A few weeks back, @Prufrocknews linked to Claude Fischer’s attack on what he calls “eco-puritanism,” and I flagged the piece for later commentary because that phrase is too good to be ignored. Now we have Mark Bittman advising environmentalists to drop their concern with organic produce and GMOs, and it seems worth revisiting the topic both pieces are concerned with.

Well, ostensibly concerned with. Fischer’s piece is headlined “Eco-puritans,” and it calls the subjects of its ire by that term once, but it’s really about a kind of neo-Romanticism:

The urban left’s eco-puritanism takes many forms. Well-educated, secular Americans in particular pay extra for organic products, explore “natural” alternatives to Western medicine, and join environmentalist campaigns as donors and participants.

Whatever the virtues of each practice, running through all of them is the exaltation of nature. This cult of the natural has deep roots in America. Nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir praised the “glory of God’s wilderness” and described the Sierra Mountains as “God’s first temples.” Muir’s most enthusiastic heirs, often religious skeptics, have removed God from the praise songs, leaving nature alone on her mountain throne. Similarly, progressive public schools, having purged formal religious indoctrination from their curricula, have put Mother Nature into that worship space. Nature, not God, defines the good.

Fischer is perfectly right to criticize the strain of environmentalism that reifies “unspoiled nature”: as Wes Jackson has pointed out somewhere, idealizing the wilderness leaves us free to despoil places (like cities) that we don’t think qualify as truly “natural.” However, there’s two problems with Fischer’s approach here: 1) He seems to think this critique is valid for all people with environmental concerns, and that’s simply not true, as my reference to Wes Jackson (not an insignificant environmentalist himself) shows; 2) He misses an opportunity to explore the more interesting implications of his title.

“Eco-puritanism” is a great idea because it neatly communicates the legalism and narcissism of certain “environmental” gestures. People whose environmental concern extends mostly to worrying about their personal corruption by, say, GMOs are eco-puritans because they reduce the “laws” of environmental health to an inflexible set of rules targeted narrowly at assuring their own personal salvation. They have no broader notion of how the “rules” serve the good of the community, but only a concern for the purity of their own bodies.

Bittman launches a far more effective critique of eco-puritanism in his reflections on health and organic food:

The struggle to raise more food in more sustainable ways is as important as any, including the fight to slow climate change. (They’re related, of course.) But more sustainable does not mean “pure,” and organic often generates unreasonable expectations. Many experts are now using the term “agro-ecological,” which has the disadvantage of being unusable in casual conversation — why not just say, “We want to make crop production better?” Because we can improve industrial agriculture more quickly and easily than we can convert the whole system to “organic,” which is never going to happen. Unless, of course, we run out of cheap fossil fuel and have to stop moving chemicals and food around the globe willy-nilly.

Furthermore, there’s a very real difference between eating better and growing better. I can eat better starting right now, and it has nothing — zero — to do with shopping at Whole Foods or eating organically. It has to do with eating less junk, hyperprocessed food and industrially raised animal products. The word “organic” need not cross my lips.

Bittman rightly acknowledges that eco-puritanism is deeply unattractive, and therefore urges those of us concerned about a more sustainable food system to give it up. The focus on “purity” is misleading at best. Moreover, the connection between making food more sustainable and more healthy is pretty tenuous.

At least, that’s true if we define “health” as belonging only to individual human beings. Unstated in Bittman’s piece - because it’s not his focus - is the idea that health might be about more than your personal health or mine. If he were defining health as merely personal (as I don’t think he is), he would of course be playing right into the hands of the eco-puritans and their kissing cousins, the nutritionists.

Instead, because I know him to have read Wendell Berry, I take Bittman to be assuming a broader vision of health, stated well in this talk by Berry:

I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist Sir Albert Howard, who said, in The Soil and Health, that “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject.” …

I believe that the community - in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures - is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. 

Berry’s talk is the best possible response to Fischer: not just because Berry is the farthest thing from a neo-Romantic, but because the true response to the narcissism of eco-puritanism should not be to throw over environmental concern, but to broaden it.

Here is the true rebuke of eco-puritanism: in its solipsistic focus on one’s own health, it has no concern for the wholeness of the community. Eco-puritans in their hybrid cars may shop religiously at Whole Foods, they may tithe their organic mint and dill and cumin, but without paying attention to the “weightier matters” of communal health, such actions avail them little - either in terms of virtue or of environmental impact.