You’re probably expecting a dot point list of how we like to grow stuff on the farm and keep it simple and close to the earth and that you should support us because we’re your local farmers.
Well, if that’s what you were hoping for, I do apologise, but you’ve come to the wrong place, and I suggest you read the other pages on the site which are indeed spouting something closer to that line. This page is where I lay out my thoughts on the current state of play, and it’s pretty grim. It’ll be more akin to taking a stroll with your half-demented uncle at a family BBQ than a pep talk from a cheer squad, but there may be some bits of interest.
At this juncture in human history, there is nothing simple about agriculture and the opposing tensions it applies in the various facets of what we call our ‘world’: the Earth, our cultures, and our social and economic structures. I have been mulling these concepts over as I work on the farm, for at least 20 years, whether it’s while driving a tractor in seemingly endless circles, releasing millions-of-years-old solar energy tied up in fossil fuels to mow this month’s vegetation, or while accomplishing a similar task on a smaller scale with a scythe, powered by the solar energy tied up much more recently in my breakfast. I’m not an expert in anything, but I’ve seen things from a few different angles. I’ve been a farm hand on a labourer’s wage, and I’ve been a project manager for a multinational software company. I’ve pulled shit off cows’ tails, delivered calves, cleaned muddy drains in frosts, carted hay bales in 40 degree heat, and pruned in snow, in between designing databases for emergency services, rebranding NGOs, performing business analysis for peak research bodies, and developing systems to field-capture utility company asset management information to pass back to base. I’ve also studied some science and humanties at tertiary level. From such different perspectives I’ve formed my views, for whatever they’re worth.
My family watched Interstellar last year (minor spoiler alert). Twice, actually, because apparently it’s become my daughter’s favourite movie. The irony of this, given the lead character’s comment that part of being a good parent doesn’t include telling a 12 year old that the world is going to end (or words to that effect), in a movie about a very plausible apocalyptic scenario, is quite burning.
The irony burnt in further when, for her 13th birthday, my daughter (who has for some years had nightmares about ‘extreme water events’ such as floods and tsunamis) received a poster of a scene in the film in which the characters realise that the mountains they’re seeing are not mountains, but waves. She was rapt and it now hangs over her bed. Perhaps it’s like aversion therapy.
I’m going to try some aversion therapy myself and pick at the scabs of the facets of the flick I found haunting, as an introduction to where I’m at in my thinking.
In the film’s post-post-modern (if not post-apocalyptic) setting, the focus of society was on food. The grandfather character referred to his childhood when there were billions of people on the planet all wanting new stuff – we’re apparently supposed to recognise him as someone who was born in our time. History books had been rewritten to get our heads out of the stars and back to food – e.g. man never went to the moon, this was just propaganda – and school teachers were telling parents that the world needs farmers, not people in more ‘abstract’ careers. The premise of the movie is based around the lead character’s rejection of this thinking. He was all for ‘head in the clouds’ exploration, and thus the major plot element of the flick – going to find another world to live on.
Regardless of whether one thinks there are more options than the film’s ‘farm-or-flee’ dichotomy, it was the depiction of the new status quo, this blind commitment to ‘more of the same’ farming in the face of failing crops and rabid dust storms that really struck a chord and had all of the hallmarks of a believable scenario. The movie itself never mentions climate change as such (and indeed the primary agricultural problem appeared to be a blight that strikes crops generally) but it was the response to the challenge that struck me as having a painful veracity: more technology, more specialisation, and higher production from agriculture. “The world needs farmers”. For me, it turned a mirror onto humanity and highlighted the fact that even in secular societies we are vulnerable to the same kind of folly to which the Easter Islanders fell prey: rape the landscape, create environmental catastrophe, and try to avert the catastrophe by doing more of the same.
At this point you may be wondering whether I’m saying that we don’t need farmers. And so am I. Put it this way… On the ute I’m driving, there’s a sticker on the back window saying “thank a farmer for your next meal”. I didn’t stick it there. As I recall, it was – and there’s something in this for all of us – an agricultural supplies company employee who put it there. No, the world doesn’t need more farmers. At least, not in the way we view farming today. What the world needs is for the idea of a “farmer” as a specialised job description, to end. If you want to do something good for the world, don’t thank a farmer for your next meal, go out into your garden and forage for it, and when you see you can’t, start growing stuff. The world certainly needs more people to be growing food, but they need to be responsible for growing their own food, rather than societies outsourcing that most fundamental of human requirements to a handful of people providing for the masses. Why?
- Because it’s hard. The difficulty of sourcing food, either as it can be grown on a small scale or as it occurs in nature (even harder), is what constrains our numbers to being within the Earth’s carrying capacity.
- Because it builds individual survival capacity (resilience) and therefore works toward ensuring the longevity of humans as a species (for now we’ll work on the assumption that this is a good thing).
- Because we’re simply going to have to. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen (and maybe overnight) – transport and distribution networks will collapse, become overburdened, or be seriously impinged upon in some form. Even in the very recent history of the last century, there were two world wars which brought with them rationing. We are far more dependent now on faraway sources for basic provisions than we ever were in that century.
But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Before I start talking about what’s good and bad about farming and its associated social structures, I need to talk about what good and bad is.
Having studied a bit of sociology and having abandoned a fairly fundamentalist Christian view of life, I find the power of ideologies incredibly compelling. The Christian ones, in particular, have had an enormous power over our Western world views, and therefore our actions. I was thrilled to find a discussion of the power of our collective ‘stories’ on our environmental relations in Diane Dumanoski’s The End of the Long Summer (a book I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone interested in the themes I’m touching on here). To think we’re immune from the influence of centuries of such ideologies just because we are now a relatively secular society, would be a grave mistake. The sociologist Anthony Giddens speaks of “sociological thinking” – looking at the world through the lens of sociology – as a way of investigating why things are as they are. It can yield very useful insights and expose connections between beliefs and actions which, upon closer examination, have a tenuous basis in reality, at very best. As an example, here are just a few ideas that come from the Christian grand narrative explanation of the meaning of life – just a few I’ve selected for their potential to influence our relationship to our environment:
- We humans are the pinnacle of God’s earthly creation, above the other ‘beasts’ of the earth and just below angels. Imagine a world in which this has been taught for millenia – how might people treat animals and their habitats, and what justifications may be behind all kinds of exploitation?
- We humans were told by God to go forth and multiply, and to subdue the Earth. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there were no success criteria given to enable us to recognise when we’d completed that mission, and we still seem to be carrying on in that vein.
- Having offspring indicates being in favour with God.
- The world used to be perfect, but we broke it by eating the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. So, really, Earth is already fundamentally broken, and nothing we can do can actually fix it.
- Eventually this world is going to be replaced by new one anyway, once God steps in to say ‘enough’ (or perhaps ‘enough subduing already!’). This is (seriously) why the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t worry their heads too much about environmental issues. While JWs might be considered fringe nutballs by mainstream Christianity these days, they are actually doctrinally very close to the original Christian movement on many such issues.
- The eating the forbidden fruit bit is also why we have weeds – we were actually cursed by God to have to work for our food, as opposed to just going and eating what was laid on for us. Regardless of whether theologians frame this curse as a punishment from God or more pseudo-scientifically as the natural consequence of doing something that puts a system fundamentally out of balance, my point here is that this effectively places agriculture as a divinely mandated component of our existence. For people using the Bible as their way of interpreting the world (and there have been quite a few throughout history, and probably particularly in rural areas), cementing agriculture as a pillar upon which our existence is built would probably make the consideration of other possibilities for ‘ways of living happily’ unlikely.
- God likes people who do good works. For the enormous implications of this, particularly in shaping/allowing capitalism, google “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”.
- Life is a special gift from God. God has answers to our questions. Life has meaning, and God has a plan for us. And he’s in control of the universe. These are arguably all (in isolation) effectively positive in terms of their likely effect on our sense of wellbeing. But they may be doing us a great disservice in terms of preparing us mentally for the possibility that even the concept of meaning has no meaning outside the thin veneer of the atmosphere that separates us from the enormity of the universe.
That’s just a few I can think of, off the top of my head, from my time as a serious Christian (if anyone is interested in that story and where I stand in regard to spirituality today, I’ve written in depth about that).
Not the way it’s meant to be
One reason ideologies are really powerful is because they make us challenge anything that’s contrary to the ideology. One such example is the idea that something is ‘not the way it was meant to be’. That sense – of something being ‘unnatural’ – underpins many of our objections or unease to policies and practice, whether it comes from a religious basis (e.g. something running ‘contrary to God’s plan’) or a more scientific basis (e.g. ‘our evolutionary history doesn’t include sitting in chairs in flouro-lighted rooms for 8 hours a day’). These kinds of positions, unexamined, can seem fundamentally, obviously, unquestionably ‘right’ – they have a ‘pull’ to them which we might be tempted to call “self-evident” if we were forced to give them a label.
However, in such statements, there are actually several layers of assertions, some of which are hiding or disguised as assumptions and implications. For example, the assertion which is hiding as an implication in the above example is that because sitting in an office is outside of our evolutionary history, that practice is not a ‘good’ one and probably must have some kind of negative consequence.
But there’s more onion to peel there. For example, many people would also readily agree with the statement that industrialised agriculture is not ‘natural’ and results in long term system imbalances, and is therefore not the ‘right’ thing to be doing. But what of the very idea of agriculture itself? After all, there’s an assumption inherent in the practice of agriculture: that we are superior to our environment and/or that we should have the right to alter the environment for our own ends. Is that assumption itself a problematic one? Historically, no – agriculture was decreed by God as how we’d get our food – but what about under a more naturalistic view of the world? If we’re not the pinnacle of creation, why do we feel that it’s okay to put a shovel in the ground and chop an earthworm in half?
This is where ideologies and the sense of what is ‘natural’ comes to affect what is seen as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about agricultural practices, and it’s something I’d encourage everyone to look at for themselves. All I have is questions, and no answers. But hopefully even the questions may be useful.
Agriculture – natural or not?
Lierre Kieth in her The Vegetarian Myth challenges the moral basis for vegetarianism. While I find her arguments against vegetarianism on the basis of nutrition and environmental factors to be less convincing and in places quite flawed (for those interested in the environmental front, Simon Fairlie’s Meat, a benign extravagance is a far more even-handed and well-researched work), I found her critique of vegetarian morals to be quite compelling in places as she dug back through layers of ideology. “Take an apple…”, she begins, and looks at the supposed simplicity of nature’s bountiful provision, the humble acceptance of which – as opposed to selfishly farming animals for our own ends – appears to be a morally superior practice. But the apple – in its original state – is by today’s standard a virtually inedible fruit (consider Michael Pollan’s description here). It’s been through centuries of selective culturing that humans have made the apple what it is today. There’s very little about it that’s natural, if by natural we mean free of self-interested meddling by humans. And what of the apple tree, which has poured its energy into producing the fruit that will protect and ultimately disperse the apple seed, which we as eaters will (at worst) put into landfill or (at best) cook in a compost heap. From an evolutionary point of view, a species is successful if its genes are successfully passed on to its progeny which in turn survive to pass on its genes. In the case of apples (and many other farmed crops), reproduction doesn’t get a look in. Once your apple orchard is established, why would you want to do anything other than sell (or eat) its fruit? On the other hand, Kieth looks at crops such as corn and potato which have effectively ‘enslaved’ humans – we have dispersed their seeds futher than could ever have happened ‘naturally’.
Agriculture itself, Kieth contends, is ‘unnatural’. I am inclined to agree. This shouldn’t be surprising – that’s the ‘culture’ part of ‘agriculture‘ – but I’m beginning to find it difficult to not view agriculture as some kind of promethean boundary; just like when we learnt to capture and manipulate fire for our own ends, learning to manipulate our food source for our own ends would seem to be a landmark threshold.
On learning I was involved in farming, a stalwart Christian once commented: “it’s a noble vocation, farming.” I never asked exactly what he meant. I assumed he thought it was noble because I was feeding people. I never saw it that way – the world was never going to end if people didn’t have their blackcurrant cordial. A highly educated scientist and academic once said to me that sure, agriculture has its issues, but “without agriculture, there would be no civilisation”. This seems to be a line that was hammered into Kieth in school years as well – and one against which she eventually railed. Civilisation is something Kieth also seems to consider ‘unnatural’. Again, I am inclined to agree on one level, but lately I’ve been thinking that we can’t have it both ways – if we’re rejecting the religious ideologies that place us at the pinnacle of creation and instead are embracing naturalistc ones that have humans as a natural evolutionary product of nature, it becomes problematic to label the products of human endeavour such as agriculture and civilisation as ‘unnatural’. In this view, agriculture is not much different to a beaver building a dam to bend its environment to its own ends.
So where does that leave us? Is civilisation a ‘good’ thing? If I think of music, art and literature, my kneejerk reaction is to say “yes”, and there’s a part of me that clicks back into the old ideologies that suggest that these feats are what separate us from ‘the beasts’. But what if we take away the value judgements and just consider civilisation and agriculture as things: artefacts of an evolved mind; an inevitable part of the process of evolution, when it’s left to operate long enough in a stable environment (as opposed to being interrupted or re-routed by something like an asteroid collision as with the dinosaurs); the result of the ‘system’ of the biosphere going through its cycles.
Cycles and evolutionary overshoot
Cycles are a fundamental part of the biosphere. We learn about cycles from a very early age, with the simplest (or, at least, the most oversimplified) being the water cycle. Nutrient cycles are responsible for the movement of things like nitrogen and carbon through the biosphere, and such cycles are intertwined with others. These kinds of cycles are everywhere around us, and within us. The way we metabolise sugar, for example, is based on internal cycles which incorporate complex biochemical feedback mechanisms that are all geared toward re-establishing an equilibrium.
It’s easier to visualise cycles with things we can see, like animal populations. Rabbit populations grow when conditions are favourable. This breeding in turn makes conditions favourable for their predators. But there’s nothing in the system to ‘limit’ the population of rabbits – or their predators – at exactly the number of rabbits (or their predators) that the current conditions can sustain. There’s always some “overshoot”. A given piece of land may get favourable conditions for a few years, such that 100 rabbits can be sustained. Prior to that time of favourable conditions, only 50 could be sustained. The population won’t grow from 50 to 100 – it’s more likely to grow to 120, for example, and then to come back to around 100 as some rabbits die. That 20 is the ‘overshoot’. The predators may experience their own overshoot in population numbers as well.
Looking at human consciousness as being a product of ‘evolutionary overshoot’, things make a lot of sense. Evolution is just one of the processes that goes on in the biosphere, in concert and intertwined with a host of others. The basic premise of evolution is that over a very, very long time, the environment effectively shapes species by killing off individuals with traits that aren’t “fit” for their environment. In a drought, giraffes with longer necks may be able to reach foliage that shorter-necked giraffes cannot reach. The drought in this case is a “selection pressure” which puts ‘pressure’ on the survival of those individuals with shorter necks, and ‘selects’ longer necked individuals for survival. This is “natural selection” – the selection that occurs in nature. In our particular species our evolution has reached the point where “selection pressures” are virtually non-existent, or we negate them – through medicine, welfare, charity, and technology. If our environment throws a drought and subsequent food shortage at us, we import food from elsewhere, or another group of humans supplies us with food, or we eat basic nutritional supplements developed to meet our essential needs. 10,000 years ago such a drought may have resulted in the natural selection of individuals with metabolisms that were better able to handle the conditions of sparse food availability. Not any more. We shape our environment, rather than our environment shaping us. We are changing everything around us quickly. Our lives now would be almost unrecognisable to humans of equal (but, I would expect, different) intelligences living 1000 years ago. Evolution operates slowly, over millions of years. It simply wouldn’t have a chance to change us, even if we wanted to let it.
It seems fair, then, to view our current position as being at the zenith of evolution – in that period of overshoot equivalent to the 120 rabbits when only 100 can be supported by the environment. Our intelligence is such that it can no longer be supported by the biosphere – we’ve broken out of our bounds. For me, this is quite a good explanation for the messed up position we find ourselves in, as humans. “The human condition”, under this view, is simply a product of the fact that our minds are an aberration, a dysfunctional artefact of a self-regulating system that has pushed past equilibrium and will soon be pulled back into line by the biosphere which houses it. Our intelligence, and our self-consciousness, is not ‘unnatural’, any more than 120 rabbits where only 100 can be sustained long term is unnatural. Our self-conscious intelligence may be as inevitable as leaves having chlorophyll – in a world where complexity builds over time – but it is overshoot, and effectively an aberration.
Some of the kinds of things that I see as ‘symptoms’ of evolutionary overshoot are:
- We are ‘fouling our nest’ – and killing many other species – with our demands for the convenience which is fuelled by fossils (the person who had the idea of making “live simply so that others may simply live” as a bumper sticker must have the kind of ironic sense of humour that I really appreciate). George Marshall, in his Don’t even think about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, investigates the psychology behind the blind spot we have for what we all acknowledge as a pressing issue, but continue to ignore nonetheless. I co-opt his arguments and frame them in my terms: evolutionary overshoot leaves us stranded between the inherited, evolved behaviours that suited us as hunter gatherers living in small tribal bands on a small piece of land (and as more primitive animals) and the fact that our ‘tribe’ is now big enough, smart enough, and powerful enough to shape the environment on a global scale. We are effectively dysfunctional in our ability to change our environment, to foresee the consequences, and do nothing about it. We obsess about our personal health – a health ‘scare’ is enough to jolt most people into a change of lifestyle for at least some time – but we continue to carry on with the lifestyle choices that we know are destroying the planet.
- We are killing ourselves with the excesses of our foods. Not only the amount that is available to us with very little physical effort (and it’s notable that emerging research is showing that regular fasting periods have a positive effect on our health – possibly because these are the conditions in which our metabolisms evolved), but also what we’re eating. Agriculture – especially – is involved here, as we’ve selected and bred varieties of foods which appeal to our tastes, such that we have them far more abundantly than we ever had them in the vast majority of our lineage during which our metabolisms have evolved. I’m not so sure that we should even be eating as much fruit as we do – much of our fruit today is the result of selective breeding over many generations, to produce plants that yield sweeter fruit more abundantly, and for longer periods. If sugars are the culprit that emerging research suggests they are (not just in diabetes, but also in other high-burden areas such as heart disease) then our ‘knack’ of manipulating our environments to “suit us” is really doing us a huge disservice and doesn’t actually suit us at all. In the 1940s C.S. Lewis used food as a striptease analogy for what he regarded as our warped sexual appetite: “Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?” No, countered a critic, we should conclude that people in that country were very hungry. Lewis agreed: “one of the possible explanations which would occur to me would be famine. But the next step would be to test our hypothesis by finding out whether, in fact, much or little food was being consumed in that country. If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we should have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one.” I find this very amusing in light of the ‘foodie’ and Masterchef phenomenon; we take our fill of a quantity and variety of food that a century ago would only have been available to royalty, while watching others make works of art out of what used to be a basic necessity. I doubt Lewis ever envisaged that his absurd analogy would come to life. For my part, I would say yes, I’d certainly abandon starvation as the hypothesis, but again I would go with evolutionary overshoot as the explanation, rather than with “The Fall” in the Garden of Eden as would Lewis; and evolutionary overshoot may well also explain the many and varied sexual hang ups and proclivities of modern humans that Lewis was actually talking about.
- We put a man on the moon nearly fifty years ago, but have only relatively recently come to begin to understand the role of fungus in our forest’s soils, or the role of gut bacteria in our health. E.g the largest organism known to man is a fungus, and fungii which live symbiotically with plants in the forests communicate with plants and appear to perform the major role of being the “Earth’s lungs”. And this, only now that we have already destroyed 80% of the Earth’s natural forests. Arguably this was simply a matter of poor priorities, but in light of many other such examples of poor priorities, the setting of poor priorities may well be a function of evolutionary overshoot. Australian senator Bob Brown asked in the Senate what permission was sought of ‘the people’ to set a space station in orbit, which would be brighter than any of the stars at night, thus altering the vista of the night sky. The minister for the environment responded “it is just the product of progress”.
- We are, as far as we are able to tell, descended from forbears who lived in groups, and while the idea of “getting back to nature” and doing “what is natural” is appealing and carries some weight with us, we Westerners at least are reluctant to let go of our recently gained individual privileges. Ideologies (including Individualism) in general can be seen as a product of evolutionary overshoot. Indeed, I’m starting to toy with the idea that perhaps the existence of ideologies might be one of the early hallmarks of a species that has hit evolutionary overshoot. Animals use tools without causing global devastation. Only when ideologies can be shared and used to wield power does tool use become a threat to the stability of the environment that supports the species. Emerging research suggests that intelligence is a process or force which seeks to maximise future opportunities. While this is a compelling idea, it would seem to be limited – perhaps to pre-ideological species – in the way that Newtonian physics is limited to our “middle size world” and doesn’t do so well in the quantum or speed-of-light realms; our own intelligence – the best of which we’re currently aware – has severely limited our future opportunities.
In short, we’re a mass of contradictions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies. And that’s because – if evolutionary overshoot really is ‘a thing’ – we’re a dysfunctional aberration in the system, by definition.
I guess it would be possible to model evolutionary overshoot to a reasonable degree of accuracy, with software (if someone hasn’t already) – it would be an interesting exercise to see if there are any tweaks you could do to the model that would produce anything other than a species that ends up fouling its own nest on a global scale. I find it hard to imagine such a case, because it would require an enormous amount of restraint on behalf of the species; the ability to gather knowledge and yet not apply it – despite the immediate short term advantages – until the possible side-effects of the knowledge are fully understood. Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond states that a Kalahari bushman, when asked why they hadn’t adopted agriculture as their neighbours had, answered, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” But this kind of attitude, or ‘deeper’ wisdom, tends to be disgregarded or (perhaps more often) overpowered – whether it’s the wisdom of tribal elders that gets obliterated by corporate interests, or the wisdom of scientists encouraging the need for more research that gets ignored with hubris as some newly-understood facet of a poorly-understood whole is commercialised for immediate use in the human project. In short, I find it difficult to conceive of a world where environmentally exploitative attitudes and actions don’t confer advantage and power over groups who are inclined to work within the limits of our resources and acknowledge the limits of our wisdom.
So, if we accept that evolutionary overshoot may indeed be a thing – an inevitable point that will be reached by at least one species in any biosphere which self-regulates – those great demonstrations of human endeavour – civilisation, art, music – can be seen as just more symptoms of evolutionary overshoot. And despite the ideological assertions that artistic pursuit is what ‘separates us from the beasts’, an explosion of artistic endeavour seems to have coincided with our discovery of burning/heat extracting psychedelic substances (there are at least 100 known natural sources) – enabling the substance to cross the blood/brain barrier – some 40-50K years ago. So, even less grandiose than attributing this artistic explosion to evolutionary overshoot, it may just be our use of magic mushrooms that separates us from the beasts.
The idea of evolutionary overshoot is of course quite a reductionist one, in the terms I’ve outlined it here – it doesn’t allow for any ‘meaning’ in the universe independent of whatever neurons happen to be firing in our heads at this point in our history. And I don’t like that kind of reductionism, myself. But nonetheless, this is the best explanation I can muster for our current predicament.
Back to agriculture
So where does this leave agriculture? Well, I certainly don’t think we’re going to save the world with agriculture. There’s a good argument to be made that people only resorted to agriculture when they had to, to support their population numbers. Other than that, it may not confer as many advantages as we might originally think. Diamond notes that hunter gatherers had a far more nutritionally diverse diet than we do, they worked for less time to acquire their food, and conditions of bodily mechanical overuse (such as arthritis) were less common in non-agricultural societies. His appraisal of agriculture in these terms alone in his The world before yesterday, is not too flattering at all:
“…archaeological and ethnographic evidence shows that life really did become harder as hunter-gatherers became farmers and assembled in larger societies. With the transition to agriculture, the average daily number of work hours increased, nutrition deteriorated, infectious disease and body wear increased, and lifespan shortened.”
And while farming allows us to ‘put down our own roots’ in an area where there wouldn’t naturally be enough food to sustain us, and do so more or less permanently such that it’s worthwhile building comfortable houses, it would be ridiculous to suggest that we have really ‘put down roots’ in the modern world – I’ll travel between 50 and 100 km a week just for my kids’ extra-curricular activities.
The idea of ‘getting back to nature’ and growing food ‘the way it was meant to be’ in terms of agriculture, is a furphy; the world’s climate has only been stable enough to support agriculture for around the last 10,000-14,000 years, which is still a heartbeat in evolutionary terms. To our metabolisms, evolved over millions of years, the eating habits introduced by agriculture are new and not well accommodated. To the biosphere, agriculture has been a rude affront. I don’t think it has to be, now, but as I’ve indicated already, I don’t see any way agriculture would’ve been anything other than a stepping stone to population overshoot, not least because it’s a part of evolutionary overshoot.
‘Advances’ such as ‘precision agriculture’ – using technology to deliver nutrients/pesticides in the exact amounts and exact locations they’re needed – are just ‘more of the same’ in my book. It’s an advance on indiscriminate applications of whatever, but it’s still based on economies of scale and the separation of people from their food. How many family gardens – or even community gardens – would be able to afford the kind of technologies that make precision agriculture possible? People returning to agriculture – or just taking responsibility for their own food production – might be one ray of hope. With a variety of commentators questioning why we even need to work a 5 day week anymore, spending a couple of days a week on food production might be a sensible pursuit. And if we’re going to insist on social security being tied to schemes such as ‘work for the dole’, again, agriculture would be a sensible recipient of such labour. Small, local farms are recognised by the UN as an important facet of ongoing food security. There is certainly inefficiency and waste built into such small approaches, but these are arguably an important ‘check’ on our expectations of what agriculture can and should be able to do for us.
…if it isn’t already obvious, I don’t hold much hope for a bright future. At 7 billion people on the planet we have extended way into population overshoot, as well as – by my thinking – evolutionary overshoot. Those numbers will be culled by the biosphere as a whole, one way or another, or by many different ways. Another ideaology that’s quite persistent is that climate change is gradual. I first heard about “the greenhouse effect” in year 9 advanced science class. Which would’ve been 1987. Having continued studying advanced science through to year 10, then biology, chemistry, and physics through to year 12, and then a couple of years of chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, biology in university (albeit largely misspent years – but I did attend most lectures), I managed to go through most of my life with global warming framed in my head as a distant threat that would not affect me or my children. I’m now in a position where I’ll be surprised if I do not see some personally devastating impacts in my own lifetime. The current science tells us very clearly that historically, massive shifts in temperature have happened in less than one human generation, and that has been without humans driving inputs.
George Marshall describes the way the ‘climate change’ message of the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural Museum of Natural History has been muddied by the influence of oil interests (the Hall was funded by one of the Koch brothers). Climate change there refers to the fact that the climate has always changed, and that indeed, challenging climates were part of the driver for our evolution. The idea that we are now the driver of our climate change barely gets a look in, such that visitors come away with the impression that ‘climate change’ is a natural thing (which, in that context, it is). This clearly irks Marshall, as a climate change communicator trying to impress on people the impacts of human-driven climate change. I find it quite telling that, on the other hand, the very same fact – that most of our evolution has occurred in times of unstable climates – is the closest Dumanoski gets to an upbeat message in her book on human-induced climate change; and I expect that this is likely to be the best news on offer since, despite our token efforts, the atmosphere hasn’t noticed them.
So, along with everyone else I’ll continue to display some evolutionary-overshoot-fuelled hypocrisy. I’ll continue to mow my raspberries with a scythe, drive my kids ridiculous distances, fly through the air in fossil-fuel-powered metal cigars when I can justify it to myself as ‘necessary’, and assemble my survival kit for when the pendulum (which has already starting swinging back), makes itself felt.