Friday, February 25, 2011

"Food" v. "Environment"

I've been stewing over this article for days. In short, Time Magazine claims that the environmental movement is dying off and being supplanted by the food movement: You blew your chance, environmentalism. Screw off. Long live the food movement! To quote:
Even as traditional environmentalism struggles, another movement is rising in its place, aligning consumers, producers, the media and even politicians. It's the food movement, and if it continues to grow it may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years.
Part of me wants to celebrate the fact that a mainstream publication like Time is trumpeting the food movement's broad success... while my earnest inner hippie wants to muster a flustered defense of the environmental/green movement, and the (occasionally pedantic) stickler in me wants to split hairs. Part of me just wants to stomp my foot, because dammit didn't we already have this conversation back in 2004?

Let's go with splitting hairs for now. (I already covered the foot stomping IRL several days ago.) You can't talk about a rising food movement supplanting a dying environmental movement, because there is no precise distinction between the two. To do so is both inaccurate and ahistorical: concerns around food have been embedded in progressive politics generally and in environmentalism specifically for a long time.

"Environmentalism can trace its origins to the establishment of America's first national parks in 1899, but until recently, food wasn't really on the radar for progressives, beyond the mission of coping with world hunger," claims the author. This is patently untrue. What about organics? What about the back-to-the-land movement? Biodynamic agriculture has been around since the 1920s. Rodale started Organic Gardening in 1942. DDT, environmentalism's Ur-issue, was after all an agricultural pesticide. Here in SF, the seminal 1960s progressive group the Diggers were very focused on food. Chez Panisse opened in 1971, spawning California cuisine in all its green glory. In fact, of the progressive young people that migrated to rural areas in the '60s and '70s to take up small-scale organic farming, many are still at it today; they are the foremost heroes and instigators of what might be termed the modern food movement.

The Time article mentions Shellenberger & Nordhaus' much-debated 2004 essay The Death of Environmentalism, but then goes on to use the terms "environmental movement" and "green movement" interchangeably without comment. But (as flawed as it was) the Shellenberger-Nordhaus essay was notable for being the loudest manifestation of a greater identity crisis and debate within the environmental movement, which was fomenting at that time on multiple fronts. Coming off of the widespread policy failure that was the 1990s, environmental advocates in the early oughts began to both consciously evolve their own terms and to align themselves more explicitly with broader progressive issues. Green politics (with a capital G) had long been associated with environmentalism, but "green" now increasingly became the term of choice (along with sustainability).

So today the language and the focus has changed a bit, sure. But that is nothing new! The current prominence of good food is environmentalism's success (or one of them). Let's not obscure the complexity of this history for the sake of a good headline.

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