Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Abundance in an Age of Food Tribalism

For those who haven't heard yet - 2012 has gotten off to a highly optimistic start, in no small part due to the NY Times Best Seller, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

No matter where you fall in the broad spectrum of the food and culture wars - it's well worth your reading. The subtitle kind of says it all, but within the pages of Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler yield some really counter-intuitive conclusions, based on an amazingly strong convergence of data. The book has done a pretty spectacular job convincing me, and a great many others, that we are in fact about to enter a new age of abundance. Not in a caddy materialistic sort way, but rather in terms of the very basic of human needs - water, energy, shelter - and yes - Food. How will we get there? The authors suggest it will be through the convergence of emergent technologies.... the idea is nothing completely new, and it's scope of controversy is beyond the reach of this posting, but needless to say - it can be something of a divisive issue.

Now, I've spent my entire academic career in educational institutions with explicit missions of promoting sustainability - most typically through a framework of "organic" agriculture. I've lived off-the grid in the backwoods of Maine, bred open-pollinated organic vegetable seeds, and spent the last 7 or so years focused intensively on grass-fed meat and milk production. So why, one might logically ask, WHY am I so excited about a book that so explicitly promotes the kind of transgenic crops, nano-technology, and synthetic biology I've been literally academically incubated to revile for over 12 years now? Have I lost my way? Did I drink the kool-aid of corporate techno-optimism? Hardly - I'll leave it to you to read the book, or at the very least, watch Peter's TED Talk embedded below to judge for yourself the validity of Abundance.... I've got a more pressing question for this post:

Where are the voices of protest and outrage from the Organic food movement around this book?

I've been scouring the digital ethers to find, what I had thought, would be a litany of outraged commentary from the local, organic, and slow food movements. This book, at first glance, is an academically rigorous assault on the incumbent scarcity posited by many of those preparing for the 'post-petroleum economy'. Where the alternative food movement is preparing for this inevitability by scaling down, Diamandis and Kotler insist we must - even more aggressively prepare - by scaling up. 

I am already well versed in the anticipated critiques - that technology has failed us in the past; that things are more complex than these authors admit; that we'll lose our humanity in the process. My point here is not to weigh in on the merits of these arguments - though I will say I think Abundance, combined with the works of Ray Kurzweil, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and others offer significant food for thought on the matter.

My point is to consider this - why the digital silence? I've found a few, often barely coherent, criticisms hidden among the comment sections of the great many websites a-buzz with Abundance - but what I am not easily finding is a single well argued, professional, or citizen journalism piece really digging into the book from an alternative food perspective. As we all know - this kind of silence just does not happen with controversial issues on the Internet!

So what's going on? 
Is the organic movement dumbstruck into silence? Hardly. 
Do they actually agree with the book in it's entirety? I'm sure not. 
Are they too busy hand-crafting this summer's seedlings? Perhaps, and I would hardly judge anyone for that! 

My concern however, is that the real cause of this silence is a form of food tribalism. A fear that rather than possibly being a good scientific argument - that Abundance is perhaps seen as nothing more than a flag for the "other side". Paid for by Monsanto, packaged by the geeks of silicon valley, and sold to the ignorant and culturally depraved as the same sort of technological panacea we've seen since the rise of synthetic chemistry. Perhaps it is this type of sentiment that has caused an overwhelming majority of slow-foodies (among which I occasionally count myself) to simply miss this wonderful and thought provoking book. 

If this is the case, and I think it is somewhat fair to say that it likely is - this is a treacherous place for both organic food, and society as a whole to feel comfortable. When tribalism trumps science, and a lack of civil discourse becomes a roadblock to developing common vision - we are indeed, in a very undesirable spot.

I certainly don't agree with every single thing Diamandis and Kotler write - and I'll surely comment about these aspects in the future. Yet, where so much of what they say, truly is so pertinent, not only to those in alternative agriculture, but to all of us as human beings - I truly hope everyone who cares about food and our future will take the time to explore their message with an open and critical mind!

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