Saturday, September 01, 2007

Learning From Ladakh

For six weeks during August and September I participated in the “Learning From Ladakh” farm project put on by the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). This program combines immersion in traditional Ladakhi culture with broader contextual study and discussion about the forces of economic globalization that have had a mostly negative influence on this culture over the past few decades.

For most of the time I lived with a Ladakhi family in the remote village of Hemis Shupkachan, about five hours by bus west of Leh, the capital city. Occasionally, all the program participants would convene in Leh for a few days for meetings with ISEC staff and discussion about our experiences in the village and study of the structures and processes of economic globalization that have had such profound effects on cultures and ecosystems worldwide.

I want to try to condense the salient points of our discussions and some of my experiences in the village into one, albeit rather lengthy, blog post. Any discussion of economic globalization is necessarily lengthy since it is such an all-encompassing topic that involved economics, politics, ecology, community, business, agriculture, human well-being, even the Earth’s climate. Either oversimplification or breaking the overall issue into narrow disciplines, as occurs in academia, impoverishes the discussion greatly. But it is vitally important to get as accurate a big-picture view as possible, to provide context and guidance for our work moving human society in a positive direction.

(Note: the internet connection speed in Leh is too slow to upload photos. When I get to a place with good internet I’ll get images up…sorry for the delay.)

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Some Background on Ladakh

Ladakh is located in northernmost India high in the Himalaya – the entire region is above 10,000 feet in elevation. Ladakh is north and east of the main Himalayan crest and so lies in a rain shadow. It is high desert – barren and rocky with some of the most extreme climate on Earth.

Ladakh is frozen solid for nearly eight months out of the year. In fact, the only way in and out of many settlements in the Zanskar region during the winter is by walking along the frozen surface of the Zanskar River as it plunges between impossibly steep and high canyon walls.

But despite the harsh climate and short growing season, Ladakhi villages are lush oases in the desert. Their farms are abundant, growing several types of grain including barley and wheat, oil crops such as mustard, fodder crops for animals such as alfalfa, and a variety of green leafy vegetables as well as carrots, onions, and potatoes. The Ladakhis also have orchards of apricots, apples and walnuts.

Most families have at least one cow and/or dzomo (female, a mix between cow and yak) that supplies fresh dairy products daily. The male dzos provide power for ploughing when the grains are sown and threshing after the harvest. Many families also have sheep and goats for wool and meat, and donkeys and small horses for use as pack animals.

Nothing is wasted in this agrarian culture. The grasses that grow around field margins and along the watercourses and stone walls are cut, bundled, and dried on the roofs of the houses for wintertime animal fodder. Plastic bags are reused multiple times. Large plastic bags, worn out clothing and cloth bags are used along with rocks and soil to dam the watercourses and direct irrigation waters. All food waste from the meals is saved and fed to the animals. Animal manure is dried in the sun and either composted or used as fuel. The tastiest apricots are eaten by people; the so-so ones are pitted, dried and saved for the animals to eat over winter. The apricot pits are either eaten or pressed into oil for cooking and to light the lamps in each family’s prayer room.

The verdant beauty and remarkable agricultural productivity of Ladakhi villages is made possible by ingenious irrigation systems that channel glacial streams past households and though the fields. The villagers cooperatively construct and maintain the channels and have a political structure for deciding when families can divert the streams to irrigate their fields. Separate channels provide water for drinking and washing to insure that downstream settlements also have clean water.

Most of the “work” done by the villagers revolves around sowing and harvesting the grain crops, as well as picking, pitting and drying chuli (apricots) and caring for the animals. To be sure, the Ladakhis work long hard days in the fields and the work can be strenuous (especially at 11,500 ft, as in the case of my village!) but the time is also filled with laughing, joking, singing and telling stories.

Traditionally, entire families worked together in the fields, spanning generations from small children to grandparents. There was great cohesion between the different ages – it was customary for the older children to play a significant role in the care and education of the younger children.

Now it is much more common for the children to go away to school. In my family, for instance, the two younger boys (ages 11 and 9) attend grade school in Leh (five hours away by bus) and the three daughters (in their late teens and early twenties) go to college in Jammu (across the Himalaya in Kashmir), Dehra Dun (a few hours north of Delhi in the Himalayan foothills), and Bangalore (at the southern tip of India).

It is also common for the fathers to go to the cities seeking paid work as well. The father of my household, for example, is a teacher in Srinigar, a fifteen-hour bus ride away.

This situation has meant that more and more of the work of maintaining the household and tending the crops and livestock has fallen to the ama-les, the mothers. Most days during my stay the father and the children were away and I worked alongside Ama-le and Abi-le (grandmother) in the cooking and cleaning, milking the balang (cow) and dzomo and taking them out to pasture, collecting, pitting and drying chuli (apricots), cutting and drying grass for the animals, and harvesting mustard and barley.

The Ama-les work so incredibly hard, and without any resentment that I could detect. They are confident, competent, capable and dignified, and have a subtle power that is feminine but unlike anything I have sensed from women in the West. Although the men attend the village councils and make the broader political decisions, the women are the heads of the households.

Perhaps this seems patriarchal until one realizes that the households are the fundamental political and economic units – thus the Ama-les are truly at the center of life here. And once you’ve spent some time with an Ama-le you cannot doubt her ability as a capable and compassionate leader in the family and community.

The Ama-les physical strength is only exceeded by their spiritual strength – and it would be inappropriate to see these two strengths as distinct from one another. My Abi-le (in her 70’s) had no qualms about slinging a full basket of chuli (apricots) onto her back and scrambling up a stone walled terrace one-and-a-half times her diminutive height. Ama-le had no fear of climbing to the top of a chuli tree and shaking the devil out of it, pelting me with hundreds of apricots while I collected them down below. This is hard physical labor – but for them, work is prayer. Abi-le exemplified this as she chanted 'om mani padme hum' during our hours of pitting apricots.


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Television and Western-style Education


That mostly just the Ama-les remain in the villages carrying on the cultural and farming traditions while the men seek employment in the cities and the young attend faraway schools is not the only sign of the influence of economic globalization in Ladakh. Satellite TV is nearly ubiquitous, even in villages as remote as Hemis Shukpachan. And although our house only had electricity from 7:30 – 10:30 PM, the television was on for nearly this entire duration, nearly every day.

Over dinner we watched Indian soap operas – absurd take-offs on US soap operas – punctuated by commercials for designer clothes, flashy new SUVs and motorcycles, and “beautification” products. One of the most heavily advertised products is “Fair and Lovely,” a skin whitening cream. I had to point out the irony that we in the West want to be brown, while these beautiful brown Indian women are bleaching themselves to “look more Western.” It’s insidious and revolting that the main message pouring out of television sets worldwide is that “you’re not good enough unless you look like this, or buy this product, or wear this clothing, or have this gadget…” Sadly even little, remote Ladakh has not been spared this travesty.

At first consideration, it may seem to be a good thing that young Ladakhis are getting to go away for education. Education is, after all, something that is almost universally agreed upon as a good thing. But the education the Ladakhi young receive is a relatively low-quality imitation of standard British or Western education, and as such is completely culturally and ecologically inappropriate. In the schools students learn trigonometry and European history and read Shakespeare whereas in the villages they would learn home economics, farming, ecology, Buddhism, culture and history relevant to Ladakh.

Furthermore, mainstream Western education is as culpable as television for inculcating values of competitiveness and acquisitiveness in young people, both in Ladakh and in the Western world. Here in Ladakh as well as back home in the US, this education trains students to be disciplined specialists to carry out roles defined by the dominant economic and political paradigm enacted by globalization. For this reason the decline of place- and culture- specific education like that of traditional Ladakh is doubly tragic, as it presents a valuable alternative to the mainstream system that could be emulated in the West, rather than the other way around.

Let me be clear that I don’t mean to categorically condemn Western-style education out-of-hand, especially since I am a beneficiary of many years spent within this system. Although, at the same time that I have been heavily involved in a Western program of education, I have made much effort to also educate myself independently of this system, and through non-mainstream approaches and experiences. From this vantage point I can see a broad picture, both within and without the “system.”

What I intend to indicate is that, by and large, the mainstream educational system is set up to promulgate the dominant values and techniques that are needed to maintain the dominant economic and political paradigms. It is not set up to encourage critical thinking about the fundamental axioms that under gird the dominant paradigm. This really is not saying anything particularly radical or profound – it’s a truism simply stating that the modern educational system primarily trains people to fit into and uphold the culture and workings of modern society. If the mainstream educational system did effectively train everyone to think critically about the philosophical paradigm that structures the educational, economic and political system, then society would quickly come apart at the seams. The mainstream views are precisely the mainstream views because they have this inherently stabilizing effect.

The difficulty that we find now is that the dominant political, economic and educational systems are in numerous ways not worth stabilizing, not worth sustaining. We are experiencing massive social crises such as wars, violence in our cities and the breakdown of our communities as well as a global ecological crisis that threatens the very survival of our race (of which widespread pollution, deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss are but individual symptoms) precisely because of structural flaws within the globalization paradigm. Since the dominant paradigm is so broken and destructive, we are in desperate need of its destabilization, accompanied by a broad transformation to socially and ecologically wholesome ways of interacting with each other and nature.

This is all becoming pretty abstract, and I want to tie things back to my direct experiences and observations in Ladakh. The real problem with the influence of television and the curriculum of the Western schools attend by Ladakhi youth is the net result that Ladakhis have come to feel that their culture and their agrarian way of life are backwards. Ladakh is suffering a kind of cultural low self-esteem in large measure because of the flashy and unrealistic images on TV and because the schools teach that modern Western culture is superior to their own. Ladakhis have come to revere a distorted image of Western society and feel ashamed of their own traditions.

This is tragic because traditional Ladakhi society has been providing its members food, shelter, clothing, medicine, cohesive community and an all-around high quality of life for the last 2,000 years. And it’s done all this in a climatically extreme high desert with relatively scarce resources. Now, thanks to the modern paradigm of globalization, the climate of the entire planet is becoming more erratic and extreme, while ecological resources are becoming increasingly scarce. And instead of turning to the Ladakhis and asking, “How do you do it?” and “Can you help us?” the Western paradigm is subverting the Ladakhi’s wisdom and traditions.


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What is “Globalization”?

I actually don’t like to use the word “globalization” because it has become such a buzzword, because it has become jargon and kind of cliché. But it is becoming ever more urgent to get a clear idea of what is going on economically at the international level and how this effects ecosystems and human lives.

What I mean when I say “globalization” is the reduction or elimination of restrictions on the flow of capital and commodities in and out of countries and around the world. It’s a form of economic colonialism whereby transnational corporations obtain cheap labor and natural resources from “developing” countries and also have access to their markets for unloading surplus production from the “developed” countries.

Globalization proponents often use the term “free trade” to signify this deregulation and liberalization of economic flows because “free trade” sounds like something good that nearly everyone would support. But this is disingenuous.

Globalization really is the deregulation of trade on a global scale for the benefit of large multinational corporations. That’s the simplest way to put it. Multinational corporations don’t want barriers to trade because they hurt their profitability and reduce their competitiveness in the market. But the whole enterprise of the global economy is rife with logical fallacies and moral transgressions. I’ll try and elaborate a few of these to make my point.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the dictum of economic growth. I’m not sure that any other axiom of the modern paradigm has been as thoroughly enshrined as implacable dogma as the notion of the necessity for economic growth. Economic growth has become synonymous with “progress” and these tenets of the modern faith are above reproach in our governmental, business and educational institutions.

But here is the heretical truth of the matter: economic growth is making us worse off, not better off.

How can this be so? I’ll explain…

The human economy can be thought of as the metabolism of our society. Energy and materials flow in from the environment, are circulated around the different parts of our economy and altered in various ways producing useful goods and services, and eventually are turned back into the environment as wastes.

If the metabolism of the human economy becomes too large and intense relative to the stocks of energy and resources that feed it and the capacity of nature’s waste reservoirs, then the resources or inputs to the economy are depleted and wastes pile up. In other words, if the human economy is “too hungry” for timber then deforestation occurs. And if the human economy produces more CO2 than the Earth’s natural recycling processes can assimilate, then it builds up in the atmosphere. And of course this is exactly what is happening.

When you add up the human economy’s demands for energy, resources and waste repositories across all ecosystem types and on a global scale, you arrive at humanity’s Ecological Footprint. And the most conservative findings using the Footprint indicate that the global human economy has exceeded the planet’s capacity to provide resources and absorb wastes at least since the early 1980’s. Currently, each year we use at least one and a quarter planet’s worth of energy, resources and waste assimilation capacity, and this figure is set to steadily increase unless we thoroughly reexamine our notions about economic growth and progress.

The simple truth is that since economic growth implies an increase in intensity with which energy and resources are used and wastes are produced, indefinite economic growth is impossible on a planet of finite size. A whole slew of indicators, of which the Ecological Footprint is one, demonstrate that in fact we have reached and surpassed the point at which further growth advances ecological degradation and thus makes us, and future generations, worse off.

This fact is straightforward and you would think it would catch on. But keep in mind that economic growth is one of the main tenets of the modern faith and so will be clung to with a religious fervor by the acolytes of globalization. “Not to worry,” we’re told, “the information economy is fast approaching, where we will no longer have to worry about resource scarcity because of the abundance of information and new technologies.” Perhaps then in the future we will not eat food, but simply recipes.

The other major fallacy of the growth paradigm is that we need growth to alleviate worldwide poverty. Economic growth is supposed to be “the rising tide that lifts all boats.” However, over the past several decades when this prescription has been applied, the gap between the rich and poor countries has widened, and the income distribution within most countries has increased as well.

In the US over the last three decades real wages for the lower and middle classes have fallen despite increases in the cost of living. Most people in the US now are more anxious about money than they were twenty or thirty years ago, and they work longer hours as well. And all this over a time when the giant corporations have enjoyed record profits and the wealthiest members of society have become even wealthier.

Recalling the adage “it takes money to make money,” it’s easy to see why these trends exist. If rich and poor people, and rich and poor countries, are put into economic competition, then the rich always have an advantage to begin with.

Furthermore, as Wendell Berry points out, “the law of competition is a simple paradox: competition destroys competition.” So as corporations compete in the global economy, the “losers” get assimilated by the “winners” into ever-larger conglomerates. This is the structural trend to monopoly power that is the so-called bane of free-market economics. In the US only five huge corporations control most of our media. And one enormous corporation – Cargill – controls something like half of the grain industry for the whole planet.

In this way, every sector of our economy is increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer firms. These firms have to pursue economic growth with ravenous intensity or face collapsing under their own ponderous weight. So the multinational corporations and the institutions of international finance are trapped in a vicious cycle that starts and ends with the dictum of economic growth. And we have seen how economic growth has failed to alleviate poverty in the past and is increasing poverty in the present and future by eroding the basis for true wealth and well-being – the planet’s ecosystems.

So there’s the growth fallacy for you. The next time you catch the TV news and during the financial spot the newscaster laments, “The Dow was down by four points today…” you can rejoice knowing that economic growth had slowed a little bit that day and we destroyed the planet just a little more slowly.


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Shrinking the Economy

At this point in history, since we’ve overshot the planet’s ability to support us, what we need is economic shrinkage instead of more growth. Now we’ve all been so conditioned that growth is synonymous with progress that at first that’s gonna sound like a real bummer. But let’s look beneath the surface…

Gross Domestic Product has become the enshrined index of a country’s well-being. But what does it measure? Taking our metabolism analogy, GDP measures an economy’s circulatory system. It is a measure of the rate of flow of economic value within an economy. For one, it doesn’t take into account the stocks of natural capital (energy, resources and waste sinks) required to sustain that flow. Focusing solely on GDP to indicate an economy’s health is like a doctor focusing only on a patient’s pulse and blood pressure while ignoring the alimentary canal and the lungs.

And secondly, focusing on GDP doesn’t say anything about the quality of economic flow, of what types of goods and services the flow is comprised. If growth in GDP is conflated with well-being, then any growth is good growth. This means that if there are more car wrecks, and subsequently more car repairs, new car purchases, and hospitalizations of the accident victims, GDP goes up.

If our inner city neighborhoods become more destitute and violent and the sale of handguns increases, GDP goes up. If more people get sick and need medical treatment owing to the buildup of toxic chemicals in our environment, GDP goes up. If they build a new freeway outside my window to provide more lanes for traffic and I have to buy soundproofing to protect myself from the noise, GDP goes up. And in the case of all these instances of growth, we are worse off, not better of.

Additionally, there are also “goods” which go unaccounted for in GDP, for instance work done in the home, and work for which no money is exchanged. Arguably, the household is the fundamental economic unit and therefore work to maintain the household is the most important in the entire economy. Yet this work is given a value of zero in the GDP index unless someone from outside the home is hired to provide the service, as in the case of childcare. But presumably, for parents to spend more time with their children is a household and social good; whereas hiring a nanny to raise your kids for you causes an increase in GDP.

Some researchers have attempted a thorough recalculation of GDP in order to tabulate a column of “bads” as well as “goods.” This alternative indicator, dubbed the Genuine Progress Indicator, shows that in the US for the past several decades a steady state or even a decline of “genuine progress” despite a many-fold increase in GDP. This is encouraging news for us growth opponents since clearly economic shrinkage doesn’t necessarily mean decrease in well-being.

In fact, I’m going to go so far as assert that economic shrinkage will directly lead to increase in well-being. The principle reason for this has already been alluded to: that too large an economy degrades natural capital stocks, which are the embodiment of true wealth. Ceasing to degrade our sources of true wealth and enjoining an economy that regenerates ecosystems is to pursue well-being directly.


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The Myth of “Development”

Next I want to discuss a bit about the sham that has come to be known as “development.”

In the rich countries of the West, the so-called “developed” countries, we have the notion of “progress” which is ideologically in-synch with the dictum of economic growth, which is in turn measured by increase in GDP. Having already debunked this as a method of characterizing authentic progress, let me now turn to the process of “development” which is meant to promote progress in the “poor” countries.

“Development” programs go hand-in-hand with globalization. And recall that globalization is the reduction or elimination of barriers to international trade and primarily serves the interests of large multinational corporations.

Development operates on the same fallacious thinking as GDP – namely that increase in monetary transactions are a good thing no matter what. As such, development seeks to draw more and more communities into a globally interlinked network of finance capital. When more communities are drawn into dependence on the money economy, then corporations make more profit as people compete in the market to sell their labor and buy the goods and services they need.

In short, development is a process of increasing economic flows on a global scale by bringing more people and resources into the market. But as we have already seen, the volume of flow through an economy is a poor indicator of well-being. And indeed if that flow becomes too large then further increase makes us worse off rather than better off.

So what development really is, contrary to the myth, is the process of exploiting a country’s resources and impoverishing most of its population for the benefit of a few wealthy elites and the transnational corporations. At best, it is a wrong-headed attempt to bring the world’s poor and “backward” communities up to our standard of living in the US while failing to recognize that our standard of living is not making us happy, is not promoting authentic well-being. At worst it is cynical exploitation of people and resources by a powerful few for their own self-interested gain.

As an example to support my argument, I’ll refer to a post on my blog site entitled You call that development? That describes the absurd and destructive effects of dam projects in Southeast Asia.

The short version of the story is that many Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand (again, in order to pursue economic growth as measured by GDP) want to attract international investments by advertising industry-friendly conditions such as cheap labor and energy. So large hydroelectric dam projects have been undertaken to provide cheap electricity to urban centers. However, the large dams massively disturb river ecosystems, for example shutting down seasonal fish runs. The rural people who were peacefully and sustainably coexisting with their environment and depended on the fish for food have been deprived of their way of life. These people have been forced off their land, which was flooded by the dams, and into the cities where they are forced to compete with millions of other transplanted rural folk for too few jobs and not enough money. The huge influx of people from the country means the growth of urban slums, which are polluted and dangerous.

Maddeningly, the growth of urban centers like Bangkok, as a direct result of this trend of extirpating ecosystems and the rural communities who depend on them, is used to further justify development projects to provide energy and resources to the burgeoning cities, accelerating the cycle of impoverishment and un-sustainability. And although the transplanted rural people cannot make enough money to be able to buy back the standard of living they enjoyed in the countryside, where mostly they had no need for money, now they are earning a wage, albeit insufficient, the change is treated as a net benefit in GDP since the volume of market transactions has increased. So on paper the people look better off, but of course the reality is the opposite.


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Industrial Agriculture

Although large dam projects play a major role in many parts of the world in this trend of urbanization and impoverishment, perhaps the greatest force on the global scale is advancing social and ecological devastation is industrial agriculture.

The goal of industrial agriculture is to make agricultural activity into a profit-generating exercise. This is not done for the benefit of people or ecosystems, but for the giant agribusiness companies. For 10,000 years agriculture has been conducted for the benefit of the people living on the land. Now, in the ear of globalization, the agribusiness corporations have nearly completely succeeded in disintegrating the agricultural process into separate, for-profit industries that have hurt farmers and farming communities, damaged the soil, created enormous amounts of pollution, impoverished genetic diversity, and are heavily dependent on inputs of toxic chemicals and fossil fuel energy.

Let’s consider two possible scenarios for agriculture: on the one hand, you have small-scale, diversified organic farming for local consumption; on the other hand, you have large monocrop plantations for export. Industrial agriculture, or what could also be called conventional agriculture, operates according to this latter scenario.

It’s a common argument that we need industrial agriculture because it is more efficient, that we need it to feed the billions of starving people around the world. This is a myth. The best way to feed people around the world is to let them practice small-scale diversified organic agriculture. Many of us, especially those in the “modern” sectors of society, don’t know how to do this. We should learn.

Industrial agriculture is only efficient when efficiency is defined as the output of one particular crop per unit of human labor. In other words, when you have one farmer driving a huge tractor to harvest soybeans, then that’s a lot of soybeans per farmer compared to traditional small-scale, human labor-intensive farming.

But this is not a very meaningful way to define efficiency. Better ways of defining efficiency would be, for example, the amount of food or nutrition produced per acre, or the amount of food produced per amount of inputs from off-site. When you consider efficiency this way, small scale diversified organic agriculture wins hands-down.

So the best way to feed starving people, or just moderately hungry people for that matter, is to encourage them to practice the most efficient means of farming. The trouble with this means of farming is that it’s hard for global agribusiness to make a profit off of people doing things for themselves and participating mainly in a local economy that involves a lot of barter and trade. Industrial agriculture, with its monocrop-for-export production model, is much more efficient for generating profits for agribusiness than small-scale organic farming for local consumption.

For example, industrial agriculture relies massively on fossil fuels and a heavily subsidized transportation network. Also, industrial ag needs huge amount of off-farm inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals are made from fossil fuel feed stocks using fossil fuel energy, and require more fossil fuel energy to transport them to the farm and apply them using large equipment. Furthermore, increased amounts of fertilizers and pesticides have to be applied every year since industrial methods erode and degrade the soil and deplete its nutrients, and pests become resistant to pesticides over time. And despite increasing annual pesticide dosages and the development of myriad new formulations of these chemicals, crop losses due to pests have gone up over the past several decades. This can lead to pesticide overdosing by farmers.

(For example, farmers in Thailand have been reported to apply as much as eight times the recommended dose of many pesticides due to decreased effectiveness for eliminating target pests over time. Furthermore, countries with lax environmental regulations are often used as “dumping grounds” for agrichemicals determined to be too dangerous to ecosystems or human health for application in Western countries. Over seventy percent of the pesticides used in Thailand and India are banned or heavily restricted in the West. Ironically, since the industrial agriculture system used in these countries emphasizes production for export, consumers in the West are often exposed to the residues of pesticides outlawed in their own countries on imported foods. For more information see my blog posts about pesticide use Thailand.)

So you can see how the agrichemical companies are guaranteed a growing market since their products degrade farmlands and thus make necessary more of their products year after year.

Organic agriculture, on the other hand, builds the soil. Each year of organic agriculture makes the soil better, more nutrient rich, more able to hold water through dry periods. And using diverse agriculture allows properties to emerge where pesticides are not needed. For example, companion planting can attract beneficial insects to one plant that eat the pest insects on the other plant. If we are creative and work with nature instead of against it then we don’t need all these expensive, fossil-fuel intensive off-farm inputs – which is good news for us, bad news for agribusiness.

Economically, the industrial agriculture strategy is to get different regions around the world specializing in one or a few crops that can be grown in huge monocrop plantations for export. The idea is to ramp up production the regions that can produce crops the cheapest, then fly or ship or truck everything where it fetches the dearest price, thus maximizing profit for the agribusiness and transport industries. I suppose the hope is that eventually everyone in the world will get some of everything and be able to have a balanced diet. Of course this strategy isn’t working very well, especially for poor people since they don’t have much power to express their preferences in the market. So we have malnutrition and hunger, and still we’re asked to rely on industrial ag to “feed the world.”

The economic logic becomes even more perverse, owing to the massive subsidies for fossil fuel-based transport. Every year the UK exports huge quantities of butter to other European countries, and then turns around and imports similar massive quantities of butter. They also send their apples to South Africa to be washed and waxed and sent back to UK supermarkets. Speaking of apples, I was in Safeway in Washington state a couple years back and couldn’t find an apple grown in Washington, even though that state produces heaps of delicious apples. That Safeway’s apples were imported from New Zealand. Even weirder, there’s an airport in Louisiana that was built solely for the purpose of flying pigs around. Whole, live pigs, that is. Crazy.

The only way these absurdities can be consented to, and the only way supermarket food can be sold to us so cheaply, is that we’re paying for it through our taxes, which the government gives to agribusiness as subsidies; and future generations are paying for it in terms of ecological destruction, degraded farmlands, and destabilized climate.

Another dumb, but profitable, thing industrial agriculture does is to take animals off the farm. Down the road from the industrial wheat plantation you have the cow factory. The cows suffer hideous conditions from the time they’re born until slaughter. If factory farms had windows the cows might see some sun, but anyone who looked in would become vegetarian immediately.

Cows are fed grain because it fattens them faster, which increases profits, but grain makes the cows sick since they’re ruminants and are meant to eat forage crops like grass or alfalfa. The too-rich food wrecks their stomachs – because of this and because so many animals are kept in close quarters along with their wastes they have to be fed huge amounts of antibiotics to stave off diseases. They’re also given hormones to make them grow faster and fatter – these and the antibiotics crop up as residues in the meat we buy from the supermarkets.

One high-density cattle feeding operation can create as much fecal waste as a city the size of Oakland, CA. But there is no sewage treatment plant like we have in Oakland – the shit is just held in giant lagoons or drains off into stream, rivers, etc.

So in industrial agriculture, cow manure is a toxic waste product. But on the small, diversified organic farm, cow manure is an excellent fertilizer. In industrial agriculture, grain that was produced using tons of pesticides and fertilizers has to be trucked in using more fossil fuels to feed the cows. On the small, diverse farm, cows can forage grass, alfalfa, and eat food scraps, crop residues, etc. and have no need for antibiotics or hormones. Plus they’re way happier.

You see where I am going with this? Industrial agriculture divides the harmonious and interdependent processes of good farming into a variety of separate specialized problems. This isn’t done for any reason other than more profits can be generated this way. But the profits come with a heavy price for farmers and farming communities, the environment, society in general, and future generations.


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Security and Local Self-Reliance


I want to finish up these essays by talking about security. I mean real security, not what the talking heads are saying about it in conjunction with terrorism and the wars we fight supposedly against terrorism but that actually cause more terrorism.

Small-scale, diversified organic agriculture is a means to attain real, honest-to-God security. The global industrial agriculture system, by dragging farmers into debt, wrecking the soil, polluting the environment, requiring huge inputs of fossil fuels, siphoning off tax dollars as subsidies, imposing monocropping, proliferating genetically modified organisms, driving millions of people worldwide off the land and into urban slums, and making everyone in the system dependent on the stability and solvency of the system, is about the most insecure food economy I can think of.

Creating local food economies based on farming methods that reflect ecological principles is the antidote for this insecurity. Substituting human labor for fossil fuel inputs is the key to sustainable agriculture, and also helps to reduce unemployment. Farm work is good work, is good for the body, and when done with family and friends, strengthens community and can be a helluva lot of fun. It is meaningful work that uses our bodies the way they were meant to be used, engages our minds and our creativity, puts us in touch with nature, and serves a vital human need for high-quality, nutritious food.

Farm work is also necessarily generalist work. By “generalist” I mean to have knowledge of many things, and see the relationships between these many things. Another effect of globalization and the headlong pursuit of short-term profit over everything else is that the “modern” societies have become overly specialized. The mainstream education system is set up to train young people to be “competitive in the global marketplace,” which is to say specialists that fit into economic roles pre-determined by the system itself. Specialization of this kind is a bad thing for two reasons: one, if the “system” is broken and causing social and ecological deterioration, then we ought not be training additional specialized workers who cannot do anything other than perpetuate it. And two, an overly specialized society is an inherently insecure society. Let me elaborate…

Having spent a lot of years as an academic researcher, I know from experience the myopia that results from following a very specialized career path. Perhaps it’s a bit more extreme with university researchers, but to a great extent most of the populace of US is trained, either academically or vocationally, to fit some fairly specialized role.

Consequently, reversing the negative effects of globalization and economic growth is a difficult task since doing so calls upon us to achieve a much higher degree of local self-reliance in our households and communities. Doing this requires general knowledge of how to do many things that pertain to the household economy. Our specialized jobs and job training programs have not prepared us for this.

You often over hear middle-class married couples saying, “we’re building a house…” Of course, they are not building a house, they’ve hired a specialist in house building. Probably they wouldn’t know the first thing about how to build a house if they had to. Similarly, cars have become so complicated now that you have to get a mechanic with highly specialized training to fix it for you, perhaps even just to do something as simple as change the oil. And if you get sick, you have to go through a whole cadre of specialized medical personnel to work out what’s wrong and what to do about it.

There’s a specialist for everything. And these are the people we have to hire to do everything for us since we are incapable of doing anything for ourselves outside of our narrow professions. This is how the “modern” economy works: you work some specialized job to earn money so that you can buy food, shelter, medicine, goods, and everything else you need that’s produced by other highly specialized people and systems.

This dependence leaves our households and communities vulnerable to the vagaries of the global economy. If any link in the global economy breaks down, we all suffer. And because the entire global economy is dependent upon “cheap” subsidized fossil fuel-based transport, as oil becomes increasingly scarce and concentrated in politically volatile regions our society faces ever more foreboding conditions of imminent catastrophe and collapse.

This sounds like a lot of gloom and doom, until we remember that we can start right away to turn things around. In the US and the other Western democracies, responsibilities that are not taken by the government return to the people. Clearly our governments have been impotent and ineffective in guarding our interests against the exploitation of nature, the destruction of our communities, and the propagation of a global monoculture of comsumerism and waste perpetrated by the large corporations. Therefore, it is our responsibility, as citizens, to take matters into our own hands.

So far we have been tricked and cajoled into apathy by the billions of dollar spent annually on advertising, and by the 25,000 or so television commercials the average individual in the US watches each year. The message has always been that we are incomplete, defective and inadequate, and that we will be loved, respected and envied when we purchase some trinket, or live in a big house, or drive a flashy new SUV, or eat at such-and-such a chain restaurant, or wear the proper brand of blue jeans. Most of us are deeply under the spell of consumerist stupefaction. But waking from this spell is really pretty easy, since the lifestyle corporations have been selling us is so unsatisfying on both the material and spiritual levels.

Waking up means directly pursuing health, happiness, spiritual growth and well-being, instead of enjoining profit-centered corporations to provide us these things by proxy. Again, the discussion comes back to the matter of efficiency – in this case the efficiency with which we pursue true wealth and well-being. Let me offer an example…

In our earlier discussion of the GDP measure, we noted that work done within the household, and thus not mediated by the exchange of currency, scores a “zero” in the supposed index of well-being, although the work of maintaining the household is most important in the whole economy. We are encouraged to go outside the home to seek paid employment – to sell our labor to some corporation in exchange for money, which we may then exchange to buy the things we need to maintain our households which we cannot make ourselves because we have neither the free time nor the skills.

The reason we do not have the free time or skills to perform these tasks is because we have spent years in specialized training programs that have instilled in us a narrow set of skills useful only to our corporate employers. We have learned these skills at the expense of learning general home economic skills. And when we do eventually enter the “workforce,” we work such long hours and to such a level of fatigue that even if we managed to have a set of home economic skills, developed, perhaps, over time as “hobbies,” we don’t have the capacity to do much in the way of meaningful home economics. Thus we are forced to spend our free time at Wal-Mart in a frenzy of accumulation, shopping for the things we need rather than making them for ourselves.

There are two types of “efficiency” in this scenario – one that is served effectively and one that is not. Through this scenario we are entrapped in a cycle of economic dependence that is very efficient for generating profits for corporations. We depend on them for jobs – for a wage that comes from working a job, that is – on one end and upon them to sell us the necessities of life on the other. They’ve got us coming and going, so to speak, in a matter not much subtler than the Appalachian coal miners’ folk song describes:

Sixteen tons, and whaddya get? … another day older and deeper in debt … Saint Peter don’t ya call me ‘cause I can’t go … I owe my soul to the company store…

So while working a corporate job and depending upon corporate retailers to sell us our livelihoods is an efficient means for generating corporate profits, it’s a very inefficient means for us to pursue real wealth and well-being. Let me elaborate…

If I work a corporate job, I work first and foremost to enrich the corporation, that is to say, I work to enrich the higher-ups in the corporation, and specifically the shareholders. I work only in a minor secondary way for the wage I receive. By definition, I and the other workers in the corporate hierarchy receive less in wages – far less, typically – than the amount of value that we create with our labor.

The difference in the amount of value that workers create versus what they’re paid is called surplus value, and this is distributed among the owners of the corporation. It can then be reinvested with the aim of expanding the corporation’s influence or market share. Much of it can be, and is, siphoned off by the wealthy corporate executives and shareholders for their own enrichment. This is, by definition, how a profit-seeking corporation works. Although this is almost never discussed by politicians or in the media, it’s a widely acknowledged fact. How else would stockholders and corporate executives become so obscenely rich than by transferring big portions of the value created by workers up the corporate hierarchy and into their own coffers?

But that’s really beside the point. The point I want to stress is that if I work some corporate job to make money to supply my livelihood, then I’m being irrational and inefficient. Because of the principle of surplus value transferred up the corporate hierarchy, I’m working most of the day not to enrich myself but to enrich the corporation, or more properly, the shareholders and executives at the top of the corporation. Perhaps out of an eight hour working day I create my wages-worth of value in two or three hours. After that point, I work the rest of the day to make the corporation better off instead of myself. It’s a double loss to me as well because I could have been using that time to pursue real wealth and well-being by working within my own home economy.

So if I work an eight-hour day for a corporation I’m working mostly to make that corporation better off, at the expense of my own life and home economy. The remuneration I receive is much less than the amount of value I have helped to produce, and is very often inadequate to purchase much of what I need from the corporate retailers at the other end of the equation. The results: stress, unhappiness, fatigue, frustration, and for an increasing number of folks these days, debt, as we borrow more money to meet our needs and desires.

The way out of this trap is through self-employment working directly to advance our home economies. If I work an eight-hour day adding value to my own home economy, then that’s eight hours of work done directly to advance my own wealth and well-being. Of course, I don’t make a (conventional) wage doing it, which might at first seem like a bad thing. But remember that using wages to purchase goods from corporate retailers imposes another inefficiency – I’m paying not only for what the good itself is worth, but an additional increment that accrues as profit for the corporation manufacturing the good. To paraphrase something Helena Norberg-Hodge stressed a number of times in our discussions, “Every time we sit down to a meal where the food was produced by the global agribusiness system, we’re undermining our own households and communities, local economies, and the ecosystems of the planet for the benefit of transnational corporations.”

Dealing directly in value – in real wealth, in other words – as opposed to the virtual wealth represented by money is a much more efficient way to pursue well-being. If all my economic interactions are mediated by the market, then at every turn I’m enriching corporations as varying amounts of value are siphoned off here and there for the profit of far-away people and institutions. If I work directly to build my home economy, and I engage mostly in a local economy within my community, then the value that we create with our efforts stays in our households and in our community. We thus become better off in real terms to the degree that we successfully opt out of the corporate-mediated consumer economy.

But we have a ways to go to be able to do this. Right now, our communities have been heavily infiltrated with corporate retailers, and our minds have been heavily colonized by education and the media with propaganda and specialized training making us more fit to serve as cogs in the corporate machinery than as general home economists and producers for the local community. It will take some time to break our habits of patronizing the corporate retail establishments and to undergo the retraining necessary to be productive members of a successful local economy.

But the good news is that, for one, this retraining program is nothing like the stultifying “education” system we were forced to endure for our childhoods and much of our young adulthoods. And two, the payback time in terms of gains for the well-being of our households and communities is immediate. Any steps we take in the right direction, no matter how small seeming at first, will have significant beneficial effects realized right away.

Here are some rules I’ve made up for enacting the transition from corporate-mediated pseudo wealth to locally grown authentic well-being:

* Find ways to limit your market interactions. This means opt out of the money economy whenever and wherever possible. Bartering for goods and labor within your community is a great way to do this.

* Grow some of your own food. This limits trips to the supermarket, and provides you with healthier food than the pesticide-ridden, hormone-injected, irradiated, processed, flash frozen, trucked-flown-and-shipped-all-over-creation stuff they’re selling.

* Substitute your own labor for purchased commodities. Meaning, make stuff for yourself instead of buying it. This has a number of beneficial effects including limiting your participation in the money economy, giving you sense of accomplishment, and forcing you to ask, “How badly do I really need a…” before you just run out and buy it off the shelf.

* Don’t fall for the “job creation” myth of corporate employers and retailers! This is always given as the rationalization for any company or enterprise to move into a community. It is nonsense! Corporate employers (like Wal-Mart, for example) do not benefit local economies – they suck them dry by exploiting their labor and driving local businesses under. The profits they generate are not circulated within the community but are rather siphoned off to the corporate office, wherever the hell that is. Indulge me a minute to elaborate this point with a telling example:

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people defend coal mining in my home state of West Virginia by implying that it’s good for the economy. These aren’t just politicians and coal industry lobbyists – many working people make this argument as well. This is a testament to how well the illogic of corporation-dominated economics has been inculcated into our citizens. The ecosystems and communities of West Virginia have been ravaged by the depravity of mountain top removal and other destructive forms of mining for nigh on a century now. Untold millions of tons of coal have been removed from our hills and sold off to power plants and industry and converted to greenhouse gases, generating profits of a scale that would make King Solomon blush. And yet West Virginia remains one of the poorest states in one of the poorest regions of the country. Just exactly when is coal mining going to start being good for our economy?

* Work together. Creating a local economy means recruiting a diverse skill set to produce the myriad goods a community needs. The big three areas of needs for well-being under a program of local self-reliance are food (including water), shelter, and medicine. A fourth category would be a general “goods,” such as clothing and textiles, tools, kitchen supplies, furniture, etc. To the degree that your community can grow its own food, build its own structures (primarily of locally abundant materials, such as mud in the case of adobe), make use of traditional medicinal practices where appropriate, and produce a variety of beautiful and functional goods for living the negative trends of economic globalization – ecological devastation, economic insecurity, community degradation – will be reversed.

* Don’t proselytize. After having lived both in the Bible Belt and the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve had quite enough of people-who-think-they-have-it-all-figured-out trying to tell me what to believe and how to live. Notice that neither street corner preachers nor angry activists (who define themselves according to what they are against, e.g. anti-biotech, anti-war, anti-capitalism, etc.) have much of a following. The reason for this is that the trips they are selling are a bummer – negation without showing the way towards something positive. A happy, healthy, beautiful, creative, hard-working, good-living, successful and fun-loving locally self-reliant community sells itself, no proselytizing required. Our job is just to create examples of the alternatives for livelihood to the global monoculture. If we do a good job at this, then our vibrant, joyful communities will be all the testament we need to recruit other “lost souls” into the fold. As a general rule, keep your mouth shut and let your work speak for you.

* Engage with local politics. Focus on the policy decisions and elections in your area first and foremost – these are where you can have the most profound effect. National politics have become so corrupt and money-driven that they’re almost a complete waste of time for “ordinary” citizens to engage with. Huge, bureaucratic, centralized “democracy” is an oxy-moron. Democracy necessarily means participation, and there’s hardly any way for us to meaningfully participate in national politics these days, so far as I can tell. National governments are heavily staffed with corporate lackeys. And the presidential elections in the US are run by PR firms – the same people who sell us toothpaste and designer jeans – and amount to a sham popularity contest devoid of substantive content. So in my opinion, getting sucked into the hype around presidential elections, which starts earlier each election cycle and always involves record-breaking amounts of money spent on campaigns, is a poor use of our time. We’re much better off focusing on what’s happening at the local, regional, and state levels. These issues receive far less attention in the media, but they’re more important to our task of creating viable local economies.

* Practice non-attachment. Remember it’s not our or anyone’s job to “save the world,” whatever that means. Globalization, which we know a hundred different ways is unsustainable, will spin itself out one way or another. It may be more painful, or somewhat less painful of a process. Our goal is to make it somewhat less painful, less damaging to people’s lives and the ecosystems we depend on. We do this best by showing globalization’s absurdity. Humor and candid speech are excellent tools for this. To be authentically humorous, you can’t take yourself too seriously. This is where non-attachment comes in – we must do the work of creating local economies without an attachment to a particular vision of “how the world should be,” or even attachment to our own “success.” We do this work because it is the right thing to do, and above all, because it brings immense joy and fulfillment. If we are not joyful and fulfilled because of our efforts, we cannot hope to inspire anyone else to take up this work with us. Authentic joy comes from being fully present in the present, unattached to future outcomes, impervious to anxieties about the future or regrets over the past, and working patiently, persistently and diligently and with what Carlos Castaneda’s teacher Don Juan called “unbending intent.” Recall the bodhisattva vow – Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them – and the words of Jesus – take no thought for the morrow – and be fully present as an inseparable part of the universe. And remember that all things are impermanent, including globalization.


* * *

If you made it through all that, congratulations. I know it’s way too much for one blog post. But this is some of the stuff that’s always going around and around in my head, and I haven’t worked out the best way to get it out yet. Some people have told me I should write a book, but there are so many books out there already it’s kind of redundant and a little cliché. It’s enough hard work just to try and live these ideas into existence – and maybe that’s the most effective strategy anyway.

What do you think?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Josh,

Many, many good points. The goal to become one w/ the earth and each other is wonderful - just wonder if possible. You do great writing. I'd read your book.
Love, Mom

Tim said...

Terrific. Thanks Josh. You're doing great work and communicating a terribly important message clearly and succinctly. More soon.

Reto said...

A imperfectly translated quote from the german author Gisela Karan: "But what I can write, can no other one." Go for the book!

Reto said...

Josh, I just posted some thoughts of my own after reading your brilliant article:

Eine amerikanische Perle oder warum und wie wir uns von der Globalisierung verabschieden sollten

Unfortunately it is in German :-). Probably you get an idea via the (funny) Google translation:

An American pearl or why and how we should say good-bye to the globalization

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