Friday, November 24, 2006

Go Shopping!

In honour of Buy Nothing Day (I'm leaving for the mall in a moment), there's an interesting interview with Andrew Potter, co-author of The Rebel Sell over at Torontoist.

I very much enjoyed reading The Rebel Sell, but since I've never had any sort of problem with consumerism, I didn't really need to be convinced that culture jamming doesn't work. But it's always fun to read about the hypocrisy in supposedly progressive movements.

... you respond to your critics regarding your argument against organic food. And while these issues might be trendy (or “cool”) in some ways, is it not better that people are somewhat aware and thinking critically about things?

No, I don’t think so. That’s not to say that I don’t think there’s anything worthwhile about various forms of ethical consumption. Joe and I both think that ethical consumption is a good thing. If you want to buy a [Toyota] Prius to save the environment, go for it. If you only want to invest in [particular] stocks- no military, no tobacco and that sort of thing- excellent. There’s all kinds of great things you can do. They’ll be minimally useful, but there’s nothing wrong with them.

There are a number of things where people say, “Well, isn’t it at least sort of good that we’re doing this?” Organic food is one of them. It’s not a good thing to do if what you have is a form of status competition masquerading as ethical consumption. And I think it’s fairly obvious that’s what’s going on with organic food. A lot of people disagree. I think that the best way to see this is to look at how advocates of organic food behave. And very recently Walmart announced that they were going to move in a big way into the organic food business. And if you genuinely believed that organic food was a good thing and that the more people who bought it the better, then you should’ve greeted Walmart’s announcement with unalloyed glee. Here was the major evil retailer in the world conceding that there was a mass market for this- it would be like the Canadian Pension Plan announcing it would only invest in ethical mutual funds. This is a major coup. Except that’s not how the organic food people reacted- they reacted with hostility. And the reason is because suddenly the masses have access to some ethical thing that had been a status good. So what they said was, ‘Walmart isn’t selling ‘real organic’, because the organic food they’re getting is going to be manufactured for use by industrial organic farming.’ [Now there’s] a battle between the organic movement and the local movement. The local people are saying, ‘The true spirit of organic food is found in the local movement. It’s not just only the inputs that matter, it’s where it’s made that matters.’

What you’re seeing here is a bald-faced moving of the goal posts. In the same way people moved the goal posts in music or in cool clothes or sneakers- a way of getting away from the masses. It’s a classic Rebel Sell moment. To me, the reaction of the organic food supporters on this has been disgraceful. In a way that has shown the entire world that their favourite organic food was entirely a function of the status it accorded them and not the benefits it has for the world.
I actively avoid organic foods, 'cos it doesn't seem like a very practical way to feed the over six billion people on Earth and I like the way chemical pesticides make me glow in the dark . Every once in a while I'll run into someone who claims I'm not a "real" vegetarian because of this. The trick is to ask them why they feel only the wealthy should be able to afford to eat, and then sneak away when they start their tirade against "the system".

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