Leave the cost-benefit analysis behind.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Foodies Can Succeed Where Environmentalists Failed

Jedediah Purdy is Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law.
Read More.
a | A

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.

It also poses an answer to a puzzle in post-1970 environmental thought. In order to influence people's behavior, an environmental ethic must tap into their basic motives. There are two familiar ways to do this. On the one hand, environmentalism can meld its values to practices and commitments already in place. On the other hand, an environmental ethic can offer a new practice and identity, a new way of interacting with the natural world and a new image of one’s self in that encounter.

The post-1970 wave of environmental ideas and lawmaking took the first path. It presented industrial pollution as a public-health crisis and a threat stemming from runaway technology, hazards that the country knew how to fear and, in some measure, how to manage. New environmental laws worked at the scale of the industrial economy -- power plant emissions, automobile efficiency standards, pre-use review of toxins. The changes were invisible, though, for anyone outside the regulated industries.

The food movement, by contrast, invites being woven into the identity of its adherents. The ecological ideal makes sustainable work, with natural processes, into a freestanding value, a reason to pursue a food economy that fosters such work.

The food movement's perspective could have vast implications for the law. Law thoroughly shapes the food economy. A large share of corn and soybean subsidies goes to very large producers, discouraging the smaller-scale farming that makes personal, physical engagement viable. Lax anti-pollution laws give an advantage to large operations whose feedlots and warehouses of cattle, pigs and chickens produce lagoons of semi-liquid waste that pollutes both air and water. Regulations permit use of low (“sub-therapeutic”) doses of antibiotics to enable dense animal populations to survive without epidemics, even though the practice risks breeding antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases.

Small farmers face interlinked logistical and regulatory problems: slaughtering facilities are often far from farms, necessitating travel, fuel use and animal stress at the last stage of raising meat. This bottleneck is difficult to open partly because of the small number of federal health- and safety inspectors, whose limited ranks reflect the fact that they have long been expected to cover only a few, industrial- scale slaughtering facilities.

Are these reasons to make the law friendlier to eco-pastoral farming? It depends. But on what? According to standard cost-benefit analysis, it depends on the bottom line. Various defenses of industrial agriculture vindicate one aspect or another as being less resource-intensive than the smaller and more participatory farming that the food movement embraces. Even when industrial produce travels halfway around the world, economies of scale may make it more energy-efficient than small, local production.

If one starts from the ecological ideal, then thinking of agriculture solely in standard cost-benefit terms seems misguided. If farming offers its own experiential value, the case for reversing the law’s bias toward large and specialized production stands on its own. This does not mean that the ecological ideal should always prevail; but its grounds are its own, not derived from other values.

On this view, agricultural policy is, in a serious sense, cultural policy, like establishing national parks. Parks policy is an investment in a relation to nature that generates thinking about humanity’s place in the world. Similarly, agricultural policy that supported small-scale, participatory food-raising would be an investment in developing environmental ethics out of the very practices the policy fostered.

This approach to agriculture belongs to a style of environmental thinking that eschews hard lines between protected places, where aesthetic and spiritual values flourish, and ordinary places that are treated as industrial reserves. The wild and scenic nature that popular environmentalism inherited from the Romantics is in many ways the nature that accords with a consumer economy: its devotees ingest it in recreational activities far from their working lives, which they return to unchanged.

The food movement's ecological vision has the potential to refigure the relationship between the natural world and the human economy. Contemporary environmentalists often portray the world as “natural capital,” a productive form of wealth that rewards prudent investment. The metaphor is useful in making the natural world visible in economic thinking, where it has often been invisible -- think of generations of ignored greenhouse gases and lost topsoil in service of narrowly defined profit. Talking about the earth as “natural capital” is, among other things, a bid to overcome the consumerist image by recognizing that the natural world is the foundation of every productive part of the economy.

The food movement offers another way of thinking about nature -- not as providing capital but as doing work in which human labor collaborates. Seeing nature’s work in this light would align environmental politics with the key feminist insight that much socially necessary work is ignored or devalued as “caregiving.”

This approach would also have the potential to align environmental politics with an economy where an increasing amount of the work done by human beings (rather than machines) is nursing, teaching, parenting -- all the things today’s technology cannot step in to do. Social reproduction, the work of remaking life with each year and generation, is sometimes treated as an economic afterthought. But the food movement offers a vocabulary for reminding that no shared life can do without it.

(This is an excerpt from "After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene," to be published in September by Harvard University Press.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jedediah Purdy at purdy@law.duke.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net