Raj Patel is an award-winning writer. His works include the book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. His second book, The Value of Nothing, was a New York Times and international bestseller. His latest book, co-written with Jason W. Moore, is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. He is also working on a soon-to-be-released documentary film project, Generation Food.
An activist and academic, Raj studies the global food crisis and other big-picture issues facing humanity. He is a leading voice on the social and environmental challenges posed by industrial food production. Raj is a visionary and an advocate of paradigm-shifting ideas—around agroecology, food sovereignty, equality, patriarchy, late-state capitalism, and environmental justice. He distinctively tilts toward a premise of the regeneration of our living systems and the way in which we as a society operate in the context of creating a shared and just living future.
We had the opportunity to chat with Raj Patel about his vision for a just and healthy world and his hopes for the future. We are looking forward to hearing him speak at our upcoming Living Future unConference.
Julie Tonroy: What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) for future generations in order to live in a healthy, sustainable world?
Raj Patel: Our planet is undergoing a biospheric state-shift. The hardest part of living in the new world will be to live unencumbered by the bad ideas from the old one. Most humans think that nature and society are separate, that resources are here to be exploited, that we can economically grow our way out of the trouble we’re in at the moment. That kind of thinking isn’t just sloppy—it’s behind the destruction that has caused this state-shift in the first place. For future generations, there’s a lot to reinvent if they—and we—are to live sustainably within a new and different biosphere.
JT: Your political philosophy has been described as libertarian-socialist with anarchistic tendencies. Can you tell me what that means to you?
RP: “Libertarian-socialist with anarchistic tendencies” sounds seditious, but it just means that I think that we can do better than the world we’re in right now. And I suspect you do too. If you like entrepreneurialism and free exchange, as I do, you shouldn’t be a fan of capitalism. The exchange of two people buying and selling at a market or souk is utterly different from a system rigged for monopoly and coercion. If you care for sustainability, you oughtn’t to be a fan of a system that lets corporations exploit the natural world, workers, and their communities. I also suspect that you’re not a fan of a sprawling police state, keeping order, and doing the bidding of its billionaire owners. I’d peg you as a fan of democracy. I think you’d prefer more accountable government, with less money spent on war, more on healthcare, childcare, and programs to end poverty, hunger, and shifts toward agroecology and energy transformation. And if the only way for government to be more accountable is that you have to participate in it more than you do, I think you’d be up for that. Which might mean you’re a libertarian who wants as much freedom as possible, a socialist who wants equality and sustainable democratic control over the economy, and an anarchist who doesn’t particularly like being policed by the government. Turns out you may be a libertarian-socialist with anarchistic tendencies after all. Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
JT: Our mission at ILFI is to further the transformation of communities that are socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative. What does that look like to you?
RP: Every ecology is different, and that’s why every community must be too. But there are patterns. The key word for me in ILFI’s mission is “restorative.” How is it that people in the Global North restore for the privilege that has come unearned to almost everyone living here? No one asked to be born to a society built on slavery, ecological destruction, colonialism and exploitation—but here we are. White people didn’t emerge from the womb asking to receive the dividends of white supremacy, men didn’t ask to be born with the dividends of patriarchy. But we live lives that sit upon a brutal history and that history’s continuation in the present. We appear to be at the beginning of a conversation about what restoration and reparation might look like—reparation for patriarchy, slavery, white supremacy, genocide, ecocide. Of course, these conversations are difficult. But who reading this wants a more sexist society, a more racist one, a more patriarchal one? The process of having these conversations is the very process for a more honest reckoning for how humans live with the rest of the planet. The future is one of conversation and of reckoning.
JT: In your book Stuffed and Starved, you talk about the nature of the world’s food systems. What do you believe is the most critical element that you feel is needed to transform the current system into one that is sustainable and equitable?
RP: There’s no single tilt that can fix a world that’s unequal on so many axes. But the idea of food sovereignty, invented by the 200-million-strong peasant movement, La Via Campesina in the 1990s, is an idea I like a great deal. It has a sprawling definition, but the upshot of it is that every community, region, nation, and biosphere needs to have its own conversations about how to common its resources so that no one goes hungry. Although it may seem like an abstract idea, this process has already had tangible results. Peasant communities that embark on this process have started to observe things like better levels of gender equality. Ecological restoration comes along too.
JT: What does equity mean to you?
RP: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.
JT: We’re excited to have you as a keynote at Living Future 2018 in Portland, OR. Can you share a bit of what you hope to address with our audience?
RP: I’m very excited to share some new systems thinking from a new book called A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, co-authored with Jason Moore, and to share some of the footage from a documentary that I’ve co-directed with Zak Piper and Steve James (of Hoop Dreams) fame, which shows a little about how to get from the system we’re in now to a better one.
JT: Tell me about the most exciting idea you’ve uncovered recently.
RP: I can’t stop thinking about the two millennia in which hunter-gatherer societies had domesticated grain, but in which grain had yet to domesticate humans. Most exciting: hunter-gatherer societies were ones where there was gender equality the likes of which we have never known. It’s exciting because it means our relationship to the biosphere isn’t destiny, and our social relationships aren’t either. Just because the crops need something doesn’t mean we have to give it in the way we have for the past few thousand years. We can reinvent. We can reimagine.
JT: What is the most pressing challenge related to the food industry?
RP: That it can’t be sustainable, no matter how hard it tries. It’s the quintessentially destructive industry. According to KPMG, the food industry can’t make enough revenue—not even profit but revenue—to cover its environmental footprint. The food industry knows this already. I learned about this from one of the VPs for sustainability at Nestlé. Better everyone knows now, so no one deceives themselves, or consumers, about “sustainable Big Food.”
JT: What are a few simple changes that people can make that can have a big impact?
RP: Wittgenstein liked to point out the difference between simple and easy. The changes with the biggest impacts are simple—just not easy. Simple is “fight for equality,” “organize for change,” “practice reparation.” Easy is to buy something organic, local, and fair-trade. I’m not saying don’t do easy. But I’m saying don’t delude yourself that it’s going to have a big impact.
JT: What are your hopes for the future?
RP: Despite the difficulties ahead, I’ve seen incredible change happen around the world, pushing back against the big food industry, ending hunger and patriarchy, beginning the conversation about reparations. It’d be wrong to pretend that our trajectory is one bending toward ecological and social sustainability. But it’d betray the many movements I’ve seen, from India to Oakland to Malawi to Peru, to ignore the fierce hope with which they fight to bend that arc toward justice.