"There Is No Alternative" 1/26 Colloquium with Melissa Orlie
Guest Writer: Michael Verderame

Thursday, January 29, 2009

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Michael Verderame (English)

In responding to Melissa Orlie’s paper “There Is No Alternative,” respondent Eric Freyfogle jokingly remarked that she had, in the course of the evening, insulted her entire audience. Indeed, listening to Orlie’s paper was at times an uncomfortable experience, as she drove home the myriad ways in which all of our choices in purchasing and consuming food on a daily basis implicate us in a global political and economic regime which many of us claim to deplore.

Professor Orlie calls for us to live our professed environmental values by turning away from the current global food economy towards food production at the local level (or, as she phrases it, the individual “land community”)—whether through individually or cooperatively growing one’s own food or through purchasing from local farmers and co-ops. This turn, Orlie argues, would not only have direct beneficial environmental and social effects, but would extend far beyond the realm of food to encourage greater happiness, self-awareness, sensitivity to our local environments, and humility about our place within those environments.

Orlie’s argument is part of a growing trend, in both academic and activist circles, to emphasize food production and consumption as a key site of political and ecological commitment. Aside from environmental devastation, dislocation of populations, conflicts over resources, economic inequality, erosion of cultural distinctiveness, and public health crises, Orlie argues that the current food economy has also had a pronounced negative impact on the quality of food that we consume. While we have the privilege of consuming, at any time of year, specialty foods from Asia, Africa, Europe, and all points throughout the Americas, we have lost the ability to distinguish the taste of fresh produce (or “real food,” as she calls it), grown in season, in our own communities. Furthermore, the transportation of food also has enormous costs in energy consumption and CO2 emissions, contributing substantially to anthropogenic global warming. Perhaps most disturbing, in Orlie’s view, is the sense that we, like the food we consume, have lost the sense of embededness in a particular place.

The most obvious objection to Orlie’s proposal for a turn to the local is one which was voiced, in a number of different ways, by both Professor Freyfogle and by several members of the audience at Monday’s colloquium--is such a move in effect an abandonment of collective action at the national and global level? Many of the significant barriers to local and cooperative food production result from public policies to subsidize corporate agriculture and shield it from paying for the considerable environmental damage it produces. Moreover, cost and time are all too real considerations for workers who work longer and longer hours for less and less money, and for whom “buying local” is a luxury reserved for the affluent. Can the eco-localism Orlie envisions be practiced on a wide scale before these systemic issues have been addressed?

Orlie argues that this dichotomy between local activity and collective action is a false one; after all, our consumption choices every day perpetually remake and support a global economic system that imperils all life on this planet. If a significant portion of the population of wealthy nations simply chose not to participate, new forms of organization would of necessity emerge. Caring for our local “land communities,” Orlie contends, would be transformative in more far-reaching ways as well, resulting in a wholesale reordering of our “table of values” to restore nature to its proper place of priority.


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