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Work / Publication

Weapons of Reason’s food issue is designed to inform, not preach, on systems that breed inequality

Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by design agency, Human After All. Edited by James Cartwright, each edition focuses on a particular issue – including power, megacities and the Arctic – and for the most recent edition, the focus is on food. The magazine tackles a variety of questions around our relationship to food, its production, and the corporations who control it. Here, It’s Nice That speaks to James about taking risks, trying to create change and how editing Weapons of Reason has impacted his own choices.

It’s Nice That: Weapons of Reason is a magazine that aims to “turn knowledge into action” – how did you initially tackle that objective? 

James Cartwright: There’s really two ways we try and do that with the magazine. The first is to make the content of each article accessible. We try to ensure that the complex issues we’re exploring are explained in plain English; we don’t use any specialist terms without explaining their meaning, and we try to make information clearer by using concise infographics. All of that is designed to inform our readers in as clear a way as possible. Then there are the action points.

In the first issue of Weapons of Reason each article ended with a numbered icon which, if you flipped to the back of the magazine, corresponding to a way to find out more about the subjects you’d read about or sign up to a campaign. That wasn’t direct enough and it seemed to pass a lot of people by, so with each new issue we’ve tried to find new ways to encourage people to do something after they’ve read the issue. 

The first change was to make the action points central to each article, so now they come right at the end of each piece and take up half a page. The idea is that, if you feel riled up by what you’ve read, then the opportunity to do something about it is immediate. 

In this issue, we ask our audience to read more about concepts like food colonialism and our destructive historic relationship with agrochemicals, as well as taking more simple actions like trying to make fermented foods at home to improve gut health or joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) scheme.

It’s still a big ask for readers to put down what they’re reading and buy a book, donate to a campaign or sign up to take direct action, so we’re trying to find new ways to encourage people to do that. In the future, I think that’ll be more about generating a community with what we do through real-life events, and a dedicated section of the new website (which is in progress) that’s all about taking action. 

INT: Has editing Weapons of Reason impacted your own choices – in your daily life and in terms of “bigger picture”?

JC: In a big way, but I hate talking about it. At their worst, I think activism and “worthy” causes switch people off or polarise people into camps, so I hate the idea that the magazine could become a vehicle for preachy articles. The contents of each magazine is designed to inform people about a big issue as clearly as possible, and allow them to make their own choices – the choices I’ve made off the back of researching and commissioning articles shouldn’t bother anyone else. I’m not vegan yet though if that’s what you’re asking.

The thing it’s highlighted for me is the extent to which all these different issues are connected. Whether it’s our relationship with food; the impending crises of the ageing population, the increasing urbanisation of developing nations – all of it relates to larger systems that breed inequality.

INT: Colin Tudge’s piece, Agrarian Evolution, is introduced with the statement: “All history is myth. That doesn’t mean it’s all fiction. It does mean that the facts are embedded in a narrative that the narrator finds satisfying and generally reflects well on them.” How does this principle manifest in Weapons of Reason more broadly?

JC: I think it’s important to challenge traditional narratives if you have the opportunity to do so. Nobody’s advertising in Weapons of Reason so we don’t have to worry about pissing anyone off that holds the purse strings. None of us draws an income from it, so it would be cowardly of us not to take some risks. I think in general we’re raised on versions of events that support feelings of patriotism and loyalties to systems and governments that have been manipulated along the way. 

In the UK for example, we think of foreign aid programmes as being inherently benevolent and generous acts, but we don’t look at the systems imposed on those nations we offer aid to. There are no free lunches – we take things in exchange. In the previous issue, Power, we dedicated an entire article to exposing some of those uncomfortable truths.

Where food is concerned, it’s easy to forget that in the West we import vast quantities of produce, which is grown elsewhere in conditions we don’t consider. We expect cups of coffee to be dirt cheap, but coffee beans are a labour-intensive product to produce, and the people who do it mostly live in abject poverty. The avocado is a cliche example to use, but the UK’s current consumption rates are decimating Chilean water resources and causing drought. Nobody puts that on the labels of the “Ripe and Ready to Eat” avos you pick up in the local supermarket. It’s pretty vital that people think more about these things.

INT: It’s a big question to be taking on, how did you begin to tackle it?

JC: Loads of reading at first. I don’t feel comfortable commissioning anything until I have a pretty good handle on a subject myself. So, I sat down for months and read books, reports and white papers and then started contacting people. It’s hard to get a range of perspectives and do justice to issues as large as the ones that we tackle. The food issue only mentioned meat in two articles; one exploring the recent advances in lab-grown meat and synthesised vegetable proteins, the other looking at the way mega-farms breed pathogens resistant to antibiotics, which might bring about the next global health crisis (Yay!). I just thought those were the two most interesting angles that people might not yet have a grasp on, whereas I think it’s now widely accepted that meat is a disaster for the environment and not the best friend of your heart.

In terms of finding a balance of contributors, I just approach journalists from around the world – some of whom I’ve worked with on previous issues, but more often than not I try to find specialists on a subject. We didn’t have to translate anything for the most recent issue, but we have done in the past. It would be great to do that more in the future, in fact, so we’re not so reliant on the perspectives of the English-speaking world. There’s got to be some kind of inherent bias there.

INT: Could you highlight key ideas from previous issues – is there anything that’s shifted for better or worse since these themes/issues/ideas were written about/featured?

JC: I think the main issue that we keep returning to is this idea of questioning narratives and breaking allegiances to systems that do harm. I’m not talking about calling everything you don’t like the sound of “Fake News”, but actually engaging with the way the world really works. In the last issue we opened with a piece that picked apart the ways that normal people are impacted by multi-billion pound corporations every day without realising – it’s inescapable – and then closed the mag with a piece by Derrick Jensen, which advocated for making simple changes to your life to cut out that dependence on big industry. These seem to be the kind of themes we return to most, and I’m inclined to say that people’s awareness is changing for the better. Or at least I hope it is. If not, we’re all fucked.

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