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Jedediah Purdy

Foodies Can Succeed Where Environmentalists Failed

Their revolutionary economic vision has a chance of being realized.
Leave the cost-benefit analysis behind.

Leave the cost-benefit analysis behind.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

For much of American history, the country's predominant environmentalists considered farmers to be figures of plodding, spiritless labor. Ralph Waldo Emerson complained that he could not enjoy contemplating a landscape when farmers were working on it. John Muir condescendingly described a dirty shepherd who could not feel the wonder of the Sierra Nevada. Legally protected wilderness, the signal achievement of the Romantic strain of environmentalism, provided exalted scenery and strenuous recreation, to the exclusion of practical life.

Today, a new appreciation is emerging for inhabited landscapes as part of what one might call the food movement. It shows up as an interest in where food comes from, who grows food and how, and the way food travels from farm to plate. It is evident in consumer fads and high-end restaurants, and local economies that have been rebuilt around community supported agriculture and farmers markets. Altogether, it hints at a new picture of people and nature.