April 1. 2011
The 3.8 Billion Year Curriculum
There is no forward motion without legs, no growth without roots, no bright future without the struggles of the past and present. I fear not to tread on this fool’s day on the sacred cows our culture holds so dear, for with mirth and love in heart and head there is a serious lesson, which I would spread. In a past beyond the imaginative capacity of most of us, nigh on 4 billion years ago, on this raw planet life took hold, by what means we do not fully know. What we theorize is that in this elemental mix of gases, liquids, and solids, we like to call primordial soup, the heavens struck the vital spark from which all life would descend.
From the first community of prokaryotes a lifeline runs deep into the heart of our own. The means, the mechanisms, the materials, the modes remain more or less unchanged. In the deceptive sheen of our human world, this line is hard to trace. But the fact remains, if we open our eyes, that the communities of the human race rest on a foundation, which was laid by communities of communities of communities of life over the course of billions of years. Without the prokaryotes there could have been no multi-cellular life and no photosynthesis. Without photosynthesis, the energy from the sun would never have been tapped into by life’s early forms and the conditions on the planet would not have changed to allow for the emergence of terrestrial life. Life on earth flourished, with new communities of life finding balance within the ever-increasing diversity. Each new entrant to the evolution of life built itself up on the last, finding its niche by drawing vital energy and nutrients where it could and then, whether alive or deceased, providing energy for other life forms in turn. In this way a balanced community was born, with nutrients and energy endlessly cycled, the process of death itself becoming a source of energy for life. The program of this earth seems to favour diversifying life, as long as climatic conditions do not change dramatically, which they sometimes have, and as long as a population does not outgrow the carrying capacity of the communities of life upon which it depends. Hominids are very much latecomers on the ecological scene, beneficiaries of 3.8 billion years of evolution. Considering contemporary ‘Homo Sapiens’ utter disregard for the ecosystems which support us, our taking for granted the stable climate which sets the conditions for our kind to thrive, and our mindless, uncaring destruction of the rich bio-diversity from which we chanced to evolve, to call ourselves, homo sapiens, wise man, I think is nearly obscene.
We think of life’s lessons as those learned hard by us in our youth, but the truly important lessons for life are those laid out for us in evolution. The vital nutrient and energy interface of human communities with other ecological communities is that thing which we commonly refer to as food. We cannot live without food and we cannot expect to achieve a high degree of physical, social and spiritual health without a food culture which is good, clean and fair. Food is the root of our civilization, both our metabolic fuel and our cellular building material. Our current food system, that complex marriage of cultures of production, distribution and consumption, is something to which we humans should be paying much greater attention. For it is at our own peril that we would assume that all is well in the world of human food, that corporate agri-business and our governments are enacting food policies which have, at heart, the best interests of all human beings and the ecosphere, this community of communities of life, of which we are but one small part and on which we depend so completely.
The list of concerns, which have driven this farmer in word, in thought and in deed, is lengthy and the issues are most complex. From questions of sustainability of industrial production which is fully dependent on finite fossil fuels, to the cultural and material impoverishment of local agricultures under the pressure of a global food industry; from diversity destroying mono-cultures to the steadily declining nutritional quality of the food that we eat; from the Pandora’s box of genetic modification to the serious threat posed by loss of soil and soil fertility; this list could go on and on. But I will not, for others, authors, lecturers, academics and even peasants have already delved into this sphere in great detail and done us all a great service. If you need more information about what is wrong with our food systems, I would encourage you to seek out their works.
My intention here is to shed some light into the murky world of ‘why”? Why is it that we have developed a food system, which creates so many problems and raises so many serious questions? For most of us who are not blinded by ideological faith in theories of economics, the question is quite rational. All romanticism of the big red barn aside, given the choice, most people would prefer to support modes of food production which supply them with nutrient dense food which is fresh, delicious and grown in their own rural communities. Likewise, most people would support food policies, which help keep family farms viable, maintain bio-diversity, contribute to the long-term viability of human populations and treat domesticated life forms with dignity and respect? The answer to “why” is quite simple, and for many, especially those in the western world, who have been lulled into a false sense of security by a hundred years or more of cultural manipulation, it is also quite unpalatable. The reason that we now have a food system, which delivers on none of the aforementioned positive aspects of agriculture, is that the food system is not designed to do so. It is designed to do one and only one thing: to deliver to the masses food which is plentiful and as cheap as possible, even if the cheapness is artificially achieved by means of externalizing many of the real costs of industrial production by framing food in fundamentally flawed theories of economics.
‘Panem et circenses’ -‘Bread and circuses’. This phrase has had resonance in our western culture at least as far back as the Roman era. In such times of gross, immoral inequality, the ruling elites of the day knew that they would be able to maintain their superior status and grip on power, which was never going to be defensible on moral or philosophical grounds, only if the numerically superior masses of slaves, peasants and poor free citizens were kept quiescent with sufficient quantities of food and distracting entertainments. The very fact that this has been, and continues to be, a necessity for elites, speaks volumes about the inherent desire for fairness, equality and decency, in short, humanism, which is common amongst human beings. It is also, to my way of thinking, a complete repudiation of the dominant theory of economics as espoused by the Chicago School in the US and its local sycophantic offshoot, the Calgary School. Truly, it is high time for this morally and intellectual bankrupt concept of ‘homo economicus’ to be laid to rest. If anyone doubts that we live today in a period of serious and increasing inequality, then I would encourage you to check out the statistics as reported by our own governmental agencies. In both Canada and the US, the richest 20% of the population owns roughly 90% of the financial wealth, and this disparity has been growing since the 1980’s. Even if they are detrimental to the prospect of long-term sustainability and work contrary to any real standards of progress, cheap, plentiful food and vacuous, propagandertainment, both conveniently delivered very profitably by the economic elite, are the only tools elites have, besides indefensible violence and incarceration, to maintain their control and keep their unjustifiably high standard of living.
Our food systems have been subverted, perhaps even perverted, for the purposes of maintaining gross social and economic inequality and injustice, offering the corollary benefit of further enriching the economic elite in the process. I would argue that as citizens of democratic nations, it is our moral duty to strive to change this situation by peaceful means, as long as we live in democracies in name and in law.
The first and most important step to be taken in making real progress in terms of food and food systems is the personal recognition we each need to achieve in regards to the interconnectedness of communities of life on this planet and the intrinsic and equal value of all life forms, human and otherwise. The human arrogance which is expressed in our economic policy of growth for growth’s sake, regardless of the consequences for marginalized populations and other communities of life, needs to be exposed for what it is; a self-serving and ultimately self-defeating delusion. If the theory behind our economic policies is the improvement of the standard of living of humans, then why do we not utilize a system of evaluation, which is actually capable of measuring progress? The system of economic metrics currently used by business and government to demonstrate that we are making progress, in terms of percentage of economic growth, is not such a system. In fact, GDP and GNP deliver a report on progress, which only measures economic activity as a whole, regardless of the nature, whether positive or negative, of that economic activity. In a speech given shortly before his assassination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy summed up this situation eloquently and powerfully. I would like to quote it here.
"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
If we are ever to hope to institute a system of measuring progress, such as the Genuine Progress Index, or something akin to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, it is going to be required of us that we engage in the democratic process in a most active and serious way. The elites who currently set economic policy are well served by the GDP/GNP, as it allows them to assure a concerned but distracted citizenry that we are in fact making some kind of progress. This change will not be achieved easily, but then, the progress of past eras, such as the abolition of slavery, the civil right’s movement and universal suffrage, was also not easily achieved. The intrinsic rights, which all people have, as members of the community of life, are never recognized and entrenched in law and practice, without a struggle. We will have to demand these changes, we may have to march in the streets for these changes, some of us, as demonstrated recently by our brave and selfless fellow beings in the Arab world, may even die fighting for these changes. But then, from my perspective, there are worse things than dying for a cause which is just and will better serve future generations of humans and the communities of life required to support them. A life lived in a meaningless, inconsequential, comfortable and self-indulgent way would be to name but one.
The other way, in which we might all help to foster and promote a healthy, sustainable food system is to bring our own personal financial power to bear on the issue. This can be achieved on two levels. The first of these is to stop supporting the industrial and corporate food system with our spending power. There are now ample and ever-increasing opportunities to support local farmers who are committed to the production of good, clean and fair food in a sustainable way. Whether you become involved in a Community Supported Agriculture Project, go to the farmers’ market, buy directly at the farm gate or seek out the food retailers which are truly committed to supporting and promoting sustainable local food, your food dollars can go a long way to changing the food system. The other financial tool, which many of us have at our disposal, is the wealth that we have accrued and invested in various financial instruments. Whether you are aware or not, your savings are probably being invested in corporations which are engaged in business which may be working in complete opposition to your own personal moral and ethical values. If even a small percentage of our total invested wealth were to be redirected towards sustainable, local agricultural production, as proposed by the nascent Slow Money movement, great change could be wrought in the food system. The only limitations to what could be achieved on this front are the scope of our vision, the power of our imaginations and the courage of our moral convictions.
Civilizations of the past have been built on the foundations of the communities of life in which they found fertile ground, and all, without exception, have fallen when the demands they made of the communities of life which once flourished in the soil, the water, the forest, the mountainside and the meadow, exceeded the capacity of these communities to support them. I believe in the value of our human culture and it is for this reason that I am a farmer and an advocate of sustainable food systems. It is only by using huge quantities of non-renewable energy that we humans are able to feed ourselves, albeit poorly, with roughly one billion of our fellow humans suffering consistently from malnutrition and another one billion suffering from obesity and other diseases caused by the industrialization of our food supply. But eventually, our cultures will have to come to terms with the communities of life on which we depend and the limits to growth which are simply a fact of the natural world. I think it is time that we paid all of these communities of life, including our own, the respect that all life deserves, by seeking to restore our own culture’s dynamic equilibrium within the natural world. Our knees may shake slightly with fear at the prospect of this great challenge, but if we find a point of balance within the community of life, our legs will be strong enough to move us forward. Help me, help us, help yourself, to strengthen roots anchored deep in the beautiful, living earth, which gave rise to us. The struggles are inevitable, but this time, in contrast to every other civilization of the past, with our depth of knowledge, our clean technologies, our wisdom, our desire for justice and our will, we might just be able to create that brighter future for many generations to come.