Elegant Economies

Written by: Paul Thompson

The 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskel advises that “almost everyone has his own individual small economies—careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one particular direction—any disturbance of which him more than spending schillings or pounds on some more real extravagance.” She goes on to illustrate the point with examples, one of which falls squarely in the domain of food ethics.

Small pieces of butter grieve others. They cannot attend to conversation, because of the annoyance occasioned by the habit which some people have of invariably taking more butter than they want. Have you not seen the anxious look (almost mesmeric) which such persons fix on the article? They would feel it a relief if they might bury it out of their sight, by popping it into their own mouths, and swallowing down; and they are really made happy if the person on whose plate it lies unused, suddenly breaks off a piece of toast (which he does not want at all) and eats up his butter. They think that this is not waste.

I may be repeating myself to note how my mother used a similar ethic of limiting waste to encourage me in the practice of eating everything on my plate. I confess to losing track of what I have and have not already said in the Thornapple blog, but I take comfort from the vanishingly small probability that anyone who against all odds finds themselves perusing the words formed by the electrons bouncing about on their screen this week would have read the blog some time ago. In any case, cleaning your plate was a fairly widespread application of the “waste not, want not” adage at one time. Maybe it still is. These days, of course, there’s often so much on the plate that popping that extra bit of buttered toast into one’s mouth in order to effect an elegant economy may be one of the things that’s contributing to our tendencies toward diabetes and heart disease.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing worth talking about from an ethics perspective when it comes to food waste. Here is a link to the Food Ethics Council on food waste. They begin with a quote to the effect that food currently wasted in the USA and UK could “lift 233 million people out of hunger.” But amazingly, they are almost as twisted and noncommittal as we are here at the Thornapple blog. They note (correctly, I think) that simply economizing on waste won’t actually feed the hungry. Attempts to economize on food waste must be accompanied by other efforts deliberately designed to address food security among impoverished and marginalized peoples.

I wonder if they had been reading Cranford?

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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