Steel spots the problem and tries to address it, by suggesting that the employment opportunities offered by Sitopian farming will generate incomes enough to pay for Sitopian food. She’s a little sketchy, though, as to how this new state of affairs will come about. Steel is not an economist, nor an agronomist. Not very surprisingly, she doesn’t have all the answers to the huge questions she asks. But her instincts are profoundly right – food is indeed more than fuel – and this is a brave and ambitious book for stating them so strongly. She speaks, for sure, mostly to the privileged, but if the privileged can’t make a start in eating and living better, who can?
Perversely, it may turn out that the current emergency is exactly what we need to start addressing our broken modern sitopia. In the epigraph of one of her chapters’ subheadings, Steel quotes Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Steel would be the first to acknowledge the difficulty of the task ahead of us: it is unlikely, to put it mildly, that the tech giants, Big Ag conglomerates and moneyed landowners maligned in the course of her book are going to take her recommendations to heart. But we are fast approaching the point at which they may have no other choice. Sitopia therefore occupies an interesting, liminal position at our current apocalyptic tipping point: it will either go down as a hugely influential how-to manual, the first of its kind; or it will go down, with the rest of us, in flames. In both cases, that makes it an unambiguously essential read.
At times Steel seems tacitly to acknowledge the limitations of this lens. She discusses concepts on its foggy periphery — a land tax and stronger local democracy among them — that have little obvious connection to our eating habits. This gives the impression that she has, so to speak, bitten off more than she can chew. That said, Steel, an architect and academic, does a good job of convincing us that, were Sitopia possible, it would certainly be a lovely place to live.
Utopian thinking, however, is by its very nature unrealistic by the standards of the world it seeks to transform. It is the industrialism and imperialism of the west that created many of today’s crises, Steel argues, so it is the west’s collective duty to explore alternative models of what she calls “social maturity”. The deepest message of this ambitious book is a philosophical one, a vital call for us to rediscover the way that food binds us to each other and to the natural world, and in doing so find new ways of living.