Environmental Imagination: The Food Movement and Climate Change

01/11/2012 09:46 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2012

The two most visible environmental issues today, climate change and agriculture, are about as different as they could be. Taken together, though, they give some reminders. Environmental consciousness is very young. Its challenge to some of the ways we live is deep. And it can be a great source of cultural and political creativity and renewal.

Climate change is huge and diffuse. It works on a literally planetary scale. No one can say for sure that it is the cause behind any particular event, like a drought or storm. Part of the challenge to doing anything about it is that it is hard to imagine, easy to ignore, impossible to touch. Even as the scientific warnings around climate change grow clearer and louder, fewer Americans believe in or care about it, and national action on it is dead for now.

Food has been on everyone's mind for most of a decade -- where it comes from, what it does to us, how it affects the rest of the natural world. It doesn't require global vision or national action. Where I live, in central North Carolina, and all over the country, a new generation of kids is scrounging farmland and experimenting in making a living from the land. What they're after is as local and concrete as it gets. By sticking their hands in the dirt, eating what they or a neighbor planted, they are turning a network of ignorance -- the anonymous, placeless food of industrial agriculture, with all its invisible polluting side-effects -- into a circuit of knowledge: here I planted it, here it grew, and here it will turn back into soil when it's done.

That is the purest version, to be sure, and not all that much food comes from these purists, but I'd argue that the tens of millions of eaters with a new interest in the environmental, ethical, and health quality of their food are after versions of the same thing: taming an opaque tangle of simple calories and complicated harm by drawing some clearer lines from the field to the table.

Personal action, even ordinary collective action, is frustratingly ineffective against climate change. Greenhouse gases emitted in one place are equally diffused through the global atmosphere a year later. Self-restraint, even by fair-sized countries, gets swamped by everyone else's self-indulgence.

By contrast, a person can draw the circuit of eating close enough to make a real difference in her own health and, if she coordinates with growers, in the health of a piece of land. Community springs up naturally around growing, selling, preparing, and eating food, where every step of the process makes a difference. There isn't much community around climate change because it so thoroughly frustrates the personal and shared acts that form a community practice.

This comparison raises a distressing thought. It's often said about eating disorders that people who feel their lives are out of their control focus great acts of will on the small area they can control, their own eating. A cynic could see the food-conscious United States as frantically engaged in a symbolic environmental micro-practice that we can understand and control, while an all-pervading macro-problem broods and prepares to wreck large parts of the world we know. Maybe there is something to this.

But there's another way of looking at the two issues that is more hopeful. For all their practical differences, climate and food are both cardinal examples of the ecological insight that made environmentalism possible: everything is connected, so what we drop into rivers, winds, or soil ends up in our bloodstreams. Flashes of this thought appeared in the nineteenth century and much earlier, but as a guiding principle it really dates from after World War Two. Widespread appreciation of it goes back no further than Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published fifty years ago, which detailed the silent, terrible, invisible journey of pesticides through the capillaries of a poisoned world.

In big ways, the modern food movement goes back to an eccentric, powerful, and often beautiful book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. Writing in 1977, as the first popular wave of environmental awareness and activism crested, Berry tied ecological destruction to the American food economy. In the move from diversified, small-scale agricultural to industrial production, he saw a larger decline in miniature: from integrated organic fertility to systems that import artificial fertilizer to the farm and discard rich manure as a pollutant, breaking (in Berry's phrase) one solution into two problems; from intimate knowledge of a piece of land and its species to the tunnel-vision ignorance of the industrially enabled, public subsidized ignorance of someone who produces of one thing, whether corn, wheat, or pork, in a radically simplified system; from respect for the hard but sometimes good work of farming to dislike, even contempt, of labor, which came with a willingness to make agricultural labor, in industrial poultry plants and slaughterhouses, as degrading as it has ever been.

Berry argued that the two approaches to food had different ethics at their core. One was oriented to caretaking, sustainability, and good work: qualitative values that set limits to the willingness to exploit a place for present convenience. The other turned its face to maximization: maximum calorie production as government policy, maximum profit for agribusiness, and the same industrial ideal for the small farmer caught between the two. These quantitative values would set no limit to human actions as long as production and profit continued. In fact, they would tend to overrun any limits on profitable production. And, because complex and long-distance systems tended to hide from eaters all the harm their food had done along the way, this system involved us all in damaging nature and our own bodies and made that damage hard to see and harder to trace.

So the food system, viewed in 1977, had a certain amount in common with climate change today. It was -- and still is, in good part -- a scheme of ignorance, convenience, and destruction that turned our everyday activity into a small weapon against environmental health and, ultimately, our own well-being.

There were technical reasons to doubt that it could get better, but it wasn't only a technical problem. It was also a cultural problem. Then two-plus generations of idealists and eccentrics got busy on the cultural problem. Journalists like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) made the environmental and human harms of industrial agriculture indelibly visible. Farmers rediscovered and pioneered integrated techniques, but they also rediscovered, and drew others into, the idea that responsible, productive, knowledgeable work is good work, and that getting to do that work is a gift, not (just) a burden. The young people starting farms, and lining up to work on other people's, aren't doing it for the profit margins, the hourly wage, or the vacation. And those who like to buy from these farms, or from responsible larger producers, have realized that knowledge of your food is a gain, ignorance a loss, and are trying to make up some of our huge cultural loss.

The new farming movement turns the ecological perspective from a way of diagnosing problems to a way of imagining a good life: taking part in ecological processes with as little harm, as much knowledge, and as much pleasure as possible. That people are making this happen, even as a series of experiments, strikes me as powerful evidence that a culture can heal some of its self-inflicted wounds. Wendell Berry's book, which was a jeremiad, now looks like a friendlier kind of prophecy, thanks to its readers.

Maybe our next question is whether climate change is also a cultural problem as well as a technical one, and, if so, what a cultural response would look like. There's no doubt that climate change arises directly from how we live: like people who treasure convenience, power, and speed, who disperse around the world as we collapse distance and time, and who have learned to treat waiting -- for anything -- as an affront. All of that takes power, that is, energy. Energy-wise, we are the most powerful generation of the most powerful species this planet has carried on its groaning back. For this to change, either our energy will have to become much less environmentally damaging, or our lives will have to do the same. Considering that energy efficiency and total greenhouse-gas emissions have skyrocketed together for centuries now, these are probably false alternatives. The real question is whether both changes together could be enough.

The cultural experiments so far are nibbling around the edges. A few individuals and organizations buy carbon offsets. A few more, genuinely hard-core, live with zero or near-zero net carbon emissions in their own lives. Communities commit to reducing their emissions, regardless of what the rest of the country or the world is doing, and start planning together for major climate change -- a prudent thing to do, for sure, but also a community-building exercise of imagination.

What more, if anything, can we do? The history of environmental politics shows that people act most effectively when they have something to fear, but, while averting the threat, also find something to love. Americans saved their national forests and parks because they were afraid of running out of timber and healthy open spaces, but also because they had learned to find joy in wild lands that had once frightened them. They passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act because Rachel Carson and others had taught them to fear industrial poison, but also because they were coming to revere the idea of ecological harmony and prize swimmable streams and clear, visible air. (That's not to say we have enough of these, but the ideals, as well as the threats, helped to motivate these laws.)

Maybe climate change will prove too diffuse and global to get our minds around, and show once and for all that we are too selfish and parochial to be running a whole planet. Maybe the food movement will turn out to be what some have always called it, an elitist fad.

But maybe we learn something about climate from the last forty years of food culture. We could use ways of imagining, and caring for, the planet's atmospheric system as acutely as we do national parks and our own neighborhoods. We need ways to find beauty in its balances, take awe from its power, and feel what it means when the whole planet's metabolism changes. And we would be awfully indebted to anyone who could help us to live in more knowledgeable ways that did less harm, and be more fulfilled with that.

It sounds utopian, for sure. But we don't live only on the energy reserves of the planet's history. We also live on the unacknowledged utopian imagination of our ancestors, who envisioned seemingly impossible forms of freedom and satisfaction that we treat as if they were natural.

We should unlock our own utopian imagination to think about living well for the future on the planet we have made, and are remaking faster every year. The cultural change around food is a modest but important reminder that we can.