Thursday, February 16, 2017

FEW Nexus Episode 6: Progress in Food Production

Class Lecture Module 6: Progress in Food Production

In 1968, when I was and impressionable six years old horrified by what the television was showing about the Vietnam War, listening to the Beatles sing 'All you need is love', my parents bought a book called "The Population Bomb" by scientist Paul Ehrlich.

 It suggested that we were running out of resources because our population was growing too fast and we were consuming our earth's life support system faster than it could regenerate.  Two years later, on the first Earth Day, I began my activism, rounding up the neighborhood kids and  staging a clean up of the polluted stream behind our apartment that ran into the Hudson River.  A year later my Beatle idol George Harrison held a "Concert for Bangladesh" to raise awareness of the suffering there.  Like many kids worried about the "starving kids in Bangladesh" I asked in  school why things were getting so bad.  Like most school children around the world, we were told how the population bomb supposedly worked, how it ticked. The idea went back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus who argued in 1798 that "population increases geometrically, while food supplies increase only arithmetically".  This has been the prevailing wisdom for over 2 centuries and is often illustrated by the following graphs: (Links to an external site.)
Looks neat, right -- so mathematically precise and inevitable.
The problem is that it is wrong.
I felt it as a kid. It bothered me throughout middle school and high school and on in to college.
The reverend's now famous "Malthusian" predictions of doom and gloom came from a man who never studied biology... we now realize that he was a religious zealot and bigot who made up theories to try and stoke anti-immigration fever, arguing that undesirable poor people were basically breeding like rats.
The problem in his logic is easy to spot when you use Nexus thinking:
Food comes from living creatures who have populations. They expand GEOMETRICALLY.  If you let them. If you encourage them.  It doesn't matter if we are talking about Brewer's yeast or earthworms or oak trees or apple trees or chickens or ears of corn or cattle or cocoa covered ants...  whatever you eat comes from living organisms that are programmed to reproduce as fast as they can... that WANT to reproduce... geometrically.  Just like us.
So... population increases geometrically, whether it is us or our food.  Starving kids in Bangladesh or Ethiopia simply shouldn't happen, and, I will insist to you, WOULDN'T, if we allowed the organism we eat to do their thing.
So the curves on those graphs should continue to go up in lock step, until we reach the limits set by sunlight.  And then we will have to figure out safe, harmless ways to grow not just ourselves and our "economy" but our ecology, and eventually help grow new planets.  But even that... the promise of space stations and terraforming planets, isn't out of the question. After all, the one thing that doesn't seem to ever be in any danger of NOT expanding... is the universe."
Today’s lecture is about “Progress in food production: a new wave of ancient practices and post-modern technologies that use less water and less energy, produce less waste and can even produce more energy.”
And I believe, to paraphrase Deuteronomy 12:3, we have to start by “tearing down the altars and smashing the sacred pillars” that were erected by wrong headed Malthusians who used a gross misunderstanding of biology and a total lack of nexus and systems thinking to scare us into what I call “induced paralysis for profit”.  The idea  comes from what is called in economics classes “The Scarcity Model: the fundamental economic assumption of having seemingly unlimited human needs and wants in a world of limited resources, which  states that society has insufficient productive resources to fulfill all human wants and needs”.  When the scarcity model is used to create fear, to create an atmosphere of doom and gloom, to predict the inevitable arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Conquest, War, Famine, and Death), political economists and political ecologists suggest that it is much easier for elite groups to manipulate the masses.  They control the machinery of conquest and war, and they use the specter of famine to gain their power.
Food production sits at the heart of the nexus – every animal on this planet (and doubtless the vast majority of beings in our universe) finds food to be the fundamental.  It is priority number one, for unless you are a being of pure light you need the food that grows with light to survive.  And if you spread misinformation that famine is imminent, that starvation is just around the corner, you can mobilize armies.

However, looked at from a FEW Nexus perspective, this fear of famine we have been living with since Biblical times (the four horsemen are part of the Book of Revelation of Jesus Christ to John of Patmos, at 6:1-8 in the New Testament written during the Roman occupation of Palestine)   is a peculiar Middle Eastern and North European phenomenon it turns out, coming from civilizations in regions of the world where water stresses constrained food production.  People in well-watered tropical regions rarely felt threatened by food scarcity and in fact were described by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins as living in a state of perpetual abundance. He postulated  that hunter-gatherers were, in fact “the original affluent society” at a symposium entitled "Man the Hunter" in 1966 and this idea has been tested and found true for most peoples around the world where water was not a limiting factor.  It explains why hunting and gathering and subsistence farming persist to this day, and why so many people resisted being brought into modern civilization or adopting modern agriculture methods.  In fact the work of historian Anthropologist Eric Wolf, such as “Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century” and Yale professor James Scott in books such as “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” teach us that there have been enough failures due to the form of agriculture that emerged from the conquering civilizations that the conquered were willing to sacrifice their lives to revolt against them. Somehow, it seems, those certain schemes to improve yields were social and ecological disasters that should have been rejected by civilizations but instead were used to confirm the Reverend Malthus’ scientifically unfounded hypothesis – a classic but often neglected example of what is known as confirmation bias – which wiki defines as  “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities”.  When it comes to food production, the alternative possibility, which is persuasively argued in Richard Manning’s book “Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization” is that monocropping annual vegetation and basing civilization on grain agriculture, on the use of plants in the family Poaceae/Graminae, that is the grasses – wheat, rice, corn, barely, oats and sugar – yes, sugar is a grass – is, to caricature the 45th president of the world’s most powerful agriculture and military empire, “ a disaster”.
History records that agriculture and famine are the Jekyll and Hyde of the long and often militarized march of civilization. The one came because of the other, says Manning. Most of us were taught the opposite weren’t we? Taught that human life, as the 17th century imperial philosopher Thomas Hobbes decried in his book Leviathan, was “nasty, brutish and short” We were told that humans lived in a state of semi-starvation UNTIL they discovered agriculture.  We were told that agriculture saved our species from hunger and misery, gave us the surpluses that enabled our climb to civilization.  Sounds good, turns out not to be true.
 Even Harvard’s Spencer Wells, a friend of mine who is the geneticist who leads the National Geographic Genographic project writes in his book “Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization” that when humans shifted from hunting and gathering in that original affluent society to grain agriculture the average height of men dropped from about 5 foot 7 to 5 foot 2 and women’s pelvic girdles narrowed to the point where death in childbirth increased in frequency. These were clear signs of malnutrition recorded in the fossils. Agriculture was to blame… floodplain agriculture dependent on disturbance species that grow like weeds after a disaster because they are weeds. And they end up causing disasters thereafter because they evolved to live in disaster environments, places where floods and fires ravage the countryside on a regular basis.  In effect they DEPEND on disasters for their own reproductive survival.  It is as though once we hitched our caboose to the weeds and became weed eaters, we started living for them and not the other way around.
Michael Pollan talks about this in his wonderful book that reframes our relationship to addictive plants called “The Botany of Desire”.  He points out that you could look at us as the slaves of addictive plants that evolved to control us through their effect on our brains so that we would help them reproduce.  This idea, which British Scientist Richard Dawkin’s calls “The Extended Phenotype” in the battle of Selfish Genes, isn’t really new.  In 1872, when Samuel Butler published his utopian fiction “Erewhon” the major premise of the people who fled Europe to live on the island of Erewhon in the hopes of creating a better civilization was that they would not allow themselves to submit to the control of their addictions or any system that makes us into its own slave.  On the island they refuse to use technology like cars and  steam engines and typewriters and telegraph or any machines.  It isn’t that they don’t know about these things – in fact they have an entire museum where they keep them safely on display in glass cases. They tell visitors, “in your civilization machines don’t serve you, you serve them.  You go to work in the morning and waste your days slavishly building more machines and oiling them and fixing them and keeping them running. It is like the bee that is the servant of the flower… flowers can’t move to reproduce themselves, so they addict the bee with beauty and nectar and perfumes and the busy bee spends its whole life toiling just to help make more flowers”.  The phenotype of the bee is being controlled by the genes of the flower, not the bee. This is the concept of the extended phenotype, which finds its purest expression in parasitology.
So there are some who believe that the crops we turned to in our modern agricultural systems are acting more like Parasites that food stuffs, and that when we think we are serving food in the “restaurant service” sense , we literally are serving food – i.e. we now serve THEM, as servants.
This makes sense from the perspectives of evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology.
Whether it was drought in arid desert regions or winter freezing water into ice, the limits to plant growth and reproduction, and hence to animal fecundity were set by the availability of water.  In the Middle East, certainly, it was not energy that was missing from the Nexus.  Sunshine has always been abundant in those latitudes to provide energy for food production.
In the European countries the harsh winters did indeed constrain plant productivity and famines could result in winter if care wasn’t taken to take the enormous fecundity of the spring, summer and fall and store the harvest surplus for the fallow period.    But Hunter Gatherers North and South, in the cold regions or the hot ones, originally depended on agroforestry, on tree crops, on perennials, not annuals.  And they depended on the animals that depended on forests – on forest boars and jungle fowl and woodland ungulates – all the ancestors of our modern pigs and chicken and cows.  In the north the forest leaf fall in the fall built up incredible rich soils during the winter ready for an explosion of food in the spring and summer which created enough surplus for the mammals we ate to survive the winter. In the south the forests retained the water that fell sporadically and created their own microclimates through transpiration.  They forests created environments so rich in the cornucopia of foodstuffs that our mythology now recalls as “The Garden of Eden”.
And if you want some mythological proof of the disaster or agriculture, just look at the curse we were to endure after eating the tree of knowledge and getting kicked out of the garden,
“To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat from it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; 19By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground”.  So eating bread isn’t salvation, eating bread is the CURSE.  No wonder so many hunters and gatherers said, “shoot, I’m going back into the forest, no way I’m doing hard time through painful toil to eat when I can pick fruits and vegetables and trap animals.”  And the fossil evidence of malnutrition affecting the pelvic bones of women,  noted by Spencer Wells in Pandora’s Seed, is corroborated in the curse in Genesis when God says, “To the woman he said, "I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." 
We can even comment on what this reveals about the emergence of patriarchal rule due to the shift to grain agriculture.  My experience with hunter-gatherer populations is that the women are usually the ones who understood the sheer abundance of biodiversity that nature offered to put into the cooking pot.  I experienced it when I was living with Melayu and  Dyak tribes in the rainforests of Borneo and was taken into the forest by the medicine woman who was cooking our meal and her grandson who climbed the trees to get the foods.  She was called the “witch doctor” and as she laid out the huge variety of foods we collected to put in the cooking pot I had images of the witches’ cauldron with its “eyes of newt, frogs legs, bats wings” – all things that would have provided great inexpensive abundant protein but which today are shamefully associated with evil and witchcraft.  After all, women were BURNED at the stake for understanding and promoting biodiversity in diet by the European patriarchy, and children punished or mocked for thinking they could go into the forest as kids do and come back munching on lizards and grubs.  Agriculture can be blamed not only for this tremendous patriarchal violence and loss of biodiversity as we simplified the landscape to a handful of weedy grasses, but for what James Scott calls the “dummification” of humanity.  At one time, as I experienced among the hunters and gatherers of Borneo, harvesting food was an educational adventure that made women and children experts who rivaled the best Ph.D. botanists and naturalists who Harvard sent out.  With agriculture we turned brilliant self-sufficient peasants into outdoor factory workers and, of course, quite literally when you are talking about the first 400 years of agriculture in the European colonized Americas, slaves.  The violence inherent in agriculture rears its ugly head everywhere.
  And it could be said that Genesis itself records the clearest indication that grain agriculture is the scourge of mankind, the source of its original sin of violence in  The story of Cain and Abel. This chapter of the Bible is the clearest indictment of wheat agriculture one could imagine, and nobody seems to comment on it.  Abel is a pastoralist who tends a flock of animals who wander about like ungulate hunter gatherers, eating what God has given them.  His brother Cain is… a wheat farmer, somehow stupidly living out God’s curse to scratch a living in the hot sun through toil amidst the thistles and thorns that always accompany weed agriculture.  Abel brings a lamb meat sacrifice to the altar of God, along with diverse  fruits and vegetables he has gathered, and God is pleased.
Cain then comes with a bunch of wheat and the Bible says,
“but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD (Links to an external site.) said (Links to an external site.) to Cain, (Links to an external site.) "Why (Links to an external site.) are you angry? (Links to an external site.) And why (Links to an external site.) has your countenance (Links to an external site.) fallen? (Links to an external site.)7"If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it."…
To me this is a clear indication that the ancients saw wheat offerings as a kind of sin, the sin of an addiction, an addiction which Cain could not master.  In his anger he turns around and kills his gentle carnivorous animal slaughtering brother.
Think about it for a moment… it is enough to make Vegans go mad:  The vegetarian is the killer, the slaughterer of baby goats is the gentle one.

Could it be that this ancient myths were there to warn us that wheat is a weed, that grains are drugs, that we haven’t been growing food all along, but addictive substances that will end up mastering us through the Botany of Desire?

So, to get back to Reverend Malthus, who in my opinion must not have spent an awful lot of time delving into the hermeneutic interpretation of the books he preached in his fiery diatribes against the poor and the immigrants, it is clear to me that the entire Matlhusian premise is based on a fabrication of the weed eaters, who most likely did observe that if they kept planting grains and consuming starches and sugars their own sickly but ever increasing population would outstrip the fecundity of the land and so human populations would increase geometrically while their drug-food agriculture would only increase arithmetically if at all.

But if Abel had been Abel, we might have returned to the garden a long long time ago, where food is a self-increasing population grown in permacultural symbiosis into perpetuity.
The good news is, that the world as we know it IS coming to an end.  And what is ending isn’t the good life, but the bad life we inherited from our dummified forebears.  We can begin again. Permacultural Food Production shows us how.

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