Ecological Ethics and the Human Food Supply

In his new book, Ecological Ethics, Patrick Curry argues that it is very much in our own interests to treat our fellow creatures with respect and the natural world as a whole with reverence

All value ultimately stems from the entire natural world and all its inextricably and intricately interrelated parts…including us. The name for this position is ‘ecocentrism’. It contrasts with ‘anthropocentrism’, the belief that human beings are the primary or even sole locus of value. Combined with high-powered technology, capital and political power, the effects of that attitude are toxic – not only to the Earth and other animals but ultimately, since we cannot live independently of them, to ourselves as well.

This is the paradox: unless we learn to care about the others for their own sake, recognising and respecting what philosophers call their ‘intrinsic value’ and not just their usefulness to us, we too shall suffer. Why? Because to value only what we think is useful renders both nonhuman nature and us dangerously vulnerable to our short-term attention-span, our profound ignorance relative to how much there is to know, and our greed.

Ecological ethics, then, is about respectful relationships with the natural world. It is not really about following rules or even principles. It can only be developed through being learned and taught in communities, human and non-human, which support (and are supported by) what I call a green virtue ethic. Head and heart are equally important here: a thinking heart and a feeling head, you might say.

Relatedly, I see little hope in waiting for big business, government or technoscience to solve the ecocrisis. All three are interlocked in another mutually supporting nexus, this time pathological: the profit motive driving capital, protected by state political power that depends on its fiscal take, and advanced through a fusion of technology and science itself financed by private (but state-protected) capital with an eye to a return on its investment. A perfect example is GM foods.

Where I do see hope, in contrast, is in civil society, citizens’ groups and initiatives, and locally-led movements. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a good example. In fact, food is perhaps the best possible instance of ecological ethics at work, whether positively or negatively. To begin with, aside from air and water, food is the most common and arguably deepest way we embodied beings encounter the nonhuman  natural world. Yet at the same time, food is fully cultural as well. Even manufactured pseudofood (what Michael Pollan calls ‘edible foodlike substances’) is particular to a certain kind of culture and society, albeit globalised; so how much more so is each unique kind of regional and traditional cooking?

That contrast forms the spectrum of possibilities. At one end is agribusiness: industrialised agriculture, entirely dominated by a few large corporations whose motivation is private profit, at the expense, if necessary, of the public and common good. The dominant attitude is ruthlessly instrumental – that is, nothing has any intrinsic value, as opposed to its use-value – and the programme is one of domination, exploitation and manipulation. Ideally (so to speak), genuine relationship, which would require recognising, respecting and negotiating with other interests, needs and agendas, is entirely absent. By the same token, so too is any positive ecological ethics.

At the other is small- to mid-scale farming, relatively independently owned and managed, together with subsistence farming, especially when agroecological. ( I would say ‘organic’ but for the extent to which corporations have now succeeded in colonising organic food too.) This approach relies on sensitive rather than sweeping interventions, traditional and vernacular knowledge as well as scientific, and varieties of crops that are adapted to local ecological and climatic conditions.

The consequences of each are radically different. Agribusiness results in highly simplified monocultures that depend on fossil fuels for fertilisers as well as processing, preservation and transport and complex high-tech interventions and management through (for example) chemical pesticides. Each element not only impacts negatively on the environment, it also increases food vulnerability, because it only takes one failure to jeopardise the whole. And perturbations are harder to anticipate anyway, because questions of long-term sustainability are set aside for the sake of immediate and short-term profit. It’s hardly necessary to add that the consequences of local wildlife are disastrous.

Agroecology, in sharp contrast, emphasises locality, including short supply-chains, locally-adapted and therefore resilient kinds of crops, and local knowledge. It doesn’t depend on complex technoscience, fossil fuel resources and high-impact inputs. It encourages biological diversity which mutually supports cultural diversity, especially in the form of related regional cuisines, encouraging people to eat locally, seasonally and appreciatively. (The Slow Food Movement, including its ties to movements for food sovereignity and farmers’ rights such as La Via Campesina, is an excellent initiative.)

Once again, we find that a concern which might appear optional, merely spiritual, or ‘fluffy’ – appreciating the natural world as the ultimate source of value, and therefore as entitled to respect and even reverence – can have acute material and practical consequences, influencing the choice between an industrial agriculture terminating in ecocide and an agroecology that supports life.

Far from a romantic notion, the latter is highly realistic. It is the notion that business as usual can continue forever, with an unending growth of population, food and wealth on a single planet with ultimately limited resources, that is the fantasy. And there is good evidence that agroecology could still feed the world (see a report by Compassion in World Farming and Friends of the Earth, ‘Eating the Planet?’ [2009]). If, that is, (1) the present human population (which is still increasing, although the rate of increase has declined) can be reduced as much and as soon as is humanely possible, (2) the present destruction of ecosystems, biodiversity and natural habitat by uncontrolled ‘development’ is checked, and (3) a great deal less meat is consumed. (In addition to being extremely environmentally destructive, factory farming is undoubtedly the biggest single cause of unnecessary suffering on the planet.)

A tall order, to be sure! But we should not lose sight of the fact that everywhere, efforts are already underway to bring about these changes. There are still grounds for hope, and a campaign for real farming is certainly one of them.

Patrick Curry is the author of Ecological Ethics: An Introduction, published in July by Polity Press.

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