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Our Land of Milk and Honey: Spirituality in the Transformation of Ecological and Heritage Production

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Abstract

Many facets of globalisation are contested on ethical or humanitarian grounds but the defence of local food and agriculture often borders on the spiritual. In particular, the decline or homogenisation of local food and agriculture is often acutely felt because it embodies a spiritual violation of cultural identity and sacredness of the land. The essence of this crisis has been newly characterised in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Laudato si’, which captures the spiritual relevance of agriculture by characterising the human response to contemporary ecological decline and culinary shifts. In trying to understand how we arrived at our present state, sociologists of faith, such as the late Jacques Ellul have long described how technology comes to dominate over nature in processes such as agricultural development. In his argument, by incrementally drawing humans away from nature and into technological spheres (by engineering tractors, producing agri-chemicals, and genetically modifying plants), alienation from nature is amplified and the scope of ecological crisis broadens. This phenomenon is not new; indeed, most religious texts and creation myths caution against this alienation through parables and commandments. In light of the new public attention being drawn to the spiritual dimension of the ecological crisis, this chapter explores content from Judeo-Christian texts and Cambodian myths that specifically speaks to this phenomenon. The valorisation of the land found, for example, in the book of Exodus referencing Israel as the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, is typical of religious and pseudo-religious narrative that are integrated with political narratives such as nationalism and cultural patrimony. In this chapter, I address how national metanarratives built on these spiritual-historic characterisations play a role in shaping agriculture and food policy and evaluate the spiritual dimension of a few Cambodian initiatives that attempt to moderate the alienation brought about by industrialisation and globalisation.
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Our Land of Milk and Honey: Spirituality in the Transformation
of Ecological and Heritage Production
Hart N. Feuer
Abstract
Many facets of globalisation are contested on ethical or humanitarian grounds but
the defence of local food and agriculture often borders on the spiritual. In
particular, the decline or homogenisation of local food and agriculture is often
acutely felt because it embodies a spiritual violation of cultural identity and
sacredness of the land. The essence of this crisis has been newly characterised in
Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Laudato si’, which captures the spiritual relevance
of agriculture by characterising the human response to contemporary ecological
decline and culinary shifts. In trying to understand how we arrived at our present
state, sociologists of faith, such as the late Jacques Ellul have long described how
technology comes to dominate over nature in processes such as agricultural
development. In his argument, by incrementally drawing humans away from nature
and into technological spheres (by engineering tractors, producing agri-chemicals,
and genetically modifying plants), alienation from nature is amplified and the
scope of ecological crisis broadens. This phenomenon is not new; indeed, most
religious texts and creation myths caution against this alienation through parables
and commandments. In light of the new public attention being drawn to the
spiritual dimension of the ecological crisis, this chapter explores content from
Judeo-Christian texts and Cambodian myths that specifically speaks to this
phenomenon. The valorisation of the land found, for example, in the book of
Exodus referencing Israel as the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, is typical of
religious and pseudo-religious narrative that are integrated with political narratives
such as nationalism and cultural patrimony. In this chapter, I address how national
metanarratives built on these spiritual-historic characterisations play a role in
shaping agriculture and food policy and evaluate the spiritual dimension of a few
Cambodian initiatives that attempt to moderate the alienation brought about by
industrialisation and globalisation.
Key Words: Heritage, national cuisine, spirituality, Pope Francis, globalisation,
agriculture, laudato si’.
*****
1. Introduction
As a multifaceted phenomenon, globalisation is often contested along
numerous practical, ethical and humanitarian grounds; on the issue of food and
agriculture, however, the arguments often border on the spiritual. While the various
direct responses have ranged from the erection of trade barriers and the
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Thesis
Full-text available
The environmental movement, which picked up steam from the 1960s in many rich countries, is manifested in modern-day green politics, pollution regulation, nature protection, the re-emergence of renewable energy, and organic agriculture. Discursively, this was, and still is, a post-industrial movement that arose out of atavistic notions of ‘returning’ to the land and reversing toxic pollution and human alienation from nature. Since the mid-1990s, this discourse has penetrated into theory and practice for development in pre-industrial countries, presenting new and often contradictory lessons for modernization. In particular, the concept of ‘ecological modernization’, which was used starting in the early 1980s to describe technology-based efforts to clean up the pollution and reconcile industrial development with higher environmental expectations, is turned on its head when applied to developing countries, as the focus shifts from intervention to prevention. In developing countries, however, prevention does not strictly correspond with a transfer of Western protocols for, among others, environmental regulation, organic agricultural production and sustainable wild harvesting. Instead, prevention is more about proactive engagement with contemporary agricultural discourses and adaptation of technical advancements that provides a basis for novel and more culturally-embedded food and medicine systems. This dissertation looks at the ‘capability’ (following Amartya Sen) of Cambodian society to reflexively interact with the pressures and opportunities presented by the commodification of food and medicine in light of ongoing discursive debates between industrial and alternative agriculture. It looks at assets available to Cambodians, including the ‘agro-social skill’ arising from rural experience that maintains a differentiated appreciation of agricultural products, as well as the role of historical narratives in creating a common basis of understanding agricultural modernization. Specifically, the dissertation explores the experience of three agricultural product types that are undergoing a contested commodification, namely organic/natural rice, sugar palm products, and traditional medicine. This work evaluates how these traditional product forms are socially reconstructed as heritage or ecological products throughout their commodification by analyzing the ways in which they are marketed, integrated into cultural politics and development, and perceived by rural and urban consumers. The primarily qualitative analysis of trends in production and consumption is also informed by economic analyses of farm productivity and marketing dynamics using a unique method of natural experimentation developed for this work. In conclusion, this dissertation outlines the evolving successes and dilemmas of various initiatives for promoting ecological and heritage products and uncovers mechanisms by which societal ‘capability’ for proactively encountering agricultural modernization and commodification is either eroded or buttressed. The author suggests that the precondition for successful initiatives in the long-term is the preservation and reproduction of agro-social skill, which provides the reflexivity and ideological motivation to consciously direct commodification of heritage culture and, in broader terms, provide agency in managing the encroachment of capitalist relations.
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