But even if we meet farmers at the farmers market, urban consumers are still largely divorced from the people who grow, pick and package our food. And we may even willfully ignore their suffering, argues Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist and professor of health and social behavior at the University of California, Berkeley, in his provocative new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.
For two summers between 2003 and 2005, Holmes lived on a farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington state. The farm produces strawberries, apples, raspberries and blueberries to sell to berry companies like Driscoll and dairy companies like Häagen-Dazs. He traveled there with a group of Triqui Indians, across the border from their hometown of San Miguel in Oaxaca, Mexico. As Holmes soon learned, the Triquis make up the very bottom rung of the agricultural labor ladder and earn between $5,000 to $8,000 a year.
When considering a metaphor for describing a reality that is inherently difficult to grasp, it can be easy to lose your grip on the thing to which the metaphor points. The authors’ of Affluenza follow their metaphor closely and it works for the most part. The best part of their metaphor is that it makes the book more fun to read, gives it a hook and is actually helpful in understanding the reality of what the metaphor describes. I think the metaphor of consumerism as a disease remains helpful and describes an aspect of the reality that we might lose if we dismissed it completely.
As a theologian (aren’t we all), however, I am also interested in the idea that consumerism is a religious enterprise (that’s a simile, not a metaphor). William Cavanaugh has pointed out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. He criticizes the work of many scholars of religion, pointing out that they often don’t abide by their own definitions. They are usually too broad or too narrow to be helpful either excluding examples most people consider religions like Buddhism or including things that most people would not consider religions like football (either American or soccer, both would fit).
The way I am thinking about religion is more on the broad side. Nevertheless, I feel the danger of being too broad and it becoming useless both as a definition and as a metaphor. There are difficulties here because there are other words used to describe similar phenomena. Ideology, culture and worldview attempt to describe some network of underlying beliefs or assumptions that animate, motivate or dictate someone or a community’s way of responding to the world. Ideology is similar to religious belief in that in its mature form it is something freely chosen and adopted as one’s own. Culture can also be similar to religious belief in that it arises in a social or communal context and involves the influence of the community. Some aspect of both are at play in consumerism. Worldview is perhaps the most similar, but attempts to encompass aspects outside of religion like culture that are at work in the way we perceive, interpret and respond to the world. Tomes have been written with various theories about all these words and what they mean.
In considering whether religion is an appropriate way of talking about consumerism, I am primarily concerned with the way that religion functions, particularly religions that claim a universal mission, such as Christianity, Islam or Mormonism. I could easily write a book in the vein of Affluenza, naming the high priests, describing the rites and rituals, basically making a comparison between something called religion and something else called consumerism. What I am more interested in is in what ways consumerism actually is a kind of religion. This is a more ambitious and difficult task, which is probably why I have only thrown out references to the idea without exploring it in depth yet.
It would be helpful first to unpack what exactly I am trying to understand in religious terms. Consumerism, or the consumer economy, are related to globalization, global economy, growth economy and perhaps also the idea of development. Almost all of these terms are somewhat vague. Therefore they will need some clarification in their definitions and relationships to each other. Globalization is the overarching concept that seems to encompass the others. It is the corollary to Christianity or Islam. Consumerism is the vehicle that spreads this religion, while the consumer or growth economy (and maybe even the idea of development) are the message, or gospel, that consumerism intends to spread in order to support this overarching project of globalization.
I hope to explore this more in depth in the future, but for now here are the features that I see these aspects of globalization sharing in common with religions, primarily the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
- Belief/Faith- As much as economists want their field to be a science it remains a field that relies on untested assumptions about how human beings behave and what is best for them and the world.
- Universal Message- The message is for all people. Obviously not everyone agrees with the tenets of globalization and consumerism, but the belief is that everyone should.
- Universal Mission- Because there are people who resist the message, or adhere to contradictory beliefs from other religions, there must be a mission, universal in scope, to convert people to the truth of these beliefs.
- Evangelism- This grows out of the other three aspects, but it is important to recognize that those who believe in and practice this religion reveal it through their actions. Advertising executives, CEOs, government officials and even NGOs make statements and actions that reveal their assumptions and beliefs.
Of course this preliminary post only sets the stage and raises lots of questions. Here are some of my initial questions which come to mind:
- Is there a distinction between those who are believers in this religion and those who participate unwittingly, a sort of cultural consumer (like cultural Christians, etc.)?
- What are the origin stories/creation myths of globalization/consumerism?
- What are the rites and rituals of this supposed religion? How do they function and relate to what we normally consider religions?
- Is Global Consumer-anity in direct competition with the other religions? Is it functionally exclusive to other belief systems?
- In what ways do we adhere to multiple belief systems simultaneously? Are there Christian, Islamic, Latin American, Russian, or indigenous versions of Global Consumer-anity? Do they compete with each other or on the level of Global Consumer-anity do they basically get along?
It’s clear that the same issues that are present in studying other religions arise when trying to understand the phenomenon of consumerism and globalization in these terms. How does this “religion” relate to other religions and across cultures? What are the different sects, denominations or cults within the religion? What are the orthodox teachings or doctrines? I hope I get to write this book someday. But if someone else beats me to it, I will just keep growing my own food and trying to need as little as possible.
As far as I can tell, Jesus never ate a meal alone. Jesus often goes off by himself to pray, away from the crowds or his disciples, but when it comes to eating a meal there’s always a crowd. I’d imagine in his culture it was almost impossible to eat alone.
He might have a hard time in our culture. We prize the self-sufficiency, independence and confidence of the lone eater. Think of all the pre-packaged, frozen dinners and single-serve breakfast shakes. The corn dog typifies this independence. I guess you could share your corn dog with a friend. Usually, this fried meal-on-a-stick is only shared when someone else is eating their own fried meal-on-a-stick. These individually portioned food items are the core of American food culture… if you can call it that.
Contrast that with other food cultures that are communally centered. Many Asian cultures serve their food in large portions or many small dishes that are passed around and shared with everyone at the table. Soup is another great communal food. Everyone dips out of one big pot of something. Bread is a big mass of food that has to be cut up or torn apart to be shared. Almost as soon as I mention communal foods, I think of ways American culture has turned them into individually shrink wrapped products to be consumed in cars, on subways or staring out the window of efficiency apartments. Soup in a can or microwaveable container. Take out from a chinese restaurant. And everyone’s favorite invention, sliced bread.
Today, we celebrate independence day. Some of you may know I have an awkward relationship with this country we live in. I love her beautiful landscapes. I cherish many of the values in her founding documents, even though she has not lived up to them from the beginning. I love her people, a nation of immigrants pursuing their dreams. I even love the fiercely independent spirit that settled this land, even at the expense of others. There is a drive for self-sufficiency, to provide for yourself and your family that I think is healthy.
But this same drive also leads us to think we can live somehow separate from the people around us and from the earth. We moved into a neighborhood this weekend that is two blocks from our church and within a ten block radius of half of our congregation. On moving day we had the help of friends at the farm we had known a long time and only a couple days. When we left the farm it was dry, but by the time we got into town it was pouring down rain. Our mattresses and recliner were inevitably soaked. Someone from our church works across the street and came running over to help. Initially we were overwhelmed by the mess of moving in the rain. Soon, fans and a dehumidifier were donated from people in the neighborhood. Pizzas were brought over for lunch and friends stayed to help us unpack. They offered extra furniture and help finding things we needed.
I wouldn’t choose to sleep on an air mattress for two nights while or stuff dried out again, but we experienced the joys of dependence, the glory of community. You can only experience this kind of community if you have needs.
So, this July 4th, I’m celebrating Dependence Day.
The other night I had a conversation about denominations. Some people were discussing the way they grew up understanding denominations. For example,the Baptists grew up thinking the Catholics weren’t really Christians and the Methodists barely were. Some Catholics probably grew up thinking that Protestants were all some watered down version of the real thing. The funny thing is that most people couldn’t tell you why these things were true. They could give you a vague notion and maybe something the other believed incorrectly about communion or baptism. For the most part, it’s just the way things are.
I went to a Baptist seminary, but I did not grow up Baptist. Thanks to the likes of David Bebbington, I now know more than most Baptists do about their own history. Many of these conflicts and controversies have historical roots. People had real disagreements over matters they thought were of utmost importance. Over the years, we have detached these disagreements from their context so much that in the end they no longer make much sense.
This is how we deal with a lot of the world we live in, ahistorically. We approach global economic problems and regional conflicts as if they just started yesterday and can therefore be solved by our new-fangled innovations on the old sticks and carrots.
The way that we disconnect denominations and other things from their historical context is like our relationship with produce from the grocery store. We walk into the store with bright lights and flashy signs. We witness the sea of produce in perfect bright colors coming at us. There are no seasons in the grocery store, only sales (usually on seasonal produce, but you’d have to know that first to figure it out). Even though the current law requires produce to be labelled with its country of origin, you wouldn’t know where anything came from unless you wanted to read the fine print.
This is a different kind of food desert. This is a desert of now, a desert without a name or story or ancestors. The food in this desert is a never-ending ocean of unblemished ripeness, as if it were injection molded plastic. This food did not come from the earth. It came from a truck. Everything tells us it will always be there when we want it, because it is not really part of our story.
This is the lie that grocery stores and our lack of historical context perpetuate, that those things are not part of our story. Catholics are not part of our story, they just believe the wrong things. We are not historically related to them in any way. Those Lutherans just do things funny and we can’t explain it. That asparagus magically appears at the store in December with no questions asked. We pick it up to make dinner for our friends coming over and it is a prop. It does not belong to our story because it has no meaning to us.
Well, I believe with all my heart that both asparagus and history should mean something. It’s about our relationships to each other and to the earth… and that’s all it’s ever been about.
This Friday I experienced some serious dejà vu. I was minding my business weighing some grass-fed beef and pricing it, when someone ran into the building and said, “Kelly smashed her fingers pretty bad and I think she needs to go to the hospital!” Since I went to the hospital little over a month ago also for a sliced finger, I was quickly volunteered to drive her to the hospital. Four hours of sitting in an emergency room brings up a lot of conversation about health care reform. But that’s not what this post is about.
She smashed the middle and ring finger in between a trailer and the hitch. Not a good place for fingers to be! She ended up with eleven stitches. I was supposed to be on weekend duty with her, but we made up for it with the four hours of conversation in the ER. The doctor was very nice, and even got the farm’s number for some grass-fed beef. The nurse regaled us with some vivid ER stories and commentary about society and the problems with African-American culture (of which she was a part).
It wasn’t what either of us expected to do on a beautiful fall day in Texas. It was a reminder of the dangers of life and work. I guess even a cubicle farm has paper cuts, freak stapler accidents and the like. It seems that we’re obsessed with being injury free. Not that I wish harm to anyone, but getting hurt is kind of just part of life. If you don’t get your heart or some bones broken at some point you’re not really living. Kelly knew it was stupid that she stuck her fingers where they shouldn’t have been. I knew better than to stick my finger in a fridge fan without looking. Our injuries don’t have the best stories to go with them. You don’t have to get mauled by a bear to feel alive, but stitches and/or a broken bone are part of stepping out your front door and engaging the world around, even more if you live on a farm or work with your hands.
I guess what I’m saying is that part of farming and changing the world is not being afraid to get dirty. It also means not being afraid to smash your fingers now and then.