Susan George

January 26, 2014

Now if Frances Moore Lappé was the “no brainer” when it came around to naming the food ethics icons for 2014, Susan George is probably the dark horse. For no better reason than the fact that she lives in France, Susan George is all but invisible in present-day discourse and activism on the food system. There is also the fact that she is sort of an all-purpose lefty advocate, having spent much of her effort over the last decade or so on the problems posed by global capitalism writ large. And on top of that there is the fact that her focus has always been on hunger and maldevelopment in the global South. I may have missed something, but I don’t recall any place where she can be heard advocating that we shop at farmers’ markets, eat more slowly or “go local”. All of these things might fit with what she does advocate, which is a radical restructuring of global trade, with more constraints on corporate power and a revamped system of public finance in service to more equitable exchange.

Susan George was on the train very early, and well before it left the station. Her books How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (1976) and Ill Fares the Land: Essays on Food, Hunger and Power (1984) were an early and formative influence on a young assistant professor who was trying to figure out how to teach a course on agricultural ethics down in Texas during the 1980s. I decided to gauge the overall level of awareness of her work by typing ‘George’ and ‘Ill fares the land’ into Scholar Google. For those among my regular readers who are not academic geeks (which, by the way, is most of you) Scholar Google is a search engine that focuses on refereed journals and scholarly books. You can find it buried deep under the more detailed Google tabs, if you can even find the more detailed Google tabs, given the way that robots seem to be taking over everything. You can also find it at  Scholar Google will create a link to George’s Ill Fares the Land on Google Books (yet another robot run initiative). It will also build a list of all the books and articles in the data base that include Ill Fares the Land in their references.

So to continue a context-setting tangent for just a few more sentences, the vast majority of publications that are electronically searchable have fallen completely on deaf ears. They have never been cited by anyone, and there’s a fair chance that they’ve never been read by anyone, either. Put that in your pipe and smoke it when you hear some university administrator puffing along about the research productivity of their institution. So a book or article that has, say, 30 citations is having a pretty big impact. On the other end of the spectrum, there are books and articles with over 1000 citations—the big winners, some of which have several thousand citations. Ill Fares the Land currently has a little over 100 citations. It’s definitely something, and it would quite probably get you tenure, but to put this more deeply into context, Diet for a Small Planet has almost 700 citations, and it’s not even considered to be a scholarly book. That’s why I’m calling Susan George something of a dark horse.

I should probably admit that there is a sense in which Ill Fares the Land isn’t really a scholarly book either, or at least not by the standards of political science—Dr. George’s discipline. It’s rather thin on numbers, heavy on conceptual analysis and argument. Her writing style may reflect the fact that in addition to her political science doctorate, she has a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne. (Hooray for philosophy!) But frankly, with the exception of Joan Dye Gussow and James McWilliams, none of our food ethics icons (and this would include several who were college professors, like Norman Borlaug) achieved their iconic status by publishing in academic outlets.

More telling is the fact that when you click on the “Cited by” tab in Scholar Google, you will discover that as you go through the first three or four pages of books and articles that have included Susan George’s work in their references, all of them have at least twice as many citations as her own book does, and several of them have a couple of thousand citations. Susan George’s name may not be on the tip of the tongue among food system activists, but she has been pretty influential among others who have been even more influential. And that’s what makes her a food ethics icon.

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