Politics & Policy

Gaiam Somebody!

The ethos and 'ethnicity' of Fresh Fields.

Editor’s Note: What follows is the article I wrote for National Review OnDeadTree about Fresh Fields. The reasons we are substituting this article for a regular column are threefold: first, I’m stuck taking care of the dog all by myself and he keeps bringing me his slobbery dog toys, which can be very distracting. Second, many readers were very helpful with suggestions about Fresh Fields and I thought they might want to see the article. And, third, I’m going to try to write a response to all of this silliness between me and the paleo-libertoid gang at LewRockwell.com. But, I didn’t want to do it in my regular column because only a fraction of my readers seem to care about this spat, and I am a slave to the marketplace.

However, if you do want to follow the snarking barking you can come back this afternoon and check out my response. Also, you might want to see the rejoinder to my column from Harry Browne, the former Libertarian Candidate for president, on NRO this morning.

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” So sayeth the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy.

At least that’s what it says on my new roll of Seventh Generation® brand toilet paper. Seventh Generation produces “affordable, high quality, safe and environmentally responsible” toilet tissue that helps “keep you, your home and our planet healthy.” But fear not! Seventh Generation also promises to “get the job done” — truly a matter of common interest to corporate profiteers and Gaia worshipers alike

. Seventh Generation t.p. can be found at your nearest Fresh Fields Whole Foods Market, America’s largest (and fastest growing) retailer of organic, health, and just plain odd foods and other products.

Most critics, notably David Brooks in his trailblazing Bobos in Paradise, see Fresh Fields as a hotbed of Green conspicuous consumption. But when I visited the new Logan Circle Fresh Fields in Washington, D.C., it occurred to me that this phenomenon might involve more than self-conscious liberal posturing and status-seeking: There is a possibility (admittedly bizarre) that the marketers and the consumers alike genuinely believe in this stuff.

The store itself is cleaner than a hospital and better lit than Warren Beatty’s forehead. The staff is chipper and helpful. The produce is stacked so delicately you fear the manager will commit seppuku if you jostle the improbable rhomboid stacks of unrecognizable fruits. There are endless bins, bags, and cans of bulk cereals and grains that resemble kitty litter in both taste and touch. Indeed, whole aisles of foodstuffs seem dedicated to the imperatives of bathroom regularity — which may be why Seventh Generation is so forthright in its guarantee of getting the job done.

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of the important 19th-century treatise on dining, The Physiology of Taste, famously quipped, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Food is a key element of ethnic experience. The consumption of Jewish food, for example, is more than a matter of nutrition or even the observance of religious dietary laws; it is deeply connected to the historical roots and aspirations of the Jewish people.

Consider, then, my box of “Annie’s Homegrown Peace Pasta and Parmesan, Totally Natural Macaroni & Cheese.” Much of the package celebrates the U.N.’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” complete with a nice quote from Kofi Annan: “Human Rights are your rights. Seize them…. Promote them…. Nourish and enrich them. They are the best in us. Give them life.” This appeal to universal humanity often gets a little nebulous, as it converts the entire experience of mankind into a cultural grab bag from which we can pull Chinese aphorisms, Sufi catchphrases, Iroquois legalisms, Greek myths, or anything else that helps ground the human race in a heritage of eco-friendliness. But the clear overall effect is to hammer home the impression that all human beings have a single common Green heritage of which we can be proud.

“Gaiam” is typical. This company — its name is a fusion of the words “Gaia” and “I am” — helps distribute numerous whole-foods-related products. Gaiam has a huge display in the front of the store, complete with an Orwellian flat-panel TV screen displaying practitioners of yoga, tai chi, and so forth. Gaiam’s literature explains that “Gaia, mother Earth, was honored on the Isle of Crete in ancient Greece 4,000 years ago…. The concept of Gaia stems from the ancient philosophy that the Earth is a living entity. At Gaiam, we believe that all of the Earth’s living matter…can be seen as a single entity…. By nurturing, protecting and respecting our planet, its natural resources and its inhabitants, we enrich our own lives and those of future generations.”

This is not so much ancestor worship as descendant worship, and guilt — that great binding agent — is the chief ingredient. Take my box of EnviroKidz Organic Gorilla Munch (also available: Organic Orangutan-O’s and Organic Koala Crisps). On the back of the package, children are warned that gorillas are being ethnically cleansed and that “the most serious threat to free-living gorillas is the explosion of our human population.” Because of logging and agriculture, “Gorillas simply have no place left to go.”

But there’s no need to cry into your cereal, little Moonbeam, because “EnviroKidz chooz [sic] organic food. Organic agriculture respects the land and the wild creatures who live on it.” It concludes: “So if you want the kind of planet where bio-diversity is protected and human beings tread more softly upon the Earth, then chooz certified organic cereals from EnviroKidz. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the food we ate was certified organic?”

Forget, for a moment, that a worldwide switch to organic farming would doom almost all endangered animals and Enviropeoplz alike: The health and environmental benefits claimed for organic foods are debunked by science every day. Who cares? This food is all about faith, pride, and wishful thinking. What distinguishes Fresh Fields is not the fact that all of the murdered cows, pigs, and chickens at its meat counter lived freely as “vegetarians,” as the butcher explained to me, but that its customers do, in fact, care.

Why? I suspect it has to do with the fact that Americans — contrary to numerous predictions — have been moving away from rigid ethnic identities. This has fostered a new quest for post-ethnic identity. People of more rightish or traditional bents can take pride in being Americans, or in being adherents of a conventional religion; but what about those who reject traditional patriotism or religion — what are they to do? Constructing a new concept of pan-human ethnicity solves this problem — especially for the Left, which, until now, never offered much in terms of a fulfilling home life. The old Marxist project required self-denial and sacrifice for world revolution, which meant eating a lot of gruel. This new emphasis on food, sex, exercise, clothes, and, most important, descendants fills these nooks and crannies with the specific attachments that provide real meaning to people’s lives.

Michael Knox Beran has explored in NR (March 5) the prospects of what he calls the “fringers” — the radicalized anti-Western core of Greens and anarchists who populate WTO protests and neighborhood coffee houses. Beran rightly worries that the fringers “could work up an orthodoxy out of disparate materials within the Green movement.” He cautions conservatives not to ignore these people “who, in their search for a faith, have allowed themselves to become foot soldiers in the struggle to create the next cruel idolatrous creed.”

Maybe the reason conservatives can’t see what that creed might be is that it’s no creed at all in the conventional sense. The new orthodoxy may simply be an amalgam of oddball spirituality and human chauvinism that is all the more difficult to argue with because — as an ethnicity — it doesn’t have to make sense. And, unlike the old Left orthodoxies, under this one you can eat pretty well.


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