Saturday, December 4, 2010

Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas. Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations.

In my last post I provided a link to my review of Empires of Food in History Today.  But I'm not completely satisfied with their edited version of my review - so here is my original version:

We now know that modern agriculture is a technical sleight of hand that converts fossil fuels into food. In northern Europe potatoes grown in soil saturated in artificial chemicals are harvested by oil guzzling machines, loaded onto trucks and driven to the south of Italy to be washed by badly paid immigrants, then transported back up north to be sliced by oil guzzling machines, deep frozen and packaged in bags made from oil. Our ‘agriculture’ is destructive to animals, insects, fish, and plants, and is unsustainable.

Food experts have warned us. Tristan Stuart wrote that “infinite abundance is an illusion” (Waste, 2009). Carolyn Steel said “our food system is no more secure, ethical or sustainable than Rome’s was” (Hungary City, 2008). Now Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas want to warn us that we are about to go the way of previous food empires - we face collapse. Let’s be clear: I get their message. I agree with it. I’m an environmentalist and a vegetarian. Therefore it is with reluctance that I say: as a work of history, this book leaves much to be desired. “History” is the label that the publishers give on the back cover of the book, so it is as history that I will evaluate Empires of Food.

When historians begin an investigation with their conclusion already drawn, this makes for bad history. It is, in effect, history written backwards. Like a team of lawyers, Fraser and Rimas have set out to secure a conviction, and they are willing to ransack the past to find evidence that will bolster their case. This might be okay for lawyers, but we expect more from historians. One might argue that neither author is a historian (that much is obvious), but they do claim to have written a work of history. But their methodology is flawed. They are not really interested in why Rome fell; they just want to make a point.

Their use of footnotes is erratic. Frequently their citations refer to a book or website, but not any specific pages. Far too often they make unsubstantiated assertions. They claim that Modern Israel provides one of the few cases of a country that went to war for water. Which war are they talking about? Incredibly, there is no reference to a source for this. Then there are the errors in historical fact. In 1591 the King of Spain was not the Emperor of Austria!

In their desperation to keep the reader reading, the authors cannot pass up any opportunity make a joke or pun. They offer us the following wisdom: “Piracy, like bad lighting and tuberculosis, was one of the ancient world’s accepted misfortunes”. Unfortunately, this type of silliness punctuates every page. The sub-heading of a section that examines Hannibal of Carthage is: “Hannibal Lectured”.

Then there are the constant comparisons made with today (perhaps in order to make history relevant or just for laughs). The Early Christian Desert Fathers were like “the hippie movement of recent generations”. St. Anthony “opened an organic farm” (what other type of farm was there, in the pre-industrial age?) The monk John Cassian was, “a rising star on the church hierarchy” who wrote a “how to guide for abbots.” St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictines, invented “a Model T of group asceticism” and “invented a successful business model.” His monasteries were “much like modern transnational corporations.” The St. Denis fair near Paris “was similar to today’s Walmart”. I found myself wondering was I reading a book from Horrible Histories for adults.
The authors attempt to frame their narrative by telling the tale of a Florentine business man called Francesco Carletti who in the late 16th, early 17th century travelled around the world. This, I suppose, is meant to keep the narrative together, but I found Carletti’s adventures simply decorative and added little to any historical understanding. I’m afraid I came to view him as some sort of comic-strip figure, a bit like “Tintin in the New World”.

Every secondary school student learns from their English teacher the importance of clear transitions. But the obscurity of the transitions in this book left me floundering. For instance section four opens in today’s China, eight pages later we are with 16th century Carletti in the New World; after four pages he is jettisoned and we are in ancient Mesopotamia; within three pages we are in ancient China; nine pages later it is ancient Sumeria; we return to China after just two pages, and then after a further two pages we are in the UN’s Millennium Goals. The entire book is structured like this.

That said, Empires of Food is a light read, with a serious purpose and an important lesson for the way we live and consume today. Don’t let me put you off. Please read it. But a work of history it is not.

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