’s food supply. This approach was not rationally designed. Rather, it developed in fits and starts as the nation’s attention turned to one crisis after another. Building a new system will require recognizing the critical importance of a closely coordinated system.”

[iv] The focus group was held on November 8, 2013 in Salinas, California.

[v] DeLind, L., & Howard, P. (2008). Safe at any scale? Food scares, food regulation, and scaled alternatives. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(3), 301-317.

[vi] Minkoff-Zern, L.-A., Peluso, N., Sowerwine, J., & Getz, C. (2011). Race and Regulation: Asian Immigrants in California Agriculture. In A. H. Alkon & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (pp. 65): MIT Press.


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A Visit to Javier’s Farm

It’s been quite a while since I’ve managed to get a post up. I got caught up with a conference presentation and a large grant proposal, which sapped my mental energy for writing. Also, I had to dwell mostly largely in the world of theory and abstract concepts, which left me with little interest in writing more about these topics for the blog. So I thought I might tack a different course for a bit, and share a bit about the field work that I do for my research. This is the grounded stuff that keeps me motivated and excited about grad school and academia when I start to get burned out. In this post, I share an account of my visit to Javier’s farm this past weekend. I hope that it will give you a flavor for how work in agriculture starts to connect to the overarching theme of people and nature. I’ll be developing this connection further in future posts.

“Aquí nos vemos,” said the email from Javier. We’ll see you here. He and his workers would begin the day at six, preparing to plant 2.5 acres of hillside near Watsonville with strawberries for the next season’s harvest. Driving down from Berkeley, I would arrive at around 10am to visit his farm and learn a little bit about his style of small-scale organic agriculture.


Javier’s latest farm site stretches to the trees in the background. About 8 out of 20 acres are currently being cultivated.

I met Javier at a focus group to hear from small-scale immigrant farmers about their experiences with food safety regulations (my topic of research). All of the farmers were affiliated with the Agriculture and Land-based Training Association (ALBA)—an organization which helps small farmers, and especially farm-workers, get started operating their own organic farms.  Javier is a graduate of ALBA’s farmer training program, now operating independently. Originally from Michoacán, a state in central Mexico, Javier came to the U.S. when he was 21. He spent 17 years in the L.A. area, working first as a janitor, then a bartender, and eventually a manager at several golf courses. Several years ago, he had enough of what he calls “the corporate life” and enough of working for other people, and moved North with his family to get back to his farming roots. His father was an adept farmer, he tells me, skilled in irrigation. They grew maize, beans, squash, and other vegetables, including cucumbers. These they pickled and sold to an American importer whom Javier’s father knew through irrigation work.

Today Javier has around 20 acres of land split across two sites. The site at which the strawberries are being planted is owned by a Silicon Valley software engineer, who now invests in agricultural land in California’s central coast. Javier met him through a real estate agent, and convinced him to buy this particular parcel specifically to lease out for his farm. This is good land, and Javier pays a bit more for it than the area average. It’s worth it, he says, because of the existing irrigation infrastructure and a valuable plot of mature hydrangea bushes, whose flowers will fetch a fair price.


With a little TLC, these hydrangeas will be a valuable asset to the farm.

This is not a conventional mono-culture farm, growing acre after acre of one or two core commodity crops to be sold to distant markets. Rather, Javier envisions a diversified farming system, producing many complementary crops. Next to the strawberry field are interspersed beds of kale (several varieties), red and green cabbage, broccoli, rainbow chard, English and French lavender, marigolds (grown specifically for Día de los Muertos), parsley and various herbs and other flowers. At the ends of the rows and all around the field are pockets of native vegetation, planned to attract natural predators to help control pests. In addition, the farm also seeks to work with rather than suppress ecological processes and biodiversity. Since Javier doesn’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, he and his workers keep the crops healthy with biological controls, healthy soil, and crop rotation. Also, a lot of hard work.

One of the reasons I asked to visit Javier’s farm was to better understand the work — both manual labor and management — that goes into a diversified farm. In just a few months on this land, Javier (working seven days a week from sunup often until late at night) and the people who work for him have made tremendous progress in bringing the land’s potential to fruition (literally).


Rows of cabbage and kale, already flourishing after just a few months.

On this day, they are going to set up the first strawberry plot on the site. Strawberries are one of the most valuable crops grown in California, and will be key to the farm’s economic viability. To start 2.5 acres of strawberries, Javier and about 20 workers have to plant 70,000 shoots in long rows (see below). Each hole in the black plastic, which is used to keep down weeds and to help the soil stay at the best temperature and moisture, will soon house a new strawberry plant, at this point just a bundle of roots with a tiny bit of stem. Javier purchases the shoots from a nursery up near the Sacramento Delta. They arrive bundled tightly in plastic bags. Most will be of the common Albion variety, but the first few rows will be a less common variety that fruits earlier in the spring. Javier doesn’t much care for the taste of these, but they produce a pretty fruit and will most importantly be ready for the first days of strawberry season, when demand is very high.


A bag of strawberry shoots post nutrient bath. A bed of bolting broccoli can be seen in the background. While still edible, the yellow flowers springing forth from the heads make it unacceptable at most markets–these plants will be plowed under to return fertility to the soil.

I helped Ruben, one of Javier’s full-time employees, unpack this bag and soak it in an organic nutrient bath (the brown water at the bottom of the wheelbarrow) before he carted it up to the fields for planting. Before the shoots can go in the ground, though, the beds have to be prepared. This involves grading the ground into the raised beds, offset precisely forty-eight inches, which you can see in the photo. Each bed has irrigation tape laid across its entire length, and is then covered in the plastic. When I first arrived, I tripped and accidentally ripped a hole in the plastic on one of the rows—I was told I have to be more careful, as the plastic has to last for two years, the length of the rotation cycle.


Ruben, in the foreground, inspects a raised bed to see if it’s ready for planting. A crew works with Javier in the background to plant the new shoots.

While strawberries are perennial and can fruit for up to ten years, in the central coast they are afflicted by a fungal disease, verticillium wilt. Conventional farmers use drip fumigation to control the wilt, but organic farmers rely on rotation, which limits the productive life of an organic strawberry plant to two years. After that, the strawberries will be replaced with broccoli, which produces a natural anti-fungal agent in its roots, for several years before being returned to strawberry production.

Before the planting, a worker has to use a special device to punch the holes (all 70,000 of them) in the plastic for the strawberries. I spent some time at the unglamorous task of removing the leftover disc of plastic from each hole.


After several rows and just about half an hour, my back was already sore from bending over the beds. The workers will have to do this for ten or more hours during the planting. After the holes are ready for the shoots, they’ll work in teams of three: one person with a crate of new strawberry shoots placing one at each hole, and two following with special planting tools that push the roots deep into the sandy soil. (I didn’t take a picture of the tools, but they look like this example, though less fancy). Placing the shoots at the holes, while a simpler task than planting, is nonetheless difficult. I worked in this role, and by the end of just one row my back and arms were getting sore from carrying the crate of shoots. I also tried my hand at planting a few strawberries: I had to be careful to reach the proper depth, protect the fragile roots and not leave any exposed to the air, and avoid piercing the irrigation tape by accident. It took me about ten times longer to get a plant in the ground than the experienced workers.

Javier pays his workers well, though. Today they’ll make $10 per hour, at least a dollar more than the standard going rate in the area. The atmosphere is jovial as the work progresses. Jokes are shared in rapid-fire Spanish which I can’t follow, but seem to produce plenty of chuckles. Everyone has a special nickname, I’m told, given to them by the others. Javier, for example, is called caballo (horse), and when he comments on the music one of the workers is playing on a small portable device strapped to his belt, the worker jokes that he should moonlight as DJ Caballo.


Carnitas cooking over an open fire.

Around noon, we stop for a long lunch break. After four hours over an open fire, a large batch of carnitas are ready to be eaten with tortillas, avocado and salsa. I do not eat meat, and so filled my grilled tortilla with a handful of peppers from a large bowl. Not realizing that these were extremely spicy rocoto peppers—one of the oldest varieties of pepper that is popular in Peru and Bolivia, and notable for its black seeds—I finished my makeshift wrap in a few bites. Moments later, I realized my mistake, and my antics hopping around fanning my burning mouth provided some lunchtime comic relief. At the end of the day, Javier later gave me my very own rocoto plant, though I will not be keen to try another of those peppers anytime soon.

More people showed up to work during lunch, and by the time the break wrapped up about 15 or so workers headed to the field to finish the planting. Meanwhile, Javier took me and several colleagues to see his other plot of land, which is better established. Here, in addition to blackberries and raspberries, he has a strawberry field already in production. Even this late in November, one of his harvesters had just collected several boxes of berries (still delicious, I can attest). There is even a field of free-ranging chickens; his landlord cares for them and collects the eggs, while Javier markets them.


Free-ranging chickens. We harvested some eggs from the coop in the background–mine was still warm when I pulled it out.


November strawberries.

Even in an established site like this, however, there is much work to be done. Constant vigilance is needed to prevent pests, such as the voracious two-spotted mite (Tetranychus urticae), which sucks the juices out of the leaves and withers the plant. To control the mite, organic farmers apply a predatory spider mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis. Javier purchases these predators in bulk from Syngenta, which sells bottles like this one. A bottle costs Javier about $12, and he estimates he spent around $4,000 on pest control this year for this field. Even so, a swath of brown, stunted plants cuts diagonally across the field, an area in which Javier says the mites were too fast for him. He’ll have to remove all of those plants, apply more Phytoseiulus persimilis, and replant new shoots for the spring season.


Biological control in a bottle.

However, all of the work that goes into production is only half the story. A great deal of the work on Javier’s farm has little to do with actual production, and everything to do with finding good markets for the produce and getting it there. Some buyers, such as Whole Foods, require too much paperwork to make it worthwhile. It might cost hundreds of dollars and many hours of time to get the proper inspections, insurance documents, and forms in place just to sell a handful of crates to a strict buyer. Large corporate buyers tend to demand the most of these sorts of assurances from the farmers who supply them, and so Javier sells mostly to more local venues. He sells to six local groceries in the Central Coast and Bay Area, at least one of which will buy just about anything he grows at a good price.

He also sells to a number of weekly farmers markets. One of these markets is held in the Fruitvale neighborhood in south Oakland. You might recognize the name from the recent movie, Fruitvale Station. Javier says this particular market is an opportunity to provide his farm’s organic produce to urban Latinos and other people of color at a more accessible location and price than at a mainstream grocery. The people shopping at the Fruitvale farmer’s market often practice different culinary cultures from those represented in mainstream groceries, and so he produces some crops specifically for them, such as cilantro (coriander) grown tall with the roots still attached.

Javier’s farm shows that organic farming can be rooted in Mexican as well as mainstream American culture. He attributes much of his success to an understanding of both Mexican (agri)culture and to American (agri)culture, as well as to a mix of practical experience and formal book learning. One of Javier’s goals is to use his unique experiences and position to reach out to Latino communities, especially in urban areas, to both improve access to and educate about organic fruits and vegetables. He has the idea of giving a series of radio broadcasts in Spanish that present small-scale, diversified, and organic farming not just as a healthful and environmentally friendly source of food but also a culturally appropriate and affirmative foodway for people of color. Many ALBA farmers spent years working on conventional farms, and tell of allergies to pesticides and other harmful health effects from exposure to agricultural chemicals. The style of farming supported by ALBA and practiced by agricultores like Javier and the people working on his farm promises a better source of agricultural livelihood as well as better food.

I write this description of Javier and my visit to his farm in a political economic and regulatory context that is often hostile toward small-scale organic farmers. Market pressures reward farms that scale up and concentrate on a few crops. While organic produce sells for a premium in markets, the general pressure is to produce food ever more cheaply. Ecologically friendly farming practices or a respect for the working conditions of people laboring in the fields, not to mention a commitment to making good, healthy food available and affordable in underserved communities, are not rewarded. On top of the market pressures, regulations for safety and quality tend to reward large-scale, industrial, and English-speaking farms. For example, new rules proposed by FDA, as mandated by the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, largely expect all farms—regardless of scale, commitment to agroecological practices, organic status, and so on—to comply with a more or less universal set of standards that were designed mostly with large-scale industrial farming practices in mind. So, in part, I’ve written up what I saw during my visit and what I heard in my conversations with Javier and his workers to respond to his request that I pass along a message to the buyers, the regulators, and the general public: “[Tell them that] they must look at what is happening, how it is that we are doing things, and then ask themselves if what they are requiring [demanding] really makes sense.”

I’d like to extend my thanks to Javier, all of the workers I met on my visit, and the fine folks at ALBA who helped put us in touch. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience, and that wouldn’t have been possible without all of their help. Also, you can visit Javier’s website for yourself.


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Integrative Terminology and the “Artinatural”

As Patrick has suggested in previous posts, environmental and technological developments can be determined, to some extent, by the frames we use to understand the world. In this post I hope to address this issue by offering a new kind of frame that refuses to separate the world into simplistic, dualistic categories….

When I was a kid, sometimes my friends would accuse me of performing non-sequiturs or saying random things. To me, my random leaps weren’t so random as I was always one to see the strange connections between seemingly separate subject matters. Bird watching and robots, for example… or candy and climate change. Anyway, what I call “integrative terminology” is to describe terms that try to make these once invisible connections more visible. The word “cyborg”, for example, is used to describe things that are part organic and part machine – it describes a literal amalgamation of once separate spheres. Professor Donna Haraway now uses it to describe other things that transcend these kinds of boundaries (and not just characters like Robocop or Iron Man).[i]

Another term that is used to talk about overlapping spheres is the word “hybrid”. This word also now refers to cars that utilize both electric and combustion motors in unison, but Professor Bruno Latour also uses the term to talk about the interesting mixture of the categories of “nature” and “culture”.[ii]

I myself have adopted the word “artinatural” to describe things that are both artificial and natural at the same time.

Now let us turn to some more concrete examples so that we don’t wander off too far into the territory of the conceptual….

My dog Sonny is a half Boxer, half Golden Retriever mix – a very special and rare mix as far as I know. He is a special kind of animal beyond simply being a rare breed of dog, however. He is special partly because he exists due to the strange and dynamic human breeding techniques that led to those two specific breeds in the first place. Dog breeding is a very artificial thing – it involves lots of intentional planning and human social organization to achieve. There are even institutions involved in the process like the American Kennel Club. But would it make sense simply to call my dog “artificial”? He certainly is not just a human product – wild wolves are, indeed, his close relatives. No, I would argue that he is both artificial and natural, in other words, he is “artinatural”.


Once we understand Sonny as artinatural, we can also see that many things we once thought as simply artificial, or simply natural, are in fact artinatural. A wooden desk, for example, has natural and artificial elements. A tree planted in the park, also, has the naturalness of its genetic lineage, perhaps, and the artificial elements of its intentional placement in that park (assuming it was landscaped in). The same can be said for a plastic chair, whose petroleum material was pulled from the earth, processed and reformed into a chair shape. And, a similar thing can even be said for a human thought itself – being that we human beings also come from, and are still part of, nature (i.e. the universe in its entirety, one of the many definitions of the word “nature”).

This is where integrative terminology and thinking can lead to some larger questions and answers. Is the artificial simply part of the natural? Or, is the “natural” an artificial concept that is then applied to the world by human beings? The answer to both questions may be “yes”, and beyond that, in these queries many fascinating insights and mysteries can be found.

Now let’s turn to how an integrative idea like artinatural could contribute to some key ecological and environmental concerns…. Firstly, to see the interconnectedness of spheres means that one can no longer imagine an entirely contained “artificial” place or object. For example, we have learned the hard way, through recent events like the BP/Gulf oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear spill, that although things like crude oil and radioactive materials may temporarily be contained in human-made structures, they are still structures that exist in the natural world, and furthermore, they are by no means permanently or completely sealed from that broader natural world. These toxic spills clearly crossed the theoretical boundary between “artificial” and “natural” to show that they had always been artinatural, and because of this, other similar projects should be understood as risky and dangerous practices that can only be temporarily safe and contained. Even if the oil spill had not taken place, the oil itself would have been distributed and used, leading to increases in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants….

Global climate destabilization itself is an example of the artinatural: it is not just human societies emitting billions of tons of chemicals into the atmosphere, but also the interconnected processes that create the warming, the storms, and the rising sea levels. To not see these artinatural connections, and to not respond to them, would be disastrous.

On the other hand, recognizing the artinatural can also help us move toward positive, transformative goals. Because we no longer imagine the city as merely artificial, we can start to imagine more urban farms, edible gardens, rooftop gardens, green/ecological corridors, and decentralized energy production throughout and within our cities and neighborhoods. We already have cars and trucks and high-tech outdoor equipment in our wildernesses, but now we can also imagine wilderness within the city – more plants and animals integrated into the once strictly artificial places.

Last but not least, the ideas of wilderness and environment can be seen as artinatural themselves – understanding them in their historical and linguistic contexts can help to separate the negative aspects from the positive aspects that these ideas have had. The idea of wilderness, as authors like William Cronon have pointed out, was applied in such a way as to imagine land without people – that somehow the human element would “contaminate” a once pristine nature.[iii] This kind of thinking is simplistic and wrong. Not all human interactions are destructive ones. The term environment, moreover, can make one imagine a that the “environment” out there is but a thing, a pool of resources beyond oneself, when it is, in fact, something integrally connected to every human being through food, water, air and climate (among many other things). There is an artinatural way to have people and nature coexist peacefully and positively and it involves, in part, understanding that some of the simplistic dualisms that are still widely used were incorrect.


[i] Haraway, Donna Jeanne. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.

[ii] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (tr. by Catherine Porter), Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., USA, 1993.

[iii] Cronon, William, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995, 69-90


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Undetermining Determinism

This week I discuss the notion of determinism, or “the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, have sufficient causes.”[i] The post will cover how determinism works as a method of explanation, why this method of explanation is problematic, and finally a several different specific flavors of determinism that impact people and nature.

What does determinism mean for people and nature?

Discussing determinism means thinking about causes and effects. In particular, not just how we know causes and their effects, but also what causes and effects exist and whether or not we can know them at all. These considerations correspond to questions 5c-5e in my guide:

  1. What counts as a cause and what counts as an effect?
  2. What can be known about the problem? In particular, are there limits to knowledge? Are there limits to control? What is within human power and what is beyond?
  3. What counts as a “fact” or evidence? Who knows things?

We ask these questions when analyzing frames because, as STS scholar Sheila Jasanoff has written, “What we know about the world is intimately linked to our sense of what we can do about it.”[ii] Deterministic accounts sharply limit what may count as a cause, attributing causal power to structural factors—the physical environment, technology, genetic makeup, or social structures like the State or the Economy—rather than individual actions. In so doing, such accounts make history appear inevitable, that what happened was unavoidable. This sentiment of the inevitable deprives individual people of causal power, [iii] suppressing any hopes or ambitions we might have to change the course of history. Moreover, determinist accounts tend to focus narrowly on just one structural factor at the expense of others. This leads to one-sided explanations such as attributing the European conquest of the Americas solely to the “accident” of guns, germs and steel.[iv] In other words, determinism not only limits how we understand history and attribute praise and blame for past events, but also what powers we recognize in ourselves in the present and the sorts of possibilities we can imagine for the future.

Environmental Determinism

In this form of determinism, accidents of the environment—such as the distribution of resources like water[v] —determine history (see note iv). One historical example emphasizes the vagaries of climate in determining race. In the late nineteenth century, it was commonly believed among white colonists in tropical places that the more “stimulating” northerly climate of Europe (and North America) had led whites to be naturally superior thinkers and moral leaders, while the “degenerating” tropical climates had naturally stunted the moral and intellectual growth of the people living there. This climatic determinism served to rationalize a deep-seated racism among white colonists and lend a pseudo-scientific pretext for the obvious brutality and oppression of colonialism. It also caused anxiety among whites that they might suffer the same “fate.” Of major concern to colonists in the Philippines, writes Warwick Anderson, was the question, “Would the white race degenerate and die off in a climate unnatural to it?” Ironically, the general sentiment was, as one prominent U.S. Army doctor put it at the time, that “the Anglo-Saxon branch of the Teutonic stock is severely handicapped by nature in the struggle to colonize the tropics.” [vi]

Technological Determinism

A frame based on technological determinism grants too much causal agency to technologies and discounts the agency of people and nature.[vii] This makes it difficult to imagine ways for people or nature to change the course of history, to re-route it from its current path.

Environmental historian Edmund Russell identifies two deterministic approaches to explaining the role of technology in relations between people and nature.[viii] The first he calls the deus ex machina approach, summarized as “science invents, technology applies, and man conforms;” the second he calls the “necessity is the mother of invention” approach.[ix] Both lead to accounts of people and nature that suffer from technological determinism.

Deus ex machina

We can see a deus ex machina approach in a commonly accepted narrative of climate change. In this telling, once people discovered that fossil fuels such as coal and oil are a plentiful source of energy, it was inevitable that technologies would develop to direct that energy toward all sorts of uses. From there, societies would inevitably adapt to incorporate these very effective fossil fuel technologies as fully as possible into their economic, political, and productive fabrics. Societal dependence on the gasoline-powered automobile, coal and natural gas power plants, and petrochemical inputs to industrial and agricultural processes were unavoidable outcomes of the fact that large reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas exist underground. From here, it is a short leap to conclude that climate change, though caused by humans burning fossil fuels, was nonetheless unavoidable (i.e. not our fault). This technological determinist account rationalizes the second framing of climate change that I identified in my post on Framing Environmental Problems. If using fossil fuels to the fullest was inevitable, then stopping climate change by scaling back how much fossil fuel people burn (the goal identified by the first frame) is not a viable solution. The only route left would be to go with the flow and hope that this technological rollercoaster will produce some solutions for adapting to the dangers of climate change.

Necessity is the mother of all invention

The regression to deterministic accounts of people and nature is more subtle in the “necessity is the mother of all invention” approach. “It enters,” writes Russell, “when we assume that technical choices are inevitable—technical criteria govern technical decisions, each step in design follows logically from the one before, and designers arrive at optimal solutions.”[x] This trap tends to occur through an asymmetrical focus on technologies that have succeeded, rather than those that have failed. By only looking at the successes, the development of technology along a certain path seems ever more self-evident, in other words, inevitable.[xi]

One such account could be told of synthetic fertilizers. The story might go that modern agriculture depends upon artificial sources of nitrogen (N) in order to counteract declining soil fertility from long-term farming. N is generally the limiting nutrient in agriculture (along with P and K, to a lesser extent), and over time repeated harvests pull that N out of the soil and ship it off to towns and cities for people to consume in the form of food. As the soil loses N, it must be replaced. Naturally occurring N-rich fertilizers (e.g. Peruvian guano or Chilean sodium nitrate) are in limited supply and must be shipped long distances. Therefore, it was only logical and rational that scientists should develop a means for fixing N from the atmosphere (which is about 80% N2) into a form readily usable by plants (NH3).[xii] Its widespread adoption is further evidence that synthetic fertilizer from industrially fixed N was an optimal technological innovation.

However, such an account would ignore several important factors in the development of synthetic N fertilizers. For example, it would ignore the history of how and why scientists developed a process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen. In 1909, the German chemist Fritz Haber successfully demonstrated a process for the synthesis of liquid ammonia (NH3) from the reaction of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) with hydrogen gas (H2). He teamed up with Carl Bosch under the hire of German chemical company BASF to bring the process “to an industrial scale with a view to its economic application”.[xiii] By 1911 they had built an operational pilot plant, and by 1913, on the eve of WWI, brought a full-scale manufacturing plant online. Ironically, Haber and Bosch were working not toward the goal of better fertilizer, but rather toward providing a ready supply of military-grade nitrate (NO3) for the manufacture of explosives. Germany’s primary source of NO3 from Chilean sodium nitrate, and had to be shipped at great expense across the Atlantic. This supply line was also highly vulnerable to disruption (for example by Great Britain’s famed Royal Navy), and the Haber-Bosch process allowed Germany to use its ample coal reserves and normal air to provide a near-infinite local supply of ammonia. Only somewhat coincidentally did the applications for agriculture become clear during the inter-war period. And it wasn’t until after WWII that the process began to be widely used to fix nitrogen for use in fertilizers: the US bomb-making industry realized that it’s now useless N-fixing capacity could provide a profitable solution to the shambles that world agricultural production and trade had been left in after decades of war and depression.[xiv]

Undetermining Dichotomies

The point of considering technological determinism is to recall that technologies shape and are shaped by social, environmental and personal factors. Technologies are not inevitable, “they might have been otherwise.”[xv] And that goes for any type of determinism: history might have developed otherwise, and it still may.

Determinism tends to reinforce a number of problematic dichotomies (black-and-white views of the world). I have already discussed briefly the presumed sharp divide between nature and culture, and we have here seen reference to structure and agency. In the future we will also cover complications arising from separating science and society, and the state and society. If we hope to overcome these sharp divisions, we must avoid narrowly deterministic accounts of the world that divide people and nature unquestioningly into powerful causes and powerless effects.

In the next couple of weeks we will cover some of the possible responses to determinism, including ways to get beyond these problematic dichotomies. We’ll start next week with a discussion of integrative terms from our first guest blogger, my friend and colleague Ted Grudin.

[i] had the most concise definition I could find.

[ii] Jasanoff, Sheila. 2006. State of Knowledge: The co-production of science and social order. Routledge. p. 14.

[iii] Determinism and free will do not play well together. Especially in the case of strong types of Newtonian determinism, “the existence of the strings of physical necessity, linked to far-past states of the world and determining our current every move, is what alarms us.”Hoefer, Carl. 2010. Causal Determinism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online at: This is also a good starting place for delving more deeply into the philosophy of determinism.

[iv] Referring to Jared Diamonds’ (in)famous book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond has (rightly) received much criticism for the book’s apologist stance on European conquest. But he has also received criticism for his environmental determinist take on history, “Environment molds history.” I also like this entry from Barbara King on NPR’s 13.7 blog, “Why does Jared Diamond make anthropologists so mad?”

[v] e.g. Solomon, Steven. 2010. Water: The epic struggle for wealth, power and civilization. New York: Harper.

[vi] Anderson, Warwick. Colonial Pathologies. 2006. Duke University Press. Ch. 1.

[vii] For more detailed discussion on technological determinism, I suggest the edited volume, Does Technology Drive History? The dilemma of technological determinism. Ed. M. Smith and L. Marx. 1994. MIT Press.

[viii] Russell, Edmund. 2011. Evolutionary History: Uniting History and Biology to Understand Life on Earth. Cambridge University Press. p. 139-142.

[ix] Ibid, p. 139.

[x] Ibid, p. 140.

[xi] “Preference for successful innovations seems to lead scholars to assume that the success of an artifact is an explanation of its subsequent development. Historians of technology often seem content to rely on the manifest success of the artifact as evidence that there is no further explanatory work to be done.” Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker in The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Ed. Bijker, Hughes and Pinch. 1999 (1987). MIT Press. p. 22.

[xii] This article from Nature provides a good overview of the nitrogen cycle for reference.

[xiii] Carl Bosch, quoted in, Paull, J. 2009. A century of synthetic fertilizer:1909-2009. Journal of Bio-Dynamics Tasmania 94 : 16-21.

[xiv] Smil, Vaclov. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the transformation of world food production.

[xv] Bijker and Law. 1997 (1994). Shaping Technology/Building Society. p. 3.


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Hunger Frames

As promised, I will now discuss a contemporary environmental problem using the concept of environmental framing and the questions presented in last week’s guide. I will walk through a whole set of related frames and discuss their similarities and differences. To begin, let’s consider several recent news items:

  • On September 11, Chipotle launched a stealth advertising campaign with a top-of-the-line animation from Moonbot Studios. The ad presents Chipotle as a champion of “food with integrity” defending the people from a sinister corporate and industrial food system. It racked up over 6 million views in 11 days.
  • On September 14-15, Yale University hosted an international conference on Food Sovereignty, or the idea that people should have the right to control their local food system rather than let global markets determine whether and what they grow and eat.[i]
  • On September 18, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law released a joint study describing “how confusing food date labels lead to food waste in America.” According to the press release, the U.S. wastes (doesn’t eat) an estimated 40% of its food.[ii]
  • On September 18, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released its 2013 report under the title, Wake Up Before it is Too Late. The report “warns that continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis” (emphasis added). It advocates for “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible” to replace monocropping industrial farming with muli-functional agriculture.
  • On September 19, the U.S. House or Representatives passed a bill to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is better known as federal program that provides food stamps.[iii]
  • On September 21, NPR’s Weekend Edition aired a story on the latest project of the Trader Joe’s ex-President, Doug Rauch: collect food past its expiration date and sell it at a steep discount to “the underserved in our cities.”[iv]

This list might seem a grab-bag at first, but I want to pull out a common theme: hunger. Each of these stories frame, in different ways and with different consequences for people and nature, problems surrounding the basic human need to eat.

A note on style: I have written this in prose rather than a step-by-step walkthrough of the guide I posted last week, as I thought the latter too tedious. However, I have tried to make note of points I make that directly relate to the questions from the guide, which are numbered in this pdf version. I use the notation (Q1-3) or a (1-5/a-g) to point to the corresponding guide question.

Feeding the World

For the discussion to follow, we need some historical background. People have confronted the problem of hunger for as long as there have been people. However, in 1798 the English  Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus introduced a new, abstract global (2d) framing that would come to dominate public discourse over hunger for the next two centuries. He proposed simply that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”[v] In other words, the human population grows faster than the amount of food people produce, which is limited by natural constraints such as land (in modern vocabulary, Earth’s carrying capacity). In the long term (5b), Malthus predicted that these unequal growth rates would result in mass global crisis (2a).

The Malthusian doctrine, as it came to be known, tended to focus attention on two variables: the number of people and the amount of food (4a-b). Malthus himself advocated for policies to limit the number of people, since he could not see a way to sufficiently increase the amount of food grown. For obvious reasons, limiting the number of people turned out not to be politically (let alone ethically) feasible.[vi] However, increasing the available supply of food was.

In the latter half of the 19th century, expanding agriculture to the North American great plains—after the US exterminated the American bison and brutally removed the indigenous peoples there—flooded grain into the emerging world market (at the cost of “mining the soil”[vii]). At the same time, the second industrial revolution added another jolt with mechanized fossil fuel power. Toward the turn of the century, soil science and technology advanced enough to reverse declining soil fertility by artificially adding key soil nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK). When German chemists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch developed a process to fix N2 into biologically available N—the most limiting soil nutrient for plant growth—many people believed that human ingenuity would always find a way to surpass the natural limits to food production that troubled Malthus.

Following the destruction of WWII, however, global hunger loomed large on the post-war reconstruction agenda. Spear-headed by the US and its allies, and fueled by nascent Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the emerging development movement was deeply concerned with freeing the world from hunger (and communism) (3a-c). Top US foreign policy officials were concerned with questions such as, “Can the world’s soil grow all the crops that would be needed? Are fertilizer sources great enough? Do we have the technology and management ability to produce the crops and maintain the soils?”.[viii]  Mobilization in response to that concern launched the petrochemical-based research initiatives of the Green Revolution, a grand strategy to bring Western capital-intensive agriculture to the Third World.

Despite repeated technical advances in agriculture, which today includes genetically modifying crops and livestock to produce greater yields, the specter of Malthus’ prediction still looms. Consider, for example, a 2009 white paper from the US Office of Global Food Security, a branch of the US State Department. Here are a few choice excerpts:

More than one billion people—nearly a sixth of the world’s population—suffer from chronic hunger. It is a crisis with devastating and far-reaching effects…

Ensuring global food security will only become more challenging in the future as demand for food is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 20 years. Increased demand will come primarily from population and income growth in middle-income countries. Growth in agricultural productivity, already lagging globally, also faces increasing threats from climate change, scarce water supplies, and competition for energy resources from industry and urbanization…

The 2008 food price crisis illustrates the kinds of disruptions we could experience more often in the future. The steep rise in prices affected families here in the United States and was particularly devastating for the poor in developing countries. Without significant improvements in agriculture productivity, market access, post-harvest infrastructure, and rural incomes, the imbalances between food supply and demand will increase food scarcity, food price volatility, and food insecurity.

In this example, the global, yield-centric frame for hunger appears today much as it did 200 years ago. The neo-Malthusian frame has spawned many variants that, while accepting the basic problem definition (Q1), approach it with a different set of tools in hand and possibilities in mind (Q2). The example I’ll talk about here revolves around food waste (2b) and the promise of efficiency (4a). At the same time, some frames pose hunger in a radically different light altogether. Movements such as food sovereignty reject the very definition of the problem (Q1), highlighting a different set of causes and effects (5c) and prioritizing a different set of goals for people and nature (Q3).

Waste Not, Hunger Not

Many people have noted a glaring oversight in the neo-Malthusian framing of hunger: at a global level, people produce enough food to feed everyone on Earth.[ix] So what accounts for the gap between amount produced and mouths fed? (2b) Some people argue that the real problem is waste.

A January 2013 report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers put it this way:

By 2075, the United Nations’ mid-range projection for global population growth predicts that human numbers will peak at about 9.5 billion people. This means that there could be an extra three billion mouths to feed by the end of the century…

One key issue is how to produce more food in a world of finite resources…

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.

The report does not challenge the Malthusian problem defined as too many people and too little food (Q1), but it does challenge the assumptions about which options are available to deal with the problem (Q2). If food never makes it to the plate, the report reasons, then increasing production will be in vain. Moreover, expanding agricultural production can actually inflict more harm on people and nature than the benefits it brings through increasing the overall amount of food. This expands the conception of who might lose out or benefit, and how (3b).

The report frames hunger in a way that puts it on a level with environmental protection and cost-savings (2g). All three of these problems fall under one umbrella problem: waste (2a). By focusing on the whole supply chain, rather than just the farm level (5a), this frame proposes to address multiple problems at once by leveraging a new tool: efficiency (4a). Calculating it out, the brief finds that “food saved by reducing losses by just 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.” Note that the metric of success (4d), number of people fed, is the same here as for the global food security frame.

We can see a similar line of reasoning applied to a national scale (2d) in the NRDC-Harvard Law report. “By increasing the efficiency of our food system,” reads the press release, “we can make better use of our natural resources, provide financial saving opportunities along the entire supply chain, and enhance our ability to meet food demand.” Doug Rauch’s proposed project embodies one form that a solution to the problem framed in this way might take (4b), only now he applies the solution to the city level (2d):

It’s the idea about how to bring affordable nutrition to the underserved in our cities. It basically tries to utilize this 40 percent of this food that is wasted. This is, to a large degree, either excess, overstocked, wholesome food that’s thrown out by grocers, etc. … at the end of the day because of the sell-by dates. Or [it’s from] growers that have product that’s nutritionally sound, perfectly good, but cosmetically blemished or not quite up for prime time. [So we] bring this food down into a retail environment where it can become affordable nutrition.

These three examples demonstrate how a frame can operate at different scales, although the context (1a-e) may change dramatically. What I find fascinating about the waste/efficiency frame for hunger is that it both denaturalizes and depoliticizes hunger. Hunger is not caused by natural limitations to agricultural expansion, but rather by inefficiencies in human systems: “poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage” (2b). At the same time, this frame avoids placing responsibility for hunger and accountability for dealing with it on anyone in particular (2b). Waste is rather an accident or oversight, and no one need pay for the harm caused or make difficult decisions about possible tradeoffs. A technical solution is called for, not a political one (2f).

This frame tends to present opportunities for resolution as win-win situations, such as how Rauch describes his business idea: growers win, grocers aren’t bothered, the urban “underserved” get food, and he gets to feel good about his work. The waste/efficiency frame tries to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, this also tends to limit who may participate in defining, addressing, and resolving the problem (Q1-3). If it’s all win-win, or at least a matter of easy solutions like fixing government labeling rules, then what need for a broad public discussion? Only the “people in the know” take part (1e)—engineers, policy experts, full-time NGO activists, lawmakers, industry leaders—and the average person, let alone those living on the margins who actually have to experience hunger, finds little opportunity to get a word in edgewise (4c).

Does the World Need to be Fed?

However, not everyone frames hunger apolitically. Take the Chipotle ad. Corporate industrial farming (Crow Foods) has taken over in this parable (2b), leading to cruel food production practices (sad cow eyes), environmental degradation (Dust Bowl-like landscape of crop-land turned desert), and oppression of the working class (the coverall-clad scarecrows) (3a). Meanwhile, clueless consumers blithely munch away on processed meals tidied up with bright packaging and sunny advertising designed to mask the grim, nightmarish scenes behind the curtain. Critics have already parodied the ad for using the same marketing spin-tactics that it critiques (3c), but there is more beneath the surface of this obvious irony. The ad makes many references to aspects of the corporate-industrial food system that the viewer (aka potential Chipotle customer) should agree are bad (2f-g). In particular, look at the billboard going up in the background around the 2:00 minute mark:

The Scarecrow

This scene mocks the absurdity of the Malthusian treadmill. Chipotle is challenging the long-standing claim that industrial agriculture feeds the world and is launching a direct attack against major global agribusiness corporations like Monsanto (1c).[x]  The ad tells potential Chipotle customers that we need to get off the treadmill (1a). Maybe, it suggests, we’ve been going about this need to eat all wrong. What if the problem is not how much food is produced and how many people are fed, but rather what quality of food is grown, how animals and farm workers are treated, and how people eat? In other words “It’s not how many people we can carry, it’s how we carry them.” (3a-b)[xi]

This seems a fair point. Feeding people good, ethically-produced food in a real place as opposed to anonymous pseudo-food in anonymous global space strikes a chord with many people. In fact, this problem definition and vision for resolution match well with the UNCTAD report’s call for “regionalized/localized food production.” So why are many people skeptical?[xii]

Here’s the question that a recent article in The New Yorker raised:

So does “The Scarecrow” initiate an important conversation about our food system? Showcase Chipotle’s genuine commitment to sustainability? Or is it a cynical attempt to turn consumer fears about certain agricultural methods into sales?

The ad might bear a noble message, but Chipotle is still a for-profit business. The ad’s message targets potential customers whom the company is trying to persuade to buy Chipotle burritos. At the end of the day, success is measured in sales, market share, and profit (4d). This measure of success narrows the range of options that Chipotle can apply to the problems identified in the ad in two ways (Q2).

First, the main mechanism for change works at the point of sale (4b). Individual people can choose to buy one food over another, and take upon themselves responsibility for all the consequences caused in its production. At the same time, consumers generally know nothing about the product apart from what the company selling it tells them (5d-e). So there seems to be a fundamental problem knowing whether progress has been made or not (4d). Furthermore, the target audience is relatively well-off people who have access to a Chipotle and can afford to buy the company’s food. Anybody who can’t afford to eat out or simply doesn’t live near a Chipotle cannot participate (4c). As Food First analyst Tanya Kerssen put it in an article discussing the debate over whether US consumers should buy quinoa or not,[xiii] in such a consumer-oriented frame, “The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less.”

This narrow set of available options leads to the second point: those same affluent consumers are most likely to be motivated by individual worries about their own health rather than broad impacts on the environment, public health, and general societal well-being (2c). Sociologist Andrew Szasz has termed this phenomenon inverted quarantine:

There is awareness of hazard, a feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk. That feeling, however, does not lead to political action aimed at reducing the amounts or the variety of toxics present in the environment. It leads, instead, to individualized acts of self-protection, to just trying to keep those contaminants out of one’s body.[xiv]

Localizing the problem, the tools to address it, and the criteria of success all at the scale of the individual severely limits the likelihood of real systematic change. Szasz points to the example of the organic label. Widespread concerns over the environmental and public health impacts of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering used in conventional industrial agriculture (the sort promoted by the 2nd Industrial and Green Revolutions) sparked the organic food movement (Q1). The US Department of Food and Agriculture eventually produced a system for certifying and labeling organic farmers. In theory, the USDA organic label would inform consumers about the consequences of their purchasing choices and eventually lead to full transformation of the agricultural system to phase out dangerous chemicals (Q2). In practice, we now have a segregated market, “a large conventional sector that grows affordable, if slightly contaminated, food-stuffs for the majority, and a smaller one producing organic alternatives for the minority, largely made up of affluent health seekers.”[xv] In other words, consumer-driven change made a dent, but only a small one. We have settled for a much more modest vision of what an organic future could look like.

The same could happen in the case of hunger: assuming individual consumers can resolve the problem with their independent buying decisions threatens to lead to a false sense of individual security. This in turn leads to political apathy, the lack of will to work together to collectively address widespread public problems (2f, 5a).[xvi] Although the Chipotle ad points out large structural problems and even goes so far as to identify (implicitly) culprits (2b), people are skeptical because the ways to change the world in effect redefine the problem as a matter of individual consumption (4a-c). There is a mismatch of scale, in other words, that bodes ill for addressing the structural problems associated with the need to eat (4d).

Hungry for Jobs, or a Livelihood?

According to The New York Times article, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (1e) justified the bill cutting food stamps by saying, “This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs” (emphasis added). He refers to new requirements that claim to make sure people are working if they are going to receive food stamp benefits. In the words of Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), a strong backer of the bill, “This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.” These two quotes highlight an interesting feature of another frame that introduces a new causal factor for hunger, unemployment (2b). The Republican backers of the bill claim to speak for the relatively well-off Americans who pay into the treasury through taxes and who don’t want that money to go to waste (1b). For that reason, they argue that the food stamp program costs too much public money because it encourages too many people to stick around for the free ride instead of finding ways to get off food stamps and become self-sufficient. In other words, if people need food, then they need a job (4d).

The variable of employment crops up in many frames. For example, the global food security frame above defines food security not on the availability of food, but on the ability to purchase food. Since jobs (in theory) give people money, it is a short logical step to link employment with food security, unemployment with hunger. Again, the UNCTAD report makes the same connection, arguing that “the highest priority must be given to enabling the rural poor to become self-sufficient in food or to earn sufficient income through agriculture so that they can buy food.”

However, there is a sharp division around whether joblessness is an individual or a collective problem (2c). The Republican backers of the House bill seem to believe that employment is a matter of individual motivation. Democrats counter that most people don’t choose to be on food stamps, especially single mothers and children who make up a large proportion of the recipients (1c). Consider again the UNCTAD report’s warning that “continuing rural poverty, persistent hunger around the world, growing populations, and mounting environmental concerns must be treated as a collective crisis” (emphasis added). I interpret “collective” to mean both that multiple big problems are interrelated (2g) and that these problems must be dealt with by collective action (2c). In other words, there are structural features of the problem that individuals on their own cannot overcome (5a). Structural change requires collective, not individual action as Szasz pointed out above.

But not everyone agrees that even ensuring employment is an adequate measure of success. Rather, the availability of livelihoods matters, as Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Gimenez puts it in this Huffington Post article.”Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity,” he writes. “For this challenge,” he later concludes, “agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the best way forward.” What is the difference between a job and a livelihood?

Consider the example employee budget published by McDonalds. Despite assuming that the employee works two jobs, the budget includes no line item for groceries. We can infer that someone with not one but two jobs and working for the federally mandated minimum wage is going to have some major difficulties affording food. In part, then, there is a disagreement between the idea of jobs and the idea of livelihoods over both the timeframe of interest—livelihoods provide stable income in the long-term, jobs can come and go (2e). Also, while a job just means an income, livelihoods imply a host of other positive impacts that can help deal with the compounding of multiple problems such as healthcare, housing, transportation, education, and so on (2g).Framing hunger as a problem of livelihood highlights a structural problem not just with the number of people without jobs, but with the whole structure of being a wage-laborer in a society that seems to be trending toward fewer employee benefits and lower job security. The scale of the problem when viewed as a crisis of livelihood expands enormously (5a).

And this, in turn, leads to the reason why food sovereignty has taken hold as the alternative frame for hunger. The Yale conference intro states that food sovereignty “is broadly defined as the right of peoples to democratically control or determine the shape of their food system, and to produce sufficient and healthy food in culturally appropriate and ecologically sustainable ways in and near their territory.” One way to interpret food sovereignty as a frame (which many people around the globe are actively developing, I should add), is that hunger is not just about the right to be employed. It is not even just about the right to earn a livelihood. Rather, addressing hunger is tied into addressing disparities in the right to own the decisions that determine the shape that livelihoods will take in the collective economy. In this interpretation, the food sovereignty frame identifies a different problem (ownership), a different set of tools (democratic control), and a different vision of success (culturally appropriate, sustainable, local) than the neo-Malthusian food security frame we started with (Q1-3).

We have now walked through a gamut of hunger frames. There are other variations out there, different ways to interpret them, and more subtle differentiation among those I’ve discussed here. Nonetheless, I hope that this exercise has demonstrated how asking clear questions can help reveal the differences in how people define problems, establish facts, create visions for the future, understand what is possible and what is not, and decide who gets to have a say and who doesn’t. Also, anyone is free to share or adapt the guide for non-commercial purposes provided that I am attributed and it is made free to share and adapt under same or similar conditions. If you do use it, I’d appreciate your feedback as well!

Next week, I’ll finally move past environmental frames. The posting length will go back to the normal 700-1000 word goal with an introduction to the idea of determinism.

[i] It’s a lot more than that, of course. Some 80-odd papers were written for the conference and are posted here.

[ii] Not all of the 40% can be attributed to expiration date labels. Also, I didn’t look closely into how the number 40% was reached, but I imagine that a close examination of the methods would reveal a lot of uncertainty and potential error.

[iii] The full text of the bill, H.R. 3102.

[iv] I want to note that Rauch’s idea is not new: many non-profits have been collecting and distributing food that is past its expiration date for years. Also, the Boston Globe had a more in-depth article back in February.

[v] Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London. p. 4.

[vi] Apart from committing mass murder or enacting harsh birth control policies, there are few options to directly limit population growth. Since the time of Malthus, many indirect means for reducing population growth have been “discovered”, among which educating and empowering women is one of the most effective:

[vii] Writing of the rapid expansion of wheat and corn farming in the North American great plains, which eventually led to the dust bowl and massive erosion and soil fertility problems, Sir Albert Howard said,“The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry pure and simple. Moreover, it is a particularly mean form of banditry because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.” 1947. The Soil and Health. The Devin-Adair Company: New York. p. 63.

[viii] Salter, RM. 1947. World soil and fertilizer resources in relation to food needs. Science 105 (2734) (May 23): 533-8.

[ix] UN World Food Program:

[x] One of monsanto’s latest goals is to double yields by 2030: “In order to feed the world’s growing population, farmers must produce more food in the next fifty years than they have in the past 10,000 years combined.” Presumably in response to this sort of skepticism, the company has subtly shifted its feed-the-world emphasis in the past few years. Even as recently as 2010, the message was worded more directly: “Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years— combined.”

[xi] A quote from a talk given by Michael Gelobter, a prominent climate and sustainability strategist, in 2010.

[xii] A brief good search revealed a couple of thoughtfully skeptical editorials from The New Yorker, Huff Post, and  Triple Pundit.

[xiii] There was a whole series of articles in different news outlets in early 2013 discussing whether or not Western consumers should buy quinoa. This Mother Jones piece is a good example. Quinoa was touted as a “wonder grain”: both highly nutritious (plus gluten-free!) and also a fair-trade darling that would support poor peasant farmers in Bolivia and Peru. However, global demand raised so rapidly from 2007 to 2013 that quinoa prices tripled. This meant that those same peasant farmers were now having trouble affording a traditional staple food, and also that the sustainability of quinoa farming was being undermined as rapid expansion and intensification of quinoa production began to overtax the ecosystems and land base. So, what were consumers supposed to do? Either buying or not buying quinoa carried an unavoidable cost and harm to somebody.

[xiv] Szasz, Andrew. 2007. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. University of Minnesota Press. p. 3.

[xv] Ibid, p. 207.

[xvi] Ibid, p. 194-5.


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Excavating Environmental Frames

As promised, we are now going to talk about how to use environmental framing. This is going to be a two-part post. Part I will introduce the method in detail. Part II will walk through an example from current events step-by-step.

The Basic Approach

Recall from last post that people use frames to provide a mental model of how (part of) the world works and how it should work. Many assumptions, values, motivations, experiences, and much knowledge are wrapped up in these models. Revisiting all of those commitments takes time and energy, and people generally do not actively think about them very much. Hence frames rest on a foundation of assumptions that people rarely revisit. Analyzing frames reveals taken-for-granted assumptions so that we can better understand the role they play in public policy and discourse.

I like to approach frames as mental models that people use to make sense of and communicate problems. Thinking about frames in relation to environmental problems helps me keep my work grounded and connects abstract, academic theory to practical questions confronting society right now: What should be done about climate change? Is urban sprawl harming America? Do people eat too much meat? Should I buy more local food? Is fracking too lightly regulated? Has the public sector invested enough in solar and wind energy?

Seen through the lens of frames, each of these big questions rests on particular ways in which people define, address, and resolve problems. If we boil it down, for any given public problem we want to know three simple things:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What options are available to deal with the problem?
  3. How will people know the problem has been solved?

Different actors will answer the questions differently. An actor is a general term used in social science lingo to refer to any person or organized group of persons (such as a government agency, a corporation, or a non-profit organization). Ideally, we want to survey the ways in which a variety of actors frame a given issue so that we get a sense of the range of possibilities.[i] Since the nuances matter in conducting such a survey, we should expand the three basic questions. To that end, I have been working on a guide to analyzing frames.

A Step-by-Step Guide

Here is a list of basic questions I am developing as a guide[ii] for systematically analyzing how actors frame environmental issues. The goal is to answer each question from the point of view of different actors engaged in the issue of concern.

Understanding the Actor in Context
  • To what audience is the actor speaking?
  • For whom does the actor speak?
  • Against whom is the actor arguing? It can help to compare arguments against one another to determine where the most relevant points of agreement and disagreement lie.
  • What resources does the actor have at their disposal? Resources might be monetary, social status, education, information, legal authority, coercive force, popular will, etc.
  • Does the actor occupy a position of authority? What is it, and with respect to whom?
Understanding the Problem
  •  What problem does the actor identify? Try to summarize concisely (imagine a twitter post) in your own words.
  • What caused the problem, and who is responsible?
  • Is it a collective problem or a problem for individuals?
  • At what scale does the problem exist?  Is it local, regional, national, global?
  • Over what timeframe does the problem exist? Is it a short-term or long-term problem?
  • Is it political (i.e. we need to distribute power and resources differently)?
  • Is the problem isolated or interrelated with other problems?
 Understanding the Goals
  • What are the stakes? For example, money, power, efficiency, justice, the public good, biodiversity, health, security, knowledge, etc.
  • Who stands to lose out? Who stands to benefit? And how?
  • Why does the actor care? i.e. do they have a financial stake? Is it their job? Are their friends, family, or community involved? Do they seek social status or prestige?
Understanding the Resolution
  • What tools are available to the actor or their audience to deal with the problem?
  • What options do those tools present for resolving the problem?
  • Who may participate in seeking resolution? Who is left out or excluded?
  • How does the actor or their audience know if they’re doing a good job or a bad job in resolving the problem? What are the criteria, or indicators, of success or failure?
Understanding the Big Picture
  • Where does the actor draw boundaries around the world? What scales matter? i.e. is this an individual problem, a local problem, a state problem, a national problem, an industry-specific problem, somebody else’s problem etc.
  • What time-frame matters? The next fiscal quarter? The next year? The term limit of a political office? The length of a human generation? A lifetime? This century? Indefinite?
  • What counts as a cause and what counts as an effect? Think of the Dust Bowl example: in story 1, harsh nature is the cause of human suffering and opportunity for bravery while in story 3 human exploitation of the land is the cause of natural disaster.
  • What can be known about the problem? In particular, are there limits to knowledge? Are there limits to control? What is within human power and what is beyond?
  • What counts as a “fact” or evidence? Who knows things? i.e. peer-reviewed literature, unbiased experts, experienced practitioners, legal decisions, public opinion.

Now that we have a set of tools, Part II will demonstrate how to use them through a concrete example. Next week: Hunger Frames!


[i] See last week’s post. In the face of an “overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality,” the complexity of things is so great that people only ever have a partial understanding. Frames help filter out a lot of the extraneous “noise” into a manageable subset of the whole, but important aspects are always and unavoidably lost in the process. Like in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, conflict often arises because people adhere very strongly to their incomplete knowledge of the world. However, cooperation and sharing notes with a humble acceptance for the partiality of any given frame can help form a more complete, if jumbled, vision. At the very least, we can try to survey all the different existing frames to put all the cards on the table and make sure we haven’t missed anything obvious. I’ll discuss in greater detail the link between analyzing frames and good democratic process in future posts.

[ii] I will make this guide available as a downloadable document soon.


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Framing Environmental Problems

Last week, I implied that as the answer to what is nature? changes, so do the consequences. Today, I will explain how to make use of this point through the concept of environmental framing.[i]

Defining Environmental Framing

A formal definition for environmental framing can be difficult to grasp all at once, so let’s step back and explore a related and more familiar idea: stories. In a famous essay on story-telling in environmental history, William Cronon compares two opposing interpretations of the 1930s Dust Bowl.[ii] The first tells a heroic tale of determined settlers persevering in the face of a wrathful (and very dry) nature. The second tells a tragic tale of man-made disaster caused by settlers who failed to adapt properly to the unstable Great Plains environment. The important point here is that the lessons to be learned from each story differ as starkly as the stories themselves: the first urges more daring agricultural development in the American West, while the second urges caution and conservation. When making sense of historical events, Cronon explains, the way in which a story is told matters:

When we describe human activities within an ecosystem, we seem always to tell stories about them. Like all historians, we configure the events of the past into causal sequences—stories—that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings. We do so because narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality. When we choose a plot to order our environmental histories, we give them a  unity that neither nature nor the past possesses so clearly. In so doing, we move beyond nature into the intensely human realm of value.[iii]

(Hi)stories carry power, but people also tell stories about what’s going on today, and even stories about what might happen in the future (an everyday example is when the meteorologist makes a 5-day forecast). The process of storytelling is the same: order events into causes and effects to simplify and give meaning to what we experience and observe. Again, the key point here is that giving events meaning brings them into the “intensely human realm of value” and makes claims about what people should do. To return to the main topic, we can think of environmental framing as a tool for critically analyzing the stories told about people and nature. This tool can help us see the connection between how people order knowledge of reality into causes and effects and how people seek to order social and environmental relationships.[iv] Environmental framing thus connects the knowledge of people and nature with the power to make changes in the world.[v]

Example: Climate Change

Now that we’ve covered the analytical purpose of environmental frames, I will demonstrate with the example of climate change. We’ll start with basics. Climate change results from an increase in the level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The most notable has been CO, a byproduct from burning fossil fuels. GHGs cause an atmospheric greenhouse effect that traps heat, originally from the sun, which would normally escape from the earth back into space.[vi] The extra heat warms the earth’s surface and lower atmosphere, causing a host of serious problems ranging from rising sea level to more extreme weather.[vii]

Increasingly, people view climate change as one of the most dire crises of our times. But even among the large majority who agree[viii] that climate change poses a pressing problem, there is wide variation in how this problem is framed. For the sake of example, I will only present two pieces of evidence. First is a 2009 blog post from climate activist Bill McKibben, a founder of the non-profit[ix] Second is a 2010 feature article from The Economist.[x] Below I quote some of the relevant excerpts.

(1) Bill McKibben, in reference to a landmark paper in the journal Nature[xi] that proposed an atmospheric concentration of 350ppm CO2 (associated with a temperature rise of 2° C) as the upper boundary for “a safe operating space for humanity”:

[A]s a planet we’d need to get off coal by 2030 in order for the planet’s forests and oceans ever to bring atmospheric levels back down below 350—that’s the toughest economic and political challenge the earth has ever faced.

But it’s not as if we have a choice. The most useful thing about having a number is that it forces us to grow up, to realize that the negotiations that will happen later this fall in Copenhagen aren’t really about what we want to do, or what the Chinese want to do, or what Exxon Mobil wants to do. They’re about what physics and chemistry want to do: the physical world has set its bottom line at 350, and it’s not likely to budge. (emphasis added).[xii]

(2) The Economist, responding to the dismal prospect that “a plausible programme for keeping climate change in check” would result from another major international meeting:

Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it…

A 2009 review of the cost of warming to the global economy suggests that as much as two-thirds of the total cannot be offset through investment in adaptation… But adaptation can still achieve a lot…

The green pressure groups and politicians who have driven the debate on climate change have often been loth to see attention paid to adaptation, on the ground that the more people thought about it, the less motivated they would be to push ahead with emissions reduction. Talking about adaptation was for many years like farting at the dinner table, says an academic who has worked on adaptation over the past decade. Now that the world’s appetite for emissions reduction has been revealed to be chronically weak, putting people off dinner is less of a problem. (emphasis added). [xiii]


From these two short excerpts, two different ways of framing climate change emerge. In the first, humans have without a doubt overstepped the bounds of our biosphere by burning too many fossil fuels. Faced with the physical facts, the only option for our continued survival[xiv] is to scale back, way back, on industrial growth and development. In the second, while industrial development has led to costly problems related to the environment, economic growth cannot and should not be stopped. Only further innovation and development can provide solutions.[xv] The policy implications diverge greatly. One way points toward renewable energy, energy efficiency, and subsistence-oriented economies. The other toward big infrastructure, high-tech research, elaborate insurance schemes, and lots of capital investment.

I have grossly oversimplified the climate change frames for the purposes of example. Many nuances are in play, and there is plenty of room for compromise and even complementarity between mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Nonetheless, these two articles illustrate one core tension underlying all effort to address climate change: the promise of development versus the risk of overstepping natural bounds.

In summary, environmental frames help us analyze how different interpretations of the relationship between people and nature are connected to different claims about what should be done. Now that we have discussed what environmental frames are used for, next week’s post will discuss in finer detail how to use environmental frames.


[i] I taught this concept last semester for my advisor, Alastair Iles. I owe much of this discussion to that experience.

[ii] Cronon, W. 1992. A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History. 78(4): 1347-1376.

[iii] Ibid, 1349.

[iv] There is much more to be said on this point, and I will return to it in future posts on science and society, determinism, and co-production.

[v] The savvy reader will recognize that I am referencing Michel Foucault here. The canon of Foucaultian theory is too enormous to cite here, but The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, will do for my purposes.

[vi] NASA covers all of this information in detail here:

[viii] I will not address the critics of climate change science here, as by and large they represent industries which profit enormously from the status quo. The reasons for which these critics frame climate change as a hoax or as a purely natural phenomenon linked to periodic solar cycles have been addressed extensively elsewhere, and are too obvious to be of much interest for the purposes of this discussion. The really interesting exercise is to identify the political implications that people do not wear on their sleeves when they frame environmental problems. This example will only brush the surface in that regard.

[ix] Bill McKibben, “The Science of 350, the Most Important Number on the Planet,” which lays out the mission statement for the climate action group

[x] “Facing the Consequences.” The Economist. November 25, 2010.

[xi] I use McKibben’s blog post in part to avoid any possible pay-wall problems. Here’s the citation: Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature. 461(7263): 472-475.

[xii] McKibben

[xiii] The Economist

[xiv] McKibben quoting the abstract for the Nature article, “above 350 you couldn’t have a planet ‘similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.'”

[xv] For example, see the passage that reads, “Economic development should see improvements in health care that will, in aggregate, swamp the specific infectious-disease threats associated with climate change.”



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Why does thinking about nature matter?

In this post, we will explore two questions: What is nature? and, Why does this question matter?

Nature, and the adjective natural, are some of the most widely used words in the English language. Backpackers hike and camp in nature to escape the city and suburbs. Natural disasters strike in the form of tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Loggers, miners, and prospectors extract natural resources. Conservationists protect natural areas and conserve nature. Natural scientists poke, prod and observe nature to know about the world. Orators base arguments upon what is natural or what is true by nature. Farmers both battle nature’s caprices and cultivate its fruits. Despite the near endless variety of uses for the concept of nature, all build off of three basic meanings[i]:

  1. The essential character or quality of a thing.
  2. The force which directs the physical world.
  3. The physical world itself.

Each meaning is related to and inseparable from the others. For example, consider the term wilderness[ii], which many people associate with nature. Wilderness is a physical place, “a wild or uncultivated region…uninhabited or inhabited only be wild animals” according to the dictionary definition. Wilderness is nature, in a physical sense, because it is a place where the forces of nature rule completely. Here, organisms, ecosystems, and biophysical processes are said to exist in their natural state because no human cultivation, settlement, extraction, or other use interferes. In summary, nature refers the essence of things, the way they are and will tend to be if we don’t interfere. A natural process unfolds through things acting according to their essential character. Nature as a place encompasses a group of things acting together through natural processes.

This seems simple enough, so why is it important to ask what nature is? Because, through the implicit contrast of nature with people that is common to all three meanings, we can see a fourth meaning for nature: that which should be (and would be if we didn’t artificially interfere and muck up the works). However, we humans live and work in nature at the same time that we alter it to produce man-made things. This blurs the distinction between nature and artifice. At what point does the block of marble cease to be a natural deposit of sediments compressed by heat and pressure over millions of years and become Michelangelo’s David? This ambiguity means that using nature to draw a hard line between what should and should not be is more difficult than it might seem. Let’s think about another example.

References to nature are common in debates over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic engineering directly inserts genetic material from one organism into the DNA of a different organism, allowing for combinations that are not possible with conventional breeding techniques. Common GMOs include Bt cotton, the DNA of which has been augmented with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium that causes the plant to produce its own insecticide, and Roundup Ready Soybeans, the DNA of which has been augmented with a gene granting it resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup).

Proponents of GMOs argue that genetic engineering is simply a new way of combining genetic material already found in nature. The only difference is that while breeding is limited to combining genetic material randomly from two organisms capable of sexual reproduction with one another, genetic modification can predictably combine genetic material from any organisms. GMOs are merely an extension and acceleration of natural genetic combination. Therefore genetic modification is no more unnatural or unsafe than any other practice in agriculture[iii].

Opponents of GMOs, on the other hand, argue that such crops are not natural at all, giving them names like “frankenfoods”[iv]. The naturalness of the process of combination, not the things combined, matters most. Even if the genes are natural, i.e. found in nature, the process of inserting a gene from a bacterium directly into a plant’s DNA is thoroughly artificial. Such a thing could not happen without people, they argue. Therefore genetic engineering is unnatural and should not happen. We have made plants like cotton and soy do things that are not part of their essential character, and we deviate from nature at our peril[v].

Representations of nature do not merely describe the world as it is. They also serve as a guidepost for imagining the world as it should and should not be. People on both sides of the GMO debate use different meanings of nature to mark the boundary between the safe and the dangerous. Western society tends to treat nature as a source of concrete, objective truth. However, as the GMO example shows, this guidepost is ambiguous in practice. It is important to ask what is nature, because the meaning can change with every use.


[i] Williams, Raymond. “Nature,” Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.

[ii] See also, Cronon, William. “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” Environmental History 1.1 (1996): 7-28.

[iii] See, for example, the website of Monsanto, a key developer and patent owner of GMOs:,, or all touch on the arguments I have paraphrased here.

[iv] For an in-depth discussion infused with the humanities, see also, Francois, Anne-Lise. “’O Happy Living Things’: Frankenfoods and the Bounds of Wordsworthian Natural Piety,” diacritics 33.2 (2005) 42-70. Online:

[v] In the words of Prince Charles, a long-standing skeptic of GMOs, “manipulating nature is, at best, an uncertain business.” In Shiva, Vandana, Ed. Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press. 2007. 26-27.


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