Tensions Between Safety and Sustainability in the Field

No Animals, Food Safety Violation II

I wrote a short blog post on friction between food safety and environment (particularly animals) for my department’s website last week. It’s based on a recent trip I took to conduct fieldwork in Imperial Valley, California and Yuma, Arizona — two of the most important produce growing regions in the country. I met with vegetable growers and food safety auditors in both states, and even got to tag along on a night harvest of baby spinach.

DSC_0139

This sort of fieldwork is both exhilarating and exhausting. I get the chance to meet people whose occupations most of us hardly know exist, let alone have any sense of what that work entails, and to visit places which likewise don’t make it onto the radar. At the same time, making the most of fieldwork means being “on” all the time, ready to absorb and sift information with all sensory channels open and receiving. At the end of each day, I have to be able to tell a story, to weave the events and observations and impressions into a coherent narrative in my field notes. These notes are critical records for me later — sometimes years later — when I have to synthesize and write up my final report for publication. So I thought it might be interesting to provide a short example of my field notes look like. Here’s a sample, verbatim with no edits, of what I wrote about my trip to the night harvest.

I spoke with the food safety manager, whom I met about 5:30 in the evening, and two foremen whose crews were harvesting that night. The crews begin about 5 in the evening (when it starts to cool off), and work for 8-10 hours, sometimes a bit less like this night, when the manager thought they would wrap up by about midnight. These crews are maybe 10-13 workers (even fewer if the greens are packed in large bins rather than the relatively small totes, due to the labor of packing). Crews for harvesting whole product, such as head lettuce or romaine hearts, can be much larger, on the order of 20-50 workers (since these have to be harvested by hand).

We met at the staging area, where the foremen (mayordomos) and tractor/harvester drivers park and meet (the crews show up directly at the field, later). The foremen and drivers are skilled workers, usually with many years of experience both on the line and running a crew, and are employed year round by the harvester (who is based out of Salinas, and also does growing). Several of the cars had boxes of spring mix in the front seats—already washed, the kind that goes out to retail or foodservice. I asked the manager about it, and he said that the buyers regularly send the crews a palette of product, as sort of a thank you to the workers (for reference, a crew might harvest about 30 palettes in one night). I later had a conversation with one of the foremen about spinach, and a gleam came into his eyes as he started recounting all of the delicious meals his wife cooks with the spinach. When we finished the visit at that field and were saying goodbye, he gave me a 2-lb. box of organic spring mix to take home with me.

Before I could go into the field, I had to observe the requirements of the visitor SOP. I washed my hands vigorously with soap and water (supposed to be 20 seconds, or the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday), donned a hairnet and a reflective vest, and removed my watch (to my pocket). The harvest crew was moving away from us, and we walked across the already harvested beds (which no longer mattered since they were finished for the season). Sometimes they do prep beds for a second pass harvest, especially in times of high demand, but it was unclear how that changes the treatment of the harvested beds.

For the baby greens – e.g. spring mix or spinach – the product is mowed up with a large harvesting machine, which draws the cut leaves onto a conveyor belt. The leaves are carried up to the back of the machine, where several workers stand on a special platform. They are arranged as on a factory line, which begins on the trailer being pulled along by a tractor parallel to the harvesting machine. A couple of workers on the trailer prepare empty bins and place them on the start of the conveyor belt. The bins pass along to the 2-3 workers (apparently generally women) who gather the leaves as they flow over the lip of the conveyor belt and pack them loosely in the totes. The packed totes are then conveyed back to the trailer where 3-4 workers cover, stack and secure them.

The harvesting machine has an anti-rodent sound machine affixed to the front, near the blade and the headlights. The machine emits a sort of throbbing high-pitched chirp that is supposed to make any rodents who are nearby run away. The manager says he tested it out in a friend’s house who had a mouse problem, and it seemed effective there. There are also two workers who walk between the beds ahead of the machine, to look for any signs of animal activity or other problem (like a bit of trash) that would require the harvesters to skip a section. That said, according to the manager, it is very rare to see animals in the field during the actual growing season—in his telling, all the people who are around the fields all the time during the growing season keep them off. It is much more common to see animals in the off-season, when the fields are left alone for a while.

As a final note, I will say that the two pounds of spinach were a real boon to me in a time of need. After the harvest, I faced an hour drive back to Yuma, arriving near midnight. There was no food and nothing open, let alone with vegetarian options, so I ate lots and lots of salad.

Salad greens

Share

1 Comment

Filed under Research

Common Sense, Science and Government Part III: Manufacturing the sweet tooth

I ended the last post with the idea that making policy and engaging in government is a process of shaping common sense. The reason is that government, unlike direct rule, relies upon the consent of the governed (government must ‘go with the grain’). People generally consent to live under a particular social order when that order seems perfectly natural and normal; consent is most assured at the point when people can’t envision an alternative way of doing things, or shrug their shoulders and lament “that’s just the way it is.” In this way, consent to be governed a certain way by a certain set of people is grounded in the terrain of common sense.[i] Without consent, there can be no government.[ii]

In the best case, the need for consent produces a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, as President Lincoln famously proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address. In the ideal, democracy bubbles up from the grassroots: the citizenry consents to the rule of law because they define the law, and trust that the state they have chosen to implement that law serves their best interests. In other words, in an ideal case the consent of the governed is an active consent, predicated on the assumption that the law is a fair application of good sense to common public problems.

However, the populace can also passively consent to a government imposed from the top down. Thoughtful public deliberation can be bypassed altogether if an agenda of government can be made to fit smoothly within the existing framework of common sense. As we know from Gramsci, common sense is inherently dynamic. It changes and adapts over time due to chance and the aggregated choices of individuals, but common sense may also change to accommodate new realities of life (e.g. novel technologies or occupations) or by intentional manipulation (e.g. through media, education, propaganda, etc.). Here’s how David Harvey puts it:

What Gramsci calls ‘common sense’ (defined as ‘the sense held in common’) typically grounds consent. Common sense is constructed out of longstanding practices of cultural socialization often rooted deep in regional or national traditions. It is not the same as the ‘good sense’ that can be constructed out of critical engagement with the issues of the day. Common sense can, therefore, be profoundly misleading, obfuscating or disguising real problems under cultural prejudices. Cultural and traditional values (such as belief in God and country or views on the position of women in society) and fears (of communists, immigrants, strangers, or ‘others’) can be mobilized to mask other realities.[iii]

More importantly, these elements of common sense can be mobilized to mask the redistribution of benefits and burdens, to advantage some at the expense of others. But that’s a lot of abstraction to begin with, so I’ll turn now to some concrete examples to try paint a clearer picture of the dangers inherent in fiddling with common sense (as counterpoint to the previous post, in which I argued for the dangers inherent in not fiddling).

In the rest of this post and the next, we will look at two parallel, historical cases in which people changed their eating habits abruptly for reasons largely beyond their immediate For the remainder of this post, we will look at the development of a sweet tooth among the British working classes in the 17th through 19th centuries and the ways in which this dietary shift dovetailed with consent to an industrial capitalist mode of organizing peoples’ relationship with nature. In the next post we will look at the introduction of white bread to the American middle-class at the turn of the 20th century, and the ways in which the store-bought loaf acclimated Americans to the idea that experts know best how to organize relations between people and nature.

Habituating to Sweetness and Consenting to Industrial Capitalism

In his classic treatise Sweetness and Power, Sydney Mintz takes a deep look at the deceptively simple idea of the ‘sweet tooth’. While today we often take as fact that people like sweet foods, even to the point of self-harm, societal relationships with sweetness vary widely across both geography and time.[iv] At a time when the ubiquity of sugar in our diets is under intense scrutiny, even in the UK[v] (the birthplace of the modern sweet-tooth, as we’ll see), the irony that this problem was intentionally engineered is especially striking.

Just a few centuries ago, concentrated sweetness such as sugar was rare and expensive, and most people didn’t have it or even realize that they might want it.[vi] Such was the case in Medieval England, where merchants sold sugar, at exorbitant prices, as a prized luxury only the very rich and powerful could afford.[vii]  Between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, however, sugar experienced a reversal of fortunes. From spice of kings to common man’s fare in a mere two centuries, by 1900 sugar accounted for 20% of dietary calories in England. “What turned an exotic, foreign and costly substance into the daily fare of even the poorest and humblest people?” asks Mintz. What he is trying to understand is a sea-change in common sense about food, the ways in which people, seemingly out of the blue, become “firmly habituated” to eating sugar and consuming sweetness.

Unraveling the puzzle takes close attention to the everyday ways in which people decide what to eat and the political, economic, health and environmental repercussions of diet. Toward this end, Mintz breaks his main arguments into three sections, titled Production, Consumption, and Power. From their origins in the orient, sugar plantations slowly spread to the Arab empire and eventually to the Mediterranean and, by the 17th century, to the New World. The salient point is that sugar plantations pioneered industrial and capitalist forms of organizing production and labor long before the start of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of capitalism (at least, so far as these things are conventionally dated by historians). During the late 1600s and early 1700s, plantations in the West Indies combined the field and the factory in one centralized operation designed to maximize output of a single commodity for export, with the single-minded goal of reaping large, rapid profits for absentee owners and investors back in England and the continent (these English speculators kept their personal costs down by using slave labor). [viii] The following images, dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, illustrate how “factory and field are wedded in sugar making.”

Sugar boiling house

“Most like a factory was the boiling house,” writes Mintz (p. 47), who in addition to this print, attributed to R. Bridgens c. 19th-century (courtesy of the British Library), included the following descriptive passage from a plantation owner in Barbados, describing the boiling house c. 1700: “In short, ‘tis to live in perpetual Noise and Hurry, and the only way to Render a person Angry, and Tyrannical, too; since the Climate is so hot, and the labor so constant, that the Servants [or slaves] night and day stand in great Boyling Houses, where there are Six or Seven large Coppers or Furnaces kept perpetually Boyling; and from which with heavy Ladles and Scummers they Skim off the excrementitious parts of the Canes, till it comes to its perfection and cleanness, while other as Stoakers, Broil as it were, alive, in managing the Fires; and one part is constantly at the Mill, to supply it with Canes, night and day, during the whole Season of making Sugar, which is about six Months of the year.”

Sugar mill in the Antilles, 1665

A sugar mill belonging to Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, from: Charles de Rochefort. Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amérique. A Roterdam: chez Arnould Leers, 1665 [FCO Historical Collection, via King’s College London].

Digging the Cane-holes - Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II - BL

“Digging the Cane-holes”, in Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II – BL. Curated by William Clark, via Wikimedia Commons. More images from Ten Views are available at Wikimedia Commons.

Importantly, the plantations initiated an exponential growth in sugar production before demand existed to consume all that sweetness. This posed something of a problem, for the many new goods produced by exploiting people and nature in the colonies of the British Empire and its peers—including also coffee, tea, and cocoa—threatened to swamp the limited commodity markets back in Europe. What was needed was a rapidly expanding consumer demand for all of these new goods, and Mintz points out that this is exactly what happened with the widespread transformation of sugar from “costly treat into a cheap food”. To make a long and very detailed chapter short, the use of sugar as a status symbol among the rich and powerful percolated (with encouragement) down to the lower classes, who sought to emulate their social superiors. At the same time, the uses of sugar in diet diversified, especially through synergies with other plantation commodities (chocolate, tea, and coffee) and through displacing other traditional staples that people no longer produced for themselves (because they now spent their time working in factories instead of farms). For example, people who couldn’t afford butter (and no longer had access to cows to produce their own) could instead eat jams and preserves with their daily bread.

At the same time as the working classes were accepting sugar as food, the powerful—first aristocrats and merchants, and later the rising industrial and trade capitalists—were also adjusting their relationship to sugar. From a simple vehicle for affirming social status through direct consumption, sugar came to be seen and used as a vehicle for accumulating wealth and solidifying the British nation (and empire). In a paradigm shift of contemporary attitudes toward consumption, it was during this time period that political economists first recognized that demand didn’t have to remain constant (tied to existing subsistence levels), but that rather it could be elastic.[ix] Not only did this realization mean that capitalists could extract greater effort from laborers, who “worked harder in order to get more”, but it unleashed the hitherto unanticipated growth engine of the working class purchasing power, providing a ready sponge to soak up increasing commodity production and make owners an obscene amount of money.

So all of these things happened at about the same time: sugar production boomed, capitalists made lots of money, basic foods were no longer produced at home, and people developed a taste and preference for sweetness. Rejecting the idea that such a coincidence happened by mere chance, Mintz contends that these events are related through the intricate dance of power to bestow meaning on vegetable matter, to transform a simple reed into food, and thence into a pillar of empire and the birth of capitalism. A slippery concept in the absence of overt force or coercion, power grapples with the question of who ultimately guides the reins of common sense, and thus steers the vast course of social organization. Such power is very difficult to observe directly, and does not necessarily fit tidily into bins of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’. So Mintz instead turns to indirect evidence in the form of motive: who profited and who didn’t from the new British sweet tooth?[x]

While “there was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working classes, to turn them into addicts, or to ruin their teeth,” clearly widespread use of sugar as food benefited the sugar plantation owners, and also those who ran and operated the wheels of empire. It benefited manufacturers by making factory workers and their families dependent upon their jobs and wages to buy the new imported food goods so they could continue living. Mintz, through careful anthropologic interpretation, shows that the common people had no more free will in what to consume than they did in how to produce (i.e. by selling their labor power for wages): “the meanings people gave to sugar arose under conditions prescribed or determined not so much by the consumers as by those who made the product available” (p. 167). Though the mostly trivial webs of meaning spun by individuals lead us to believe in free choice in the marketplace, observation shows that our small individual webs of meaning are contained in and subsumed by “other webs of immense scale, surpassing single lives in time and space” (p. 158). Whoever can gain control of the shape and direction of these larger webs—such as common sense—can gain control over the mass of the people in a way that is not readily recognizable.

 


[i] I take this basic point from David Harvey’s chapter on “The Construction of Consent” in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 39-41.

[ii] Out of concern for space, I grossly abbreviated the continuity of relationship between common sense, consent of the governed, and government. I wanted to note here that Foucault’s last writings, e.g. History of Sexuality, Vol. II & III, deal extensively with the idea of ethics, or “techniques of the self”. In a way, an ethic is used to describe rules that people have to regulate, or govern, our own personal behavior. If we want to talk about a government that rules with the grain, then it has to be a government that engages with these personal ethics—consent of the governed, then, can also be construed as the alignment of individual ethics with government, of techniques of the self with techniques of discipline (the relationship of ruler to subject). Given that personal ethics are informed as much by normalized (i.e. taken for granted) habits and patterns of behavior as by rational thought and decisive action, common sense can also be taken to describe the terrain of ethics to which the populace subscribes.

[iii] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press 2005), p. 39. This paragraph is from his chapter on “The Construction of Consent”, to explain why people have accepted the ‘neoliberal turn’ in global governance, which basically holds to the philosophy that the social good is maximized by funneling all human relations through the mechanism of a market transaction, even though many of the policies pursued under this program have demonstrably negative effects on the well-being of hundreds of millions of people while simultaneously lining the pockets of a far smaller set.

[iv] “There is probably no people on earth that lacks the lexical means to describe that category of tastes we call ‘sweet’… But to say that everyone everywhere likes sweet things says nothing about where such taste fits into the spectrum of taste possibilities, how important sweetness is, where it occurs in taste-preference hierarchy, or how it is thought of in relation to other tastes.” Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1985. (17-18).

[v] The BBC, for example, ran a lengthy series stories throughout 2014 on sugar. For example, in March there was “WHO: Daily sugar  intake ‘should be halved’”, in June there was “How much sugar do we eat?”, and in September there was “Sugar intake must be slashed further, say scientists”. And just this week (Jan. 5, 2015), BBC ran “Cut back amount of sugar children consume, parents told”. Today, the entire ethics (see endnote ii) and government of sugar consumption are changing together, and more consciously than perhaps at any previous point in history.

[vi] Coincidentally, after I had already composed most of this post, I saw the BBC documentary Addicted to Pleasure, which first aired in 2012. Hosted by actor Brian Cox, who himself suffers from diabetes and must carefully manage his personal sugar intake, the documentary covers much of the story told by Mintz, albeit minus most of the scholarly critique of colonial exploitation and oppression and the exploitation of working class people.

[vii] In the 16th century, the English royalty were noted for “their too great use of sugar”, which was used to demonstrate wealth and status at court—Queen Elizabeth I’s teeth, for example, turned black from eating so many sweets. Mintz, p. 134.

[viii] Mintz, p. 55 and 61. The classic definition of capitalism requires well-developed markets, monetary currency, profit-seeking owners of capital, the alienation of consumers from intimate involvement in production, and ‘free’ labor (i.e. not slaves or land-bound peasants, but rather workers paid in wages). The sugar plantations of the mercantile colonial period fit some but not all of these criteria.

[ix] Mintz is careful to demonstrate how political economists changed their thinking on the role of consumers in national economies. Whereas mercantilists had assumed national demand for any given good to be more or less fixed, a new wave of capitalist thinking held that demand could increase by enrolling the people of a nation more completely in market relations—people should no longer subsist on the good they produce for themselves, but should get everything they consume through the market (note that this thinking forms a direct connection between personal ethics and social organization, or government). In return, they should sell their labor on the market as well. See p. 162-165.

[x] “To omit the concept of power,” Mintz writes, “is to treat as indifferent the social, economic, and political forces that benefited from the steady spread of demand for sugar… The history of sugar suggests strongly that the availability, and also the circumstances of availability, of sucrose… were determined by forces outside the reach of the English masses themselves.” p. 166.

Share

1 Comment

Filed under Basic Concepts

Common Sense, Science and Government Part II: A Case of Quinoa

The first case I’ll discuss focuses on quinoa, a grain-like staple more closely related to beets and spinach than to the true grasses such as wheat. Once a rather obscure food in the US, quinoa experienced a rapid popularity spike beginning in 2007 when consumers in the global north fed into a new narrative extoling its virtues for health and social justice alike. It began with nutrition-minded journalists hailing quinoa as a “new health food darling”. High in protein, in fact featuring all nine amino acids, quinoa could also serve as a gluten-free substitute for wheat or barley. The added mystique of a “rediscovered” (read: Columbused) ancient staple, a “lost” Inca Treasure, also dovetailed nicely with the popular paleo-diet trend which urged a dietary return to an idealized simpler time when people were more closely attuned with nature. For all of these reasons, quinoa received great publicity as a sacred, super crop.

An interrelated second narrative presented quinoa as a way for consumers to also support fair trade and sustainable development. Buying quinoa meant supporting farmers in developing countries such as Peru and Bolivia while allowing them to maintain a traditional way of life. The pitch for quinoa on Eden Organic’s website, for example, reads, “The most ancient American staple grain. Sustainably grown at over 12,000 feet in the Andes helping preserve native culture.” In 2012, when I first looked into the quinoa case, I came across a fair trade certified brand, La Yapa (now defunct), which summed up a stronger iteration of this marketing narrative:

“In the past few years, the income of quinoa farmers has doubled with the increase in volume and prices… The farmer’s quality of life also has increased steadily… By choosing this Fair Trade Certified™ product, you are directly supporting a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development, and environmental stewardship.”

The global food security community also picked up on the quinoa fanfare, culminating in the 2011 decision by the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa”. The press release for the occasion cites the potential contributions of quinoa to then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, “not only because of its nutritional value but also because most quinoa is currently produced by smallholder farmers… ‘The crop holds the promise of improved incomes – a key plank of the Zero Hunger Challenge,’ Ban said.” A special report was released with the goal of “improving knowledge and dissemination of this ancient crop, which has a significant strategic value for the food and nutritional security of humanity.

The other piece of this global food security narrative touted the environmental advantages of traditional subsistence crops like quinoa (e.g. amaranth, teff, fonio, etc.), especially their resilience in the face of global climate change. A recent article from National Geographic captures the essence of this line of thinking:

“[Sustainable agriculture advocates are] increasingly turning to grains that have been the basis of subsistence farmers’ diets in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America since the time of earliest agriculture. Because such grains adapted to grow on marginal land without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, they are often more resilient than modern commodity crops are.” (emphasis added, also see note at [ii]).

Taken altogether, quinoa has been presented in and to the global north as a win-win-win superfood—good for the health of wealthy consumers, the wealth of poor farmers, and the ecological stability of global agriculture[i]. The overall message to the savvy shopper in New York or Berkeley or Chicago, then, was that quinoa was good to buy.

But complications with that rosy narrative arose just as rapidly as quinoa’s acclaim spread. Demand rose so quickly that the price of quinoa tripled from 2007 to 2010 (Fig. 1).

Prices

Fig. 1: Prices of Quinoa at the Farm Gate, 1993-2012 (constant Int. $/tonne). Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

 

Ironically, the food which was celebrated as a “cultural anchor and a staple in the diet of millions of people throughout the Andes for thousands of years” seemed to have been priced out of their budget by the “agricultural gold rush.”Over the same time period, production volume accelerated its growth and the area cultivated for quinoa expanded substantially, especially in Bolivia (Figs. 2 and 3).

Production

Fig. 2: Tonnes of Quinoa Produced Annually, 1994-2013. Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

Area Harvested

Fig. 3: Hectares of Quinoa Harvested Annually, 1994-2013. Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

These numbers seemed to paint a much more complex story than win-win-win: Was high consumer demand in the US and the EU actually taking a staple food away from South America smallholders? Were record-level prices encouraging farmers to plant quinoa on ecologically marginal lands, courting disaster in the form of an Andean equivalent to the Dust Bowl? With soaring prospects for fat profit-margins and a global development community hungry for a silver bullet crop, were Andean smallholder farmers in danger of losing control over quinoa and being pushed out of their own market?[ii]

All of these questions, however, boiled down to one media snippet for global north publics: to eat or not to eat? A rash of headlines in early 2013 posed titillating provocative challenges to the quinoa fad. “Is eating quinoa evil?,” quipped The Week, while The Guardian challenged, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”. Tom Philpott, writing for Mother Jones, tried to restore some sanity with his more nuanced article, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?”, but the overarching point of reference for the American and European publics had been set. Whether a question of health, the viability of smallholder farming, or environmental sustainability, it had to be framed, in Hamlett-like fashion, to buy or not to buy?

Lost amid all the hand-wringing were the voices cautioning that the public and the media had fixated on the wrong question. Tanya Kerssen, an analyst at the non-profit organization Food First writing for Common Dreams, pointed out that to consume or not to consume was a false choice:

“In short, 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… [T]he so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices…

Consumption-driven strategies, while part of the toolbox for effecting change, are not the only tools. Only by facing the reality that we can’t consume our way to a more just and sustainable world—and examining the full range of political options and strategies—can we start coming up with real solutions.” (emphasis added).

So there we have one example to help illustrate why good policy cannot rely solely upon common sense for guidance. As Gramsci warned, common sense “takes countless different forms” and “even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent” (as quoted in my previous post). Relying upon common sense alone is to follow a fickle and partial guide. The assumptions and tacit beliefs underlying common sense will not always hold up under scrutiny, meaning that developing good policy requires continual critical reflection, public debate, and learning.

Quinoa has risen to prominence because it can link key points of contention in global agricultural policy—often voiced in highly abstract statistics on population demographics, epidemiological findings, economic indicators, and environmental qualities—to the daily concern with what to eat that makes intuitive sense to powerful publics in the global north. While certain policy programs (e.g. leveraging the ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ of smallholder farmers or folding peasants into global commodity food markets) may have gained political traction by adapting their arguments to the contours of common sense, such compromise comes at a cost. In this case, the experiences and perceptions of first-world consumers were naively accepted as the “terrain” of common sense upon which public debates about global poverty, health, and climate change can and should be debated. However, this common sense represents only a narrow slice of daily life around the globe.

Missing from the common sense of affluent consumers are, for example, the experiences and perspectives of the Andean farmers who grow quinoa and the poor whose health and development so many are concerned with. And this is not to mention the underrepresentation of nonhuman organisms and ecosystems, especially those not explicitly contributing to food commodities (e.g. the ecosystems on marginal lands into which quinoa farming has begun to spread). That translates to a large number of options and strategies that will never even be considered and a large number of unintended consequences that will never be recognized because they are outside the realm of what is commonly familiar to the consumer classes. As Kerssen writes, it would be a rational ideal to “examine the full range”, but if we want to take that process seriously, then we also need to examine the full range of common sense.

As I argued in the previous post, good policy, including environmental and natural resource policy, cannot ignore common sense, but must work with the grain of existing preconceptions and ways of living in the world. What this case highlights is that we also cannot rely solely on common sense to guide us to good policy. As is shown with the quinoa case, common sense—such as the idea that the only lever we have with which to move the world comes in the form of our fork or our wallet—often misses important pieces of the story and can lead us far afield or into a seemingly intractable impasse or an impossible (or false) choice. Critical reflection on the strengths and shortcomings of basic common sense is needed.

From this insight, we can infer that good policy emerges from critical consideration of common sense. Good policy must be built on that existing foundation, but also must do productive work on people to direct them toward better habits, better ways of living in the world. In short, in order to better approximate good sense. Next time, we’ll consider upon what basis, if not common sense, good sense can be gauged.


[i] For an example of the kind of utopian visions that experts began attaching to quinoa potential future, a 2014 article by Lisa Hamilton in Harper’s Magazine quotes a prominent Dutch agronomist, saying, “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

[ii] This poses a very thorny political economic question, and one that doesn’t lend itself easily to a simple yes or no response. The Harper’s article (ibid) tackles the complexity in greater depth, but the short version is that with great potential comes great prosperity, and then a great struggle over who has the right to enjoy that prosperity. In past epochs, newly “discovered” crops could be expropriated and spread around the world; examples include potatoes, tomatoes, or maize, all of which are native to the Americas. These plants didn’t just naturally evolve as desirable food crops, however. Rather, the ancestors of the Aztec, Incan and other indigenous peoples spent millennia worth of work breeding them from wild plants. Yet they never saw a penny for sharing those crops with the rest of the world. Instead, that privilege was assumed by European colonists and their descendants while Native American peoples were instead violently repressed (and killed). The Andean peoples of Bolivia and Ecuador are savvy to the long history of indigenous groups losing control over their germplasm heritages and have thus imposed strict sanctions over any sharing of quinoa seeds and genetic information. Thus quinoa finds itself at the heart of a struggle between food sovereignty and food security—an impasse seems to have been reached with “the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world” (ibid). There are doubtless sensible and just ways to negotiate out of this impasse, which I won’t try to guess at here, but again the point I would like to make is that complex problems require complex (and often messy) responses. Pretending that a simple solution can be found by applying basic common sense (i.e. the needs of the world’s many outweigh the needs of the Andean few, so world development organizations should just go ahead and take quinoa from Bolivians and Peruvians) is not a route to sound policy or good governance.

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Basic Concepts, Current Events

Common Sense, Science and Government, Part I

In the next set of posts, I draw on a lecture I gave to an undergraduate class on natural resource policy a few years ago to examine the relationship between common sense, science, and government. Revisiting this set of basic relationships will set a conceptual foundation for future posts on more specialized topics such as social construction and co-production.

Some decisions must be made and actions taken at a societal level, and such collective deciding and acting is part of what I mean when I use the word government (to distinguish from today’s popular usage of the word as a fixed institution). One thesis that I explore in this blog is that all government hinges on defining and manipulating relationships between people and nature [i]. This is a big claim, and in many cases might be difficult to demonstrate. For that reason, I begin with natural resources.

It seems to me that many people can easily imagine what good natural resource management might mean — clean and safe water, smog-free air, sustainable fisheries and forests, preventing soils from eroding away, preserving wild species from extinction, and so forth — which narrows the gap between common sense and good sense (more on that later) and makes for a good starting place.

As is often my wont, these posts will turn to food and agriculture for concrete case material to help illustrate the general points I would like to make. It might seem unusual to speak of food as a natural resource, but producing food involves the joining and utilization of many other natural resources – water, energy, land and soil, minerals for fertilization, ecosystems services like pollination, sunlight, and of course lots of hard work. Food may be the most complex and vital natural resource we have, which makes it a rich source of information for thinking about common sense, science, and government.

Common Sense and Government

The political theorist Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political activist in the years leading up to WWII who wrote his most famous works from prison after being arrested by the nascent fascist regime in Italy, turned to the concept of common sense to help explain how fascism could take root in a society. He defined it as:

“…the conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed by the various social and cultural environments in which the moral individuality of the average man is developed. Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the “folklore” of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is.”[ii].

Common sense incorporates all of those beliefs and assumptions that people do not actively question, yet upon which we all rely upon to guide most of our actions throughout each day. While we might aspire to always make what Gramsci terms ‘an intellectual choice’, to act rationally (first weighing costs and benefits) or ethically (following a set code of conduct), following what we might term good sense [iii], Gramsci points out that much of the time people instead draw upon prepackaged thoughts and beliefs. We act out of habit as much as we do out of thoughtfulness.

While in general common sense often approximates good sense, the two are only loosely coupled. Critical theorist Stuart Hall—drawing on the source material in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks—explains the relationship more fully:

“Why, then, is common sense so important? Because it is the terrain of conceptions and categories on which the practical consciousness of the masses of the people is actually formed. It is the already formed and “taken for granted” terrain, on which more coherent ideologies and philosophies must contend for mastery; the ground which new conceptions of the world must take into account, contest and transform, if they are to shape the conceptions of the world of the masses and in that way become historically effective. ‘Every philosophical current leaves behind a sediment of ’common sense’; this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a given place and time’ (PN, p. 362)” (emphasis added). [iv].

Today, our society often looks to inductive science for an external reference of good sense against which to weigh our common sense. Science, we think, ought to provide objective evidence for how we should act individually and as a society. But science must work with the pre-existing terrain of common sense which is messy, slow-to-change, nebulous and carries with it the baggage of other external referents for good sense—such as religious doctrines, moral reasoning, and logical deduction—that have come before. And science itself emerges from people who themselves live within the encompassing medium of common sense.[v]

And yet we must rely upon common sense, in general, since as a practical matter it just takes too much time and energy to rationally and ethically analyze every potential action (and analysis is never perfect in any case). Thus geographer David Harvey asserts, “We cannot understand anything other than ‘common sense’ conceptions of the world to regulate the conduct of daily life” [vi]. The word regulate here begins to imply a more-than-superficial connection between the ways in which individuals act in their private lives and the ways in which societies act collectively through government. Many people are familiar with the idea that government imposes restrictions upon the private lives on individuals. However, it is a two-way street: the form that government takes is shaped by the ways in which people lead their lives.

Modern government trends toward governing “with the grain”—its philosophy is to act less like a drill sergeant and more like the conductor of an orchestra, serving as a point of reference to guide everyone in playing the right part at the right time at the right tempo such that a harmonious whole emerges. Thus to govern today, to develop and put into action sensible policies, requires an intimate understanding of common sense, for the former can only be effective if it accommodates the latter. Every policy, every attempt at what we might call good sense, must be ‘refracted’ through the common sense ways in which people lead their day-to-day lives, like light filtering through a prism. Likewise for the study of government (or in my case, environmental governance), for as sociologist Mitchell Dean puts it

To analyse government is to analyse those practices that try to shape, sculpt, mobilize and work through the choices, desires, aspirations, needs, wants and lifestyles of individuals and groups. This is a perspective, then, that seeks to connect questions of government, politics and administration to the space of bodies, lives, selves and persons . [vii].

To the extent that to govern well also entails critical examination of the common sense of governing, which might be seen as an attempt to form a good sense of good government of common sense (too meta?), the ways in which we conceptualize government and its relation to both common sense and good sense (such as that offered by science) cannot be separated from the practice of government.

This is not just an academic point, but a practical lesson in government, as demonstrated in this discussion with a man who has a lot of personal experience wrestling with the relationship between common sense and sensible policy:

Chris Hughes (interviewer): Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about intellectually preparing for your second term as president?

Barack Obama: I’m not sure it’s an intellectual exercise as much as it is reminding myself of why I ran for president and tapping into what I consider to be the innate common sense of the American people. The truth is that most of the big issues that are going to make a difference in the life of this country for the next thirty or forty years are complicated and require tough decisions, but are not rocket science…

So the question is not, Do we have policies that might work? It is, Can we mobilize the political will to act? And so, I’ve been spending a lot of time just thinking about how do I communicate more effectively with the American people? How do I try to bridge some of the divides that are longstanding in our culture? How do I project a sense of confidence in our future at a time when people are feeling anxious? They are more questions of values and emotions and tapping into people’s spirit.”

What the President acknowledges in this passage is the importance of knowing, intimately, the ordinary routines, values, and beliefs that real Americans use to get through each day—their common sense—and linking that grassroots sort of sense with the policy sort of sense that is concerned with the grand abstractions with which government concerns itself, such as the nation, the economy, the environment and ‘the general Welfare’ (to quote the preamble to the US Constitution). Thus his latter admission that his administration should focus on “spending a lot more time… in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington.”

Of course, as Gramsci wrote and Hall emphasized, common sense is both “fragmented” and “continually transforming”—it is by nature mercurial and inchoate, often at odds with itself and internally inconsistent. Policy, by contrast, is designed to impose coherence and stability upon the dynamic and changeable currents of common sense. So while sensible policy must respond to those currents, as I will discuss in the next post, it cannot rely entirely upon common sense to provide the signposts toward good sense.

Why do we eat what we eat?

To take a concrete example, consider recent public policies relating to food, such as recent ballot initiatives to ban large sugary soft drinks in some cities, laws to force labeling of GMO ingredients, or requirements for schools to offer more fruits and vegetables in cafeterias. These policies can only be effective if they can successfully build upon the existing foundation of common sense ways of eating—the collective habits that all of us together practice in our daily acts of munching, dining, snacking, lunching, and breaking fast.

But what would it take to understand the common sense of eating? We are, each of us every day, actively engaged in producing and reproducing common sense for diet. Consider why you eat what you eat. On the surface, it seems a simple matter to list out the reasons behind eating certain foods and not eating others. We might start listing off criteria: cost, taste, aesthetic appeal, freshness, convenience, accessibility, nutritional value, presence or absence of certain ingredients (e.g. vitamins or allergens), whether it is certified organic, fair trade, or local.  Clearly there are many characteristics we might look for in our food, but how do we know that the foods we are choosing among are any of these things?

Let’s think about that question for a minute. First we have our senses—we can taste, touch, smell, listen and look. These sensory perceptions give us direct information that helps us pick out our food. If an apple has mushy brown spots all over it, the tilapia smells extremely fishy, or the watermelon sloshes too much when shaken, then they’re probably bad.

In addition to our senses, we have many indirect means for learning about the food. In the moment, for example, we can read the product labeling. Labeling contains the abstracted information that travels along with the food and tells us about it. From as simple a bit of information as the price per pound and the weight of the food to as complex a bit of information as the percent of recommended daily value of sodium or the USDA organic label, the information accompanying the food itself strongly influences how we know if it is good to eat. It is hard to understate the importance of labeling today. Think of how often you look at the ingredients list, check the seals of certification for organic or kosher, review the allergen information, or consider the calories per serving before deciding to buy a given food item.

But what we can learn about food in the moment is only part of what informs our understanding of what is good to eat. We have past experience and familiarity to guide us as well. If I have eaten kumquats, Oreo cookies, fried okra, or raw cheese in the past and enjoyed them without any immediate problems arising, I’m more likely to try them again in the future. The more we eat a food, the more familiar we become with eating it. After a while, we don’t have to think about the individual food choices much at all: we can rely on past experience to hold true in the future. Since we are social beings, it’s not just our own experiences we draw upon. Chances are we eat a lot of the same things that the people close to us eat because we trust the judgments of those around us—parents, role models, friends, and so on.

This is where advertising and marketing enter the picture. These tactics strongly influence our sense of familiarity with certain foods, usually through the intermediary symbolism of the brand. Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have brand loyalties of one form or another that have nothing to do with our senses, labeling, what we have eaten frequently in the past, or what the people close to us eat. That’s the power of marketing.

Journalism can also affect our sense of familiarity with foods. Food sections in newspapers, blogs, TV programs, and so forth may all introduce us to new foods and bolster our confidence in foods we already know. News can also speak to our intellectual understanding of food. In recent memory, reports about the health effects of salt, high fructose corn syrup, or trans fatty acids have all been tremendously impactful on how people make eating choices, both individually and as a matter of public policy.

Which brings us to the role of science in defining which foods are good to eat and which are not. Increasingly, people take into consideration what the experts say when making eating choices. Nutritionists, dieticians, food scientists, doctors and their professional organizations and expert committees frequently enter the public limelight with a new finding, recommendation, or warning about food. These expert opinions, which speak for science, carry great weight in shaping our everyday understanding of what foods are good to eat (or not).

As you can see from this lengthy discussion, the sources of information that feed into any given eating decision are manifold. However, does each of us actually consider each of these factors and sources of information every single time we make a choice about what to eat? Of course not. The majority of the time, we choose by habit, “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary” (or non-conscious). However, habit is not just an individual trait, but a collective trait. Habit can also mean “customary practice”, or just “custom”, as in the habit of shaking hands when meeting another person or saying “Hello” when answering the phone. Habits or customs are built on common sense, or collective bundlings of wisdom, values, and assumptions that people use to make everyday decisions about all sorts of things, like what to eat.

Wrapping Up

We’ve now covered some basic points on the relationship between common sense and good government. Before I continue the discussion in next couple of posts, which explore the relationship through examples from food and agriculture, I’d like to raise a question as food for thought: why govern?

Why do we elect people like the president, like our senators, representatives, governors, mayors, aldermen? Why do we employ tens of thousands of civil servants, bureaucrats, and other government workers? What is their purpose? What is the purpose of government?

Keep this in mind as we go through concrete cases in the next few posts. I’ll come back to this question at the end of this series.


[i] This thesis might be alternatively stated: government relies on establishing a dominant environmental frame that defines problems between people and nature, identifies acceptable solutions for dealing with those problems, and imagines the sort of futures which those solutions are supposed to attain.

[ii] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Quintin Hoare. New York: International Publishers, 1972. p. 419.

[iii] The editor to the Prison Notebooks notes that “[Gramsci] uses the phrase ‘good sense’ to mean the practical, but not necessarily rational or scientific, attitude that in English is usually called common sense” (p. 322).

[iv] Hall, Stuart. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (June 1, 1986): 5–27. He cites Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 362.

[v] Gramsci differentiated between organic philosophy, which belonged to all people, and what he called “the philosophy of the philosophers”, which he used to refer to the theories produced by elite thinkers to be imposed upon the unthinking masses. That sort of ‘philosophy’, although it might overlap with science (think of eugenics), did not equate to good sense. As the editor to Prison Notebooks explains, “The critique of ‘common sense’ and that of ‘the philosophy of the philosophers’ are therefore complementary aspects of a single ideological struggle” (p. 322). One of the refreshing aspects of Gramsci’s perspective is that he rejects both an anti-intellectual herd mentality and the rule of experts, preferring instead to promote the idea that all people are, or can be, intellectuals in their own way. Hall writes that, “[Gramsci] insists that everyone is a philosopher or an intellectual in so far as he/she thinks, since all thought, action and language is reflexive, contains a conscious line of moral conduct and thus sustains a particular conception of the world (though not everyone has the specialized function of ‘the intellectual’)” (ibid). Good sense is a publicly accessible good, which implies that the purpose of good government is neither to impose some pre-formed theory of what’s best for everyone [authoritarianism in the extreme] nor to stand back and let things take their course [laissez faire], but rather to help organize individual citizens’ own capacity for making and following good sense.

[vi] Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London; New York, NY: Verso, 2006. p. 84.

[vii] Dean, Mitchell. Governmentality : Power and Rule in Modern Society. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 2009. p. 20.

Share

1 Comment

Filed under Basic Concepts

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: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/AgTreadmills.pdf. Reference: Cochrane, Willard. The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Musings

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.

Cautions

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 http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library.html.

[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!

Share

4 Comments

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: http://caff.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FSMA-produce-rule-from-Fed-Reg.pdf.

[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.

Share

1 Comment

Filed under Current Events

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.

DSC_0679

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.

DSC_0689

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).

DSC_0693

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.

DSC_0683

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.

DSC_0682

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.

IMG_20131116_110900_680IMG_20131116_110929_285

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.

DSC_0678

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.

IMG_20131116_145819_040

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

IMG_20131116_145014_638

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.

IMG_20131116_144524_195

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.

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Research

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”.

DSC_0015

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

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Basic Concepts, Guest Posts

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] Dictionary.com 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: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/. 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.

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Basic Concepts