Agrarian Ethics

April 8, 2012

Looking back to last week’s blog on “Industrial Ethics,” I ask you “How serious could an April 1 blog be, anyway?”

In fact I do think that most Americans think of agriculture as “just another sector in the industrial economy,” and I do think that a lot of good, important and totally legitimate work can be done on agriculture and food issues under the umbrella of an “industrial ethic”—an ethic built on efficiency, on the one hand, and not harming third parties, on the other. I do think that a lot of heroes in the food movement are working out of that paradigm. If you’ve read my book The Agrarian Vision, you would know that I include some icons like Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva among them.

But here’s what I wanna say when it’s NOT April Fool’s Day: It hasn’t always been like that, bucko.

Back in the first half of the 20th century (which is to say before even I  was born) it was not all that unusual for people to think that farming and ranching had unique roles to play in making us the kind of people like we are. And we could probably include fishing in that, too, for some coastal areas where commercial fisherman braved the wine dark sea to provide subsistence production. I’ve hit this note in the Thornapple Blog before, talking about “the agrarian vision” of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought we needed a nation of farmers because a person whose livelihood is tied to the land won’t hightail it off to Bermuda when the Redcoats show up to collect more taxes for King George. Farmers are more virtuous as citizens, Jefferson thought.

In the Thornapple Blog’s tradition of celebrating popular song lyrics in which food is mentioned I should point out that this may be the coded meaning behind one of best loved (but least understood) musical poems of our era:

The poor cook he took fits,
threw away all of my grits,
then he took and ate up all of my corn.

As you will recall, all this occurs “round Nassau town” with “my grandfather and me.” But that’s probably a story for another time and place.

We have some agrarians in our own time, too. Victor Davis Hanson wrote a couple of interesting agrarian books before he became a reliably Republican commentator on current events from a post at the Hoover Institute. Brian M. Donahue is someone you could look to if you wanted a more reliably left-leaning version of a contemporary agrarian vision. Donahue has argued that farming, gardening and participating a community supported agriculture can give as a more rooted sense of the way that we are integrated into the natural world, and this rootedness translates into a form of environmental citizenship.

And I do think we’d be more ethically competent if we could recognize the difference between an agrarian argument and standard left-right politics. My book has been called “conservative” simply because I say nice things about Hanson’s agrarian writings.

This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

Agrarian ethics: something we need in our time as much as Jefferson needed patriots in his.

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

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