Consume This! Engaged Sustainers in the Food World

In this month’s post, John Brueggemann gets hopeful. Based on his research on what he calls “engaged sustainers” in the food world, he revisits Juliet Schor’s influential “new politics of consumption” piece from 1999, and finds a lot of optimism among food doers.

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Engaged Sustainers in the Food World

By John Brueggemann

A while back I began waging a personal campaign against hopelessness through my
research. (My flirtation with despair had started well before Trump conjured up the new politics of cynicism). At the time I began by casting a wide net in search of people engaged in life-giving activities who know what genuine, applied hope looks like. After several tries, I came across the emerging social movement related to sustainable agriculture, healthy consumption, and food justice.

Fast forward five years and I have had close encounters with some fifty people who actively work to create a food system that uses regenerative agriculture, produces nutritious food, fosters food security, values culinary arts, supports vibrant community, and promotes a broad understanding of how these activities are all necessarily linked to one another. The conventional understanding of the economy, which emphasizes production, distribution, and consumption, sees humanity as visiting natural settings so we can remove resources for our use. This view is linear, antagonistic, acquisitive, and transactional.

During my research, I have interviewed farmers, restauranteurs, chefs, clergy, teachers,
non-profit managers, for-profit managers, medical personnel, artists, and WWOOFers (i.e., people who participate in the World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). I have listened to presentations given by government officials, lobbyists, researchers, educators, and activists. Collectively, these engaged sustainers, as I call them, have taught me a contrasting way to think about the most fundamental resources in our world, one that is cyclical, harmonious, synergistic, and covenantal. As I got to know them, I realized these are folks who do things, whose lives are characterized by vigorous verbs.

They participate in harvesting, reaping, picking, slaughtering, milking, washing, milling,
refining, preserving, and, of course, cooking. They work with supermarkets, food hubs,
restaurants, hospitals, and schools. They are invested in conservation, waste management, “buy-local” organizations, food sovereignty, labor unions, and animal rights. They also work to communicate about the connections between all these activities by way of education, research, and marketing.

At the center of all this work, both as cause and effect, is a changing pattern of
consumption. Researchers interested in consumption will recall Juliet B. Schor’s seminal 1999 essay, “The New Politics of Consumption.” In it she outlined seven basic imperatives that could form the basis for new politics and culture related to consumption patterns. What I learned from engaged sustainers is that the sustainable food movement has in fact moved the needle relative to Schor’s hopes. Her first goal, “a right to a decent standard of living” (p. 459), is a strong part of this movement. Most importantly this requires the reduction of food insecurity, living wages, safe working conditions, and making farming a viable vocation.

Second, emphasizing “quality of life rather than quantity of stuff” (p. 459) is near and
dear to the hearts of people I interviewed. I never witnessed any interest in fancy material items like cars or houses. I did encounter investment in the life-giving qualities of nature and neighborliness. Schor’s third theme, “ecologically sustainable consumption” (p. 460), is the raison d’etre of the sustainable food movement.

The aspiration to “democratize consumption practices” (p. 460), her fourth element, clearly relates to food sovereignty. Many sustainers believe that the inherently relational quality of food should be negotiated in a community. The growing convergence of interests and efforts related to regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty is one of the most compelling developments I discovered in this research.

The fifth goal is the promotion of a vibrant “cultural environment” (p. 461) and protection of it from the corporate domination and the commercialization of social life. I visited several farms that have become popular visitor destinations with prepared food, live music, adult beverages, educational programs, event venues, playgrounds, and birthday activities for kids – all lively and rich cultural settings.

The new politics of consumption will “expose commodity ‘fetishism’” (p. 461), the sixth
point. Schor is referring to the kind of hyper-consumption that sacrifices quality of life and important relationships. This sort of superficial materialism does not really involve the respect of things, but rather ephemeral encounters with them. The new culture, Schor hopes, will penetrate the fog of this orientation that is the life-blood of corporate marketing. Some elements of the sustainable food movement are effective in this regard.

Finally, Schor calls for a robust “consumer movement” that will effect smart government policy. Consumers are actively involved in building such a movement around food. Local, state-wide, and regional efforts are under way, supporting regenerative farming, making production practices and labelling more transparent, facilitating more direct sales from farmers to consumers without corporate skimming in the middle, and bringing greater integrity to quality control.

What the long term results will be remain to be seen. One other aspect of this budding movement is especially noteworthy. To a person, every engaged sustainer I encountered evinced a kind of wonder related to their endeavors. Something about working with elemental forces of earth, sun, water, air, plants, and animals leads people to make connections between here and there, now and later, our grandparents and our grandchildren, earthworms and saving the world, and the mutual creatureliness humans share with other species.

Their work – which is always a vocation or avocation, never just a job – is deeply meaningful. For some, that meaning is explicitly religious. A number of Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Jews I interviewed consider their work related to food as sacred. For others, the activity is inherently spiritual, whether it is linked to Mother Earth, Gaia, or something less definable. Several folks sounded like atheists or agnostics but expressed profound reverence for the connections they have to elemental forces.
Most all of them are relentlessly pragmatic.

After all, their success is measured in dollars, acres, yields, calories, nutrients, carbon miles, and other stubborn facts. Nevertheless, they live in a world loaded with meaning, perhaps an enchanted world, in which the relationships among people, and between humanity and nature are necessarily interlocked, beautiful, and mysterious. Social movements based on such powers are hard to put down. It is a hopeful thing. Even in the age of Trump.

References

Schor, Juliet B. 1999. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review. Summer

About The Author

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John Brueggemann is Chair and Professor in the Department of Sociology at Skidmore College. His teaching and research interests revolve around food, social movements, inequality, and religion. His most recent book (coauthored with his father, Walter Brueggemann) is entitled Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture.

 

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