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Professor Eric Usner on Linkage between Food Systems and Music

Updated: Mar 7

1.) With having your expertise is primarily in music, how has your interest in the environment shifted in recent years?

I grew up in northern Lancaster neighboring my grandparents farm in the remnants of an agrarian community. That along with Scouting imbued me with a reverent relationship with the world around me, and to land, to what bell hooks so well captures in her writing on place—in spite of trying to transcend what I then viewed as provincialism by pursing cosmopolitanism through higher ed.

After undergrad I was torn between becoming an educator (teacher, or professor if I could) or environmental law. It seemed to me education offered ways to understand and address any issue, so that flexibility lead me to grad school in multidisciplinary field of ethnomusicology; but my interest in environmentalism remained. During my post-doc time at U of Chicago, I got involved with community-based food justice initiatives on the South Side. Food rooted me in place, re-awakening and catalyzing my reconnection to community and environmental/ecological concerns.

Collaborating with students in my food courses has been a way of deepening this work in academic ways and offered a space to expand it in response to climate emergency issues. Last year, I was invited to give a talk in Vienna and hoped to see if I might manage meaningful work on climate through music. My walk to the university to speak on music’s role in greenwashing as climate change denialism was interrupted by waves of thousands of youths marching in the first global Fridays for Future March. I had already been working with Regenerate Lancaster to localize Project Drawdown but witnessing this really pushed me to think about serious re-calibration of my work and life.

2.) How can people connect music to the (U.S.) food system?

There are several ways. For starters, many social realities which are now gathered under the moniker of food justice have been chronicled in song throughout the 20th century. And if we think about food as a site for understanding our relationship to land and ecology, and ultimately one another and all life, there are many more moments of musical witness. The work of friend, scholar and rabbi Jeffery Summit at Tufts offers a compelling case exploring how an interfaith group of coffee farmers also made music together as a means of creating community and the success of their difficult collaboration. Here’s a playlist I’ve been building, though I’ve not yet expanded its scope beyond the Americas. It’s collaborative, so feel free to add music that captures the connections. Another way is to think about the role that music plays in advertising food, in shaping consumers perceptions and taste.

3. What is one piece of advice that you would give to students who want to learn more about the U.S. food system?

Talk to the people in the places that feed you. Learn about the spot they occupy in the system. Assemble your understanding through other’s work and experiences. Then read critiques. If you’re interested in labor, talk to those who labor in that system. If interested in ecology, speak with the farmers. Keep a critical thinking cap on when reading reports and viewing documentaries, for folks often are advocating their perspectives over an inclusive and integrated and thus actionable one. Honestly, I think perhaps the most comprehensive source for a non-partisan overview is the Lancaster Farming News. Published right here (gotta represent), it has a large national readership within the agriculture community and includes a diverse range of voices and sources of information. For an academic and critical introduction, of course, Marion Nestle’s clearing house blog: Well, that was three, and combine them with a helping of the pieces in the journal Orion and you’ll have a good grounding in the mutuality & systems view I try and effect.

4. What do you see as the future of food in the U.S. (regarding policies and practices)?

Hmmm. This one is more difficult. The future of our food system is the future of our country and world. What is needed and what I hope for is at odds with what is likely. For the health and well-being of ourselves, our communities, our economies, our environments and ecologies, our air, water, soil and souls, we need a radical reprioritization of what matters in our lives.

At the policy level this can begin with a Farm Bill conceived as a moral document that gives preference to public good over private gain in the (big) business of agriculture. It profoundly shapes the choices most of us have, and indeed, with disastrous outcomes for public health. But equally powerful are building on the food movement to create a robust nationally networked system of locally-led initiatives around food system and land-use policies (commonly left to local governments). In short, participatory democracy as an aspect of the everyday.

While for a Finer Future (Lovins, 2018) we need leadership at the federal level that encourages local work. As Tom Simpson once told me, “It’s not enough for us to screw in a light bulb, we need to screw in politicians” – or rather, representatives who answer to the public and a common sense shaped by a vision and understanding of the generational impacts of their decisions. So too can we each choose to begin fashion daily lives that are more awake to the world (Less “ignorant” Wendell Berry would argue. Or in the mantra our presciently sage critic of America, Thoreau, would implore: Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!).

Individual actions matter when done in concert with one another and become new social practices and behavioral norms. College is a space to explore alternatives to the Business-as-Usual mindsets that have brought us to this existential brink. As a young engineer Ben Lindner said while working to bring renewable energy to remote Nicaragua: “Whatever you can do, needs to be done, so pick up the tool of your choice and get started.”


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