No other contemporary writer has captured the hearts of food-conscious Americans than Michael Pollan, who argues across his seven books, most recently Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, that our food and our eating habits have a complex narrative we must heed. Today’s narrative, according to Pollan, is one in which Americans tacitly accept the industrial food industry and cheap energy system, both of which are cause not only for obesity and disease, but also global warming, pollution, and humanity’s numerous wicked problems.
Pollan’s enduring solutions of domestic arts, small-scale, organic agriculture, and close-to-the-earth living have become dominant among green foodies, but not unchallenged. In a recent New York Observer piece, Will Boisvert shows how locavores’ urban farming craze has been roundly debunked as a false economy that may actually produce more carbon emissions. David Freedman, writing in the Atlantic, argues that the most prominent voices in food culture have erroneously demonized the agro-industrial complex and all processed food as the culprit behind America’s obesity epidemic. Being conscious of what you eat and where it comes from is not simply a set of food ethics anymore, argues Mark Oppenheimer, but part of the larger tendencies of moral condescension and “pernicious forms of sanitation and purity” that liberals have inherited from our Puritan forefathers and, later, Progressive-era reformers.
These authors and others are taking a hard look at what the local, organic-only vision of food and development actually means, and what they find is, when strictly applied, these measures are often counterproductive to solving global issues. And though he may be the most citable author today, Pollan is not the first writer to espouse the wonders of local and organic. In fact, green foodism was borne from an earlier wellspring: a tobacco farmer from Kentucky named Wendell Berry. Although Berry is largely unknown outside of environmental circles, his ideas on food, agriculture, and human limits deeply inform contemporary green food ideology.
In Berry’s writings, rural north-central Kentucky is the home of a vanishing way of traditional agrarian life that is both self-sufficient and in harmony with nature. Not only does Berry richly characterize the hard labor involved in farming, but also lauds the joys and contentment that come from being close to the land. Sadly, concludes Berry, this near-perfect old world order is being replaced by mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization. A profound sense of loss pervades Berry’s writing – the “loss of local memory, local history, and local names.”
For more than 40 years, Berry’s agrarian vision has informed and inspired American environmentalism and the alternative food movement. Take the cherished word local. One of Berry’s central ideas is the goodness of the local: local food, local economy, local conventions, local loyalty, and so on. We must think in terms of the local, says Berry, because only the local can be directly experienced and understood in its concrete particulars, while knowledge of the nonlocal must necessarily be abstract. One’s identification with a place, according to Berry, must be absolute and must submerge all nonlocal identities.
Berry is deeply skeptical of modern science and technology. In his view, we can never solve our social or environmental problems by means of scientific-technological solutions. The human faculty of reason, on which scientific-technological solutions are based, is far too fallible for us to rely on. Instead, workable solutions must take the form of local “culture-borne instructions.” Once some technique or some knowledge has been distilled through generations and has become incorporated into the traditions and customs of a community, part of the community’s “common sense” or “wisdom of centuries,” it becomes acceptable to him. For Berry, knowledge achieves reliability not through reason but by virtue of the abandonment of reason. From his travels in remote areas of Peru, he writes:
They do as they have done, as their ancestors did before them. The methods are assuredly complex—this is an agriculture of extraordinary craftsmanship and ecological intelligence—but they were worked out over a long time, long ago; learned so well, one might say, that they are forgotten. It seems to me that this is probably the only kind of culture that works: through sufficiently complex, but submerged and embodied in traditional acts. It is at least as unconscious as it is conscious—and so is available to all levels of intelligence.
Berry believes that human beings are too ambitious for their own good and the good of nature. This is the fundamental problem that leads to all other problems. Not only are our grand pursuits futile, but they also violate ‘natural limits’ and do not show sufficient respect for the mysteries of nature. “People are not gods,” writes Berry. “They must not act like gods or assume godly authority. If they do, terrible retributions are in store.”
The figure of the heroic discoverer – whether he or she is a scientist, engineer, or product developer – is the embodiment of Berry’s philosophy of hubris. The ‘frontier spirit’ of science, or the ambition to go beyond present-day limits of knowledge to make new discoveries and innovations, has led to an unfortunate disregard for traditional social, cultural, geographical, and technological limits.
Against the ambitious ‘heroic discoverer,’ Berry endorses a vision of American pastoralism where ‘natural limits’ are respected and ambition is kept in check, where people find joy and beauty and grace living entirely within the constraints and limits that their community and their locality has imposed on them. In The Hidden Wound, Berry explores his family’s legacy of slave owning and his experience living in a segregated society. Though he criticizes slavery and racism on many occasions, there is one outcome of this system that appeals to him:
[The white laborer] worked with the idea that his work would lead to ownership, or that at least, as a white man, the nigger work he was doing was unworthy of him ... Only the black man, the nigger to whom nigger work was appointed, for whom there was no escape, was able to face it as a present and continuing necessity, and to invent the means of enduring and living with it—and, if I understand the communal and emotional impetus of the work song, of building a culture, not beside or in spite of that necessity, but upon it to triumph over it. It seems to me that the black people developed the emotional resilience and equilibrium and the culture necessary to endure and even enjoy hard manual labor wholly aside from the dynamics of ambition.
In other words, slavery imposed severe limits on black people that served to extinguish any hint of ambition or any hope of reprieve, thereby creating the conditions necessary to produce what Berry describes as a positive outcome: a culture and an outlook that allowed black people to fully appreciate the beauty of lifelong hard manual labor in the fields, uncontaminated by sense of ambition.
Indeed, the pre–World War II socioeconomic order that Berry portrays as so much better than today’s is the socioeconomic order of the Jim Crow South. Many would disagree with Berry’s assessment that the move from farm to factory, from rural to urban, from manual to mechanized, was an unmitigated disaster. This phenomenon, much lamented by Berry and labeled “the unsettling of America,” is seen in a very different light by the historian Donald Holley, who argues that the mechanization of agriculture in the American South was closely associated with the desegregation of southern society:
The First Great Emancipation freed the slaves. The Second Great Emancipation freed the Cotton South from the plantation system and its attendant evils—cheap labor, ignorance, and Jim Crow discrimination. These changes all derived in part from the development of the mechanical cotton picker, a dominant force for social and economic change in the South after World War II ... The story of the cotton picker is more than the story of a machine. The mechanical cotton picker symbolizes how far modern agriculture has taken the Cotton South from the era of mules and tenants. The development of the mechanical cotton picker is part of a fascinating story of how the pre-World War II South of poverty and sharecroppers became the modern, urbanized South of the 1990s.
The deep suspicion of development promoted by Wendell Berry and others in the ‘food movement’ has undoubtedly influenced the broader intellectual and political discourse in recent years, and has problematized notions of progress, particularly for those who think of themselves as liberals and progressives.
Convinced of the necessity and the desirability of progress, liberals and progressives have long been suspicious of attempts to privilege traditional norms and practices as manifestations of ‘natural’ or ‘God ordained’ limits, viewing such efforts as conservative attempts to present socially unjust practices and traditional inequalities as unchangeable and therefore outside the purview of human questioning or improvement. This long-cherished progressive outlook has in recent years been challenged by a very different social vision put forth by the alternative food movement, espousing cultural solutions, traditional practices, and the local, while emphasizing limits to human ambition and initiative. This vision draws heavily on Berry’s Arcadian ideal of rural Kentucky.
Beer, J. 2007. “Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meriticracy.” In Wendell Berry: Life and Work, edited by Jason Peters, 212–229. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Berry, Wendell. 1982a. “An Agricultural Journey in Peru.” In The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural, 3–46. New York: North Point Press.
———. 1982b. “The Gift of Good Land.” In The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural. New York: North Point Press.
———. 1989. The Hidden Wound New York: North Point Press.
———. 1993. “The Problem of Tobacco.” In Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays. New York: Pantheon Books.
———. 2001. Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press.
———. 2002a. “The Body and the Earth.” In The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba, 93–134. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.
———. 2002b. “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” In The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba, 159–181. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.
———. 2002c. “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground.” In The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba, 135–143. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.
———. 2004a. “Pray Without Ceasing.” In That Distant Land: The Collected Stories, 38–76. Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard.
———. 2004b. “The Wild Birds.” in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories, 337–364. Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard.
Getz, C., S. Brown, and A. Shreck. 2008. “Class Politics and Agricultural Exceptionalism in California’s Organic Agriculture Movement.” Politics and Society 36 (4): 478–507.
Holley, D. 2000. The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
Peters, J. 2007a. “Education, Heresy, and the ‘Deadly Disease of the World.’” In Wendell Berry: Life and Work, edited by J. Peters, 256–281. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.