Sex Secrets of Environmental History: grocery shopping


Sex Secrets of Environmental History: grocery shopping


Posted 14 September 2011, by Barbara Cuerden, Creaturality,



From Virginia Scharff: Man and Nature! (Sex secrets of Environmental History)

Chapter Two in Human/Nature: Biology, Culture and Environmental History

In terms of rhopography, Virginia Scharff has analyzed, calculated, and drawn conclusions from hacking through the jungle of the grocery expeditions that most women with families are forced to do every week. I can’t put it any better than she has:
[Women’s] their domestic work remains ecologically transformative in ways that tend to be incremental rather than cataclysmic, easier to see in the aggregate than in the particular…

Let me try to make a trivial part of that work visible by turning a personal anecdote into a story about environmental history. One fall day I returned from the grocery store annoyed, as I often am, by the fact that getting food into our household had once again cost me an hour and a half of valuable writing time. …

Trudging back and forth from car to kitchen with my dozen bags, I began to wonder how much freight I was carrying that day. And so, turning annoyance into science, I went into the bathroom, got the scale, and put it on the kitchen floor. Then I weighed those groceries sack by sack. That day’s load, comprising most but by no means all of what I would purchase and carry during an average week’s grocery shopping, weighed in at 78 pounds.

Most weeks I end up at a grocery store four or five times because we’ve run out of milk or lettuce or coffee, or somebody has to take something to school for a class snack. I figure those extra trips add up, conservatively, to another 25 pounds of freight, but let’s round off my weekly total to one hundred pounds of groceries for a family of four. Multiply that by fifty-two weeks per year, and you’ve got me carrying fifty-two hundred pounds of groceries a year. That doesn’t seem too bad; only a bit over two and a half tons. But in the course of each shopping trip, I heft each item five times – from the shelf into the cart, from the cart to the conveyer belt, from the conveyer belt into bags, from the counter back into the cart [or if you are lucky there’s a bagger], from the cart to the car, the car to the house, and once in the house to whatever constitutes being ‘put away’ in my house. So it seems fair to me to multiply the total weekly weight of groceries by five in order to account for the number of times I lift and carry items to complete the job of ‘grocery shopping’. Reckoned this way, I haul a total of twenty-six thousand pounds or thirteen tons, of groceries a year before I’ve so much as opened a single can of tomatoes to make dinner. 

… this problem is pretty boring. But being tiresome doesn’t rule it out as a description of a meaningful encounter with nature through work. I have risked boring you in order to demystify the mingling of production and consumption,of work and leisure, of mechanization and labor power, of nature and culture: a woman shopper’s encounter with gravity, a tomato’s encounter with a can. This isn’t very sexy stuff, but it is, I assure you, essential to reproducing human organisms. If I don’t do this work, people in my house don’t eat.

So, think: What percentage of that tomato is packaging? Where does all that varied and hefty stuff come from? Why do I choose to buy and carry and process and dispose of the particular things I do – Mexican tomatoes and South American ground beef, spaghetti from Italy and oranges from Florida, Corn Pops from Battle Creek and Budweiser from st. Louis? Pretty soon I am thinking about bulk marketing and recycling, about takeout food fast food and home delivery pizza, about McDonald’s burgers and the Amazon rainforest, about the global economy and ecology of eating middle-class America today. Follow the trails of human encounters with nature outward, from the grocery bags in my kitchen, and I think you’ll see some of the possibilities of women’s environmental history. …

These tedious and domestic details are not, I know, heroic rendezvous between man and nature, dramas of dominance and submission, tragedies or triumphs. They are little didactic lessons, seemingly devoid of sex or secrecy, significant only because they are endlessly iterated and replicated. They are the acts that keep the species going, boring, idiotic, fascinating. I suppose they have at least those attributes in common with the kinds of sex secrets I haven’t revealed in this essay…



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