IT STARTED, we decided, with the carbon negative Dorito. More accurately, it started with the focus group for the carbon negative Dorito, which my husband was invited to attend but from which I was denied because they had reached a quorum of college-educated, married millennial women with two to three pets. There are ways of segmenting a person into attributes, like a butcher’s diagram dividing the hog into areas of varying succulence. Fine. The honorarium was modest. I, the secondary decision maker about grocery purchases under five dollars, stayed at home.
My husband was asked to assemble a vision board in advance of the focus group, that was meant to encapsulate his 1) core identity and 2) snacking persona. He made it in the bathtub on Photoshop for mobile: three images of cartoon power lifters, a bag of kamut grains from Bob’s Red Mill, a pile of sleeping Golden Retrievers, and a logo from Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All webpage.
The organizers were very impressed, my husband told me later, with his vision board. The other participants hadn’t taken the assignment as seriously. There was the woman from Fenton who had cut magazine photos out by hand and glue-sticked them onto the back of another, unrelated magazine because she couldn’t find a paper. All of them were of disarticulated and ideal body parts: a floating wig of bobbed red hair, a shapely arm gripping a hand weight, a set of Photoshop-white teeth. There was the middle aged man from the Central West End who wrote various words and phrases on a legal pad — Control my acid reflux and Loves golf and Coachella 2021—and then remembered the visual nature of the ask and scrawled a few abortive illustrations of square-jawed stick-figures in indecipherable poses.
It all started, we decided later—the end of the world, I mean—in that room. But we didn’t know that at the time. They had assembled the focus group in a West County office park, around a conference table laden with bowls of snacks unrelated to the topic of discussion. M&Ms, Triscuits, a bouquet of chicken jerky fanned out by some overthoughtful someone. It was clearly a test. No one ate anything.
The woman from Fenton was named Marley. Honestly, she was kind of iconic, my husband told me. They asked us all how we started the morning, and she said she always turned on Good Morning America immediately upon waking because it felt like all my friends were in the room with me, standing around my bed. The notion of this! Marley wore unimaginative clothing and had an unimaginative approach to makeup, my husband implied, but her mind was full of such imagery. When the focus group was asked about their goals for the future, she said, simply, one point seven million dollars. When the other participants were talking, she played a game on her phone about a small, pink rabbit who had to eat as many cakes as possible in a given period of time.
But what about the carbon negative Dorito? I asked my husband.
That was the thing, my husband said: most of the conversation wasn’t about the Dorito at all. They didn’t even get to eat it. The Dorito, it was to be presumed, was an absolute. The mathematical operation which the Dorito and the variables in its immediate class would perform upon the planet was an inevitable one. The trouble was finding the people who would be the vessel for this operation. The trouble was locating the human emblem for the market, so that emblem could be blown up to Bat-signal scale and the market could be assembled at its feet, every mouth smiling and open.
So there were a lot of card games, my husband said.
My husband couldn’t remember the names of anyone else in the focus group, but there was one guy who was really aggressive with the card games, and he merited mention. He was a hipster type with a tattoo of a sink on his forearm—not pedestal, not stainless steel industrial, just your standard, free-floating white ceramic sink, my husband clarified when I asked—and during the marketing-optimized Apples to Apples variant, his strategy was total and disarming earnestness. When the adjective was stylish, sink-tattoo threw down a card branded FASHION MODELS. When the adjective was “healthy,” he somehow found a card that said ASPARAGUS; my husband couldn’t even understand why that was in there.
When the adjective was planet-friendly, though, the organizers permitted participants to write down their own nouns. This bamboozled everyone. A fratty redhead scrawled recycling and then said fuck it—like, literally, audibly, out loud, my husband told me—and made a lunge for the Triscuit bowl. A thin woman in a blue pashmina who was palpably smarter than everyone else there wrote down nothing at all, just drew a bunch of concentric circles and looked exhausted. Marley wrote down sugar glider and smiled like she had just brushed the final dot on a pointalist masterpiece.
Let’s try something simpler, said the focus group organizer, and produced card that said What I’d buy right now if money were no object.
That’s not an adjective, someone said. When my husband told me this, I felt silently thankful that I hadn’t been invited to the focus group.
My husband won plaudits for his answer to this round: he wrote down lower the bar to organic certification for urban micro-farms. Everyone around the table thought this was great. Urban micro-farms were crucial, they agreed. Organic certification was too hard, or expensive, or whatever it was.
Will the carbon negative Dorito be grown on urban micro-farms? someone asked.
The organizer stared at her clipboard, placid and amused. Dorito is a subsidiary brand of Nestle Incorporated.
What does carbon negative even mean? Marley asked, and the room erupted in laughter.
I’m not a farming expert like that guy or anything, the fratty ginger said. But if the carbon negative Dorito is just gonna be more greenwashed neoliberal bullshit, I’m not gonna buy it.
My husband works in university IT.
Let’s explore your expectations for the supply chain, the focus group organizer said. She was a masculine-of-center woman in a Wildfang button up printed with cacti. My husband thought she had a powerful and soothing aura, like a chiropractor to whom you have an inappropriate sexual attraction. It made a kind of sense, then, when she magically produced another card from nowhere and placed it firmly on the table: Genetically Modified.
Every card was slapped on the table decisively.
Interesting, the organizer said.
What does carbon negative even mean? I asked my husband. I mean, when it comes to a Dorito?
It meant, my husband explained, that the grain in the chip was a vessel for global poison. That the grain would extract carbon from the air as a tree does, and it would do it so robustly that it would cancel the carbon expelled from the machine that ground the grain into paste, and also of the machine that extruded the paste into a mold, and, too, the breath exhaled by the workers that ran the machine, or—whatever, he didn’t know how people made Doritos, but kamut grain is the shit, he said.
I waited for my husband to continue his story, to tell me the conclusions of the focus group, or at least carry me to the precipice of a dramatic denouement. But there was nothing else to tell. The group simply reached its allotted time limit, and the focus group leader thanked them for their time. Every participant drove home, in a single occupancy vehicle powered by lizard marrow.
My husband would get a check in the mail for $150 two weeks later. He sent it via digital bank transfer to our mortgage company, where it was applied to the principal on our house, shaving approximately four cents off our eventual interest calendar. We knew in our hearts we’d never pay the thing off, but we relied on such gestures. They comforted us, even if they did not provide catharsis.
Most of the time, honestly, the end of the world felt like this: an enormous balance growing in the darkness of a data server, and us, hurling pennies across the cybernetic ether. What I am trying to say is, yes: we were the type of people who would buy the carbon negative Dorito. We did many things, truly, we tried: we eschewed shrink-wrapped zucchinis. We purchased nominal carbon credits to offset our coal-powered electric AC. We talked about the importance of structural change and radical anticapitalism in what must have been hundreds of bars.
The carbon negative Dorito was never released, of course. But I think, sometimes, of what it would have been like: a plump little god on a gas station shelf. Jute-brown packaging to connote earthiness and artisanal attention to flavor and ingredients. I imagine how the bag would have felt in my hands, the bag puffed to straining with clean, manufactured air, as near-weightless as the future was, once. I imagine the air. I imagine the air.
KEA WILSON is a novelist, journalist and teaching artist. Her first novel, We Eat Our Own, was released by Scribner 2016. She lives in St. Louis.
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