Milk and the Buell Hypothesis

Close your eyes. Actually, don’t close your eyes – you won’t be able to read this highly insightful and intellectually stimulating blog post.

Imagine closing your eyes. Imagine me saying “MILK”. Imagine imagining what associations this creates in your imagination. Chances are you see cookies (yum!), Santa Claus and cookies (even yummier), rolling hills, flower-dotted meadows in the soft glowing light of dawn and happy cows contently chewing (not smoking) grass.

What’s wrong with this picture? That’s probably NOT where your milk is coming from. Even though sales of organic food (that may or may not come from a place that resembles the bucolic idyll described above) have seen dramatic increases in recent years, it still only accounts for three percent of national food sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of the milk you drink is probably produced by a veritable milk mafia as exposed in a recent New York Times blog entry by Mark Bittman.

The problem really is that in most instances we associate not just organic food but all the food we eat with images of family farms and happy animals, and not with huge agroindustrial complexes that freely use pesticides, herbicides and other -cides, growth hormones and antibiotics, because, honestly, we probably wouldn’t eat it if that were the case.  And of course the advertisement suggests that your yogurt really is from happy cows, churned by hand by the farmer’s wife (see this SNL spoof of a corn syrup marketing campaign).

How does the Buell hypothesis play into that and what the f#@? is the Buell Hypothesis to begin with? (My goal in life is to have a hypothesis named after me that is highly obscure and only known to an elite intellectual circle who look at each other with a superior smirk and say “oh, you must be referring to the blablabla hypothesis”.) Despite its swanky name, the Buell Hypothesis is actually quite simple. It says that people move to the suburbs because of all the good things that are associated with them: green lawns, good schools, nice neighbors, three-car garages, etc. and move out of the cities because of all the bad stuff that’s supposedly there (noise, crime, mass transit, etc.). In order to reverse this trend you have to change the underlying picture. Suburbs are ghettos of people who all look the same, eat the same and live in the same houses that they really can’t pay for but got lured into by subprime mortgages; people who are stuck in traffic for hours every day in cars that destroy the climate (which they would vehemently deny) and live with obesity, diabetes and bad sense of clothing. Contrast that with the young urban avant-garde who drink exotic coffee-based beverages, bike to work, never sweat in the process, and has fulfilled lives because they can do crazy things with their facial hair.

Therefore, in order to get people to do the “right” thing, i.e. what we as planners think is good to do, it is not only necessary to have a “good” plan, but to have an underlying narrative that has a positive image associated with it.

This is easier said than done because a lot of the images we associate with things are deeply ingrained in us. Coming back to milk example: As parent of a toddler, I spend A LOT of time reading intellectually stimulating books about colors and animals to my child. All the animals in the books are happy, and farms (the good kind) feature prominently in them. On my vacation, I saw a school class visit an organic farm with happy pigs and self-confidence exuding chickens pecking merrily away, and I was thinking to myself that somehow we’re sending the wrong message here. I don’t necessarily think that a two-year-old is the right person with whom to discuss animal cruelty and the pros and cons of genetically engineered crops in a growing global industrialized food market, but what, really, are we teaching them? (Fyi – this is not a rhetorical question.)

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