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Constructing a New Food Ethics

Waste and Discourses of Difference

Tiffany Tsantsoulas, Robert Chiles, Stephen Rachman, Gretel Van Wieren, Renee Wallace Spring 2019

Abstract

This paper examines ways beyond the epistemic limits of our current public narratives of food ethics. We contend that a new food ethics paradigm must transcend the fraught history connecting food waste with discriminatory figurations of race, gender, and class in our social imaginaries in order to build opportunities for representation and agency in hitherto silenced marginalized communities. Thus, we suggest a new food ethics incorporate strategies adapted from standpoint epistemologies and intersectional feminism to construct a multivalent “bottom-up” approach to ethical narratives about food and food waste.

On March 3, 2016, a Whole Foods customer tweeted an image of a pre-peeled orange packaged for sale in a plastic container with the caption, “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.”(1) This tweet swiftly went viral as tens of thousands of users shared their outrage about wastefulness under the hashtag #orangegate. The image of a pre-peeled, packaged orange became a powerful metonym for upper middle class excess; it helped to solidify the association between expense, privilege, organic food, and faux-environmentalism already captured by popular imaginings of the Whole Foods brand and its customers.(2) The public pressure became so great that Whole Foods removed the item from its shelves.(3) 

At the same time, a small and overlooked contingent of people living with disabilities and disability advocates voiced an alternative take on the viral controversy. In a blog post on March 4, 2016 entitled “When Accessibility Gets Labeled Wasteful,” disability studies scholar Kim Sauder explained that pre-peeled and packaged fruits allow people with motor skills disabilities to eat fresh and healthy foods that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.(4) Her post echoed the Twitter replies and comments of others frustrated with how the #orangegate narrative erased accessibility from public conversations about food, waste, and ethical consumerism.

This controversy illustrates the need for a new public dialogue about food and food waste. It shows that the impulse to publicly condemn wastefulness can both emerge from a genuine ethical concern for the common good, in this case for the environment, and make discriminatory assumptions about whose needs count as matters of public import. We believe that a new food ethics paradigm must be responsive to the varied needs of marginalized peoples. Thus, public conversations about food ethics should present opportunities for representation and agency in marginalized communities. This is a matter of knowledge and action, or, put philosophically, of epistemology and ethics. A new public dialogue on food ethics and wastefulness will also need to transcend the fraught history connecting food waste with discriminatory discourses of race, gender, and class in our social imaginaries. To carry out both objectives, we suggest turning to the insights of standpoint theory and intersectionality to (1) overcome the current epistemic limits to our public narratives about food and waste, and (2) to construct more ethical narratives by creating opportunities for new storytellers and spectators.

1. Food, Waste, and our Social Imaginaries 

A new food ethics paradigm should encourage public discourse that conceptualizes problems and solutions by centering the complex needs of marginalized communities. This “bottom-up” approach is particularly necessary in order to contest our inherited social imaginaries that link garbage and food waste with discriminatory ideas about class, race, and gender. A social imaginary is a shared set of stories, images, figures, and symbols that express ideals and values informing our common sense of how society functions and ought to function.(5) In this section, we briefly trace the discriminatory associations woven through our current social imaginary around food waste.

Prior to postwar economic growth, households in the United States would routinely re-purpose goods after use. Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash explains that Americans of the prewar era reused food scraps or fed them to livestock and burned trash to heat their homes. By the early 1800s, peddlers and swill children would collect household refuse that could be recycled and reused for industrial processes.(6) After the Civil War, mass production and industrialization not only shifted the recycling business model to the reuse of industrial waste products,(7) but also resulted in growing urban spaces becoming Marxian metabolic rifts,(8) as it was far easier to continue repurposing goods in rural spaces, especially organic materials that could be absorbed into the consumptive cycles of agricultural life.

Yet, even as urban food waste and other garbage accumulated, it was not until the late 1880s and early-1890s that urban citizens’ dumping of trash in the streets began to be understood as a serious public health concern. Garbage brought with it maggots, rats, and odors, and, in response, cities began to take responsibility for public trash collection and disposal. Different disposal methods were pursued, including the use of cheap immigrant labor to sort out reusable materials. Enduring conceptual associations between food waste, odor, and poor or immigrant labor began to form. Increasingly, these laborers were themselves viewed as urban “pests” who came to “represent decay, contamination, and a challenge to order.”(9) 

By contrast, mass production and the consumer economy reduced the need for middle-and upper-class households to reuse and repurpose their waste, while product-marketing campaigns encouraged people to keep buying new and convenient items. The resulting buildup of trash led Progressive Era reformers to push for urban sanitation measures—municipal garbage collection, sewage systems, etc.—catalyzed by urban planning and public health discourses. In a prime example of the need to imagine ethical solutions to problems from the multiple perspectives of marginalized communities, this time period saw the urban and immigrant poor both helped and hurt by these reforms. Public health measures improved sanitation, but jobs for poor immigrants as unskilled street trash collectors and sorters diminished. Unfortunately, the conceptual associations between the poor and urban contamination remained long past the lost employment opportunities.

At the same time as Progressive Era reformers pushed for changes in urban sanitation methods, racial and gender discourses were increasingly focused on protecting the purity of the white American family. Eugenics discourses in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries helped introduce “a cultural paranoia over defective germ-plasm” that shaped long-lasting national obsessions with “the strength of a (white) American future” cleansed of these contaminates.(10) This cultural obsession affected new immigrants and people of color, as well as low-income white families. Chuck Jackson summarizes it this way:

Early-twentieth-century uneasiness about lower-class whites overpopulating the nation led to a panicked organization of public and private research which could eugenically chart lines of white families. Eugenic reports on white rural poor—including maps, tables, diagrams, and their analyses—advanced an ideology of wasteful or weak human stock; the cultural moment of American eugenics both influenced and was influenced by a common-sense racial logic which associated ‘whiteness’ with the clean and the good, the pure and the pleasing.(11)

The ideology of American eugenics, where whiteness is the peak of purity and goodness, required that white genes be conceptually purified of any and all lasting associations with poor and/or non-white communities. Hence the post-Reconstruction renewed support for miscegenation laws, legal segregation, and, concurrently, the emergence of the conceptual precursors to our modern term white trash to signify those whites who must be literally cleansed out of the concept of whiteness.

In short, the continued influence of racist ideology on popular understandings of waste can be traced back to this legacy of eugenics and white imperialism. As Lauren Corman explains, “Racists often appropriate the figure of the pest in an attempt to legitimate their attitudes by grounding their rhetoric within the natural world. […] One has to look no further than the racial slur, ‘coon,’ or its variant ‘dirty coon.’”(12) Thus we see how the racist and classist logics underlying the marginalization of people of color, and to a lesser extent the white poor, figure both populations as dangerous and wasteful for the health and success of the (white, wealthy) American family.

Likewise, nineteenth- and twentieth-century discourses on white femininity praised domesticity, cleanliness, and sanitation and were circulated by cookbooks, nutritionists, home economists, and popular literature (e.g., Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s). Eugenics discourses placed the imposition of carrying the pure and clean future of America on middle and upper class white women, while simultaneously demonizing the classed and racial Other for reproducing.(13) Currently, women remain most commonly in control of the family’s domestic management, including their food and waste habits, and it is still common to publicly appeal to (and blame) mothers as responsible for ethical interventions on the health of our bodies and environments.

Today, the conceptual outlines drafted in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries have solidified in our social imaginaries. For those with the means, waste management is out of sight and out of mind, and thus it is increasingly the burden of the racialized global urban poor to bear the literal and conceptual weight of our overdeveloped and wasteful society. As observed by Strasser, “Above all, sorting is an issue of class: trashmaking both underscores and creates social differences based on economic status. … The wealthy can afford to be wasteful.”(14) The wealthy also have the privilege to be cleansed of any lingering conceptual association with waste and garbage. Negative imagery attending trash—mess, dirt, smells, pests—are still associated with poverty-stricken, immigrant, and marginalized communities, even as it is clear that the affluent produce far more waste. Moreover, as Corman explains, these associations can combine with other discriminatory discourses to produce powerful stereotypes and images linking the marginalized with risks to the public good:

Discourses related to pests, vermin, and dirt potently combine with others about social delinquency, race, and class. Adjacently, maintenance of urban civility and garbage containment is threatened by the physical and symbolic disruption of trash. …

Not only do trash and garbage have their own negative (human) cultural connotations, but dumpsters and the people—so-called ‘trash pickers’—who frequent them also carry their own stigmas. These layered aspects combine to connote criminality, or at minimum, desperation.(15)

These harmful conceptual associations form part of the social imaginary shaping the narratives and figures populating public discourse about food and food waste ethics.

Ironically, there is reason to see hope in the example of #orangegate. In swiftly and publically condemning excessive wastefulness on the part of the imagined white, wealthy Whole Foods shopper, Internet crusaders voiced their desire to hold the privileged accountable for their own waste. While this might suggest a disruption of the inherited conceptual association between waste and marginalized communities, which is sustained, in part, by concealing the waste the wealthy produce, the question nonetheless remains as to how far we can extrapolate from an instance of corporate shortsightedness to a model of ethical reasoning that accounts for long-standing conceptual blind spots. Hence, the next section considers strategies from standpoint epistemologies and intersectional feminism to help construct a “bottom-up” approach to ethical narratives about food and food waste, an approach capable of centering multiple and complex marginalized needs.

2. Standpoint Epistemologies and Intersectional Feminism

Standpoint theory provides a different epistemological frame for conceiving ethical problems than traditional (scientistic) objectivity. Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock, Donna Haraway, Patricia Hill Collins, and others critique and destabilize what we traditionally consider an objective and authoritative epistemic standpoint. Traditionally, an objective epistemic standpoint is defined as abstract, theoretical, and emotionally detached. In practice, this definition operates in service of producing and maintaining exclusionary access to epistemic authority for those deemed predisposed (by the same system of knowledge-production) toward objectivity of this kind, i.e. white, male, Western subjects. This results in the marginalization of other thinkers excluded by definition from claims to epistemic authority, not by their efforts but by their positions within race, gender, and class-based socio-cultural hierarchies. Think, for example, of the still prevalent idea that women are too emotional to be authoritatively objective as decision-makers. Approaching an ethical problem from this epistemic perspective often foregrounds and universalizes the needs of the already privileged because of their assumed position as authoritative knowers uniquely capable of seeing a problem objectively and without “special” interests. This leads to occlusions, like in our #orangegate example, wherein the presumed universal approval of a given solution causes harm to marginalized subjects unrepresented by the ethical narratives employed by the authoritative epistemic agents.

Standpoint theorists make two critical interjections into our traditional ideas about epistemic authority that can help us construct a new food ethics today. First, they insist on the situatedness of knowing. Denying strong claims to objectivity, the imposition of situated knowing contends that no one is capable of erasing their socio-cultural identity—as, for example, white, male, European, middle class, able-bodied—or of denying the specificity of their embodied personal life and history, and its attendant affects, attitudes, interests, and worldviews.(16) This interjection dismantles pretensions to universal authority embedded within the traditional concept of epistemic objectivity. Second, standpoint theorists reveal possibilities for developing more ethical and inclusive knowledge-making practices. Instead of hubristic claims to objective and universal knowledge, standpoint epistemology claims particular, situated, socially-located standpoints(17) as multiple grounds for a new concept of authoritative knowledge-production. Standpoint theorists often emphasize the situated positions of systemically marginalized thinkers as those especially capable of producing more authoritative knowledge about our world, its power relations, and systems of oppression. This emphasis responds directly to the occlusion of these marginalized voices, and is particularly important when considering who has the authority to make claims within ethical dilemmas.

When the public expressed outrage at the pre-packaged oranges causing Whole Foods to “do the right thing” and pull them from its shelves, the framing of this food ethics dilemma, however inadvertently, silenced the voices of disabled persons and advocates and excluded them from the public to whom Whole Foods was ethically responsive. This occlusion is unsurprising. Patricia Hill Collins notes that while an “oppressed group’s experiences may put its members in a position to see things differently, … their lack of control over the ideological apparatuses of society makes expressing a self-defined standpoint more difficult.”(18) In other words, the fact that the standpoint of disabled persons lacked public epistemic authority and was easily erased or ignored is a symptom of structural inequities in epistemic privilege; some people are not treated as important knowers. This failure to hear is not necessarily willful or active, but the end result is the same: the ethical solution proposed in the name of the public pushes an already marginalized community to the sidelines. Thinking with standpoint theory’s two critical interjections above, a new ethics of food would both underscore the need for multiple standpoints and take special care to think with and within the standpoints of the already marginalized to produce situated and more inclusively responsive articulations of food ethics problems and solutions.

While standpoint theory rewrites our epistemic assumptions, intersectionality reshapes our approach to evaluating ethical benefits and harms. Intersectionality as a concept emerged from the need to represent the unique harms suffered by Black women in the United States in a legal system that reduced their position to either that of women or that of African Americans, thus erasing the distinctiveness of the Black woman’s particular position in society.(19) Its basic premise is that different axes of oppression like race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability intersect with one another to form a collision site of potential harms that cannot be easily separated or simply added together. An intersectional approach considers a subject as an entanglement of identities that may lead to particularized oppressions and harms. Instances of “intersectional subordination,” Crenshaw states, “need not be intentionally produced; in fact, it is frequently the consequence of the imposition of one burden that interacts with preexisting vulnerabilities to create yet another dimension of disempowerment.”(20) Adopting an intersectional lens to view ethical problems is not meant to victimize the subjects of harm or to place blame on other actors for directly causing their vulnerabilities. It is designed to draw attention to the preexisting power relations within which we encounter ethical dilemmas and to guard against condoning solutions that exasperate harms and vulnerabilities. To return to our example, it would be unreasonable to conclude that either Whole Foods or those who insisted that they remove the packaged oranges from their shelves did so to intentionally harm or inconvenience persons with disabilities by denying them access to healthy fruit. Yet, this was nonetheless an outcome of their actions.

From intersectional theories of harm we can learn to be critical of solutions to problems that position marginalized persons to absorb more harm by introducing a burden (the need to peel an orange) that may seem harmless or indeed beneficial (no plastic container is better for the environment), and yet that intersects with preexisting vulnerabilities (the inability to peel fruit on one’s own) to create more harm for an already marginalized community. Simply put, if an ethical solution is not accessible to the poor, the disabled, the overworked, the unemployed, the immigrant, the illiterate, and so on, then that solution is not maximally ethical. An intersectional lens forces a more complicated narrative about food ethics where, for example, considerations of environmentalism and class could not be easily isolated from those of ability and race.

3. Conclusion

We began this paper calling for new storytellers and new spectators for the ethical narratives we tell about food waste, and we pointed to lessons from intersectional and standpoint theorists for devising ethical solutions today. After briefly tracing how narratives about waste are implicated in fraught conceptual histories of race, gender, and class, we can see that a new ethics of food and food waste cannot afford to be blind to these discourses of difference. While we have only presented a small sample, these historical studies and conceptual genealogies bring into relief how discourses of food waste are essentially moral discourses. They connect with our national identities, our ideas about progress and success, and our worries about contamination and degeneration. Against this background, a new food ethics must (1) overcome the current epistemic limits to our public narratives about food and waste, and (2) construct more ethical narratives by creating opportunities for new storytellers and spectators. As standpoint epistemology observes, we must divest ourselves of claims to objectivity while including more situated voices in our analyses to guard against doing further harm. As we include these voices, intersectional feminism warns, we must proactively attend to the intersectionality of their identities and the differential risks and harms associated with already-marginalized positions in society. It is our hope that these strategies and the conceptual genealogies they respond to become part of a new social imaginary informing the public discourse about food ethics and waste.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Federal Appropriations under Project PEN04437 and accession number 1012188.

Bibliography

BBC News. “Plastic-Wrapped Mandarins Withdrawn by Whole Foods.” BBCNews: Business, 4 March 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-35727935.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Corman, Lauren. “Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban ‘Trash.’” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 28-61.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-99.

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House, 1981.

Garber, Megan. “Would You Buy a Pre-Peeled Orange? On Whole Foods, Convenience Products, and the Outrage Culture that Just United Them.” The Atlantic, 4 March 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/would-you-buy-a-pre-peeled-orange/472329/.

Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™. New York: Routledge, 1997.

———. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 575-99.

hooks, bell. From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Jackson, Chuck. “Waste and Whiteness: Zora Neale Hurston and the Politics of Eugenics.” African American Review 34, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 639-60.

Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume III. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin, 1981.

McWhorter, Ladelle. Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Sauder, Kim. “Oranges, Access, Opposition and ‘Yes, but…’” crippledscholar, 9 March 2016, https://crippledscholar.com/2016/03/09/oranges-access-opposition-and-yes-but/.    

———. “When Accessibility Gets Labeled Wasteful.” crippledscholar, 4 March 2016, https://crippledscholar.com/2016/03/04/when-accessibility-gets-labeled-wasteful/.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

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Footnotes

  1. Megan Garber, “Would You Buy a Pre-Peeled Orange? On Whole Foods, Convenience Products, and the Outrage Culture that Just United them,” The Atlantic, 4 March 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/would-you-buy-a-pre-peeled-orange/472329/. 
  2. This association plays into the false dichotomy between Agrarian and Industrial food ethics, which we explore in our essay “Getting Wasted: Going Beyond ‘Agrarian vs. Industrial,’ and Moving Towards a New Food Ethics,” https://publications.publicphilosophyjournal.org/record/?issue=6-18-224799&kid=6-15-224803. 
  3. BBC News, “Plastic-Wrapped Mandarins Withdrawn by Whole Foods,” BBCNews: Business, 4 March 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-35727935.
  4. Kim Sauder, “When Accessibility Gets Labeled Wasteful,” crippledscholar, 4 March 2016, https://crippledscholar.com/2016/03/04/when-accessibility-gets-labeled-wasteful/. See also her follow up post, published a week later, “Oranges, Access, Opposition, and ‘Yes, but…’” crippledscholar, 9 March 2016, https://publications.publicphilosophyjournal.org/record/?issue=6-18-224799&kid=6-15-224803.
  5. On the idea that social imaginaries contain values, norms, and views of moral order, see Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke UP, 2004).
  6. Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Owl Books, 1999).
  7. According to Strasser, “By the end of the century, this two-way trade had given way to specialized wholesalers and waste dealers - a separate, highly organized trade built on a foundation of industrial waste, supplemented by scraps collected from scavenging children and the poorest of the poor.” Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Owl Books, 1999), 109.
  8. The term “metabolic rift” is a short-hand reference to a longer phrase from Marx’s Capital wherein he explains that the urban conditions of capitalism produce an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” Karl Marx, Capital: Volume III, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1981), 949.
  9. Lauren Corman, “Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban ‘Trash,’” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 42.
  10. Chuck Jackson, “Waste and Whiteness: Zora Neale Hurston and the Politics of Eugenics,” African American Review 34, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 642.
  11. Chuck Jackson, “Waste and Whiteness: Zora Neale Hurston and the Politics of Eugenics,” African American Review 34, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 642.
  12. Lauren Corman, “Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban ‘Trash,’” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 40.
  13. For detailed studies of these intersections, see Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM (New York: Routledge, 1997); Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Random House, 1981); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000); Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009); and Ann Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire (Durham: Duke UP, 1995).
  14. Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Owl Books, 1999), 8-9.
  15. Lauren Corman, “Getting Their Hands Dirty: Raccoons, Freegans, and Urban ‘Trash,’” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 28, 36.
  16. To deny this is what Donna Haraway calls the “god trick,” wherein knowers assume to see from everywhere and nowhere, erasing their own particular embodied situatedness. As the name suggests, Haraway argues that human beings are not capable of assuming this divine perspective. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988), 575-99.
  17. Contrary to common misunderstandings, it is important to recognize that standpoints are not naturalized or essentialized but are achievements. In other words, one does not receive a marginalized epistemic standpoint at birth, one must first work to reflect critically on the relations of power informing their subject position. For instance, oppressed or marginalized persons might work to inhabit an “outsider within” perspective that offers uniquely valuable insight on problems. Patricia Hill Collins gives the example of Black female domestic workers who lived with and cared for White families, yet were never properly part of the family. Some of these women critically reflected on their situations, wrote about them, or allowed Black feminist intellectuals to take up their stories, which afforded them or those theorists a position from which to produce distinctive analyses of the domestic situation. “Learning From the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Social Problems, 33, no. 6. (Oct.–Dec. 1986), S14-S32. Likewise, bell hooks describes working to inhabit a similar position in the academy as a Black woman philosopher educated in the Ivy League. From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984).
  18. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000), 39.
  19. Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241-99.
  20. Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (July 1991): 1249.

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