Raj Patel on "The Honey Trap of Ethical Consumerism"
I've been reading a lot of books about food lately—food politics, the food movement (and cookbooks, too). My front-runner favorite so far has been Raj Patel's inspiring/scathing Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. His book is much more international than the others, gets into worker, farmer and community food struggles (and successes) around the world and doesn't have a myopic focus on what individual Americans can or should do about their own personal habits. It's about global justice, not personal food purity.
For example, in the otherwise wonderful film "Food, Inc.", after exposing the horrors of factory farms and CAFOs, Big Ag, processed foods, pesticides, GMOs, horrifying working conditions, etc., the film ends with a bizarre feel-good "don't worry, you can vote for good food three times a day" message (get it? you can buy sustainable/local/ethical food three times a day!). But that just ain't enough, any more than replacing a few lightbulbs or buying adorable green products is enough.
One of my favorite passages in Stuffed and Starved comes in the conclusion, when Patel takes a moment to skewer the fantasy of good consumerism:
The honey trap of ethical consumerism is to think that the only means of communication we have with producers is through the market, and that the only way we can take collective action is to persuade everyone else to shop like us. It alters our relationship to the possibility of social change. It makes us think we are consumers in the great halls of democracy, which we can pluck off the shelves in the shops. But we are not consumers of democracy. We are its proprietors. And democracy happens not merely when we shop, but throughout our lives.But wait! there's more!
The connection between those who eat and those who grow food cannot be measured in terms of brand loyalty points or dollars spent. To short-cut the food system, and to know the people who grow our food, is more than to broker a relationship between buyer and seller. It is to build a human contact that goes beyond a simple transaction and that recognizes certain kinds of commonality, certain kinds of subjugation, and struggles, fights, for an end to the systemic inequalities in power which shape the way rich and poor live today. The food system, as we've seen, creates poverty at the same time as it produces an abundance of food. It fosters hunger and disease through its mechanisms of production and distribution. And it was forged in large measure because of the fear that urban workers and rural peasants would jump out of their social positions. That they would demand equality. The system was designed to siphon wealth from rural areas, with just enough redistributed to keep people quiet. But people acting, en masse, for equality, has been the only force that has changed the world. This is what makes food sovereignty far richer, and more enriching, than an ethical form of hedonism for those able to afford it.
Also on the topic of the limits of ethical consumerism and individual action, I came across this great piece by Derrick Jensen, "Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change", a point he also makes in a graphic novel co-authored by my pal Stephanie McMillan, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial.
More cartoons by me on related topics:
- "Fun Times at the Supermarket"
- "The New Green Hummer"
- "Quick Fixes for Every Crisis!"
- "Confessions of a Closet Conservationist"
- "Quick and Easy Guide to Conservation"