The Tyranny of TED
The Food Movement—in its fervent quest to revive nonindustrial animal farming as a “humane” alternative to industrial agriculture—follows an increasingly tyrannical TED talk script to reach the mainstream. In instructing consumers to pay more to support animals who are killed after being loved, it accomplishes the very TED-like prerequisite of providing its audience an accessible way to have its virtue and eat it, too. Nobody walks away feeling that real risks must be taken, or that genuinely radical options should be entertained. Instead, they’re left with win-win expressions that have been nipped and tucked into the collective visage of mindless optimism.
Now, I’m no enemy of optimism. Keep hope alive; but keep it honest. The irony of TED is that its promotion of original thought is undercut by the format’s canned requirement that the message inspire without challenging. Rather than aiming to redefine the boundaries of contemporary thought, a successful TED moment life hacks the status quo to offer a “gee whiz” takeaway. It would violate the Tao of TED to piss and moan about the structural inequalities forged by conniving operatives who get off on abusing power. That would be a total bummer—especially for an audience who just paid thousands to hear that they can eat beef to save the planet.
The Food Movement, stuck in TED land, could do itself a big favor by bumming out a little bit. They’d certainly be more plausible. The situation with global food production is dire, animal agriculture is at the root of the world’s environmental crises, and these happy hipsters are off celebrating sustainable and humanely raised barbecue. Living well may be the best revenge, but if that revenge eliminates the ability for future generations to do the same, its time for someone to blow the whistle and deliver a less sanguine sermon.
Or at least significantly alter the boundaries of food discourse. This was the big idea I had in mind when I spoke this evening on a panel at NYU with Brighter Green’s Mia McDonald and Chris Schlottmann, an environmental studies professor at NYU. What if, instead of breaking down agricultural discussions into industrial and nonindustrial, big agriculture and local farms, we reframed the debate in terms of domesticated animals or no domesticated animals? What if we began to envision future agricultural systems that grew an unprecedented range of edible plants through a variety of methods (industrial, nonindustrial) without the use of animals as exploited resources?
What if, in other words, we left the world of TED and started to think truly radical agrarian thoughts?