It’s happened a lot lately. Someone will send me the latest political diatribe that quotes my work. “What do you think of this guy?” they will ask. There’s also a recent growth industry in academic essays in support of food movement icon, Michael Pollan. These essays pay tribute to him mostly by attacking my work and that of my UC Santa Cruz colleagues. The most annoying of these are people who are out there on the publicity circuit–those academics who have hired public relations folks to sell their new book–who use my work to defend simplistic and polarizing political points.
James McWilliams is the latest academic doing the public relations tour to sell his book: Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Someone in the food movement–in fact, one of the farmers from whom I buy local food–sent an excerpt published in The Wall Street Journal to me, asking the “what do you think” question. The excerpt, a chapter lambasting local food, begins with a quote from me (and my unnamed co-author David Goodman): “Who gets to define the local?”
McWilliams seems to have enrolled me in his diatribe. If you’ve happened to see my work questioning localism, it isn’t lambasting the movement. The point tends to be that the movement could be more effective if it were more self-critical, and that a reflexive approach to localism would include an understanding that this one strategy won’t save nature or give us social equality. We have to do other things as well, like question federal agricultural policy. That’s a very different point than decrying a movement’s “sacred cows.” Lambasting is not the kind of work I do when I do research, nor do I plan to do this kind of work. My job is not to debunk people’s views. My job as an academic is to understand why people believe what they do. Why do people chose personal solutions like lifestyle changes over more collective solutions like trying to change government policy?
I then read a review of Just Food, which claimed that the book is mostly a debunking of organic as a potential alternative to conventional agriculture. Note there are not quotes from me here, because my work on this issue is in–subtle and complex–disagreement with this argument. My whole point in my earlier work on reforestation during the 1920s and 30s was that reforestation became a kind of public “sacred cow” that drove pasture farmers off the hillsides in NY State. The whole “organic vs. conventional agriculture to feed people” debate turns the land use issue into a black box. This is the black box we, I and my political ecology colleagues, are always trying to open up, to ask whether our public environmental policy choices are really just between people or forests, using land or leaving it alone. We try to show people that there are alternative choices to this particular polarized debate, a debate that McWilliams seems to present in exactly this simple way: organic puts too many people on too much land. Echoing his quote of me in his book, I would like to ask: who gets to define how much land should be under cultivation? The farmer who sent me McWilliam’s book excerpt raises pigs in the pasture open-space of Elkhorn Slough. This certainly beats the previous use of land in this area–chemically-intensive strawberry growing–but it is still cultivation. Maybe we can live with more of this kind of cultivation in our local foodsheds.
But in the interest of public relations–personal branding even–people have to make simple points and somehow they have to enroll me in their projects. Not to dwell on the most narcissistic point, but I’ve met McWilliams and presented in the colloquium series where he was a fellow two years ago. And so he’s seen my name in print several times and still has misspelled it. This wouldn’t be the first time McWilliams’ accuracy has been put to the test; reviews of his book on colonial eating have taken him to task for a number of factual errors.
Perhaps there’s a bit of sour grapes here. After all, reducing complex reality to simplistic diatribes is one way authors get read. And my problem is that people quote me but, since I don’t have a publicist to put me on talk shows with Michael Pollan, no one ever gets to hear exactly what it is I am arguing. And, to be honest, what I am arguing will never sell: who wants to hear someone argue that we should all step back and look at how we understand the world and ask ourselves whether there may be other more effective ways of looking at the issue? It’s easier to take the publicity-attracting, book-selling, politically-polarizing route to get attention. Thinking about this, I keep recalling Max Weber’s point in “Science as a Vocation”–that professors who advocate particular points of view are very popular, but they aren’t really living up to the ethics of their vocation, which is explanation and understanding of society, not advocacy of a particular political point of view.