Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Food is personal, sometimes ethical, but rarely political

Posted 15 Jan 2016 / 0
2016-01-15bImage courtesy of Nick Gray via Wikimedia Commons

The Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Vegetarian Lesson

This article by Chad Lavin neatly distills ideas and issues that I have been grappling with for more than half my life. As a current-day ecologist who was a vegetarian more than a decade before I took my first ecology course, I have always struggled with how to have the dietary choices conversation with my students.

As Lavin points out, any discussion of the environmental impact of meat almost immediately centers on individual (in other words consumer) choice. Sometimes that individuality is expressed as a defensiveness on the part of meat-eating students. Or, as Lavin points out — and I have also experienced — sometimes the individual nature of dietary choice is expressed as a professorial litmus test. Like Lavin, I find this test maddening even as I pass it with flying colors (I get extra points for being mostly vegan for over two decades, but it turns out those points can’t be redeemed for any sort of meaningful social change).

My favorite observation in this essay is that students maintain an unusual comfort in assuming — and asking whether — their professor who teaches about vegetarianism actually is a vegetarian. Why is this?

Lavin seems to be onto something: we fundamentally lack the ability to treat the way we eat as a political issue, even as our dietary choices are profoundly influenced by the politics of our society. If radical philosophers can point out that meat eating is genocidal and still treat the decision to eat meat on an individual level, there’s clearly a massive blind spot here.

Food is obviously a part of our political systems, and our inability to see that clear fact is telling. I see deep biological roots in our tendency to view food as a deeply personal choice: it appears we have evolved to have a powerful reverance for the eating decisions of others. This makes a lot of sense when we consider our roots as a group-foraging, tribal species: respecting how, what, and when your fellow group members decided to eat was likely key to our survival. And yet our ancestors must have also faced a smaller-scale dilemma that was analogous to the challenge that we face now on a global scale: the dietary decisions of others impact the stability and quality of our shared food supply. Facing that dilemma means letting go of food as simply an expression of individuality.

A Minor Post, Anthropogenic Change, Articles, Behavior, Belief, Cooperation, Food, Parasitism, Political Science, Predation, Public Policy, Resource Consumption, Uncategorized

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