Occupy the food system: a sermon

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I thought I had exhausted just about every angle on my “occupy” message in previous posts when I was invited to give a sermon at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, MA.  My students often accuse me of being a bit preachy, and here was an opportunity to “preach the good news about local food and farming from a church pulpit”.  I couldn’t pass it up!

So here it is (or at least an abbreviated version of the sermon)…

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We live in a world that is profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable.  Food is grown, packaged, processed and distributed in a way that plays a role in global climate change, is dependent on non-renewable energy sources, and contributes to social inequality.   For me, buying local is a means of uncoupling my household from an inherently unjust global food economy.  A recent  Huffington Post article states:  

“…the rules and institutions governing our food system — Wall Street, the U.S. Farm Bill, the World Trade Organization and the USDA — all favor the global monopolies controlling the world’s seeds, food processing, distribution and retail.” 

Industrial agriculture exploits people, undermines democracy, erodes community, and degrades the land and water to maximize profit.  We can do better.  It is unlikely either government or corporate leaders will cry out against a system that maximizes short term profit but ignores long term ecological and social degradation.  Government officials run for election every 2, 4 or 6 years and corporate leaders must show increased profit every 3 months to be successful!

Government & corporate leaders can’t think in the long term

Only average citizens can make decisions that consider the 7th generation.  We must all be leaders.   We must “start a parade.”  When we are all marching in a more sustainable direction, government and corporate leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

A leading international voice for food justice, la Via Campesina, represents peasants, indigenous peoples and family farmers.  They have claimed that well-managed small farms can feed the world while reducing carbon emissions using principles of agricultural ecology.  Many new small, family farmers in the U.S. are working to partner with Mother Nature rather than trying to dominate her.

Corporate agriculture is in the business of maximizing short term profit by manipulating the environment with fertilizers, pesticides, land levelers, mechanization, and irrigation.  The result of these efforts to control Mother Nature is environmental degradation and an unsustainable dependency on non-renewable resources.

Domination of Mother Nature is not “natural”

About 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia something shifted in the human psyche, as people who had formally lived in partnership with Mother Nature as hunter/gatherers, learned to intervene into the management of complex ecosystems and began to manipulate the environment –  to serve our own short-term benefit.

We called it an agricultural revolution and we moved from a partnership relationship with the Earth Mother – to a domineering relationship.  We are the only species that fails to live “naturally” – that is in accordance with Mother Nature’s “rules” (or ecological principles).  Thomas Merton wrote that an oak tree gives glory to God simply by being an oak tree.  It can’t break Mother Nature’s rules.  Humans can and do on a regular basis.

We learn Mother Nature’s rules by observing what has worked for billions of years.   There are three “rules”:

Humans can “act naturally” once again by learning to play by the rules!   And it matters little if you believe these rules were created by divine intervention or by an evolutionary process over the last 4.5 billion years.  These are the rules that work in the long-term!

Industrial agriculture produces lots of cheap food by violating these rules.  The global corporately controlled food system is not sustainable in the long run, but still presents significant short term economic competition to those small, local farms trying to do it right!  If we want to support a more sustainable agriculture, individually and collectively, we need to:

  • buy local food and grow our own,
  • create tax incentives for small farms committed to selling within their own community,
  • support changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution,”
  • make public investments in infrastructure to provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution, perhaps a local butcher, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press, and a flour mill, and
  • develop education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

All this is possible…. if we start the parade….

We all can eat better by eating local.  And in doing so we can support personal health, community health, and environmental health.  Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis.  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.

Barbara Kingsolver’s wrote in her lovely little book, Small Wonder, that people will join the sustainability movement (including supporting local farms) because;

 “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”

I invite you to join with others in your community to….

Amen…

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Ethics, self-interest & a purposeful life

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It seems to me that everyone from news reporters to the Occupy Protesters are questioning whether “normal business practices” are ethical.  Good question – there have been lots of wrongdoing exposed of late – but before we simply damn the business world as unethical lets look closely the nature of ethics.

This blog proposes a means of examining business practices within a larger and more comprehensive ethical framework.

Ethics change and grow over time.  Professor Aldo Leopold called for an expansion of rights to include environmental ethics in his classic essay, The Land Ethic (published in A Sand County Almanac in 1948).  Speaking of an earlier time, he wrote  “when god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”  

Now hanging slave girls would certainly not be considered ethical human behavior today (even on Wall Street), so I guess we’ve made some progress.  Homer’s Odyssey reminds us that concepts of right and wrong were not lacking in ancient Greece, but the rights of slaves had not yet been included in the ethical framework of the day. Over the past 3000 years, basic human rights have expanded from the family (Odysseus was very loyal to his family), to the immediate tribe or village, and in some places to all people of the nation.

In spite of this seeming progress, business ethics in the 21st century seem to be that “anything goes” as long as you don’t get caught breaking the law.  And then, if you have enough money or political power – even this is okay.   And of course, what seems immoral to some of us is just a standard business practice to others.  We live at a time in which extreme relativism has become a social norm. That is, what is right and wrong for you is different from what is right or wrong for me.  Taken to its logical conclusion, extreme relativism would contend that there is no evil other than that which I proclaim to be evil for myself.   In this context, as long as I am serving my self-interest I am acting ethically.

Nevertheless, many cultures across the human spectrum have shared ethical traditions.  C.S. Lewis gleaned eight principles from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, that express the universal nature of what he called Natural Law.  I believe humans can (and must) agree upon an ethical framework or a perennial truth that holds true for all people.

But how can we think usefully about business ethics in a world in which self-interest dominates our sense of what is right and wrong?   Rather than damning business ethics as being inadequate, what if we looked at business ethics as part of a expanding circle of ethics founded on enlightened self-interest?   And further, what if we understood “the self” as much bigger and richer than merely the “economic self?”

The business world and quite often government officials refer to humans as “consumers” (as if buying stuff was our primary purpose in life).  We know this isn’t true, yet many of us seem willing to accept this diminished view of what it means to be human as normal.

What if we saw the “economic self” as an important and legitimate subsystem embedded within a larger system of “community self,” which itself is embedded in a still larger system of “ecological-self”? And what if the “ecological-self” was yet another subsystem embedded in a larger system that we might call the “universal-self”? Finally if we push this theme beyond the mere material, we might even see the universal-self as part of a cosmological or divine-self.  Each level of “self” is important but when we work toward enlightened self-interest in this framework, we are no longer limited to serving the economic-self alone.

By acting from our higher self (the family, community, the earth or the divine-self) we may discover of sense of meaning and purpose much richer than mere financial success (which beyond some minimum level doesn’t make us happy).  Without this broader perspective of self however, we are left to find meaning in common distractions like drugs, alcohol, recreational sex, video games, passive consumption of violent sporting events, and of course our number one distraction – recreational shopping.

I believe that many ills in society result from a diminished understanding of who we are as humans.  As long as we believe we are primarily economic beings, we will never be happy – because we can never have enough.   We we become the people of “more” – more money, more stuff, more college degrees, more shoes, more promotions at work, more gadgets, …. more.

And in this quest for more, we are hitting a “bottom” as a society that is much like the bottom of an alcoholic or drug addict, or someone who has maxed out their credit cards.  While this is a painful experience for individuals and society alike, it is in fact good news because the bottom is where recovery may begin.

I was on a panel a few years ago with Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” who told his story of riches, extravagant lifestyle, and eventually jail.  Mr. Belfort seemed to have redemption from the disease of more and told a group of entrepreneurs at UMass that “crime doesn’t pay.”   But the story of depravity, suffering and redemption is not only the story of unethical stockbrokers. The line between good and evil passes through every human heart.  We are all capable of unethical behavior. But we all also have the opportunity to experience redemption by serving a higher sense of self, and we may begin whenever we choose.

I believe we can find our way to redemption as a society through service to community, the earth or perhaps the divine – or we can find our way to redemption through pain and humiliation (for individuals this means jail – and for a society it may mean economic collapse).  I believe we have a choice.  If I see myself as merely an economic being serving a narrow self-interest, then fear of punishment may be an effective incentive for ethical behavior. But when I see myself as an economic, communal, ecological, universal and cosmological being, the result is not only “right” behavior, but a joyful and purposeful life.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.