The Trouble with Diversity

July 31, 2011

English majors out there are flocking to this week’s entry when they run a search on U. Illinois-Chicago English professor Walter Benn Michaels. He’s the guy who wrote a book about how our obsession with diversity is keeping us from addressing much more straightforward social issues. By “our” I think he means lefties, and especially liberal higher education types who seek racial and gender diversity as the solution to more fundamental problems. Problems like the way that kids who grow up in poverty are very unlikely to develop the reading or math skills that would give them a reasonable shot at succeeding in college, or that given their experience, the same kids quite reasonably take little interest exceedingly delayed gratification higher education. Or for that matter the denial of opportunity that sometimes but not always accompanies race, but rather reliably afflicts people without means. Michaels thinks that schools have gotten a little smug about how well they are doing when they the get the enrollment or faculty numbers up for “diversity”, even when they don’t actually reflect an increased participation of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Michaels’ book is about a half a decade old by now. It was called The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

But this blog is not about that. No, I’m still stuck on the topic John Zilmer got me off on in his request for some thoughts on heirlooms. Rather than retrace ground we covered last week, I’ll just point out that if you are reading this online, there is a little link you can hit up there in the upper right hand corner that says “Heirlooms.” If you put your mouse arrow on the link and the click, you will as if by magic, be taken to the very blog I am a referring to, where you can also read John’s illuminating thoughts on “The Voice”. (Apologies to the computer literate, but I can’t take anything for granted with some of my readership.)

Heirlooms was about seed saving. And it was about why seed saving was supposed to be a good thing as a way to promote diversity. And this diversity is only vaguely related to anything Walter Benn Michaels was writing about in 2007. Seed saving at the Svalbard seedbank is supposed to be good because we protect the genetic diversity that plant breeders can use to develop new plants in the future. Seed saving at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA is supposed to be good because it promotes underused varieties that look good and taste great. As I pointed out last week these aren’t the same thing.

But I happened to have a conversation with a colleague this week who suggested that Seed Savers is promoting diversity. He was talking about the fact that when you add these varieties to ones already being grown you are increasing the diversity of varieties being grown in a landscape. Now this is not genetic diversity. That would mean the diversity of genes in the gene pool for a species. Think eye color. There are genes for blue, brown, green and violet eye color in the human gene pool. If all the people with violet eyes were abducted by aliens, it would reduce genetic diversity with respect to eye color in humans. Svalbard is about genetic diversity in just this sense.

What my colleague was talking about is actually a third thing. It’s kind of like biodiversity, which is a major goal of conservation biologists and the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). The CBD is an international agreement (to which the United States is not a signatory, by the way) that was opened for signing at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janerio.

Biodiversity is the number of plant, animal and microbial species cohabiting an ecosystem. Places with more species are said to have greater biodiversity. Intuitively, a swamp has more biodiversity than a corn field. Although there are more animals and non-corn plants in a corn field than you might think, farmers would generally like their corn fields to be populated by nothing but corn. For this reason alone, agriculture is rightly said to be the enemy of biodiversity.

Suppose you set aside a corner of that corn field and plant some wonderful heirloom tomatoes, some squash and beans, and maybe even some watermelons. Ta da! You have now increased the number of species growing in that farm “ecosystem” by four: You are promoting biodiversity!

I’ll pause here to reiterate a previously stated view. I love it when a farmer decides to diversify the mix of crops, and I especially love it when she is planting heirloom tomatoes. But curmudgeon that I am, I don’t actually think this serves diversity in the sense endorsed at the Earth Summit. The whole idea there was to throw up our hands into the air and bewail the fact that we (and now I mean “the Earth” not just lefty college professors) are losing 247.3 species every minute. Note that this figure may not be strictly accurate, owing to the fact that I just pulled it out of my ass. But my insouciant tone aside (Diane says I have to make at least lame attempts at humor on this blog) this really is a serious issue. If you don’t believe me, look at this website.

At the risk of even more insouciance, I’ll go on to say that actually the Earth Summit was hoping for a little more than a vigorous bewailing session. That’s what the CBD was set up to do, and I’ll also encourage the environmentally conscious Thorapple Blog reader to spend a few minutes or hours poking around on the CBD website. But however much I wish they (farmers, that is) would mix it up a bit, I still have to insist the CBD’s conservation goal was much more focused on trying to protect uncultivated ecosystems from encroachment by farming and ranching than it was encouraging farmers to put out a few heirloom tomatoes.

I don’t want to get Diane Ott Wheatley on my case, for sure. I support the whole endeavor at Seed Savers Exchange. I really do. What is more, there’s enough ambiguity in the way CBD goes about their business to see a rationale for preserving traditional varieties, too. That would certainly go for the corn varieties grown by small farmers in Mexico, the center of diversity for maize. But does it provide a convincing environmental ethics rationale for heirloom tomatoes? There my skeptical impulses rise. Still, I wish we were getting a few more heirlooms in the Thompson household here in late July. That’s really a compelling reason to plant them!

Apparently Michaels and I agree that diversity is a troubling and potentially confusing social goal, however worthy when specified correctly. I hope this does not make me a racist.

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

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One thought on “The Trouble with Diversity

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