SfAA 2013 – Zero Waste, Household Gardening, & the 100 Mile Diet: Idiosyncratic Individualism or the Ultimate Act of Anti-Capitalism?

The 2013 Society for Applied Anthropology meeting was held in Denver, Colorado March 19-23. March 20, 2013.  Along with a group of UBC researchers (former and current) I was part of a panel on alternative and anti-capitalist food production systems.  Two of the papers focused on Gitxaała marine issues, one paper on Bella Coola Valley household gardening, and another on Food Not Bombs as an example of direct action food procurement and distribution.  My own paper focused on the underlying ideas of green action and whether or not green movements that focus on household and individual change can make a real difference or not.  What follows are my relatively unedited speaking notes.

Go-green as an anti-capitalist tactic.  Green activists are more focused on environmental issues as a primary threat and typically locate the central concern as one that puts human survival in global terms at the core of their problematic.

Contemporary green solutions, from waste reduction to healthy foods choice, to climate change, are typically focused on changing individual behaviours.

Three common models to provoke individual change can be identified.

1)    Educate:  a liberal approach with a long pedigree in which one provides good information, explains the situation, and the good folks follow by acting in accord with this good information.

2)    Convince: a more activist intervention, a variation of the educate model, but here the green is actually trying to convince and provoke a change in behaviour.  Here the information provided is designed to create change and is followed by direct encouragement and recruitment type tactics.

3)    Compel: this model shifts from the more neutral approaches to focusing strongly upon the moral and ethical responsibility of the individual.  Not only does the ‘data’ say it is true, but there is a more culpability involved if one does not actually change.

Each of these tactical models is based in a theory of social change that sees the individual as lying at the core of the problem and the solution.  Not surprisingly, these are the self-same cultural values and ideologies that are instrumental within a capitalist economy.

This paper is an auto-ethnographic account of green practices.  The information that I draw from is based upon observations and interactions within my household and my residential community.  Currently my partner and I live with our two adult college-age sons in a multifamily housing complex.  Our home is located adjacent to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and is part of the university’s own long term fiscal strategy of economic sustainability.  That is, use surplus land to build market housing to generate an endowment for the university. Over the course of living in this community for nearly two decades now I have seen a variety of changes and institutionalized ‘green’ programs come and go.  I shall comment on a number of them today.

In this paper I ask the question whether individual choice –in isolation- is a real alternative from which one might challenge the dominant order.  That is, is it simply an idiosyncratic act of an individual or can it be a viable anti-capitalist strategy?  More prosaically, is it possible that individual choices made freely in the marketplaces of lifestyle and opinion will bring us into a new environmental eden? I am not convinced that this is so unless we confront the fundamental contradiction of our society and deal with the real limits of capitalist society at the same time as we attempt to solve the problems of environmental destruction.

But, that is jumping ahead to my conclusion.  Let us first consider three examples (of which I will focus primarily upon one).

1)    Zero waste challenge

2)    Urban household gardening/community gardens

3)    100 Mile Diet.

Each of these mini cases is based upon households making changes.  Each case study has optimistic boosters who ably articulate the virtues of making the personal and household changes required.  These optimistic boosters typically minimize the household costs involved, highlight societal benefit (helping to avoid a cataclysmic collapse), and emphasize the personal rewards (sense of satisfaction, wellbeing, etc) of making the sacrifices involved.

I will focus primarily upon the Zero Waste Challenge, but I will first provide a quick overview of the other two cases.

Urban household gardening and community gardening has been with us for some time (many of us, if old enough, will likely recall either parents or grandparents having a modest garden pre-the fast food era).  Recently, due to people like Alice Waters’ “The Edible Schoolyard Project,” community gardening has taken off. Who can argue against projects that “provides an environment which fosters self-confident students who are contributing citizens and life-long learners and to be a resource of excellence” or “enriches the education of our students by introducing them to gardening, composting, seed saving and the tasting of new vegetables and herbs.”  One would have to be quite the curmudgeon.

These school-based and community gardens sensibilise people to the possibility of gardening and self-provisioning.  They embed a potential for change – yet there is a false economy at play in such projects.  These projects are rarely described as cost recovery, in fact their value describe as residing in the act of engaging children and/or other community members in the act of gardening.  In my own community we have a community garden that I have participated in.  We also have access to garden plots for use by individual households and my family also has access to one of these plots.  The community garden sells produce to the community to the benefit of community youth (heavily subsidized by grants and donated labour).  Our individual plot provides more than enough fresh herbs, kale, and sweet peas to meet our own household desires. But none of this matches the 1 acres mini-farm that my maternal grandmother operated nor the active chicken house and berry patch maintained by paternal grandparents in the early part of the 20th century.

If we conceive of urban gardening as a subset of household self provisioning we quickly come to the realization that what is currently being done by most (clearly not all) urban gardeners is more affectation than effective.

The 100 Mile Diet has become an unofficial bible in the localvore movement – that is, eat local above all else.  Here the idea is that an individual household’s food consumption can play a role in shaping the global trade in food and ultimately lead to eating local foods over high carbon emission long distance foods.  Embedded in this approach is a quaint idea that in the pat all people ate local foods, were self-sufficient, and the world was a better place. This is not to say that having Argentina blueberries for breakfast, Chillan grapes at lunch or mangoes from Mexico is definitional a good thing.  In fact, there is much that is wrong with the global food chains.  But again, the model is one based upon the power of individual choice – the household consumer opts for local and the food industry will follow.  It would appear that what is more likely is that the branding will become more localized rather than the source of the food – but that is a subject for another day.

In our own household the closest we have really been to the ideals of the 100 mile diet is through the seafood that my family consumes.  I come from a north coast BC fishing family and maintain access to fresh and frozen fish. This is fish that I have either caught myself or has been given to me by family and friends back home on the north coast.  Fish for household consumption is linked to aboriginal coastal practices and the commercial fishery.  Regulations, based upon ecological principles rooted in the paradigm of the tragedy of the commons, have increasingly privatized fisheries resources and have made it harder and harder to feed a family or share fish beyond a very limited basis.

Zero Waste Challenge: The drive to find alternatives to disposing solid waste in land fill or by incinerators has led to the rise of a zero waste movement.  Partly supported by municipal authorities (as is the case in Metro Vancouver), partly supported by simple living activists, zero waste is oriented at an overall reduction of solid waste and shifting as much as possible of what’s left into recyclable and compostable waste streams.

Our household of four adults was part of a three month neighbourhood challenge. As mentioned earlier our community is a part of UBC’s residential development.  Local population is about 8,000 people.  All of us live in multi-family housing complexes – no single detached family homes.  Our challenge included ten households.

The objective of our challenge was to (1) establish our baseline waste production and then (2) reduce the overall waste and increase the proportion diverted to recycling and compost.  Our pilot project succeeded on both accounts.

However one needs put this success in context.

1) Comparative data:  Metro Vancouver 15% diversion rate; UBC Neighbourhood 45% diversion rate; Pilot Project baseline diversion rate 68%.

From the start our pilot project consisted of a group of households already significantly exceeding both our regional and local comparator groups.

2) Average waste(excluding recyclables and compostables)/person/week: Metro Vancouver 4kg; Pilot Project 1.5kg.  It is interesting to note that when the diverted waste is added to the figures, the weekly/person waste is roughly the same: 4.6kg for Metro Vancouver; 4.8kg for Pilot Project.  The big difference is our respective diversion rates.

3) By the end of the project our diversion rate had increased to 83%.  However, the overall waste/person/week had fallen to 0.63kg. (overall waste/person/week = 3.8kg.)  Each household had shaved off about 1kg/person/week of overall waste during the three month project.

Clearly the pilot project was a ‘success.’  It demonstrates that significant improvements can be made at the household level in terms of reducing overall waste and increasing the proportion diverted into recycling and composting. As researchers I am sure that we can all note a number of methodological problems with the pilot project.

For starters we were already an atypical group of households living in an atypical neighbourrhood in the Metro Vancouver region.  As a group the majority of us were already committed to the idea of recycling and waste reduction.  The project itself was really part of the ‘convince’ tactical model.  That is, the project was a public relations action organized to convince others that it is possible to make  a significant difference in our household waste production and diversion.

Though the project facilitator was interested in recording the ways individual households reduced their waste, it was mostly from the perspective of collecting tips and advice for others. One household transformed their shopping by gathering all of the various plastic bags they had accumulated up to the point of the challenge and then reuse them for the duration of the challenge for shopping trips.  Another family explained how they left food containers for their bulk purchases at the Costco outlet checkout rather than taking them home to recycle.  Another family found a recycling depot about 25 km distant that would accept hard to recycle plastic pieces and drove to the depot every couple of weeks.  Each of these solutions relied upon a hyper invested participant to take the extra effort to make their involvement in the project a success.

More fundamentally the project did not take into account (in my opinion) the overall production and transportation stream of the goods we consumed at the household level.  For example, in the manufacture of steel cookware waste is produced at each stage from extraction, smelting, refinement, processing, manufacture, delivery, purchase, and end use.  The bulk of the waste created by our downstream purchase is not taken into account.  Doing such an analysis from within the context of a zero waste challenge would still place the onus of action upon the individual household.

At the end of the day the fundamental driving force behind projects such as the zero waste challenge is to alter the behaviour of the end-of-chain user – the household consumer. Here we are seen as active agents in a consumptive act.  I have much sympathy for this perspective, yet I think it is important to note that this is not feasible for all households.  Ultimately, it transfers work and costs from the primary manufacturer and profit takers, into our homes.  This is a classic case of the externalization of the costs of production.

So, is this simply an idiosyncratic act that has no fundamental consequences?  Paradoxically the answer is yes and no.

To explain I need to outline very briefly two general ideas that will help us understand.

The pessimistic idea – the political economy of bulimia (with thanks to J. Guthman, “Weighing In”).

The optimistic idea – audience power (with thanks to the late D. Smythe).

Ending one:  Yes, these are idiosyncratic acts.  Julie Guthman, in her amazing book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, picks up social geography David Harvey’s idea of the special fix as one of capitalism’s responses to the crisis of accumulating.  Briefly put, Guthman suggests that the era of neo-liberal capitalism has literally respatialized the externalities of production on to our very own bodies.  For Guthmen the issue of weight gain, personal health and well-being, and associated projects like community gardening and zero waste challenges are incorrectly formulated as individual matters of responsibility or morality.  These problems are best understood as the direct result of the current capitalist system.  Thus, to fix things we need to directly attack the source of the problem (not through individual choices): the ways in which corporations large and small have waged a decades long battle against living wages, healthcare, education, while constantly advocating market solutions as the only solution to every problem.  If you have not had the opportunity to read Guthmen’s work I would urge you to immediate get your hands on a copy.

Ending two:  No, these are not idiosyncratic act.  Over thirty years ago the communications theorist Dallas Smythe advanced the idea of audience power and the audience commodity: “Smythe believed that all non-sleeping time is work time. Work time is devoted to the production of commodities, producing and reproducing labour power. Time away from work, but not asleep is sold as a commodity to advertisers. This is the audience commodity, which perform marketing functions and work at the production and reproduction of labour power.”[1]  From this perspective the way in which we shop is actually a form of labour power that is being extracted from us.  As with all forms of labour power there is the capacity to withdraw it from the employer, though strikes will often have consequences.

Synthesis: from a pragmatic point of view it would seem that Guthman’s analysis of the source of the problem is a central place to start from.  It suggests that the target of action should be focused on social justice not individual culpability.  To blame those least able to make the choice to micro manage their garbage or find the time to run for hours each day, or who are able to pay the extra price for organic or local foods, is to reinforce the current order and is ultimately fated to fail.

When I reflect upon my own household’s experiments with going green I note several things that makes it easier for us than for others. Our household has sufficient economic resources to opt for higher quality foods.  My family connections provide access to harvested wild foods.  My work schedule, though it involves more hours then I feel I have, is sufficiently flexible to allow me the time in the day to run and be an activist.  And, in an echo of the Russian economist Chayanov’s domestic mode of production, now that my sons are adults I have more time to focus on matters beyond their immediate care.  Of course, if we had a society that valued and appreciated children and our fellow humans and other animals all of us would have the time to be like that figure in some as yet still future society describe by Karl Marx in the German Ideology: “where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

At the end of the day we must strike against the capitalist food industry by removing our audience power and organizing collectively through a social justice agenda to bring real equity, equality, and power to our communities.  This means we have to fight against the further expansion of free market principles everywhere and all the time! We must throw out the pretense that corporations have any right to exist; we must reject the notion that free choice allows capitalist enterprise the right to place the burden of their profits onto our own bodies.



[1] Smythe, D. W. (1994). “Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism”. In T. Guback (Ed.). Counterclockwise: Perspectives on communication. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 263–291. From Wikipedia entry on D.Smythe.