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Sitopia: How Food Can Change the World

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Sitopia: How Food Can Change the World

Carolyn Steele

We live in a world shaped by food. Our bodies and minds are made from it. Our daily routines are structured around it. Our cities and landscapes were shaped by it. Our politics and economics are driven by it. Our ecological footprint is determined by it. Our sense of identity is inseparable from it. Our survival depends on it. How, then, have we come to consider food as just another commodity; something to be made as cheap and convenient as possible, while we get on with the 'more important' things in life? 

Our profound disconnection with food, our most vital necessity, is the curious legacy of industrialisation. It is also the symptom of a mindset that sees life as a problem to be solved, rather than as a gift to be grasped. Cheap food is the relic of a way of life we can no longer afford. With a burgeoning global population, climate change and a sixth mass extinction underway, we face a ‘Neo-Geographical Age’, in which our way of life and use of resources will matter as much to us as they did to our ancient ancestors.

The most powerful agent shaping our lives and world, food is an ideal medium through which to address the biggest questions we face in a connected way. My term sitopia (food-place) describes this approach (from the Greek sitos, food + topos, place). Sitopia is essentially a food-based, practical alternative to utopia; our oldest and greatest tradition of thinking critically and holistically about how to live. Being an ideal, utopia can’t exist; whereas we already live in sitopia – albeit a bad one, since we don’t value the stuff from which it’s made.  

 The primary focus of sitopia is to ask what the world would look like if we were to value food again. To value food is to value the natural world from which it comes, as well as all those who work to feed us. To value food is to recognise our shared need to eat, and the deep commonality this confers on all earthly beings, both human and non-human. To value food is to recognise that the way we inhabit land and share natural resources is profoundly political, raising deep questions about access, ownership and custodianship. Thinking through food thus raises a slew of questions about the very nature of urban civilisation. We may live in cities, but if our food comes from elsewhere, where is it that we actually dwell?

Taking an historical as well as contemporary and forward-looking approach, this seminar will use the lens of food to ask what a good life for the twenty-first century might look like. It will explore how, by thinking and acting through food, we can rebalance our relationship with nature and with one another to build more resilient, equitable societies. Its core concern will be to explore how food can help us rethink our idea of a good life. Food is the great connector: by thinking, not just about food, but through it, we can gain vital insights into the systems and structures that govern our lives and change them for the better.

Teaching will involve a field trip to Sitopia Farm in Greenwich. 

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