The Me or the We, a Golden Mean Required
I read a fantastic piece in The New York Times about Ntsiki Biyela, “South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009” who is with Stellekaya, a boutique winery in Stellenbosch, the Sonoma of South Africa. She was born and raised in a small village, but lives and works in the modern agricultural economy. My favorite Ms. Biyela quote in her inspiring story of cross-cultural enrichment, and the human journey, was this line comparing the two world’s in which she lives comfortably, “In the European style it’s about striving, the ‘me life,’ everything about me. In the village, it’s all about the community.”
This got me to thinking about life here in the USA. I see the clash of these to ways of being all around me. We seem as a people to go back and forth between the me and the we whether on the right or left, religious or secular, rich or poor, white people or those of color.
On the one hand, we celebrate the fact that our laws and ethos support the individual’s freedom to fully develop and express ones talents, skills, and desires. Our heroes are people who achieve fame or wealth because they have become unique and created something of value. On the other hand, we lament the loss of community cohesion, relationship, and close connection to those who live around us. Many of us yearn to move to a rural community or create intentional communities in urban and suburban centers. Gardens and food production are often central elements of both these styles of living.
What does this indicate about us modern Americans? To me, it says we need to remember the ancient Greeks who sought to live within a “golden mean.” The philosopher Aristotle described the golden mean using the example of courage, the state of being between recklessness and cowardice. The Greeks felt the golden mean defined beauty and could be applied to art, individual behavior, and politics. The ideal existence of an ancient Greek was to develop beauty all around ones life.
One of the reasons I am so committed to a healthy food and agriculture is that I see it as a fundamental place to achieve the golden mean. If we achieve it in the most basic human activity of creating food, we have a chance to establish a pattern that will infuse all segments of modern life. Today our food system is bifurcated between an industrial ideal and a boutique ideal. This does not serve us. It reflects the split in our culture that must be mended to allow an American reunion of sorts.
So the question is: can we allow for individual expression and fulfillment and also maintain healthy cohesive communities. Can we be both selfish and selfless? Can a farmer or rancher make a good living and do it without degrading the soil, polluting water, exploiting workers, or harming animals? Can food manufacturers produce and sell affordable food without making eaters ill from consuming nutritionally empty calories. Can a mother of two, with a tight budget or even receiving food stamps buy foods that are good for her kids, the planet, and workers too? I believe the answer is yes. We can do all those things if we will.
If we decide as a culture to answer “yes” to all three questions, we must design a healthy food and agriculture. It will take a generation, serious collaboration, trial and error, money, science, new business models, and new policies at all levels of government. But we can do it if we insist it be done and many millions lend a hand. The farmers and ranchers, the mothers, the chefs, the CEOs, the policymakers and the advocates for change could muster the power and resources required. The only requirement is an act of will.
The good news is that there are representatives from all those aforementioned positions who have made a decision and are on the way to revitalizing the food system to fit our current needs. All they need now are more allies who also seek a golden mean and a healthy balance between the “me” and the “we” mindset. Perhaps you will lend a hand too!