Privilege, Justice, and Sustainability

Over at My Moxie Life, Jacqueline writes about Why Food Isn’t My Politics (also mentioned at The Interdependent Web). She writes about how she and her family became vegetarian and…

Three years after that we moved to an intentional community in Missouri for a year. We, again wanted to experience living as lightly on the earth, community, and a back to the land ideal. It was while living with 70 other people from all walks of life that I began to shift my ideas about food…

What I began to realize was that food is only a choice for those who have the financial privilege to make that choice. It is an economics thing. If you come from a lower economic background or a definitive cultural background you will have food ideas around that. You MAY choose to break out of those ideas, but often, in the circumstances you CAN’T. You eat what is offered, and if you are lucky you are grateful.

It was the white middle and upper middle class kids that were offensively food oriented. THEY were making the RIGHT moral choice and they let you know in no uncertain terms that they were better because of it. Well, that screams of economic superiority, a bit of racism, and holier then thou attitudes.

These were CONSTANT conversations at East Wind while I was there and because of that tension and my wanting to understand where everyone was coming from I chose that food was something to be thankful for in whatever form it takes.

Education and poverty were more important to me then what someone served me at dinner.

So, we moved back to San Francisco omnivores… and have stayed that way.

I started to comment over at her blog, but the comment got a bit long so I thought I would post it here. I completely hear this idea that often liberals or other do-gooding folks go around being like, “Gosh, look at us. Shopping at Whole Foods, getting our vegetarian, local, organic food while we cruise around in our Prius. Golly, we are sure doing good by the world. Too bad there are those other people who are ruining the planet!” I know these people. I try not to be one. Probably I don’t always succeed.

So first, I want to affirm Jacqueline’s struggles with this issue and say that such struggles resonate with my experience (perhaps, um, too closely….). Yet, I think there are two important additional things to consider here.

First, I think we need to be careful not to set up a false dichotomy between “food politics”, and other (race and class or education) politics. Being attentive to the ways that our diet impacts the world around us – the natural world, humans, and other animals – is one important way to seek to live out our convictions related to compassion for suffering, non-violence, environmental justice, and human rights. Vegetarianism isn’t just all about saving the animals/lessening their suffering. It is also about trying to live more sustainably so that future humans have an earth to live on, and it is about being attentive to the ways that meat consumption, violence, the meat packing industry, immigration, race, class, food shortages, food riots, global warming, etc. are all related. Vegetarianism or veganism is, of course, not only way to address such concerns. But, I don’t see our food choices (to the extent that we have choices about our diet) as separate from bigger questions about justice, environment, class, etc.

Secondly, I struggle with the idea that if everyone/poor people/lots of people can’t do _________ (fill the blank with an attempt to be more sustainable/attempt at social justice activity), then it is a privileged thing to do and we are being too privileged/spoiled/snobby if we do this thing. I feel like this would apply to most volunteering, many if not most home energy efficiency measures, to many forms of education (expensive colleges/any colleges/many forms of homeschooling/private schools, etc.), buying organic/locally grown food, having the time and energy to grow a garden, driving a hybrid car, etc. The problem seems not to be that by doing these things (such as being vegetarian) we are not attending to the real problems like race or education, but rather that often our attitudes about our various “do-gooding” activities (like being vegetarian) are problematic.

The problem could thus be framed as the attitude that “We are doing the right thing (as privileged, liberals) while they (poor, others) are not,” rather then the problem being framed as the particular action we are taking (in the case of Jacqueline’s post, vegetarianism). If we look at it like this, the solution would not to be to stop doing action X, but to change our attitudes about action X.

For me, it is all about finding a balance between calling on each other and calling on ourselves to live as sustainably and justly as we can, while at the same time, being understanding that we can only do what we can do. I find it challenging, with vegetarianism, but also issues like hyper-consumerism, sexism, racism, classism, etc. to know how to best challenge my fellow humans try to live justly and more sustainably, while at the same time acknowledging the wide range of limitations to what each of us can do as individuals, families, communities, and countries. Certainly, to some extent, I believe all of us are called to call to humanity to be more just, more loving, less violent, and to live more sustainably, and to live out these principles in our own lives. But how much is too much calling? And how are we to do it without infringing too much on individual prerogatives, given that we cannot all do it all? And, are there different standards for calling upon fellow Unitarian Universalists, than, say, the general public?

Thanks to the post at Moxie Life for helping me to continue to grapple with some of these questions.

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6 Responses to Privilege, Justice, and Sustainability

  1. Tracey says:

    Very well said! You really capture the various issues.

  2. Yes, ditto to Tracey’s comment.

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