Food for Thought #12: Thought for Food

In my last post I discussed the contradictory attitudes toward globalized industrial capitalism that Ayn Rand exhibits in Atlas Shrugged.  She sanctifies the processes and artifacts of this system while denouncing the consumerism and amorality that are its primary cultural effects. While this ambivalence doesn’t square with Rand’s political reputation, it’s implicit in her story in any number of ways, and there is no better issue with which to illustrate these tensions than the issue of food.

I’ve just finished reading Michael Pollan’s seminal Omnivore’s Dilemma, and about a third of it chronicles Pollan’s time spent on the farm of Joel Salatin, a self-described Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist. Salatin is a fascinating character, and many of his most memorable quotes could have come straight from one of Rand’s characters. But not all.

Salatin prizes personal independence, self-sufficiency, competence, and unwavering integrity. In this he embodies all of the positive aspects of Rand’s heroic archetype. And like Rand, he takes issue with the unsustainability of consumerism and the role of the government in perpetuating it.

Where Salatin and Rand diverge is that he detests economies of scale, global finance, mass industry and capital.  Rand is obsessed with civilization and progress, with the image of the railroad as a straight line shooting forward to infinity. She fetishizes the domination and exploitation of nature as overcoming the savage and irrational. By contrast, Salatin organizes his entire life around the self-contained and self-sustaining cycles of the natural world. His Christianity, which Rand abhors, plays some part in this philosophy.

Essentially, Salatin’s farm runs without the farmer having to purchase anything that he can’t produce there himself. All the waste on the farm is composted and fed back to the grasses that feed the animals that produce the waste.  All the animals eat the diet that they evolved to eat, and are moved frequently to keep the pasture (and their menu) fresh and varied. Like Rand, Salatin believes everything in his life should be an expression of his worldview. In Salatin’s case, it is.

But there is a dark side to this consistency. When Pollan asks Salatin how a place like New York City would get enough food in his idealized vision of replacing industrial agriculture with locally-grown organic farming and one-to-one farmer-customer relationships, Salatin replies that there just wouldn’t be a New York City. Pollan is perturbed.

This is, I think, inherent in the premise of Atlas Shrugged, insofar as the book is about an industrial world collapsing under society’s moral bankruptcy versus an intimate pastoral world that redeems human virtue. Yet Rand loves New York City and the industry it represents. The Galt cult expresses their intention to rebuild industrial society after its collapse without any consideration of how this might recreate the very problems they identify as justifying said collapse.

Another way in which Salatin is a purer, more honest libertarian than Rand is that his dislike of government is inherently tied to a perception that government policies are written by and for “Wall Street,” his (appropriate) shorthand for all corporate industry. He is wholly anti-institution. Once again, this is Salatin affirming a position that is implicit and unavoidable in Rand’s vision, one that she ignores. Sure, she glances sidelong at the corrupt collusion of big business and the legislature, but does not seriously reflect on how this real-world fact should affect her unqualified worship of ruthless capitalism or her indiscriminate vitriol toward public service.

Stepping back from Salatin and his non-partisan radicalism, the food industry as a whole serves as an equally apt demonstration of Rand’s merits and faults.

For example, government subsidies for corn farming put in place by the Nixon administration in the ’70s have contributed to an absurdly large and unnecessary surplus of the stuff, causing its price in the market to plummet and corn farmers to become ever more reliant on the subsidy to keep their heads above water. Point Rand.

At the same time, the corporations lobbying for this subsidy have capitalized on corn in wildly innovative ways. Agribusiness continually expands the annual yield of the raw material and the variety of the finished foods into which the corn is then chemically rearranged. But the toxin build-up in the soil, plants, and animals; the fossil fuels burned in massive quantities to assemble the meals; the calorie-rich, nutrient-light nature of the results — all have had a perverse effect on the food economy, stable ecology, and human health and nutrition. Industrial innovation producing rampant and spiritually hollow consumption? Rand’s point is deducted.

Also, because the cost of these side effects is passed on to the taxpayers, consumers, and health care providers, industrial food is priced artificially low. Not only does this violate Rand’s belief in market prices’ karmic integrity (even accounting for the tax subsidy side of the equation), but it obstructs the growth of organic food chains in the marketplace. Here we see that the miracle of capitalism that Rand praises is, basically, its ability to consume more than it produces and write off the difference as a negative externality — the behavior Rand vilifies.

But, finally, it’s worth emphasizing that our options for addressing these issues in the real world are not stark “Either/Or” propositions like Ayn Rand suggests and Joel Salatin endorses.

On the one hand, corn-related policies from the 1930s to the ’70s were far more sensible: the government bought excess corn from farmers in the years when the crop exceeded demand, and then sold the banked corn in years of drought or when the harvest was lean. This stabilized a volatile market without warping the natural equilibrium of supply and demand. The basic logic of Keynesian economics is similar, and similarly sound.

On the other hand, the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector is undeniably necessary if we are to restore our food system to a Galt’s Gulch-like sustainability. As we speak, a cadre of former McDonald’s executives are launching a new venture that seeks to combine sustainable food practices with franchisable fast food convenience.

Which is to say the narrative of Atlas Shrugged, a direct product of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is reflected most honestly not in the life of Ayn Rand but in the life of Joel Salatin. By studying the contrast between them, we see that Rand fails to embody her own convictions, to fully face reality and the logical consequences of her beliefs. She contradicts herself.  Which of her premises is false? Comfortingly, it is that the tensions between progress and social justice — between industrial and organic — are irreconilable. They aren’t. It isn’t “either/or.”  It’s “yes, and…”

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