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The Importance of Being Earnest: Documenting Experiments in Anti-Systemic Lifestyles

Barbara Kingsolver Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins, 2007).

Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet (Three Rivers Press, 2007).

Sara Bongiorni, A Year Without “Made in China”: Our Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy (John Wiley & Sons, 2007

Colin Beavan, No Impact Man (noimpactman.typepad.com)

 

A world-renown novelist moves her family from Tucson to Southern Appalachia to farm and eat locally for one harvest cycle, following in the footsteps of a couple who has limited their diet to food from a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver apartment.  Around the same time, a Louisiana woman boycotts Chinese products for 365 days, and a New York City man attempts to net zero impact on the environment for one full year.  It is not just the overlapping themes, but also the purpose, strategy, and form that connect these projects.  Each is a year-long experiment in lifestyle undertaken as a mode of action against a central aspect of the world (food/trade/energy) system, and each is the subject of a recent or forthcoming book.  (Beavan’s book and movie are due out in 2009.)  Mock or idolize these experimenters as you may, there is no denying that their books, websites, and blogs are the testaments, if not quite the bibles, of the “new earnestness” that has taken hold amongst many in the global north who want to live rather than just spout their progressive politics.[1]  These books, promise the editorial reviews featured on their front and back covers, will “change your life” and “the way you experience the world.”[2]

The concerns of the newly earnest are indeed overarching.  On their own and as a group, these projects portray a status quo in which the food we eat, the goods we buy, and the energy we use comprise a mutually reinforcing web of destructive forces that are eroding the health and wellbeing of our planet and its inhabitants.  The implicit goal of these one-year projects is to help establish an alternative system, one that does not conform to the destructive logic of the transnational corporation.

While the sentiment is undoubtedly left-leaning, the strategy is decidedly decentralized and markedly dissociated from anything like state-sponsored socialism.  There is no room for a Stalin or even an FDR in these one-year plans.  The emphasis on individual lifestyle choices over legislative change emanates in part from a sense of frustration with the pace of politics with a capital “p.”  “The way I see it,” writes Beavan, “waiting for the senators and the CEOs to change the way we treat the world is taking too long.”  The question Beavan asked himself is the question that seems to motivate all of these projects: “What would it be like if I took the situation (or at least my tiny part of it) into my own hands?”

The individual can-do-ism and pioneer spirit that characterizes this statement and the one-year experiments more generally is undoubtedly “American,” central to the oratory and narrative that helped shape the nation’s self-image.  “Build, therefore, your own world,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.  “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.”[3]  As in the writings of many transcendentalists, in these works, taking the situation into one’s own hands manifests not as the attempt to achieve the proverbial version of the American dream but rather as a temporary opting out of that dream in order to recover a more pristine version of it.  Whether they involve foregoing the luxuries of mangoes and pop-tarts, plastic children’s toys and coffeemakers, or running water and electricity, these projects belong to the larger attempt to “get off the grid” or “unplug from the matrix,” in the lingo of the no-impact movement.

Ostensibly, the main draw of these part memoir, part journalism narratives is the question of whether such lifestyle changes can actually impact the system.  “Will our single-family decision to step off the nonsustainable food grid give a black eye to that petroleum-hungry behemoth?” asks Kingsolver early on in her book (21).  Kingsolver and the others provide the answers to such large-order questions almost as soon as they ask them.  On the whole, those whose experiments focus on local eating (Kingsolver, Smith, and Mackinnon) are modestly optimistic, seeing themselves as part of a larger movement that has grown as a result of others making choices similar to theirsBeavan strikes a more agnostic note, preferring not to make any predictions, while Bongiorni outright admits that her boycott will probably do little if anything to reduce the ever-growing number of Chinese imports into the U.S.  Such sober conclusions counter the obvious criticism that these individuals are merely utopian idealists.  At the same time, they also threaten to deflate the importance of the projects in the first place and make the hundreds of pages that follow seemingly unnecessary.

As it turns out, the value of these experiments does not depend on whether or not they actually change the world system in a year or even in a hundred years.  Rather, like many a pioneer narrative, whether or not you attain your ultimate dream matters less than the experiences you have and the things you learn along the way.  The words “adventure,” “journey,” and “discovery” pervade the back covers and pages of each of these books, but not in the stereotypical “action story” sense.  Instead of life-and-death trials, the bulk of the narrative is devoted to the highs and lows of everyday life “off-the-grid”—waiting for the asparagus to be harvested, raising and killing your own chickens, traversing the hundred-mile circumference around Vancouver in search of local protein, and scouring the malls of the Gulf Coast for children’s sneakers that are not manufactured in China.  These and similar experiences are portrayed as sometimes enjoyable and sometimes harrowing, but always in some sense more than quotidian.

The value of such moments, we come to see, lies largely in relationships, specifically, the recovery and cultivation of lost, stagnant, or non-existent connections.  The most central relationship is that of the nuclear family.  In each of the projects, the family embarks on the experiment collectively and in both local eating experiments, the family members write the book collaboratively.  (Kingsolver’s narrative is punctuated by pithy sidebars written by her husband, Stephen Hopp, and stories of family traditions and recipes written by her teenage daughter.  Smith and Mackinnon alternate authorship in each chapter of their book.)  The family-oriented nature of these experiments lends a certain hearth-like quality to the genre, in which quality time with spouse and kids—cooking, eating, reading—supplants the time otherwise given over to the television, computer, and other fossil-fuel guzzling, small-business-destroying devices.  No doubt, the challenge of the experiment puts a degree of strain on the household.  To varying degrees, such stressors are more or less present and serious.  While the domestic squabbles are relatively absent in Animal, Vegetable, and Miracle, in both Made in China and Plenty, the difficulties of married life are exacerbated by the self-imposed rules of the experiment.  Periodically, one spouse “cheats” on both the experiment and his or her partner by openly or secretly abandoning the rules—buying a Chinese garden tool and peeling off the label or eating a TV dinner while away on vacation.  There are long stretches of time in which the Vancouver couple hardly speaks to one another.  These lows however serve only as preludes to the new highs that bring the family not only back together but closer than ever before, whether over a homemade fish soup or a pair of Italian sunglasses.       

In addition to bringing the family closer to itself, the experiment also brings the family into contact with others who share their lifestyle and the values associated with it.  It allows them to be part of a community—of locavores (the self-ascribed moniker of the local eaters), of carbon-imprint counters, and of fellow China boycotters.  The idea of community is most concrete and affirming in the local eating projects, in which face-to-face interactions with one’s neighbors, small-scale farmers, milliners, and artisanal cheese makers are central to the lifestyle.  The colorful agrarians and craftspeople profiled in Animal and Plenty include a Twain-quoting dairy farmer in Pennsylvania who was born in the same house as his grandfather, drives a horse and buggy, and daily communes with the birds and insects that pollinate his crops and a vagrant named Roy who lives in a tent in the British Columbia “bush,” cans freshly-caught salmon, and makes moonshine from potatoes.  As with the evolving dynamic of the nuclear family, the friendship that Kingsolver, Smith, and Mackinnon have with these individuals is, shall we say, vintage.  Lemonade (for Kingsolver) and moonshine (for Smith and Mackinnon) over a leisurely afternoon of storytelling.  These “old school” and “down home” friendships are portrayed as nourishing the soul as well as the body, fostering connections that might not have been recognized otherwise.  Kingsolver, in particular, frames her friendships with small farmers as evidence that cosmopolitan urbanites and progressives agrarians have more in common than the socio-political divide between urban and rural suggests.

Community in the other experiments is more abstract and sometimes less affirming.  Bongiorni certainly wants to be part of a group of people who are serious about creating a genuine movement against buying Chinese products.  But, in her search for compatriots, she discovers that, for the most part, the only other people who are as serious as her about such an effort are racist xenophobes who refer to the Chinese as “scum” and spread alarmist rumors of China’s attempt to annex the U.S. (42).  In contrast to the old-fashioned interactions that are central to the locavore movement, the comments posted on Beavan’s daily blog reflect the drawbacks as well as benefits of community-building in the digital age.  While some of Beavan’s readers engage in genuine conversation, others shower Beavan with the extreme praise that tends to preempt conversation, and a few lambast Beavan in terms they would probably be embarrassed or ashamed to use in person.  Notably, the most hostile comments on the blog come from anti-urban readers who see the No Impact Man project as the brainchild of “Elitist Leftist nuts,” and tell Beavan to “find out how real people live.  Beyond that land of lunacy known as Manhattan.”[4]

In different ways and to varying extents, these experimenters also aspire to revitalize a community that is both broader than the local and narrower than the global.  Namely, the nation.  The national scope is obvious in Made in China, the book that is not only the most overtly patriotic but also the most vulnerable to accusations of nationalism in the pejorative sense.  Despite her caveats to the contrary, when Bongiorni claims that “China is taking over” her living room (5) and decides to “stop bringing China through the front door,” (6) she perpetuates the racism and xenophobia that has historically characterized the “Buy American” movement.[5]  The inherently limited geographical range of the other projects would seem to leave the national community beyond their scope.  It is true that there is a strong sense of regionalism amongst locavores, inherent in the very name they have given themselves.  Both Kingsolver and Mackinnon are most lyrical when they nostalgically describe Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest respectively.  Importantly, however, these moments are not just odes to a specific region, however, but also examples of American national bounty, the bounty that sustained the farmers and hunters of the New World long before the industrial revolution. (In these reflections on America, the U.S.-Canada border becomes rather irrelevant.)  Such descriptions serve as points of departure for discussions of American food culture or lack thereof.  The idea that knowledge of when, where, and how food grows “has vanished from our culture” (Kingsolver, 9) has become a common theme in the local food movement.[6]  “We’re a nation with an eating disorder, and we know it,” writes Kingsolver (18).  Detailing their experiences of local eating in America for an audience of American readers, the local eating memoirs see value in attempting to “find a real American culture of food” (Kingsolver, 20).

At every register of relationship in these books—the family, the local community, the nation—the domestic (in the double-sense of the word) imagery and tone are so prevalent that it becomes easy to overlook the arguments that these writers offer on behalf of a more global community.

At times, the desire for global human justice and planetary sustainability in these projects is muted by the fact that such concepts tend to be invoked in a somewhat fleeting and superficial manner, one that does not seem to allow time for insight and reflection.  Bongiorni, for example, periodically frames her project as a response to exploited labor in China and a way of giving other countries a chance to export their goods to the U.S.  Before she can reflect on the complicated and problematic relationship of her project to laborers in China and elsewhere, however, she shifts her attention to the relatively trivial challenges of her boycott—what to buy for children’s birthday parties and for Christmas, which Bongiorni starts obsessing over in September.  Kingsolver and Hopp have a more refined sense of global social consciousness.  The plight of the small farmer in developing countries is, they suggest, inextricably linked to that of small farmers in the U.S.  The answer to this problem, argues Hopp in one of his sidebars, is to help small farmers sell their food locally.  Kingsolver insists that this approach is not “provincial,” but global.  In contrast to the ruminating quality of the book overall, however, the relation detailed between local and global action has a harried, even peremptory feel.  Like Bongiorni, Kingsolver and Hopp do not seem as willing to reflect on the many facets of the global dilemma as they are on the more local aspects of their experiments.  How these particular anti-systemic projects stand to both benefit and harm the workers of the global south is largely left for the reader to contemplate herself.

If these experimenters are somewhat less than interested in reflecting on the human workers of the world per se, they are quite invested in thinking about the relationship between first world consumers and the non-human and inanimate goods we buy from around the world.  Ostensibly, this preoccupation with the thing rather than the laborers who make it reflects the “fetish of the commodity” that Marx so famously critiqued.[7]  Upon closer inspection, this fixation on the commodity serves as a path to insights that tap into Marxist themes, but in a way that is palatable for a popular American audience.

“Distance is the enemy of awareness,” argue Smith and Mackinnon in underscoring the fact that Americans are not conscious of the origins and treatment of the food they eat (63).  The distance they refer to is not only physical (food travels an average of 1,500 miles on its way to the supermarket), but also psychological.  We are so estranged from our food that, for the most, we don’t even bother to think about such questions as where, when, and how it grows, or for that matter, who grows it.  “All is hidden and anonymous,” they observe (33).  If there is a veiled echo of Marx’s critique of the commodity fetish here, then Kingsolver, in discussing the same problem, offers a more stark adaptation of a central Marxist concept.  Just as the labor of the worker becomes alien to him in Marx’s framework, suggests Kingsolver, so has food become alien to the American consumer in this framework.  Americans, she writes, suffer from “alimentary alienation” (131).

“Discovery,” in this context, means becoming conscious of the process through which food and other commodities are produced and exchanged.  Seen in this light, Bongiorni’s trips to the mall are not simply acts of fetishism, but also attempts to defetishize the commodities she is buying by dwelling on aspects of the production and exchange process.  There are a few instances, albeit brief and rather directionless, in which her obsessive checking of labels becomes the catalyst for reflections on where, how, and by whom things are produced.  This uncovering of “hidden” knowledge is central to the local eating projects.  Smith and Mackinnon introduce the concept of “traceability” to underscore this importance of tracking down the sources of one’s food in their experiment (54).  Along the same lines, Kingsolver describes her family’s project as “a year in which we made every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew” (9-10).  The documentation of the process by which the family uncovers the source of their commodities allows the reader to experience “traceability” vicariously.  On the one hand, we feel enraged when we discover that the salmon in a river near Vancouver were poisoned by toxic waste and disturbed when we learn that industrial poultry are no longer genetically capable of natural reproduction.  On the other hand, we also feel excited when Kingsolver harvests the asparagus (the first spring vegetable and the one with the shortest growing season) and when Mackinnon happens upon wild flowers he can use for the evening’s soup.

As long as we are considering the more subtle links between these local experiments and their global philosophical counterparts, it may be worth noting that Marx himself understood the importance of sustainable agriculture, which sometimes led him to see the land itself as an exploited worker: “All progress in capitalistic agriculture,” wrote Marx, “is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil” (416-417).  It is in this vein of understated connections with more theoretical critiques of the system that these projects’ emphasis on “quality” time with their friends and family also becomes more salient.  The newly earnest are not just rebelling against the harried schedule of contemporary life, but also becoming more aware of how this schedule is itself a key aspect of production and consumption in the global capitalist system.

The discovery of more theoretically developed anti-systemic critiques within these deliberately anti-theoretical projects does not erase the contradictions and tensions I have highlighted.  Rather, it allows us to reflect on these contradictions and tensions as part of even the most theoretically sophisticated critiques of the global system.  In this sense, the uneasy relationship between localism and internationalism in these texts is not just a symptom of stubborn or lazy thinking.  Rather, it suggests the presence of a similar uneasiness in Marxist-oriented anti-systemic thought.  Advocates of social progressivism have long struggled with the problem of how to enact global change in a world where power is sought and wielded primarily at the level of the state.[8]  Several other issues in the books of the newly earnest become more salient when they are juxtaposed with the broader genre of anti-systemic thought.  For example, the urban-rural divide that so clearly characterizes the comments on Beavan’s blog, and which Kingsolver takes great pains to overcome, has long been a sticking point in theories of progressive social change.  Are Christian fundamentalist farmers living in upstate New York and gay consumers of local food living in New York City really on the same side?  This difficult question is not entirely divorced from Marx’s concern that the peasantry could never really be part of the revolutionary class (482).  Even the nostalgia for the America of yesteryear can be seen as part of a larger tension between new and old, development, and anti-development, that animates anti-systemic thought.  Because he had a faith in the future inevitability of communism, Marx saw capitalist development as progress, so much so that it justified the British colonization of India (658).  Without such a sense of the future’s inevitable benevolence, however, self-ascribed progressives are more tempted to idealize a mythically benevolent past, one seemingly devoid of the ominous problems we confront today.  The definition of progress in anti-systemic politics as yet remains unclear.[9]

The provocative overlaps between these decentralized anti-theoretical, experiments and their more globally-minded theoretical counterparts tend to becomes less pronounced toward the end of the books, as the newly earnest attempt to take stock of the meaning and importance of their respective experiments.  At this point, they once again narrow their focus to themselves and their families.  At the end of the 365 days, each of the families is happy to discover that they have internalized the habits they practiced and the experiences they had over the course of the year.  What began as a temporary change has become, with slight modifications, a permanent way of life.  Looking back, they see how this lifestyle has contributed to their individual character and outlook more than anything else.  They are not only more disciplined and socially conscious, but also more content with small victories.  Kingsolver’s victory at the end of the year is her successful natural breeding of heirloom turkeys.  For Smith and Mackinnon, it is a trip to the ocean to gather seawater for salt, and for Bongiorni, it is the purchase of a watch battery that is actually made in the U.S.A.

Settling for personal victories over the system, the newly earnest avoid the problem of addressing systemic problems at a systemic level.  The regulation of food, energy, and trade by national and international law is amongst the most important of the elements that tend to get lost in such a localized politics.  Until the regulations of the World Trade Organization change, farmers in developing countries will continue to compete with highly subsidized agribusinesses in the U.S. and Europe for a share of their local markets.  Until car companies are forced to implement greener practices the way they were once forced to put seatbelts in cars, the pace of change will be slower than the need for change.  And until multinational corporations are forced to observe labor standards worldwide the way U.S. employers were forced to observe child labor laws, workers in developing countries will continue to be exploited.

Kingsolver rightfully predicts that “cynics” will “ridicule” the sorts of personal victories she and others have experienced by branding them “small gestures,” too self-absorbed to be really socially significant.  We cynics ought not to lose sight of the need for victories that go beyond individual lifestyle.  At the same time, we might do well to recognize the flirtatious and potentially productive, if also sometimes fleeting and abortive, connection between the small gesture and the grand one.

 

Notes 

[1] The phrase “new earnestness” has been cropping up in many recent discussions of political action, particularly those with a global scope.  See for example “Renewing a Call to Act Against Climate Change,” New York Times, March 14, 2007.

[2] These claims appear respectively on the front cover of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the back cover of Plenty.

[3] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836; repr. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 94.

[4] Comment posted to “What You Need to Know” section of Beavan’s website:

http://noimpactman.typepad.com/blog/2007/02/what_you_need_t.html

 [5] See Dana Frank, Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

[6] This theme is central in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on American food culture and history, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006).

 [7] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One in ed. Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 321.

 [8] Giovanni Arrighi, Terrence Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein focus on this problem in their contemporary classic, Antisystemic Movements (New York: Verso, 1989).

 [9] For an anti-systemic critique of the liberal development paradigm, see for example, Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

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