Culture, like so many things that are so familiar they seem as if they are an organic thread in the fabric of existence is a relatively new concept. Culture itself has of course been around for eons. What is relatively new is our conceptualizations and various understandings of it, beginning first with the idea that there is such a thing as culture at all.
While theories about culture — ie, explanations and understandings of it — abound and are often in conflict, one thing is certain about it, culture is dynamic, it changes, sometimes slowly and in subtle ways, sometimes suddenly and dramatically.
For me culture is constitutive of identity. That is “I” am my culture. However, also for me, one’s identity is not constituted by a single culture — we are an amalgam of dominant and minor cultures that permeate us less in a hierarchical way than in the random and ever changing way that the little bits in a snow globe gyre and tumble around, only with identity, some of those bits are bigger than others.
One of our most hubristic notions about culture is that we can control it, we can change it, we can intentionally shape it and mold it. If we don’t like a culture, or our culture, we can simply reformulate that culture into something we do like. This was a particularly powerful idea in the 20th century, especially amongst the communists — eg, Mao Tse Tung’s cultural revolution, Che Guevara’s belief in the necessity of the intentional “birth” of Socialist Man, and though not necessarily communist, the belief in the 1960s that protest, song, and other arts could bring about revolutionary cultural change.There are plenty of other examples.
We believed, very strongly in some cases, in the possibility of manufacturing culture — the late 19th and early 20th c. “science” of eugenics was about culture, ie, through breeding, we could make what has come to be referred to as “the other” more like us.
As far as I am concerned, culture, if one will permit me the mistake of speaking in such a way, has always eluded us. And, if it doesn’t elude us, it surprises us. A revolution in culture sparks the spinning of the cultural wheels along a new path, but we suddenly find that while we supplied the spark to get the wheels spinning, culture — again, please forgive me — has a mind of its own, and begins to travel along paths we did not, could not, have imagined. Our best efforts become our worst nightmare as Woodstock is reborn, sponsored by Pepsi.
So, as I see it we in the local-regional farm and food systems movement are faced with a conundrum. About 1-2%, maybe 3% of total food sales can be considered local (various localities and regions have substantially higher rates). An honest assessment of such a statistic reveals a simple, though troubling, and for the hyperlocavore and ardent advocate, devastating truth — nobody is buying local, in spite of the fact that the movement is a media darling, and in spite of the fact that such behemoths as Wal-Mart are responding to it/to us.
Why is nobody buying local? Culture answers a great deal of that question, though of course it is not the whole answer. Since the Renaissance, our (western) culture has been on a seemingly inexorable path culminating (I hope it is at its culmination) in our 21st c. rampantly globalized consumerist individualism, that is to a very large degree shaped, molded, and made manifest by the alluring power of mass media.
The conundrum therefore is this: in addition to the necessity of making the tremendous infrastructural changes that we need to make, we need to make equally tremendous cultural changes, but how on earth do we do that when “history” shows us that even if we are able to start the wheels spinning culture veers out of our control?
Frankly, I am terrified of attempting to engineer culture, in the same way that I am terrified by our attempts to engineer genes. Take the culture of organic for example. The meteoric growth of organic sales over the past decade and a half has been driven not by the foundational culture of organic, but almost completely by the commodification and industrialization of organic production, processing, and distribution, something that the foundational organic culture was once inimical to. Today, I, along with millions of others, though not as many millions as we think (~3% market share), pull commodified, industrialized organic cereal off the shelf and drop it in our shopping carts with a sense of accomplishment. We are, to hit the point with a sledge hammer, potentially on the verge of organic high fructose corn syrup.
Regardless of the dangers, regardless of the 1) resistance of culture to intentionally wrought change and 2) the slipperiness of culture in the midst of change, one cannot deny that we have tremendous cultural work to do in order to expand the local-regional “market” from its piddly 1-3% to 30%, or even more. Without cultural changes, any infrastructural development we make will be lost on us.
- We need to change our culture of convenience into a culture that is satisfied with laborious, though not demanding, work.
- We need to change our culture of cheap into a culture that recognizes the multidimensional value and importance of well-made, well-produced food and other “stuff” that once again takes a much bigger chunk of our annual incomes.
- We need to change our culture of fast into a culture that is not just slower, but more evenly, more sustainably paced.
- We need to change our globalized culture into a culture that, to quote a bumper sticker, “Acts Local [Regional], Thinks Global.” The people of the world, especially when they are in trouble, matter, and we should care about them and help them and get to know them and live with them, but when it comes to our three a day, we need to live closer to home.
- We need to change our atomized family culture into a culture that binds families (and communities) together.
- We need to change our drive-thru culture into a culture that eats at home, together, around a table, sitting in chairs (with no texting allowed at the table!)
- We need to change our culture of hedonistic meat consumption to a culture of moderation.
- We need to change our culture of…
But, I pause as the conundrum rears its head, how?
I have one and only one answer, in two parts:
- We close our eyes and take the plunge and ignore the risks inherent in the hubris of manufacturing cultural change.
- Culture, at its “atomic” level, is linguistic, ie, we are constituted by culture in and through language, so, quite simply, we talk, and write, and yes, even sing, to each other, until we are blue in the face, and our hands are cramped.