This post germinated in my mind as I walked home from SoLVe’s screening of Food Inc last night. The SoLVe team did a great job. After the movie, Vernon Tava (Co-Editor of The Solution and past SoLVe President) facilitated a discussion between the 50-70 students present, with two lecturers – Peter Sankoff and Mohsen Al-Attar – present as expert commentators.
One of the most resounding and repeated themes was: What do we do now? Naturally, I think we should go vegan – that’s a given. But more fundamentally we should think more about what we eat – and what we consume in other ways. When we come to food, we are all consumers. To claim that is a tautology: We consume food.
Mohsen presented a juxtaposition between the self as consumer and the self as citizen. I want to make five simple observations.
1. We are all consumers.
You consume. You buy things. Everyone in New Zealand, or any Western nation, is a consumer – unless they are entirely cut off from the market and economy. We cannot sensibly stop consuming, but can reasonably and easily alter what we consume.
Market economies are based on the interplay between supply and demand. In the case of food, a shrinking pool of companies is the supply – but all of us, collectively, are the demand.
You are a consumer.
2. No one is just a consumer.
You cannot reduce a human’s identity to what he or she buys. Humanity is more than consumption. Humans are wonderfully complex, emotional, intellectual, creative creatures. We live, we learn, we love. We experience loss – and not just of bought, material goods. We gain pleasure from experiences – not from purchases.
And, in New Zealand and other liberal democracies, we have a distinct bundle of rights. We are citizens of a democratic state. We have an economic voice, and a political voice. We can lobby government, and more directly can influence our friends and acquaintances. We can vote with our wallets, and with our voting papers.
You are a consumer, but that is only one very small part of you. You are a citizen.
3. We all have choices about our consumption.
When you go to the supermarket, you choose what you spend your money on. Your choice is, of course, conditioned by your upbringing, by your habits, and – sadly, perhaps? – by the marketing and advertising you are exposed to. But your choice is still there. It is controlled and limited by how much or how little money you have. In our economy, more money means more choice (means more economic power).
However, we can all consume differently. Maybe we cannot afford ethically, locally, sustainably, organically-grown food exclusively. But we can choose what products we buy within our economic limits.
Simply, no one chooses what you put in your mouth but you. You have choice.
4. Better education equals better choices.
When you act in the market, as a consumer, you have imperfect information. You never know everything about the products that you buy. However, the more you know about the products you buy, the better your choice will be. Have you ever bought something on the spur of the moment, then regretted it when you realised that it was over-priced? A little research would have avoided that.
I never read food labels, until I went vegan. Then, suddenly, I had to become more informed about what I ate. Simply buy being more mindful and more educated, I ate cheaper, ate healthier, and – yes – more sustainably. Even putting aside issues of animal rights and animal welfare, my change in diet caused me to learn more – so consequently to make better choices.
Part of being a citizen is being actively engaged with civil and political society. As citizens, we have some ability to control our societies. We can take civic action, as individuals and collectives. A more informed citizenry will make better political choices.
When you make a choice, you act on your education.
5. Choices are not morally neutral – for consumers and for citizens.
And this is what it comes down to: Your choices have consequences and effects, whether they are choices in the market or civil society. The choices you make are not ethically neutral. If you buy product (A), you may create suffering in the form of hurt to animals, humans, and/or ecosystems. If you buy product (B), you may cause less harm.
I’m reducing this down to a simple utilitarian picture of morality – but the point remains under any moral framework. You can, in a small way, cause suffering, or you can cause satisfaction. Your choices affect others, not just yourself.
And it doesn’t matter whether a choice is in the market or civil society. Both choices have ethical dimensions. There isn’t a dilemma where you must do one, or the other.
You can do both. It’s not about being the CEO or the farmer. It’s about being a citizen who, by choice or necessity, is part of the market and about doing both mindfully and sensibly.