Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Discourse in Schooners and Candles

Patrick Burns, our friend and reader, can make an argument worthy of a terrier. His mind is unrelenting, unafraid to dig and always pressing home. While you may get in a bite or two, you’ll soon find all your exits blocked and him waiting with a snare. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you go unharmed.

Happily, Patrick is one of the good guys. He’s a champion of working dogs and a no-joke sporting gentleman of the old school. He is also an expert in public policy and a general polymath. He is several different kinds of the real thing.

But as a regular reader of his Daily Dose, I know our opinions collide at odd angles; and given the large field of our agreement, this always takes me a little off guard.

One of Patrick’s recent posts hit a particularly tender spot, right between my Wendell and Berry, you could say. In this essay (read it here and some of our discussion in comments), Patrick pulls the rug from under Michael Pollan by placing the blame for modern industrial agriculture (see: Food, Inc.) in our own laps.

Rather than the result of bad government policy and Big Ag greed, America’s disaster diet of corn syrup and soy protein is our own fault: to wit, we choose poorly in the supermarket aisles, clearly preferring processed foods over whole, and so driving the demand for Cheez-its.

Thus, says Patrick, we have our current system of vast protein and sugar monocultures, grown with fossil fertilizer in diminishing topsoil and harvested by an army of migrant foreign workers. We support it willingly with our wallets. Conversely, the organic revolution has very thin grass roots.

“And you know what? It's not such a bad thing.

“So what if there is no longer ‘a season’ in America's supermarkets? Why is it such a bad thing that folks can get lemons, oranges, melons and mangoes in winter?

“And why don't we stop blaming America's farmers and supermarkets for the fact that so many of us are fat and stupid?

“Each of us controls what we buy for food, and what we put in our own mouth.

“It's time we stopped infantalizing ourselves and took responsibility for what we eat and how we look.

“The problem with the American diet is not in our fields, it's between our ears; the same place it has always been.”

The delicious malevolence of Patrick’s arguments is part of their appeal.

But while it’s always fun to blame fat, stupid, and irresponsible Americans for our collective woes, it leaves us rather vulnerable if in fact the case is more complicated than that.

Bad government policy and corporate greed are at least as guilty for the pitiful state of American agriculture as is our own thoughtless consumerism. Together these forces have turned a healthy, decentralized agricultural system, comprised of millions of independent small land-holders, into an unsustainable colossus of profit and tradable surplus benefiting a tiny minority and imperial interests.

But here’s the thing: Regardless whom you choose to blame, the threats of the current food system to national security (of which “food security” is only a part) and to democracy are equally serious. Whether driven by personal gluttony or industrial greed, we are a weaker nation for our dependence on fossil fuel farming and our vast, vulnerable monocultures. We are a less democratic one for our corporate monopolies and centralized policies, and their collusion in the global economy.

Given a greater facility with the relevant data, I believe I could twist a few small concessions from Patrick. But like many apologists for the status quo, Patrick’s unassailable trump is: We can’t go back to schooners and candles!

“Why do we need to go to 19th Century production? To support Wendell Berry's unsupportable romantic philosophy?”

“I love reading Wendell Berry, and I love his values, but as far as agricultural policy or economics, it is largely nonsense. Berry lives in Ketucky and works 125 acres with horses, and horses alone (no engines at all). Great. In my area, land is a million dollars an acre, and I don't have 125 million dollars. Even in rural Virginia, land is $3,000 to $10,000 an acre, so Berry's little farm would cost me somewhere between $375,000 and $1,240,000 for the land alone (no house). Berry is about 75 years old now. Question: who is going to hitch his horses when he is 80?

“…we no longer live in an era of schooners and candles, and the reason we had to get rid of the horses (and invent the car) was that we had no place to pasture them because there were too many humans in America and in the world. And guess what? We STILL don't have the room to pasture all those horses of Wendell Berry's.”
Patrick charts our course to the present as if it was inevitable and our path to the future as the product of continuing technological advances.

“…the good news here (and there is good news) is that we have TONS of energy (we always have had), in the form of solarpower, geo-cooling and heating power, tidal power, bio-gas fuels (ethanol and biodiesel), nuclear, stream and river power, wind power, coal, natural gas, methanol, methane hydrides, etc. There is no shortage of energy -- only a bit of confusion as we decide which one is best for economics and sustainability. We are transitioning from oil to whatever, as we once transitioned from coal and wood to oil. There will be some bumps and burps, but we are getting there very fast, I think.

“As for fertilizer, there is no shortage of fertilizer: we get most of it from the air (nitrogen fertilizer plants can be put anywhere). We only use petroleum fertilizers because they are so cheap, and fertilizer is an easy byproduct of oil production. Once oil is gone, we will still have fertilizer so long as we have air.”

Yet where in these technological solutions do we find the necessary limits that will bring our own burgeoning population under control?

Patrick’s Number One concern (human overpopulation) is handicapped by his faith in endless technological progress. Fueling our growth economy with supposedly unlimited nuclear, solar and geological energies will do nothing, by itself, to stem the tide of human growth. It can only support it.

I suppose that in such a scenario, wise government policy will provide the guiding hand and necessary check on human expansion. Very smart people can no doubt imagine successful schemes to contain bulging populations, move or omit them from certain areas, settle their disputes and keep them fed. And when the last possible nuclear-powered house butts against the last acre of farmland, I’m sure we’ll switch to processed kelp, or colonize Mars.

I admit to wishful thinking about a world of schooners and candles. I do. And I make my coffee in a stove-top percolator, ride a bicycle to work and hunt rabbits with a trained hawk. I am a guilty romantic. I am guilty also of using a computer to make this statement and relying on coal-fired electricity to put it before you. Like my blog partners and many of our readers, I straddle a fence between two worlds.

But in one of these worlds lies the possibility for life in abundance, for a life compatibly in context of the place in which it was created. In the other I see only a life in constant conflict with its own setting—one that can’t be satisfied without more concrete.

I’m not going to win this one. I know it. The terms of a fight are dictated by the stronger hand; the winning side here speaks in quantifying figures (measurements, percentages and money) while the losing side values qualities impossible to enumerate. The true champion of the losing side is not Michael Pollan nor even Wendell Berry but rather John Milton. And he’s been dead for 335 years.


Anonymous said...

Fertilizer is more than nitrogen.


smartdogs said...

The answer doesn't lie in schooners or in nuclear plants. As is most things, I think we'll find it drifting about in the middle somewhere.

I'm a romantic too. I garden as much for aesthetics as food and I chose a pretty mix of chickens for my backyard flock. I paid extra for the recycled glass tile and bamboo floors in my house. -And I'm a huge fan of Wendell Barry too.

But I have to agree with Pat that there are far too many of us on the planet now to support individually sustainable lifestyles. Still, I don't think that that negates the importance of finding ways, even small ways, to discover and maintain our ties with the natural world.

It seems to me that those who spend their lives in climate-controlled comfort eating nothing but imported or heavily processed foods and being electronically entertained lose touch with a vital part of what makes us human.

Even if they don't make a significant difference in our carbon footprint; having a backyard garden, being a hunter - or enjoying the companionship of a fine working dog - reconnects us to the world we evolved to live in. And I do not see how that can fail to make us better citizens of the earth.

Ryanaldo said...

it takes a lot of energy and heavy machinery to cook fertilizer out of atmospheric nitrogen.

When Americans did not have cars, most Americans did also not own horses.

Regina Terrae said...

I've never understood the drama about human overpopulation. The people who are consuming FAR AND AWAY the most are societies whose populations are in decline: the so-called "developed" world. Us. The problem isn't overpopulation, it's overconsumption.

And Wendell Berry surely condemns the speculative profit-pumping prices of rural acreage. He thinks systemically. It's part of the problem. If land were valued rightly, it would be affordable -- because too valuable to be idly bought and sold, too loved for idle speculation.

PBurns said...

Matt, you make me out to be smarter than I am. I am a slow learner -- my only claim to fame is that I have spent 35 years working on this topic.

For the record, my concerns about population growth is not with what happens to HUMANS. Humans can take care of themselves and geenrally always do better, over time. The problem is that we are locusts on the land -- the more of us there are, the less wild lands there are. What does not do better with more humans is wild life and wild places, including wildneress.

The person who "got it" as far as population and agriculture was concered was (is) none other than Norman Borlaug, the greatest agronomist the world has ever known. I write a bit about him -- and recount our meeting at World Food Day -- in this piece:

As to the notion that "it's consumption, not population," that is a popular brand of nonsense. See the second table here >> to see the real impact of population growth vs. consumption. As I have noted in the past, we cannot deny food, electricty, air conditioning and transportation to folks in the developing world -- we can only cringe at what will happen to the planet when their consumption patterns rise to our own. Again, the issue is NUMBERS. So long as humans breed like rats, the natural world will continue to die lie flies. Big agriculture is not the problem -- it is the solution to the extent that it increases efficiencies so that less land falls under the plow. The problem is that so long as populations grow, the demand for more land for food and sprawl is unending. Continuous growth, it has been said, is the ideology of the cancer cell.


Matt Mullenix said...

Patrick I stand by my high estimate of your brainpower and experience on this issue, not to mention others... I'm just trying to catch up (Thirty five years ago I was studying Romper Room!).

You wrote:

But Borlaug can claim credit for more than saving human life: He has saved a lot of the natural world as well. Because of dramatic boosts in agricultural output made possible by the Green Revolution, a lot less land has fallen under the plow. Borlaug himself calculates that if 1961 agricultural yields still prevailed today, three times more land in China and the United States, and two times more land in India, would be needed to equal current cereal production.

One long-standing question I've had about the benefits and necessity of the Green Revolution is how much it has contributed to the problem it claims to solve?

This may be a chicken/egg debate, but if you increase yields with external inputs (ie., borrowed power and fertility from elsewhere), don't you simply increase local population accordingly?

Put another way, Can we legitimately use population trends that are arguably the result of the Green Revolution to justify more of the same "externalized" (industrial) agriculture?

And where does the production of commoditized surplus fit into the equation? Are we to understand that the grain surpluses available (to governments and multinationals) for global trade and influence is merely a happy coincidence of Green Revolution philanthropy?

Is it not possibly the other way around?

Additional questions: I note in recent news the US Amish population has doubled in the last century. Clearly they are not part of the Green Revolution, yet are expanding.

How does the rate of their expansion (with farming that doesn't rely on external inputs) compare to the rate of population growth fueled by industrial ag.?

Given both are evidently growth models, which one is more sustainable?

I can imagine which agricultural landscape I'd rather inhabit, of these two approaches, but is that a legitimate consideration for comparison as well?

PBurns said...

Matt, as always, you are asking GOOD questions:

High birth rates are CAUSED by high death rates. This is the opposite of what it would seem, but it is true. BECAUSE so many babies die, people have large families. When mortality declines, there is a gap in time (during which time population coasts a long time like a runaway truck with no foot on the pedal but also no brakes to slow it down), but fertility rates always fall in the end. This has occured all over the world, in every culture, and in every religion, and it is still happpening today. Catholic countries have the lowest populations on earth. Iran has replacement fertility. Even fertility rates in Africa are falling fast, and this is because people are getting wealthier (relatively), children are living longer, and information is being shared. This is, by the way, as predicted by Condorcet. See "The Roots of the Most Important Debate" at >>

Now, I supposed one could celebrate the death of people as a way to control population, but who wants to do that? It's like celebrating kill shelters for dogs. The simple truth is that we KNOW how to slow population growth, and women and men the world over want smaller families PROVIDED they know the children will live. If we have condoms (so to speak) we can have corn AND conservation.

In fact -- and this is an important point -- without wealth there is NO environmental protection, as environmentalism is a luxury no one can afford. National parks (like organic foods) are a reflection of affluence. No one in Indonesia gives a damn about orangutans if their children are dying. Conservation has come to Indonesia at the speed of falling fertility and falling fertility has come at the speed of a better life (clean water, antibiotics, decent food, a dry bed).

You ask about the Amish and the Mennonite (OK, I toss in the Mennonite ;).

The Amish and Mennoite can no longer afford to buy arable land in this country. They too are no longer living in the age of schooners and candles. Instead, of farming, most youg Amish are going into manufacturing (i.e. industrialization) or moving to Central America (i.e. Belize). They Amish also "lose" a huge portion of their popualtion to the modern world ("the English"). You can only divide farm land among the boys so many times. See the WSJ article on the recent Amish Bank Run at >>


Anonymous said...

As someone with an interest in the short-lived, unstoppable, highly reproductive, and sometimes pernicious species of the world, I just CANNOT believe that nature will ever be conquered by big agriculture, the seemingly ever expanding fields of concrete, or anything for that matter. Everything adapts and changes in ecosystems all of the time--that much can be counted on. Monocultures are just a short-lived vacuum that will be filled by some organism or another, whether we like it or not.

The reason to get behind Wendell Berry's "unsupportable romantic philosophy" is not because it makes more sense in terms of efficiency or because it is more ecologically friendly. All of these arguments are based on the view of the efficiency humanity as a whole, how humanity can survive efficiently so as to still leave room for wild spaces.
But we are not an ant colony, a superorganism. Or at least we don't have to view ourselves as such, where efficiency of the species is of #1 importance, and the lives of the individuals of that species come last. I support Berry's romantic philosophy on an individual level, because who gives a damn about survival of the human race? I want to live a full life, with a richness of work and experiences. Wendell Berry offers a good life, where I am not just an automaton in the highly productive human machine and THIS is of #1 importance because I will die anyway, and once I am dead it won't matter if humanity survives.

The ever expanding monocultures are just as unsustainable to the human psyche as they are in ecological terms. Let the people who support it suffer in their dull, grey, insignificant, highly efficient lives

Matt Mullenix said...

In response to Patrick and also to the anonymous writer above, I'd say the agrarian model Berry espouses promotes subsistence and self-sufficiency for families (i.e., NOT poverty!), but not "wealth" in the way we tend to estimate it today.

The question of how to measure wealth is in fact central to Berry's thinking. He never glosses over it.

In his own terms, Berry's exemplary farm families are wealthy in land (40-150 acres), food (all you can eat, plus some grain, timber and meat for market), community (family and friends near and active in support), and human culture (rich with wisdom of husbandry, religion, nature and craft) that can be passed to their own children.

They are not wealthy in dollars, typically clearing less than $25k per household at the time of his writing. However, at least until the mid-20th century, this was debt-free profit. And considering the land equity and subsistence economy, all of it free and clear for capital investment or savings.

Of course, Berry's people (real and imagined) save.

Patrick writes that wealth is key to smaller families and where there's wealth, fertility is in decline.

I don't doubt this. But I would say that this wealth as he measures it must be of a different kind or of a different source than what can be had from a working agrarian model. My guess is that this is the wealth of a cash economy, education and wage labor. Is that fair to say, Patrick?

You would measure this kind in wealth in ways familiar to everyone today: cars, college degrees, suburban homes, and debt.

It's the debt that makes the key difference to Berry. His model allows for less free cash per capita but a much reduced debt-load, with the goal for everyone of Zero.

I agree with our anonymous friend in that Berry espouses a plan most advantageous to individuals and the small groups (families, neighborhoods) they depend on. We are not called to save the planet. A widespread model of family subsistence and local effort will leave the rest of the world in better shape without anyone taking the reins from the top.

Berry's vision opposes remote control and widespread centralized policy. However, he does allow that where government power exists, it can be helpful by at least not being harmful to local subsistence economies...

Moreover, Berry does not suggest we all move to 100 acres of farmland, which he conceded even 20 years ago was too expensive for everyone these days. He knows and writes that cities have a valued place in human action, ditto small towns and even suburbs. The difference would be that these non-agricultural areas must relate directly to their regions and add value to regional products. They must not dictate terms and cannot afford to import goods from far away indefinitely and without harm to distant places everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Wow, where to start on all of this? The beginning, I suppose. I am not the least impressed with Patrick, despite the long, gushing portrait provided. "...[Y]ou'll find all your exits and him waiting with a snare. If you're lucky, he'll let you go unharmed." Hardly. Patrick thoroughly misunderstands Mr. Berry's work, and he provides "arguments" that don't even attempt to practice sound reasoning. What's worse, he plays the tired role of defending the establishment against its critics, and thus bravely defending the status quo. One could spend days pointing out the faults in Patrick's arguments, but challenging a few points should suffice. "Who is going to hitch [Wendell Berry's] horses when he is 80?" Short answer? Relatives and neighbors. Long answer? What has this got to do with anything? It is needlessly personal and logically pointless. Who is going to overhaul an engine for an 80 yr. old man? Who hitched horses for people in their 80s in 1753? Again, what does this have to do with anything? It is simply an attempt to make Mr. Berry, or anyone who speaks up, seem ridiculous. Similarly, Patrick asks, "Why is it such a bad thing that folks can get lemons, oranges, melons and mangos in winter? First, a rhetorical question is not an argument. Why is out of season imported fruit a bad thing? Because it is too expensive, on a number of levels. That argument has been made in detail by Wendell Berry and a host of other writers and Patrick completely ignores what has been said. The terrier is asleep and the herd is running wild. Finally, can't turn back the clock? Happens all the time, happens every day. Ask some of the long-term unemployed who are learning to hunt squirrels in city parks for food. The notion that Wendell Berry is excusing people from making sound decisions about the food they eat is patently dishonest. The whole point of his work is to get people to choose more responsibly. Again and again he points out that it all begins with individual responsibility. To portray his work as doing otherwise is actively dishonest. Finally, the notion that we must learn to live sustainably and simply is not romantic: the notion that technology and the corporate elite will save us is.

Robert F

Matt Mullenix said...

Hi Robert,

As author of the gushing portrait, please let me defend it. I've read a lot of Patrick's work over the years, both off-the-cuff blog replies as well as his print work. All I can say is that you must not be as familiar with him as I am.

But I appreciate your comments. I agree that lampooning aspects of Berry's horse-powered existence misses his larger points (while helping make some of his others). In Patrick's defense, he knows well the joys of working with animals, and in other contexts would praise the "inefficiency" of hunting with dogs, for example, over using poisons.

If Patrick cares to reply, I look forward to that. If you'd like to continue you're welcome also. But please tell us who you are?

PBurns said...

Robert F., I never said that Wendell Berry does not say it is about people making choices. Not once. In my original piece, there was no mention of Wendell Berry at all. Wendell Berry is Matt's thing, not mine. Berry is not even a footnote in the modern debate about agriculture. Why would I mention him except as an answer to a question of Matt's? I wouldn't!

Here's an idea: How about if you actually READ the original post (which was not about Wendell Berry) on my blog? It is here >>

You see? Reading is fundamental ;)

Now, if you think you can turn back the clock on the world's population size, I am all ears.

What do you have in mind? Bombs? Plagues? Gas chambers? World War III? Viral immuno-contraception?

Sadly, you seem to have missed the forest for the trees when it comes to agriculture. And I mean that literally. Your "big idea" about turning back the clock is eating squirrels caught in the parks? Robert F., are you serous? Are you (perhaps) drunk or brain damaged? If the later, I am sorry. Do you know how Mullenix and I hunt? We know more about hunting squirrels than you will ever imagine, and only an IGNORANT would argue that this country can return to hunting and foraging. Squirrels?? Wooeeee! You really ARE a very young city boy, aren't you?

As for Mr. Berry's farm, I explain the little joker in the deck about that in today's post (which actually is about Wendell Berry). Read that here >> ) I quote Mr. Berry directly, if you are interested, and I include a video too.

Now, because I doubt that you are much of a reader, I will give you the short story: Mr. Berry's farm does not grow anything you can eat. It's a tobacco and corn farm. You remember tobacco? It's the stuff that kills 400,000 Americans a year and that costs Americans $95 billion a year in health care costs. Read those numbers again. And that's every year.

Mr. Berry's farm and his farming community stopped being competitive when imported tobacco became cheaper. Cry me a river!

I suppose where you stand on tobacco depends on where you sit, but I am not too choked up about the fact that we no longer subsidizing tobacco farmers.

And, to put a point on it, I am also not too choked up about the fact that we freed the slaves in 1863 (the South) and 1865 (the North).

Nor am I too anxious to import more slaves (illegal aliens) so that philospher-farmers can grow more expensive hand-harvested vegetables on marginal farmland.

How about if we grow those vegetables where those hands NOW live -- Mexico, El Salvador, or wherever?

American farmers are doing fine with mechanized harvesting of crops such as corn, soy, wine grapes, potatoes, peanuts, barley, hay, etc.

Importing farm workers to hand-harvest crops is about as sustainable an idea as shooting squirrels in Central Park in order to feed New York City.

Seriously, brother, if that is the quality of your thinking, you should go on tour as a stand-up act. They will LOVE you in rural Virginia ;)


Matt Mullenix said...

Well, after reading Patrick's less-than-flattering Wendell Berry post at Dialy Dose, I don't think I'll win him over.

But the sheer strength of his response is pretty fascinating, considering how others (no doubt teary-eyed weenies like myself!) have such a different reading of Berry's work.

What makes the difference? Can intelligent, caring people see things so differently? I suppose.

I can add only that Berry did address his tobacco farming in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Chapter Five). You can buy into it or not, but he addresses the criticisms directly.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the terrier man would conclude about Michael Pollan? He certainly packs his arguments with a lot more facts...

Steve Bodio said...

Comments here are edging out of the civility I expect on this blog. Let's have no more ad hominem remarks and sarcasm-- the arguments stand and fall on their own. I have left a couple of dog forums that dealt in insult-- I don't want to see us go that way, and won't. 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

One point that has not been made about all this "get-back-to-Nature" stuff, has nothing to do with practical sustainability, or romantic soul searching. It is the keeping alive of old skills and practices which, perhaps today are outdated and seem pointless, but one day may have importance again. This modern society could be gone as we know it in the blink of an eye, and some of those old skills and knowledge could well be the difference between survival or not.....L.B.

Mike Spies said...

We should not trust in romanticism or technology. Clinging to an idealized vision of the past or relying on tools unguided by conscience is foolish. These will not provide the needs of the future. However foreign to our culture, there are real limits that we cannot overcome by faith alone.