Not to mention longer format newspaper articles:

Like others in the so-called good-food movement, Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

The Fat of the Land

June 17, 2009

Here’s a new book for the traditionalist foodie crowd to gnaw on. From the review:

To browse through The Food of a Younger Land is to be transported into a time when mothers improvised recipes because of shortages of certain ingredients and fathers brought home fresh game from the woods and mussels from the ocean. The book describes the “sugaring off” parties in Vermont, where people hosted neighborhood celebrations as they finished off the annual tapping of sap from trees for maple syrup. It describes the making of persimmon beer among Mississippi African-Americans. In and around Darlington, South Carolina, people would host outdoor gatherings and serve “chicken bog,” a distinctive chicken-and-rice dish. Nebraskans loved buffalo barbecue and Wisconsin folks enjoyed sour-dough pancakes.

All I can say is that I hope there’s a section on squirrel melts.

Spuds Ahoy!

May 31, 2009

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)

Many Wendell Berry fans, or at least those who have read the The Gift of Good Land, will understand why I am seriously pumped to read John Reader’s new book, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. Here’s a bit from the WaPo review:

The Spanish transplanted the spud to Europe in the 16th century, by way of the Canary Islands. Growing underground — bulbous, white, and strange — potatoes had image problems on the Continent at first. There was that leprosy smear. As far as millions of peasants were concerned, the subterranean bizarreness of tuberous growth compared unfavorably to the airy, sunlit, wholesomeness of the familiar cereal grains — barley, rye, oats and wheat — that had sustained Europe for centuries.

The spud did not become a staple food in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries, when warfare was widespread and frequent. Reader argues that this was no coincidence: Disruptions and upheavals inflicted by marauding armies changed the diet and tastes of the Continent, with massive demographic and economic consequences. When grain fields weren’t being torched or requisitioned, armies were camping on them or marching through them. It wasn’t a matter of choice but a lack of options that really dropped the potato onto Europe’s plate around 1700. While cereal grains were exposed to the ravages of war, potatoes were safely hidden in the ground and, when the tides of war receded, could be harvested and stored. This was when Europe discovered that the potato may be monotonous, but it is also extraordinarily nutritious, yielding four times more calories per acre than grain. And if you’ve eaten frites in Brussels or Ulster colcannon, you know the marvelous variety the potato can offer.

Wondrous variety, but also huge problems.  The potato is one of the most under-appreciated factors affecting geo-politics in the modern era.  Almost everywhere it has gone has experienced major surges in population and concurrent political instability.  Europe, China, the Americas: all had their positions in the world radically altered by the introduction of such an efficient and reliable source of calories, something we would do well to consider as we idly tweak the genetic knobs of our food sources in the name of higher yields and better disease resistance.

Wired’s got some pretty intense NASA time lapse videos up… Check this one from Central Asia’s Aral Sea:

Via NASA’s Earth Observatory:

Beginning in the 1960s, farmers and state offices in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central Asian states opened significant diversions from the rivers that supply water to the lake, thus siphoning off millions of gallons to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies. As recently as 1965, the Aral Sea received about 50 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year—a number that fell to zero by the early 1980s. Consequently, concentrations of salts and minerals began to rise in the shrinking body of water. That change in chemistry has led to staggering alterations in the lake’s ecology, causing precipitous drops in the Aral Sea’s fish population.

Good thing we would never do something that dumb. (Right?)

Earlier this month I tried, perhaps lamely, to argument that modern reason’s primary failing is not its tyrannical character but its hubris.  The more I’ve thought about it though, the more inclined I am to see these two features as intertwined.  At times modern reason is tyrannical precisely because this is the only way it can mitigate the consequences of its overreach, at other times its hubris grounds its demonic domination of its objects.  We can see both of these at play in the twentieth century’s great political failures: communism’s attempt to prove itself as a scientific fact and its subsequent inability to actually tame human thought entailed a tyrannical suppression of dissent, while in a reverse sense, fascism grounded its genocidal project on the absolute correctness of race science and the medical establishment.  Ignorance of human nature, both in its irrational and knowing aspects, and a willingness to bend that nature were the foundation on which both totalitarianisms were constructed. And that foundation, built on overreach and the ungrounded, was bound to eventually implode.

If we take seriously the notion that American democracy in its present form carries with it some vestiges of tyranny, albeit of a softer mode, then we should equally take seriously the ignorance that likely underlies that tyrannical mode.  There are things which our mode of life under Reason must obscure, and those things can take many forms. The gentle erosion of the home and place is one, global warming another.  Or if neither of these seems concrete enough, consider the Texas-sized wad of plastic now spinning in the middle of the Pacific:

It’s official: the plastic trash that our technologically advanced society produces has generated…. a new continent. It’s twice the size of Texas, and it floats in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean. As reported by the London Times, the massive trash dump consists of six million tons of plastic bags, bottles and other synthetic throwaways in various stages of degradation. This is actually only one-third of the estimated 18 million tons of plastic junk floating in the world’s oceans.

The tyranny, in this case, is levered against human life only by implication; the first target for its tyranny is the bare object of nature, an object whose exploitation covers up the fact of that exploitation, which creates entire classes and cultures, and that will ultimately circle around to challenge us again, just as communism’s choice to ignore economic realities did.

I recognize I’m a bit late to the table, but if you look here, you can see Alice Gunlock being asininely critical of Alice Waters and the very idea of organic/local food.  John Schwenkler responds with a rejection of gastronomic subjectivism.  James Poulos sees tensions between dignity and nobility.  I see a bad argument. Consider:

Waters introduced Lesley Stahl to a man that grows organic grapes and sells them for a staggering $4 a pound (to give non-shoppers some perspective on this price, grocery-store grapes usually cost under $2 a pound, and even most meat comes in under $4 a pound). 

While Stahl did seem surprised at the high price, Waters never directly addressed the cost issue; instead, she made an offhand remark that people would simply have to make the choice between expensive grapes and Nike tennis shoes. What she fails to appreciate is that some people can’t buy those tennis shoes either. It is not about making choices between two expensive items, it is about something much more fundamental. Particularly in this economic downturn, when about one in eight adults is currently out of a job and looking for work, many families are not just cutting back on luxuries, but are reassessing their food budgets and trying to save every penny they can. If Waters had been a little more frank, and simply affirmed that $4 a pound for grapes is a steep price that most people can’t afford, fair enough; instead, viewers were treated to a lecture on how we simply need to make better choices.

This is false.  The most local and organic food you’re going to find, namely, that grown in your backyard, is orders of magnitude cheaper than anything you’re going to find at the grocery store.   Growing your own food requires work, patience, maybe even (heaven forbid) some family time, but in terms of actual dollar investments, its quite cheap, provided you know what you’re doing. (Which Ms. Gunlock clearly does not.) Granted, gardening clearly isn’t a solution to America’s food problems, but the notion that people having a practical understanding of where food comes from and how to grow it is somehow elitist or unmanageably expensive is as bizarre as it is historically inaccurate.

Inevitably, environmental policy succeeds when it has a public face, and fails when it doesn’t. One can go down the list of successful initiatives and see a singular example for it: sick kids at Love Canal, declining Bald Eagle populations for the Endangered Species Act, Al Gore and starving polar bears for global warming, etc.   One of the major problems for environmentalists of the past 50 years has been that their symbols are counterbalanced by equal stark images of human need; starving children in need of industrialized agriculture and functional economies, lumber-industry workers stymied (or killed) by tree-spiking, farmers unable to protect their crops… The list goes on.

One of the few (very few) advantages of environmental decline becoming a fact of life is that this division between ecological issues and their symbols and the economic consequences will increasingly be implausible. As ecosystem instability begins to have real economic consequences, environmentalism will become human in ways it has never really been before.  Characters like Don Pierce, a fisherman in Chesapeake bay whose livelihood is being destroyed by agricultural run-off and the failure of environmentalists to actually deal with the problem, will become more and more common.


Pierce has been working these waters since he was a teenager. Forty-eight years now — already eight years’ experience under his belt when the world marked the first Earth Day in April 1970.

This year is the 40th anniversary, and Pierce is downbeat when assessing the health of the environmental treasure he loves — and on which he depends for his livelihood.

“Too much phosphorous, too much fertilizer, too much untreated waste,” Pierce says.

Where does it come from?

“We the people that live in the Chesapeake watershed mainly. We the people,” he says.

“Save the Bay” has been the region’s environmental cause for decades now. Pierce is both a believer and a skeptic.

“Where is that money going? I mean, you know there is lots of money being donated to help her, but she’s still going downhill. You know, if we were to get a catastrophic storm like a Katrina, she might never recover. You know, that’s how bad she is.”

Of course, people like Pierce have always existed, but its arguable that their increasing prevalence will ultimately force conservatives to begin addressing environmental concerns with more than rote dismissal and misleadingly titled efforts at deregulation. Conservatism from Reagan onwards has prided itself on being on the side of ordinary consumers, whose awareness of environmental issues is often quite limited but whose pocketbooks weigh rather heavily on their consciousness.  Should ecological decline progresses though, these people will be confronted with rising prices for food, energy and other natural resources and declines in the productivity of ecosystem-dependent jobs like farming, fishing, and lumber. The likelihood that voters will accept McCain-style tax tweaking as a solution for what are ultimately questions of market fundamentals will be quite low, but this still leaves the question of how to sell those policies wide open.

That’s why people like Pierce make the ideal face for an economically oriented, human-centered environmentalism that stands a chance with conservative voters.  His situation is powerful, not because of the pity it may evoke, or the concern for the ecosystem his livelihood depends on, but because ordinary Americans will be able to see themselves in his situation, and can see the connection that exists between his economic losses, their shrinking paychecks,  and the rising costs of, well, everything.

Of course, all of this may still be a ways off, but as last summer’s food price spike should demonstrate to everyone, ecological and economic crises can assert themselves quite dramatically in a very short amount of time, and policy elites who are able to adapt stand to gain a great deal.  (Or to lose it to rivals who are more effective in harnessing symbols to their cause.)