Sunday, April 24, 2016

Theory and how it can help to re-configure and re-invent food systems (Link to Webinar)

Theory has an important role to play in re-inventing our food systems to be more sustainable, but I have the impression that the word 'theory' causes people to want to turn away and move to the next thing. Please hear me out before you do. I'll try to keep it short(ish).

First, you have to accept the basic premise that we all see and make judgments about the world using abstract concepts, otherwise known as 'theory.'  You may not think you apply theory to your judgments about the world and your valuations of what's important, but you do.

Take a look at the Merriam-Webster definition and you'll see various definitions, but all of them refer to the idea that theory is a set of principles or ideas, and their relationships to each other, used to explain phenomena.

Sometimes people don't realize that they are viewing the world through theory or abstractions, and this can get them into trouble. It gets them into trouble because theories, by their very nature, make sense of the world through a finite number of abstractions.  When I was doing my dissertation, this idea crystallized for me when I read this passage from Alfred North Whitehead's "Science and the Modern World":
The disadvantage of exclusive attention to a group of abstractions, however well-founded, is that, by nature of the case, you have abstracted from the remainder of things.  In so far as the excluded things are important in your experience, your modes of thought are not fitted to deal with them.  You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.  It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society.  It is the critic of abstractions.  A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited progress. An active school of philosophy is quite as important for the locomotion of ideas, as is an active school of railway engineers for the locomotion of fuel. (p. 73)
Wow.  That's some powerful stuff.  A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited progress. 

And, here's where I'll make the case for applying different theoretical lenses to our food systems.  We cannot afford any longer to see them through a set of abstractions, that, among other things, sees (very limited notions of) efficiency as paramount; that views 'comparative advantage' as a key operating principal; and in which ecological boundaries are not acknowledged. In light of the challenges we face, this is an urgent project. Before we can fundamentally re-configure our food systems to be more sustainable, which I maintain is what's needed, we need to see them differently, and we need to understand what values need to be put into action.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my upcoming webinar on May 3rd.  My dissertation research was primarily about applying different theoretical frames to food systems, and showing how they reveal different values, which, in turn, creates locally-specific food practices and relationships. One of my papers was on applying resilience theory to an exploration of urban agriculture and urban food practices in Senegal. That paper is currently in the final editing stages and will be published in an edited volume entitled, Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South by CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International).  I hope that you will join me in that discussion.  Registration is online here.

Thanks for reading!

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