At many times and in more and more places it seems, talk of environmental problems leads not to the systemic change that researchers advocate, but to wanting magic bullets or easy scapegoats to blame.
But anyone who’se stumbled onto this blog probably knows all too well how much more complex and complicated things are.
So here are some thoughts on one effective route to broaching environmental topics, including the most complicated and the most unwanted ones (those that seem to require us to change our ways): food.
Back in the summer of 2021, the International Society for Ethnology and Folkore (SIEF), held its congress online ‘in Helsinki’. That explains why I came to be dangling a smoked Baltic herring at the camera while seated outside our summer cabin in the Finnish archipelago. It was part of the closing session, playfully titled Baking the Rules by organisers Roger Norum and Sarah Green. A joint discussion around food and the politics of food, it was a light-hearted way of reflecting on what we had all learned about the conference theme, ‘Breaking the rules? Power, participation, transgression’. As a long-time follower of environmental social movements, I was expected (I guess) to have interesting things to share on the topic.
I certainly learned a lot. The session taught me that scholarship around food may have a bigger role than I, at least, had appreciated in putting people into environmentalism and nuance into crisis talk.
The session abstract begins with this:
“Eating is both a deeply symbolically dense, as well as an essential activity, and is linked to a dazzling array of political, economic, social, environmental and religious meanings, rules and norms. For that reason, food – raw or cooked, slow or fast, processed or unprocessed, plant- or animal-based – has long been the focus of both academic research and political activism. “
Exactly! Furthermore, it turns out that food is an excellent way to get the multiple dimensions of so-called environmental crisis into the same picture or story. In particular, it’s a concrete example of how both matter and meaning are equally important. In the western dominated world of global environmental policy, that idea has been a stupidly challenging point to make, which is in turn usually blamed on our dualistic philosophical heritage.
Things are changing, and those dualisms have given way to ways of viewing the problems that feel far less violent and fixed. There are great exemplars to follow, like Anna Tsing and her colleagues who have put out the Feral Atlas, and countless others who have been chipping away at the bad intellectual habits imposed by dominant western elites. This is already shifting the way our shared troubles are discussed in some places.
Compared to esoteric academic debates that employ terms like anthropocene, pluriverse, multispecies coexistence, uncivilisation, more-than-human and so on, to talk about food comes much closer to people’s experiences and emotions. Besides, neologisms seem more likely to switch off people’s interest than switch it on.
I’m not sure we can afford switching off. As someone who has studied environmental social movements, I’ve long straddled activism and academia and noted that learning across the divide happens all the time. That said, I know how incredibly difficuclt it is to spell out, to more incurious or contrarian listeners at least, what exactly is environmental damage, why it matters and how society might deal with it.
An example from my doctoral work that I have often shared with students is how, back in the early 1990s, many of my peers and professors were quite happy to approach the toxic waste protest I was writing about as if the toxic danger were not there, as if all that mattered was group identity and ways to maintain social cohesion! I was enormously relieved when I found the language to do that, first in the work on the risk society by Ulrich Beck and a little later the exciting and then new field of science and technology studies. They gave me a language through which to at least begin to push back against my discipline’s seeming methodological a-materialism and its habit of bracketing out science and technology as beyond a social researcher’s remit.
Eventually, my generation (VERY broadly conceived) of researchers found it, or maybe actually helped to make it, a bit easier to make material damage matter in anthropology (I’m thinking of very diverse folks who have gone on to do wonderful things, like Marianne Lien, Anand Pandian, Dimitrios Theodossopoulos and many, many others). We were also beginning to identify cultural (including economic) peculiarities as central to environmental politics and the deepening social crises entangled in it. But thinking about the scienctific authority that we ourselves relied on as culturally constructed, was often a tricky task, even among our peers and mentors. How much more difficult with an anti-environmnentalist relative or climate sceptic political adversary!
Talking about food, to get back to the 2021 panel, meant always returning to the concrete troubles that ordinary people face in their relationships with it. Speaking about food, and for me doing it from the island cabin, was a way to make environmental challenges feel tractable and, I hope, meaningful. With Stina, Håkan, George and the audience, we talked intelligibly (I hope) about complex events and environments diffuse in time and space. We used food to talk critically about diversity and the place of humans on the planet without opposing the cultural to the technical. We spun brief but persuasive stories about how mainstream expertise can be weaker than expertise at the margins. We touched on how art and science work together rather than as mutually exclusive in generating important knowledge and skill.
Food turned out to be a very good vehicle indeed for discussing some apparently intractable problems that have beset thinkers like activists for a long time.
The island itself also featured quite strongly in my contribution. The herring I wave in the screenshot above is from a shop, but it symbolised the hundreds that, in my childhood, I had eateb while on the island because, fished from the sea around us by people we knew, it was the most local food there was, bar the berries from in the wood you can see behind me.
I’ve written before on this blog about the island’s influence on my thinking. The conference was about breaking the rules, so I was able to riff a little on rules as simultaneously pertaining to material, symbolic, personal and shared values and forms of reasoning. I talked about how cabin life in Finland is shot through with rules and instructions of many kinds. As children the practical reasons for them seemed unassailable: high-topped rubber boots would protect against dangerous adder bites, the countless rules about heating saunas, saving fresh water, picking (or not) certain berries or mushrooms or using and cleaning outhouses obviously needed to be followed.
We also learned nuances of etiquette, often around food. As some of us have later realised, these placed us in a social class that, unlike many even in Finland (more here in Finnish), has access to holiday homes by the sea.
And so food and how foodways connect people and places, local and global and so on, also connected to the socioeconomic character of much environmental politics. In talking about how food and environmental conditions push themselves into consiousness on the island, I was able to hint at how environmentalism itself has been able to bolster western, capitalist, thinking even though it has managed to make itself appear culturally universal and politically neutral. For instance, eco-gentrification is as much a problem as a solution, protecting environmental quality where the wealthy live often means sacrificing environments and lives elsewhere, and so on.
I tried to highlight the paradox of learning to become environmentalist at a nice summer cabin that’s part of the wealthy lifestyles that are the worst assault on our environment. Actually it turns out that even our diets, and the (so-called) food system that provides the bulk of what sustains us, are pretty much forcing everyone in Finland, not just the wealthiest, to live far beyond our ecological means.
This uncomfortable situation is something that I’ve been studying for some time through following and trying to make sense of middle-class urban environmental activism in Helsinki. What I’ve found are numerous initiatives, many revolving precicely around food, that look extremely critically and imaginatively at our dependency on distant but invisible others, as a way to push for systemic change in western lifestyles. Dodo with its urban garden has been doing it wonderfully for over a decade in Helsinki.
Furthermore, it would seem that activists with greater-than-average educational resources are often pioneering transgressive thinking and acting. Critical scholars may sideline or belittle this kind of stuff because it hails from the comfortable classes (a phrase and topic from my chapter in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough), but that would be a mistake.
When it comes to getting away from unsustainability-as-usual, I would prefer that nothing creative or transgressive to be belittled. And given that breaking rules, even silly ones, usually carries risks, it is more likely that these can best be carried by the wealthy and privileged anyway. It may even be that their protests may have more and more immediate impact, politically and economically. One example is how playing around with powerful knowledge practices (art and science) and challenging political truisms has recently led to lively public debate on environmental matters, and at least some shifts in political culture, in Helsinki. (Also something I’ve published on recently).
I’ll finish by returning to the panel. That’s where I really began to appreciate that to talk about food, from its affordability or sustainability or indeed its health impacts or sensuous delights, private and shared, is a great way to talk intelligibly and meaningfully about things that academics and policy wonks still struggle to discuss in ways that interest the wider public. Food, concrete and familiar, so full of human and natural dimensions, turned out to be a fabulous route into things formerly known as environmental. Maybe I’ll riff on food as fuel or energy at some other time.
Anyway, thank you SIEF for the invitation!
P.s. This post is a side-effect, if you like, of my working on a commentary on this for an upcoming special issue of Ethnologia Fennica about food. I will keep you updated on how that goes.