Carlo Petrini’s “concrete utopia” – a talk with the president of Slow Food

He is somewhat of a rockstar, at least in my book.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in Italy, and I remember how in the early ’80s my parents started talking with enthusiasm about this new movement. Slow Food is now a global organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world, but I remember when it was just a smallish group of Italians – gathered around the publication Il Gambero Rosso and then the group Arcigola – who wanted to counter the rise of fast food and fast life and the disappearance of local food traditions. It gradually became a tidal wave, and finally, in 1989, the Slow Food movement as we know it was founded with a manifesto endorsed by delegates of 15 countries.The rest, as they say, is history.

So when I heard that Carlo Petrini, the man whose brainchild Slow Food is, was coming to give an open lecture at Yale, I knew I had to get there.
And what a treat it was; it just feels good to hear such passion and love – he is truly a kindred spirit, a man that devoted his life to pleasure – when pleasure is the only way to look at the world, wanting to make it better, and acting on that desire.

The issues that Carlo Petrini discusses are about so much more than food – and are now more than ever relevant to us, in a world that is coming to terms heavily with the results of a sick approach to production and consumerism. Now more than ever it is evident to anyone that bothers to look that a change is needed and it has to involve many layers of the world’s society.
What Petrini tries to demonstrate in his lecture is that the world’s dietary habits are among the principal causes of the environmental disaster we face, and that a change is the main objective to work on at this time. Data shows that the world produces enough food to feed 12 billion people and yet, with 6.5 billion people on Earth, 1 billion people suffers for malnourishment and every 4 seconds someone in the world dies of hunger; at the same time 1.7 billion people in the world is suffering from an illness due to excessive eating (obesity, diabetes etc). It is not hard to see that the environment is facing today the most difficult time in the history of humanity, and the problem of food is a huge part of it: because of excessive use of pesticides and chemical additives in agriculture the soil is losing its fertility throughout the globe, and water all over the world is being polluted, among other things, by intensive livestock farming. Even without adding to it the loss of biodiversity (in the last century, due to “not enough productivity” Italy alone lost forever 6 breeds of cows, 6 breeds of sheep and 4 breeds of donkeys) this clearly is a tragedy for the environment and for the human race.
Then there are the social issues: there are no more farmers. While in the 1930 a good 37% of the US active population was farming the land, now less than 1% gives us our daily crops. And the cultural and human disaster does not stop there – every day in the US alone 22,000 tons of edible food are thrown away.

How did this happen? How could we let it get to this point, Petrini asks?
We thought industrial concepts could be translated into the agricultural world: efficiency, productivity. But agriculture asks for different rhythms: natural rhythms.
We de-valued our food: nothing has value anymore, just a price. If in human history food had always been a medium for the relationship with the divine (bread, corn, rice – every civilization has its rituals that involve food), “we have now become simple consumers, not citizens. Our value is equal to the amount we consume; consuming is the imperative”.

Today this environmental deterioration coexists with a financial and energy crisis. The question is: is this a dialectic or and entropic crisis? In economic terms a dialectic crisis is one that contains within itself the solutions; the 1929 crash was a dialectic crisis: democracy and welfare brought the world back from disaster. According to Petrini what we are living now is instead an entropic crisis: there’s a need for new paradigms (the fall of the Roman Empire was an entropic crisis: only new ideas and new movements were able to bring humanity onwards and change history). Carlo Petrini outlined three paradigms that are making their way in the world – and I believe they deserve some attention.

We need to re-build reciprocity

A new form of exchange – neither purchase nor charity – is needed to build commercial, and human, relationship. This is what is happening for instance with the CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in the US: you pay the farmer in advance with a fair price and you know you’ll get your produce when the season comes.

Let’s give work its value

Reconciling work and pleasure needs to be a priority; we need to get satisfaction from our work and have time to enjoy ourselves.

Let’s stop being just consumers – let’s become co-producers

Our choices are essential to a new world; Petrini quotes the intellectual farmer Wendell Berry and enthusiastically reminds us that “eating is the first agricultural act”: with what we eat we influence the market, and if we chose to pay a fair price to the farmer that does not put pesticides on his or her produce we give our vote to a cleaner and healthier world.

Food sovereignty: every civilization has the right to chose what to eat and how

This should become a lesson for all areas of social interaction: religion, costumes and so on. Cultivating freedom, solidarity, clean energy, biodiversity at the expense of pollution and industrial production is a way to design a new path towards transformation.

This is Petrini’s “conrete utopia”, a transformation that is stronger than a revolution – as it is as much radical but preserves life and legacy. A concurrent globalization and de-globalization might indeed save us from ourselves, but – always – cultivating pleasure. As, Petrini reminds us – “the mind feeds on that on which it finds joy”.

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3 Responses to Carlo Petrini’s “concrete utopia” – a talk with the president of Slow Food

  1. Kristie says:

    What you say here is not only informative but inspirational. As someone who is passionate about food and as I learn more I am becoming a supporter of what Slow Food seems to be about. Thank you for making me aware of Mr. Petrini and I hope to read and learn more about him and his views. Thanks!

    • mad says:

      Hey Kristie, thanks for your comment.
      This is a huge topic and I’ll post about sustainability and Slow Food initiatives from time to time. You can learn more about the movement by going on their website at, where you can also find your local chapter.
      In the meantime, today is Blog Action Day and I posted an article about water. Check it out, if you’d like.
      Thank you for stopping by!

  2. Pingback: Blog Action Day: how did the global water issue get on my plate? | due olive in viaggio

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