Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Appetite Control

Here is my most recent offering in "The Hoya," Georgetown's campus newspaper.


A curious confluence of events took place last week at Georgetown.

First, a most unusual speaker graced the campus: a self-described Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer named Joel Salatin. Salatin owns and runs Polyface Farm in Swope, Va., and has received some fame through appearances in the pages of Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and in the film, “Food, Inc.” He spoke in terms both uproariously funny and profoundly moving about germs, earth, pigs, food and love. Author of the book “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal,” Salatin defended farming practices that mimic and respect the rhythms of nature, resist the industrial model that plunders the earth, restrain our tendency to see the world and its creatures merely as things for our pleasure and use and call upon humans to be good stewards of the earth.

Another event of interest was the second-annual “Sex Positive Week,” during which various campus groups explored human sexuality and, particularly, stressed forms of sexuality that would liberate individuals from traditional strictures and restraints.
A story on the Student Activities Commission involvement in the week’s events (“SAC Funds Sex Positive Week,” The Hoya, Feb. 19, 2010, A7) quoted organizers as stating that “Sex positive means respecting an individual’s right to do with their bodies what they want.”

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these events, since both dealt with the elemental kinds of appetite — for food and sex. Those two objects of our desire — both derived from instincts and impulses of the human body — are linked together by Aristotle in his discussion of the origins of political community. In “Politics” he wrote,

“Just as man is the best of animals when he perfected, when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. … Without virtue he is the most unholy and savage of animals, particularly with regard to sex and food.”

Aristotle is pointing out that humans who are unable to restrain their most elemental appetites will prove unable to govern themselves in every other area of life.

The Christian tradition — building on this insight — named excesses in these areas lust and gluttony, and regarded them as two of the seven deadly sins. Indulgence in either was not to be considered a form of freedom, but the enslavement to desires without limit.

Salatin himself made this classical connection explicit during his lecture by comparing eating with most intimate sexual acts. He suggested that those who eat a plate of food without thinking of the effect its preparation has on the earth and its creatures, essentially act in the same way as those who engage in one-night stands. In a sense, fast food is comparable to fast sex: It is a kind of consumption that treats another as an object for our own satiation. We consume solely for the sake of our own pleasure, and in the process are likely to damage the object of our desire and even ourselves in ways that are thoughtless and utilitarian.

We live too much in a “food positive,” as well as a “sex positive” age — one in which we tend to defend self-seeking satiation of appetites as the individual right to do with our bodies what we want without thought of the moral ecological system that is damaged by our consumption. This is a stance that contributes equally to industrial sex — or pornography — and industrial farming. The first treats people — and the second, animals — merely as objects for our use and enjoyment.

Both of these are obscene, but in our current political arrangement, each party finds only one sin to be problematic.

And therein lies a great problem. The great and pressing issues of national and international import that face the current generation — indeed, which will burden today’s students throughout their lives — are rooted in the inability to govern our appetites and the tendency, instead, to assert our “right” to do what we want. This lack of restraint underlies the contemporary environmental, financial and debt crises — all of which are part of a broader moral crisis.

Our refusal to exercise governance over our most fundamental appetites has manifested itself not only in the individual excesses of lust and gluttony, but in the degradation of the earth, in the greed that nearly devastated an economic system and in the shameless “borrowing” from future generations in the name of current enjoyment. As I sat listening to Salatin, it was humbling to realize that the powerful and educated in the world’s imperial city stand to learn a great deal from a simple farmer from the provinces.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here is one relevant difference- other persons can consent to our use of them. I'm not sure there has to be anything wrong with a one-night stand in those cases, if in fact it brings the persons in question pleasure. To suggest otherwise is to think that you know better than they how their lives are. This isn't, of course, impossible. But it is dangerous. Others deserve, at the very least, our humility in judging their lives. "The earth" is a different question because it is not the sort of thing that can consent. Now animals might have rights against us, but the earth, surely does not. The harm we do to it is "merely" a harm we do to ourselves. But of course, that is only ourselves, and not future persons who are not us, if we conceive of ourselves more broadly than our temporally located embodied persons. That needs, it seems to me, a great deal more built into it to be anything other than an aesthetic preference (that I happen to share.)And even then it needs a careful examination of whether it is simply an instantiation of the same notions, loaded with the same danger of self-satisfaction (a kind of ascetic vanity and conceived superiority) that might underly the first claim.