March 22, 2015

Well, I spent a few hours reading Aristotle this week, and you know that spells trouble for both readers of the Thornapple blog. I just couldn’t resist Googling ‘incontinence’. It turns out that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for ‘incontinence’. Who knew? One link refers to a 1981 album by Fad Gadget. I’m sorry, but even in 1981 I was not hipster enough to be into Fad Gadget. In 1971 I probably would have been attracted to an album entitled ‘Incontinence’, even if I had never heard of the band that put it out. I remember once when I came across an “all whistling” album by Pat Boone in the bargain bin at Peaches. Somehow, I resisted that one, and today I wish I hadn’t. I bet it’s worth a fortune. By 1981 I already had other types of incontinence on my mind.

So I picked the title for this week’s blog to lure my readers into the suspicion that I was going to make some sophomoric observation between food ethics and the link on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page that takes you to ‘fecal incontinence’. But not so fast, Chucko! There are four (count ‘em, four) types of incontinence identified by the astute and inquiring authors of Wikipedia (e.g. you, me and Bill). In addition to the two already discussed there is also urinary incontinence, which might also suggest sophomoric tangents, but is also not where we are headed this Sunday. Today it’s Wikipedia’s fourth possibility which (and I quote) takes us to the Wikipedia page entitled “Incontinence (philosophy)”. Once there one finds an entire three sentences under the heading “Aristotle”. Proving that I’m not the dumb cluck you might have thought I was.

This rather short article in Wikipedia also includes references to St. Augustine, Spenser and Jane Austin. In each case incontinence means allowing oneself to be overcome by a controlling passion, especially with respect to bodily enjoyment. Incontinence is thus a fairly basic problem for ethics and you really shouldn’t be surprised to see it coming up in connection to food. Being overcome by the temptations of sumptuous (or even just physically present) food is a pretty familiar experience in the food rich environment of 21st century post-industrial society. Having the feeling that you really shouldn’t indulge in that blueberry donut, those chili cheese fries or that crème brûlée must have occurred to the majority of people with a readily available Internet connection. Although there are definitions of ethics which would suggest that resisting those feelings is a matter for prudence rather than morality, we’ll just ignore the fine points of that distinction this morning in order to say a thing or two about dietary incontinence.

Incontinence is supposed to be a problem in some quarters of philosophy because the incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but just doesn’t do it. “How is that possible?” ask some of my professorial colleagues, scratching their heads in puzzlement. Now I should add right away that such philosophers are not the dolts that this kind of behavior might lead you expect. Their puzzlement is derived from a reading of Aristotle (or possibly Socrates) which suggests that knowledge of the good normally and naturally inclines one to simply do it. In fact, I don’t think that Aristotle thought that at all. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Aristotle thinks simply following one’s bodily inclinations is pretty normal for an immature consciousness. It’s also clear that he thinks we get enculturated into our understanding of the good through practice and habit. Like with bowling, Sudoku or cake decoration, we can’t abstractly understand the attraction or pleasure that one might take in virtue until we actually learn to practice it. Once you’ve mastered the practice, the enjoyment comes so naturally that one is never tempted to do otherwise. But it’s not clear that Aristotle supposes such mastery to be achieved very often. Incontinence occurs in that middle case where one has enough experience to feel the pull of virtue, but has not yet taken it so thoroughly to heart that no contrary feelings pull in other directions. Maybe that middle case applies to most of us.

If that crème brûlée is still staring you in the face after this somber exercise, take this consolation from William James: “But as I have enough trouble in life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle.”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


High Tunnel Time

March 15, 2015

After a full week of when daytime highs rose well above forty degrees and nighttime lows remained above freezing there is quite a bit of muddy green showing in the Michigan landscape this morning. There is also still a fair amount of snow in my yard. I doubt that the areas along the curb where it was piled high from shoveling will be clear even by tomorrow night, despite the predicted high for 2015 at 66°. Diane was out at Appleschram Orchard yesterday attending to the hoophouse where the early season pickings for Thornapple CSA will very soon be enjoying the convection-warmed air. Maybe I should take a week off from this season’s musings on food and culture to say just a word about the hoophouse.

First a note on terminology. I’m sure all the hipsters among my readers already know it, but we have some great new words to toss around over our pumpkin spice macchiato these days. Like, “Did you see that high tunnel going up on the North Farm above Chatham?” I could spin off a tangent here by explaining how I can be so sure that every enumerable hipster among my devoted audience of readers knows this, but I’ll resist the temptation for epistemological diversions. Both of my regular readers can probably fill in these details for themselves.

A “high tunnel” is a kind of hoophouse. A hoophouse is a kind of greenhouse, specifically one constructed by placing a row of metal hoops in the ground and then covering them with plastic. Generally speaking, a high tunnel is a hoophouse that is tall enough to stand up and work in. Low tunnels—hipsters may know them as “quick hoops”—are placed over plants to produce a little early season warming and to keep the frost off. They get taken off when the danger of freezing temperature is safely past. High tunnels are more permanent fixtures, though there are some very fancy ones mounted on wheels that can be rolled back to give the plants inside the full benefit of summer sunshine. You can also peel the plastic back off of a regular high tunnel, but that’s a lot of trouble. It’s not something you are likely to see at Thornapple CSA’s farm.

Hoophouses have revolutionized the production of vegetables for local markets, especially in Northern climes. By this time of year the late winter sun comes through and warms the air inside, creating an internal convection inside the tunnel that can add 15-20° to the outside temperature. This is not a big deal on days when it does reach 66°, but that doesn’t happen every day of the week in March (or April, for that matter). Nor does it happen every day in October and November. The extra warming is big on days when it fails to crack 40°, and huge when that late March snow comes in and it’s 22° at 9:00 in the morning. And, obviously, the physical barrier of the plastic is important for just keeping the snow off of the tender plants during their early season moments of vulnerability—something working for low tunnels, too. It’s less clear that you get a lot of protection from insects and plant diseases, but there is a shield that works as a first line of defense.

The hoophouse is one of the reasons why it is just fallacious to suggest that organic and local production is a nostalgic return to the farm production of yesteryear. Next time you are down at the coffee bar, try using the term “high tunnel” very casually in a conversation. If you are very ambitious, you can explain the bit about fallacious inferences too. Just remember that ‘fallacious’ rhymes with salacious, and be prepared for someone to take it the wrong way.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Professorship in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Relational Value

March 8, 2015

It may seem trite and it may be overworked but it doesn’t hurt to notice how comforting food can be to people from time to time. I’m not talking about so-called “comfort food”. That’s become a restaurant industry term for foods that hark back to the middle-class menus that were pretty standard across Middle America during the middle of the 20th century. The standard comfort foods are meatloaf, mashed potatoes and mac & cheese. There are probably a few other m foods in there. They may be largely responsible for the expanding middle of many middle-aged men. Today they are typically of middling quality, too.

A bit more seriously (if not particularly somberly), I’m taking a moment out here to celebrate a kind of food ethics that is focused on relational values. I have to pause and take a deep breath now because discoursing on ‘relational values’ could get rather ponderous, if not somber—and that could lead right on to pomposity. Not meaning to be pompous, I do mean indeed to speak on the pompitous of love (as Steve Miller had it), because when I say ‘relational value,’ I mean a value that is expressive or constitutive of a relationship. And no relationship throws off more pompitous heat than love.

We might be talking about family love. That would probably be the typical occasion for food-centered relational values (at least in Mid-Century Middle America). Mom’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes or mac & cheese could spark tender feelings, even when the mac & cheese came right out of the famous blue box. Whether or not these foods really were prepared out of a deep sense of caring (and I’m not saying they weren’t) they become emblematic of family relationships that tug on the heartstrings for many people. Not everybody, to be sure, and notice that I’m putting more than a little bit of distance between myself and the maudlin celebration of an idealized American Family that was more evident on ‘50s era sit-coms than it was in ‘50s era subdivisions. Lots of those moms were often distracted and busy, while others were dismissive and drunk. I’m coming off a chat with some friends who recount an episode where a mom dropped off her 7 year old at the bowling alley for a two hour birthday party beginning at noon then “forgot” to pick him up until around 8 o’clock that night.

But deflationary accounts of various mom’s cooking and caring aside, it doesn’t undercut the larger point of food as a conduit for relational values. In fact, a different kind of love relationship might actually be a better example. And no I’m NOT talking about Valentine’s Day chocolates. That’s maudlin, jejune, and more about selling stuff, too. I’m actually talking about a love we share with friends. Sometimes this takes the form of a ritual occasion—a shrimp boil or barbecue—where having something rather specific on the menu becomes one of key bricks in the construction and reconstruction of the event that also involves reconnection, reminiscence and relaxation. But it can also be sitting there across the table from a single individual while you are waiting for the pasta water to boil, the cookies to bake or even for your order of cheese fries to come. It may not require any particular kind of food, either. Last time it may have been sushi, and this time its green curry or pancakes. Nonetheless, the fact that it’s a food occasion may be pretty pivotal to that relational moment where simple caring and pleasure in on another’s company gets kindled.

Food can do that, and that’s something that no one who works in food ethics should ever be allowed to forget.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


March 1, 2015

Dinner conversation last night led someone to remark that aside from Italy, California has the best food in the world. I didn’t bite. Maybe there’s something to this, because although I spend relatively little time in California, I have had some very good meals there. Yet the image that comes to mind with California food for me is food consumed in the car while cruising from one place to another. Songs by the Beach Boys start humming in my head and I’m reminded of films like American Graffiti where all the action centers around Mel’s Drive-In. Trying to put some meat on those bones, I Googled the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long,” looking for a line expressing fond adolescent memories of eating cheeseburgers or chili fries, but all I got was “Member when you spilled Coke all over your blouse?”

We forget that there was no place to put a Coke in your typical 1960s piece of American chrome. Now in fairness to Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys main lyricist, I should note that the one Beach Boys song really dedicated to food encourages us to eat our vegetables. Maybe we’ll get around to that if we ever do another month of food songs in the Thornapple blog. Today I’ll just chalk that up as a tangent and get right back to the importance of a cupholder in the American lifestyle that we have all come to know and love.

Of course, I drove a ’63 Ford Fairlane without a cupholder in those days (and by “those days” I mean the late 1960s). It was, as a matter of factual record, not until the late 1970s that every McDonald’s or Burger King felt it incumbent to provide an opportunity for drive-through service. True ‘50s-style cruising for burgers would have more typically involved stopping the car and sitting in it while being served by car-hops (preferably on roller skates). Then you start up the car and go someplace else, even if it was just down the strip a few miles to a different drive-in where you would stop the car and do some more socializing, or maybe get a milkshake. We can tick off quite a few important observations in food ethics from this.

First, all the elements of an ethos were fully realized in this automobile-based food culture. There were ritualized social performances that supported group bonding and individual socialization. There was an intense aesthetic experience of being present in the moment that cemented the feeling that contrary to all the obvious signs of triviality, something important was happening here. Car-based consumption of this sort usually involved multiple layers of sociality: You rarely went out by yourself, or at any rate rarely stayed by yourself all evening. Riders would hop from car to car during those burger stops, and there was always the expectation (however infrequently realized) of romantic interludes. It was thrilling, even if it’s a little embarrassing to admit that now.

But of course we need to move right on to the fact that it was completely unsustainable. The fuel consumption was economically possible only because gas was 19¢ a gallon—something that disappeared with the lengthy lines at gas stations during the OPEC embargo a decade later. We were pretty much clueless about the environmental damage. It was also an expression of youth-culture that was destined to disappear simply because each generation has to have its own thing. I’m sure under 40 readers of the blog (if there were any) would have no idea what I’m talking about. So it was economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. That’s three for three.

The Beach Boys might have been on to something when they sang “Won’t be long ‘til summer time is through.” Southern California hung on to that ethos, however. The last chorus answers the “Won’t be long…” with “Not for us, now.” Carmakers paid homage to those days by putting cupholders into their vehicles sometime later and Americans cruised into an era where they did not even pull over to socialize while eating in their vehicles. It’s an identity, I suppose, but is it one we should celebrate?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Dark Roll

February 22, 2015

Here I am blogging from the KLM Crown lounge at Schiphol again. The robots in Cupertino think it’s still Saturday night, but here in Holland we are well on our way to Sunday morning. So it’s time to think about the Thornapple blog.

The night before last I checked in at Chino Latino in Nottingham where Yelp! informed me that I was at a “hipster” place. Back when everyone was drinking Sanka and listening to Hank Williams (see last week to uncode this obscure reference) it was hip to be hip. It was so hip that only the hipsters would talk that way. By the time we got to Hendrix it was no longer hip to be hip. The truly hip were making snarky comments about anyone who appeared to be hip. Hendrix himself was so hip that he was beyond all that and could do just about anything including being generous about wannabe hipsters. Still and all, even Hendrix would ask, “Are you experienced?”

So speaking of sushi (again, check last week) Chino Latino is taking sushi to new territories, as I suppose any truly hipster place would. I had a nice roll made with duck—not something you would probably get at the sushi stands circling the Tokyo fish market. The duck itself was cooked in a tangy sauce heavy on the chilies (hence the Latino in Chino Latino). Pretty good I must say. Next time you are in Nottingham, you might want to check it out. But I’m bringing this up in connection with hipster food. Back in the day when hipsters were digging John Coltrane (they were never into Hank all that much) a nice roll would not likely have been the topic of conversation. Or if so it would have been reefer or booty, rather than ancho glazed duck breast and jasmine rice. But that is (to keep a thread going to the point of ridiculousness) how we roll.

While the truly beat hipsters were  obtaining nutrition from cigarettes, sour coffee and booze they were focused on other more potent and less legally sanctioned comestibles. In our era hipsters are seeking a kind of experience where the food is more than a backdrop. Appearances to the contrary, food still may not be the main thing. I’m of the mind that it is the experience a contemporary hipster is after, no less than it was for the beat generation. But we can’t deny that some novel foodie twists (along with the appropriate lighting and décor) go a long way toward constituting the hipster experience in the present day.

And what do we want to make of this from a food ethics perspective?

We could, of course, be snide, alluding back (as I’ve done already) to the “true hipsters” as a way of undercutting the claims of the present. But I demur. Although I’m deeply into historical context setting (way too deep, my students say) the present day hipsters may be derived from the beats in some sense, but they are too keenly absorbed in the irony of their hipsterdom to be derivative. Let’s give them that much credit.

We could also note that there was a dark side to old-school hip that you are just not going to capture with an ancho chili duck roll, no matter how appropriate the lighting is. I think there is something philosophical to pursue here—a source of depth and looming tragedy that only pessimism can produce. William James explored it in his essay “The Sick Soul,” from Varieties of Religious Experience. But however much a moralist might be enthralled by dark thoughts, it’s the lot of ethics to discourage one from going there. The fast living and drug addictions of the beats brought too many of them to a premature end, while those that survived testify to the superficiality of the “depth” that absorption in demons of that ilk produced.

The age of sushi may have a certain flatness to it, but maybe that’s not a bad thing, after all.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

From Sanka to Sushi

February 15, 2015

“From Hank to Hendrix, I’ve always been with you,” Neil Young once sang. This would have been some time ago, and by “some time” I mean about the same amount of time from today as the “Hank to Hendrix” interval Neil was singing about back then. I wonder, can we use food to mark time in the same way?

I was watching some movie or TV show set in the late 50s or early 60s recently (and by “recently” I mean the last week) where Sanka was on offer. It wasn’t a crucial plot point but one of those little period details that screenwriters use to create a sense of time and place. I’m not sure of the resonance for this particular little detail. I can imagine asking a roomful of my undergraduates, “How many of you have ever heard of Sanka?” and getting only two or three hands in the air. But I can remember a time when household guests or even restaurant patrons would have been offered Sanka instead of decaf. I suppose it was a marvel of the advertising age that some ad campaign had been so successful in fixing this particular brand name equation into people’s heads that it became part of the common vernacular for a time. I’m sure there are a few households where it’s still the term of art for decaffeinated coffee here in 2015.

If we take the “Hank to Hendrix” time span it would put us back into the mid 90s. That would have been about the time that I had my first sushi, though I’m sure that I was a relative latecomer to this particular food experience in comparison to many others. I moved from College Station, TX, where there was no sushi in the mid 90s, to West Lafayette, IN. The house across the street from me in West Lafayette was owned by Subaru and occupied by a succession of Japanese executives detailed to Northwest Indiana to serve as liaison to the home office for the assembly plant over on the East Side. The legend was that the company had also underwritten the operation of a very high quality Japanese restaurant in West Lafayette so that their executives would not refuse this posting altogether. Whether true or not, there were not one but two very good Japanese restaurants in town when I moved there in 1997. I don’t really recall when I first ate sushi, but it couldn’t have been long after that move.

We have more sushi places than I could possibly count here in the Lansing-East Lansing-Okemos metroplex. I’m sure there are more than several in College Station by now. So how was it that Americans gave up drinking Sanka and started eating sushi? What does that mean?

One thing it points to is the thrust for novelty in our diets. From what I read in the history books, a diverse diet was a privilege of the rich until well into the 20th century. The taste for novelty was, I think, rather slow in developing, and it was almost certainly hurried along by the food industry’s need for profits. We were trained to look for brand names during the early decades of the 20th century, and once habituated the competitive spirit led food processers to search for any possible edge they might get over their competition. Anything different would have been a natural thing to try, but not too different (a subject we’ve blogged about at least once before).

As the parade of new foods lengthens, we gain the ability to mark time by our food fads. We see both exploring new foods and then their mass consumption as a form of fashion. Changes in fashion would not be fashionable if there wasn’t something trivial about the whole shtick. But I’m down with the people who think that we should take fashion somewhat more seriously when it comes to thinking about culture and the day to day practices from which our lives are actually made.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


February 8, 2015

It’s approaching thirty years ago that I made my one and only trip to India. Negotiating what you should and should not imbibe was an almost daily affair in those days. We drank beer because the water was a hazard for the unadapted Western gut. The bottled water at the fine hotels was reputed to be safe, but late in the trip I caught a steward refilling said bottles from the same outdoor tap that was being used to water the shrubbery. My friend Russ Freed (I don’t see enough of Russ, even though we are colleagues at MSU) was a veteran of dietary distress in India, and he spent the entire month eating nothing but plain rice. I, on the other hand, was curious and generally rewarded for partaking of the local cuisine.

But there were dilemmas. I recall one field visit where our guide (from the regional university) made a loud proclamation for all to hear urging me to try some dish that was being offered by our local host. But then he whispered “I don’t advise it,” as he brought the bowl close to my lips. On another field day, we visited a farm household where tea was rather proudly being made using gas collected from an anaerobic digester. Our guides told us it would be quite safe. As I recall it tasted rather foul to me, but nonetheless, I drank up.

I was negotiating some food ethics questions the entire month. On a previous trip I had made the mistake of eating a salad that had been loaded onto our Alitalia flight in Nairobi, and I had paid the price with a pretty severe bought of what would have been called Montezuma’s revenge had I contracted it closer to home. We Americans may not normally think of staying healthy in this sense as an ethical problem. But asserting the right to control what goes into your body can put you in the position of refusing hospitality, and that is an ethical act.

There are dilemmas both for the guest and for the host. When acting as the host, I’ve opted for polling my guests in advance on their dietary preferences, and then I plan a menu that accommodates them as far as I am able. But I don’t think I would go so far as to say that every host is morally obligated to take this path. My local hosts in India were being gracious to share some of their daily food & drink. It would not only have been presumptuous of any guest—and especially a relatively well-to-do Western traveler—to expect anything else, it would have defeated the purpose of making a study trip, in the first place. But this doesn’t mean that the guest is obligated to eat anything that’s put in front of them, either. While there was certainly the opportunity for taking offense when the proffered dish is declined, my experience suggests that awareness of idiosyncratic dietary needs is widely appreciated. There are gestures one can make to signal appreciation for the offering, and those gestures generally suffice for the purposes of acknowledging the generosity and hospitality of one’s host.

As gatherings become more intimate, things get complicated. Throughout my India trip I was an exotic stranger. It was well understood that while we would engage in some conversation and exchange of customs, I would not be coming back to this household again anytime soon. The proverbial dinner party among friends or business associates is built on very different assumptions. In this case, refusal of a food offering can more easily be interpreted as an affront. One needs to at least push the food around a bit, and very probably to take at least a few bites in order to satisfy the norms of propriety.

But even as I write this I’m thinking how dramatically that seems to be changing since the time of my youth. The process of polling potential guests for what they will or will not eat would have been viewed as gauche by my mother, let along my grandmother. The expectation that we can actually eat together (as opposed to simultaneously) has declined significantly with the proliferation of hyphenated dietary regimes. I am a “social conservative” in seeing something regrettable about that, even as I fully respect my guests’ right to construct a dietary ethics according to their own lights.

Another blog, it seems, where I am not so sure.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Not So Sure

February 1, 2015

When I was a sophomore in college there was a good-looking fellow among my circle of friends who must have had some deep insecurity buried in his persona. He was constantly embellishing accounts of his various comings and goings with feats of amazing ability and encounters with celebrities that we all knew were very unlikely to be frequenting our Northern Colorado environs. He acquired a nickname based on what people often found themselves saying after he had regaled us with one of these concoctions: “Sure, John.”

There was another fellow named John, sweet of disposition but unkempt even by the shaggy standards of 1970. He always seemed dazed and confused, to quote a popular song of the era. Though generally reliable, he would almost always begin his reply to a question by saying, “Well, I’m not so sure myself…” So you can see where this is going. A casual mention of ‘John’ would always be met by the question, “Do mean Sure John or Not So Sure John?” It was a moment of sophomoric hilarity that I still recall with some fondness even in my dotage.

Now I’m not so sure what this little memento of my late teens and early twenties has to do with food, but it does have something to do with ethics. It recalls the figure of Socrates, patron of all Western philosophy, who is frequently portrayed in Plato’s dialogs as professing almost total ignorance about all the important questions of philosophy. And for the Greeks in general, all the really important questions of philosophy were questions about how to live as one should. They were questions of ethics.

I’d like to think that all of my readers have some direct and personal familiarity with Plato and his teacher Socrates, but as a teacher of undergraduates I understand the vanishingly small probability that this is the case. I could put this into a more accessible frame of reference by pointing out the connection between Socrates and the television character Lt. Columbo, played by the actor Peter Faulk. Unfortunately, this probably won’t help the college sophomores of today, because Columbo was itself a product of the 1970s, and it is quite improbable that very many of them have ever seen it. And so I press on without further elaboration and explanation, leaving it up to those inquiring minds who want to know to use their Internet connection for finding more background on these curious figures, if that is their inclination.

Lt. Columbo was quite like Not So Sure John in his demeanor and approach, but his protestations of confusion and ignorance were covering up a keen mind that was always on the trail of the perpetrator (who was usually the person being interviewed in this characteristically Socratic style). What Lt. Columbo shared with Socrates was the elenctic method: exploring the implications of someone’s statements through questions that lead them inexorably to a contradiction. In Lt. Columbo’s case, it was a way of dislodging the perpetrator’s alibi or subterfuge. For Socrates, it was a way of showing that his interlocutors (who claimed know what was right) were actually just as confused as he professed to be.

Although today we are generally agreed that Socrates professed a keen mind, there is some dispute as to whether his protestations of ignorance were genuine. Perhaps like Lt. Columbo he was onto the truth right from the start. At least for today I’m taking the opposite view. One of the reasons that Socrates “caught on” as the hero for many Greek and Roman philosophers who never met him was the way that he modeled ethics as a dedicated and persistent search for the right thing to do, rather than as the possession of a standard or criterion that could be called upon to produce “the right answer” in every instance. This is not to say that Socrates knew nothing. He certainly knew how to probe for the truth, but as present day analytic philosophers note, there is a big difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. That skill along with Socrates unrelenting willingness to apply it was what made him the closest approximation of a true sage for several centuries in the ancient world.

Now that the holidays are past and we are done with food ethics icons for 2015, it’s time for me to settle down and start thinking about some straight ahead blogs on food ethics. But what should I say? I’m not so sure myself.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Garrett Hardin

January 25, 2015

We’ll finish up “food ethics icons” month with the evil genius of the food/population debates. Everyone I know who ever met Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) spoke well of him. He was by all accounts a generous and open-minded man who welcomed philosophical inquiry and intellectual engagement. So don’t get me wrong when I call him “the evil genius”. He gets that moniker because of several articles he wrote on the population dilemmas that had been brought to public attention by The Population Bomb. The Ehrlichs mainly wanted to get across the idea that we (humans that is) simply could not continue to expand our use of natural resources endlessly. They were not too specific about what we were supposed to do instead.

Hardin put the matter much more pointedly: The earth is a lifeboat, and very soon we are going to get to a point where it is time to throw somebody off. And he didn’t stop there. Applying a pattern of reasoning that philosophy professors call “utilitarianism”, he argued that we (humanity, again) should follow the course that leads us to “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The problem as Hardin diagnosed it was that the poor (and here he pointed especially to places like Bangladesh) were just having too many babies. Rich people had already gone through that demographic transition we (this time it’s just you, me and the other Thornapple blog reader) were talking about just a few weeks back in connection with Rev. Malthus. Having gotten rich, we (again, just us) are in a position where we can cause ourselves considerable consternation by having lots of kids that we have to feed, educate and buy i-pads for. So we’ve learned to have smaller families.

Those poor folks, not so much. They keep on having kids, and that (wrote not just Hardin but also the Ehrlichs) is where the trouble lies. We (humanity circa 1971 now) were witnessing serious famines in Bengal (e.g. Bangladesh) at the time, as Sen would write about later. George Harrison was singing about “rice that keeps going astray on its way to East Bombay,” and holding concerts to raise money for the famine victims. Hardin was having none of that sentimental nonsense. He was writing articles saying that we should let them starve. If we feed them today, he reasoned, they’ll just grow up poor and have too many children. Only there will be even more of them then. We should let a smaller number starve today rather than creating the conditions that will allow a larger number to starve tomorrow.

I think that Hardin may have actually believed this, though it is possible that he took this position to shock people into something approximating an appropriate action. He was right to take on naïve offerings of charity like the Concert for Bangladesh. The whole point was that we just can’t keep riding down this road. As we wrote some months back, if you are trying to get to Canada and driving 90 miles an hour toward Mexico, slowing to 60 is not really going to solve the problem. Hardin saw the hunger crises as a “tragedy of the commons”—a case where doing what was individually rational (he didn’t think the poor were being irrational) is collectively disastrous. Note that this is exactly how many of us understand the climate dilemma today. And like many who write on climate today, Hardin believed that “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” is the only solution. So he wasn’t so much advocating the death of starving people as he was urging government regulation to control population growth. The Chinese eventually tried that, by the way.

But I do have to say that the moral position Hardin actually advocated is both indefensible and unsustainable. It may seem mealy-mouthed, but the better course is the one that Malthus and the Ehrlich’s advocated, even if they did so in less than clarion tones. We can’t have this kind of poverty anymore: It creates moral dilemmas for which there are no acceptable responses. At the same time, we should remember that it’s not just a matter of “distribution”. Sen taught that we can redistribute in ways that are almost as catastrophic for the poor as Hardin’s willingness to “let ‘em starve.”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Paul and Anne Ehrlich

January 18, 2015

The theme for ‘food ethics icons’ month is the world hunger/population growth tangle. Our thinking has been bracketed by two opposing nostrums: On the one hand, agriculture is in a race with population growth, on the other hand, the problem is not agriculture but the distribution of food we already have. Both of these are wrong. In my usual quixotic fashion, I started with the end of the story. Amartya Sen is the food ethics icon who has done more than anyone else to steer us between these nostrums to a better path. Last week we went back a couple of hundred years to discover the source of our idea that population growth inevitably outpaces our ability to produce enough food for people to eat. Malthus is the Urspring, but I tried to convince you that Malthus never predicted that global population would grow beyond our ability to feed ourselves.

We pick up the story for this week by asking, so who did say that? My MSU colleague Helen Veit has written a pretty nice history book in which she argues that Americans’ belief that they had a moral obligation to “feed the world” had its roots way back in a now defunct agency called the U.S. Food Administration. It was created by the Woodrow Wilson administration with the express purpose of ensuring that our European allies’ neglect of their own crops—they were busy fighting World War I at the time—would not lead them to starve. This belief may have primed us for the work of this week’s food icons a half century later, but you will have to follow up on Helen’s story on your own time.

I’m going to start out in my crotchety old man mode: Back when I was a young sprout, you would go to the Safeway store on Hamden Avenue and instead of candy bars there would be racks of paperback books at the cashier’s stand. Maybe that was because in the days before barcodes it took so long for the cashier to ring up a giant basket of groceries that people waiting in line would naturally be looking for something to read. Having gotten 10-12 pages into some potboiler, they would throw it in the basket when their turn to check out finally arrived. At any rate, one of the books that I recall seeing on that rack was called The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich. People were apparently throwing it into their grocery carts in large numbers because it sold more than two million copies.

It’s probably not really accurate to say that the Ehrlich’s came up with the idea that population was growing so fast that eventually we would be facing global food shortages. The message of The Population Bomb was not really shocking news to people who knew a little bit about population trends. But the book made some fairly stark statements about what the 1970s would be like: catastrophic famine accompanied by violence and competition for food-producing resources. The Population Bomb was actually co-written by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, but this was 1968 and we had apparently not fully appreciated the fact that women can think. That’s worth a blog in its own right, but I’ll just note in passing that one of the early icons in gender studies was Esther Boserup, who had already published her own study of the agriculture/population relationship in 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth argued that people will always find a way to feed themselves. If I keep writing The Thornapple Blog into my nineties, Esther Boserup will eventually get listed as a food ethics icon in her own right, but this year we are looking for the reasons why this “great race” became fixated in people’s minds in the first place.

The Ehrlich’s wrote a very readable retrospective piece on The Population Bomb for the fortieth anniversary of its publication. The article is available for free on line, and it speaks for itself. They concede that they underestimated the impact of the Green Revolution, but they aren’t giving any ground to Boserup’s contention that people always find a way. The Ehrlichs believe that better sanitation, healthcare and infrastructure have unleashed the natural forces of population growth, and that sooner or later, it’s going to bite us in the butt in just the way that they predicted back when people had time to read at grocery check-out lines. That makes them food ethics icons in my book. It’s just too bad that you probably won’t see my book at the Safeway store.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University