How do we confront these issues, as community gardeners, or farmers, or anti-hunger activists? Well, we start by framing our stories, our struggles, in the language of the values we hold for a better world overall — including issues not in our silos. Then we refuse to accept as victories changes that don’t actually challenge this current political structure, insisting instead on holding to solutions which represent our values.
An example of this is the White House organic garden. From the original New York Times article about the garden:
Dan Barber, an owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an organic restaurant in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., that grows many of its own ingredients, said: “The power of Michelle Obama and the garden can create a very powerful message about eating healthy and more delicious food. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it could translate into real change.”
Symbol of renewed interest in healthy, fresh food? Sure. Indicator of social or political change? I don’t see it. Cultural values surely change as the ideas that frame our lives evolve. Healthy, local eating may become more important to some people due to this White House garden. But the reality remains that whatever a person’s values are, healthy local eating will remain more expensive than the cheap processed foods Mrs. Obama decries (and therefore be less common), as long as the political and economic structures remain the same.
At the very least, a symbolic victory should contain a kernel of the truth about the change we seek, even if it is merely vocally expressed but not acted on. If we are to be happy about a politician grandstanding on our issue of good food, or another New York Times article “discovering” the latest good food project or personality, we should be ready to see through it critically; to ask ourselves whether it promotes the larger vision of the world we seek, and not just a piecemeal feel-good band-aid of activist relief.
The last issue is perhaps the one that will garner me the least fans. I propose that we stop looking to the Obama administration, or any federally-elected Democratic officials, as boosters for our movement. I could list endless things the Democrats have done that upset my values (from voting repeatedly for the occupation of Iraq to defending torture), but here I’ll stick to ones that relate more directly to the sustainable food issue.
First, think of those Mexican ejido farmers, struggling to grow and sell their heirloom varieties of Maize in a market newly-flooded with cheap U.S. Agribusiness corn. Who made this possible? NAFTA was passed by Clinton, our last Democratic “savior.” Barack Obama campaigned on a strong promise to reform free trade agreements like NAFTA and now, post-election, has rescinded that promise.
Second, think of climate change, a major player in the future of agriculture. James Hansen, the foremost NASA climate change scientist, has written up a letter to President Obama, as reported in the Guardian UK:
Hansen wrote that there is a “profound disconnect” between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem as described by the science. He praised Obama’s campaign rhetoric about “a planet in peril”, but said that how the new president responds in office will be crucial. Hansen lambasts the current international approach of setting targets to be met through “cap and trade” schemes as not up to the task. “This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity,” [Hansen] wrote.
President Obama’s solution to climate change has been, surprise surprise, cap and trade. At least, some argue, he promised during his campaign to sell off 100% of cap-and-trade “allowances”, the permits for every ton of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. This would mean money from polluters for permits, slated to fund the largest investment in renewable energy in history. Now the president has backed away from that commitment, and through the recent Waxman/Markey Bill, 85% of these permits will be given away to industries that pollute.