Ontology

February 23, 2014

It looks like February 2014 was ontology month. That’s “on” as when Sylvia Tyson sings ‘When I woke up this morning, you were on my mind.’ It’s ‘tol’ as when Little Richard sings ‘Long Tall Sally she’s built for speed.’ It’s ‘o’ as when he sings “Oh, my soul” and gee as when Cliff Richard sings ‘Gee whiz it’s you.’ On-tall-oh-gee. Contrary to the Feb. 2 blog only four (count ‘em, 4) syllables. Of course from there you go to “ontological” which does truly have five syllables. A massive ideogram suited for the most erudite of bibliophiles indeed. As I ‘splained back then, it refers to “being”. Whenever you get yourself into a snit with someone over whether something is real or not, you are embroiled in an ontological dispute.

Not all definitional disagreements are ontological in nature, but when you resort to the official USDA definition for a farm in order to clarify whether or your bud who’s growing a little weed in the back of his closet is a real farmer, that’s ontology. It’s also ontology when you are sweating out the details of whether or not one person is or is not food insecure. If all you’re worried about is how to use a word, it may not be ontology, but when you are worried about what is one thing or another, and similarly, what ain’t, well, then you are sailing to the ontological ocean. And then there was last week, when we were worried about whether resilience is an alternative to sustainability, or whether it is implied and encompassed by sustainability. I take that to be an ontological question, too. And as the Venetians used to say, ‘The Ocean gets deeper the further you go into it.”

We (and by us I actually mean just about everyone) are much more sophisticated about ontology than even in comparatively recent times. I think we have J.K. Rowling to thank for that, (though possibly it was Keano Reeves and the Wachowski Brothers). For now I’m going with Rowling who gave us the immortal quotation, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” A very wise observation, and one that I bear in mind constantly when I stray into the contested areas of food ethics. I had a professor in college who promulgated a philosophical doctrine he called ‘ontological parity’. In brief, the idea was that reality does not come in degrees. Everything that is is real, and you are only going to waste your breath by trying to scale beings by degrees. Or, to put it more concretely, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

All the same it’s still meaningful to think of things prevailing in distinct orders. Some things happen in your head; others in the back yard. Food, I’ve found, is generally better when it comes from the back yard, or some other soil-containing yard-like locale. I know that they say “Hunger is the best sauce,”—a thought suggestive of the idea that it might all be in your mind. But I’m sticking with the yard or in a couple of months now, Appleschram Farm courtesy of Thornapple CSA. No seeds in the ground yet, but the order has been placed and I’m dreaming about it even as I look ahead to another week of single digits here in mid-Michigan. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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

 

 

 

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Word Play

February 16, 2014

I’m sure that everyone is wondering what I’ve been reading these days. [Well actually I’m being facetious. I don’t for a minute think that anyone woke up on a February morning thinking to themselves, “Gosh! It’s bothering me that I haven’t the foggiest notion what Paul Thompson has been reading of late.” But it’s a way to get things rolling and in fact I’m not really going to blog about all the stuff I’ve actually been reading, in any case. Now pretend that we didn’t even go down this wormhole and that you’re sitting there in front of your screen saying to yourself, “Yeah! What have you been reading, Paul?” and I’ll just continue on with the blog as if this never happened.]

Well I’ve been reading a book by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy called Resilience. Before I start knocking it (and that, after all, is the main reason that I would bring up anything I’d been reading in the Thornapple Blog) let me say that this is a very good book. Zolli and Healy use the idea of resilience as a pretence for stringing together stories about work being done by scientists and innovators in a number of diverse fields. I read a lot of books like this. I think of James Gleick as the master of this genre. His 1987 book Chaos is the archetype. On the one hand, it’s science journalism at its best. Short vignettes on individual scientists, heavy on character study and biographical detail, provide a narrative frame for conveying the scientific concepts that are central to their work. On the other hand, Gleick’s strategy of border crossing allows him to build bridges across scientific domains that seldom intersect. This allows him to achieve a synthetic vision of thresholds and cultural momentum that transcends the work of the individual scientists he surveys. Zolli and Healy are doing a pretty good job of that, too.

These books are pretty easy to read compared to the other stuff I’m reading but not blogging about. I read them because I imagine junior executives who have been upgraded to first class on coast-to-coast trips reading them, and I want to check the temperature of the water they are swimming in. Not that I would be familiar with more than a fraction of the scientific work being covered: I learn something, too. So I’m enjoying and learning from Resilience, which has pretty much been strung together by following up on the way that the word ‘resilience’ is being deployed in a number of very different scientific contexts. My context has been the work of ecologist Buzz Holling, who has been studying the way that ecosystems do (and do not) recover from catastrophic challenges and persistent insults. (And by the way, for Lansing locals, I’ll plug the upcoming visit of Carl Folke from the Stockholm Resilience Institute. Dr. Folke will be speaking on Feb. 25.) But Zolli and Healy include work on people who are resilient in the sense that they seem to function well in the face of personal catastrophes. It is a provocative synthesis.

BUT (and now you know the gripe is coming) they pissed me off right from the get-go by suggesting that ‘resilience’ is the new new thing, that sustainability is “getting long in the tooth” and that we need to just get over it. Both of my regular readers may recall that it was just about a year ago that I teed off on this thought, arguing that resilience has always been a part of sustainability thinking. Here’s my beef: Zolli and Healy are neglecting the way that “essentially contested concepts”—ideas that cross borders and therefore spark contestation and debate—are crucial to the resilience of our ways of talking, our ways of connecting, and our ways of thinking. And as my friend Bryan Norton has told us, ordinary (as opposed to specialized technical) language is our environment.

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

 

A Crock

February 9, 2014

We’re sitting underneath a ton of snow and cold weather here in Michigan this February. It’s a good idea to fill up the calendar with annual events to tick off during the long wait for Spring. Punxsutawny Phil, the wonderfully-fantastic excrescent bowl, the North Michigan Small Farm Conference that we talked about last week, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, the UM-MSU home and away basketball series (we may forget about that one this year)… And for three years in a row now, Everybody Eats. I’ve blogged about Everybody Eats for the two previous Februaries, so we wouldn’t want to break the streak in 2014, would we?

This confab of locals assembles to gab about food issues as they pertain to the Cap City and its environs. And every once in moment, some philosophical question comes up. Like, for instance, how would we define ‘food insecure’? The discussion in one of the sessions I attended drifted toward the idea that we should understand the idea on a spectrum: At one end, you are food insecure when you or someone in your household has to miss a meal because you can’t pay for it. Note that this is the “extremely insecure” end for people in the United States. Things can get much more extreme, as when a household member misses enough meals to have growth and development affected, or when they succumb to one of the diseases of hunger. But this is Everybody Eats in Lansing, MI, so let’s not let the global hunger point distract us from the topics that were (quite legitimately) the main thrust of conversation down at the United Missionary Baptist Church yesterday.

But what’s the other end of the spectrum? Folks in the room struggled a bit with this question. Randy Bell from MSU Extension had thrown up a figure showing that 20% of the Lansing population is food insecure. The national figure is 1 in 6. If people are calculating statistics like that, there must be something that defines the cut-off point where you are no longer “food insecure”, right?

And there is. To speak with utter unvarnished truth, the criterion is not based on what happens to people or the conditions in which they live. It’s based on what they report to people who do surveys. While I fully endorse surveys and I appreciate the need to do them, I also think that we put ourselves into peril by an inability to distinguish between reality and what people say about it. That’s an ontological point, by the way (see last week’s blog). So to clarify, you are defined as having “low food insecurity” if you tell the sociologist who calls you up on the phone that you have experienced reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet, but you don’t get pushed into the “high food security” category until you tell them that you’re eating patterns have actually been disrupted (e.g. you’re missing meals—maybe eating less so your kids don’t have to).

My point would be that in fact many more than 1 in 6 of us have experienced “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet” on numerous occasions during the last year. Heck, speaking for my own self alone, I experience reduced quality, variety and desirability of diet once or twice every week, mainly because there’s no Claire’s Cornercopia or Flying Star Café in the neighborhood for me to frequent for lunch. I would probably be ashamed to complain about that to an official survey researcher, but before you bawl me out for being an elitist, I’m telling you that I’m serious. If you are compromising your diet in order to save money or time, you are experiencing some degree of food security, no matter what you are inclined to tell the sociologist who calls you up on the phone to compile an objective and unbiased measurement of food security in the You Ess of Ay.

So Diane’s open space group at Everybody Eats was surfacing ideas about how to combat this problem. Her idea: everyone needs a crock pot. Then they could eat some of those good Michigan grown beans instead of making a dash to Wendy’s. Some big rich venture capitalist needs to create a fund for donating crock pots to all the people who don’t have them, she says. I’m not sure it solves my problem. I need a big rich venture capitalist to open up a Flying Star Café in East Lansing. But you get the picture.

You may think it’s a crock, but I’m sticking with it.

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

Reality

February 2, 2014

I’m checking in this week from the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference in Traverse City. The theme of this year’s conference is “Small Farms Are Real Farms.” I’m a bit put off that they didn’t ask me to speak at the conference because after all who would be better equipped to speak on the subject of reality than a philosophy professor? Ontology is the subfield of philosophy that takes up the age old questions of being and nonbeing. If you are sitting there in six feet of snow pondering the question “What is reality?” you may have more serious problems than I can help you with, but the question itself is an ontological one.

Of course the you ess dee hay has its own definition of what a farm is. To wit, a farm is any place from which $1000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold, or would normally have been produced or sold during the year. Heck, back in the early 70s I knew some guys who were operating a farm with a couple of cigar boxes and a Gro-light on the floor of their bedroom closet by that definition. Of course they weren’t reporting their farming activity to the census bureau or to the eye are ess, but there’s nothing to qualify the specific type or legality of the agricultural product you might happen to be producing in your closet on the you ess dee hay’s website. So I guess that (all appearances to the contrary) those good ol’ boys were farmers after all.

Which just goes to show you why you would require someone with graduate level training in ontology to address the question of which farms are real farms, rather than some geeks working for the government. Although these you ess dee hay guys will recite the official definition of a farm for you at the drop of a hat, they’ll also laugh up their sleeves about it at the same time—betraying their true opinions about ontological status of my 70s friends’ farming operation. And more to the point, perhaps also betraying their true feelings about the good folks attending the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference. Take my wife. (Please?) As anyone who comes to this website on purpose (which is to say, not because you followed some robot created link directing you here because this was supposed to be an authoritative source for information on wedding shoes), my darling wife Diane is the core group coordinator for Thornapple CSA. She also gets her hands dirty doing some farming. And the Thornapple CSA does indeed produce more than $1000 worth of agricultural product in a season. But there’s just this itchy feeling that some old-timers get when someone refers to a CSA of our size and ideological bent as a farm.

Now I don’t want to get too technical here with my ontological analysis. I know all too well that I’ve already put some of my regular readers off just by using a word with five syllables, much less one that is derived from the Greek ὄντος (or ontos). Let it just suffice for me to say that there are no grounds on which one could dispute the reality of Thornapple CSA. I mean it’s right there at the top of the webpage, isn’t it? Of course there are some skeptical ontologists who dispute the reality of the universe, but we’re not going that direction (even as a tangent) this far down on the page. It’s not the reality of small farms that is at issue, it’s whether they are farms. Well what else could they be, I ask? And the answer would probably be “hobby farms,” this because although they do produce more than $1000 a year in agricultural products, they don’t necessarily produce enough for somebody to buy a dually pick-up, two snowmobiles and an enclosed trailer, plus take a vacation to Branson, MO every other year (to cite just a few of the key ontological traits that are occasionally said to characterize a real farm).

But that’s just what’s gone wrong with this country, a typical attendee at the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference would counter. And who am I to disagree with an ontic certitude of that caliber?

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