“Try this, it’s natural”: On eating in the Anthropocene

Part of a series of posts exploring the Anthropocene for the Umeå University Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Walking around a large grocery store like Ica Maxi at Strömpilen can be most instructive for thinking about the Anthropocene and our relationship with nature at large. First, while pondering what to have for dinner, we can contemplate the transportation and logistics infrastructures that brought all this exotic food from all corners of the world to our shopping carts up here in the north, fresh and ripe and ready to eat. In this sense, there is nothing “natural” about much of the food that ends up on our plates; it can only exist as part of a technological life-support system.

Second, we can observe how many products make claims about nature, naturalness, and connections to place. “100% Natural,” “Ecological,” “Sustainable,” “Green,” “Biodynamic,” ”Organic,” “Pure,” “Authentic,” “Local,” “Short-traveled” – the list goes on and on. We can’t help but care about such claims since they speak to the very direct relationship between the products we buy, the place they come from, and our bodies. By claiming to be natural, the food promises to be good for us, or at least not to be directly harmful.

The American writer Nathanael Johnson explored the tensions between “naturalness” and technology in his brand new book All Natural*: *A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. In his interpretation, we suffer from “ecological anxiety,” a vague but insistent feeling that despite all the obviously good things about modern society, something has gone wrong on the way. We are missing something that we used to have, know, or feel, back when things used to be “natural.” As a result, we are drawn to products, solutions, and lifestyles that claim to be “natural.” Others eschew “natural”, aiming instead for the clinical reliability of modern technology. This fundamental divide becomes particularly obvious in healthcare, but we can also find it in food. Michael Pollan has, for instance, written a whole series of books about natural and technological food systems, or as he calls it, “real food” and “edible, food-like substances.”

Johnson sensibly argues that both views, when taken to an extreme, can be dangerous, and that we need to decide on a case-to-case basis, using the available scientific knowledge, whether the “natural” or the “technological” is the best or most appropriate solution. Another example is what sociologist Andrew Szasz calls “inverse quarantine”, where people buy bottled water, organic food, and so on, hoping to protect themselves from harmful substances. His book Shopping Our Way to Safety argues that this individualist approach to environmental protection takes away attention from the larger, global, and structural issues at hand. Szasz says “consumers believe these products will protect them, which creates a kind of political ‘anesthesia’ that severely reduces their willingness to participate in collective political action to generate real change.”

In this span between natural and technological, local and global, known and unknown, safe and dangerous, we find the real challenge of addressing the bundle of issues that we call the Anthropocene. If consumers are to participate in “collective political action”, what is it exactly this action should target and what qualifies as “real change”? Here, I should be clear that I’m not asking this question to say that everything is hopeless and that we shouldn’t try to do anything. I am particularly interested in this as a research question: how can people (whether we call them consumers or citizens) know that their individual actions matter for what we increasingly understand as global problems? This was one of the more fundamental questions I explored in my book on bottle recycling.

In my previous post here at Forskarbloggen, I defined the Anthropocene as a whole cluster of wicked problems, intersecting and interlocked with each other, entangled and unruly. Tracing and measuring the effects of our actions through such a complex web of relations is beyond the capabilities of any individual person. Instead, we need to rely on – and trust – scientific knowledge and the technological infrastructures that surround us. Now, there are many indications that with food safety, blind trust is not a wise strategy.

The alternative is going all local, of personally knowing the origins and the paths the food we eat take. We can do this by growing our own food, using seeds that we trust, in soil we know is not contaminated, using clean water and clean air – as we can see, ensuring absolute certainty and purity becomes very tricky. Or we can trace the origins of our food in other, more technological ways. Origin marking of food has become more and more specific, where it is no longer sufficient to know the country of origin, but even the region or individual farm where the food comes from.

One possible logical endpoint of such origin marking is QR-tagged food that you can scan with your smartphone in the store to see videos of and other information about the particular animal you are about to eat, happily cavorting about with its friends in “natural” surroundings. We may not raise our own pigs in our gardens anymore, but at least we can know that the bacon we’re about to eat came from a pig that lived a good life. Such scenarios are halfway feel-good and halfway creepy (the talking cow recommending choice cuts of meat from its own body in Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe comes to mind), but it also represents the extreme privilege of affluent consumers who can pick and choose. Very few of us can afford that luxury, and if we are to be serious about “collective political action” and “real change” we need to think carefully about how proposed or imagined solutions scale up.

In other words, it seems hard to escape the dilemma of ecological anxiety that Nathanael Johnson describes. It is getting increasingly harder to separate the natural from the technological, and the nature “out there” does not necessarily match up with the ideas of nature we have in our heads. Perhaps it is better to settle for 68% natural than 100% natural – it just doesn’t make for a very strong slogan (”Try this brand new sausage – it’s 68% natural!”).

I’ll continue this discussion in a special Easter post on ”new natures” during the Easter weekend.

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