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Some musings on (food) activism

March 25, 2011

So, one of the better things I’ve read recently was the transcript of Rob Hopkins (of Transition fame) interviewing Naomi Klein. (Part one is here and part two is here. There’s also a video of Naomi Klein’s talk at the Transition Culture blog but I haven’t watched it yet as I’m in a noisy public internet café because my wifi at home is being awkward.) The Transition movement has so far been intentionally unpolitical – it talks about globalisation and inequity, but very much uses language that stresses the inevitability of oil depletion. This, the Transition narrative states, isn’t a political choice. It’s an economic and ecological necessity, and we might as well make the best of it.

This is more or less possible on a small scale, especially when your central argument is that we need to learn to live with the people sharing the same physical space as us, regardless of how much we feel we have in common. Of course, it gets more complicated the larger you get, as you start negotiating with businesses and local government and creating more formalised organisational structures. This is especially true in a political climate such as we have in the UK at the moment, where 1) everyone is becoming more politicised and polarised, and 2) the government is pursuing what is essentially an ideological agenda while presenting it as a regrettably necessary technical adjustment. This problematises the notion that something can just be, can be inevitable, can be necessary: the public discourse of opposition movements is incorporating more and more the idea that everything is a choice, made by human beings, for particular reasons.

Naomi Klein’s talk was particularly interesting in this context. She argues that it is impossible to address climate change without dealing with inequality, because the effects of climate change will be felt are being felt unequally.

This is why I don’t think it serves to pretend that this is the issue that transcends all politics – it doesn’t!  There has to be a redistribution of resources and the people that have the vast majority of those resources now are going to protect what they have.  As soon as this starts feeling really threatening there will necessarily be some confrontations.  This is what I was saying last night – the fact that American supremacy is threatened by climate action because a just climate response would see the US and other rich countries having less so that others could have more is what has stood in the way.

She argues that there has been some reluctance on the part of green movements to address this directly, because then you get risk looking like confirming the right’s prejudice that climate change is all part of some nefarious socialist plot. We have, Klein says, to be upfront about the fact that any serious action will involve internationalism and wealth redistribution but that this will actually benefit the overwhelming majority of people in the world.

We’re just going, “Green jobs, green capitalism, change your light bulbs, this isn’t as scary as you think.”  It isn’t as scary as they think, but not because it isn’t a dramatic change.  It’s not as scary as they think because we need those changes on a dramatic level in so many ways – it’s actually a gift to have the opportunity to change.  But the idea that we can avoid a discussion, to me, is a failure to recognise that the discussion is happening, we’re just not participating in it, or letting them entirely define the terms of what we believe in.  I don’t believe in world government but I do believe in an international climate agreement.  So let’s talk about it!

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This week, I’ve also been reading Warren Belasco’s Appetite for Change, about the 1960s counterculture and how the radical hippie ideals of these social movements critiqued the food industry and changed how America ate. (I’m still on the first section, about the origins of the movement, so I’m still feeling all optimistic. When I get to the bit about how everything got co-opted by large corporations, I may feel differently.) Food was an important vehicle for social critique and interacted with objectives for social change in various ways.

‘But being different in something so basic and taboo-laden as food might lead to being different in many things. This, not generational rebellion, was the implicit agenda of the countercuisine: food was a medium for broader change. If dietary rebels seemed a bit self-righteous, perhaps it was from their renewed sense of moral purity and political consistency. Unlike sporadic antiwar protests, dietary rightness could be lived 365 days a year, three times a day. The New Left had always insisted that the personal was political. What could be more personal than food? And what could be more political than challenging agribusiness, America’s largest and most environmentally troublesome industry, with $350 billion in assets (1969), employing 23 million workers and 3 million farmers, selling $100 billion worth of food to 200 million consumers?’

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And then I read about a bill that the Republicans are proposing in the US (via Sharon Astyk and Shakesville). Its purpose is generally to make sure that recipients of government welfare programmes (like food stamps) are meeting the federal requirements to get these benefits. Which doesn’t sound entirely unreasonable. Except it contains a section whereby, if passed, the bill would cut off food stamp benefits to families where one adult member is engaging in a strike against an employer. (If you live in the US and have some kind of elected representative you could contact about this, I would recommend doing so.)

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It seems to be getting harder and harder to claim that food is apolitical. Saying that I just want everyone to enjoy tomatoes that taste of something, and that achieving this will be an unmitigatedly wonderful process that nobody could possibly object to, is becoming more and more untenable as the world changes as fast and as angrily as this.

Incidentally, I am writing this in a café in Canary Wharf, an environment that seems to have been entirely constructed to spare you the need to ever go outside. (Today, incidentally, is gloriously sunny.) I have been here since 12, for about 2 hours now. It has been heavingly busy, with enormous queues, but nobody has raised an eyebrow at me sitting here nursing a cold green tea. Indeed, there have always been free tables. Clearly, everyone just comes and grabs a sandwich and goes back to the office. (Or maybe they’re all going to find some outside space. I don’t know for certain.)

And I am marching tomorrow.

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