Thursday, April 24, 2014

Does honoring our past preserve our future?

Over the many millenia of our existence, humans have become adapted to a certain way of living.  When we follow that precedent, we're happy and healthy.   When we stray from it, our physical and mental health declines, and our society suffers.

The industrial revolution, driven as it has been by human wants and desires, would seem as if it should follow this pattern and enhance our lives.  It has certainly enhanced many aspects of them, but like everything in life, it came at a cost.  While it's allowed many of us a temporary reprieve from our old nemeses of disease and starvation, it has also deprived us of the meaningful existence we once had.

Two critical elements of the human experience were all but destroyed by the industrial revolution, and need to be reclaimed if we're to again be a healthy society with a bright future.

First and perhaps foremost, is community.  Humans did not travel large distances on a daily basis, but remained in a relatively small area, aside from seasonal migrations.  I would think that a "home range" with a radius of perhaps 10 miles would have been the norm.  The people you grew up with were the people you grew old with, fostering a familiarity with everyone in your limited range.

Studies I've seen suggest that people are most comfortable in groups of up to about 150 individuals.  Beyond that we have difficulty remembering faces and names. People become anonymous, and concern for the well being of anonymous people is much reduced. The sense of community diminishes the more we travel, and the more people we interact with on an impersonal basis.

It's the protection of this all-important community that has driven the Amish culture to eschew the ownership of cars and tractors.  It's at the core of their success as a culture, and has nothing to do with a rejection of modern technology as most Americans assume.  The use of buggies instead of cars limits the possible distance for any travel, forcing their community to remain physically close together.  The rejection of tractors for field work (some districts do allow them for barnyard and stationary tasks) has had a similar effect because it limits the amount of work which can be accomplished by a single farming family.  This, in turn, keeps farm sizes small, which in turn allows neighbors to remain near each other.

The second element which I think is critical to human health is the ability to directly meet the needs of our own existence.  Don't get me wrong;  people have always been social creatures, and nobody ever provided *all* of their own individual needs.  Until recently, however, we have been able to provide much of what we needed on our own, and those needs we couldn't meet ourselves were invariably met by others within our family or tribe who could meet them.  We are producers by nature, not consumers.

Our efforts were tangible and had direct effect, whether hunting and gathering or growing our own food, making our own shelter, clothing, medicine, or entertainment.  Why is it important that we have this close and direct connection with providing for our own needs?  Pride.  A sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Traits that have all but vanished in the consumer society.

Perhaps of even greater importance, is the fact that such activities tie us to the very foundation of life, and thus ensure a reverence for that which sustains us.  "Nature" isn't a place you visit, or Disneyland's competition for your next vacation.  It's your life support system.  The fact that most Americans value the economy more than the preservation of life support systems represented by nature is nothing short of asinine.

I suspect that millions of Chinese people are now discovering this truth the hard way, as their air is no longer breathable, their food contaminated, and their water undrinkable.  On the bright side, they do have the worlds fastest growing economy though, eh?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Industrial vs. Local

The industrialized food system that sustains us all is clearly an abomination to anyone who has bothered to educate themselves and scrutinize it.  Most that I know have not and will not do so, because knowing what's behind that curtain will force changes they aren't willing to make.  Its only real proponents are those who are using it to line their pockets at our expense. It's only "cheap" when you ignore the fact that it damages not only our health but threatens our very existence.  The farmers I've met who are a part of it are rarely enthusiasts, but rather cogs in the machine that they cannot separate themselves from.  Most know little of the chemicals they use (often not even their names, in fact, as much spraying is outsourced), and I suspect that's in large part due to a desire *not* to know.  They know full well that such knowledge might force them to end their use in order to maintain a clear conscience, and thus lead to financial ruin.

So what about the small "local" farms that are the darlings of any local/sustainable foodie?  Show me one, and I'll point out some fundamental shortfalls, many of which I'm intimately familiar with.  Almost without exception, they're purchased and/or sustained with an inheritance, the proceeds from a previous well-paid career, or a spouse who kept their "regular" job and family health insurance. Many work to promote the sustainability image while making significant short-cuts, whether that's the liberal use of diesel fueled equipment, the use of chemically grown feed for their pastured livestock, or poorly compensated intern labor.  The well known Joel Salatin scores a hit on nearly all of these (inherited farm, chemically grown feed, lots of diesel fuel, and loads of interns).

Doubling your food budget by going organic and/or local doesn't really cut it, as these farms are not truly viable even at their seemingly inflated prices. The fact of the matter is that producing food responsibly makes it just as expensive as it was historically, when people typically spent 40-50% of their income on food rather than the current 10-15%.  Historically, farmers (of which most were and will again be) had significant advantages as well.  A lower population made for a greater relative resource base, with consequently lower land costs. A pre-industrialized atmosphere made for greater climate stability and better odds of a successful crop.  The inter-generational accumulation of farming knowledge was unbroken as well, though perhaps the internet will fill some of that gap for us while it's still around.

It probably goes without saying, but a return to spending 50% of our income on de-industrialized food means big changes are in store.  That nice big house will be traded in for something more like the size of a typical garage, or will become a multiple family residence, or -- even more likely -- abandoned in favor of a location with enough land to grow food.  Forget about the car (or paved roads to drive it on), washing machines, retirement, or most anything that has arrived on the scene in the last 150 years.  Forget about the MRI for that head injury, or drugs for dealing with depression.  There'll be no stairmaster or gym membership, and no need for either. There'll be no closet full of plastic clothes from China, cell phones, nor TVs for whiling away your days and fomenting a desire for consumer goods (you'll be too busy anyway).  It'll be no panacea, but many of the changes will undoubtedly be big improvements over the status quo, probably making it a wash overall.

Can we return there?  Should we?  Do you think we really have a choice?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

So long, winter!

The snow is finally melted, and we're done with maple sugaring for the season.  The frogs are out, daffodils are blooming, pastures are greening up, peepers are going wild, the barn swallows are back, and the toads in our barnyard pond serenade me with their impersonation of a Jetson's car while I milk in the morning.  Spring is nice.