In his 1910 book Alarms and Discussions, Chesterton wrote his essay on ‘Cheese’, including his witty complaint that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” He could only remember two poets, Virgil and an unnamed writer of a nursery rhyme, who wrote of such. Certainly with a twinkle in his eye, he cheerfully boasted: “If all the trees were bread and cheese there would be considerable deforestation in any part of England where I was living. Wild and wide woodlands would reel and fade before me as rapidly as they ran after Orpheus.”
Yet perhaps Chesterton would think twice about dwelling in such a Eden if he heard about this story.
It was reported in June that Hilmar Cheese - the world’s largest cheese maker - wants to drill a well three-fourths of a mile deep into the Earth’s crust. This well would hold the millions of gallons of waste liquids produced by the California company’s mass production of cheese. They make a million pounds of cheese every day.
Let me repeat that: a million pounds of cheese made every day. Even, I fancy, Gilbert’s mind would reel from such a feat. Perhaps he would renounce his bread-and-cheese fantasy in light of what he wrote about the virtue of temperance: “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”
Hilmar has been fined millions of dollars for violating California water pollution standards. According to reports, the company was illegally flushing around 700,000 gallons of wastewater daily on fields in Merced County - where Hilmar is based - for nearly three years. The co-founder of the company, who became the state’s undersecretary of agriculture, resigned perhaps in light of such reports.
The company is vigorously fighting this fine, employing lawyers from both Sacramento and San Francisco to challenge both the fine and the standards set by the regional water quality board. But the board’s attorneys point out that the fine comes to only one percent of the cheese giant’s yearly income. It is quite certain that the whole matter will end up in court, with both sides committed to victory no matter what.
And like so many other large companies and conglomerates in America, Hilmar made campaign contributions to both major political parties. Hilmar supported former Democratic governor Gray Davis, but then contributed to current Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during the controversial recall campaign.
Does this sound awfully familiar to our ears? Do company names like Enron, WorldCom, Philip Morris, GM and the like ring a bell? Does it not also apply to way too many compartments of both Federal and state governments? Does it not show, once again, the consequences of believing the lie that “bigger is better, all the time”? How many times have we been told that this is “progress” and that it is inevitable?
In his essay “The Nameless Man,” Chesterton writes – prophetically, of course - “It is the final sign of imbecility in a people that it calls cats dogs and describes the sun as the moon - and is very particular about the preciseness of these pseudonyms. To be wrong, and to be carefully wrong, that is the definition of decadence.”
It is decadence when we allow behemoths like Hilmar Cheese to operate as it does and define it as “progress” and a “celebration” of the free market. No, it is a distortion of a market economy to permit huge companies like Hilmar to operate as it has. We are still dazzled by the illusion that the bigger the business or government department, the better it will be. If it were not so, then the merger-mania of the last twenty plus years would not have occurred.
As I wrote in an earlier column called “Piggish on Farming”, on the financial and environmental woes of Nebraska’s Furnas County Farms, “factory farming” giants hurt us all by the scale of their operations. Whether gallons of hog waste from Furnas or gallons of milk waste from Hilmar, running a farming concern on a mass-production basis hurts us all in the long run.
But in a Distributist society, there would be no monstrosities like a Hilmar. There would either be thousands of individual cheese makers or a few hundred worker-owned cooperatives supplying the demand, aiming for the local markets first. At the very least, such an arrangement would have less negative environmental impact than what Hilmar is doing today.
We, in turn, can help spur trends toward this by buying locally-made cheese where possible. Or if so inclined, learn how to make our own home-made cheese for our families or neighborhoods. This way, we can begin, in small steps, to break the stranglehold of the huge agribusinesses on our nation’s food supply.
Again, to quote Chesterton:
“A good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree, varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella - artificial, mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform.”
A future Distributist America will be such a good civilization. Let us work and pray to make it so, for its opposite is just too painful to bear anymore.
Reprinted with Permission