Civility and Food Trade

The recently proposed food bill and its consequent public backlash have once more reasserted how important the basic trade and distribution of delicious goods is to society. The general concern being that small scale food growing and trade operations will be hindered. More than this, it also inadvertently hurts the community sub groups which cluster around such operations. For me, things like community gardens aren’t just about growing some food to cut down your food bill, or taking on knowledge from green-fingerd gurus (as important as these things are), but also largely about forming small collectives around something which is central to our existence.

Things like growing and trading food are examples of what Italian architect Aldo Rossi called fixed activities. They are activities that have always existed in cities and always will due to their primary importance in sustaining the dense populations who reside in cities. It is no coincidence that food trade spaces were also the seat of political and festive life (i.e civic life) in ancient cities.

Allowing simple bottom up food trade to continue is of importance for cities to have the kind of public and civic life which nurtures sub groups within the greater collective of a city. It seems when the government considers the laws which govern how we grow and trade food they give very little thought to how food features in the public life of our cities. The city, in a sense, is what it eats.

The following extract is from a masters thesis I wrote last year on the topic of food trade infrastructure with a particular focus on urban markets and supermarkets and how these as urban typologies give form to cities and its public life. This particular piece looks at the links between civility and food trade space.

Hopefully it exhibits how food growth and trade is important to the public life of the city. Furthermore, I hope it will highlight that to over regulate something as elemental to society as food growth undermines bottom up initiatives which generate important variety within our civic world.

Without further ado…..



Civility and Food Trade

A lot of our public institutions – public libraries, public transportation, public parks and recreation

centres – are only partly for the sake of looking after those who couldn’t afford those services left on their

own. They are also traditionally sites for the cultivation of a common citizenship, so that people from

different walks of life encounter one another and so acquire enough… sense of a shared life that we can

meaningfully think of one another as citizens in a common venture.”1


From the above passage we can ascertain the faceted role that public institutions have in cities. These kinds of infrastructures have always hosted the practices of public life: they are the vital organs of cities.

Common ground is vital to fostering a sense of community for collectives, yet somehow food trade structures slip out of that circle of common ground when they take the form of supermarkets.

Due to factors such as market initiatives (intentional removal of the social dimension from the first self-service food stores to cut overhead costs), morally questionable atmospheric conditions (intentionally cold interiors to

push customers through faster), consumer demand for convenience (once a week bulk shopping supported by private motorcars) and monopolisation of the food cycle (companies controlling multiple stages of food industry from production to sales) food has receded from the public forum. So strange for something so vital to the existence of cities.

Food is presented to us like we are consumers, rather than citizens in a community:

“…the time may be right for a new kind of politics – a politics of the common good. What might such a

politics look like? Unlike market-driven politics, a politics of the common good invites us to think of

ourselves less as consumers, and more as citizens… when we deliberate as citizens, when we engage in

democratic argument, the whole point of the activity is critically to reflect on our preferences, to question

them, to challenge them, to enlarge them, to improve them.”2


Citizenship engenders coming together as strangers with awareness that the collective share a common destiny in the quality of the city and its society. Yet market driven societies and their cities have disconnected private life from public. That is not to say public life has ceased to be important, but the chemistry between public and private has been altered:

Today public life has become a matter of formal obligation…The stranger himself is a threatening

figure, and few people can take great pleasure in that world of strangers, the cosmopolitan city…We have

tried to make the fact, of being in private…an end in itself…to know oneself has become an end, instead

of a means through which one knows the world…Masses of people are concerned with their single life histories and particular emotions as never before; this concern has proved to be a trap rather than a liberation.”3


How we act impersonally to each other as strangers is just as important as how we maintain personal relationships with those closest to us. Food space has always offered a fertile forum for such interactions – markets, restaurants, bars, cafes, street vendors – these are venues in which strangers have happily coexisted:

These establishments also straddled the boundary between public and private, with chambers available

for more than culinary pleasures… Condemned by moralists as the haunts of drunken men and

disrepute women, cafes actually became a place for workers to socialize and for families to spend a quiet

evening; Balzac described them as the “parliament of the people.””4


Unfortunately supermarkets don’t offer such exchanges. The space of supermarket shopping can offer stressful conditions, the bringing together of people in these privatised commercial circumstances is reminiscent of the interactions experienced by motorists in overly congested streets.

The intentional curtailing of any activity except shopping ensures the separation of the supermarket from the civic sphere, yet common supermarket typologies assert themselves as prominent nodes in the urban fabric. The business of supermarkets gains every economical benefit of this exchange but offers little in return.

Fixed activities such as food trading and the sites they occupy are ideal places for individuals to come together as citizens in a common venture. This is not to imply that every food shop must be accompanied by political discussion, but that such an opportunity might exist: this would also provide the opportunity for bottom up community activity ranging in scale from sub groups to the greater city collective.

Creating public space for the sake of creating public space can often result in its emptiness and lack of activity. Historically and currently, citizens frequent public realms in the search for an event. Events which may be minor or major in scale, casual or formal in tone. The joy of coming upon unsolicited events is one of the defining virtues of dwelling in cities, and one that food markets historically accommodated, they engender suitable grounds for the cultivation of civility. The need for this cultivation is question of moral significance, and one that the compelling economical efficacy of supermarkets has crowded out. If we are to truly value food we need to reassert its moral significance with its presence in civic space, not as an economical commodity housed in privatised conditions.


1 Sandel, Michael. Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizeship ? Lecture 1: Markets and Morals. Transmission on 9th

of June, 2009.

2 Sandel, Michael. Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizeship ? Lecture 4: A New Politics of the Common Good.

Transmission on 30th of June, 2009.

3 Sennett, pg. 3?5. The Fall of Public Man. Published by Cambridge University Press, London, 1974.

4 Pilcher, Jeffery M., Food in World History, pg. 65.

A nation of sheep?

It has been a fantastic year for unoriginal ideas. First Wellywood, then Happy Feet, and most recently Sonny Wool – the psychic sheep who predicts the winner of Rugby World Cup matches. Could somebody please just hurry up and sue us for plagiarism?

There once was a time when we were proud of our creativity – our ‘no. 8 wire spirit’. From splitting the atom, to jet boats, to medical respirators, New Zealand boasts a long history of science and discovery that has really put ‘kiwi ingenuity’ on the world map. Looking back, I see the likes of Richard Pearse, Burt Monroe and John Britten, all of whom took on and beat the world with extraordinary creations from the humble back sheds of their quarter acre sections. I think we can agree that invention and innovation form an important part of who we are as New Zealanders. Given recent events, however, I feel we could now be on the brink of losing this long standing emblem of cultural pride.

But rather than despair that Hollywood does want to sue us for plagiarism, or that sheep-shagger jokes are now being augmented with straight-out sheep jokes, I recently decided to jump ship and embrace our unoriginality. Once I did, a world of possibilities opened up before my very eyes. Indeed, I soon realised that New Zealand has something quite unique staring it in the face just waiting to be harnessed and tapped. Something so unique, in fact, that it has the potential to put New Zealand right back in the driver’s seat as a world leader in its chosen field. This idea has been quietly brewing for several years now, but it wasn’t until I read of Sonny Wool that the penny finally dropped. Are you ready for it? I propose… that New Zealand become a world leader of unoriginal ideas.

Think of the possibilities! We could become a tourist hotspot of unoriginality! People would come from all over the world to see what we copied next.

But can we achieve such a lofty target? In consideration of the Wellywood, Happy Feet, Sonny Wool trifecta, I suggest that we are already well on track. That being the case, only minimal financial investment will be needed to turn this vision into a reality. Plus, that money we do invest will multiply many times over in return due to increased tourism.

Of course, before we can start making grandiose claims about being the world leader, we will first need to develop our unoriginal infrastructure. On top of our already existing exact replica of Stonehenge in the Wairarapa, I figure we’ll need three more attractions. Here are my suggestions. One: the Golden Straight Bridge – we build a suspension bridge across the Cook Straight. Two: the Leaning Tower of Hamilton. Three, and this will be the most expensive and politically divisive: Palmerston North, Venice style – we flood the streets of Palmerston North so that people can commute by boat.

To a large extent, our choice of attractions will determine the success or failure of our strategy. But that is not all that will be required. To complete the transition to a nationwide culture of unoriginality will require a firm resolve and a steely-eyed determination to dumb ourselves right down. As we have proved to be quite a smart bunch in the past, we will have to really go for the throat – or the brains, as it were – of our nation.

But what does this mean in practice?

Much of our nation’s brains reside in the scientific research institutions scattered about the country. If we want to harness our unoriginality, we are going to have to stop those pesky scientists from coming up with their new and interesting ideas. In short, we will need a publicly funded science and innovation (S&I) system that stifles the creative spirit and hinders innovation and invention. Now, anyone familiar with the level of discontent our scientists hold towards the S&I system since Rogernomics will be well aware that our system is actually not too far from this already.

The success or failure of our publicly funded S&I system is, to a large extent, dependent on the decisions of the Government which, it seems, could swing in either direction. On the one hand, it appears the Government is opposed to unoriginality and is instead tracking towards a more effective S&I system. Actions such as the establishment of the Ministry of Science and Innovation; the development of a national science and innovation strategy; the appointment of a Chief Science Adviser; and incentives that recognise outstanding achievements in science will all shift us closer to that vibrant, collaborative model that would see us truly realise our intellectual potential.

On the other hand, there are still several aspects of our publicly funded S&I system that foster unoriginality and hinder creativity. The following list is informed by two open letters from hundreds of scientists to the Government; informal interviews with scientists and scientific stakeholders; literature review; and unpublished research from the Sustainable Future Institute in Wellington. There are five key aspects of our S&I sector that will see unoriginality prevail.

First (and most importantly, in my humble opinion), the competitive funding model that pits scientists against scientists in a desperate scramble for scarce research funds. Instead of a culture of sharing and collaboration between the greatest minds of our country, scientists protect their ideas from each other like precious bullion.

Second, investment of public funds in S&I remains low compared to the OECD average.

Third, instead of doing what scientists do best – science – our best scientists waste vast amounts of precious time filling out tiresome forms to meet the requirements of public research funding proposals. The Foundation of Research Science and Technology (FoRST) weren’t nicknamed the Foundation of Really Serious Timewasting without reason.

Fourth, the commercial imperative of the Crown Research Institute Act 1992 that requires CRIs to make a profit each year.

Fifth, a lack of opportunity for postdoctoral scientists due to the replacement of FoRST-funded Postdoctoral Scholarships with the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships. Couple this with low overall postdoctoral funding, and you have two important elements of the ‘brain drain’.

To recap, New Zealand is poised between two futures: a return to the creative spirit and a re-establishment of our no. 8 wire culture; or forward to a loud and proud future of unoriginality and mediocrity. I’m all for unoriginality! Who’s with me?

Children, theatre, death and climate change

I recently went to see The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, an award-winning one-man children’s show that blends puppetry, multimedia, animation, technology, projection, and live and recorded music.

Alvin Sputnik tells the tale of one man’s journey to save a post-apocalyptic world in which rising sea levels have killed billions of people, Those who are left live in a sort of uber-Venice, where farms perch precariously on top of skyscrapers and their inhabitants sit on their verandas and fish the seas all day long. Scientists have tried everything to ‘save’ the earth: floating islands (sank), space-probing the universe for inhabitable planets (we are alone), giant sponges (rotting), chemically altering sea salt (epic fail). In a last effort they believe there may be a ‘second earth’ inside the earth’s core, an idea reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The scientists recruit crusaders to journey into the sea and activate a volcanic eruption that they believe will force the second earth to the surface.

“Many of you will die,” the brave crusaders are told by their Commander; “In fact, you will all probably die, but that is a risk I am willing to take.”

Alvin signs up as a crusader, so that he may swim in search of the soul of his dead wife, which, represented by a bobbing light globe, has slipped into the sea and down into its depths, away from Alvin’s life.

Alvin Sputnik is cute and funny – a little foam ball atop of the puppeteer’s hand, with fingers for limbs. He can swim, walk, dance, hug, and even do the moonwalk – he is the perfect hero for a children’s show.

And yet, despite the charm of the central character, the issues this show is dealing with are profound, particularly given its status as a children’s show: climate change and the extinction of much of the world’s population, the death of a loved one, the continued living presence of a soul, the self-sacrifice of an individual, and lack of acceptance of death of a loved one.

One of the interesting things about attending artistic shows with children (and live theatre certainly has more resonance here than a pre-recorded film) is that they have not developed a ‘theatre-etiquette’ of behavioural rules while watching a show. As such, they often vocalise feelings and questions which most adult-going audience members internalise. Normally, I find vocalisation from audiences frustrating and distracting (self-entitling and self-righteous members of artistic institutions, complaining or doddering elderly, or too-cute children) but in this instance I was fascinated to see how much of the youthful audience (about one third of which was under the age of ten) responded to these themes.

I was particularly moved by a small boy sitting behind me – let’s call him Tom, for the sake of ease.

At one point Alvin rows from house to house, trying to find the scientist’s headquarters. Tom asks, “where is that”, to which his mother replies, “that is earth”. “What is earth?” “That’s where we live.” “Why is there so much water Mummy?” “It’s just pretend, honey.”

Although really, with the ever-present and increasingly-accepted reality of climate change, island states preparing for their eventual submersion, and the creation of new human rights laws to deal with environmental refugees, how much of this story really will be just pretend by the time these audience members have grown up?

Further questions arose from Tom as to why Alvin is crying, what the bobbing light is and how it relates to Alvin’s wife. The mother explains that the light is the soul of Alvin’s wife, but that although the soul continues to live, Alvin’s wife herself is really dead. “It’s just pretend,” the mother repeats.

Tom’s response perfectly captures way art can blur the boundaries between what is real, what is ‘pretend’, what is a depiction of what is real, and how to tell the difference between these, or indeed whether there even is a clearly defined difference.

How confusing would it be, at eight-odd years of age, to discriminate between an alive person, a dead person, and an alive soul; an earth where we live that is simultaneously a pretend version of where we live; and why you would accept to go on a mission in which you will probably die.

Probably, at eight years of age, many of these concepts are beyond one’s immediate comprehension. While I am no psychologist, I would hope that recollections from this performance would perhaps be stowed away for future grappling, or as reference points for the inevitable dawning realisation of the meaning and impacts of death.

There have been many studies and documentation about the role of entertainment to educate children about death, and in particular the reaction children have toward death in Disney movies. Certainly in my own experience I have vivid memories of crying profusely during Bambi at the point in which Bambi’s mother dies, and of the relevance it had for me in coming to understand that my own mother would one day die too. I remember that it was not the way that Bambi’s mother dies (spoiler: she is shot) that particularly got to me, but rather the very extended amount of time it takes Bambi to realise that his mother has been shot. He thinks his mother is also escaping with him, running just behind him, and is elated upon reaching a hiding place. When he turns around to share his excitement with his mother it seems an age before he finally comes to realise that his mother is dead.

While I was doing some research for this blog I re-watched this scene in Bambi, and his dawning realisation only lasts for a couple of minutes. Nonetheless, to me as a child the points of realisation appeared to take forever: the mix of excitement at reaching safety, of the expectation of sharing a feeling of happiness with your mother, the confusion at the absence of your mother, the excruciatingly slowly dawning awareness of what has happened, and that he must come to his own realisation without the guidance of another loved one. It was that slow and detailed process of Bambi’s realisation which really hit home on the reality of death and what kind of an impact losing your mother could have. In fact, from the research that I did it, Bambi and The Lion King are costantly referenced as the two hardest-hitting Disney shows for young audiences, and which seem to have most resonance for those in their twenties. All of which is to say, that entertainment and performance has a crucial role to play in educating children about the reality and inevitability of death.

While much of this post is a review of Alvin Sputnik, I particularly wanted to explore the importance of performances such as this for children: not only to understand the reality of death, but also its educative and preparatory value in exposing children to the reality of climate change, the changes that may happen to the planet, the ceasing of the earth as we know it, and the deaths which are likely to occur as a result of this change.

It seems to me that in a world in which the extent of climate change is still much debated, and in which at a political level the establishment of measures to mitigate climate change is glacially slow (pardon the pun), it is really in the arts and in performances such as this, particularly those which reach a young audience, in which education about and preparation for the reality of climate change is able to happen. This will hopefully make some difference to the way humanity develops response measures during this coming generation’s life-time.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is created and performed by Tim Watts. It is a Weeping Spoon Production, currently produced by the Perth Theatre Company.