The Tyranny of TED

» April 16th, 2014

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?


18 Responses to The Tyranny of TED

  1. James, You need to do a TED talk. Tell me when and where and I’ll be there to support you. I’ll bring the Veg Society of Tulsa on a field trip and we’ll all be there!

  2. Karen says:

    Two points…we will NEVER make a %100 Plant Based Diet happen for %100 of the world. People are way too “me- centric”. No matter how well known the Health Benefits for ALL, including the Health of our planet, becomes, there will still be meat eaters. Yes, I also understand “happy animals” and quick painless death gives these meat eaters freedom from guilt currently. TED talks (not the one w’link), M. Pollan, Mark Bittman (NYTimes) and my friend going into “happy beef production”, and MANY others will perhaps rescue the Planet from CAFOs before it is beyond help. Certainly if nothing is done, if we continue feeding the world as it’s done now, even we the Plant Based Community will end up starving for lack of water, or dying from contaminated farm land produce!

  3. Ashley Capps says:

    Great post, James. As long as the so-called humane movement (aslong with their industrial pseudo-foes) continues to normalize—and celebrate—the disproportionately wasteful and resource intensive practice of raising animals for food, then people will keep on eating animals and we’ll keep seeing mind-boggling projects like “The Cow of the Future.” Usually I just feel disturbed and ashamed at human treatment of nonhuman animals, but when I read this the other day, I actually felt embarrassed:

    “A White House climate initiative has boosted a quixotic search for the “cow of the future”, a next-generation creature whose greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by anti-methane pills, burp scanners and gas backpacks.”

    See “Scientists Seek Climate-Friendly Cow of the Future”:

  4. Mary Finelli says:

    There are some pro-vegan TED talks, yes?

  5. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    Indeed, I read much in LATimes about such ‘humane’farming notions and address that with a letter suggesting your articulated suggestion! Indeed YES that is the way of a future I fully endorse! Thank you!

  6. John t maher says:

    I have ranted aBout Ted talks before in eSting plants as a sort if post modern chattaqua which exist to reinforce the existing dispositif by infusing a social element absent as a result of the dislocations caused by capitalism and post modernity. The audience is basically hypnotized and dominated and asked to experience a heightened and pleasurable affective response to bring told what to think. Highbrow thoughts made accessible to the masses? Think again: almost exactly the sAme as any fascist rally from the 1930s. Just say no to Ted and vox media and all the ideas as feature section articles presentations. It is better to live as one of cormac mccarthy’s outsiders and define the difference between eSting plants and Michael pollan / mark Bitman than fit in and get invited to press events with fun refreshments.

  7. I’m reading a book now called Pacifism as Pathology. I agree, we need to take radical action where necessary … end violence wherever we find it with the most peaceful means possible to realize the goal of ending torture everywhere, NOW. Get animals off our plates and disease out of our bodies:

  8. Mary Finelli says:

    I don’t know that they do get as much exposure. Apparently they have more of a local focus:

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