I think of Brecht’s poem “To those who follow in our wake.” One stanza says:
They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad to be among the haves!
But how can I eat and drink
When I take what I eat from the starving
And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?
And yet I eat and drink.
Written in 1939, in exile from Germany, Brecht’s context is profoundly different than ours. And yet, when he writes: “I ate my food between slaughters/I laid down to sleep among murderers/I tended to love with abandon” I find that he speaks to questions that remain current. Brecht’s answer to the question But how can I eat and drink/ When I take what I eat from the starving/ And those who thirst do not have my glass of water?: Make trouble for the rulers. When you are betrayed to the slaughterer, hope that your death causes them to sit easier on their throne – which is to say, while we dwell in this life of eating and drinking although (and sometimes because) others starve and thirst, make rulers sit on that throne with less ease.
I think we can make trouble for our rulers through turning our attention to what it would take to answer the question how should we eat. This re-orientation starts with shifting to a relational understanding of consumption. I follow Lisa Heldke in this productive shift from substance ontologies to relational ontologies in thinking about food. She argues that many of our ethical decisions about food come down to what are in effect substance ontologies – that some particular thing is to be eaten, or not eaten, and the “eatability” quotient depends on the characteristics of the thing in question. As Heldke notes, substance ontologies give us a lot of traction on individual decision making – they can have a kind of clarity of classification, and their epistemic demands are fairly mild. So, if you have decided for reasons to not eat meat, all you need to know is if some given food contains it to decide whether or not you’ll eat it. In thinking about the specifically ethical and political dimensions of what to eat, Heldke notes that substance ontologies are less helpful. Asking why you eat or don’t eat meat opens the question of how to decide which animals suffer, why we attend primarily to mega-fauna, what considerations show up aiming to present further global warming, and how to assess the comparative needs to beings involved in food systems. Heldke also suggests that there is a kind of moral absolutism frequently bundled with substance ontologies that actively gets in the way of attending to the relations involved in making something food. As she writes:
Food, in particular, is deeply relational—by definition. To be food is to be (defined as) something that can be eaten by something else, and eating is, of course, a relationship. But the relational character of food extends far beyond the stage at which it is actually consumed. To become food—to be rendered edible, palatable, delicious—means that a living thing has been part of scores of relationships, both natural and cultural: with the soil in which a plant is grown and the sun and rain that enable its growth; with the factory workers who process a raw material for market; with the heat and the metal pan that turn an ingredient into a “dish” in someone’s home. In industrialized society, foods are the products of extremely long and complex sets of relationships (Heldke 83).
Thinking about all food choices as relational, as “with-y,” in Heldke and Raymond Boisvert’s terms, constellates them as congealed relations; this orientation opens ethical and political questions so that we can consider our responsibilities to a much broader and more complex web of interconnections.
Immediately, a relational ontology unsticks previously frozen decision making; instead of judging the ethical and political relationships of consumption based on the substances being consumed, we can ask about the relationships congealed or enacted in the consumption. We’re not eating things, we’re participating in relationships, and how responsibility to those relationships unfolds is contextual. The context and meaning-making of consumption is situated in relation not only to the distribution of power, harm, benefit, and more as it’s practiced in the present; that context is also a trace of the history that shapes the material conditions of eating, drinking, and so on.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s short story “Circles Upon Circles” describes a Nishnaabeg mom, who has been out gathering wild rice with her family; as they put the canoe on the car and start to leave her settler partner gets into a discussion with some fellow settlers who would prefer to have a beach on the lake, rather than the shallow waters that wild rice plants need to grow. The narrator reflects:
They want a beach. We want the rice beds. You can’t have both. They want to win. We need to win. They’ll still be white people if they don’t have the kind of beach they want. Our kids won’t be Missisaugua if they can’t ever do a single Missisaugua thing. (Simpson 78)
Substance ontologies focus on the rice; is it good or bad to eat local, wild-harvested rice? Relational ontologies look at the context in which rice is tended, harvested, related with, and the web of historical and present relationships that make up what we are. And these relational ontologies are not fixed by, for example, categories like “Indigenous” and “settler,” nor do Indigenous practices of relationality with hunted animals translate to settler practices of eating factory-farmed meat. As Margaret Robinson has argued about veganism and Mi’Kmaq legends, there are specific contexts in which animals are understood as offering themselves as a sacrifice so that others can live. As she says,
The values obtained from an ecofeminist exegesis of Mi’kmaq stories can serve as a starting point for an Indigenous veganism. The personhood of animals, their self-determination, and our regret at their death, all show that choosing not to ask for their sacrifice is a legitimately Aboriginal option. (193)
Because Aboriginal people are the targets of genocide, the cultural practices we adopt or reject are vitally important…Some may argue that the embodiment of Mi’kmaq values into new practices, such as veganism, is not a legitimate development, and may even threaten the ways our treaty rights are assessed by others. Yet those who value only the preservation of an unchanging tradition join with the colonial powers in seeing no place for contemporary Indigeneity. There is more to our culture and to our relationship with the land, particularly as women, than hunting and killing animals (193).
Robinson compellingly shows that relationships – to culture, oral history, land, animal relations, and more – are both situated in relation to their history and malleable, undetermined. Conceptions of relational ontologies may help settlers understand both that it is possible to be in relations of consumption without purity and that no relation is transferable. Instead, relationships are situated and personal, collectively shaped and intimate. Taking a relational ontology approach changes the conversation we’re having about what we should eat; it invites us to clarify the stakes and reasons we’re making one decision and not another.
At a stroke, white settler vegans can stop asking whether Indigenous people should eat that seal meat, let them tend their own relations, and turn instead to asking what relations we are placed within when we make food choices. And at the same stroke, white settler omnivores can stop talking about Indigenous people thanking the deer for offering his life to the hunter as they bite into a fish burger made from tilapia imported from China.
This turn from substance to relational ontologies intensifies rather than resolves the contradictions and imperfections associated with consumption. Or, perhaps it is better to say that it refuses the lie that there is any way to eat or drink that is free from suffering. In practice, I would say that few vegans actually believe that eating vegan frees them completely from implication in relations of suffering. There are, though, the self-righteous few, such as a colleague who eats vegan and believes that everyone should adopt it as a lifestyle, advocating for example for a departmental policy that all food served at colloquia will be vegan and critiquing people who eat animal products or wear leather or wool. This colleague feeds her many cats chicken, which is completely appropriate and necessary to being a good nurturer of obligate carnivore animal companions. So in practice, although she is avowing a substance ontology, she is enacting a relational ontology, in which she holds her own behavior to one standard but respects the boundaries of her companion animals’ needs. I believe being honest about these kinds of relational decisions liberates us from hypocrisy and a particular form of performative virtue signaling; it may also be a kinder way to get on together.
A relational ontology of eating invites us to perceive the act of eating as only one nodal point in a distributed web of connection and co-constitution, consumption and waste management. Instead of taking the boundaries of our bodies or of the substances we take in as the source of the answer for how we should eat, we can turn outward to look at the conditions of the production of food – what relations are nourished in the soil when things are grown in one way or another? Whose hands tend the plants, and what are the conditions of their lives? Who processes the substances that become food? How is the waste generated by that processing handled? Where does the water that nourishes the animals and plants in their growing process come from? Where does it go? What microbes are encouraged to proliferate by which practices of using low-dose antibiotics in feed of various sorts? What are the practices of sewage management that handle the material afterlife of our eating – do we shit into drinking water that then needs to be treated? What are the carbon costs of consuming food that is shipped long distances versus eating foods grown in heated or cooled greenhouses nearby?
Frequently we won’t know the answers to these questions. But if we learn a little about the conditions of food production at industrial scales we might make policies that look like substance decisions, but which actually track our best approximation of holding relations in view. So we can do an analysis of what the costs and effects of one eating decision or another are, and use particular agential cuts as our guides. “Eating local” might be a synonym for “I try not to eat food grown in drought-ridden areas stealing water from diminishing aquifers and processed by people living in conditions of agricultural slavery.” But, of course, local food wherever we are is frequently tended by people who are precarious workers experiencing tremendous harm in their work. As with any cut, this will be a limited and impure decision. Oddly, holding a relational ontology in view as one of our guidelines for asking how we should eat allows us to recognize that there is only, ever, unclean eating. We cannot get it right, we will always cause other beings to suffer and die in order for us to live, and we cannot individually solve the scale of problems given us simply by living on this earth, nourishing our bodies and excreting waste.