Getting Clear About What Matters

Normally, I write about what I’ve been reading on Sundays.

But, thanks to an email this weekend from the always-excellent Farnam Street, I want to highlight one of the best arguments I’ve read recently.

It’s by Michael Pollan, in the New York Review of Books, and it’s about “The Sickness in Our Food Supply” due to Covid. (To be honest, I wish it had been “food system,” since that’s what the article is really about, but let’s give plenty of credit where it’s due to the excellence of the article itself.)

The whole thing is worth a few minutes of your time, but the three essential theses I want to meditate on for a few moments are these:

  1. “[E]ven when our food system is functioning ‘normally,’ reliably supplying the supermarket shelves and drive-thrus with cheap and abundant calories, it is killing us — slowly in normal times, swiftly in times like these.”
  2. “The food system we have is not the result of the free market. (There hasn’t been a free market in food since at least the Great Depression.) No, our food system is the product of agricultural and antitrust policies — political choices — that, as has suddenly become plain, stand in urgent need of reform.”
  3. “It’s not hard to imagine a coherent and powerful new politics organized around precisely th[e] principle” of “address[ing] the many vulnerabilities that the novel coronavirus has so dramatically exposed[.]”

So where does this leave us?

It leaves us with the essential elements of debate: values, systems, and choices.

And those leave us with some questions:

  • If we were starting today, would we build this food system, this health system, this transportation system, this political system, this economic system?
  • If we wouldn’t choose these systems tomorrow, why are we choosing them today?
  • Who’s making and reinforcing those choices?
  • Who has — and where lies — the power to design, build, and choose better?

The scale of our problems is such that we have to look at and deal with systems. Food is just one, but it’s a pretty good bellwether for where we are and how it got this way.

And, of course, our food system is hardly the only one that kills slowly in normal times and fast enough (or broadly enough) that we can’t ignore it now.

Moving faster has brought our ends into clearer view. It’s time to turn the ship.