Monday, February 25, 2008

we should do it anyway

I think there's a terrific psychological difference determined by the frame of mind in which one takes certain actions… There's not much joy in taking defensive actions. But if you can think of it as contributing to "the repair of the world," then you have a totally different view of the action. Now you can really be happy about it: you have made a difference (however small) by this action. Over time, [this point] of view [can] have an effect on your personality and character. The defensive or "forced to do this" motivation tends to harden and closes you, shutting you away from others. The "repair of the world" motivation tends to awaken compassion in you, to soften you towards others.
–Pat Meadows

Of course if we're going to suggest a way of living radically different from the one we've developed in this country in the decades after WWII, it's probably in our best interest to explain why such a change is necessary. It is, as many people have pointed out, very necessary because a decrease in the amount of energy available to human beings is very likely going forward. Many of the other resources that make our way of life possible are also available in limited quantities and we'll be reaching those limits sooner than previously thought. And change seems especially prudent considering the condition of our climate due to the warming of our planet. In other words it seems like a reasonable sound position to take, the idea that we must change the way we live or risk our very survival.

But this is a defensive position. It says we must do this or else. And as scary as the "or else" is, making change in defense is much different than doing it offensively; as a way to gain not as a hedge against ruin. Pat Meadows is responsible for popularizing "The Theory of Anyway," as an early response to those people who are calling for change "or else!" They were and are still right of course. If we don't change we are likely to experience more pain and suffering than need be, but that kind of a defensive motivator isn't always helpful. For one thing it tends to foster resentment. If we feel like we have to do something we're likely to cast about for someone to blame. Or we are likely to do it with a heavy heart and that doesn't promote success. That is, we are less likely to succeed in transforming our own lives and our society in general if we are moping about making change to ward off doom. Likewise we are less likely to experience resistance from ourselves, our family and friends and our community if we can frame the changes as positive in nature and not dreadful sacrifices we must make if we are going to survive!

The good news is that doing this, framing the changes we must undertake in terms of how very beneficial they would be for us is easy. It could be that in our surprise to learn life for Americans will be changing dramatically in the 21st century, we let our dismay overshadow the understanding that this might allow us to fix some really awful realities we'd come to accept as just another part of life. We have tended to think, out of complacency or more likely out of loyalty to our own way of life, that this way of living is the best way of living possible and that there's no need for fundamental changes to our "non-negotiable" American way of life.

Following WWII, the United States experienced a renaissance of sorts. The US was the only industrialized nation whose infrastructure hadn't been bombed into oblivion. In the aftermath of such destruction our farmers helped to feed the world during a time in which the world was unable to feed itself. Our manufacturing capacity was ramped up during the war which meant we were able to make all the stuff the rest of the world needed to rebuild itself, which meant a steady stream of wealth from abroad. The US also remained the largest oil producer in the world during the decades that followed the war. This meant not only an enormous amount of cheap energy available to US citizens but also another source of wealth as we exported petroleum to other countries.

There was a great construction bonanza as this nation rushed to provide a good life for the fighting men returning home to their families. For several decades after WWII Americans increasingly moved to populate the countryside surrounding cities all over this country. Technological advancements led to the creation of all sorts of new appliances to go in all those new houses. War rationing was over and foods and other formerly restricted items, like tires were once again available to anyone who could afford them. Labor laws and government initiatives kept businesses from over exploiting workers. This meant a larger percentage of the work force was able to participate in the consumption of goods and services and the middle class was born into what was described as the American Dream.

So it was from the beginning that the middle class valued not just their ability to keep hunger and the other problems of poverty at bay but that they were able to participate in consuming more resources just like the wealthy, if still to a lesser degree. Of course what we see today is the runaway version of the American dream, a culture consumed by consumption. We are in terms of material wealth, three times better off than we were in the 1950s. Everything from the size of our cars and our homes, to the size of our entrees has grown. In purely materialistic terms we are wealthier than ever before. But polls show this wealth hasn't translated to happiness. The National Opinion Research Center has been asking Americans annual just how happy they are. It turns out that we peaked in terms of happiness in the 1950s and have been growing ever less happy since; despite all our new stuff.

Of course we have been growing more sedentary too. We spend much more time sitting in cars, sitting at work and witting in front of the television than we ever did in the middle of last century. And this has had an effect of both our physical and mental health. As we've continued to adopt more tools of convenience and comfort we've also seen a rise in those chronic diseases associated with such a sedentary lifestyle. All of this material wealth has also come at a cost. As a people we work more hours than any other nation in the world. The level of stress can be measured in studies and conveyed as statistics. Despite our rise in levels of material wealth we still see high numbers of suicides rivaling those of homicides. (That is, in America you're probably more likely to kill yourself than to be killed by anyone else) Or you can just spend time in public and absorb the level of anxiety that permeates our culture. More than half of all American adults have taken some sort of medication for depression, not counting those who self medicate regularly with drugs less regulated by the government like alcohol or tobacco or an entire tub of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The United States spends more than twice- double!- the amount of money as any other nation on health care and yet we rank 44 in life expectancy. We have an infant mortality rate that is higher than that of Cuba. Who, by the way, has more doctors per capita than we do here in the US. It’s clear from our ailing health that the way we live is not in our best interest.

This may on its face seem like just another defense reason for change, the idea that we must or we will stay sick. It isn't though. Advocating for a change in the way we live that will make us healthier is inseparable from advocating for a change in the way we live that will make us happier.

It will also give us more choices. The myth goes something like this. "We have more choices in terms of what we eat than ever before!" In Bring the Food Economy Home, Helena Norberg-Hodge et al, addresses this directly saying.

It is easy for the Northern consumer to believe that industrial agriculture and global trade have actually led to an increase in food diversity. A well-stocked supermarket can overwhelm with its apparent food choices: fifty different kinds of breakfast cereals; eighty feet of shelving devoted to fruit juices, soft drinks and other beverages; six different brands of cottage cheese; ten varieties of potato chips… Much of this apparent diversity is illusion, however, since the 80 percent of the supermarket that consists of processed foods offers little real choice. A close look at several different packages of crackers or canned soups will reveal virtually identical lists of ingredients. In many cases, the ten different brands are owned by the same food conglomerate- the only diversity is each one's distinct packaging.

These transnational food corporations makes decision that result not in more and better choices for eaters but fewer choices. The decision about what to offer is often governed not by taste or for nutritional reasons but because of what foods will travel best and last the longest on the grocery store shelf. The result, as Norberg-Hodge suggests.

Thus dozens of apple varieties once may have grown within a few miles of a supermarket that today sells just three or four- those most favored by large growers. No matter that a Red Delicious is not as tasty as an heirloom apple variety the Red Delicious looks and travels better.

In China the number of rice varieties under cultivation decreased from 10,000 in 1949 to about 1,000 in 1972. "In the United States 95 percent of the cabbage, 91 percent of the field maize, 94 percent of the pea, and 81 percent of the tomato varieties have been lost." Broadly speaking we've lost ¾ of the world's food diversity in a century.

A return to small scale, sustainable agriculture and local eating would be eliminating some or even most of the exotics we've come to think of a staples but it would could mean a return of diversity over run by the globalized agriculture and decisions made based not on the preference of eaters but on what practices will make food companies the most money.

In addition to the health benefits of changing our lifestyle and focusing more on quality and less on quantity we are likely to see more benefits from a way of growing food that requires fewer chemical inputs. All of the pesticides and fertilizers that allow industrial agriculture to operate on depleted soils come at a cost not fully understood by the medical community. There are studies linking these chemicals to human health problems (not to mention environmental problems) but it seems logical enough to just suggest that being able to avoid foods grown using toxic chemicals will make for a healthier happier life.

And we should be growing food without the use of such chemicals not just because it's bad for the health of those of us who are eating the food but because it's bad for the health of those people growing our food. The UN reports between 20,000 and 40,000 farm workers die globally each year due to pesticide exposure. UP to 300,000 farm laborers in the US have illnesses related to pesticide exposure. If we think that we're not in some way responsible for these illness and these deaths then we're wrong. And again this is not to be seen as a defense posture from which we should act but as a way in which we can make decisions that repair our world. We can take back the notion of morally respectable behavior and apply it to this portion of our lives. We can demand a system of growing food and eating it that doesn't not, as a consequence, include us in moral unacceptable practices.

A similar argument can be made in regards to the current practice of raising animals in this country. This is not the argument that animals should not be consumed by humans but the argument that we do have a responsibility to treat those animals in a humane and morally defendable way. Factory farming of meat is not doing that now and it would be a decent of us to demand a change. Of course that change would inevitably taste better. It’s true that locally raised, small scale sustainable meat comes without the growth hormones, the pesticide residues, the antibiotics and the dubious preservatives but it also just tastier. It's an obvious example of how doing what's right by our bodies, the bodies of other people and animals and doing right in terms of the environment also happens to mean food that tastes better. It's like we've been going out of our way to poison ourselves and the planet. Or more correctly put, we have allowed a system by which a few people get rich by promoting questionable agricultural practices. We need to make changes not as a defensive response to these practices but as a way to transition to a healthier, happier way of eating as an act of repairing the world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

jack works or jack plays

For more than a century we've been doing our best to trash the notion agricultural work. As a result we've come to regard the labor of growing food as a nasty, backbreaking effort best left to all those machines and a few of their handlers. The average age of a farmer in this country, 55 years old, is a reflection of the message we've been sending to our children as they grow up. "Don't get involved in that awful work of farming. Move to the city and find real work." When we further examine this change in attitude though, we find a deeper modification in the way we think about work.

Humans have been developing tools since the beginnings of our evolution. In fact many people think of the advent of tool making as the distinction between apes and man. That is, we were just animals until we started using tools to better out lives. One of the reasons for developing tools was undoubtedly the time savings advantageous of some of our tools. Fast forward a few thousand years and consider the invention of a more modern time saving tool, the cotton gin. Eli Whitney is credited with creating this machine, an updated version of the Indian Charkhi used to pick the seeds and seed pods out of cotton. Before its invention someone, very often a slave in the case of the cotton producing regions of the Southeastern United States, had to pick them out by hand. A very tedious and time consuming job indeed. In the cotton gin we can see a fairly low tech tool that reduced the amount of human labor needed to produce a particular agricultural product.

It is worth noting that because the cotton gin made the labor of removing seeds so much easier and less time consuming, cotton harvests grew tremendously in the years following its invention. This meant more people needed to plow the fields, plant the cotton and harvest it. The net result of the cotton gin was not fewer slaves but more. It is also worth pointing out that our modern way of life offers us more time saving devices than any other society in the whole of human history. We have machines to can food for us and machines to open the cans. We have machines that wash our clothes and bake our bread and dry our hair and transport us out and over the landscape at consistent speeds not dreamed of by the people of only a hundred and fifty years ago. And yet, the average worker in the US works more now than ever. Why, in this age of time saving tools are we still working so much?

If you factor in the time it takes you to earn all the money needed to own and operate a car, and all the time you spend sitting in traffic, the average speed of driving is slower than a human being can walk. Of course walking doesn't offer the range needed by many of us to travel all the daily miles we become accustom to driving. And the actual act of driving is faster than walking. It would take some commuters days to walk to work. But this notion that all our modern tools of convenience have actually given us more time in life is a fallacy that points to the way we think about work.

Before these modern time saving tools were invented, before the industrial revolution led to the invention of all these tool, human activity wasn't divided so acutely into labor and leisure. There were no time clocks to stamp on the way into the office. Life was a collection of daily activities that sustained life. For farmers, which meant for majority of people living 150 years ago, daily activities included what we would think of as chores: putting animals out to pasture, milking cows, mending fences, sewing seeds, harvesting food, etc. These chores were obviously necessary to the continuation of life. That is, the work was required if a particular farmer wanted be able to feed his family so the work was really important. But it was also ingrained in those who did such work in a way we have trouble understanding today.

For most Americans the concept of work is a negative one, associated with a job that is visited where labor is done in return for money with which to buy all that a person needs and wants. The work was required if a particular laborer wanted be able to feed his family so the work was really important. But there is a palpable distinction between the work of directly feeding your family and the work done to buy money to feed your family. It's a distinction that informs not only the way we think about food but the way we think about work.
We work more now than many agricultural societies of the past so it's important to point out that if the goal of getting the farmers into he factories and mechanization agriculture was to offer us more time, then industrial agriculture is a failure. Not just because it is destroying our soil and poison our land and our waterways and our children. Not just because it is warming our planet. And not just because it is unsustainable in the future just ahead, a future with fewer fossil fuel resources to do the job of growing food. Industrial agriculture fails because it's part of a system of living that takes time away from us as it forces us to work longer and harder just to feed our families and meet our needs.

But it robs us of our time in another way, a way in which I alluded to above. Our divisive way of thinking about labor has caused us to compartmentalize our lives and scorn the time we don't consider leisure. It's doubtful that preindustrial farmers worked each and every day while whistling through the easy chores of farming. There are always unpleasant jobs that must be done. That is as true now as it has always been, but the difference is that now we tend to scorn any and all work as the opposite of the way we strive to spend our time. These days we tend to think in terms of having a fixed number of hours during which we are required to work and then we are free again to have fun. We talk longingly about the day we can retire and do no more work at all! (I can't find statistics to back up my claim but isn't it interesting to note the number of people who die shortly after they stop working. I mention this as I note the passing of a family friend and mailman of my town for decades. He had just retired. Most people retire when they are older and therefore closer to their inevitable passing, but might not the regular work of life, regardless of its form, help keep humans healthy in all the many senses of wellbeing?) As the baby boomers, noted for their, shall we say, lack of modesty, drag us all along with them on the story of their most recent life stage, retirement, we are reminded that near the end of life we're expected to stop the efforts that sustain our families and get back to the fun of living- the golden years!

Retirement is defined as "the withdrawal from one's position or occupation or from active working life." In the future, retirement as considered by today's baby boomers will not be possible. Sipping Mai Tais on a tropical beach while spending money accumulated over years of work at a job will probably be the destiny of fewer and fewer people. Retirement itself is a fairly new concept, not mentioned in the English language until about 350 years ago and not a common occurrence for most people who, up until the 19th century, worked until they died.

Of course the type of work they did changed as they got older. 85 year old men were not leading teams of horse to work the soil early in the spring. The labor of the elderly in years past fit both their physical capabilities and the wisdom they had accrued. But the notion of contribution went beyond weekly volunteerism or story telling. Older people remained active in the patterns and habits that sustained life on the homestead. Again the idea of labor as a more inclusive part of life precluded the notion that one day older people would just stop working.

The same is true of children of course. Least I be accused of championing the return to labor conditions of the industrial revolution before child labor laws went into affect, let me make it clear that there are jobs both suitable and unsuitable for children. But children adore being outdoors. They love to play in natural settings and work in the garden and grow food. My daughter truly enjoys our chickens. She likes to watch them, to gather their eggs, to feed them and visit them at night to shut them in safely. She is only two and not especially helpful in taking care of them at this age. ;-) She also gets a bit scared when they fly but in only a few years I hope it will be part of her duties as a part of our household to take care of the chickens, a job not outside the skill range of a seven year old. Much of the work of starting seeds, planting and weeding and harvesting, (and cooking! My daughter also "helps" to bake bread) can be done safely by people under the age of 18. Traditional this has been how farming families got through the annual periods of time when more labor was needed. Many agricultural regions of our country historically operated school systems around the need for seasonal labor provided by the younger members of the family. Of course it is important to protect the younger, more vulnerable member of our society at large. And it is important that children have access to education that teaches a wide range of thoughts, skills and ideas. But it would be foolish to assume that means children and those who get too old to do heavy labor should be excluded from the work of feeding ourselves in the future.

Again it is the idea of labor as something other than an integrated aspect of life that leads us to carve up our time and make such a distinction between when we are working and when we are having fun. Life is work, but that doesn't make it less fun. We have the tools, some of them old and some of them new, to keep most of the labor of growing our own food from being the nasty, backbreaking work it is often described as being. But it's important to understand that only when we change our minds about what "work" means in the context of our lives will we be able to fully embrace a change in the way we live. Only after we've become accustom to the notion that working is living and doing that work is just as enjoyable- in some ways more enjoyable- than the mindless leisure we've come to expect from our current way of life, will we believe in a change.

Monday, February 11, 2008

in concern of the ends

Last year I wrote a paper describing the virtues of a shorter work week. I started working such a week (4 days, 36 hours) over a year ago and find it a fantastic alternative to the standard 5 day, 40 hour work week. The paper was published at Groovy Green and over at The Oil Drum where some of the comments were really useful in sharpening the argument for a shorter work week. Two specific critiques stand out in my mind as I contemplate an even greater shift in the American idea of labor. I believe such a shift is inevitable in light of declining energy availability and the urgent need to drastically cut carbon emissions.

One of the comments repeated went something like this. “You’re a wimp. I work 75 hours each week!” It was clear that some of the readers base their self-worth, in large part, on the amount of time they spend working. I’m not sure what those proudly bragging about their really long work weeks actually do during those hours. Perhaps it is something genuinely satisfying but increasingly the work in America is more about servicing ever increasing desires and not meeting the needs of our fellow citizens. I’m sure that those people who plan the spectacularly extravagant sweet sixteen birthday parties as seen on TV spend an enormous amount of time planning the events. I bet they make a lot of money too. Good for them but their work is not the kind of worthwhile work my grandparents looked back on at the ends of their lives and described as deeply fulfilling.

The second of the useful critiques I mentioned went something like this. “If everyone get a 3 day weekend every week, they’ll just spend more time driving to the beach, eating up resources and pumping out more pollution!” I agree there is no guarantee that less time spent at the office means more time spent at home reading to the kids or growing a garden or some such other low impact activity. But it seems unlikely that given a shorter work week, the average American worker will spend that increase in leisure time spending a lot more money and spewing a lot more carbon. For one thing he or she is less likely to have the financial means to do so. I couldn’t afford to go winging off to the coast every weekend. And a shorter week will probably mean a reduction in formal compensation. Personally it costs me a few thousand dollars each year. More time to do stuff probably means less time making US dollars in the formal economy so less US dollars to pay for trips to the beach.

But I mention all of this merely as a warm up. The really important thought that occurred to me after reading the comments came months later as I pondered what has become of our society. The American way of life as it stands today is described in admiration and in disgust as a culture of consumption. But even some of those who admire an annual increase in our GDP or praise the notion of unending growth are beginning to at least consider that more stuff is not necessarily making us happier people.

It is an often retold truth that money does not lead to happiness. We hear such a notion in graduation speeches, in wedding rehearsal toasts or at funerals as loved ones comfort each other with notion of what really is important during our time here on this planet. Very quickly though we get right back to business as usual after such ceremonies. We often hear of people going back to work sooner rather than later after the death of a loved one to, “keep me mind off of it,” the person says. Back to the grindstone of doing specialized tasks to earn money to pay for the needs and ever increasing wants of American life; the mind numbing simplicity of it will lessen the pain. Besides, that’s what the Joneses do.

The National Opinion Research Center has been polling Americans annually for decades and their finds show hat while we have more than 3 times as much material wealth as those who lived in this country in the 1950s, fewer and fewer of us report being very happy since that decade. It seems that as Bill McKibben (who also references the National Opinion Research Center polls in his excellent book Deep Economy) says, “new research from many quarters has started to show that even when growth does make us wealthier, the greater wealth no longer makes us happier.” This is an old adage, the notion that wealth doesn’t lead to happiness. It has been taught for ages, perhaps since the first surpluses of agrarian life led to the amassment of wealth. How is it that the message of temperance has been so soundly defeated in modern America?

It seems too simple to just blame television commercials or even the idea of advertising itself for our failure to heed the old message of restraint. Because of course those who preach the notion of temperance have at their disposal some of the very same modern methods of spreading their word. A large percentage of the population attends weekly religious worship services in the United States and all of the major religions (with specific congregational and historical exceptions) teach the value of restraint and self control. Some stress it as an exercise of self strengthen while others focus on the possibility of charitable giving through self sacrifice. The religious communities still teaches that greed is not good and that to contain one’s desires is a virtue. Just turn on the TV Sunday morning and you can watch. And yet, we’ve adopted an economic system that is predicated no exactly the opposite, the growth of consumption at all costs.

I’ll admit that he allure of a sexy television commercial or the bright packing of a supermarket product, when repeated from our days as children into adulthood, has a lot to do with why we seem less able to control our wants. It’s a hell of a lot more sensational than those Sunday morning worship service broadcast. But it seems that a more fundamental change has taken place in terms of how we see the world and what we value in it. We were once a culture of creation, a nation of people who prided ourselves on what we grew and made and built ourselves. Now it seems we pride ourselves on what we can buy from others. And this is a more fundamental change than it might seem at first read. We used to focus on the ends and now we focus only on the means.

In years past what was important to Americans was a goal that was aspired to either personally, as smaller communities or as a nation. Individuals might pride themselves on being able to grow a great tomato or cook an excellent family meal. The idea of cooking good food for her family was such an ingrained idea in my grandmother’s mind that it was inseparable from whom she was as a person. Suggesting that we call for take out would have been to challenge her ability to create a wonderful family meal. That is she was investe3d heavily in the ends of cooking that meal. The means to do so were skills she learned and practiced to be able to achieve her end- a great meal.

Communities too have invested in education as a means to achieve the ends of a knowledgeable population. Usually this is some combination of means- taxation, private donations, fund raisers, volunteerism, and others are used to try and achieve a certain goal; educate our youth.

As a nation we have had similar goals. During WWII we changed many of our regular ways of doing things with a focus on winning the war. US citizens accepted rationing, even came to view self limitation as patriotic in light of the goal of winning the war. The Victory Garden movement is another example of adaptation or the adjustment of the means by which we met our ends. Still desiring some of the foods placed off limits in response to the war, many citizens took charge of their own food production and served to both conserve wartime resources and still eat good, nutritious food. I think this serves as an excellent example of how changing the means can be beneficial in more ways than one, but first we have to know what we want.

The problem is though that there’s been an important shift in the way we think about what is important. We no longer value the ends but more the means. Work, whether that of our own labor or that of other tradesmen and craftsmen, is no longer valued, only the thing which we gain as a product. This is of course one of the reasons globalization has been able to out source the labor of so many Americans. Multinational corporations can take their manufacturing operations overseas and take advantage of cheap labor, lax labor laws, limited environmental restrictions and other dubious incentives to offshore American jobs. But they can do this because we don’t care if they do it. We think that consuming those goods is more important than the way in which they were produced. Our means of life, our need to consume more cheap goods, trumps the ends such a way of life creates. Who cares about lives lived by poor, often mistreated factory workers overseas. For that matter who cares about Americans who lose their jobs to those overseas workers. Who cares about the environmental impacts left to our children by such a system,. Those ends- those devastated lives and overwhelmed ecosystems- pale in comparison with upkeep of our consumptive way of life.

The means by which we get our ends, that is the pattern of growth capitalism, has become the focus of our attention. But as E.F. Schumacher describes it writing in Small Is Beautiful, “The trouble with valuing the ends- which, as confirmed by Keynes, is the attitude of modern economics- is that it destroys man’s freedom and power to chose the ends he really favours; the development of means, as it were, dictates the choice of ends.” That is, by accepting as unalterable our pattern of unending economic growth, we are in fact limiting ourselves and perhaps prescribing the end of the success of the human species as this means of living hurls us towards a future of ecological, agricultural and social collapse.

Industrial agriculture operates within an economic framework that says the cheapest food possible is the best food. It operates within a social framework that says machines are better suited than people to the backbreaking work of growing food because machines are more efficient. (Notice the assumed notion that the work is back breaking in the first place!) It operates within a cultural framework that says citizens don’t grow their own food, multinational corporations do it for them. It operates within a political framework that favors the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. It operates within an environmental framework that says the natural world is not a system to be worked within but a system to be dominated by humans. And it operates without paying attention to other real issues facing the people who eat the food, namely food security, resource stewardship, and the fostering of a relationship between humans and the natural world that sustains them.

By all of this I mean that instead of focusing on what we want on our table, namely tasty, nutritious food that supports our friends and neighbors who grow it and protects the resources that make it possible for our children to eat in the future and reminds us daily of just how much the natural world has to offer if we work with it- instead of focusing on the ends of this sort of food on our tables, we are focusing instead on the means mentioned above. In other words we take it as a given that the frameworks mentioned above are simply unchangeable facts of life. We buy into the notion that cheap food is good or even possible. We avert our eyes at the real costs. We believe it when we’re told that machines not people should be growing food and that we can not and should not grow our own. That would just be too hard! We accept without question the notion that a small number of companies should be in charge of the decisions that dictate what we can and can not eat. Surely Monsanto and the US Federal government know what we want for dinner! And sadly we’ve grown to suppose that the natural resources of this world will be able to supply as much cheap food as we want forever without any thought given to how the land itself is cared for. That last supposition might prove the most dangerous for as we are seeing, our world has its limits, and we are currently eating beyond them.

But within these limits there is a bounty available for our harvest. Earth does offer an amazing opportunity for growing what we need to feed the people of this planet. It’s important then to ask ourselves not what ends are available given our current means of production, but what means of production will give us our desired ends. It is here in this refocusing of our attention that we can reverse the trend of America, away from a land of consumers and back towards a nation of people who know what they want to eat and who can retool how to grow it and cook it.

Part of this of course goes back to the very idea of work as described by those who critiqued my idea of a shorter work week. The more general criticism I think was a notion that time is in fact divided into two distinct categories. We are either working or we are enjoying ourselves. The notion is that labor is awful, something we must receive compensation to endure not something we genuinely enjoy and do out of desire. The popularly used acronym T.G.I.F. stands for Thank God It’s Friday, meaning how wonderful Fridays are because they signal the end of the dreary work week and the beginning of the wonderful workless weekend! The notion of enjoyment associated with work in this country is no longer the norm. And that’s something we’re going to have to recognize and try to change if we’re going to convince more people to do more work for themselves.

The truth is, gardening and farming can be hard work. Some of its labors, especially done without the use of machines powered by fossil fuels, can be really hard work. I’ve double dug enough beds in compacted clay soils to know that doing that chore is very labor intensive. I can guess that digging a small pond by hand would even more so but very little of the work of growing our own food should be described as backbreaking. Even some of the more laborious stuff is it in fact is very enjoyable. It’s not the physical effort that keeps more of us from taking on this work but perhaps the idea that it is work and therefore not enjoyable. That is, in this country we have come to view “work” as the opposite of fun and therefore it should be avoided at all costs. Really though this is not true. Even really physically strenuous work can be fun. We have allowed a sort of pina-colada-by-the-beach fun to replace the idea that some kinds of fun might actually require physical effort. And this is a shame because an afternoon spent working diligently and laboriously on a project can be great fun. The notion that work is to be avoided at all costs is regrettable. This seems to stem from the fact that the duality of work and leisure- the notion that there is a time for work and a time for relaxation and the two are mutually exclusive- has expanded into the notion that work itself can not be fun. Both work and leisure can be enjoyable.

And of course there are ways of maximizing the enjoyment of physically demanding or otherwise toilsome projects. The Amish are famous for their barn raising, a task that literally demands more effort than any one man can offer. So they get together as a community to do the work. This has the benefit of being more fun because of the social aspect of the project but also allows individuals to offer their own personal tools and talents. A tough job that might seem like torture to an individual undertaking the task alone will find the task actually enjoyable when done with others, especially those who know how to do parts of it better or faster. The same is true of course for tasks that aren’t as much physically demanding as they are monotonous or boring. Shelling thousands of beans might seem like the dreariest way possible to spend a weekend. And left alone those chores do sounds incredibly uninteresting. That is one reason the projects were done together as a family or even at a community gathering. The seemingly tedious work of shucking acres of corn is actually a lot of fun if you get together with friends and neighbors, share some food and some stories and all shuck together fir an evening. The point is that growing food, and for that matter, living life from self sufficiently in general will require effort. Anything worthwhile in this life seems to. Now is not the time to shy away from work but to engage in the notion that the hard is worthwhile, the real hard can be a community effort and a little creativity can keep work from just being dull.

Monday, February 04, 2008

the first thing he did was buy a tractor.

Over the years, my friend Mark has listened as a lot of crazy ideas have come out of my mouth. One of my personal definitions of ‘good friend’ is someone who listens to any idea that discounts conventional thinking without suggesting the idea is outlandish. The fact is, Mark has had a few of his own crazy ideas over the years. It's probably one of the reasons we get along so well. Conventional thinking is all good and well but who wants to talk status quo over a few beers when the notion of radical solutions to contemporary problems is so much more interesting. So it wasn’t surprising when Mark patiently listen to me one night several years ago as I described the fairly dreadful situation facing industrial agriculture and all the human beings dependant on it. I posited that in light of peak oil, climate change and widespread water & soil degradation the industrial model of agriculture was doomed and we best be dreaming something else up.

I filled him in on the "green" revolution and the shift from more sustainable agricultural practices of the past to the implementation of fossil fuel based farming. I went on and on about soil degradation and the state of clean water in this country. We talked food miles, farmer's markets and contrasted the states of agriculture in Cuba and North Korea following the fall of the Soviet Union. By the time we were finished I felt like we'd just read Dale Allen Pfieffer's book Eating Fossil Fuels, aloud- too loud as by this time we’d had a few beers! As this particular night carried on, we began to swing wildly from overly pessimistic predictions about the future of the human race to excessively optimistic forecasts of a shift to ecovillage living for all! We called it a night when we both convinced each other that the end of modern civilization was neigh! and that everything would be fine because those left would be small enough in number to survive on the ancient practices of hunting and gathering. Time to pay the tab.

In successive discussions I filled him in on more background information- more of the research I was doing for the book I would be writing. Mark always listened intently and offered ideas, comments, criticisms and general thoughts on the idea that the way we grow food and the way we eat food is way out of whack with the physical realities of planet Earth. He suggested that shortly, we’re in for a shift kick in the pants.

It had been several weeks since I had explained to Mark the idea of a lot of new farmers- 100 million new farmers in America- when he asked me to meet him for a drink so he could share a surprise. I was intrigued and, as always, ready to drink beer and talk about change. When Mark arrived he walked over to the table where I was waiting for him. He sat down, ordered a drink and wasted no time in sharing his news.

"So I bought a tractor," he said "and I'm going to be one of your new farmers." "One of my farmers?" I asked amused but slightly confused. "Your 100 million new farmers," he said, "now you only need ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, and nine hundred and ninety nine new farmers to meet your goal."

Mark slowly filled me in on his plans. He lives out in the country on enough land to grow quite a bit of food. He thought more about our ongoing discussion concerning the future of agriculture and had decided to change the way he gets his food. It sounded reasonable- compelling even, so he had decided to start farming. And the very first step he took was to buy a tractor.

It's worth noting that the majority of the world's farmers don't have tractors. Most farmers worldwide don’t have enough land to warrant tractor ownership and they work their land by hand. The mechanized labor a tractor offers makes the most sense financially on larger tracts of land. But I listened as Mark described his new purchase, an old Massey Ferguson that sounded big enough to pull his house down. The tires needed replacing and also he needed to replace all the parts that had gone bad mostly from lack of use. This particular tractor had been sitting in the barn of a widow of nine years who couldn't quite bring herself to sell her husband's old iron icon of late 20th century farming. Mark bought it at a steal.

I knew how much land he had available for cultivation, about 2 acres total. And I knew that he was coming at this as a new participant in the movement of people growing more of their own food, which is a nice way of saying that he didn't know how to grow food but he was eager to learn. I could tell he was dedicated to the idea and I felt that supporting him including not pointing out that a tractor was neither necessary nor even a good idea given his circumstances. But I bit my tongue and he talked on.

The next time we got together I inquired about the state of his new farming adventure. He told me it was coming along nicely but slowly. He had purchased new tires and torn the engine apart. He had parts on order and had lined up someone to paint it all red once he was done mechanically overhauling his machine. I suggested that this sounded like a complete restoration project to which he replied that yes, it had taken on quite a life of its own. I asked if he was still going to grow food and he said yes, that was still his goal, but I got the feeling his shiny new restoration project was first and foremost on his list of things to do.

As spring progressed I didn't see Mark as much but often enough to hear about his tractor and its progress. It was up and running and he'd used it to plow a field and he had planted crops. I got a chance to see his garden on a day in late May. It was still rather barren with more red clay than green leaves but it was level and the surface smoothed. I asked about mulch and he suggested the tractor could help with weeds. He mentioned running a house form his house for general watering. I asked about cover crops and he mentioned planting all two acres in food he could eat. What with the state of industrial agriculture he could not be under prepared! I suggested that one person in charge of 2 acres worth of vegetables might find himself busier than he ought to be but Mark said he was counting on the tractor to help and on evenings after work and weekends to do most of his garden labor. I was impressed by his ambition.

The tractor meanwhile was a sight to behold. It was big enough and red enough to be driven proudly in a rural 4th of July parade. It had been restored to perfect working order and Mark showed me all he could do with his fancy renovated machine. My daughter thought it was great as Mark hauled her over to the garden from his home across the street. He pulled the neighborhood kids around on occasion and I admit to being a bit jealous of all he could do so quickly with a machine of such power- cut brush, plow soil, move mulch and more.

But over the coming months I watched as Mark's garden got away from him. It was too much for one man to keep up with on a part time basis. The tractor helped but it could not do all of the small labor of a vegetable garden- pick tomatoes and can them, put up bean trellises and keep the deer out of his corn.

But even as the food he was growing got out of control, Mark's love of his tractor grew. It was now a part of any standard visit to Mark’s house, a lap around the neighborhood on his tractor. He contracted for the construction of a small detached garage as a home for his tractor and I knew doing so had cost quite a bit of money.

In the end he did have quite a harvest that year- lots of corn and potatoes and beans. The tomatoes had come all at once and some sort of fungus had set in. The pumpkin patch was overrun with weeds that choked out the vines as borers set in to finish off his hoped for jack-o-lanterns. 15 pepper plants meant more than enough of those for a month or two but no time to dry them. He talked about getting a chest freezer for storage. And while I think my friend Mark had the best intentions, I know he spent an awful lot of money on seedlings and fertilizer and hoses, not to mention the tractor.

That was last year. This past year Mark didn't plant a garden. He had a self described "busy spring" and decided not to bother until next year. Besides he can still get out his tractor even if he isn't taking it into the field. And food is still so cheap. I've mentioned some easier, long term projects for Mark’s farm: cover crops and maybe building a small pond for rainwater harvesting and for keeping a few fish or maybe some fruit trees and bushes planted along the northern edge of his garden; some perennial crops he wouldn’t have to plant again every year. I don't push these ideas though. Mark is a busy man and open minded, but the kind who doesn't take well to pressure from others. He'll do it when he is ready.

I can't help but lament that idea of the tractor supplanting his mission. Mark set out to involve himself more in the process of feeding himself. But he got sidetracked by the allure of shiny farming tool. I don't think bad of him for his detour and I hope he'll return again to his idea of growing more of his own food. I have made my own agricultural mistakes in the past. I put too much under cultivation at first. I originally adopted the practices of row agriculture to the exclusion of other ideas. I didn't learn the value of sheet mulching for a few years and I still keep lousy records even though I know how valuable they can be. But I think Mark's pitfall hints at a greater hazard luring out there for would be converts to the newly anointed return to small scale farming. All of us, even those raised in very urban environments, have a notion about how farming happens. For many it's the idea of a white guy on a red tractor riding proudly over his 500 hundred acres.

But the truth is that's not what we're talking about when we suggest a return to small scale, sustainable agriculture and 100 million new farmers in America as a reasonable response to peak oil, climate change and widespread social injustice. There will be likely be a continuation of large scale industrial agriculture even as the resources support system that makes it possible breaks down over the coming decades. And there are already more and more people growing food and selling it locally with farmer's markets representing the largest growing sector of the food economy in America. Urban gardens, community gardens, even new victory gardens are beginning to pop up all over this country. Spurred by the higher price of food, a dissatisfaction with the industrial agriculture and its products, a longing to engage with others in one's neighborhood- plenty of reasons are driving change even while the existing system continues to lumber on. The pitfall I mentioned was the idea that agriculture in the future must look like agriculture in the past, that to grow food you need a tractor. Not only do you not need a tractor, but such a shiny trapping from the past might serve to distract you from learning what you really need to know in order to grow food effectively.

Moving forward we think it's worth suggesting that more people grow food, lots more people- 100 million more Americans actively participating in the growing of food in this country. Moving forward we don't expect the tractors to stop simultaneously as a new philosophy of food takes hold in this country and sudden and rapid transformation turns us into a nation of farmers. Real change is more messy and more chaotic and harder to label because it happens without a roadmap and sometimes seemingly devoid of human direction at all. It will serve us well, moving forward, to put aside our notions of who farms, how it's done and where people can and cannot grow food. The 21st century and its challenges will manifest themselves agriculturally in ways we can't accurately describe today. Being flexible, being redundant, and being willing to consider any alternatives to even the most seemingly useful ideas will be helpful in addressing the coming change. Good luck to all of us, tractors or no.