sustainability hair-splitting; a new gestation period for artists
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Did someone forward you this email? Subscribe to get yer own:
In light of the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, both riddled with missed opportunities and bad giveaways and the largest climate investment in US history, I’ve been thinking about both the incomprehensibility of everything changing and the need for it all to change. Anything huge (capitalism, earth systems, etc) changes gradually, even if it is changing fast, because it is big. And, massive change is often impossible because collectively, we cannot even imagine it into existence.
Which yields a good bit of hedging, from “green” product alternatives to the argument made in a recent Atlantic piece: Veganism Might Not Be the Most Sustainable Diet.
This article is focused on splitting hairs about what is most sustainable for our food system. There’s basically no question that agroecologically-focused, community-sized food systems are most sustainable, especially if what we mean by that phrase is least likely to expedite the end of humanity, and perhaps make it possible and also nice for us to stay around.
This “don’t worry, not everyone has to be vegan” argument is rooted in a global assessment of land use. The reason why meat production and land use are so interwoven is that animals need feed, and feed is often grown (corn, soy, etc) on massive tracts of land that are monocropped and aggressively fertilized, which degrades the soil, causes erosion and downstream impacts, and generally ruins the land for any future use.
Research about land use is crucial, and also inherently limited; we should never have had a global agricultural system in the first place. Back of the napkin math about what happens to emissions when we convert grazing land to cropland is kind of obscene at this point. If we had any track record whatsoever of group agreement about how to shift land use, we would be long off fossil fuels, and everyone would have a place to live. Analysis of emissions from land use without analysis of the power structures that guide it is ultimately just speculative.
I recently met a sweet, astonishingly intelligent person getting a PhD in geophysics, with a focus on improving climate models. It came up that some of my work is the political and cultural organizing to take power away from the fossil fuel industry. To this, they replied: that’s what actually matters. Thus, my point above; science is powerful, necessary, and historically undermined, but data about the crisis falls short without imagination about what lies beyond, and understanding of what prevents us from getting there.
Along the same lines is this truly mind-blowing interview with the new CEO (as weird a term as the ‘climate czar’) of AmeriCorps. The article mostly focuses on how AmeriCorps members are addressing food insecurity through their placements at organizations like food shelves and other arms of the charitable food system.
The piece is entitled “AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith: Volunteer Service Is Key to Food Security.” The word choice here is a hilarious and terrible Freudian slip. I’m pretty sure the right word here is ‘voluntary,’ which means acting of one's own free will, whereas ‘volunteer’ in a context like this generally means work for an organization without being paid. AmeriCorps positions are often paid poverty wages, and are about as financially sustainable as doing full-time volunteer work, and also are not obligatory.
I love the idea of a national jobs program in which people have access to work that furthers the public good, compensates people fairly, and engages communities in civic service. There are horrid nationalist versions of this and other ideas like those put forth by former presidential candidates Warren and Buttigieg which probably would be better and theoretically could be excellent. On a conceptual level, it’s ancient—getting young people to feel like a part of something in a way that also gives them agency and some structure for beginning adult life. On a very modern level, we need absolutely everyone if we’re going to transform the systems that run our lives.
But AmeriCorps is not that. Often, Corps jobs with food system placements are some of the hardest jobs in town—offering food to people in title, but preventing overdoses and absorbing secondary trauma and feeling the ever-insufficience of social services in reality. These workers are also often on EBT, which is a great government-funded food assistance program, but often is a way of subsidizing poverty wages paid by negligent entities. I suppose it’s different if the government is paying for AmeriCorps and supplementing with EBT funding, but it’s the same model that the Walmarts of the world are using, too.
And food insecurity is by design, like any problem in any system. Underpaid labor propping up the charitable food system, which often insists on being (falsely) apolitical, is super sustainable, actually. More young people graduate from college, drowning in debt, and turn to service that will help with their loans and burn them out quickly, leaving no room for dissent or criticism. Sustainable can also mean “able to be upheld.”
So, if we’re relying on a system that runs on cheap labor and bickering about efficient land use to feed us, maybe the most likely drastic change in how we get food is that we just won’t be able to get it. But behind these unimaginative arguments about how to address food and climate issues via individual contributions to change are two truths: we need a food system that uses land responsibly and treats people with respect. Read the primer on peasant agroecology; learn about struggles for food worker justice; meet and care for the people who feed you.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Beyoncé’s album Renaissance came out a couple weeks ago and I’ve been listening to it for the past few days. The spectacular work deserves a whole volume of analysis but I want to focus on one particular aspect of Renaissance: its string of rebirths and their implications for streamed media. Beyoncé and Lizzo both re-released songs, HEATED and GRRRLS respectively, after audiences confronted them about the use of the word “sp*z,” an ableist slur outside of the US. Beyoncé also re-released her track ENERGY when confronted by Kelis about an uncleared sample of her song Milkshake. The conversation around these post-release edits has mostly circled around the tired bad-faith argument of “cancel culture has gone too far,” but I’m much more interested in how the dominance of streaming services enables this slower gestation period for artists and implications for both artists and audiences.
I’ve always loved the physical completeness of an album: the jewel case or record jacket, the art in the album booklet, and of course the songs: their order, the way they flow into one another and take you from one place to another. I stopped my streaming subscriptions because they diminished that experience from me: I missed the idea of building my record collection. I don’t have access to Spotify’s endless catalog and the albums I own are just a folder full of MP3 files, but they're a reflection of who I am and that matters more to me.
It’s the finished album that engages me as an artist as well. When I self-published Be Well! I wanted the songs to tell a story, to have a digital booklet that augmented the listening experience. I still have dreams of pressing a record of it someday, just to hold it in my hand. But still, I know this album of songs I wrote could be better, or different at least. I could re-record some parts, I’d like to add another act to the story, change instrumentation, whatever.
That’s what’s so interesting about Renaissance's rebirth. Even after the physical editions hit shelves, the record wasn’t done. Whether you think the original version of HEATED was better or not is your own decision. The interesting thing is that because streamers don’t buy the song, it stays mutable, more a public draft than a finished product. Conversely, this lack of finished-ness invites the audience’s contribution: the Beyhive and Kelis were the ones who prompted changes in the album, they are as much authors of Renaissance as Mrs. Knowles-Carter.
Streamed music is a completely different animal from the album you grab from a shelf, and there are endless possibilities for what this new kind of music could be: An album could be a Ship of Theseus, where instruments, lyrics, and samples change one-by-one until the album is completely reborn. A song could represent a wave/particle duality where the song is constantly shifting until you start to listen to it and it suddenly snaps into focus for a moment. Or an artist can build a song publicly alongside their audience, taking their input and even their own recordings into the process. Criticisms of “cancel culture” republishing seem almost disingenuous in asking streaming music to behave like its purchasable relatives.
Ink & Paint
When Kelis took to Instagram to ask Beyoncé to remove the Milkshake sample from ENERGY, she said “I know what I own and what I don’t own,” in reference to incorrect claims that producer Pharrell Williams actually owned the right to license the song. In an era of interpolation, which Renaissance plays with to great effect, ideas of ownership, “copying,” and theft become incredibly complicated.
Streaming, too, has interesting implications for ownership. Services like Spotify license tracks from artists and record labels, who they pay from a static pot of money based on their percentage of total streams. Spotify doesn’t own the music, but they dictate a huge part of the terms on which artists are paid today. Listeners don’t own the tracks they listen to; their favorite album could disappear off the platform, or just never get added. My personal take is that, in order to realize the potential of streaming to create a more dynamic and interactive kind of music, we need platforms that don’t exploit folks on either side of the stage.
Anyway here’s a Junglepussy tweet I love: