Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Natural History on the Big Screen: The Ants & The Grasshopper

Webinar: Natural History on the Big Screen: The Ants & The Grasshopper
March 21, 2022

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Hello, everyone. Welcome to the 30th Annual Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital and tonight's event around the film, The Ants and the Grasshopper. My name is Asantewa Boakyewa. I'm Associate Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and I'll be moderating tonight's discussion. Today's program is hosted in collaboration between the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. And on behalf of the Smithsonian, it's our pleasure to welcome you to this event.

The Smithsonian has been a proud partner of DCEFF for the past 30 years, and we'd like to thank the Environmental Film Festival for being a great partner, not only during the festival but throughout the year. Tonight discussion's is in conjunction with the film, The Ants and the Grasshopper. If you haven't had a chance to see the film yet, you can watch after the discussion until the festival ends at the end of this month, or rather in a few days, on March 27th.

Today's program is particularly special to us at the Smithsonian, as we're very interested in food sustainability and food security. In fact, last April at the Anacostia Community Museum, we opened Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington. This exhibit, which happens outdoors in front of the museum on the museum's plaza, as well as indoor in the museum's exhibit gallery, explores questions about where our food comes from and who prepares it, as well as issues of food injustice, by looking at the greater Washington, DC area's food system, the inequalities that shape it, and the people working to transform it. In addition, the museum has continued our urban gardening program online and in person at the museum. In-person gardening workshops resume at the museum in April, so please stay tuned for those upcoming events.

Before we get started, I want to say a few housekeeping notes. This discussion offers closed captioning. They can be turned on via the settings or gear icon in the lower right corner in Eventive. If you have a question you'd like to ask our panelists, and we hope you will have many questions, please use the chat box in Eventive. We'll be watching submissions throughout the program, so feel free to ask your questions at any time and we'll get to as many as we can during the audience Q&A portion at the end of the program. Also, if your question is for someone specific, we ask that you just let us know when you submit that question in the chat box, and I'll be sure to direct it to the right panelist. So now let's dive into the conversation.

I'd like to introduce our panelists. First, I will introduce Raj Patel. Raj Patel is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas Austin. In 2016, he was recognized with the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. He has testified about hunger to the US, EU, and UK governments, and is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. His second, The Value of Nothing, was a New York Times and international bestseller. His latest, co-written with Rupa Marya, is Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. Thank you for joining us tonight, Raj.

Next I'll introduce Jim Goodman. Jim Goodman and his wife Rebecca ran a 45-cow organic dairy and direct market beef farm in Southwest Wisconsin for 40 years. His farming roots trace back to his great grandparents' immigration from Ireland during the famine and the farm's original purchase in 1848. A farm activist, Jim credits present and past failures of farm and social policy as his motivation to advocate for a farmer-controlled consumer-oriented food system.

Currently he serves as a board member of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Family Farm Defenders, and Board President of the National Family Farm Coalition. Jim is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with a bachelor of science degree in animal science. He also holds a master's degree in reproductive physiology from South Dakota State University. Thank you for joining us as well tonight, Jim.

Jim Goodman:
Thank you.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
So without further ado, let's jump into a conversation tonight. I'll start with Raj. For those who might not have had a chance to see the film yet, could you give a brief overview?

Raj Patel:
The film was initially a vision of how Africans in Malawi in particular are ending hunger. Originally when we made it, the idea was, here's a story about a community that's on the front lines of food insecurity and poverty who have seized the reins of power and decided that they're going to end hunger, not by doing small things but by doing big things, by changing the way they farm, but also by changing power relations in the home. But through filming, we were three or four years into the filming when our lead character, Anita Chitaya, who some of you may have seen in a video specifically for this festival, she said to us, "Look, I've learned about climate change and I've learned what you in America are doing and failing to do. Do you need me to come to America to persuade people that climate change is real?"

And so then the film pivots, really driven by her needs and her desires, to a journey through the United States in conversations with a range of really exciting, really interesting farmers, including Jim, and then she returns to Malawi and we see the sort of fruits of her efforts pan out towards the end of the film.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Wonderful. And going along that thread of Anita and Esther as well, the main subjects in the film, can you share with us why it was important for you to share this story now in particular?

Raj Patel:
Well, honestly Asantewa, we started filming this in 2011, when we thought it was important to share the story back then. And the reason it was important to share the story is because a lot of food documentaries are ones that you've kind of seen before, where it's frontline communities, communities of people of color, working class people suffering. The lights come up and you see suffering, and then there's more suffering, and then the talking head like me going, "Yes, the poor have it tough," and then there's a bit more suffering. And then all of a sudden the tone shifts and you start seeing white people in farmer's markets with tote bags, and you're told, "Look, if only you'd drink out of a steel straw and buy kale and buy organic food from Walmart, everything's going to be fine."

That kind of a film was a problem back then, because it didn't center the theories, the frontline understandings of peasants, whether in the United States or around the world. And so what we wanted to do was really turn the camera, not to the experts, but actually to get rid of folk like me and to show that actually some of the most exciting and big picture thinking is coming not from sort of boffins and universities, but actually from frontline communities and farmers and farm workers around the world.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Thank you for that, Raj. That definitely leads into the question for you, Jim, about solutions, as Raj started to talk about his approach in how he frames and presents the problem, but also obviously centers it on the solutions and the people who are driving them. From your background, what are you seeing as a US farmer, as far as several solutions for sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices, and what do you see as a solution here in the States?

Jim Goodman:
Well, it's very unfortunate, I think, that most farmers can see a little beyond their fence row, and they don't know what's happening in the rest of the world. I think that's why having Anita come here was really important, because she can tell that story. But most farmers here, I guess I should say most farmers that live in the temperate climates, we don't see climate change like they do in equatorial regions or at the poles, and we assume since everything is fine here, everything is fine everywhere. I think a lot of farmers confuse the idea of climate and weather, and they say, "Well, the weather's always been hot and cold and we've had storms," but that's weather, that's not climate.

One of the clips in the movie, one of the farmers said something, it would take a global emergency to change things. Well, we've got one and it's still not doing enough to change things. So I guess I sometimes feel very hopeless that farmers just aren't seeing the big picture and aren't looking at the rest of the world.

As far as solutions, we see a lot of young people who want to get into farming and farming the right way, in agroecology. We do see those people like Raj was talking about with their steel straws, buying kale at the farmer's market, and that's good. That can be part of it too. But I think to really make changes, we need government policy. We need regulations to tone down on the environmental damage that farmers are doing, to disincentivize the system of CAFOs and monoculture, because they definitely feed off each other, and they definitely have a huge impact on the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere. So while activists need to do our thing and try and get the word out, we also need the government to pass laws and then enforce them. You know, laws are great, but as long as they're not enforced, they aren't much good.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Indeed. And I was struck too with what you said about what the responses have been and some of the lack of understanding that you've seen from farmers here in the United States. But it struck me to the term that you coined in a blog post that you wrote with Raj called The Economy of Care, and I'm wondering if you can share and explain what that concept means, especially tying it to how this can be framed within the realm of solutions.

Jim Goodman:
Well, I guess it might go back to that not seeing beyond your own fence row. If you're only worried about yourself, you're not caring. I think that our economy kind of works that way. Raj, I'm sure he's chomping at the bit to talk about capitalism, which is not a caring economy. It works for profit, it works for corporations to make as much as they can, and that's not caring. I think if we really want a caring economy, we have to have one that respects the rights of minorities and helps more young farmers get started, pays people a living wage, provides healthcare. And that's not a big part of capitalism, because it doesn't always make money. So when we talk about money being the root of all evil, I think there's a lot of truth to that, and it certainly is not an economy that cares for people.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
And Raj, please jump in on your take.

Raj Patel:
Well, I was actually curious whether actually both of you have seen this, where it's really odd. Outside the United States, people who eat organic food tend to be associated with the people who are also caring for the environment and caring for other human beings, whereas in the United States, organic food consumption doesn't necessarily track with, for example, being vaccinated. I think that there was a really interesting something that I observed in the United States where there's a kind of fork in the way that people think about organic food, pun not intended there. But the idea is that for some people, you buy organic food because you care about the workers and you care about the people whose hands are touching the soil, and you don't want them and their communities to be poisoned.

And then there's another sort of vein, which is much more about your body is a temple and nothing impure must enter in here, and that much more sort of self-centered idea of what organic food is for and how it works is one that does correlate with sort of anti-vax thinking and with a certain kind of selfishness and carelessness. I'm just wondering, Jim, whether as someone who farmed organically for so long and who does abundantly care about the connections beyond the fence row, whether you've seen in the organic community that you've spent time with, that kind of selfishness?

Jim Goodman:
Oh, without a doubt. I think you see, when I first got involved with organic farming, nobody cared about that market, because there wasn't much of a market. And there still isn't. It's still a very small percentage of the food produced. But when people realized there was money in it, they wanted it. And the best way to make the most money out of it was to ignore the rules, whether it was to keep animals in confinement and not on pasture or to import grains that were not certified organic according to our standards, because it was a way to make money.

And I think that that has capitalism written all over it. Do what you need to do, because money is all you really need to worry about. Granted, there are still a lot of small farmers, organic farmers that do it because they really feel it's the right thing to do. We can only hope that they get paid to do it that way, and that everyone has a chance to afford to buy the things that they produce.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Thanks for that reflection, Jim, and connecting the dots there. It certainly makes me think, going back to the work of Anacostia Museum and its relation to the topics raised in this film and evident in your work, Food for the People, the first sentence that the exhibit opens with is, "With every bite of food we eat, we have an opportunity to help remake an unjust and unequal food system." And that question resonates so strongly with these larger questions about capitalism, questions about the motivations around why people make choices, consumers and farmers, and how systems really affect everyday people's lives.

And sort of, to me, is in line with the spirit that you opened with, Raj, about re-centering the narrative here away from academic thoughts, or quote unquote, those in power in traditional institutional forms of power and centering on the people every day who make the change and who are invested in the work, which is much in line with the ethos of the museum's history and in the work of this exhibit. So I wanted to hear from you both really deeper about the significance and opportunity to implement policies that benefit truly everyone in the food system. Oh, you're muted, Jim.

Jim Goodman:
Well, I was hoping Raj would go first, so I could play off his astute words. Well, I remember a poster from years back that a lot of farm groups had up. It was a picture of a pair of hands in leather gloves, obviously a farmer's hand, and they were wrapped in barbed wire. The caption was, "Eating is a moral act." And it really is. Too many people, whether by choice or necessity, don't think about their food. They don't think where it comes from. They don't maybe have the time or the money to make those choices.

But there was a book out also several years ago, Food Was Different, and it was something that didn't belong in international trade, that everyone had a basic human right to food. And I think that if we actually looked at food and food production under those terms, that it is a basic human right and that everyone should be able to afford decent food, no matter who they are or what they look like or where they live, and food shouldn't be just a mechanism for profit, much as medicine, that might give us a bit more insight into that economy of care that you mentioned earlier, that food is a very big part of our life and we all have to be able to think about where it comes from, what it does us for our bodies, and how it's produced.

Raj Patel:
And something that Anita does in the film is recognize that look, in order for us to move towards a better future, we are going to have to take power away from some people, right? Her engagement with Winston in the film is an example of her actually saying, "Look, there is an inequality of power here, and you are on the wrong side of it. And you just need to move to a place where you recognize that actually you live in the same village as the rest of us." Now, we in the United States are like that. We're Winston. The US is Winston. We don't give a hoot about the rest of the planet, and we certainly act that way and our farm policy is precisely about that.

And then I think it's important to be reminded of the fact that we do live in the same village. And the organization, Jim's being very modest, he, as being President of the National Family Farm Coalition, is also part of the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, which has over 200 million members around the world. These peasant movements are helping us really understand that it is possible to change, to really engage in policy through ideas like food sovereignty. And I think it's important just to remember that, that if you feel like we do need to shift these policies, that's fantastic. And remember that you're not alone. This isn't the sort of thing that you can do alone. This isn't the sort of thing that just by eating kale and drinking through metal straws and carrying a tote bag, you will be able to fix.

This is absolutely the work of organizing, and that's why it's something where, when you were talking about the sort of economy of care that gives us the food that we can eat in a revolutionary way, we should. But we can't eat that food as a solitary thing, just off our laps. We have to eat it around a table in community. And I'm very excited about the ideas that Jim is a part of and that Anita and Esther are a part of, and that millions of peasants around the world are actually encouraging us to think about, particularly in this moment as we teeter on the brink of another global food crisis.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Indeed. And again, this emphasis on the community telling its own story, which I think, and many others I'm sure, is what makes this work so powerful and speaks to people from across all kinds of backgrounds. I feel that whether you're an activist or very much involved with this movement or with the issue, or you're coming in with no sort of background or understanding, that film has the power to speak to you no matter what. And so thinking about, as a filmmaker, Raj, and your choices around how you put this film together, around editing and style, which you kind of given us a glimpse into the why, of course, behind that. But can you share a little bit more about some specific choices you made when it came to putting the story together on film?

Raj Patel:
Well, I've known this organization since the early 2000s, well, in fact, since it was founded in '99. I was at grad school with one of the co-founders, and so I've been following it for ages. And then I lived in South Africa for a while and I managed to go up to Malawi and see it. And I was blown away by the fact that here's an organization that is ending hunger, while Europe and North America is still sort of talking about, oh, we must save the Africans. And there's this sort of racist, colonial idea of white saviorism was happening. If people in North America were thinking at all about Africa, it was like, we must save them. And yet here's an incredible community that's redefined food systems and power relations, and really tackled patriarchy in a way that's really shown up when Anita comes to the United States.

And so I knew, look, this is a story that needs to be told. I was really lucky to work with Steve James, a legendary documentary filmmaker. He did Hoop Dreams, and he shot some of the original footage in the film. Through him, the story whereby we came across, not Esther, Esther I knew from ages before, but Anita was very interesting. What happened was I turned up with Steve and our sound guy and we were just announcing the project. And so I was at the front of the tent and saying, "Here we are from America, and we're here to tell your story." And everyone, the village elders got up and said, "Yes, thank you. You're here from America. You're here to tell our story."

And there were three women at the back who were throwing shade on everyone, including at me, like, these guys don't know what they're talking about. And Steve's camera went to them, and Steve's like, "Well, one of those three women is going to be the one who carries this story forward." And it was Anita who really popped on camera, and so we started following her story.

And the editing choice, initially we were trying to pitch it to donors and trying to fundraise. I was doing some scratch animation, oh, sorry, voiceover. But the problem with that was that essentially I was sort of turning into a sort of David Attenborough of social justice, where it's like, "And here we are among the Malawians. If you listen very carefully, if you're very quiet, you can hear them smash patriarchy," and yeah, no one needs that.

So instead of that mode, it became very clear, and particularly as Anita became the center of the story, that her voice mattered. And so this process of filmmaking was also a decolonizing one for us, us recognizing that we were in fact well-meaning people from the left in America, but still part of the colonial problem. And so our editing style changed from one where it's like, here's Anita, and here's some subtitling, to Anita really driving the story and making choices about what's in the film and what isn't.

She chose, for instance, to have the marriage abduction scene. And we, Zach, my co-director, and I are two guys very conscious of the fact that we are two men from the global North having this conversation about marriage abduction. So we asked Anita like three or four times, in lots of different ways, are you sure you want this in the film? And in the end, she said, "Look, how many times do I have to tell you? Have to put it in the film, because otherwise people won't know that this can stop." That moment of being confronted with our patriarchy and our power shaped the way that the film now looks, where for a very long time, we spent a lot of time with Anita just working out what the voiceover would be and what she wanted in and what she wanted out.

And so while you can definitely see us in the film, and we're not pretending that this is Anita's film, because it isn't, we had already been on certain kinds of tracks where this is still a film made in the global North, but we have done our best to step back and while acknowledging our hand in the production, are also very clear that it's Anita's voice and choices that matter in this film.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Thank you for sharing that. And thank you too for giving us a glimpse into how that affected you and your partner and folks working on the film. I think often, and as it should be, those who have been excluded, whose stories and voices have been silenced or marginalized, centering their stories is important. But I think oftentimes it may get lost in the conversation, not just how that uplifts the folks who have been marginalized, but also those who come from communities of privilege, and how that can change not only those who you seek to uplift, but those who are seeking upliftment, that it works both ways. I think that's such a wonderful commentary for us to hear and for the audience to hear from you.

Within that frame too, and this is a question, another one for both of you, do you feel hopeful? That's just a straight question. Do you feel hopeful about people getting more involved in these movements and tackling the climate crisis? In the film, we get to see Anita's skill with how she speaks with folks and has the impact to change how they feel about the issue, but also at the end of the film, you're not quite sure how far are people willing to go with new information, no matter how persuasive? So considering all of the things you've reflected on already, including the issues, Jim, that you mentioned around just, quite frankly of just not understanding issues quite honestly or not wanting to see them, do you find hope at all?

Jim Goodman:
Yes and no. You know, I think the people that watch the film, and like Raj said, it was filmed, I think you filmed twice at our place. The original filming was several years before the last part. But the change in Jordan, the young guy who worked for us, and his initial thoughts on climate change, he just didn't see it as being a problem, would go right along with what I was saying about people not getting the big picture, not knowing about the world. But by one of the latter takes in the movie, he said that he laughed originally and he realized he should have cried.

That speaks a lot to how Anita changed his mind, so I think there's definitely hope there. And of course, we can look over the last few years about all these young people around the world having protests against the climate and school strikes and everything else, and that's very hopeful. But by the same token, now that the economy is in a recession and the price of gas is high, they're opening up more areas for drilling, and they have carbon capture pipelines that are going to pump the carbon dioxide underground and store it. But they're going to use it to frack on the way down, apparently.

So it's like, talk is really cheap, and no matter which party seems to be in power, they say what their constituents want to hear. At the end of the day, they often don't do anything, or if they do something, it's very cosmetic and very ineffective. So until we can change that mindset, until young people are really listened to, and everyone in this movement who gets it, that makes me kind of unhopeful that they're just not listening. And waiting for a global catastrophe, as I mentioned early on, it's here, baby. It's already here, so pay attention.

Raj Patel:
You know, it was so interesting, Jim, I was reflecting on Anita's kind of heartbreak at how in the United States, while there are some communities that obviously get it, the majority of people kind of didn't. And she was just disappointed that we have so much and we do so little with it. But I think it would be a betrayal of all the work that she does not to be hopeful, even though it's hard sometimes. And something that Esther said really sticks with me. We've had some discussions about this, about change begins with denial. I mean, if you look at Jordan, for example, he's the guy who's like, no, no way, couldn't this just be the Lord taking us home? But in the end, the fact that he remonstrates and that he engages in a discussion, at least, with Anita and Esther, Esther was like, "That guy, two years from now, he'll definitely, he'll change his mind." And she called it.

And I'm heartened by that in its bigger picture form. We are in a moment where there's lots of climate denial, but this is what it likes to feel in that sort of arc of change that's often attributed to Gandhi, where first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. We're in the "then they fight you" stage, because for ages, climate change was just sort of comically one of these sort of fringe lefty ideas. And then it was just the invasion of little green men. And there's still comedy made about climate change on the right. But we're increasingly finding that actually, no, this is a fight and it's a fight for our lives. And so, as Jim was saying, so many young people are in it, because they recognize the future of the planet is at stake.

And this is the darkest and most bitter moment, but the fight can be helpful. I live here in Texas, the state that fought for slavery twice. And for ages, that wasn't even on the agenda. Now it's criminalized to talk about that, and that's progress, because next we win. Next we get to talk about the bloody history of Texas. And then we get to talk about reparations. And then we get to enact them. But we can't get to the reparations until we have this moment of denial. And we can't get to a better climate policy unless we move through the denial so many people, particularly in the United States, currently feel. So yes, I feel hope, but my worry is that it's not coming fast enough, that we're mired in this moment. And I think that's what breaks Anita's heart when she thinks about everything that we have and how long it's taking us.

Jim Goodman:
Yeah, I'd agree with that, Raj. I could just see the disappointment in her face. She thought she would say what was going on, people would say, "Oh my God, well, we know what to do. We'll change it." But they didn't know what to do. I remember a couple points, they asked her, "Well, what can we do?" Well, it's not for her. She's doing enough. It's not her job to tell people what to do, how to change their lives. We have to do that for ourselves.

And here, it seems until your own ox gets gored, you're not too excited about changing. But when we see, what is it, Oklahoma and West Texas now are burning up, last year it was California and everywhere else, Australia, people see that. And maybe some of them, not everyone but maybe some of them, say, "Oh, damn, maybe this is a thing."

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Thank you both for that reflection. This is a great conversation, and it's moving fast. I had one more question, but we're going to actually move now, because we already have some questions from the audience coming in and we want to make sure we get to as many as we can. We also want to remind everyone in the audience to please continue to submit more questions as the conversation goes on. If I can just open it right up for my first question from the audience, this is for Raj. The question is, what sorts of things are you doing to continue to engage with Anita and Esther's community now that the film is released?

Raj Patel:
Well, as I mentioned before, this is an organization that I've been aware of for now more than 20 years, and I've been working with them for more than 15 doing research and following this story. Now that the film is out, we are fundraising to be able to sequester all the carbon that we emitted in the 10 years of flying around. It was in the order of a million or so ton, maybe two. The number is at the end. And so we're working on an agroforestry project. Plus we have hundreds of hours of footage of Anita engaging in her work around patriarchy and agenda training, and so we're turning that into little nuggets that people can use and share on WhatsApp within Malawi as part of the spread of these ideas to the network of thousands of farmers that are already there.

The work with Soils, Food and Healthy Communities for me will never end. It's just, I'm committed to this place and to this movement, and I'll always be doing work with them. Right now it's just a case of making reparation for the carbon, and we're fundraising for that. But we're also just helping people learn that Soils, Food and Healthy Communities exists and that they're an organization that you can support. If you go to soilandfood.org, you can do that. Or if you go to antsandgrasshopper.org, you can find out more about all the organizations that are in the film. But yeah, I'll be in touch with them for ages. I'm in WhatsApp contact with Anita fairly regularly, and I will be the rest of my life.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Next question for both of you, and this was one that I was going to ask as well, but if there was one thing that American consumers and producers would take from this film specifically, what would it be and what should they do? Which I feel like you've kind of hinted, but we have this direct question from audience here.

Raj Patel:
No, it's a great question, because you kind of feel like you have to do something. And I think the hard part is breaking out of the mode of thinking that we are either producers or consumers, because for as long as we do that, then you are constrained to the tote bag, metal straw, kale world. And again, I have a tote bag. I have a metal straw. I eat kale. In fact, I will be doing that as soon as we finish talking here. And I'm excited about all those things, but I'm reminded by Anita that actually all of these are reminders to do more. These are reminders to organize. These are reminders that you are more powerful than just a consumer. If you believe that you are just a consumer, then the only mode of change that you have is shopping and withdrawing or withholding your dollar.

But the fact is that most people around the world, let alone America, don't have enough dollars for those dollars themselves to be the agents of change. But that's fine, because actually, think about all the big changes that you like that have happened in this country or anywhere else in the world. It didn't happen through shopping. It happened through mobilizing and organizing and rebuilding the world in a way that you wanted. That work is hard. And I get it that it's hard, it's exhausting and it's difficult, and what's worse is a planet that's on fire.

And I think maybe this is one of the other things that we forget, that in the food movement, we can recruit. I love that you shared, Asantewa, the first sentence of the exhibit, because actually, when you share joy through food, you offer a portal and an invitation to folk to be able to engage in change. You're not inviting people to your table as a consumer. That's not who they are in that moment, and you are not a producer. You are sharing a meal as part of this economy of care and of love. And I think that's important, because when it comes to politics, I grew up in Britain on the left, where if you were having pleasure, you were probably doing it wrong. The idea of leftist politics was always, oh, you must give that up and you must stop that, and this is bad.

But food politics is a politics of joy and of love and of care, but it transcends the idea of someone here is a producer, someone here is a consumer. It's about, we are around this table and we're going to figure out what it is that we need to change, and then we're going to do it. And that mode, I think, is much more powerful than just thinking about producers and consumers.

So this isn't to dodge the question. There are ethical consumer things to do, and you should do them, because being an unethical consumer is just being an unethical person, and you're not that person. But it's not enough. The only people who want to make you believe that it's enough are the corporations trying to sell you stuff. So yeah, the steel straw manufacturers would be happy if you just bought steel straws ad nausea. Elon Musk, our Oster knight of the day, would be happy if everyone drove a Tesla, two Teslas, three Teslas, but there's no number of Teslas you can drive to save the planet. This is the work of organizing.

Jim Goodman:
Well, yes to what Raj said. I second all that. But I think one of the things that we as a society in America have to get over is this American exceptionalism thing. You cannot pick up a farm magazine or listen to a farm broadcast without them saying, "Well, you know, in order to feed the world, we have to do such and such." And they never understand that the world is perfectly capable of feeding itself if we were to overcome racism, land grabs, colonialism, because like in Malawi, I'm sure that's some really good farmland. Of course, they don't get enough rain now, but they've been farming for millennia longer than we have. They know how to farm. They know how to save seeds. They have this innate historical knowledge.

And we have told them that's not the right way to farm. You have to use industrial agriculture and plant corn and soybeans and put all your animals in confinement. And that's not the way they want do it. But we're convinced, and it's not just the farmers or the general public, but the universities and the government, that this is our thing. We have to feed the world on our terms. I don't know if that means everyone will start eating junk food and obesity will be a bigger problem than nutrition worldwide, but I think we have to just back off a little bit and let the global South have their say for a change, and work with them rather than tell them what to do.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Thank you, Jim. This next question is for Raj. It's about how do you balance the emotional labor of educating about climate change and challenging some of the systems that have been in place for a long time with your own wellbeing? In other words, was it ever hard to draw the line when creating this film and standing by its subjects?

Raj Patel:
Oh, my goodness. That's a terrific question. Thank you for it. Yes, it was hard in the sense that we were trying to do good journalism here, and that meant that we couldn't, for example, pay Anita or give money directly to the organization while we were filming, because that would change the storyline. It would change our relationships. And of course, that was really difficult when we would go and visit and they would kill a chicken, for example, and offer it. And a chicken is a store of value for the community. When we were guests in their house, they would offer us this deep kindness, and there was nothing ethically that we could do. And then I found out later that in fact, our camera guy had just been sort of slipping some cash from his own pocket to Anita to cover the cost of everything that we'd eaten.

So that was difficult. But in the end we figured out ways around that. For example, we paid Anita and her community commercial rates for that song, the beautiful song that you hear at the end, and that meant that we were able to send some money back directly to everyone who was involved in the front end of things. And that happened right during COVID when all other sources of income had dried up. And now, as I say, we are fundraising fairly substantially to be able to work with the community, to be able, now that our journalistic duties have been discharged, we can just sort of lean into the activist stuff.

But there's another part of this question, which is, it is emotionally difficult and it does take emotional labor to engage in this kind of work, but the hardest part for me was just under lockdown. Zak and I filmed and recorded the VO for the last parts of the film, and then we flew back just as COVID was breaking across the world, and we both got it. My symptoms only cleared up after the first vaccination. And so it was a long process of being isolated. And what I noticed is that the hardest part for me was not engaging in the active work of the kinds of stuff that Jim, for example, does every day, the organizing work. And instead I was just sort of locked away in the editing room. We were writing, we were editing.

And absent that work, I felt drained. I felt alone. The emotional labor, yes, it does take work to do this, but you gain so much, at least I do, by having these loving relationships with my comrades and with my fellow activists and obviously with my family and with the soil around me and with the life around me. Lockdown was a way of just really stopping that supply of love and of connection. And so now that we're finally starting to be able to make these kinds of reconnections in person, I feel like the emotional labor gets a little bit repaid through just the love that circulates between us.

So it's been hard, but I have to say that, again, taking my cue from Anita and from Jim and from many of the leaders around the world who I get to work with, that love is something that is given as part of the work. I had a friend who observed that there's a difference between nonprofit time and movement time. Nonprofit time is like your nine to five, and then you clock out. The nonprofit office doesn't have anywhere for anyone to sleep. It doesn't have a kitchen. You go there, you do your work, it's exhausting, and then you go and recharge yourself somewhere else.

Whereas in a movement space, you are there and the kids are running around and you are cooking and you're doing the organizing and you are doing... Jim and I have been lucky enough to be at some of these Via Campesino meetings where the personal and the political all meld together, and there is love and there is laughter and there is a lot of very serious thinking and organizing happening at the same time. And that's far more rejuvenating than sometimes those professional modes of emotional labor around climate change that the philanthropic industrial complex here forces us into. And so I get that movement fix through engaging with Jim. But I mean, Jim, am I wrong here?

Jim Goodman:
No, Raj, you're never wrong.

Raj Patel:
[inaudible 00:45:56].

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Jim, did you have any more to give?

Jim Goodman:
No, no. No, I was just stating a fact.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
That Raj is always right.

Jim Goodman:
Pretty much.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
I will say, as a child of multiple movements, but growing up here in DC in the early '90s, late '80s, I remember those meetings with my parents of food and tofu sandwiches and sleeping on the floor napping if we had to, me and my sister, because that was after my dad's union job. He would pick us up from school and take us to the meetings and stop at the co-op, of course, for snacks before we got there, just in case. So thank you for that reflection. We're going to do one more question, and this will be for the both of you. We see in this film and with your work that creating change is an ongoing journey with ongoing work, as Raj just spoke so beautifully to. So as we wrap up, can you share with us tonight what you're both working on? Jim, do you want to go first, and then Raj, we can hear from you.

Jim Goodman:
Sure. Well, I hope that we're all working to getting out from under lockdown, because as you and Raj have both alluded to, being face to face in person, singing protest songs and raising hell is something that I think we've all sorely missed. But personally, with National Family Farm Coalition, one of our big projects over the last couple years is called a Disparity to Parity project. Basically it focuses on parity pricing for farmers, one of the programs of the old New Deal.

I've always maintained that if farmers were paid a fair price for what they did, they could make a lot better decisions environmentally and economically for themselves and their families and their communities. So we're trying, through a series of essays and webinars, to explain to people what parity pricing actually means, and that so many good things could happen if had farmers that were paid fair prices. We probably could figure out a way to get rid of so many huge farms and so much monoculture. And through some of the kinds of other pricing programs from the old New Deal, people might actually be able to make a decent living and be able to buy decent food. So that's, I guess, the main thing.

The other thing that I'm kind of looking forward to is hopefully we're going to be going to visit our daughter in England, and not just wanting to be a vacationer, I've become involved with a couple farm groups over there that now with Brexit and not having the European Union to hold check over the agricultural policy in England, they're looking back 20 years to when I was there talking about GM crops and all sorts of programs we have here. The small organic farmers they're assuming are going to be brought into England now. I'm looking forward to talking with some of them about the madness that's going on here and how they need to avoid it at all cost.

Raj Patel:
Oh, madness. I would be very pleased to avoid madness, but then, if I was serious about that, I wouldn't live in Texas. But nonetheless, here I am. Some of the work I'm doing is around the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems and their work to promote agroecology and to use food as a way of fighting climate change. We're getting cities and states and countries to sign up to a broad commitment that food and climate policy need to go hand in hand. So when Esther answers Jordan to what we should do, "Be activists for climate change," I'm trying to deliver on that through some of the work that we're doing at the municipal and state level, because our national governments have so often been bought and paid for by the oil industry.

The other thing I'm very excited about is, again, thinking about America, and some of the stuff that happened here in Texas is very exciting around radical change. I was thinking about the Populist Movement, where working class white and Black folk organized against large corporations. Jim will know the story of Jesse Jackson coming to Wisconsin, but we're following the sort of archeology of Jesse Jackson's work in the 1980s and showing how in this forthcoming election, in 2022, there is some really interesting working class Black and white multiracial organizing to take on power.

I'm producing a documentary around that, which hopefully will be out in time for the 2024 election, and help us just remember that some of the best organizing in the United States has always been very consciously across race lines and very consciously directed towards bringing down capitalists. That lesson never gets old, and it's time we remembered it.

Asantewa Boakyewa:
Thank you. Thank you to you both. I have really enjoyed so much this conversation. I wish we could continue, but I know that the conversation does continue. And thank you for this film, Raj, and all the work that you have done before now and to come, Jim, thank you for your work in the movement, your commitment and decades of service. And for the audience, wherever you're joining us from tonight, to join me in thanking tonight's speakers, Raj and Jim. To the DCEFF, thank you. The wonderful production team, helping out behind the scenes.

I also like to give special thanks to those who have made today's program possible: our donors, volunteers, and of course viewers like you and all our partners who help us reach, educate, and empower millions of people around the world today and every day. Thank you.

We hope you did enjoy, but we also hope you will join us for upcoming discussions during this festival. We've put a link in the chat for you to access all of our future discussions. You'll see a link also in the chat to a survey, and we hope you will take a moment to respond. We're very interested in your input, and we use that to make sure that the programs and offerings that we are providing to you, the public, are really having the impact that you feel and know that is our best work for your benefit and all of our benefits. Again, thank you to our participants, to you, the audience, and we hope to see you soon. Thanks very much. Good night.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar discussion of the film "The Ants & The Grasshopper," aired March 21, 2022. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

The National Museum of Natural History and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital collaborated to offer this program, which featured an online screening of "The Ants & The Grasshopper" and the Q&A discussion in the video above. Participating in the discussion were the filmmaker Raj Patel and president of National Family Farm Coalition, Jim Goodman.

Moderator: Asantewa Boakyewa, Associate Director of Collections & Exhibits at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

This program was part of the 2022 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.

About the Film

"The Ants & The Grasshopper" follows the story of Anita Chitaya who is transforming her village in Malawi with new farming and cooking methods even as drought looms. Chitaya and her mentor, Esther Lupafya, decide to embark on a journey through the U.S. in an effort to convince Americans that climate change is real. Along the way, they visit Midwest farms and urban food cooperatives, witnessing national divisions in their quest to save their home from drought.
 

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Topics
Earth Science, Social Studies