Dr. Pangloss, at a dinner party at Stauf Mansion
Pictured: Either Dr. Peter Pangloss, or preternatural toymaker Henry Stauf

Another quasi-excerpt from my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger. Cut from Chapter 1, again, because “That’s what blogs are for,” (Shattuck 2017). This was actually one of the first things I wrote when I seriously got started on the book’s final form two years ago. It is one of my favorite little pieces of writing, and I’m sad it didn’t make the book, but here it is for your reading enjoyment:

Pangloss’s Guide to Changing the Food System

It is… not possible for the levels of consumption in food and material goods enjoyed by the wealthy in rich countries to be enjoyed by all without grave, and possibly catastrophic, risks to the global environment in terms of biodiversity loss, water scarcity and climate change… While reductions in food waste and changes to less meat-intensive diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the need for land clearing… wishing this were the case is very different from making it happen.” (Grafton et al. 2015)

I’ll take my chances with trying to change the politically impossible, because I don’t think I can change the biophysically impossible.” (Herman Daly, in Montenegro 2011)

Assumptions and models shape our world. As we have been discussing, it is not usually easy to tell when our own assumptions or models are bad ones, nor to see that they are not the only ones. This last observation is also why this section is “Paging Dr. Pangloss.”

Dr. Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s 1918 novel Candide, maintains throughout the book that “all is for the best” in this, “the best of all possible worlds.” Notably, he maintains this view of the world through the course of a long series of misfortunes, including his contraction of syphilis, the murder of many of his associates and students, the destruction of his home, and being hanged, for starters. From this fictional character, the term “Panglossian” has come to mean “naively optimistic.” It’s an “always look on the bright side of life” attitude akin to the song of the same name at the end of the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (The characters also happily advise looking on the bright side of death in a later verse.)

However, “naively optimistic” does not catch two other underlying flavors present in the depiction of Pangloss. For example, he mixes causes and effects throughout the book in his explanations of why all is indeed for the best. This includes the idea that syphilis was necessary for Europeans to get chocolate, as it was explorers and conquistadors who brought both back from their travels.

Think about that.

Not only does it make a mess of cause and effect, but it is actually weirdly pessimistic: claiming that syphilis is the price to pay for getting luxury goods ignores many better possible worlds, including the very slightly alternative world where Pangloss simply chooses not to have the affair that led to his syphilis, while conquistadors still pillage the Americas and bring back chocolate. It strikes me as pessimistic, not optimistic, to decide “There’s no way all of Europe could have ever had chocolate if I didn’t contract a venereal disease.”

The connection to food security, agriculture, and sustainability here is the pessimistically Panglossian tone of the first quote at the top of this box. The reality that not everyone in the world can eat like Americans (nor should they!) without causing environmental catastrophe is uncontroversial, but their assessment of decreasing food waste and achieving dietary change reads almost as a rebuke: Wishing won’t make it so. This seems to me but half a step from something we could imagine Pangloss saying: “Well, sure, we may have global disaster and environmental collapse, but such is the price of universal access to Whoppers and having enough food for everyone to throw away one third of it uneaten. What can you do?”

This is important because, as I said, models and assumptions shape our world. It also is true that wishing, for example, did not end South African Apartheid, grant the right to vote to women and minorities in countries throughout the world, free African-American and Indigenous slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere, nor win United States, India, Haiti, or any other country its independence. If anyone is seriously suggesting that we can wish our way to a better food system, then I am right there with Grafton and colleagues: it’s not going to work.

But, as Daly reminds us, between changing the laws of reality (which places limits on what and how much humans can consume) and changing the “laws” of political realism (our models and assumptions about what kind of changes are possible or likely), there’s little contest: only one of those two things is, as far as we know, literally impossible. Changing our politics is very difficult, but it may in fact be necessary. And if we look at the long scope of history, it certainly seems possible. Or as the saying goes, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Put another way, ecological economist Nathan Pelletier pointed out in 2010 that

“[Some maintain] that incremental improvements in current governance will have to be adequate… such an argument must be turned firmly on its head. What is grossly      utopian is the expectation that humanity can proceed on its current   trajectory of global industrialization, with a system of global environmental governance that is hopelessly inadequate to the task. The language of necessity must replace that of political expediency.” (p. 226)

Thus the idea that “wishing it were so” will not work cuts both ways: we may wish that there were alternatives to reconsidering the very way we do governance, production, and consumption. But the expectation that this can be avoided is perhaps yet another kind of perverse Panglossianism: the idea that we live in a world where it is not only impossible to change the fundamental sociopolitical elements of our trajectory, but unnecessary. All is for the best (and worst) in this, the best of all possible worlds…

Works Cited

Grafton, R. Q., Daugbjerg, C., & Qureshi, M. E. (2015). Towards food security by 2050. Food Security, 7(2), 179-183.

Montenegro, M. (2009). Rethinking growth. Seed Magazine, (February issue), 20-22.

Pelletier, N. (2010). Of laws and limits: An ecological economic perspective on redressing the failure of contemporary global environmental governance. Global Environmental Change, 20(2), 220-228.

Voltaire. (1918/2006). Candide (Anonymous, Trans.). New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc.

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