A recent article on NPR.org tells the story of Alice Waters’ argument with a former White House chef about sustainability and the use of local food. The article is essentially an opinion piece arguing that the “food fad” emphasizing local ingredients has gone too far and that Waters herself has turned into the some sort of food fascist. “…do we really need to know the provenance of an egg?” the author asks.

I was stunned by the question and absolutely astonished at how ill-informed this piece seemed. To my mind, there seemed no reasonable question here; we absolutely need to know about the origin of our food. We are absolutely responsible for how that food is obtained and for the practices we support when we pay for our food. Certainly, we are all quite ignorant of where some, perhaps most, of our food comes from; such is the reality of the culture we live in. But given a choice between knowing and not knowing, deciding for ourselves what enterprises our food dollars will support, who would willingly give up the privilege of knowing?

Lots of people, it turns out, including the author of this article. He and I are on opposite sides of what seems to me the central ethical questions of the time we live in: For how much are we responsible? Do we see ourselves as self-sufficient individuals or as interconnected facets of living, dynamic systems? And what does it truly mean, these days, to live by the ubiquitous golden rule: Do under others as you would have them do unto you? 

It all seems so clear to me. In order to “do unto others,” we must know what our actions actually do unto others. We can’t turn a blind eye to the effects of buying coffee that is not fair trade because it’s cheaper. We need to know how our actions, such as eating food that’s been flown in from another continent, impacts our environment, and what that means for the global ecosystem. It doesn’t mean we expect ourselves to be perfect. It does mean we can’t ethically embrace ignorance.

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