Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

A quick post to follow on my last. It might have nothing to do with anarchism, but it’s on the real important topic of beer!

Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food referred to “edible foodlike substances.” These are substances that are globbed together from chemically reduced components. These are substances like non-dairy creamer, Fruit Loops, Nogurt.

The Germans passed the Beer Purity Law about 500 years ago to dictate that beer should be brewed from only water, yeast, hops and barley. It is a rather stringent rule; I’ve had a pretty mean pumpkin ale or two in the past. But before this 4-ingredient recipe is abandoned, careful consideration should be given to how “adjuncts” can improve quality. Unfortunately big commercial breweries are not concerned with producing a quality product, and so they substitute cheaper rice or corn for the barley. Part of the savings they then funnel into marketing this rice/corn water, and we are bombarded with the gleeful message that beer should be refreshingly “ice cold.” The industry needs us to drink their horrendous products ice cold because our taste buds virtually cease to work at that temperature. Quality beer is, in fact, drunk at 4C to 15C (40F to 60F).

I, therefore, want to assert that that many big breweries do not craft beers at all but instead manufacture “drinkable beerlike substances.” As this phrase catches on, remember you heard it here first!

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Anarchy is order. Yes, anarchists have been making this argument forever. But is the reverse true? Is the opposite of anarchism—centralization, authority and hierarchy—disorder? Or is centralization just a different type of order, an order that is undemocratic and unnatural according to anarchists? I’ve tended to this latter explanation. That is centralization, hierarchy, and planning work to mechanically order pieces into a greater machine that never thrives organically but, nonetheless, functions in predictable ways acceptable to the managers and engineers of the world. But, of late, I’ve broadened my view, and I see that centralization actually is disorder. I’ll consider the story of agriculture as an example, a story which is worth considering in it’s own right.

People have worked the land for millennia. Not to romanticize the activity, but communities thrived, and people had a place in the world and a connection to nature even as they worked hard. Each generation inherited a formidable set of skills and knowledge that they then passed on to succeeding generations. But eventually this mode of living was put to an end for most of the people of the world as land was conglomerated into very large holdings, and the factory farming system took over with its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetic modifications, and oil-fed machinery.

Farmers (peasants) were thrown off the land to become wage earners (or wage slaves). Without the means to grow their own food, without access to water and wood, they migrated to cities seeking employment. (Or some don’t make it that far as the current statistics on farmer suicides in India tell us.) Millions of words of been penned on this topic. This process has been simultaneous with the rise of capitalism which always needs their cheap labour in the factories and sweatshops of the world. But all the injustices of capitalism that have been voiced from Marx to today won’t be revisited here. Instead, I’ll stick with the story of agriculture itself.

The industrial model of farming depends on monocultures. Vast tracts of land planted with the same crop become “efficient” to harvest. Specially designed machines and processes can be adopted for the task. But monocultures come with their own problems. When large holdings are dedicated to growing just one crop, the pests that thrive on that crop balloon in numbers. These infestations are made worse because their natural predators may not be suited to life among that one plant species. Consequently, pesticides must be used in large quantities. Furthermore, a single crop planting is an ideal host for disease. In much the same way that bird flu or mad cow disease can spread like wildfire among spaces cramped with poultry and herd stock, plant diseases race through vast tracts of monocultures. One solution to this is to genetically modify the plants to be more resilient. Lastly, a single crop planting is typically very productive for a year or two, but as the soil gets depleted truckloads of fertilizers must be used to keep the yield up. More genetic modification may also be done.

Problems solved? Perhaps. But other problems are now introduced. Fertilizers and pesticides run off into the ground water and into the streams. Other plant and animal species are affected. Where I live, a ban on harvesting clams and mussels has been in effect for forty years due to their toxicity caused, in part, by pesticides and fertilizers running off crop land. Furthermore, chemical fertilizers can cause eutrophication of lakes which steals the oxygen that fish and other animal populations require. And, of course, the residual insecticides and herbicides on our produce poison us too.

Fertilizers affect our health in additional ways that are quite intriguing, as well as scary. Most chemical fertilizers are primarily compounds of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). There may be other trace elements too, but organic the soil is not. The plants are fed a sort of Kraft macaroni diet of the flora world; sure they can live on NPK, but they won’t be healthy. More selective breeding or genetic modification is done, and we get food on our dinner plate that was optimized to grow in a chemically artificial environment, and not food that was grown for taste or for nutrient value (since the soil was short in the nutrients that feed into the plant). And so our health suffers. The problem of poor diet is exacerbated further. Certain crops lend themselves to the modern factory system and are therefore grown extensively. Author and activist, Vandana Shiva, makes the point in her book, Soil not Oil, that “Humanity has eaten over 80,000 edible plants over the course of its evolution. More than 3000 have been used consistently. However, we now rely on just eight crops to provide 75 percent of the world’s food.”

Remarkably, however, our economic system gives the mirage that we actually have choice. The U.S food industry introduces 17,000 new (highly processed) products into the market every year. And yet about two-thirds of the average American’s calories come from just four crops: soybeans, wheat, rice and corn. High fructose corn syrup is ubiquitous. This is not food at all but what Michael Pollan called in his book In Defense of Food “edible foodlike substances.”

But perhaps the most catastrophic effects of this farming system come from its contributions to climate change. The great amount of machinery in use in modern farming adds exhaust to the atmosphere (several calories of oil are burned for every calorie of food produced.) Nitrogen oxides and methane gases are emitted from the fertilizers and cattle on the land. Food is shipped and trucked great distances to the supermarkets.

What we see is a grand chain of cause and effect where solutions to problems cause other problems forever and ever. The way we grow food results in sick soil that produces little variety in our nutritionally empty foods that then affect our health which results in us taking supplements or drugs to combat diabetes and heart disease. The way we grow food damages the environment to the extent that bodies of water become polluted and eutrophic; whereupon, “sealing lake bottoms with polyethylene sheeting, selectively discharging hypolimnetic water in water supply reservoirs, or diluting with water from an oligotrophic source” (google it) are presented as “water treatment solutions” which will surely have environmental problems of their own. The way we grow food produces weak plants that need fertilizers and pesticides that are derived from pertro-chemicals that cause climate change. And now there is talk of geo-engineering and other scientific solutions to climate change such as throwing iron filings into the ocean, or seeding the clouds, or putting giant reflectors in the sky—all of which completely miss the point that we need sunlight. But the solutions always miss the point because capitalism creates business opportunities out of the problems it creates and does not tackle the root causes—especially after those who benefit from the root problems are able to create a political lobby.

We have put agriculture into the hands of a small clique of “experts”—scientists, genetic tinkerers, nutritionists, politicians, and business magnates. They, in turn, strive to shatter the complexity of nature itself. The scientist only understands the reductionist approach of isolating one variable at a time. The genetic Frankensteins, as a sect of science, never truly understand how their modifications affect the whole plant (or us, the consumer). The nutritionist tells us about fats and carbs (which are bad one moment and good another) and really doesn’t seem to have a clue about food. The politician thinks in terms of imbecilic sounds bites. And the business leaders have a horizon of a business quarter or two.

Shiva, again in her book Soil Not Oil reminds us of the “unexpected creativity of natural processes.” This is a remarkable insight, for we normally associate creativity with people as a sort of conscious action. But, of course, nothing is more creative than nature as it builds complexity on top of complexity from single celled organisms up to immense ecological systems and all the while invents orderly patterns for the entire existence. Shiva is especially concerned with decentralized, diverse farming practices. Her great experience in this area allows her to claim that “Biodiverse fields always perform better than monocultures. They survive frost and drought, early rain and late rain, too much rain and too little rain.” Why this may be so, we cannot explain. Perhaps it is due to the complex chemistry of the soil, its water retention abilities, the organisms that live in it, the conditions of micro-climate that are produced, or most probably all of the above and more all simultaneously. That’s the beauty of emergence.

As biologist Brian Goodwin points out:

It is now recognized that emergent properties are very wide-spread in nature, particularly in living systems. Many of the most intriguing characteristics of life, such as the way a complex organism emerges from the interaction of many cells during embryonic development, or the patterns of species extinctions during evolution, are unexpected results of particular patterns of interaction between components in complex systems. [Brian Goodwin, Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture. (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2007), 36.]

As humankind breaks down nature into simple forms and discrete pieces, we destroy those beneficial emergent properties and at the same time produce harmful unintended consequences. Quite incredibly, we dissolve complex order into simple disorder.

I’ve used agriculture as an example of our folly, but the misguided mindset is general. Most notably, there is society itself—the only human creation that comes close to the complexity of, say, a patch of organic soil or the life system found in a river delta. Here too we see forces at play that aim to simplify, understand, and control. Schools systems; party politics; laws; church doctrines; corporate advertising; public relations (propaganda); national institutions, symbolism, and myth (more propaganda) all aim to minimize diversity in the human experience by colonizing our thoughts and homogenizing our behaviour. Anarchists have understood this for a very long time and have been consistent voices in opposition. The energy of a vibrant society unencumbered by systems of control will produce emergent properties beyond our imagination, will create marvels in art, science, culture and social organization. And this energy may be our only hope for avoiding ecological ruin.

Aren’t naked people something else? I’ll admit I get a hearty chuckle from them. But, no, I’m not thinking of the nudity that comes from sleazy, peeping-tommery, from the sordid dank-alley flasher, from the military monsters of Abu Ghraib. But, instead, I hold in mind honest, wholesome, public nudity, perhaps that streaker at the Queen’s garden party, no doubt a fine sort of chap who’s having a light-hearted bet with his pals one day and is showing off his crown jewels to Her Highness the next. He, I raise a glass to.

Enjoying the Olympics Curling

I’d like to unzip the breeches restraining my thoughts and expose a few naughty anarchist comments to the world, comments on clothes, costumes, uniforms, and the lack of such. Now, I’m certain an army of academics must have studied, analyzed and written on clothing, its role in cultural identity, its conveyance of rank and position, blah, blah. I bet a few curious professors have even been down to the nudie beach for the purpose, sirs and madams, of scientific exploration, you know. But when was the last time you heard an anarchy angle on this?

The nudists are easy to speak about, for they so obviously challenge society’s norms and the authority of the Church whose residual influence still coats our minds. The pre-Christians couldn’t have been as prudish as we. From the appearance of all that ancient art, the Greeks must have needed will-power of a Herculean proportion just to keep their togas on. And in more modern times, some “primitive” peoples hardly thought to wear a stitch at all—well, unless they were cold. Could it be that the more we layer society, the more we stack levels onto levels, growing the ponderous hierarchy, then the more we feel a necessity to add cloth and metal adornments into the mix? Robes, gowns, starched uniforms and polished Oxfords, three-piece suits with neckties, tiaras, medals, rolex watches, cuff links. Can you imagine Christ in a top hat and tails? Has the Pope ever skinny-dipped?

Nudists or naturists certainly have a liberatory spirit, not exactly of an anarchist nature but more in line with modern liberalism, a simple minority that want an additional right. But, nonetheless, they must be admired for their egality, their rejection of propriety, their ballsiness (I couldn’t resist). So, what appearances would the dress in an anarchist society have? I have three thoughts, one that I’ll dismiss right off. First, they wouldn’t wear a uniform like the Black Bloc anarchists. In this case, the uniform is part of the tactic that, I can only hope, is not a communal identity.

Second, the dress might be an assortment of working clothes. Let’s look at Barcelona, Spain in 1936. George Orwell writes in “Homage to Catalonia”, his greatest work:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing… Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. (Chapter 1)

It appears the attire, at least in a transitionary period, would be very workman-like. None would want to come across as the sort of individual who puts on airs. And even the fighting forces would be imbibed with this sense of (clothing) equality:

Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. (Chapter 5)

Third, I’ve argued before that a good example of modern anarchism at work is the free software movement (I even wrote a fairly lengthy and, I was told, lively essay on the subject.) What is the stereotypical dress of computer geeks? We might think of ill-fitting jeans and Star Trek t-shirts. But to be fair, the dress is more complex as described in the Jargon File: tie-dye shirts, hiking boots, khakis, and “a very low tolerance of suits and other ‘business’ attire.” Simply put: wear what you will.

The wear-what-you-will freedom unfortunately vanished in Catalonia just a few months after Orwell’s initial observations as hierarchy reasserted itself :

The militia uniform and the blue overalls had almost disappeared… [T]here was a definite social difference, expressed by the difference of pay and uniform. The men wore a kind of coarse brown overalls, the officers wore an elegant khaki uniform with a tight waist, like a British Army officer’s uniform… (Chapter 9)

And the revolution was over.

Clothes don’t make the person; they make the society with all its stratification, coercion and domination. Emperors need clothes. None would take orders from a man in a loincloth or less.

Global warming is clearly with us. As early as 1964, anarchist Murray Bookchin was writing:

“It can be argued on very sound theoretical grounds that this growing blanket of carbon dioxide, by intercepting heat radiated from the earth, will lead to rising temperatures, a more violent circulation of air, more destructive storm patterns, and eventually a melting of the polar ice caps…, rising sea levels, and the inundation of vast land areas.”

World opinion finally favours action to reverse the heating trend. Websites abound with practical tips on reducing our carbon footprint. Turn down the central heating. Put only as much water as needed in the kettle. Do your weekly shopping in a single trip. But how sensible is the advice? Giving it some reflection, the most complimentary thing I’ve thought of saying is that the enviro-sages are issuing incomplete instructions –incomplete mainly for one very obvious reason.

Suppose I become a true role model of save-the-planet saintliness. I peddle my bicycle to work, install power-friendly light bulbs, and hang my clothes out to dry instead of using the tumble-dryer. I’ll save energy and resources. Fantastic. And naturally, I’ll save money to boot. Super. Well, what am I going to do with the surplus money? Probably buy stuff, of course. That big screen TV is looking pretty good, made in China where environmental standards are minimal and often unenforced, from resources transported by diesel ships and trains from around the world, to be assembled in plants powered from coal-burning generation, to cross the Pacific by yet another diesel ship to my home country, Canada, and, finally, to be showcased on the sales floor of a well-lit, concrete, super-monstrosity store.

So which is more harmful to the environment: taking the bus to work for a year and subsequently purchasing a big-screen television? Or choosing the more costly and dirty option of driving to work with the result of having no money left over at year’s end to fulfil that multi-media, electronic fetish? Not so clear, is it?

Next, let me pour a pint of this on the back porch and see if the cat licks it up: Suppose I live in an area where electrical generation is fairly clean (mine comes from hydro-power.) Then, surely, I’d best not conserve electricity. Someone should be encouraging me, instead, to drive myself to poverty by running the clothes dryer all day long and sleeping with my incandescent lights on. The last thing the planet needs is me having the financial means to buy crap from China when I could be blowing all my money on fairly clean electricity. This may or may not be a goofy proposition; you could argue that all of North America is one giant grid. Surely, I could save the clean energy for someone else on the grid to use. But, really, is anyone in Canada or the U.S. using energy as dirty as that generated in the less developed countries where all the dollar store trifles are made these days?

So I’ve come to realize the problem is not what I buy; it is that I buy.

I can only be certain of reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a net sum by not spending my savings. OK, this ain’t rocket science. But I ain’t a rocket scientist, and this stark fact is usually missing from the environmentalist’s council. The prescription to use less energy on various chores only works if I ultimately spend less. Period.

So here are the complete instructions (for people in the developed world) to reduce our carbon footprint:

If you trust that you can save money:

  1. Consume as little energy as possible. Buy as few goods as possible.
  2. Save the excess and retire early. Or work shorter hours now. Or spend the money on services: eat in restaurants, go to a music gig, visit the theatre. Heck, get a haircut weekly.

If you are a shopaholic:

  1. Do not in any way try to reduce your energy consumption: Forget about those new light bulbs; forget about turning down the central heating, etc.
  2. Better yet, ignore all eco-friendly advice. Who are we kidding.
  3. Purchase items made in developed countries. I bet Canadian diamonds and Italian fashions are more your style anyway.