Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short."

A few tips of the hat to NRO's Corner, first for pointing out the following New Yorker cartoon:

I'll reiterate that I believe that modern technology brings its own problems, but I think those problems are more manageable: by orders of magnitude, childhood obesity is less of a crisis than is a famine.

The second hat-tip is for pointing out this New Yorker article by Steven Shapin. I took away from the article four things that ought to give crunchy consumers food for thought, if you'll pardon the phrase.
  1. In the struggle to meet one's nutritional needs, the flight from methods that resulted from the Industrial Revolution could logically lead to a flight from even the Agricultural Revolution. A writer named Michael Pollan seems to define moral eating by shrinking the chain between producer and consumer, and in his book he chronicles his journey to a meal that resulted (mostly) from hunting and foraging for food. Tying the crunchy movement to the New Yorker cartoon above isn't quite hyperbole.

  2. Concerns about where food comes from can lead to a kind of madness about the details. "What particular bacteria, fungi, and trace elements lurk in the soil of your sustainable community farm? Does your friendly local farmer use a tractor or a horse? If a tractor, does it use fuel made from biomass? If a horse, are the oats it eats organic? If the oats are organic, does the manure with which they were grown come from organically fed animals? How much of this sort of knowledge can you digest?"

  3. At the macro scale, organic farming may have a human cost. The author points to a study that suggests that the sudden removal of synthetic fertilizers could result in the deaths of billions.

  4. One can overemphasize the material world: Insisting that the salads we eat reflect a vision of society is "biting off more than most people are able and willing to chew. Cascadian Farm'’s Gene Kahn, countering the criticism that by growing big he had sold out, volunteered his opinion on the place that food has in the average person's life: 'This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it's just lunch.'"

It's a good article, with a lot of substantive criticism for some of the things Rod Dreher seems to advocate. I do wish he would read it and respond to it on his blog.

Of those four points, that last point is perhaps the most interesting for me, philosophically and theologically. Christianity stakes out for itself unusual ground in that, unlike the gnostics, it does not write off the physical universe as unreal or evil, but unlike the hedonists, it also does not embrace the physical universe as purely good. The universe is spoiled by sin -- once good, at least partially tainted and corrupted at present, but waiting for redemption at the end of history. Rod's focus on the physical details of his room and board during his temporary stay on planet Earth may be no less materialistic than the pop culture he rejects.

But let's move from the theological to more mundane matters. Rod Dreher seems to oppose growing meat in a laboratory. (I write "seems to" because Rod quotes a reader of his blog without making entirely clear whether he agrees.)


Factory farming. Laboratory farming. Mass starvation.

It may not be that these are our only options, but there are consequences for every choice. Again, the sudden removal or prohibition of synthetic fertilizers could result in the deaths of billions; African farmers are having trouble selling their wares to Europe because Europeans seem to have their own elite sensibility when it comes to food; the prohibition of factory farming would surely make meat less affordable for and less available to the poor, because if organic farming methods were less costly, farmers would have already migrated to those methods en masse.

So, if it came down to those three options, I wonder what Rod Dreher would choose, and why. Is it more important that food be sacramentally grown or that human beings not starve to death?

Or, given his broad pronouncement about beauty being more important than efficiency, do we already know the answer to that?


Blogger Diane said...

"It's just lunch." Exactly. Good grief, this is so blindingly obvious to most normal, ordinary people. IMHO, the Crunchy attitude toward food approaches idolatry.

BTW, this is slightly off-topic, but...for a perfectly delicious (no pun intended) sendup of Food Cranks, see P.G. Wodehouse's story, "Jeeves and the Old School Chum." If you haven't already read it, you may want to pick it up at Amazon. It's part of a collection of short stories, most of which are very, very funny.

2:49 PM  
Blogger kathleen said...

There's another recent New Yorker cartoon that reminded me of Dreher and company:

man sitting at a bar talking to a woman --

"But when I became a man, I put away childish thingees. Thingamabobs. Whatever."

10:25 PM  
Blogger Pauli said...

What-cha-ma-call-its. Doo-hickeys.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

I've been meaning to comment on this very thoughtful post. Hope it's not too late now. :)

I was especially drawn to this very perceptive point: "Concerns about where food comes from can lead to a kind of madness about the details."


At another forum, a group of us were discussing the Crunchy Con thing recently---shortly after I'd heard about it for the first time. One of the forumites is a recent convert to Orthodoxy from a strict form of fundamentalism. It turns out that she was a very early member of the homeschooling movement, and that she and her fellow religious homsechoolers lived a very crunchy lifestyle waaaay back before it acquired its current cachet. (This was during her strict-fuindamentalist period.)

She critiqued the crunchy lifestyle from the perspective of someone who spent many years in it. Her posts were fascinating, to say the least.

For example, she reported that, in her experience, crunchyism breeds an us-vs.-them mentality, spiritual pride out the wazoo, and pharisaical contempt for the non-crunchy hoi polloi. She recounted how crunchy fanaticism had destroyed her friends' marriages, destroyed people's faith, and ruined lives.

And she mentioned that "madness about the details." The crunchy quest for purity, she said, leads to obsessive legalism: "OK, I bake my own bread, but shouldn't I be grinding my own flour? Shouldn't I grow my own wheat? Shouldn't it be organically grown wheat?" And so on. The self-questioning never ends, and it can drive one bonkers.

Hers was an especially eloquent testimony because it was measured and moderate (as well as based on years of experience). She has not eschewed all aspects of "crunchiness"; she still homeschools (as do we); she still lives in the country (us, too). But man, did she ever nail the pitfalls of the sort of prescriptive, fussy Crunchyism that seeks to set itself up as some sort of Superior Way for the Truly Enlightened.

Naturally, forumites who (unlike her) had *not* spent years in this lifestyle jumped all over her. Oh well.


10:29 PM  
Blogger boomerang said...

I guess you folks weren't concerned when industrialized beef farms started feeding beef cuts to their cattle as a source of protein. h well what's a little mad-cow disease. Its just lunch.

6:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home