If You're Not Fast You're Food

by Peter Block on September 20, 2010

Tagged as: Gifts / Hospitality / Association / Food

This is a bit of a rant, so forgive me. I received an email advertisement from The Timberland Company. The ad said,

If you’re not fast you’re food.” 

Gulp. Timberland sells shoes and outdoor accessories. I know them a little and they are a good company with a care for the environment. They have an enlightened management, and pride themselves on social responsibility and happy employees.

So I pay attention when they warn me I am one shoe away from being on someone’s menu, a blue plate special, the entrée du jour, fresh from today’s harvest, if I am slow, which I am.   

 “If you’re not fast you’re food.”

tells me my future might be lived within someone else’s stomach. Not exactly what I had in mind, despite Jonah.  

When they tell me that their shoes will give me the speed to avoid death by being eaten, I wondered who has me in mind for lunch. Maybe they are right. Since the ad, I become a little more leery of all those around me. Reminds me of the old joke of two guys being chased by a bear and one stops to put on his tennis shoes. The other says, “Why are you wasting your time? You can’t outrun a bear.” The first guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear!” All he had to do to survive was outrun his buddy.

The Modernist Mindset

The ad is important because here is a pretty enlightened company in a pro-sustainability industry and even they are operating out of the conventional modernist mindset that life is a competition. If you want the spoils, you’ve got to be the victor. It is just this mindset that no longer works for the majority of the people on earth, even in the wealthy countries. What is called the financial crisis in rich countries is not a crisis, it is a cracking apart of a collection of taken-for-granted beliefs.   

Here is what is in play. Modernism took its identity from competition, individualism and scarcity. It valued what was new and shiny. It defined the good life as the ability to consume.  Your standard of living was measured by your annual income. Your worth was a number, where wealth and satisfaction are one in the same. Living thus became measured by wealth. For a person and a nation.

Another expression of this mindset is that we declare poor nations to be what we now call developing nations. They can have a five-thousand-year-old history and traditions, but if they are not rich in monetary terms, they need developing. The modernist identity is all about expansion, scale and how fast something is growing. It wants to know how many we have of anything. Modernism coupled with industrialization made cost and revenue the point and the market the only place that mattered. Modernism associated the idea of freedom with the quality and strength of a market. A prosperous market is freedom, a weak market is oppression. Throw in the idea that the free market is also part of God’s plan for us, you have all bases covered. 

I Want My Mommy

Now all these beliefs that the modernist project counted on are trembling. We have crises in the financial markets, in health care, in education, in the environment, in the breakup of the family unit, in our trust in government, in still staggering numbers of poor people and the persistence of war and violence.

This can all be explained away as temporary and simply a bump in the road, which is implied by calling it a crisis. This can be explained as Darwinian selection, the dominance of the strong, a lack of leadership, the poverty of human values, the leading indicators of the upcoming Rapture.

It might be more useful to simply say that the modernist beliefs have reached their limits. They had a good four-hundred-plus-year run, but the liabilities and side effects are now exceeding their obvious benefits. It is not enough to reassure ourselves that we will not be the ones to be eaten; the important thing now is to realize that even conceiving the world that way makes no sense. I am not on anyone’s menu, and never was. 

The Movement Afoot

What we are seeking and discovering is a narrative distinct from modernism. Our work with abundant community principles and the growing community and localism movements can be viewed as an effort to create a new identity for ourselves — one that replaces the assumptions of modernism. You see it in every arena: the new urbanism, going green, alternative medicine, home schooling and schools reaching out to their community, local and healthy food, gift based economics and local currencies, sustainability, living simply, social entrepreneurs, governments pushing civic engagement, very local and positive news channels, gift and appreciative-based development efforts.       

What ties all these together is a worldview of cooperation, not competition; abundance, not scarcity; and measures of well being that have nothing to do with material wealth. It is a frame that says we can make do with what we have, even if we have little. It declares that we are enough, we have the gifts and capacities we need even if we stopped schooling early. Our health is not in the hands of professionals, but is produced by our habits and supported by the citizens around us. We can stop the self-improvement effort, which some say is an act of violence anyway.

This new context has us treat feet and legs as means of transportation. Malls become potential farmlands instead of the other way around. Sharing with neighbors makes convenience stores obsolete. I make a living by making things again, and making things last. Little is wasted and water from a tap starts to taste good again.  

The measures of this new frame are also spreading. We see things like happiness scales, measures of healthy communities, triple bottom lines for businesses. We are valuing communalism and community again. This is actually happening. There is emerging a handmade and walking distance movement. We are replacing the supermarket with market places. We eat food that is grown locally and sold everywhere. This summer I bought my tomatoes from the hardware store.

And we now do all of this not out of a puritan obligation or social responsibility, but because it is satisfying. It gives a function back to the family and the neighborhood. It becomes a form of entertainment, an answer to boredom and feeds our need to be useful. Most of it works and the modernist practice does not. Or soon won’t. And that is not bad news. Our children will be better off than we are, just not as wealthy.  

What to Name It

The challenge is to name and make this visible while we are in the middle of it. Calling it “post modern” doesn’t work, for I cannot build an identity from what I am not. We tried “new age” for a while, but it was a little thin. Some say it is an “information age”, but that is mostly about the internet, the computer and the end of making things. As if all that we need to be satisfied is more information and the only career worth anything is lived in a cubicle. The term “sustainability” is a possibility. John and I play with ideas of abundance and culture. 

The other challenge is to make this shift newsworthy. The journalism tribe takes their identity from being a watchdog. Most “news” outlets are about what is wrong with us. The shift from print and TV to internet has not changed this one bit. What is working, what is possible, social breakthroughs are still discounted by most news outlets as “human interest” stories. As if what is human interest is not really news.

So this discussion is a request for all of us to participate and offer ideas on how to make our movement more visible. A request to stop consuming the old, modernist storyline.   

Without naming the shift that is taking form, the modernist beliefs will continue to control the narrative. We will still be presented with the idea that competition is in the DNA, that greatness resides in individuals and that only what is scarce is valuable. None of these are true, they are just convention. The ad that says

“If you’re not fast you’re food”

is useful because it reminds us of what we are not. It calls us to reaffirm what we are, what is underway on a big scale, unclear as it might be.

~ Peter ~

PS — I must admit the ad did have some appeal for me. Although I am no longer worried about being lunch, those running shoes did come in a taupe color that matches my new pants that breathe under water and my watch that will function at 36,000 feet beneath sea level. You can’t be too careful.