Today’s guest post, a response to Nelson’s post on the farm bill yesterday, comes to us from primitivist Rob Archangel, an NYU alum and current employee of the NYU recycling shop.
Yesterday, Nelson posted an article about a panel discussing the 2007 Farm Bill, held at NYU’s Wagner School of public Policy. He pointed out that the farms hit hardest by the Farm Bill’s ill-conceived subsidization standard are actually not small farmers (those defined as cultivating between 1 and 50 acres) nor the super-size farms of over 500 acres, but the mid-sized farms between that. The small farmers are able to feasibly load up a truck and come to green markets, while the massive farms are receiving the subsidies, for the most part. The argument was that there was a need for local wholesale markets to make these farms viable.
In comments, Adam cautioned that he’s concerned about how sustainable farms beyond 50 acres really are, and Annie Meyers suggested that there’s no inherent reason for mid-sized farms to be unsustainable, and that there in any event are many layers of ‘sustainable.’ In her estimation a farm using organic methods, practicing crop rotation and selling locally is doing quite well. All of this got me thinking…
I tend to agree with Adam; crop rotation and an absence of poisons is good, but that characterized just about ALL agriculture before the mid-twentieth century when chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides came into vogue, and we have deserts across the world to thank for it, not to mention the growth of empire, the enslavement of populations, and the destruction of ecological integrity everywhere agriculturally-based civilization has spread. These are not casual claims, but the evidence is there, and numerous commentators have pointed it out.
Jared Diamond of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ fame argued that agriculture is ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race‘, pointing out that our health declined, inequality (including gender inequity) rose, we began working harder and longer hours, and our food supply actually became less, rather than more stable, since we now relied on a handful of crops, rather than hundreds of wild species, increasing the likelihood of a blight wiping us out (Irish potato famine, anyone?). Not only that, we increased our population, forcing us to cultivate more, which facilitated an increase in population, which in turn demanded more cultivation; this continues to this day, in what Daniel Quinn, author of ‘Ishmael’ famously calls the ‘food race.’ This expansion was not always done benevolently, and thus the birth of imperial conquest.
On the note of empire, food grown is kept under lock and key, which meant there were key-holders who held the fate of the rest of the population in their hands, which allowed deep systemic class divisions to develop where hunter-gatherers had none. Plus, with the burgeoining population of people in permanent settlements, we became a more viable resource to pathogenic microbes, and infectious disease for the first time really took hold. Meanwhile, integrated ecological landscapes are transformed into farms, where the biological productivity of a given bit of land is monopolized for human use, squeezing out biodiversity, and the topsoil, the land’s accumulated nutrient reserve
and basis for all ecosystemic life, is continually eroded (for more, see A Short History of Western Civilization, by the Anthropik Network). All of this coming from agricultultural practices which didn’t require mechanization or chemical additives of any sort, farms which by and large rotated crops and were ‘organic’ in the ways many allegedly ‘sustainable’ organic crops are today. Thus, I have my doubts about agriculture.
Permaculture/horticulture I think is a different stripe, and works in conjunction with succession, rather than against it, as agriculture does (by which I mean monocropping, since that’s what the vast majority of agriculture worldwide is). In my mind, the crucial difference is this: permaculture takes a temporally long look at the ecology, and acts now in such a way as to lead nature to take over and finish the job of creating the desired outcome, allowing wildness, the path of least resistence, to simply switch paths, but remain flowing. Agriculture, however, with its weeding and continual fight against succession (tilling the soil every year, and ideally having nothing at all grow except for what we plant) is a battle against wildness, and thus against the path of least resistance. That’s why agriculturalists the world over work hours and hours more per day than foragers and horticulturalists.
When you’ve got your back against the wall, fighting the tides of nature, you have to work damn hard to stay afloat. But if you’re instead riding the currents, and just choosing one over another route in the river, your workload is not nearly so great. No wonder indigenous, old-growth culture humans the world over continually described their land as ‘paradise’!
All of which is not to say that I don’t support local food economies, nor that I don’t have in many cases probably a great deal of respect for these mid-sized farms trying to compete. But we need truly local economies, on the scale of you and me and a dozen of our friends procuring our own food, whether by hunting, gathering or gardening it. These local wholesale depots for nearby mid-sized farmers are a step in the right direction, and insofar as they inspire people to know personally what they eat, they’re good. But I don’t have much patience for the abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ so prevalent in green discussion these days (no offense to Annie).
Sustainable doesn’t just mean doing less awful shit. It means, really, giving more back to your ecology so that your niche remains intact and the ecology depends upon you in the same way you depend on it. It means having no foreseeable future (not by 2020, not by 2100, not by 3000) when your landbase is fully depleted and you’re no longer able to live as you once did. It means sustaining, and really, it means thriving as a dynamic member of a living community, as is our birthright. And for me, that’s where the discussion of primitivism begins.