Posts Tagged ‘Pollan’

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.