Friday, April 9, 2010

True Cost

I'm a vegetarian. My current goal is to be 100% vegetarian, of that 80% Organic, and 50% raw. (If I eat live, my thoughts are alive!) Initially, when people hear the Organic part, the reaction is mixed with respect for my efforts, and defensiveness:
That's so great, I'd do that, but it's so expensive!

I've been considering this all week. What do we mean by expensive? Obviously, money right? We live in a culture where to say something costs you, invariably it means we are giving away money. But I question, given Ypyp's last post -- what idea are we buying when we do not buy organic? What is the true cost of food; what ideology are we buying? What values does it cost us?

I've been thinking about and re-reading an essay "Fast-Food and Factory Farming" from Rational Landscapes and Humanist Geography by Edward Relph. While some may argue that his perspective is only relevant to the fast-food industry, I will expand it to the non-organic food industry as a whole.** Relph's argument is a poignant and carefully crafted one. He begins by arguing that there are no "black villains" to be blamed for the disturbing realities of factory-farming:
Behind every McDonald's sign or Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket is a store manager struggling to maintain his sales and to pay off the debt he incurred... inside the pastel clean sheds of a broiler farm is a farmer worrying about how he can keep up the quality of his flock and maintain his quotas. These are not participants in some vast and evil conspiracy, but individuals... involved in a culture and life-style which... actively encourages the logical and rational procedures which they are using to maintain efficiency and to provide convenience.

The fast-food industry only exists because we want it to exist. As a culture, we want to have inexpensive meat given to us with peak efficiency. Efficiency for maximum human benefit are the values of our time. This is our inheritance from a society that grew out of the Age of Reason. Relph argues such a worldview has it's roots in the Cartesian argument that animals are automata:
They do not have a mind, and... it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, as one sees that a clock, which is made up of only wheels and springs, can count the hours and measure time.
It is our cultural inheritance in North America to prize human reason and scientific progress as the greatest benefit to our lives. This scientific humanism has certainly brought about many positive mechanical and chemical inventions that have made life healthier and easier for North Americans in many ways:
Few people in Europe or North America suffer now from severe hunger or chronic protein deficiencies.

But, what was the cost? Our rational and scientific priorities have enabled us to treat animals as objects, and we do. And while it allows us great convenience and economic low-costs, is it truly to our detriment? By denigrating living beings to the same moral value as a car, or toothbrush, instruments to serve our needs do we not allow a whole series of denigrations of our own humanity for the sake of a broad "humanism"? The implications are subtle and seem innocuous because they are familiar.

Consider the airport. With the same principle God of Efficiency, few people take issue with surrendering to a completely ahuman atmosphere, where we "surrender passively to being questioned, searched, crowded, herded, delayed and harassed" all for the exchange of having faster travel.

Of course, the parallels of factory farming and the design of suburbia is the most compelling, but I will leave that for another post.

Returning now to the idea of cost, I will say: If we diminish life to the status of non-living machine, how easy is it for us to diminish the glory, subtly, beauty, and poetics of our own lives to the whims and hunger of the economic machine? For me, that is the most expensive price to pay. Not a few imaginary dollars.

**The prevalence of fast-food has made it almost impossible to avoid factory-farming in our grocery stores.

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