Writers, activists talk food, climate change, and hope
By RICHARD MARK GLOVER
MARFA – According to nomadic activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, embracing the unknown might be the earth community’s best reason for hope. “Life is unlikely at any given moment,” she said from the podium at the Marfa Book Co. on Sunday, the final day of Marfa Dialogues; Politics and Culture of Climate and Sustainability, hosted by Ballroom Marfa.
“Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t – and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown,” she wrote in “A Field Guide For Getting Lost,” a collection of essays that explores abstractions like uncertainty, trust, societal disconnects, desire and the color blue.
She suggests that philosopher Thomas Hobbes had it all wrong four centuries ago; life is not short, nasty and brutish and the social contract we make with authority to keep us in check should not be irrevocable but rather “We all want to live in a world that is just.”
In her talk, she juxtaposes hope and despair, a choice she suggests, we alone make about the future and what global warming may or may not do. She ad-libs during her lyrical sing-song delivery showing perhaps a touch of her mother’s Irish roots, and speaks of wandering western highways, George Jones, economic injustice, and the 99 percent who sometime “disappear” in their poverties. Her epiphanies are delivered without statistics binding the listener at the heart rather than the mind.
“In another life,” Solnit said, “I want to come back as Michael Pollan,”she laughed, hinting maybe of their stylistic differences. Pollan is another great writer and activist whose systematic intelligence of the food industry is delivered with red meat fact and deductive projection.
Pollan sat down with Hamilton Fish, publisher of the Washington Spectator, Saturday night to inform on the food industry and what we might do for ourselves rather than letting the corporations do it all for us.
Pollan, author of “Botany of Desire,” a title poetically shaved to the essence of scientific fact, is also author to a number of other books including his latest, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.” He said the food industry spends $42 billion a year in marketing to keep us “confused and addicted” to soft drinks and cereals, hot dogs, catsup, and bad bread; foods, he suggests that will ultimately kill us. Eliminating soda consumption alone, he said, would cut by half a brutish list of diseases, like, diabetes, stroke and cancer.
“Three quarters of health care money is used to treat the chronic diseases of alcohol, smoking and diet,” he said from his chair at the Crowley Theater. “The food industry is making patients for the hospitals.”
He suggests shopping the perimeter of grocery stores, when we can’t grow our own food, to avoid the processed concoctions in the core of the store, although he admits refined pomegranate juice is now popping up between the squash. He states that an average American consumes 150 pounds of sugar a year and that the cost of indigent health care will bankrupt the states. He notes that New York City, “on the hook for the poor like most cities aren’t” calculates that each diabetes patient costs the city an average of $425,000 a year in health care costs. Although he doesn’t outright endorse Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign to restrict soft drink sales, he’s not sure how the hand of reason can enter the debate, a debate that if stretched takes on capitalism, though he points to the billion dollar settlements states have successfully collected from tobacco companies.
Pollan notes that “the impact of how we feed ourselves” is not sustainable and that “20-33 percent of greenhouse gases” are generated by the food industry. “There’s a lot of carbon in our food,” he said. He also believes that the sun is “our free lunch.”
He suggests that farmers have done a remarkable job of making cheap calories available, backed by a recent finding that shows only 9.5 per cent of the average American budget is used for food purchases compared to 19-24 percent in pre WWII America. He mentioned the shrinking American income and said, “Cheap unhealthy food has subsidized falling wages since the 1970’s.”
Pollan took the full house audience through the history of the “foodie” movement noting many food laws were driven by food scares like the ripening agent Alar that was sprayed on apples in the 1980s. Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley was on his list as the first modern restaurant (est. 1971) that found success sourcing locally grown food and giving credit to the farmer. He also commented on Farmstand Marfa noting, “It’s the only farmer’s market I’ve seen where you can also buy rocks.”
Solnit, too, toured history, a history of racism, country and western, pollution and the understanding of nature. Her 12th book, “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” maps a number of unlikely places and also shows corporate sin at work along the waterfront and how the “down wind, downstream” effects neighborhoods like Hunter’s Point. Her present work is a rendering of New Orleans that “maps music five different ways.” She cuts into the Crescent City’s soul, connecting Congo Square, a contemporary music venue in the Treme district, that was also the stage of auctions for African slaves in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries where strong black men fetched upwards of a hundred dollars to work and build the sugar backbone of the region. And in Solnik-like fashion she also maps the kidney dialysis centers through-out the greater New Orleans area.
“Does anybody here know the words to ‘Long Black Veil?’” Solnik asks as she promises to take us out of the crud of climate change and slavery.
Five hands fly up and the rest of us are lightly chastised for being “ignorant” Texans. “Maybe those down the street at the other festival (Marfa Lights) might know better,” she notes in sort of a quick read of Marfa’s own disconnect.
She pulls more material from her essay, “One Nation Under Elvis,” and then asks, pertaining to an earlier point, “Is there anything that’s not political?”
Amy Balkin, an artist on Solnik’s Saturday panel now has collected 50,000 signatures in Germany as part of her quest to create clean air parks by retiring carbon emission offsets and hopes someday to place the Earth’s atmosphere on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
In conjunction with the Environmental Change Institute, Adriane Colburn, another San Francisco artist on the panel, spent several months this year on the US Coast Guard cutter “Healy” plying the artic in pack ice, mapping the sea floor, “counting microbes” in sea water and uncovering “bits of meaning” in this newly charted underwater geography.
David Buckland, an English artist, photographer and curator on the panel sees the artist as “interrogating the world” to find new avenues to “de-carbonize our culture.”
Pollan, later, informs the crowd that California will be voting this November on whether genetically modified food should be labeled. “If it passes,” he said, “At least it will loosen Monsanto’s grip on the seed market.”
Pollan also noted that neither President Obama nor Republican Presidential candidate Mit Romney is talking about global warming in this year’s election.
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