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The Need for Holisim in Sustainability

I recently came across a very nicely written paper titled “Food Connects Us All: Sustainable food in Southern Ontario.” I’m posting the link here for anyone looking for a good summary of the local food situation in Ontario. Most of what is written is likely applicable to other regions in Canada and the US as well.

Early on in the document, the author notes that “A 100-mile meal is an enjoyable diversion, a 100-mile diet is a full-time job.” I have to say it’s nice to have this acknowledged. I am so used to eating locally that I don’t really think about it much anymore. But it continues to be a fair amount of work and planning to do so. And now that the ground is frozen and the snow is here to stay, I am getting ready for yet another winter of sprouting potatoes, sauerkraut, and animal products. At least I have a pantry full of canned items that should make this winter a bit more enjoyable than last.

Here are two interconnected points that I find very interesting and important. First, “Food is connected to every major problem we face as a society – rising medical costs, poverty and hunger, declining farm incomes, the paving-over of farmland, wildlife protection, urban sprawl, youth unemployment, and communities at risk.” This is one of the major reasons I study food: I am using food as a lens through which to examine greater social phenomena. In other words, I am studying social theory through examining food (which is why I don’t find the effectiveness of lobbying tactics all that interesting). We all need to eat, several times a day in fact. So it shouldn’t be surprising that food is at least linked, if not at the foundation, of most major social phenomena.

Nevertheless, as the author points out, we continue to examine the problem in an atomistic manner. “Provincial politics have become increasingly stuck in a frustrating gridlock. We have separate ministries for agriculture, health, economic development, community development, and the environment, as well as a multiplicity of nongovernmental organizations, each focused on a single piece of the problem. We are at risk of missing many of the potential connections and the benefits they could generate.”

Looking at each ‘symptom’ separately, rather than taking a holistic overview, is very much the modern way of thinking, the product of Cartesian rationality. We look at sickness the same way, considering each symptoms in isolation, when in reality the body is full interconnected and the symptoms it exhibits are all linked to a common internal imbalance. Until we start to examine our food system from this approach, that is, until we change our ontological standpoint – which means looking at society holistically – we’re not going to make any progress towards change. For it is this atomistic ideology that led us here in the first place.

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