Locavangelism: Eating as Spiritual Practice, Part III
Editorial note: This is Part III of Rachel Wheeler's discussion of what she calls "locavangelism." Part I is here; Part II is here. The last couple of paragraphs here are a repeat from Part I, which I repeat here as a summary of the series.
by Rachel Wheeler
Having attempted to show how various wings of the modern food-centered environmentalist movement draw on patterns of evangelicalism, I’d like to take a stab at answering two questions: why food now? and what does it all mean? The immediate answer to the first question, I believe is 9/11 and the 2008 financial meltdown. Growing your own tomatoes, people are discovering, is a way to economize, enjoy better food, and connect with a past that feels safe during a time of great uncertainty. Locavangelism seems to represent a sort of personal declaration of isolationism. The past decade, beginning with 9/11, has persuaded many that globalization represents a threat rather than an opportunity, and this sense of threat has led many to want to seek a closer connection to the dirt in their own back yards. But I think we can’t stop there. The 1990s were crucially important in laying the groundwork that would eventually produce the locavore movement.
The turn to food, I believe, marks a desire to marry belief and practice, it represents a backlash against an era that liberals and conservatives are seeing as superficial: the go-go-90s witnessed the make-over of many American cities. Everyone celebrated the decreased crime rates, and the cleaner subways – both unquestionably good developments—but the 90s also brought a new era of consumerism and suburbanization with the growth of sprawling McMansion studded developments gobbling up prime farmland on the outskirts of many cities (particularly in the Midwest). Shopping became the number one leisure activity among Americans, and suddenly people traded in their under a dollar coffee habit for $3 (and more) grande skinny caramel macchiatos.
Political liberals got their President in 1992 with Clinton’s election, while Conservatives were laying the groundwork for a Republican take over that came in 1994. Republicans and Democrats had great reason for hope in the 1990s. On the left, the 1990s marked the high point of the “politically correct” or PC movement, when liberals learned to call black people “African-Americans,” and Indians “Native Americans” and feel they were doing their part to right the wrongs of prior, unenlightened times. The 1990s also saw the growing influence of the Religious Right. The Republican Revolution of 1994, and the election of a born-again Christian - George W. Bush-- in 2000, swelled hopes among America’s evangelicals that a conservative Christian agenda would finally be implemented. His election marked an astounding and seemingly unassailable alliance of conservative Christians, fiscal conservatives, and big-business. But neither Clinton nor Bush accomplished what their supporters hoped, leading to a suspicion about the meaning of professions of faith, whether of the PC or the evangelical variety: does calling a person in a wheelchair “physically challenged” rather than handicapped change their experience of being handicapped when public buildings are not accessible? Will a politician who professes to be born again necessarily be above political compromise? Some Conservative Christians began having second thoughts about their enthusiastic alliance with big-business. Liberals and conservatives were dismayed by their leaders’ political (and moral) compromises, though perhaps more often, they were inclined to see the problems as coming from the other side of the political aisle.) As Rod Dreher writes in Crunchy Cons, “Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.”
The writings of locavangelists, of the lefty and Christian Agrarian variety, are rife with professions about the incongruity of belief and action. All the authors considered here write of the impulse to bring belief and action together. The financial implosion has lent further impetus to the desire for change: the promise of ever increasing wealth, of ever increasing house values, has proved illusory and this realization has prompted many to reconsider the meaning of work. If it is not to make more money and buy a bigger house, what is it for? So, I think there is something of a widespread re-alignment of values going on, with many people opting to focus their energies on the familial and the local, shunning the plastic and the consumerist, and seeking above all, the authentic, however that might be constructed. Beavan, the No Impact Man, writes: “I want my work to align with my values. I want to write about what’s important. I want to help change minds. The blurb for Year of Plenty (by Goodwin, the Presbyterian pastor) announces, this is the story of “one family wrestling with what it means to re-integrate life and faith.”
What locavores on the left and right seem to have in common is their emphasis on the importance of practice. It seems to me to be a commentary on what many now see as the superficiality of the 1990s. Both sides are seeking ways to realize their beliefs through actions. It is telling, I think that the environmental movement is growing not by more people heading for escape to a pristine wilderness, but through rediscovering the ancient traditions of agriculture, a turn that seems eminently more practical in a precarious world. As Ragan Sutterfield writes, “the problem with our role in creation is that we don't remember it. In our fallen state we have forgotten our place, both within God's will and love and also in our love and care for creation. We need to be reminded of who we are and what we are about. Practices and disciplines are our primary way of learning to remember, of being recollected to our place and call as creatures. I would like to offer farming, done well, as one of those disciplines.”
I find it fascinating, that a predominantly Protestant country has suddenly discovered “practice.” I don’t know quite what to make of this: it could be a response to the broader political and cultural forces, or it could suggest the assimilation of important religious ideas and practices from other religions. Americans are clearly hungry for practical guidance: Michael Pollan’s prescriptive book Food Rules, was quickly vaulted to the top of best-seller lists. Americans seem to want to be told what to do and many are finding new spiritual rewards in practicing the discipline of eating according to Pollan’s rules. Locavorism may well be the new Kosher, but it is being embraced with evangelical fervor.