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My Feast of the Epiphany: Making Sense of a Changing World

Jan. 6, 2017

My Feast of the Epiphany: Making Sense of a Changing World

By: Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA

It happens when you least expect it, an epiphany, that is. There I am, sitting in row K or L at the cinema to watch the highly-acclaimed new German comedy: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. The film’s heartfelt ode to father-daughter relations, loneliness and conformity deserves an essay in its own right for its complexity, intimacy and humor. However, let me stick to the epiphany. What I did not expect was for the film to express this: It is no longer a secret that the era of unbridled globalization is over.

Sure, globalization will continue as we continue to disrupt local economies and “inefficient” social relations all over the planet for years to come. After all, actions predate and tarry long behind when we stop believing in the ideas. However, like the cast of characters in the film recognize, we too are beginning to acknowledge publicly: We are lost. There is no endgame to neoliberalism, other than theft. In short, there is little reason to pay homage to a bankrupt belief system.

Toni Erdmann succeeds in ways that countless documentaries have not: The idea of globalization as a compelling rationale to integrate all aspects of our lives -- even those social agreements once moderated by the state or family -- into an international order moderated by market forces (in order to make life better) has run its course. In Toni Erdmann, we gain insight into the subculture of transnational consultants who descend upon vulnerable economies (and communities) in transition -- in this case, Romania. They exert pressure upon local officials to privatize remaining public assets and outsource the remaining unionized jobs in order to increase efficiency and profitability for the corporations that rule the world. Caught in this web are decent, educated people whose actions wreak havoc upon others.

There is no conspiracy here. We have all played our part to embrace the ideological norms of globalization: efficiency, customer service performance and of course, the mad dash to scale. These are icons on the map of thinkable thought. We’ve done it for years. For instance, just consider how often you have uttered the phrase, “when we take it to scale,” without even asking why? Or, consider how in the past decade the organizational culture of philanthropy has changed. Once a mirror image of the state, plodding along and entrusting nonprofit organizations to take risks, learn and share new knowledge, philanthropy changed. It began to model its practices upon a culture of enterprise: making program-related investments, opting for larger and risk-averse grants to large and risk-averse nonprofits. During this time, the organizational framework of government, too, embraced the ideological norms of the age: outsourcing, efficiency measures, robotics, etc. Again, all of our fingerprints are present. And to be honest, not all of it has been horrible. Some of the customer service improvements associated with “reinventing government” are just that, improvements. However, please note: Other than in the military, all are accomplished within an economy of scarcity. 

Bring on the Disruptors?

What floored me in Toni Erdmann is that sudden realization that behind the gestures of all-knowing consultants, streams of data (thanks to cooked books and the old adage that “you get what you measure”) and pageantry, there is no there, there. It’s a con. Large corporations and their mouthpieces (think tanks, elected officials, and of course, consulting firms) eventually move on. Once the disruptors have dislodged any remaining wealth that is not serving global interests and have succeeded to convey the important concept that no alternatives exist, they move on to greener pastures to disrupt other vulnerable places. The film’s protagonist, Ines, bluntly asserts this as her career path.

And so, how does this relate to food? Peel away the complex and gimmicky explanations of how our societies have “hacked” this problem or another. At our core, we share very few basic needs: safe and secure access to food, clothing and shelter. I also covet important amenities like civic ritual and music. As for the politics of food, if your experience reflects mine in any way, you stumbled into the food space due to one strange coincidence or another: You grew up on a farm, took up an interest in homebrewing or became compelled to address the overgrown property at the corner and turn it into a community garden. Whatever the reason for your arrival, chances are the compelling and deepening relationship to food has kept you here.I invite you to stay.

Food is a key indicator of a society’s health: economic, social, political, ecological, if not spiritual. Importantly, more than just an indicator, food is also a stabilizer: an asset. Sadly, we mistreat this asset.

Our movement is at odds with the industrial food system that produces, distributes and markets the fruit of somebody’s labor; however, it is important to remember that our beef is with so much more than just food: We are at odds with the very scale, speed and ideology of plunder, of an economy that treats all living things as things to extract for profit and consumption. And yet, this does not mean that we do not engage with this dominant system. In fact, most of our behavior conforms to the rules and values of the market economy, at the pleasure of public and private grants, and in collaboration with those who may still truly believe in the bounds of (neoliberal) thinking. These differences are just fine. After all, ours is a pluralist movement. As with nature, we recognize the inclination for systems to grow more diverse. This includes our Slow Food system. To suggest that we take a multi-pronged approach is a significant understatement. Work within the system, outside of it, with companies pledging to understand the triple bottom line and with government agencies that despite the shifting winds of political appointees are staffed by serious and thoughtful public servants.

At the start of 2017, we sit upon a precipice: between two very different Presidential administrations. There is legitimate cause for concern. The Obama White House may not have heralded in an era of regenerative agriculture, but the First Lady indeed did so much to broaden our message, humanize it and draw attention to the insidious nature of industrial food (to overwhelm kids with the very foods that lead to lifelong struggles with chronic diseases).

Moreover, under Obama’s political appointees, the United States Department of Agriculture expanded upon novel ideas first introduced to the public sector by civil society, thus normalizing our wild-eyed ideas from the margins. Albeit imperfect, consider the Farmers Market Promotion Program, Fresh Food Financing, Know Your Farmer/Know Your Food, Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, farm-to-school programs, Food Corps, and the formal acknowledgment that USDA has purposefully underserved farmers of color. These and many other programmatic and policy changes are no small feats, despite that fact that the structure and logic of industrial food again remains intact.

As for the next administration, there are many unanswered questions. How will Trump rule? How will those around him rule? I urge all who care for civil society to defend civil discourse, praise openness in an open society, and expect little from others to act courageously on our behalf. With few who represent our values in Washington, DC, it is upon us to model best practices in our own communities; defend the new, fragile institutions and relations we have forged that bridge relations between urban and rural, the red and blue hue, supply and demand, secure and insecure; and importantly, do so with joy. Joyful relations may prove to be the best revenge in the face of severe and dark politics.

Not to be misconstrued, our movement is political. Our (small p) political ideas and actions on occasions find voice in the halls of power (the domain of large P—political space). Of course, we should exploit policy opportunities where they exist; concern ourselves with that which we have influence; and refuse to shrink away from defending those whom the powerful scapegoat. Additionally, please let’s acknowledge that the world around us is changing: Some of it for the better. The cultural shift to the good, the clean and the fair IS underway. We ARE winning in so many meaningful ways. In order to mitigate risks, first let’s recognize that change is here. It is our job to understand where we reside in this altered and altering landscape. Gone is the national construct that maintained stability from 1945-1991 (the Cold War, the age of “better living through chemistry” in our fields, factories and kitchens, and the remains of a social contract established during the shared sacrifices in WWII). The stable state has been replaced with an ideology of market economics that is transnational, me-first, extractive, and dependent upon a mad devotion to growth whilst almost belligerent towards maintenance. As a result, years of deferred maintenance upon our national infrastructure is and will create major physical deficiencies.

We gather.

This year, we are planning an important gathering in the middle of the USA -- Slow Food Nations, July 14-16 in Denver, CO. Recognizing that Slow Food is not a doctrinaire us vs. them party political organization, we meet people where they are. We will meet them on the streets in Denver, CO, just as we met them on the streets of Turin, Italy at Terra Madre. The gathering will be tactile, open to the public, and guided by our guiding principles: Good, Clean and Fair food for all.

By embracing that which is GOOD, our gathering will emphasize the pleasure and quality (of food) in everyday life. We believe delicious nutrition is a human right. Both the summit and the festival will reinvigorate joyful connections to community and place. In support of the CLEAN, we respect the interdependence between people and planet. Anticipate a vast array of food that is literally the fruits of regenerative practices. And lastly, often a misunderstood tenet of our principles is FAIR. Open to the public, we require no prerequisite or credential for participation. Slow Food Nations is dedicated to local and global cooperation; and recognizing the dignity for labor from field to fork, and from lake to plate.

As we gather over food and drink, what will we discuss? What ideas should we consider during these volatile times? As I stated earlier, there is good cause for concern; however, there is also reason to celebrate. Much of the world is joining us in questioning the very nature of economies and political communities. Though fraught with risk, this motion is welcome.

The politics of proximity.

I am inspired by what attorney, author and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s has to say about proximity. It is not enough to simply fight for ideas of equality on paper and then live separate lives. Rather, we must seek opportunities that intwine our lives with others: across otherwise insurmountable divisions of race, class, geography, perception and time. This idea challenges some of the tried and true strategies that sort out means and ends. Proximity should be a means because it is also an end unto itself. I think back to my personal experience of reaching out to rural farmers to establish farmers markets 20 years ago. I knew nothing of their lives, their fears, or their hopes. The more time I spent with them, the more we began to share in risks to launch enterprising efforts, the more we began to create trust, a shared history and shared glimpse of the kind of world we wish to live in. When I consider the rural, angry red state surprise in November’s elections, I wonder why was this a surprise? For those of you who forge urban-rural links via food did this electoral expression come as a surprise? This is an area where we should be well ahead of the curve. The call for regional food systems is a call for proximity. Whilst pundits scratch their heads to explain why they got things wrong, we should lean heavily into our food relationships. Share a meal, listen and learn. This is where the embrace of immigrant food and the people it represents will be a rallying call to action.

Rethink growth.

While it amounts to economic treason to question the sacrosanct devotion to growth, we must recognize that growth may not be the cure to stagnation, rapid impoverishment and rising inequalities. Instead, it may be the cause of these problems. Free your mind and dive into the DeGrowth conversation, long buried by global denizens of scale, speed and the norms of the extractive economy. Let’s reconsider economic models that call for investments in place and people that actually benefit those places and people. In short, let’s choose development over growth. After WWII when much of the colonized world threw off their colonial chains, leaders saw the need to replace economic activities that once served the empire with ones that served and fed local people.

This was the golden era of import substitution. Take Jamaica, as an example: Why must we grow sugar for England when our population needs proper food? Why not produce more of the things we need here at home, rather than produce for foreign markets? Sure, hard currencies (earned by foreign trade) are helpful and hard to come by. However, wouldn’t it be better for our local island economy to work as a regenerative, closed loop system where money is circulated and recirculated? These are the ideas of import substitution that once prospered in the Global South. Substitute that which you import by making it at home. What’s exciting is that if not by name then by deed, these ideas are gaining traction today. Consider the proliferation of local food economies and the policies pursued by local decision-makers to spend local tax dollars for school food on local food. Experiments in the local networks of industry in Mondragon (Spain) and textiles in Emilia-Romagna (Italy) has long inspired important food-related work here at home among friends and allies like Slow Money and the Schumacher Institute for a New Economics.

In Defense of Civil Society.

Two recent electoral stunners are sending out a complex array of messages to those who run the world: By this, I refer to Brexit in the UK and Trump in the USA. Among the messages to be read is this: A growing number tire of large, faceless institutions running their lives into the ground. Albeit inelegant solutions, these votes do represent a clearing of the 30-year logjam of neoliberal status quo. You name it: New Labour, New Democrats, NAFTA, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Gore, Blair, and on and on. Privatization, a culture of scarcity, a rush to scale and efficiency have all combined to put the squeeze on ordinary and decent people who play by the rules. Moreover, with fewer options to voice credible responses to the all-knowing wisdom of market forces, people retreat and find solace in safe spaces. Some of these spaces offer simple sets of rules to simplify life. Think of back to basics religious communities, thus shunning the complexities of modern life. Others seek order by embracing nativism. It is really quite an easy recipe: Seek to regenerate an earlier, golden age, blame downwards and rally around authoritarian solutions. Consider recent polls indicating a significant rise in the USA for support of military rule. It has risen from 1 in 16 Americans to 1 in 6.

If this is the limited menu, then I prefer to order off the menu. Neither fundamentalism, nativism or globalization protect the tolerance, openness and pluralism of a civil society. For me, food is both a tool and a salvation. It opens so many doors to so many potential allies in this troubling era: To those forgotten souls in the angry, rural red states, to the defiant yet still-colonized First Nations, and to the vulnerable immigrants who work the land, staff the kitchens and cannot earn enough to feed their families. Even more so, food is the key to stable societies and economies. At Slow Food, we value food differently than how the industrial food system values food. It is not just a fuel to feed the many but also the pride and cultural joy of the many.

If in this balkanized age, we have lost our ability to communicate, empathize across boundaries of race, class, gender, geography, then let us rediscover our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Our movement is many. In fact, its pluralism and decentralized, leaderless nature mystifies those advocates for traditional top-down social structures. Forget Thomas Friedman. We’re flat, not his world. And yet, if you listen to 20th-century expatriates, they’ll tell you: The food movement will amount to nothing; it has no leaders, capital, simplistic message, etc. And yet, globally, our numbers keep climbing because we provide a door to new relations and a floor on which to stand.

In the face of rising authoritarianism, embrace the chaos and incoherence of politically pluralist communities (as found in food). Value not only food but the heroes who grow it, defend the biodiversity, and champion the cultural integrity of those very foods that globalization advocates deem inconvenient and nativists deem threatening.

Reimagine community through food; reinvent tradition; remain suspicious of those who have “hacked” the problems of our age, and embrace this curious age of deconstruction by forging ties with those whom the modern world keeps apart. Yes, keep in mind Bryan Stevenson’s politics of proximity. The risks are great. Just ask anyone who feels more vulnerable after November than before. So, too, are the opportunities. After all, we are no longer alone, on the periphery. Our movement is not party-political and (according to some very interesting polling we conducted last summer), we are growing in number. Results indicate that 57% of Americans exhibit both behavior and attitudes that would land them in the category of food-curious. We will explore these curiosities in 2017 online via our communications platform, in our 150 Slow Food chapters, and especially in-person at Slow Food Nations. We need you. Let’s change the world.

If winter offers you dark nights by the fire, seeking inspiration and light, consider these six resources to inform, inspire and provide navigation for freethinkers who likely read too many food writings:

 

Photo credit: http://www.tiff.net/ 

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