November 29, 2015
We set aside the Sunday after Thanksgiving every year for the key blog. It’s a tone-setting effort that reiterates the environmental theme that is intended to be the overarching orientation to all the other blogs, serious and irreverent, that get written every other Sunday of the year. There is a backstory to the key blog that I’ve spelled out on previous post-Thanksgiving Sundays, but if you are a latecomer and want to pick up that thread, I think I’ll just link you to last year’s entry, from whence you will be able to trace the narrative back to its origins in 2009.
I always make a respectful reference to Aldo Leopold, the conservation biologist who is sometimes also regarded as the founding voice in environmental ethics. Leopold decried the tendency to cook up dollar values for those aspects of nature that we love on the pretense that we are just not being economical. Leopold was thinking specifically of songbirds when he made this observation. He was poking a little fun at the economists who were trying to convince people that losing songbirds was the same as wasting money. Better, Leopold thought, to just recognize that we love them. Of course not everyone does love them, so sometimes these economic arguments do some work in a policy context. But this is not an economics blog, whatever you might have thought, and Leopold’s insight is a pretty important step toward thinking philosophically about food, farming and the broader significance of what we eat.
In fact, I’ve distrusted a certain kind of food ethics for a very similar reason. It recommends eating as an act that produces a more environmentally sound world: Buy local because reducing the distance your food travels will have a positive impact on climate change, and eat vegetarian because reducing the emission of methane from livestock production has a similar effect. One can worry about whether these things are really true, but that’s not my issue. What I distrust is the machine metaphor that I see working in this kind of argument: Do A to bring about B. Why? Because B is a mechanistic result caused by A. Long ago (in The Spirit of the Soil ) I put forward the argument that this kind of thinking is just an invitation for more technology: Let’s figure out some way we can still do A, but not bring about B. And I have to say that the clever innovators in the agricultural science world have been remarkably effective about doing just that.
Now just to make things even more complicated, I’m not against technological solutions. At least I’m not against them when they actually work, which is, to be fair, less often than claimed. My complaint is that in thinking that we address ethical issues by short-circuiting the causal connection between our action A and the undesirable consequence B, we are actually short-circuiting the process of ethical reflection itself. Focusing on technological solutions is actually a way to not think about what we are doing in a reflective and careful manner.
I’ve found that it’s pretty hard to engage in reflective thinking when you are limiting yourself to 1000 words or less, and trying not to be so boring that no one would want to look at your effort on a bright but chilly November morning, to boot. At least it’s hard for me. So I wouldn’t necessarily take an overweening pride in what we’ve accomplished over the last six years here at the Thornapple Blog. The blog was originally conceived as something that would remind members of their weekly delivery, even when the Michigan winter has shut down meaningful production of organically grown veggies. So maybe we will go for seven years, if the Thornapple CSA can keep itself together for another season.
And currently it is looking like it will.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University