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How we learn what matters


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When Aaron Newton and I conceived _A Nation of Farmers_ we began each chapter with a framing image from World War political posters about food, energy and gardening. We wanted to bring home the point I make in writing in _Depletion and Abundance_ - that at critical moments in our history, including times of war or great economic strain - ordinary daily acts are transferred from the private sphere into the public one. That is, the act of eating, or buying clothing, or travelling from one place to another becomes not a "personal choice" but part of one's basic participation in civil society, and heavily freighted with the good of society. Doing things like shifting one's diet to eat more potatoes becomes an act of patritiotism - wasting food or buying on black markets becomes a shameful act.

In fact, there's nothing magical or special about a difficult period in history that makes how far you drive or what you eat a question with deep implications for civil society as a whole. In fact, those "personal acts" *always* have profound implications for our society. That is, it isn't that during wartime, when supplies are constrained, that it suddenly matters what you do. It is only that during wartime those connections between ordinary acts and social goods are made explicit.

What's really interesting about this is that during wartime and times of other crisis, both governments and corporate industry work very hard to make explicit the connections between millions of individual acts - propaganda posters, in modern time television and web ads all make clear what the ties between how we live our daily lives and how the great events that surround us occur. Consider this:

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But immediately after wartime, government and industry come together to send the general public the opposite message - your ordinary, daily acts are private, they are separate from the civil sphere, and they are fundamentally not political, nor should they be subject to scrutiny - that is, all the things that were true about these acts - that they were public, political, integral and required deep consideration - are magically no longer true now that the crisis is over.

The explanation of this is very simple - economic growth depends heavily on the idea that our consumer choices are not recognized as having political implications. Our entire post-WWII economy depended heavily on the idea that it didn't matter whether you moved to one of the new suburbs and drove more, whether you left the city and the old neighborhood behind, whether you put up your own food or bought the new "better than homemade" stuff from Campbells - how you spent your money was your business.

Well, except that it wasn't - it was everyone's business. The government was in the business of reassuring that stability and affluence were everyone's birthright, because people who feel stable and affluent spend more, and consumer spending was a growing part of the economy (it is now 70%). Businesses of course had a deeply public and political desire to get you to spend their money in particular ways - but all of this was functionally served by the almost invisible recategorization of ordinary acts into the territory of the private.

In doing so, both government and industry played brilliantly and subtly the ways we associate women and men with certain acts. "Women's work" has usually in western society been place in the category of the private, and thus rendered (falsely, of course, but I assume that's obvious) insignificant. In the World Wars, when women took men's places in the factories and on the farm, that work was also brought into the light - in fact, a large part of the process of articulating the importance of these daily acts was the shifting of women's work into the world of the essential:

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One of my central projects for years has been an attempt to critique the automatic acceptance almost everyone has of the standard political/personal categories. They function as ideology (and I mean this is the true and negative sense of the word), and because the fact that these things did once matter is concealed and erased into history, we have largely accepted the idea that it does not matter what you do.

Of course, that idea is false - and it has been challenged any number of times. We have only to look at the statistics on environmental degradation to see how the post-War rise in personal energy consumption, loss of connection to food systems and rise in consumerism have mattered very much indeed. Our present crisis - and the fact that we are unable to extricate ourselves from it, because our economy depends so profoundly on us not knowing that our daily acts matter - is a logical result of the erasure of urgency that we felt during times of crisis.

We see the effects of this message on a culture at large - the rise in energy use didn't just emerge from a people newly convinced of the fact that shopping was patriotic - it also arose from people who had imbued with their formula or breastmilk the basic message that there is no reason to go back to turn off a light, no reason to save for a rainy day, no reason to inconvenience oneself by sharing a ride. The idea that such acts are meaningless has penetrated the culture until it renders the times in which such acts are pregnant with meaning distant, absent, far away and never to recur. And yet, they do recur - over and over again in our history.

Even now, environmentalists work enormously hard to maintain the artificial distinction between public and private, between acts that "matter" and those that don't - they insist that we can address our public sphere crisis without actually requiring anything in particular from the private sphere - that all regulation can be placed upon industry, that we can continue consuming and acting as unconsciously as we have been. It is, of course, true that it makes no difference whether you drive five miles or ten. But what our propaganda history makes evident is that it may not make much difference whether *you* do - but it makes a huge difference whether millions do, and we take our cues, and underlying assumptions in large part from one another. It should not be intellectually surprising to observe that it makes a huge difference whether all the "yous" or even a large percentage of them walk or drive or turn out the lights or buy from farmers or Campbells. And yet it is surprising, and this is testimony to the fact that propaganda is enormously effective - so effective it can teach a generation of people who knew that what mattered that they were wrong- and erase that history for their children and grandchildren.

All of which is why I think that this new exhibit from the National Agricultural Library is fascinating, because it reminds us of the complicated ways in which food has been constituted, and in giving us between-wars context, it raises our awareness of the ways in which our sense of what food is to us, and what other related daily acts are to us - are always being reconstituted by ideology.

Someone once asked me why it was that Aaron and I were comfortable using world war government and industry propaganda posters to articulate the scale of the problem we face, and connect it back to other situations we've been in. The reason it doesn't bother me to be using agit-prop is simple - presuming that once upon a time we had propaganda, as part of the wars, and it went away is wrong. Instead, we are always being sold agit-prop - all of it very, very effective. Its deep effectiveness can be seen, in part in the ways that it erases all consciousness of itself - we do not realize we have persuaded of a worldview in our public-private distinctions, until we see disparate worldviews being offered by the same basic agencies.

But when we do, we can ask ourselves whether the worldview we've been sold is one that serves us? It certainly seemed to for decades - the public/private distinction served economic growth, served expansionism, and it served a whole number of other things, some of which were good and some of which were not. But it does not serve us now if it ever did - not as the consequences of the erasure of our private acts come back to meet us.

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