Louise Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and author of Hamburgers in Paradise, talks about that story here:
Louise Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and author of Hamburgers in Paradise, talks about that story here:
In Louise Fresco’s new book, Hamburgers in Paradise, the term “Paradise”, in her own words, is “a metaphor that refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production.” It is a view shared by many in a world simultaneously plagued by food shortages and GMO fears. In such a climate, is there room for optimism? Fresco looks at our food situation in all its complexity, taking the stance that there is no one perfect way to produce or consume food, and that balance and trade-offs between different goals are central to any long term solution. You can see her TED talk here, and the English subtitled version to a documentary she made about the food industry here. Recently Fresco took some time to answer some questions about her book.
What’s new in this book?
LF: Human history has been one of continuous scarcity. The abundance of food that has emerged for the majority of the world population in the last decades is so unique that we have not yet learnt to deal with it. We are still scared that there will not be enough, and that we will destroy our environment. Scarcity is our default mode, and that of our bodies, hence our difficulties to balance our diets and to reduce our ecological footprint. Abundance is a triumph of science and trade; it allows us to shed our fears of shortages. But the book argues that we require new ways of thinking, to reign in our needs (for example of meat) while producing food sustainably for all, with new methods (for example through recycling or using algae). The book demonstrates in detail that there is not one perfect way to produce and consume food, but that we always have to balance the trade-offs between different goals, such as large scale production (i.e. low food prices) and biodiversity. What is best depends on our goals and our insight in unintended side effects (we may like to see free roaming chickens but they may be more prone to disease that way).
Can you explain the title Hamburgers in Paradise?
LF: The title refers to a thought experiment: if Eve were alive today, what food would she offer Adam as a temptation? Paradise as a metaphor also refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production. These semi-conscious images of a pre-Industrial and idealized past are still guiding many of our reactions to modernization. The hamburger, of course, is the iconic food that symbolizes the rise of the modern middle class, from suburban America to places like Moscow or Mumbai, as well as the critical counterforces: slow food, vegetarian and organic products. The hamburger illustrates also the adaptation to new demands: fat and salt contents have been lowered, information on calories and nutritional values are published, wrappings are made of recycled materials and advertising to children is limited. In the most recent twist of history, the hamburger becomes popular once again in upper class restaurants, dipped in liquid Nitrogen, or in a vegetarian reincarnation.
Food is the source of much confusion today, we hear so many, contradictory stories about what we must or mustn’t eat and why. What is the reason for this confusion?
LF: Food and agriculture are the basis human survival. Food conjures up strong feelings, based on individual memories, strict convictions and long traditions, especially in times of rapid modernization. Many people, even in rural areas, are hardly aware of how food is really produced and how it lands on their plates. Nearly all of us rely on others, often far away, to feed us. Ignorance and dependency make us feel vulnerable and worried about food.
But we can also turn this around: behind every meal there is a story, one that is nearly always fascinating and often complex, but always worth telling. Food connects us with the past and the future.
Is there room for optimism?
LF: With current knowledge, we can feed nine or ten billion people quite easily. This doesn’t mean that there is no world food problem. Even if enough food can be produced this is not easy and more production does not mean food reaches people automatically. The current gap between actual and attainable yields is still enormous. At the same time, agricultural research and innovation continue to be needed to tackle specific problems of animal and plant diseases, poor soils and climate variation. The application of existing knowledge is hampered by poor infrastructure, unavailability of irrigation or fertilizer, dysfunctional markets and policy.
Food shortage is more a matter of distribution than just production. Hunger is caused by poverty, so creating employment is essential. The great improvements in agricultural production since the 1970s have benefitted the urban poor more than the rural poor. These improvements involve higher yields, through better agricultural techniques such as irrigation, leading to lower food prices that benefit those who buy food (those living in cities), while farmers selling foods are at a disadvantage. Today more than 850 million people go hungry and perhaps as many as 2 billion may lack balanced nutrition. Most of the hungry live in areas of civil war or frequent natural disasters, so peace and resettlement are priorities.
There seems to be much concern about Genetically Modified Organisms, is this concern justified?
LF: This is a very complex issue about which it is impossible to generalize and about which there are many misunderstandings. For example, if cows are fed genetically modified soy bean, their milk does not become genetically modified, even if some people fear this. The modified genes and cells do not survive the gut. What the effects and risks are depends very much on what crop or animal, what genes are used for what purpose and where. Certain problems, for example diseases in banana, can only be tackled with biotechnology, a large toolkit which does not necessarily result in GMOs. There are two types of risk, for human and animal health. While we need to continue to monitor the situation, there are no indications that GM crops lead to additional food related risks in human beings or animals. So far, there are no indications of environment effects (such as insect mortality or genes “escaping “), but ecosystems are complex and difficult to monitor. Finally, there is also the issue of intellectual property rights: while a fair reward is needed for the companies developing the biotechnology or GMOs, we must also make sure that farmers and scientists and breeders elsewhere can keep access to varieties or breeds. Here the U.S. and EU legislation and traditions do not coincide.
What about chemical inputs such as fertilizer. Are we not destroying the land?
LF: Plants and animals need food just as we do. These nutrients come nearly exclusively from the soil (and through water, transported from soils elsewhere). Only very few soils can sustain production for long periods and their nutrient reserve needs to be built up through other sources of nutrients. Whilst manure from animals can be used for this, this does not solve the problem, it just means that animals have to graze somewhere from where they take up the nutrients. Almost without exception agriculture requires fertilizer to be sustainable. Fertilizer has a bad name mainly because it has been overused in the past with detrimental effects on surface water, but in itself, if wisely used, it is a blessing. More land is depleted through lack of fertilizer than is affected through its use.
Is fast food the source of all evils?
LF: Fast food is part of a complex process of transformation of society: greater mobility, work pressures, urbanization, diversification through trade, smaller and singe households, greater affluence of young, ubiquitous equipment like microwaves and fridges people all lead to out of home eating and pre-packed meals. As with all foods, it is not the individual item that is “bad” but the pattern. Eating fast food from time to time is acceptable in an otherwise healthy lifestyle. However, fast food often contains too many calories and we should be concerned if there are no other options, In so-called food deserts, neighbourhoods devoid of shops selling vegetables, fast food is often the recourse for single parents.
What type of agriculture is most sustainable?
LF: There is no blueprint for an agricultural model that fits all situations. Agriculture is the art of the location-specific and always depends on soils, climate, geography, culture and economics. Agriculture is forever changing, adapting to new consumer demands and new technology. However, using resources as efficiently as possible is essential to avoid wasting labour, water, land, fertilizer, seeds or animals as well as reducing post harvest losses in the entire value chain. Efficiency is often misunderstood as large-scale and anonymous, but it applies at all scales. No farmer can afford to waste resources, nor can we as humanity. The World will need 50% more calories in 2030.
Would the world be better off if all meat would be prohibited?
LF: No, meat is necessary for certain groups such as pregnant and lactating women, children, the elderly and sick and of course the malnourished. Meat is not only a source of proteins but also of essential nutrients such as iron and certain vitamins (B12). Humans evolved as omnivores; vegetarians, even in India, have always been a small minority. Also, there are areas in the world where nothing else can be produced but grazing land and animals. The growth in demand for meat and fish is expected to increase faster than the growth in population, especially in Asia and Africa.
However, there are major problems associated with meat production: environmental (water, emissions, production and transportation of feed) veterinary public health, human health (diseases associated with high red meat intake and overuse of antibiotics) as well as animal welfare. These can all be solved with adequate research and regulation. Reducing meat consumption through substitution of animal proteins in healthy individuals in affluent societies is part of that.
Louise O. Fresco is president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. The author of several books, she is a member of the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize and has worked extensively in developing countries for many years. She lives in Amsterdam.
Mark Zuckerberg is spending a year reading books and is inviting others to join him. The latest pick for A Year of Books, just announced, is Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. Over 250 families in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa participated in this unprecedented study of the financial practices of the world’s poor. In selecting a story of life very bottom of the global economic order, Zuckerberg seems to suggest the particular importance of empathy for entrepreneurs and those in leadership positions.
“It’s mind-blowing that almost half the world — almost 3 billion people — live on $2.50 a day or less. More than one billion people live on $1 a day or less. This book explains how these families invest their money to best support themselves. I hope reading this provides some insight into ways we can all work to support them better as well,” he wrote on his personal Facebook page.
So far there have been 17 books chosen, and this is the third Princeton University Press title to make the list. Rational Ritual by Michael Chwe, and The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun were chosen earlier this year.
Congratulations to the authors!
It’s that time of year again! The air is saturated with the promise of cooler days ahead, the leaves are holding their breath, and school is nearly back in session. And that means one thing. Football season will soon be here. More specifically, college football. Princeton, as I’m sure you know, has quite the legacy in this area—dating back almost a century and a half.
To be precise, that legacy dates back all the way to November 6th, 1869: The day of the first official collegiate football game played between Rutgers and Princeton (then called The College of New Jersey).
Back then, the game was really a hybrid combining elements of rugby and modern-day soccer. Each team consisted of 25 players struggling to kick the ball into the opposing team’s territory. Reportedly, a mere 100 spectators gathered to watch the game, many of them sitting on a wooden fence. The players took the field, removing their hats, coats and vests in preparation for play. Speaking of attire, some believe that the “Scarlet Knights” nickname for Rutgers came to be at this game. To differentiate themselves from Princeton, some players sported scarlet-colored scarves, worn as turbans. Thus, the Scarlet Knights were born. Alas, Rutgers defeated Princeton that day, 6-4. Six to four you ask? That’s right. Even the score-keeping method was different back then.
What a far cry from college athletics today, especially football. If you’ve ever been to a college football game (especially a Division 1 game), you know what I’m talking about. In 2011, many colleges including Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, and Texas, had over 100,000 fans in attendance at their games. Stadiums practically ooze their team’s colors and the roar of the crowd is deafening. Music pumps through unseen speakers and there are always a few dedicated fans that choose to doff their shirts in favor of painting their team’s colors and/or letters onto their bodies.
People take their college football very seriously these days. There are all different types of divisions, championships, and rankings that decide when and where they get to play. The ratings of the NCAA determine which schools get to play for all the marbles in postseason bowl games. Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer discuss these types of ranking systems in their book Who’s #1?
The Science of Rating and Ranking.
The major differences between college sports in the 19th century and college sports today are significant. College athletics have become an integral part of the community of higher education and of society as a whole.
But the nature of college sports today are troubling to some. On the one hand, college athletic programs serve to bring communities together and unite people who otherwise wouldn’t share any common ground. In Gaming the World Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann reflect on and explain how sports influence our daily lives and help to confirm a certain local, regional, and national identity. These programs also promote health and wellness at colleges nationwide, which benefits students.
But on the other hand, many colleges and universities, in their constant need to compete with other institutions, sometimes redirect funds and other resources toward football or basketball while the academic side of the institution is forced to manage without those funds.
In addition to the funding problem, there is also an “underperformance” problem. In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen and Sarah Levin explore the academic experiences of college athletes and other students. In one of their studies they’ve found that recruited athletes at some schools are four times more likely to achieve admission than are other students (non-athletes) with similar academic qualifications. They also show that the typical recruit is more likely to end up in the bottom third of the college class than are other students and non-athletes.
It’s safe to say that the feverish fandom of college athletics can either boost or take away from the institution itself and the college experience. What’s your opinion on the matter?
If the impact of sports is a topic that interests you, and you’re intrigued by unusual applications, also check out Ignacio Palacios-Huerta’s Beautiful Game Theory. Palacios-Huerta uses soccer as a lens to study game theory and microeconomics, covering such topics as mixed strategies, discrimination, incentives, and human preferences. Palacios-Huerta makes the case that soccer provides “rich data sets and environments that shed light on universal economic principles in interesting and useful ways.”
PS: Not to worry, Princetonians – we didn’t make a habit of losing to our northern neighbor. On May 2nd, 1866, in the first intercollegiate athletic event in Rutgers history, the Rutgers baseball team lost to Princeton, 40-2. Quite the slaughter! And Rutgers may have ended up winning the first football game 6 to 4, but a week later Princeton won the next match at home, 8 to 0.
A rematch is also on the horizon! If you’ve done your math right (and I’m sure you have) the 150th anniversary of the historic football game takes place in 2019. There have been talks of a rematch for this upcoming anniversary. Read more here.
Image credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/11389
Do you have a weakness? Of course you do. Which means, according to Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, you have probably been “phished” for a “phool.”
We tend to think of phishing as the invisible malevolence that led our grandparents to wire money to Nigeria, or inspired us to click on a Valentine’s day link that promised, “someone loves you,” and then promptly crashed our hard drive. But more generally understood, “phishing” is inseparable from the market economy of everyday life. As long as there is profit to be made, psychological weaknesses will be exploited. For example, overly optimistic information results in false conclusions and untenable purchases in houses and cars. Health clubs offer overpriced contracts to well-intentioned, but not terribly athletic athletes. Credit cards feed dramatic levels of debt. And phishing occurs in financial markets as well: Think of the legacy of mischief at work in the financial crises from accounting fraud through junk bonds and the marketing of derivatives.
Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that the invisible hand of free markets provides us with material well-being. In Phishing for Phools, Akerlof and Shiller challenge this insight, arguing that markets are far from being essentially benign and don’t always create the greater good. In fact, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps.
We are thrilled to introduce this new video trailer in which Robert Shiller talks about his new book with George Akerlof, Phishing for Phools:
Our Sociology 2015 catalog is now available.
Don’t miss The Process Matters, a forthcoming title by Joel Brockner that looks at business through the lens of the process rather than the results. Real word case studies support his argument that incorporating input, consistency, and accountability lead to effective business management.
In Phishing for Phools, Nobel Prize-winning authors George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller shed light on how deception plays a key part in our economic system, showing us that it can be harmful as well as beneficial through a wide range of stories. Ultimately, the book is hopeful that we can mitigate the harmful side effects of a thriving free market through education and reorganization.
David Grazian reveals our prejudices surrounding nature and the animal kingdom in American Zoo, a study of a classic attraction. If you’re attending the American Sociological Association (ASA) 2015 Annual Meeting, you can meet the author at a book signing on Sunday, August 23 from 2pm-3pm!
Finally, PUP is pleased to bring out the following ASA award-winning titles in paperback:
We invite you to scroll through our catalog above to see these and many more sociology titles!
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How can mental illness—an affliction that affects at least 20 percent of people in developed countries, reduces life expectancy, and wrecks havoc on educational potential—remain chronically under-treated? The answer is simple: mental and physical pain are not viewed equally, and even in a relatively progressive culture, the former remains profoundly stigmatized. As a result, most who suffer from mental health issues suffer in silence, or receive inadequate support. Can this change? Richard Layard and David Clark say it can.
In Thrive, Layard and Clark look at the practical politics of increasing access to mental health care, arguing that the therapies that exist—and work—are available at little to no cost. Recently, both took the time to answer some questions about the book, and the transformative power of mental health care.
What is the message of your book?
Depression and anxiety disorders are the biggest single cause of misery in Western societies. They also cause enormous damage to the economy. But they are curable, in most cases, by modern evidence-based psychological therapy. The shocking thing is that very few of those who need it get any help and fewer still get help based on evidence. In England such help is now becoming available to many of millions who need it. As we show, this help involves no net cost to society. It’s a no-brainer.
What is the scale of the problem?
Surveys of households in rich countries show that around 1 in 6 adults have depression or anxiety disorders severe enough to cause major distress and impair the person’s functioning. Only a quarter of these people are in any form of treatment, most usually medication. This is shocking. For surveys show that mental illness is the biggest single reason why people feel dissatisfied with their lives – accounting for more of the misery in our societies than either poverty or unemployment do.
What is its economic cost?
Mental illness accounts for nearly a half of all absenteeism from work and for nearly a half of all those who do not work because of disability. This imposes huge costs on employers and taxpayers. Mental illness also increases the use of physical healthcare. People with a given physical illness of a given severity use 50% more physical healthcare if they are also mentally ill. This is a huge cost to those who fund healthcare.
Does psychological therapy help?
In the last 40 years considerable progress has been made in developing effective psychological therapies. The most studied therapy is CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a broad heading for therapies which focus on directly influencing thoughts and behaviours – in order to affect the quality of human experience. In hundreds of randomised controlled trials CBT has been shown to produce recovery rates of over 50% for depression and anxiety disorders. For anxiety, recovery is generally sustained; for depression, the risk of relapse is greatly reduced.
The range of therapies which have been shown to work has been surveyed internationally by the Cochrane Collaboration and in England by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Besides CBT, NICE also recommend for all depressions Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) and, for mild to moderate depression, Brief Psychodynamic Therapy, Couples Therapy and Counselling. Modern psychological therapies have also been shown to be effective in a wide range of other mental health conditions.
Do these therapies really cost nothing?
Yes. If delivered to a representative group of patients they pay for themselves twice over. First, they pay in reduced invalidity benefits and lost taxes due to invalidity. We know this from a series of controlled trials. Second, they pay for themselves in reduced costs of physical healthcare. Again we know this from controlled trials. It is so partly because the typical cost of an evidence-based course of treatment is only about $2,000.
How can these therapies become more widely available?
Two things are needed. First, there have to be enough people trained to deliver these therapies. This is the responsibility of universities and colleges, including of course supervised on-the-job training. Second, there have to be effective frameworks where trained people can be employed. The evidence is that recovery rates are higher where people are employed in teams where they can get supervision, in-service training, and clear career progression.
Those who fund healthcare have in the USA and UK the legal obligation to provide parity of esteem for mental and physical healthcare, and this requires that they are willing to fund high quality evidence-based therapies that are made easily available and provide the necessary duration of treatment, based on evidence. Insurers never fund half a hip replacement and they should not fund only half a proper course of psychological therapy.
What can be learnt from the English experience?
The English National Health Service has in recent years developed a totally new service to deliver evidence-based psychological therapies. (It’s called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)). This service has, over six years, trained altogether 6,000 therapists and is now treating nearly half a million people a year, with a recovery rate of 46% and rising. The prestigious journal Nature has called it “world-beating”.
How can we prevent mental illness in the first place?
First we must of course treat it as soon as it appears. This is often in childhood, where the same evidence-based treatments for depression and anxiety disorders apply as in adulthood. For children’s behaviour problems, parent training and family therapy are recommended.
But we must also reduce the overall prevalence of mental illness. This requires major changes throughout society. First, more support and education for parents. Second, schools which give more priority to the well-being of children. Third, employers who treat their workers with appreciation and encouragement and not as income-maximising machines. Fourth, more positively-oriented media. And finally, a new citizens’ culture giving more priority to compassion, both as an emotion and as a spring for action.
Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords. David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.
Robert Wuthnow, Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, remarked in a recent interview with PUP that he’d spent most of his career writing about religion, and thus his new book, In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families can seem a departure. But farming has more to tell us about religion than meets the eye. Read on as he contemplates the unique relationship between farming and faith.
Farmers’ Faith, by Robert Wuthnow
In Worst Hard Time writer Timothy Egan describes Depression-era farmers believing God was punishing them for shooting rabbits on Sunday. Others knelt knee-deep in dust praying fervently for rain. Theirs was a simple faith: pray hard, live right, and expect God’s blessings in return.
Farmers’ relationship to God has fascinated writers for centuries. Biblical narratives tell of shepherds and sheep and gleaners and wheat. The agrarian ideal that interested Enlightenment writers valued farmers’ particular understanding of nature’s God. Writers today — Wendell Berry, for example — call attention to the spiritual serenity of farms and fields.
Can we learn something important from farmers? Do their lives, spent so close to the soil and so dependent on nature, generate insights that may have escaped the rest of us?
I grew up on a farm in a community where everyone believed in God. I’m sure some of them prayed for rain. I imagine many of them talked to God in the quiet of their fields. But times have changed. The solitary farmer out hoeing the field is a relic. Farmers now operate expensive GPS-guided tractors while on-board computers monitor the soil. How has all that changed farmers’ thinking about God?
Writing In the Blood: Understanding America’s Farm Families gave me an opportunity to explore farmers’ thoughts on a wide range of topics, including religion. The book draws on lengthy interviews with two hundred farmers. They varied in age, gender, region, kind of farming, and religious background. Some farmed only a few acres; others farmed tens of thousands of acres.
Farmers’ faith is still arguably simple. It varies from person to person, just as it does for other people. But it converges on a basic point. Whatever the language used to describe God, God represents an assurance that things will work out. And working out does not imply that what happens will be what a person wants. Praying for rain does not increase the chances that it will rain. It is just a reminder that God, not you, is in charge. As one farmer explained, “When you get to thinking you’re running the show, that’s when you’ve got a problem. God’s got a way of saying, I’ll show you who’s running the show.”
Farmers with this view of God said it was born of hard times – and sustained them in those times. A farm couple struggling to avoid losing everything a second time said they liked being independent but kept being reminded that they had to trust in God. Another farmer said he had been so depressed from a farm accident that he prayed to die. It was hard for him to believe that God was on his side, but it helped knowing that God was there no matter what happened.
The logic in these remarks is similar to the view of God that has been identified in other studies. Even though a person prays to God or works hard in hopes of pleasing God, the idea is not that what a person does actually causes God to respond in a certain way. A farmer may hope that prayer will bring rain, but the exact nature of that hope has less to do with rain than with being aware of God’s existence and thankful for God’s presence.
Perhaps farmers had an advantage in being aware of God’s existence. Many of them described something ineffable they could only refer to as “the big picture.” The big picture was an understanding of life from seeing the crops grow and working with animals. Farmers knew they played a part in nurturing life. But they realized their role was only a small part of the big picture.
One more thing: Sometimes you learn as much from what people don’t say as from what they do say. Many of these farmers lived in conservative communities. A few were Tea Party Republicans. They hated the federal government telling them how to farm. But they didn’t defend their politics with religious arguments. And they were fed up with politicians who did.
Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).
How well do many seasoned New Yorkers really know New York City? Chances are, few can claim the knowledge of all 6,000 miles quite like Professor of Sociology William Helmreich can. Inspired by childhood explorations with his father, Helmreich walked every block of New York City’s five boroughs, a mission that resulted in The New York Nobody Knows. This week, The New Yorker ran a fun video featuring Bill Helmreich and his walks. His unconventional portrait of New York City is due out in paperback this Fall.
From Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker piece accompanying the video:
Many New Yorkers daydream about exploring the areas of the city they don’t know. But actually doing it is incredibly difficult. Ten years ago, Ben McGrath wrote a Talk of the Town story about a man who walked all of Manhattan; that’s an impressive achievement, but even the dreariest Manhattan blocks are more interesting than the service road alongside the B.Q.E. Moreover, to walk all of New York within a reasonable time frame, you have to do it all year round; most likely, as Helmreich did, you’d also have to walk after dark. Helmreich wasn’t just game, in other words. He was dedicated. He allowed neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night to stop him from his appointed rounds.
You can sample chapter one of The New York Nobody Knows here.
William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York.
Is your closest contact with the farming community your latest Instagram of a picturesque barn, or an occasional haul from the local CSA? If so, you’re not alone. Our day to day existence relies heavily on farming, but from Americans’ increasingly urban vantage point, the lives of farmers themselves can seem remote. In his forthcoming book, In the Blood, Princeton University sociologist of culture Robert Wuthnow offers a moving portrait of the changing lives of farm families. Recently Robert took the time to talk with us about what prompted him to write the book, the misconceptions he discovered, and how his new research spoke to his extensive body of work in the sociology of religion.
You teach at Princeton University and live in a largely urban state. What prompted you to write a book about farming?
RW: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, spent most of my spare time until I graduated from college farming, and figured I would follow in the footsteps of many generations in my family who farmed. Things didn’t turn out that way. But I still have friends and family who farm and I’m intrigued, shall we say, by the path I didn’t take. I wrote about the changing history of agriculture in the Midwest in Remaking the Heartland and about rural communities in Small-Town America. After working on those projects I began reading the literature on farming. I discovered that most of it is written by agricultural economists and historians. As I sociologist, I wanted to hear from farmers themselves. I wanted to know what farming day-to-day is like, what it means to them, how it influences their values, and why they stay with it from generation to generation.
Why do you think people who don’t know much about farming might find this book interesting?
RW: Everybody – whether we live in a city, suburb, or small town – depends on farms for the food we eat. We know about problems with fast food, slaughterhouses, pollution, and the like. We also hear discussions every few years about farm policies. But for the most part, farming is out of sight and out of mind. In part, I wanted to give farmers a voice. I wanted people who know very little about farming to at least have something to read if they did happen to be interested.
Apart from questions about food and farm policies, the reason to be interested in farmers is that our nation’s culture is still the product of our agrarian past. Correctly or incorrectly, we imagine that today’s farmers represent that heritage. In one view, they represent conservative family traditions, hard work, living simply, and preserving the land. In that view, it is easy to romanticize farming. A different view holds that farmers are country bumpkins who couldn’t do anything better than continue to farm. In both these views, farmers are actually serving as a mirror for us. I wanted to hold that mirror up to see what it showed – about the rest of us as much as about farmers.
You say farmers think the public doesn’t understand them. What misperceptions need to be corrected?
RW: One of the most serious misperceptions is that farmers are out there mindlessly ruining the land. That certainly was not how they saw it. Of the two hundred farmers that form the basis of the book, nearly all of them described the reasons why they do everything they can to preserve the land. I was especially impressed with the extent to which science is helping them do this. Farmers today have a much better understanding of soil chemistry, microbes, and ways to minimize water use and pollution than farmers did a generation ago.
Another misperception is that farmers are the problem when it comes to questions about tax dollars spent on farm subsidies. My research included farmers with large holdings as well as small farmers and it dealt with wheat belt, corn belt, and cotton belt farming as well as truck and dairy farming. Farmers spoke candidly and many of them were candidly critical of farm subsidies. They did benefit from crop insurance and appreciated the fact that it was subsidized. But they were doubtful that government bureaucrats understood farming and they were pretty sure farm policies were being driven by corporate agribusiness rather than farm families.
Much of your work has been about religion. What did you learn about religion from farmers?
RW: I wondered if farmers whose livelihoods are so dependent on forces of nature over which they have no control would somehow attribute those influences to God or be superstitious about them. Would they consider it helpful to pray for rain, for example? What I found is that hardly any of them thought that way. Some were devout; others were not religious at all. The most common understanding was that God somehow existed, was ultimately in control, but was also beyond human comprehension. Those who were the most devout prayed, figuring that whether it rained or not, God was real.
Churches are still the mainstay of farming communities, but vast changes are taking place in these churches, just as in cities and suburbs. Small churches in declining communities are dying. The ones that remain struggle to attract members and employ pastors. Increasingly, farm families drive twenty or thirty miles to attend churches in large towns and cities. That is also where they go to shop and where their children go to school.
You argue that farmers are deeply loyal to their families but are also ruggedly independent. How so?
RW: What I found about family loyalty and rugged independence is that both are changing. The basic values are unchanged but their meanings are being redefined. For instance, farmers say that farms are good places to raise children. But they rarely mean that children drive tractors and milk cows. They mean that children gain an appreciation of living in the country. Farm families continue to be examples of family-operated businesses. But gender roles are changing and informal relationships are being replaced by formal contracts. Being independent means making your own decisions, not having someone looking over your shoulder, and not having your daily schedule dictated to you. But all of that is constrained by government regulations and by having to depend on markets over which one has no control.
What did you identify as the main challenges facing farmers today?
RW: Farmers face a challenge that has always been part of their lives and is becoming less predictable. That challenge is the weather. Climate change is bringing extremes in temperature, storms, and rainfall unlike anything farmers have known. In addition, farmers with small to medium acreage are being forced to expand or quit. Whether large-scale farming adds efficiency is still debated, but farmers worry that if they do not expand they will be left behind. And competition to expand necessarily influences relations among farmers. As many of the farmers we spoke to explained, they enjoy seeing their neighbors but they also view their neighbors as sharks in the water.
Of all the topics you explored in your interviews with farmers, what surprised you the most?
RW: Technology. Spending my days, as I do, tethered to a computer and the Internet, I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn the extent to which farming has also changed as part of the digital revolution. But I was. My research assistants and I conducted interviews by cell phone with farmers on their tractors while a GPS guidance system drove the tractor through the field within a margin of three inches, an on-board computer monitored the soil and adjusted seed-to-fertilizer ratios accordingly, and the farmer in turn kept track of fluctuations in commodities markets. Technology of that sort is hugely expensive. Farmers acknowledge that it is not only labor saving but also enjoyable. But the digital revolution is influencing everything about farming – from who operates the machinery to how often farmers see their children and from what they depend on for information to what they have to do to qualify for financing.
The farmers we spoke to were deeply committed to family farming as a lifestyle. They hoped it would continue and that some of their children would be farmers. But many of them expressed doubts. They worried about the corporate takeover of farming. And they were preparing their children to pursue careers other than farming.
Read the introduction here.
Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).
From chapter 3 of The Battle for Yellowstone:
It is estimated that 30 million buffalo once inhabited the United States. In a matter of decades this number was reduced to 23 single animals. There were two main causes of this: first, they were the focus of mass hunting and second, the U.S. government ordered them slaughtered in order to starve the Native Americans as a military strategy. The 23 surviving buffalo made their home in Yellowstone and eventually swelled their numbers to about 4,000—today they make up the “Yellowstone herd.”
Yellowstone holds a special place in America’s heart. As the world’s first national park, it is globally recognized as the crown jewel of modern environmental preservation. But the park and its surrounding regions have recently become a lightning rod for environmental conflict, plagued by intense and intractable political struggles among the federal government, National Park Service, environmentalists, industry, local residents, and elected officials. The Battle for Yellowstone asks why it is that, with the flood of expert scientific, economic, and legal efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, there is no improvement? Why do even seemingly minor issues erupt into impassioned disputes? What can Yellowstone teach us about the worsening environmental conflicts worldwide?
Justin Farrell argues that the battle for Yellowstone has deep moral, cultural, and spiritual roots that until now have been obscured by the supposedly rational and technical nature of the conflict. Tracing in unprecedented detail the moral causes and consequences of large-scale social change in the American West, he describes how a “new-west” social order has emerged that has devalued traditional American beliefs about manifest destiny and rugged individualism, and how morality and spirituality have influenced the most polarizing and techno-centric conflicts in Yellowstone’s history.
This groundbreaking book shows how the unprecedented conflict over Yellowstone is not all about science, law, or economic interests, but more surprisingly, is about cultural upheaval and the construction of new moral and spiritual boundaries in the American West.
From chapter 2 of Caught:
The race to incarcerate began in the 1970s. It persisted over the next four decades despite significant fluctuations in the country’s economic health and crime rates. Since then, there have been several points where different groups of people have suggested reforms because it was becoming too expensive to incarcerate as the same level, including an advisory board appointed by Ronald Reagan and fiscally conservative Republicans who had previously been penal hard-liners. Still, the rate of incarceration has not decreased, and the current model is not economically sustainable.
The huge prison buildup of the past four decades has few defenders today, yet reforms to reduce the number of people in U.S. jails and prisons have been remarkably modest. Meanwhile, a carceral state has sprouted in the shadows of mass imprisonment, extending its reach far beyond the prison gate. It includes not only the country’s vast archipelago of jails and prisons but also the growing range of penal punishments and controls that lie in the never-never land between prison and full citizenship, from probation and parole to immigrant detention, felon disenfranchisement, and extensive lifetime restrictions on sex offenders. As it sunders families and communities and reworks conceptions of democracy, rights, and citizenship, this ever-widening carceral state poses a formidable political and social challenge.
In this book, Marie Gottschalk examines why the carceral state, with its growing number of outcasts, remains so tenacious in the United States. She analyzes the shortcomings of the two dominant penal reform strategies—one focused on addressing racial disparities, the other on seeking bipartisan, race-neutral solutions centered on reentry, justice reinvestment, and reducing recidivism.
In this bracing appraisal of the politics of penal reform, Gottschalk exposes the broader pathologies in American politics that are preventing the country from solving its most pressing problems, including the stranglehold that neoliberalism exerts on public policy. She concludes by sketching out a promising alternative path to begin dismantling the carceral state.
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