Back to School

August 26, 2012

And so never one to underestimate the value of stating the obvious, I point out that this is the last weekend of “summer”. We will have nice warm weather for a while yet, of course, and the official end of summer doesn’t arrive until 2:49 pm on September 22. But conventionally and colloquially, summer is over when it’s time to go back to school. Some kids in the Lansing area are already back in school, and some won’t go back until after Labor Day (which is next weekend). Lots of people (we can call them adults) aren’t really so much affected by this “back to school” phenomenon at all, though Labor Day being a national holiday in the United States there’s still some remnant of that cycle lying dormant in everyone’s experience. And given the fact that (if the robots are any indication—and they’re not) there’s a big international audience for the Thornapple blog, I should probably note that the school calendar that structures U.S. habits is far from universal. But with all these disclaimers born in mind, it’s the last weekend of summer, in case you hadn’t noticed.

In fact, it’s become traditional to notice the end of summer in the Thornapple Blog. By “traditional” I mean that I’ve done it before. There are exactly thirty-six ways to make a connection between the end of summer and the food and farming ethics theme of The Blog. Some of them involve the connection between agriculture and the solar calendar, but we’ve been there. Others are more specifically tied to the way that eating in season really should be tied to some vague awareness of the change in seasons, but I think we’ve been there, too. Because I teach at Michigan State University, I’m especially conscious of the “back to school” phenomenon. One day, say last Monday, there’s a strange sense of quiet and peace. The road construction barriers all over campus are disappearing, the weather is beautiful, the parking is plentiful, the halls are empty… It’s a great day to take a long walk during the lunch hour. Even the students who were hanging around for the relatively miniscule summer session have vanished.

Then gradually but nonetheless suddenly things change. Pretty soon, say last Friday, the traffic on Grand River is terrible, there are endless parades of international students trooping around campus, and you are overcome by people wandering around with a glazed look in their eye, asking you for directions. The connection to food and agriculture here is pretty indirect, but it has to do with the way that certain recurring events create a sense of rhythm in your life, and then the way that an awareness of these rhythms (or lack of it) is important for ethics. When I talk about “agrarianism”, I’m calling attention to a big, big shift in the way that rhythms structure our lives, and a corresponding problem in ethics that occurs as a result.

The back to school rhythms that structure my life may not be all that important for other adults, but they still may be more familiar to the average factory worker or accountant than the agrarian rhythms that provided the structuring matrix of habit and culture for most of human history. Lots of people have or have had kids who are going back to school, and even if you don’t you might have noticed the large piles of spiral notebooks accumulating in every WalMart or Target. But by being unaware of the way that food and farming structured the lives of people in the past, we mis-read and mis-understand a lot of what people were talking about when they talked about sustainability and ethics. Like, for example, why did people link “moral decay” with “the fall of the Roman Empire”?

If you happen to have been reading Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu’s 1734 book Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans over the summer (and I’m sure that lots of people took this to the beach), you might have noticed that Montesquieu takes pains to discuss how the Roman Republic was based on citizen-soldier-farmers. As the power of the Empire grew, Roman citizens became dependent on payments from their patrons and the army became professionalized. People lost touch with the economic basis of the ancient world, which was, in a word, agriculture. When their habits became structured by a daily handout, they became unable to perceive or understand what was needed to keep things rolling (e.g. keeping the fields tended), and their politics became corrupt.

Now I’m not saying Montesquieu was right about the Romans, and it’s pretty obvious that the economic basis of our society is much more complicated, in any case. I’m saying that when our habits change—when they are more structured by back to school than tending the fields—it’s hard to even get a sense of what Montesquieu was talking about.

And that’s our loss.

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

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Hippie Talk

August 19, 2012

General Motors has a commercial for their hot new E-Assist technology where a freshly-scrubbed, neatly-coifed, very-Republican-looking young man (late 30s?) is driving his parents in his new GM vehicle. His mother is trying to give him money for gas, but he doesn’t want to take it. He’s trying to explain that with E-Assist, he gets great mileage. “Aw that’s hippie talk!” exclaims his father from the back seat, “Take the money!” So he does accept $2 from his mother.

Juxtapose the current run of fund-raising music specials being shown on Public Television, many of which reprise the 60s and early 70s. It’s amazing how familiar the 5th Dimension flying around on their saucer-stage against a blurry multi-colored background all the while singing about “Harmony and understanding; Sympathy and trust abounding; No more falsehoods or derisions: Golden living dreams of visions,” can look to someone who saw it on the Ed Sullivan Show more than 40 years ago. Now that was hippie talk.

And then, of course, there’s the Thornapple CSA. “Tune in, turn on and drop out,” is the way some disgruntled Harvard prof put it. Get out of the supermarket and let the sunshine in. If living on a commune and deriving one’s sustenance exclusively by getting one’s hands dirty didn’t quite pan out the way that erstwhile Aquarians might have thought, well maybe the monthly workday combined with a diet rich in leafy greens will do the trick. The moon is in the 7th house, after all, and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

Well excuse me if I just gag myself with a spoon here for second thinking back on the proposition that we were entering a time when “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars” back then when I was a young sprat alternating my thoughts between wondering what the future had in store for me and trying to figure out how to meet girls. If you got the fundraising interlude broadcast here in Lansing with your dose of the 5th Dimension, you got the hosts pining for the days when bullying wasn’t a problem. Really? My thought is that the only person who could think that bullying was not a problem in ’67 or ’68 was either someone who was a bully, or someone who was (as they used to say) ”popular”,  which (as some of us used to say) means “totally full of it”. Translated into the present tense that’s “thoroughly oblivious to any experience of the surrounding environment.”

Ah! Sarcasm! Friend of the underappreciated and marginalized outsider. Some of the marginalized outsiders from that era when there was not bullying went on to be become Tom Petty, or Bruce Springsteen or Patty Smith. (They were never bullied—just ask them.) Most of us settled back into a life of “quiet desperation,” as the Head Hippie of another generation put it. His answer was to head out into the woods, but then not so far into the woods as to create great inconvenience when it is time to take the laundry back into town so that his friend Mrs. Emerson could look after it. Maybe not so much unlike the Thornapple CSA, after all.

And then there are the August tomatoes. No place for sarcasm there. Quiet desperation, it seems, has its rewards.

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

Cogito Ergo Sum

August 12, 2012

There’s this old philosophy joke that has a tenuous food connection…

It seems Descartes wandered into a Belgian restaurant to have some moules et frites. (That’s the tenuous food connection, by the way.) After placing his order, the waiter asked, “Will you have some wine with that?” Descartes replied “I think not.”

And then he disappeared.

Did you really need a Thornapple Blog right in the middle of tomato season?

I thought not, and so I disappeared.

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

The 4% Problem

August 5, 2012

A couple of weeks back the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced their projections of the impact that the summer of heat and drought would have on food prices. After a bit of humming and hawing, noting how variable the impact would be from one side of the grocery store to the other, the USDA got down to it, predicting a 4% rise in the cost of food that would kick in during the winter of 2013. The reason for the delay is just a function of how the food system works, and getting down to that means diving right into all the humming and hawing. As a for instance, Thornapple CSA members are suffering right at this very moment owing to the fact that stuff which should have been ready to pick last week just never showed up. But people who are shopping at supermarkets are not really feeling things quite yet. That will happen a little bit as the produce section gets hit by shortages, but it will be more profound when the shortages in corn and soybeans (mostly fed to livestock in the U.S.) get reflected. Livestock producers are making choices right now: Do I go out and buy some expensive feed that’s in short supply, or do I cut my losses and send these animals to slaughter early? Either way, the price of meat is affected.

But enough on the agricultural economics of grocery prices. The obvious ethics point (always going for the obvious in the Thornapple blog) is that this 4% rise in food prices has been projected at a time when people are already coping with the systematic effects of a lifeless economy. People in general are feeling broke. They’re finding it tough to get enough work, and the work they are getting doesn’t pay well. They’re pinching their pennies. But they have to eat, so when grocery prices go up, they are just plain screwed. They have to suck it up and find someplace else to pinch their pennies.

But of course, this picture pretty drastically understates the reality that is being lived by some people. Some people are already at or beyond the edge, and they have been missing meals for some time now. The budget runs short, and then you either seek the charity of others or you just endure the hunger. Here I’ll provide a link to an even more relentlessly serious entry in the Thornapple blog from the summer of 2010, a summer when the economy was just as bad but when the crops were doing pretty good. Families get hungry and hunger is morally compelling.

So back in 2010 I was suggesting that it might be a good time to contemplate doing something to help folks out. In fact, it’s always a good time to do that, and it behooves anyone who blogs on food issues to get around to mentioning it every now and then. If the USDA is right, doing something right now is fine, but put a note on your calendar to think about doing something next February when these higher food prices are starting to kick in with a vengeance. It’s hard to say what 4% is going to do to those folk standing out there holding hand-lettered signs and caging for their next meal. It’s not hard to say what it will do to the food pantries and soup kitchens that are out there trying to help them out: If food is in short supply, they’re going to get fewer donations; their budgets are going to be stretched as surely as the household budgets of families pinching pennies and giving up a weekend movie in order to eat hamburger. In short, this is the kind of ethical issue that you really didn’t need a philosopher to tell you about.

There is, however, a sense in which farmers need to be getting more for what they do, and that, too, would mean an increase in food prices. This source of both irony and tragedy does require a bit of the old philosophical puha to appreciate. Coping with it may be the fundamental problem in food ethics.

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