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.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Re-Assessing Animal Rights: Resources

I've been thinking about the state of the animal defense movement* quite a lot after attending four conferences on organizing this summer. Perhaps for the better, the Animal Rights 2013 conference was not one of them. The conferences I attended were either organized by and for grassroots activist or were nearly silent on the status of animal others. Never have I learned so much and been inspired more. There I was exposed to alternative interpretations of the history and politics of the US and the modern world, and there I realized how white and superficial the analyses and strategies of mainstream animal activists often are.

This post is dedicated to providing resources to those open to re-assessing the history, politics, organization, tactics, theories, and language of the animal defense movement. I intend to write more about the presentations and drama I witnessed at these conferences, but for now I want to share some essays and presentations that have really challenged and inspired me to re-think my assumptions and history of abstract theorizing that is valued in academic settings, especially in philosophy.

Re-Assessing Animal Defense

The History and Politics of the Animal Defense Movement
With the rise of the vegan movements, the politics of animal defense have become increasing personal that many activists have forgotten that vegan-consumption is just one strategy, and not even the most important. On the other hand, large nonprofits have taken to reforms that do not challenge the source of animal oppression: their status as commodities. Yet still, animal defense is often interpreted from the perspective of those who have made careers at nonprofits and universities--what of the history of the grassroots?

The Limits of Vegetarian Outreach
Vegetarian outreach has been a staple of the nonprofit animal defense movement since the 1990's when activists realized that over 95% of animals were killed and exploited by agribusiness. While there is much debate over how to best "sell" vegetarianism, critiques of the sufficiency of veganism as a "baseline" has been less frequent. Is vegan education our most effective tactic? Is "veganism" sufficient for animal liberation?

The Problem with Analogies to Human Oppression
Some animal activists draw logical analogies between the institutional violence against nonhuman animals and oppressed humans. The presumption is that the public will have a logical breakthrough that violence against nonhuman animals is unjust like violence against oppressed humans. Have the articulation and performances of these analogies bore the breakthroughs as activists hoped, or only further alienated them from their cause?

Critiques of Non-Profit Campaigns & Conferences
The hegemony of corporate non-profits have "hijacked" the strategy, language, and tactics of animal liberation. Non-profits generate funds and publicity for animals, however, they have also been notoriously conservative on matters of class, race, and gender in their organizations and campaigns. Their collusion with State power, capital, and white supremacy has built a large funding base, but are they building a movement upon the marginalization and oppression of humans?

The Intersections of Human and White Privilege in the ADM
The animal defense movement has continued to be the whitest social justice movements in the US for decades, despite that people of color are no less compassionate and no less likely to be vegetarian. We've already looked at colonial campaigns, analogies that alienate, under-representation in leadership, and complicity in racist law enforcement. What analytic tools, strategies, and language can whites adopt and support to build coalitions across racialized experiences?

How to Disrupt Oppression
Once equipped with more sophisticated theory and more supportive of people of color and queer leadership and projects, animal activists are on their way to building a movement that reaches beyond the single-issue identity politics of "animal rights." This is, of course, easier than it sounds. Because nearly all of us in the US have been colonised by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, it will take some effort on our behalf to challenge its "common sense" built into our brains-and-flesh. How can we resist these old habits?

Critiques of Ally, Intersectionality, and Privilege
Over the last ten years as the internet has made it easier to "call-out" animal activists for their complicity with racism and other oppressive systems, some mainstream organizations and many white activists have adopted the language of anti-oppression. Have white activists' identification as allies, acknowledgement of their privileges, and references to "intersectionality" transformed their activism or obscured privilege and power?

Are there any essays, talks, and books that have changed your advocacy for animals? Please share in the comments. I may add them to the list!