In attempting to understand complex theories and ideas around economics I’m struck again and again how much comes back to what is valued – and to how we conceive of ourselves as human beings with certain values. I held the first of my ‘in public’ conversation with the architect and writer Carolyn Steel in Cambridge on January 10; we examined how the production and consumption of food is a way of revealing, especially to ourselves, the scaffolding underlying our social structure. If economics boils down to the system of exchange of goods and services, then how we handle food is both a driver of any given system – and symptomatic of its values.
It might seem a lifestyle choice whether we buy a ready meal and eat it in front of the TV – or put hours of effort into creating a dish from scratch to be shared with friends and family. The latter apparently places food at the heart of sociability, while the former sees food at worst as a necessary inconvenience, at best as a solitary comfort. But what Steel makes clear is that such ‘choice’ is partially engineered by our built environment: from road and rail infrastructure to hygiene regulation, from supermarket discounting policy to the absence of planning rules for new-build developments. For, to take the example of planning rules, many modern houses or flats are built in such a way which assumes that eating away from the site of cooking, and probably not at a table, is the norm. Therefore the eating with others, at a table, close to where the food is prepared becomes impossible, because the kitchens of these new builds are allocated insufficient space. An apparent choice is actually already dictated.
And what has this to do with future scenarios?
If a present filled with such ‘choice’ builds the future in its image, this affects the perceived ‘realism’ of any given future scenario. Steel mentioned Aristotle’s concepts of oikonomia: the management and exchange of goods for use in the production and sustaining of the household as central to good governance; and chrematistikē: the creation of personal wealth for its own sake, through the maximising of short term monetary exchange value. It is perhaps ironic that the contemporary word economics derives from the former term, and yet our economic system looks more like the latter. A future that places Aristotle’s notion of oikonomia and not chrematistics at the heart of our relation to food doesn’t invite anything new into the contemporary cultural imaginary – there is nothing actually innovative about cooking and eating together. But once it stops being a normal part of culture, eating together does start to feel fanciful and unrealistic, and open only to certain sections of the population who are seen to make such choices actively as part of a lifestyle that most cannot finance. Yet eating together only costs too much money when the social structure is engineered in the other direction, when chrematistics and not oikonomia drives the culture.
Partly, of course, it has come to this because the labour required for the home growing, preparation, presentation and cleaning up of meals on a day-to-day basis has for the most part been the uncosted, unremunerated and unrecognised labour of women. As women enter the paid workforce, specialising in areas they are suited to, the outsourcing of food production to the ready meal has been described as a ‘liberation’. Indeed, when I enjoy the future scenario of the oikos-driven society – ‘sitopia’ in Steel’s terminology – then I think of myself as a consumer of the food, in company, rather than the producer. That is, I want to eat, but I don’t want to be the one (always, or even usually) responsible for the home growing, cooking and organising of the sharing of food.
The reality is that we would all need to participate in both production and consumption, but that would require a very different gender balance of work in the home than the current norm. It would also require a distinctive reimagining of the self – a self no longer able to follow the dictates of personal choice (within limitation) – such as: do I buy from M&S or ASDA? Do I buy a ready meal or bake a potato? (etc etc etc). Instead my ‘food self’ would be dictated to by the season. In a way this could be a relief – these days, for different reasons, I feel a bit sick when I look at vegetables in both M&S – organic but with swathes of air miles and packaging – and ASDA – often just seemingly inorganic, lacking in taste and more pesticide than plant matter (these happen to be the two nearest food shops (of any type) to my house). But mediating between winter scarcity and late summer abundance, the obligations of food generation as dictated by seasonal need, might I feel my individuality had been compromised? Haven’t we been sold a myth of individualism through the very act of making produce available all year round? What kind of ‘self’ might a rethinking of my ‘food-self’ lead me towards?
With progress reversing in many political and social areas, looking to a better future (even just across the year of this residency) sometimes feels like looking not that far back in time. A herculean effort is now required to reverse the retrogressive spiral that dismantles intercultural collaboration, steals sovereignty from our bodies, sows distrust of our neighbours, and focusses on the opposite of oikos – chrematistics. But what was so heartening about the conversation with Steel was not just the numbers of people who wanted to join in to listen and respond at the event, of many ages and backgrounds, but also that an alternative economic structure is possible. For it is not complicated and out of reach, but rather requires sustained political support for the myriad of structures, from community farms to neighbourhood food sharing apps, that are already being sown, tended to, and nurtured by people everywhere.
Could we create an everyday life in which:
- Our actions do not contribute to climate change
- We don’t have to think about whether our actions contribute to climate change
What would that world look like, feel like?