Living in a Post-Material World

Why school gardens, hunting, and eating local won't save the environment, and why that's ok

Last spring, I ran the Edible Schoolyard program at my older daughter’s elementary school in the Hudson River Valley. Every day when school ended, I would throw open the shed and set out trowels, seedlings, and a bucket of compost. When the bell rang, a herd of children would run down the hill, pass the playground, and descend. They picked raspberries, pulled crabgrass, and loaded weeds into the kid-sized wheelbarrow. They visited the seeds they planted weeks before, offering them gifts of worms to aerate the soil. They snacked on kale, many for the first time. My heart would swell as I watched them get dirty, have fun, and engage with the local environment. My daughters loved it. I loved it. It just felt right.

And yet, as a social scientist, I’ve come to question many of the claims that motivate the creation of school gardens. For one, I’m troubled by the concept that school gardens meet the needs of all students, a claim that is blind to issues of class, ethnicity, and labor relations. Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, once recalled an elementary school in Salinas, California, where first-generation students were gardening while many of their parents were simultaneously performing backbreaking labor at nearby farms.1 Alice Waters, meanwhile, proclaims that “gardens help students to learn the pleasure of physical work.”2 It is abundantly clear what students she does, and does not, have in mind.

I am also not convinced that school gardens are the best use of educational time, especially for vulnerable students. Caitlin Flanigan, in her controversial article “Cultivating Failure,” quotes Michael Piscal, founder and CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools: “Look, there’s nothing wrong with kids getting together after school and working on a garden; that’s very nice. But…[t]he only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college?”3 While part of me balks at the idea that activities that don’t directly translate to college readiness have no place in schools, I understand that my degree of complacency about college preparation and admissions is also borne of privilege.

School gardens do offer students practical skills, but they will hardly serve them in the world they will live in. The purpose of school gardens is not to prepare students for careers in food production. The pastoral ideal that my daughter and her classmates are living out is utterly disconnected from the future of modern agriculture and the challenge of feeding a world of 9.5 billion people.

For these reasons, I am uncomfortable with the paternalistic element of school garden advocacy, and with the way school gardens romanticize agriculture at a time when many of the world’s poorest citizens toil in fields. And yet here I am, running my daughter’s school garden, not only enjoying the simple pleasure of time spent outdoors with children, but deriving from it a sense of connection, groundedness, and authenticity.

So clearly, in my own life, our school garden is serving a purpose. But what is it? And who does it serve? Advocates promote school gardens as a means of helping children eat more fruits and vegetables, reducing obesity, connecting children with their local environment, strengthening community bonds, and encouraging environmental stewardship.… Honestly, is there anything a school garden can’t do?


Like other practices that environmental elites engage in, school gardens appear to be a cure-all for everything that ails us. But the laundry list of social and environmental problems that school gardens profess to cure seems secondary to the way I feel when my hands are dirty, the children are happily working, and the flowers we planted from seed are blooming. Intellectually, I know we aren’t solving the world’s myriad problems. But I can’t deny the way in which engaging with these children, plants, and the earth feels somehow enchanted — more than a sum of its parts. It would seem that instrumentalist values are not sufficient to explain the near-religious enthusiasm of school garden advocacy and my own experience of dissonant delight.

School gardens are but one instance of a micro-scale activity with putative environmental import whose true value is misidentified. As a result, these sorts of activities are simultaneously overvalued and trivialized. While they aren’t scalable solutions to the world’s environmental challenges, as they are often touted to be, they nonetheless reflect human needs that are arguably amplified by the world we are creating — a world most clearly seen in the lives of those like myself, my family, and my community, whose survival needs are blessedly secure.

Perhaps we would be better served by disambiguating our need for meaning and belonging, for connection and mastery, from the need to pursue pragmatic solutions to environmental challenges. Otherwise, we environmentalists make ourselves vulnerable to criticism that we are out of touch with both the scale of environmental problems and the reality of our privilege. Might it be possible to embrace these micro-scale activities for what they are — things that feed our souls and deepen our connections with the natural world and each other — without suggesting that they represent meaningful solutions to the nation’s environmental, public health, or educational challenges?

 

1.

As a lifelong environmentalist and a trained geographer who has studied environmental politics for over a decade, I know that my time would be much better spent advocating for better refrigerant management or reforming the cement industry. So why do things like working in the school garden, cooking a family meal with locally sourced ingredients, and planting a tree in our backyard simply feel right?

In part it’s because I, like most people working in modern industrial societies, don’t actually produce anything of much tangible value. Marx famously argued that capitalism alienates the worker from the product of his or her labor because the worker does not own the means of production. Workers’ labor is no longer theirs, nor is the product at the end of the assembly line. One can produce widgets in a factory all day but have no emotional connection or agency over the widgets themselves. This is even more the case today, as the commodity is then inserted into a globalized supply-chain network and loaded into a shipping container sailing off to parts unknown.

Marx argued that the only way to rectify alienation is for workers to have control over the products of their labor, through either joint ownership of the means of production or working to fill basic needs rather than earning a living. In the modern world, where being a cobbler or small farmer is increasingly less likely, and where (for most of us) our labor involves providing services or creating knowledge, not making “things,” reproducing these sorts of activities during one’s leisure time may serve to relieve this alienation, albeit temporarily.

Living in modern societies, Anthony Giddens argued in his landmark book The Consequences of Modernity, also necessitates daily acts of trust in intangible systems that the individual doesn’t understand. Part of the agreement of modernity, especially within capitalist societies, is that individuals all have different roles to play. Shouldering one’s responsibility within the capitalist system — say, working at an electronics store — is predicated on the belief that others will do their part as well. Under this unspoken but widely understood economic agreement, once I am dismissed from my shift at the electronics store, upon entering the grocery store I should be able to purchase oranges. Should there be no oranges, I would be aggrieved — not just because I wanted an orange, but because the underlying logic and tacit agreements constituting the economic system have been violated. Modern life requires that we reproduce these implicit acts of reciprocal trust again and again, day after day, throughout our lives. Upon boarding an airplane, I must trust that the pilot has been trained effectively, that the plane meets safety regulations, and that it will land where it is supposed to.

Lucky for us, most of the time everyone plays his or her prescribed role. The plane lands at SFO, and when I visit the grocery store I can select from a wider variety of produce than my grandparents ever could have imagined. And yet, Giddens argues, this leads to a fundamental sense of dis-ease. Maintaining trust in these far-flung and abstract global systems contributes to the desire to situate oneself in the local and temporal context. For environmentalists, highly aware of and often critical of these globalized systems, and already primed to imagine that modern societies are extraordinarily fragile and prone to collapse, this idea is even more compelling.

Might it be possible to embrace these micro-scale activities for what they are — things that feed our souls and deepen our connections with the natural world and each other — without suggesting that they represent meaningful solutions to the nation’s environmental, public health, or educational challenges?


Micro-scale environmental behaviors can also be ways of instantiating status. As early as the turn of the last century, Thorstein Veblen observed that as the rising Victorian leisure class increasingly acquired economic surplus and liberated itself from the hard labor once necessary for survival, they began to engage in activities that were explicitly outdated — sport hunting, gardening, learning Latin — thus marking themselves as members of the upper class.4 In modern, postindustrial societies, the rising creative class has increasingly merged these activities with creative work, blending work and leisure into what the sociologist Dalton Conley dubbed “weisure”: a fusion of creativity, play, and productivity that is simultaneously romanticized as a way of disconnecting from the wired treadmill that is modern life and often enabled by digital devices.5

It’s not too far of a stretch to see that the behaviors advocated by contemporary environmentalists also flaunt the leisure available to engage in time-consuming activities, behavior that Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity.” Honoring Michael Pollan’s advice to caramelize onions for a minimum of half an hour, processing the often-foreign fruits and vegetables delivered via CSA (community-supported agriculture), and washing and drying cloth diapers all mark those engaging in these activities as possessed of sufficient leisure time, resources, and agency to absent themselves from the regimented Fordist routines of nine-to-five wage labor.

Marx’s theory of alienation, Gidden’s space-time distantiation, and Veblen’s theorizing are old tropes within social theory. But perhaps there is a reason that they are. In this era of late capitalism, maybe they ring even truer, as more of us work within the broadly defined “service sector.” At the end of a long day of working up spreadsheets and teaching online, I wonder, “What did I actually do today?” The virtual world is where we live, but at a certain point I want to go home and knit, cook, do yoga. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, complex, and inscrutable, the counterreaction is to hunker down, bake some bread, and read a book with actual pages.

These types of activities serve as ways of regrounding ourselves in a world in which many of us are, for all purposes, decoupled from the day-to-day dependence on nature. It feels gratifying to connect with a world that is not completely under our own control and master it — to create something from start to finish. But these activities are culturally significant precisely because we don’t need to do them.

Backyard chickens are delightful, but should they be attacked by neighborhood dogs, or should the greens in our garden be overtaken by powdery mildew, the local grocery store will suffice. My mom is a master gardener who grows most of her own produce. But she has yet to plant, harvest, and grind her own grains. To truly honor these types of activities, we must be honest with ourselves about what they are, and what they are not. These are acts of connection, gratitude, and affirmation for those for whom scarcity and want have been abolished.

 

2.

In the environmental imagination, reifying our connection to our authentic selves through time- and labor-intensive leisure activities often merges with reestablishing our connection to specific places. Eating local food, becoming familiar with local plant and animal species, and buying locally made gifts for the holidays all are seen as contributing to more-cohesive communities and a more vibrant ecology.

These activities are inseparable from environmentalism’s antimodern roots. As landscape architect Edward Relph has observed, “somewhere behind most discussions about place lies an image of quiet simple landscapes where there are no great cities, no suburban tracts, no ugly factories, no money-based economies, and no authoritarian political systems.”6

But why is the local necessarily superior, especially when our everyday lives amalgamate a far-flung range of places? Geographer Andrew Blum wrestles with this question in his essay Airworld, the Genius Loci of Exurbia.7 Ultimately, Blum asks why so many take pains to mask the privileges that technological connections provide. We live in a land of places that are essentially hybrid — while we are always “in place,” no place can be disconnected from the larger networks that enable them to exist. Geographers understand places as hubs that are embedded in broader networks.8 Places cannot be understood unless one realizes the flows — cultural, economic, ecological — passing through them and shaping them over time.

Blum advocates that we do the difficult work of embracing hybridity in lieu of “bemoaning the loss of the local.”9 “To ignore the modern,” Blum writes, “is to be profoundly disconnected from the world in which we actually live.”10 Blum does not reject the appreciation of the local, but rather asks that we become willing to let go of our romanticization of it. Thus, it’s less about forgoing the regional craft fair than it is about recognizing and embracing the broader global systems that ultimately construct the idea of the local.

When we fail to recognize the hybrid, entangled nature of all that is local, we end up valorizing all sorts of activities and practices that are neither just nor sustainable. The Netflix series Salt Fat Acid Heat, based on Samin Nosrat’s cookbook of the same name, celebrates highly localized, labor-intensive food preparation practices around the world. With beautiful visuals and engaging narrative, it’s hard not to want to become “not only a good cook but a great one,” as Nosrat promises. Nosrat is an egalitarian delight, explaining local food around the globe, eating lusciously and noisily, and just being fully herself. But she is also selling a lovely fantasy that obscures the poverty that the time-intensive practices she romanticizes are born of, and the reality that they are primarily the lot of women who receive little compensation and have few alternatives.

When we fail to recognize the hybrid, entangled nature of all that is local, we end up valorizing all sorts of activities and practices that are neither just nor sustainable.


Or consider the new breed of hunters — some call them “conservationist hunters” — who in recent years have claimed that hunting offers the shortest path from field to plate and is therefore inherently the most ethical and sustainable. As the famed Steven Rinella says, “There’s a market for people who want to have really in-depth conversations around hunting and fishing, that aren’t just guys driving around in a truck drinking beer. Which is a common misconception people have.”11 This new breed was dubbed by Rob Shaul as “granola athletes,” who get into backcountry hunting claiming it can simultaneously improve our diets, keep us fit, and conserve biodiversity. Prominent conservation hunters like Donnie Vincent, Steven Rinella, and Jeremiah Doughty appeal to the Outside magazine–reading set, rebranding hunting as an activity on par with other goal-oriented outdoor activities of cultural elites who have an appreciation for wild landscapes, ample leisure time, and financial resources. Underlying this impulse is an opposition to the industrialized food system. As Mateja Lane wrote for the pro-hunting website Wide Open Spaces, hunting seems a more humane way to eat meat than the meat industry in America. “Hunting is the most self-sustainable you can get; hunting gives you the freshest, healthiest and most ethically-killed meat…. The welfare of the livestock in this country is inhumane and solely so to turn a profit.”12

But hunting wild game is no substitute for a large-scale food system. Any significant rise in hunting as a source of protein for the world’s population could decimate wildlife populations and ecosystems, not preserve them. This, of course, is relative to the individual animal populations being hunted, as many ecosystems need maintenance by culling species on lower trophic levels. The “field to table” approach of the conservationist hunter is truly lovely, and undoubtedly is doing an excellent job connecting millennials, among others, with nature. That said, it occupies the same space as “farm-to-table” dining — a rarified experience that, while undoubtedly delicious, is reserved for a select few. Nevertheless, the experience adds meaning to our lives. It should not be discounted but appreciated for what it is.

The late Anthony Bourdain made the point that “farm-to-table” is a cultural misnomer — all food comes from a farm, and most is served on a table.13 This trend has resulted in the tokenization of the local, environmentally friendly, sustainable meal and put many environmentally minded consumers in a place where their values make them vulnerable to manipulation by corporations that know how to capitalize on said values, but without accountability.

The concept of “local food” has been commodified to the point that it has become meaningless. Restaurants advertise themselves as “farm-to-table” and feature menus highlighting the names of the farms and places where headline ingredients are grown. But the Sysco truck still pulls up to the backdoor, unloading flours, oils, spices, and other ingredients sourced from across the globe. Meanwhile, potato chips labeled “artisanal” but mass-produced by global food corporations line convenience store shelves.

Or consider meal delivery kits: as a growing number of Americans have become determined to regularly consume home-cooked and culinarily enlightened meals, the delivery kit business has boomed. It’s now a multibillion-dollar industry with more than 150 companies competing for market share. The appeal of solving environmental problems via an easy-to-assemble “Fried Egg & Mushroom Tartine with Onion Rings & Endive Salad” delivered to your door is hard to deny. Yet the irony of a local, organic, GMO-free meal kit delivered to your door by a GPS-enabled supply-chain controlled from an app on your iPhone is also hard to deny. Meal delivery kit services have introduced a product that allows consumers to distance themselves from globalized, mass-produced, industrial food systems even as the meals delivered to their door depend upon them.

In these ways, environmental micro-behaviors too often allow us to deny our entanglement with the modern world. They allow us to attribute an outsized significance to lifestyle behaviors (while judging those who don’t engage in them) and to obscure all the technology, infrastructure, and people that mediate our relationship with nature and the environment. The results can be pernicious, resulting in a range of unintended environmental consequences while stoking backlash among nonbelievers.

Indeed, the same micro-behaviors that many environmentalists fetishize are used to deride environmental concern and advocacy more broadly. Barack Obama was ridiculed for asking Iowa farmers if they knew how much Whole Foods was charging for arugula. The idea that Iowa farmers might be unfamiliar with arugula (which is available in salads served at Applebee’s) was paternalistic. Moreover, the notion that arugula might represent an alternative source of income to the corn and other grains that account for most of the state’s agricultural output betrayed an ignorance about what sorts of farming account for most agricultural production.

Members of the alt-right, meanwhile, have appropriated cow’s milk to satirically mock soy milk and other alternatives as symbolic of political correctness. More seriously, the anti-plastic straw movement, while well-intentioned, has been lambasted for ignoring the needs of the disabled as well as children, for whom straws are tools that enable accessibility.

Here, too, tokenization of a set of actions that is a relatively small contributor to solving environmental problems has been used to show how the environmental movement (which has become vastly more inclusive during the past 20 years) remains elitist and unaware of the struggles of people who aren’t so privileged. By fixating on micro-scale actions and lifestyle behaviors, environmentalists have made themselves vulnerable to attacks that characterize environmentalism as both out of touch with society and fixated on concerns that are dwarfed within the broader framework of environmental change.

 

3.

What, then, should environmentalists do? Stop working in the school garden? Stop hunting and give up arugula? Stop ordering meal delivery kits? Of course not. But we do need to be clear about what we are really after when we take part in these sorts of activities. Given the near-religious zeal with which things like school gardens are heralded, it seems clear that environmentalists pursue them for reasons that go beyond their ability to reduce carbon emissions or address biodiversity loss.

Environmentalism has always walked a fine line between science and religion, the quantifiable and the spiritual. Much of the work of environmentalism must, on the one hand, focus on acting on the basis of quantifiable bottom lines. What are the largest carbon-emitting industries? What is the optimal clean-energy portfolio for achieving carbon reduction goals? What is the economic benefit of leaving a forest standing versus harvesting its timber?

But while these questions are important, they are also exhausting. And sometimes they don’t feel aligned with our personal lives, with the notion that our values and political commitments ought to be lived. In this way, micro-environmental actions are better understood as rituals we enact to “re-enchant” a world in which all that is solid has evaporated into air. For those of us with the time, inclination, and resources to do so, micro-behaviors serve as anchors grounding us in a complicated world.

So maybe we should cut lifestyle environmentalists a break. Perhaps, like myself, they work in the environmental field all week, and on the weekend they just want to walk over to the local farmers’ market, forage through the stalls of pretty produce, and cook a nice dinner at home — the sort of thing that can feel sublime compared with the complexities of modern life.


But we need to be careful about representing environmental micro-behaviors as larger and more impactful than they are, or attaching them to larger narratives that obscure the privilege of which they are a by-product. Are we capable of embracing this paradox? Can we contextualize our lifestyles within their broader environmental significance? Can we derive meaning and pleasure from activities that deepen our connectedness with the natural world while recognizing that we environmental moderns are among the most resource-intensive humans who have ever lived? Can we embrace hybridity and complexity without feeling compelled to quantify the carbon footprint of every micro-scale behavior?

In a world that is increasingly individualized, commercialized, and secular, environmentalism and the practices we enact in its name often serve as proxies for religious practices. Perhaps by allowing ourselves these pleasures without demanding that they solve the world’s ills, we can see them for what they are — opportunities for meaning and connection.

All pictures courtesy of Jennifer Bernstein.

Endnotes

  1. Guthman, J. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  2. https://yalesustainablefoodproject.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/caitlin-flanagan-vs-alice-waters-part-ii/

  3. Flanigan, C. “Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students.” The Atlantic (January/February 2010). https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/cultivating-failure/307819/

  4. Potter, A. The Authenticity Hoax: Why the “Real” Things We Seek Don’t Make Us Happy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

  5. Conley, D. Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

  6. Relph, E. “Modernity and the Reclamation of Place.” In Dwelling, Seeing, and Designing: Towards a Phenomenological Ecology, edited by David Seamon, 25–40. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

  7. Blum, A. “Airworld, the Genius Loci of Exurbia.” In K. V. Cadieux, & L. Taylor, Landscape and the Ideology of Nature in Exurbia: Green Sprawl, chapter 4. New York: Routledge, 2013.

  8. Coe, N. M., Kelly, P. F., & Yeung, H. W.-C. Econ5omic Geography: a Contemporary Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

  9. Blum, A. “Airworld, the Genius Loci of Exurbia.” In K. V. Cadieux, & L. Taylor, Landscape and the Ideology of Nature in Exurbia: Green Sprawl, chapter 4. New York: Routledge, 2013.

  10. Blum, A. “Airworld, the Genius Loci of Exurbia.” In K. V. Cadieux, & L. Taylor, Landscape and the Ideology of Nature in Exurbia: Green Sprawl, chapter 4. New York: Routledge, 2013.

  11. Justin Housman, “Talking Conservation and Wildlife with the MeatEater’s Steven Rinella.” Adventure Journal (November 17, 2018). https://www.adventure-journal.com/2018/11/steve-rinella-meateater/.

  12. “Hunting Seems to Be More Humane Than the Meat Industry in America,” February 9, 2015, https://www.wideopenspaces.com/eat-kill-different-meaning-meat-industry-scrutinized/.

  13. Eaton, H. “Anthony Bourdain Doesn’t Care About Your Artisanal Charcuterie.” Munchies (Vice.com, September 29, 2016). https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/nzk738/anthony-bourdain-doesnt-care-about-your-artisanal-charcuterie.