The following little essay is now available in the latest issue of Coin-Op, a beautiful hand-made zine based out of Fort Collins. This issue, Food, Feeding, and the Well-Fed Body, is on the intersection of food and feminism, and it’s a wonderful and illuminating collection of essays, interviews, stories, poetry, and art. If you’re in Fort Collins, pick it up at the Wolverine Farm Bookstore or Publick House, or if you’re not, order it online here!
Privilege is a Fossil Fuel – J. Mark Tebben
For the past several years of my life, I’ve been working toward a new food system. My entry point to this work was learning about the environmental unsustainability of the system that currently dominates our food. Most of what we grow in the US comes from the model of the industrial revolution – fossil-fuel inputs, massively scaled-up operations, specialty monocultures, factory farms. It wasn’t too difficult to see how this makes the system unsustainable. After all, fossil fuels will run out eventually, and before they do they’ll grow increasingly harder to find, more expensive to use, and more damaging to the ecosystems of the planet. The decline may be slow, or it may be sudden, but it is, at the end, certain.
Once I saw that decline coming, I decided to try and do something about it, first by apprenticing on an organic farm and starting a CSA, and now by studying Permaculture design. There are lots of solutions to agriculture’s environmental problems in those fields. Compost and manure replace natural-gas-derived fertilizers. Smaller fields of diverse vegetables or mixed perennials supplant monocultures. Pest and disease management works with nature instead of against it. Animals are treated with more dignity and contribute positively to the health of ecosystems.
This work – and there are many, many people doing it – is good, and important, and necessary. But I’ve recently begun to see that it’s also incomplete. Moving from environmentally-damaging food production towards environmentally-restorative food production is only a part of building a new food system, and when we focus that, we risk overlooking another, less-tangible unsustainability – the unsustainability of privilege.
Just as our food system is fossil-fuel dependent, it is also dependent on the structures of social power and privilege. Born out of the colonial spirit of so many of the white, male, European founders of the United States, the system expresses some of the worst distortions of masculinity: power, aggression, control, competition, extraction, conquest. So much of the food we eat is controlled by so few corporations, which are in turn controlled by descendants of those white men, or their ideological equivalents. And the rules of the system reinforce a hierarchical self-interest in which the most successful players are the ones who hold onto their privilege and increase their power.
The fuel of privilege, though, is just as unsustainable as the fuel of fossils. History has shown that societies and structures of increasing inequality and privilege collapse, always, sooner or later, and our food system will be no exception. We may have already reached ‘peak privilege;’ voices outside of the system are growing louder, and the cracks in the foundation are starting to show.
The good news is that these structural problems, like the environmental ones, present us with opportunities to remake the system. But this unsustainability is harder to work on, because it’s so much less tangible. And the work on one doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with the other. The alternative food movement has many patriarchs, and many of them are playing the same game as the mainstream. Earthbound Farms, Stonyfield Yogurt, and Whole Foods, to name a few examples, all started as small community projects, and all have bought into and been bought by the system at large.
Those of us now working on the alternatives can do better. We (and by ‘we’ I mean people who come from privilege and people who do not, all working together) can be intentional about the systems we create. The dominant systems of privilege were designed, and we have an opportunity to design new ones.
I don’t know exactly what these new designs look like, nor do I know exactly what my place as a white male is in helping shape them. But I imagine that one of the principles of permaculture should inform them – using and valuing diversity. Food-producing ecosystems are healthy when they include a multitude of different species, each exhibiting their unique characteristics and forming a symbiosis that makes the whole thing stronger. And we all have individual and valuable strengths and perspectives, regardless of what the dominant voices in our society now say.
If we keep that in mind in working toward our goal of a new food system, and we all make sure everyone has space to grow and be heard, we can move beyond privilege and oil both, and find our strength not through dominance, but equality. And our food, our environment, our communities, and ourselves will be healthier for it.