Featured: Top of Home Page

Organic Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart's move into organic food would seem to inevitably undermine the whole principle of going organic in the first place -- after all the ideology of "organic" involves natural growth, human-scale farming, and diminished stress on the environment -- not behemoth stores devoted to the proliferation of cheap, synthetic consumer goods, manufacturing needs with lower price points. When "organic" is used in criticism (it was especially popular with literary New Criticism of the 1950s, from whence it trickled down into pop criticism) it is to suggest something unforced and unified by its conditions of origin, naturally evolved from the bottom up, not the product of elaborate calclulation or top-down schemetization. When applied to food the word is meant to evoke spontaneously generated relations among people in a farming village, not the most recent ruthless iteration of massive, heretofore inconcievable economies of scale. It seems like titanic irony just to put the words organic and Wal-Mart next to each other. After all, the cliched gripe about the company is that it comes to a small town and obliterates whatever businesses had sprung up organically in response to local demand. Moreover Wal-Mart leverages the efficiencies of globalization against small businesses, undoing the fabric of commerce that once wove a community together.

But that's all ideology, you might say. Surely we can overlook that for the benefits Wal-Mart will provide in making organic food accessible to the masses -- the company will make better quality food, made in more enivronmentally friendly ways, available to more people for cheaper. The people who eat organic as a means of conspicuous consumption might not like it, but is this not a good thing for the quintessential lower-middle class Wal-Mart shopper? Writing in The Nation Liza Featherstone sets up her article with a similar ruse, evoking the promise and the PR supporting the notion of a greenified Wal-Mart:

an "organic Wal-Mart" represents the democratization of healthier -- and better-tasting -- food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart's move, which will "turn hundreds of thousands of acres" now being farmed conventionally to organic. "Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth," he says.

Then Featherstone undermines this sunny notion with the underlying economic consequences: small producers bullied out, wasteful transportation from large farms to various distribution points, top-down imposition of standards, quality sacrificed to price, etc. Brad Plumer adds the likelihood of Wal-Mart using its lobbying clout to change the USDA's definition of organic to suit its purposes. He also sums up the whole conundrum of large-scale organicism nicely: "Wal-Mart's whole strategy is to slash prices by outsourcing many of its costs onto other entities—the environment, say, or its workers. The idea behind organic farming, by contrast, is to make the consumer pay all of those costs, since cheap products aren’t cheap when others are shouldering the cost. Expecting that these philosophies can happily coexist seems improbable, to say the least." The conflicting rationales stem from different priorities -- Wal-Mart assumes price (and behind that rational maximization of utility at the margin) is the overriding priority in all cases, the only conceivable definition of value (which is why they are so noticeably indifferent to externalities). Your typical fervent organic food lover prioritizes the externalities -- the suffering of animals, the stewardship of the land, the distance food travels to their table, etc, and is willing to have them priced back in so as to be avoided. This concern is often depicted as moral vanity, futile and burdened with the ulterior motives of self-promotion and self-satisfaction, mainly because such critics have bought into the idea that purchasing power is all important -- the critical metric of personal freedom -- and anything that can be done to extend the poor's purchasing power (even if it comes at the expense of the planet or the poor's own ability to make a fair wage) is justified.

Ultimately I suspect this mainstreaming of "organic" will make the concept meaningless, and a new word to mean what organic did a few years ago will have to be coined and standardized. Perhaps this will mean the world has been edged a little bit further in the direction progressives want it to go, but it may end up being a case study in how a progressive notion is neutralized by its being reduced to something fashionable to be disseminated on a mass scale -- or rather why consumerist programs don't make for very good means for conducting progressive politics.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.