Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reductivist thinking: How to get into a world of trouble

"Yet it is precisely this kind of thinking--the belief that productivity can and should be measured in units of time and output--that led us to the current state of affairs that produces food for the masses in the most productive, inexpensive manner possible. When we set aside as unimportant a concern for quality, for relationships, for 'meaning' in our daily food and daily activities--values considered by some to be ridiculously silly and romantic--then there is no argument. Yes, when we set those values aside, there would be little reason to ever grow our own food. Let others do it faster, cheaper, and more efficiently."

--Tanya Denckla Cobb, Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat (Storey, 2011, p. 12)

I received my copy of Tanya Denckla Cobb's new book last night, and already this quote has been jittering around in my head, bumping up against other ideas that have taken root over several years, making connections.... I have no doubt that I will have lots more to say about this book, but I want to get a few ideas down and perhaps bring them together into a stew. A delicious, nutritious stew. Heh.

If the concepts of productivity and efficiency are the only values we espouse, what does that make us as people? Well, boring. But more than that, reductivist thinking like this robs us of the values that make life interesting, satisfying, meaningful, and worth getting up for. Even those with very little infuse their lives and days with the tiniest things and moments to create meaning beyond mere survival.

In a society that talks about numbers and efficiency as much as ours seems to, losing sight of ourselves as human beings with all our bumpy, inconvenient, irregular peculiarities is pretty easy to do. If you look at, for example, the business pages, you might imagine that our world were populated with digital symbol readers that only see value in the size of a number.

Mike (my husband, for those of you who don't know that already) and I have talked about this idea that many people have lost sight of the fact that money is a representation of something, a symbol, a cipher. It’s not value itself. It’s a symbol of work, of things that have value like food and clothing and art and medical instruments and so on. The intrinsic value of money is the value of the paper it’s printed on, no more than that (ok, so maybe some ink and labor costs rolled in there too). But that representation has in some monstrous way taken over many people's minds. Some talk incessantly about return on investment, not in terms of the actual value you got out of the investment, but in terms of numbers, of symbols. Replace the numbers with ampersands and hash marks and tildes, and you start to recognize the absurdity of what's going on.

When you become blind to the value that underlies money, all kinds of decisions that (I hope) go against the grain of our humanity suddenly make more sense. Snip the tails off pigs so they don’t get infections because they are in excessively crowded conditions and start biting each other? Sure! Let’s do it, we can reduce deadloss and maximize space by squeezing in more pigs. More pigs=more pork=more sales. (Oh, we'd better figure out a way to make people buy more pork. Let's get someone smart in marketing on that. Oh I know, how about a triple pork burger with bacon?) Poison field workers with toxins while we sterilize the soil and grow hard, insipid tomatoes? Well, let’s consider the gains: More efficiency? Check. Less spoilage? Check. What about damages to the workers? Oh well, they are migrants and illegals, they don’t have the money or the wherewithal to sue us, the cost of that is negligible. What about taste? Seriously? Who cares? Especially in the middle of winter; everyone expects to have all kinds of foods all the time now.

Reductivist thinking. It gets us into a lot of pickles. (Not literally, of course, who wants to be swimming with the pickles? Where did that phrase come from anyway?) Sorry, got off track there. I was talking about reductivist thinking. Reductivist thinking detaches the symbol of meaning from actual meaning, leaving a strange, hollow, and mutilated thing. If we see only the broken representation as reality (hey, anyone else getting shades of Plato's cave here?), value becomes increasingly hard to recognize without a dollar sign on it. It's sad, and I think it stunts us all (some more than others).

Reductivist thinking does other nasty things too. Like the persistent belief that factories can manufacture food better than the earth can. Really? Plants have been around, evolving, for about 450 million years, give or take a few years. And we think we can think replicate or even do better than something that's worked that long at making itself better? We think we can turn our food intake into a mathematical equation (x protein + y carbohydrate + z micronutrients = health), sure that more vitamin C or protein or selenium will solve our health problems. But what we need is balance. Balance is one of the hardest things to achieve in living. Going extreme is just another form of reductivism. An example of reductivist thinking is glaringly obvious in American politics. One side says, "Conservatives good!" and bangs their chests, and the other side says, "Liberals good!" and puts on a riproaring display of monkey power. Woo hoo. But they don't see each other. We don't see each other. (Believe me, I can be as ornery about my views as the next person.) We don't see all the stuff we share, all the values we have in common, because all we see are the symbols that we have clothed ourselves in. How did this state of affairs come to be? How did we lose sight of value and meaning and stop caring about these things? How did we forget to value what is real, and worship only the symbols? And above all, how do you change it? You have to learn to see past the symbol and re-learn how to recognize value.

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