Saturday, October 26, 2013

Food Justice: Revisiting HEALTH

HEALTH is an organizational paradigm for Food Justice
HEALTH has now been up and running for 5 years. Yay!

Okay, now that I've gotten the obligatory anniversary announcement out of the way, I want to draw attention back to a topic deserving of its own post:

What is "health"? What work does the acronym HEALTH perform?

In this post, I will elaborate a little bit on how I understand HEALTH after many additional years of life experience as an educator and activist, and why this understanding is preferable to the accepted definition and practice of "health." First, I will discuss the evolution of HEALTH from an organization to a blog to an experimental paradigm for coalition building. Second, I will juxtapose the self-centered normativity of "health" to the socialist politics of HEALTH. Third, I will break down HEALTH into several prerequisites and organizing points. I will conclude with acknowledging the difficulties of navigating this comprehensive vision of HEALTH and invite y'all to chime in with comments as to whether advocating HEALTH is as useful and un-problematic as I suggest.

1. The Evolution of a Vision (2005-2008)
Way back in 2005 I founded an organization on my college campus dedicated to addressing the intersections of oppressions. The club existed, on the one hand, to operate as an independent project for a course on Sustainable Buildings, and, on the other hand, to provide a much needed outlet for animal advocacy on campus. According to the original constitution submitted on April 5, 2005:
H.E.A.L.T.H. is dedicated to ecological sustainability and conservation, the adoption of compassionate and ecologically responsible lifestyles, and global awareness through activism and education. The club will work to develop an environmental taskforce for Beloit College, create and enforce environmentally sound policies, and educate the campus and community about ways to live more harmoniously with the Earth, nonhuman animals, and humans in developing countries. H.E.A.L.T.H. will be involved with nonviolent, grassroots environmental and animal activism 
HEALTH was founded upon ecofeminist philosophy, which I had begun studying independently a year before. Ecofeminism, in a nutshell, is a body of work that purports that the domination of nature (at least in the Western tradition) are entangled with the domination of women (as well as poc, working class, queers, and animals) historically, materially, conceptually, and mythologically. Ecofeminists valuably demonstrate, like other radical theories, that the oppression of humans and nonhuman beings mutually reinforce one another, and that liberation is only possible when all are free of injustices. HEALTH was conceived of this intersectional analysis.

Originally designed to address the unhealthy relationships between humans, animals, and the Earth, HEALTH would take on new meaning as an acronym during research for my interdisciplinary capstone project when I discovered the work of agrarian writer Wendell Berry and ecofeminist Chris Cuomo.

Wendell Berry's essays exemplified what thinkers like Fritjof Capra and David Orr called systems thinking. Systems thinking took into account the process, relationship, dynamism, wholeness, and complexity of "problems" (in contrast to mechanistic thinking which addressed problems by dissecting them into static, discreet parts with simple, predictable, linear cause and effect relationships. The problem with mechanistic thinking (in modern, industrial science, economics, politics, and technology) is that it often creates new problems and so it doesn't "solve for pattern."

In "Health is Membership," Berry wishes we return to the etymological root of  "health" as the whole-ness of belonging:

The word "health," in fact, comes from the same Indo-European root as ‘heal,’ ‘whole,’ and ‘holy.’ To be healthy is literally to be whole; to heal to make whole... our sense of wholeness is not just a sense of completeness in ourselves but also in a sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common. (144)
[The contemporary] view of health that is severely reductive. It is, to begin with, almost frantically individualistic... One may presumably be healthy in a disintegrated family or community or in a destroyed or poisoned ecosystem.” (146)
In another essay, "Solving for Pattern," Berry discusses more concretely the destructive logic of providing health care for one group of a system at the expense of others who belong to that community in agriculture:
Our dilemma in agriculture now is that the industrial methods that have so spectacularly solved some of the problem of food production have been accompanied by ‘side effects’... the irony of agricultural models that destroy, first, the health of the soil and, finally, the health of human communities. (267)
The real problem of food production occurs within a complex, mutually influential relationship of soil, plant, animals, and people. A real solution to that problem will therefore be ecologically, agriculturally, and culturally healthful... [I]t is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of the plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people. (269, 274)
Chris Cuomo provided more depth to Berry's arguments, in part by coming out of an ecofeminist tradition critical of the pastoral romanticization of the heteronormative family and settler colonialism. Cuomo offered an alternative route to addressing ecological ethics that wasn't based in mechanistic utilitarian, individualistic deontological, and apolitical care ethics. Cuomo proposed an eudaimonian ethic, based on the ancient Greek concept of flourishing, but applied to community as a social and ecological construct.
Humans cannot flourish without other humans, ecosystems, and species, and nothing in a biotic community can flourish on its own. Likewise, communities (both social and ecological) depend on the existence of other communities. Ethical objects therefore flourish as both social and ecological entities. To be extracted from community, human or otherwise, is to lack relationships and contexts that provide the meaning, substance and material for various sorts of lives.[*]
My ambition to build a coalition between clubs on campus and develop a sustainability taskforce, however, did not materialize. Several years organizing campus events and actions brought me to appreciation of how difficult it was to put this holistic perspective into practice. Such a comprehensive message and focus was naturally complex to deliver and we HEALTH spread itself thin attempting to address issues such as animal liberation and indigenous sovereignty (which I had come to appreciate after studying in Australia). Under the lack of general interest in and availability for advocacy on campus, HEALTH could not sustain itself after I graduated.

2. The Evolution of a Vision (2008-2013)

South Central Farm (1994 - 2006) was the largest urban farm and CSA in the USA.
When I returned home from a summer working as an educator at an animal sanctuary, I was inspired to keep my holistic vision and advocacy alive by creating a blog. Having learned from the past of how difficult it was to manage an organization that had potentially infinite possibilities, I narrowed the focus of HEALTH to a food justice blog that would encompass not only food sovereignty (which I learned the importance of through a sustainability project in my community), but also ecological sustainability, and animal liberation. The devotion of HEALTH to food justice seemed a natural fit since food is a site at which so many discourses of health (e.g., bodily, animal, ecological, communal, national) collide.

The original mission statement for HEALTH was posted on September 8, 2008:

HEALTH advocates ecological and social justice through campaigns in which the intersection of multiple oppressions in the production, distribution, and consumption of “food" can be addressed simultaneously... Health in its fullest sense cannot be achieved alone.
Over the next year, I would compile an array of resources, spanning form introductory web sites, documentary videos, peer-reviewed articles, academic journals, non-profit organizations, blogs, and books covering animal, agricultural, ecological, and social justice. Although I attempted to avoid doing so, the blog has admittedly leaned harder on the animal justice side of things. In the first two years, however, I did address matters of gender, race, class, and sexuality injustices in food production, consumption, and distribution.

One post I'm particularly fond of is "Skinny Bitch and Bulimic Vegetarians" published in April of 2009. Of all my posts, this one most directly addressed the limits of advocating personal "health" (or at least the superficial performance of health). After diagnosing the fat-shaming elements of vegan outreach (particularly the aesthetic appeal of Skinny Bitch and the PETA's campaign media), I shared my perspective on "health":

HEALTH cannot be achieved by individuals alone; true health is the consequence of an entire community flourishing mutually together. Modern reductionist approaches to health define "health" as something that can be achieved independent of Others and often at the expense of them (e.g., (over)fishing to consume more fish oil, enslaving people to pick tomatoes, wiping out wildlife to grow organic leafy greens, "curing" diseases by giving them first to millions of "animals"). Within this outlook, veg*n outreach that promotes veg*nism as good for "one's health" is playing into the liberal, antagonistic discourse of self-interest.
Since HEALTH must be achieved together it ought not, as much as possible, come at the expense of the health of Others. In this sense, appropriating mainstream means of advertising (i.e. using the promise of becoming a conventionally sexy and beautiful women) so as to exploit common insecurities over body-image (o)pressed into the minds of young women is not healthy. Exploiting, and thus perpetuating, oppression as a means to a "good" end can never be healthy, even if it promotes "health," because it ultimately subordinates the health of Others.

In 2012 I followed up my 2011 series critiquing what I call consumption-centered veganism. In "The Limits of Vegan Consumption," I briefly explored the complexity of "ethical" consumption within global, industrial capitalism. Quinoa provided a case study as to how the ethical production, distribution, and consumption of food can shift over time and space--that there is no inherently "good" and "bad" foods, but rather a complex of values that sometimes compete with one another in a given social and ecological context. Consumption-centered veganism, however, often does not acknowledge the ethics of food beyond the treatment of animals or, if it does, moralizes the good from the bad food-products (rather than the means of production and consumption).

Like in my interview with Rhys Southan, I expressed my optimism for intersectional projects like the Food Empowerment Project [FEP], which actually seemed to do what so many of us only theorize.

[FEP] builds coalitions with other social justice movements such as those for food sovereignty, fair farming practices, and ecological sustainability. FEP works with people of a wide variety of races and classes, tending to their needs and desires rather than treating them as more people or tokens to recruit to the movement. FEP goes beyond reforming the present system by substituting animal products with the vegan equivalents; [FEP works] toward structural change of current foodways that exploit farm workers, usurp indigenous land and water resources, and fail to provide people with a nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate diet.
FEP was and is still one of the few organizations (see A Well-fed World, Sistah Vegan, Vegan Hip Hop Movement) that does not reduce vegan food justice to consumption choices where people have access to few choices and where food choices are a construct of the market rather than a decision by the community.

3. Neoliberalism, Governmentality, and Structural Violence 

In response to the stagflation of the 1970s, privatization became the economic mantra of the US
The most critical point I want to make is that health isn't merely a matter of individual biology, but social structure. Conventional definitions of "health" foreground the content of individual consumption (of "good" foods) and acts (exercise) at the expense of obscuring the socioeconomic structure that prevents and discourages many from achieving that state. This is why consumption-centered approaches to health (and veganism) are significantly limited:
[P]ositioning veganism as an economic boycott is a very limited tactic given the prevalence of global capitalism. Mainstream veganism only addresses the content (i.e. animal products) and not the form/structure (i.e. capitalism) of the global market that facilitates the exploitation of animals as commodities and obstructs people from transforming society
Even if consumer vegans were able to make significant dents in the national market, all this will be reversed by the rise of the affluent animal-eating class in the developing world to whom animals raised nationally will be exported, or—in “a race to the bottom”— to where the industry will be exported—displacing farmers and wildlife and externalizing production costs upon their communities
[V]eganism as an economic boycott does not even universally enable people to practice veganism. Since wholesome food is regarded as a commodity rather than a socio-political right, large populations of disadvantaged people have little to no financial and/or geographic access to vegetarian food and goods...
There is little reason to believe an amoral marketplace that seeks to expand, appropriate, and accumulate capital will enable food justice, let alone any form of justice. The belief that anyone can "vote with your dollars" is problematic on two accounts. First, the marketplace is not a democracy where each person has one vote, but rather an arena where one person may have one vote but another may have 3,000. Second, the idea that one can change the system by literally buying into it is a symptom of neoliberalism, in which the State increasingly hands over regulatory decision-making to the uneven power relations and private interests of the marketplace. Yet, the discourse of "health" creates the illusion that universal human and ecological "health" is achievable within a capitalistic society if people want it to be. 
The privatization of regulation and diffusion of responsibility within neoliberalism is evident in the phenomenon called "healthism" (an unflattering term I stumbled upon recently). Healthism is more-or-less what Michel Foucault calls governmentality whereby subjects self-govern via internalized societal norms, in this case "the medicalization of everyday life." The self-disciplining subject acts not necessarily out of fear of State punishment, but out of manufactured desire for "freedom," normality, and health, and thus can be regulated without direct force. The increased "freedom" passed onto individuals coincides with the State's withdrawal of support and intervention under the guise that individuals be held personally responsible for their own situation (as if one's situation were simply a "lifestyle choice"):

According to [Nikolas] Rose, the capitalist society finds coercion unnecessary. Since people want to be "healthy", the apparatus of advertising and other means of capitalist persuasion leads to people internalizing the message of healthism without state intervention... the burden of remaining healthy is no longer on the shoulders of the government, but must be endured by individuals, who then are held to be blameworthy if they get sick.[*]
Noteworthy, is that this "responsabilization" is not innate to human being, but a social narrative that has become common sense in modern societies, and, in particular, the USA. Self-governance can be empowering  to those with the means and opportunity to have meaningful freedom and choices; however, the strategy of self-governance is often oppressive since most people in different ways and to varying degrees do not have meaningful freedom and choices within the present social structure (i.e. white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy), and the idea that they do contributes to blaming and shaming them.

The discourse of "health" becomes more insidious within the context of what Foucault calls biopolitics whereby matters of biology become a subject of political monitoring, regulation, and intervention. The government of "life" has become political common sense unto itself, even having superseded projects such as democracy in fascist states that sought to preserve the life of the so-called native population over the lives of others. In capitalist societies, biopolitics certainly has had the effect, regardless of intent, of investing in the lives of men's health over women's (i.e. gender-bias in experimental research) as well white and middle-class people over the poor poc(i.e. disproportionate funds for alleviating diseases of affluence and aging rather than diseases of poverty). Biopolitics has further worked in the favor of the affluent class internalizing the moralism and discipline of "healthism" through education and access to food and gyms while allowing the health of expendable individuals in the post-industrial working class to deteriorate for the profits of agribusiness and corporations. Still, it may be in "national interest" to intervene and promote "health awareness" when the cost of disease epidemics on the welfare State's budget is greater than neoliberal de-regulation. 

The radical inequality in the distribution of fundamental human physical and social well-being should be understood as structural violence. Structural violence, as a concept, includes all avoidable impairments to achieving basic well-being including poverty, hunger, disease, gangs, drug addiction, decrepit living conditions, and terrible education. By recognizing these disabling conditions as violence, socioeconomic inequality can be recognized as an injustice, not merely a pitiable circumstance. Further, the complicity and culpability of those privileged by structural violence (through externalized production costs, inequitable distribution, excessive consumption, and careless disposal) become more salient. And rather than interpreting unlawful resistance by people in wretched circumstances as aggravation and "terrorism," such acts may be understood as self-defense against the greater pre-existing violence via socioeconomic structure that denies them a basic well-being while others live in excess.

  • No adequate understanding of HEALTH can be complicit in structural violence.
  • HEALTH will not be achieved through neoliberalism's strategy to abstract individuals from communities and marginalize public interest.
  • HEALTH is impossible when animal and ecological beings are subordinated to the unquestioned excesses of human interests.
  • HEALTH requires a restructuring of our socioeconomic relationships to all human and nonhuman life
After laying out the troublesome presuppositions and the violent structural injustices within contemporary national discourse surrounding "health," I hope to have persuaded you that HEALTH is more than a cutesy acronym. HEALH is a call to action, a call to solidarity, a call to a recreation of our present way of perceiving, organizing, and valuing all life.

Please return and read the next piece in which I will layout the six prerequisites for HEALTH!

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