Published by Chatto & Windus
on 5th March 2020
How Food Can Save the World
Sitopia is the sequel to Hungry City. It explores the idea, first developed in Hungry City, that food shapes our lives, and asks what we can do with this knowledge in order to lead better ones. In essence, it is a practical, food-based philosophy.
Food is the most powerful medium available to us for thinking in a connected way about the numerous dilemmas we face today. For countless millennia, food has shaped our bodies, lives, societies and world. Its effects are so widespread and profound that most of us can’t even see them; yet it is as familiar to us as our own face. Food is the great connector – the staff of life and its readiest metaphor. It is this capacity to span worlds and ideas that gives food its unparalleled power. Food, you might say, is the most powerful tool for transforming our lives and world that we never knew we had.
While Hungry City explored how the journey of food through the city has shaped civilisations over time, Sitopia starts with a plate of food and travels out to the universe. Its structure thus consists of a series of overlapping scales, in which food is always central. Food animates our bodies, homes and societies, city and country, nature and time – seven scales that form the chapters in the book. This idea came from a drawing I did in 2011, in order to understand food’s place in our world. The drawing showed me how food’s effects at various scales interact in myriad interconnected ways. From the cultural norms into which we are born spring personal tastes and preferences that affect our individual health and pleasure, but also the vibrancy of local economies, global geopolitics and ecology. This interconnectivity made the book tricky to write, since every chapter overlapped with every other. As I wrote, however, a hidden structure began to reveal itself: as well as radiating out from food like ripples from a pond, the chapters, I realised, were mirrors of one another, so that Chapter 1 (Food) was mirrored by Chapter 7 (Time), in the sense that the former dealt primarily with life, while the latter was concerned with mortality. Similarly, Chapter 2 (Body) explores how out of synch with our world we have become, while Chapter 6 (Nature) offers a solution: to re-engage with the natural world. Chapter 3 (Home) examines our relative lack of a sense of belonging, while Chapter 5 (City and Country) shows how by rethinking the ways we inhabit land, we can regain our sense of home. It is not insignificant that this mirroring effect should have revolved around the central Chapter 4 (Society), which I came to realise was indeed pivotal, since the manner in which we share is key to all the rest.
These two drawings – the original sketch exploring the scales of food and the chapter structure – were key to the creation of Sitopia. The first was the direct inspiration for the book and the second, drawn about half-way through the writing process, became pivotal to my understanding, not just of the book’s narrative structure, but of the way in which it echoes that of our experienced world. The Allegory of Sitopia, which illustrates many of these themes, was kindly drawn for me by the wonderful artist Miriam Escofet and forms the frontispiece of the book.
"Remarkable, prophetic and desperately urgent"
Charles Foster, The Oldie
"An unambiguously essential read"
George Reynolds, The Telegraph
"A brave and ambitious book"
Rowan Moore, The Observer
"No writer asks more interesting questions about food than Carolyn Steel because no one takes more seriously the profound role of food at the heart of human life. Every time I read her or hear her speak, I can almost feel my mind expanding. This hugely ambitious and beautifully written book shows that the way we eat now is at odds with the way we ate for thousands of years. But so far from being pessimistic, Steel suggests that learning to value food again can also point the way to more fulfilling and sustainable ways of living. Sitopia is a book destined to become a modern classic."
"Essential reading! A visionary look at how quality food should replace money as the new world currency"
"Following her award-winning Hungry City, Carolyn Steel serves up a second helping of food for thought with Sitopia, which poses the really big questions about food that we should all be asking right now. This philosophical call to arms is essential reading for those who want to save the world, one meal at a time"
"Sitopia may sound like what we're all supposed to be doing to keep safe from Covid-19... the pandemic has meant, at least in the short term, a radical reassessment of what governments might do for their citizens so that they may live a 'decent' life. Many people have been forced to alter fundamentally the way they source and consume food, prompting speculation of more lasting change ahead..."
Erica Wagner, FT
' “Civilisation is in crisis,” warned the EAT-Lancet international commission of food scientists last year. “We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources.” We face climate crisis, ecological destruction, record obesity rates and rising hunger: food is threatening our future. Carolyn Steel recognises these challenges, but she also sees food as “by far the most powerful medium available to us for thinking and acting together to change the world for the better”. By reconfiguring our relationship with food, she argues, we can find new and better ways of living that will arrest the damage we are doing to ourselves and the Earth. Steel’s range is vast and the book’s breadth of subjects reinforces her conception that food influences everything, and that our troubled modern relationship with it reflects deeper existential problems. She is well aware of the long history of anxieties over how we should eat and live, and moves skilfully through the answers offered by Greek Stoics, Enlightenment philosophers, clean-living crusaders and many in between. Steel is an architect by trade and training, and her expertise shines on the urban environment. Urban planning, she argues, is one of our most urgent tasks – to replace the wild sprawl of megacities with more considered urban forms that rethink how we can create socially and environmentally sustainable cities. She imagines city and country brought into harmony, with urban and rural dwellers enjoying commonly owned forest gardens and wild farms. 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.'
Christopher Kissane, The Guardian
So far, Sitopia has been translated into Dutch, French, Italian and Polish.
Click on the images below for
a description of each chapter.
An Allegory of Sitopia (2019)
by Miriam Escofet