Tag Archives: Dependence

What Shall We Eat? (Lev 25:6-7, 20-22)

In reading the Jubilee once again and Walter Brueggeman’s commentary on it from Finally Comes The Poet , I was struck by two particular aspects of this passage that I had missed previously. The first relates to a question that I think many people think of, if not ask explicitly, when thinking about the practice of letting fields lie fallow for an entire year. The text itself asks, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” (Lev 25:20). With global population now at 7 billion, we don’t really have the luxury of following this kind of practice right? Well, first let’s listen to the text and see if it has anything to say to a world with 7 billion people.

This question is the central theme of this blog, “What shall we eat?”. Perhaps in the imagination of the agrarian readers of Leviticus it was almost as impossible as it seems to us to feed yourself without practicing constant and intensive agriculture. The answer to the question of how they will eat if the land is not in production is found at the beginning and middle of the chapter:

The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely…I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives. (Lev 25:6-7, 19, 21-22)

So, here’s the radical thought to sit with for a second: The earth produces food without the help of human beings. Some of the plants that we consider a nuisance and call weeds are actually edible. Before you start foraging for dinner among your local neighborhood make sure you get educated. Back in the day it was common knowledge what to eat and what not to eat. We have lost that common knowledge and now must rely on field guides and experts to learn what we can forage in our local bioregion. This fact, that the earth supports all of the life on it without the help of human beings, is the central idea of the Sabbath practices which culminate in this year-long practice of cultivating the mindfulness of our place within the creation that sustains us.

Now, the global population when Leviticus was written between 538-332 BCE was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million. That’s only 3% of the current world population of 7 billion. So while the advent of agriculture had already begun to significantly increase global populations, the pressures of population on the land to produce was minimal compared to today. I’ve heard lots of different figures about what the carrying capacity of the earth is in terms of human population from 10 million all the way up to 9 billion. Regardless, it is clear that this practice of an entire year without production would not support current and future levels of population.

Now, you careful readers will point out that in the text God promises a bumper crop just prior to the Jubilee that will carry them through the fallow year and then some. While it may seem like this is the product of human ingenuity and hard work, any good farmer will tell you that there’s really not much you can do to get yields of the magnitude suggested by this passage. Sure there are bumper crops, but not because of anything any farmer did to make it happen. Studies have shown that even our best technological attempts to improve yield can’t out perform nature. So, the provision of food to carry people through three years on one year of production is a miracle intended to tell them, “Quit worrying about it and trust me”.

So, we have created a world which is completely dependent on the efforts of human beings to maintain and sustain itself. This clearly contradicts the heart of the Sabbath practices which reorient our lives around the fact that we are not owners in an absolute sense and the maintenance and sustenance of life on this planet does not depend on us. What are the repercussions for a world in which we have transgressed this Sabbath boundary and made a world dependent on us, in essence making ourselves God? I suggest that this question, “What shall we eat?” reveals once again our addiction to control and domination and our complete disconnection from the land. The Jubilee is a radical act of faith in the ability of the creation to sustain itself and ourselves, if we are willing to understand the boundaries of the system as it was created.

Up next… Jubilee is Salvation.

Toward A Living Economy: Managed Boundaries

This is a continuation of a series exploring some ideas about what a living economy based on the rules of nature might look like. David Korten points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the third.

The third rule is “Managed Boundaries”which recognizes the exchanges at work in the interdependence of a healthy ecosystem.

Because of the way life manages energy, each living entity must maintain an active flow of energy within itself and in continuous exchange with its neighbors. Life requires permeable managed membranes at every level of organization—the cell, the organ, the multi-celled organism, and the multi-species ecosystem—to manage these flows and as a defense against parasitic predators. If the membrane of the cell or organism is breached, the continuously flowing embodied energy that sustains its living internal structures dissipates into the surrounding environment, and it dies. It also dies, however, if the membrane becomes impermeable, thus isolating the entity and cutting off its needed energy exchange with its neighbors. Managed boundaries are not only essential to life’s good health; they are essential to its very existence.

This is exactly what the current economic system cannot account for, energy flows. We can’t see what resources are flowing out of our bioregion and into others and likewise we don’t see the flows from other bioregions into our own in the form of food, products, labor, etc. The current system masks these flows with layers of trade, corporate entities, regulation, nation-states and various governing authorities. You can look at most products and find a “Made in…” label, but how much does that really tell you?

Reorganizing our human economies to function as locally self-reliant subsystems of our local ecosystems will require segmenting the borderless global economy into a planetary system of interlinked self-reliant regional economies. This does not mean shutting out the world. Vital living economies exchange their surplus goods for the surplus goods of their neighbors and freely share ideas, technology, and culture in a spirit of mutual respect for the needs and values of all players.

When I mentioned in the last post that this might sound like a scary form of tribalism to some, this point is what I had in mind. It’s as if our imaginations are held captive to two possibilities, which ultimately keeps us captive to one possibility for organizing the world, either some form of strong central control (which includes both capitalism, marxism, socialism, communism, etc.) or isolationist groups fighting with each other in a neo-tribalism or balkanization of the world. It seems to me that the problems we face are usually created in some part by our lack of ability to get outside of the status quo and paradigm that shapes our picture of the world and how it works. This exercise in imagining a living economy is an attempt to imagine an alternative beyond the two possibilities mentioned above, strong central control or tribalism.

Korten helpfully points out that the living economy he imagines is not local and regional tribes that isolate themselves from each other (Has this ever really been the case entirely?). He isn’t ranting about dismantling the global economy. Instead he seems to envision a global economy that more closely mirrors the global ecology. There are global exchanges that take place but not the kind of top-down centrally managed enterprise that currently exists with asymmetrical power relationships between nations, peoples and sectors within economies of nations and regions.

Ecological health does not depend on global institutions to regulate it. There is no IMF that lends some energy, trees, animals or pollinators to an ecosystem to maintain its health. If a species goes extinct (whether naturally or because of human intervention), there is no way to take out a loan with structural adjustments from a hypothetical institution of ecological resources that will somehow correct the health of the ecosystem. A greater degree of autonomy for local and regional economies would be necessary to mimic the health of ecosystems.

It also means that local and regional economies would have to be primarily based on their bioregions and then negotiate the management of the boundaries of that bioregion in terms of exchange with other localities. This seems to imply that the global system which makes it normal to have high-need and short season crops, like asparagus, and crops with a very small growing region, like quinoa, out of season in regions far from the point of production may no longer be feasible. Producing non-agriculture products in overseas factories may likewise also be less desirable with a shift in focus toward regional sufficiency and dependency on the local bioregion.

Each of the elements of Korten’s suggestions for a living economy shift the primary economic focus from a system abstracted from the natural resources on which it depends to one that begins with the soil that sustains us and only gradually, and in a limited way, expands from there. The question that looms over the act of imagining such a system is how in the world we could ever get there from here. I hope to explore some thoughts about that question in the final post in this series.

The Ultimate Showdown: Mother Earth vs Globalization

Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,

Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2

Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama
(The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1

Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”

In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,

“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2

There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.

Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says

“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3

The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.

The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.

The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.

“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1

You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.

How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.

This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.

In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.

Articles cited:
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth

Small Is Beautiful: Urban vs. Rural

I read an article from the Guardian that asked “Which is greener urban or rural living?” Treehugger also picked up the conversation, and the consensus seemed to be that urban life was clearly greener. In the city you often don’t need a car. You live in smaller housing units in tall buildings that take up less space. You have more options for consumer products that are environmentally friendly, organic or otherwise more sustainably produced. There were a few commenters that didn’t want to just throw out the benefits of rural living, but no one really seemed to think rural living could be greener.

I read the whole conversation in light of the section in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful on development. Schumacher addressed the mentality of much development work which still continues today.

Before we can talk about giving aid, we must have something to give. We do not have thousands of poverty stricken villages in our country; so what do we know about effective methods of self-help in such circumstances? The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvellous things they could do if they were already rich. (199)

This could also be applied to this way of thinking about whether urban or rural living is greener. Environmentalism has its own unspoken creed containing dogmas that often remain unquestioned and uncritically swallowed and regurgitated. There are certain assumptions about what is “greener” that attempt to slip the premise by us. One of those is the divide between rural and urban.

Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. (203)

This dualism between urban and rural is and always has been a fiction. This was one of the most stunning thoughts for me in reading this book. It is only more relevant as the world continues to urbanize and face the same problems of Schumacher’s time (the book was first published in 1975) on an ever increasing scale.

When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Therefore, he argued, we should be putting as much, if not more, emphasis on rural development. That is not what happened. The emphasis on urban development made cities much more attractive places than the increasingly difficult life in rural areas. This drove migration to the cities and the increasing urbanization that continues today. The UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by the year 2050 and we have just recently crossed the 50% mark (I don’t have a link, but I think it was in a recent State of the World report from the UN). Urban development can’t keep up with the needs of all the rural people migrating to cities as rural economies tank. Yet, the opportunities are better in the cities. Thus we end up with the massive slums that seemed to pop up overnight around Manila, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and all the major urban centers in the “developing” world.

Yet, what is our answer for this problem of urbanization? It is to create better cities that can handle the increase in population, instead of creating rural development that makes it possible for people to stay in rural areas. What the question about whether urban or rural living is greener fails to address is the continuing, dynamic relationship between these two sectors. It’s also evident when we try defining these two terms that they are not very clear. What size community should be considered rural? At what point does a city transition from being rural to urban? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Derrick Jensen defines cities as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources” (from a YouTube video on his book Endgame). This definition means that our definition of “urban” will be relatively small compared to the largest cities in the world. However, it does account for what the discussion of how green urban living is neglects. While certain metrics make urban living appear greener, because of the economies of scale, it does not account for the dependence on outside resources to sustain the “greener” urban way of life.

Unless you are living off of your urban/community garden, the majority of your food, no matter how organic or sustainably produced, must come from somewhere else. Likewise for all the other products no matter how organic or sustainably produced that you consume in a city. All of the water you use is imported from elsewhere, as well as the coal, oil and/or natural gas you use to use electricity, drive your car, cook and heat your studio apartment. Another quote from Derrick Jensen undermines the kind of thinking that makes urban living seem “green”.

Rational people will go quietly meekly to the end of the world, if only you’ll allow them to believe that recycling is going to make a difference.

We choose the metrics that make our lives seem “greener” so that we can ignore the reality that we cannot help but participate in an economy based on extraction and the importation of resources to support our preferred lifestyle in communities called cities that require this arrangement. Perhaps there is a balance between urban and rural populations that could be sustainable. I’m open to that possibility, but it would look radically different from the current order.

So, instead of asking which is greener we should be asking which way of life is self-sustaining. Rural living, if it involves industrial monocropping or extractive lifestyles, is not self-sustaining either. But, I would argue that living in smaller rural communities has the potential to be self-sustaining, while cities require an arrangement that imports resources from outside its borders.

The Open Veins of Latin America

Happy Birthday America… No, not you… just North America… not you either, just “America”… you know The United States.

It seems wholly appropriate to me on this day celebrating “American” independence to consider our continuing dependence on that other America, Latin America. From tin to bananas to copper to all of the precious metals that make up the gadgets of our technological society, Latin America has supplied the barons of industry since conquistadors first discovered the largest vein of silver deposits in the altiplano of what is now Bolivia. I read Eduardo Galeano’s epic history of exploitation of Latin America by Western powers this year, as I continue to try and wrap my mind around my new home, Bolivia, and the greater Latin America that it is a part of. One of the last sentences of the book sums up the long history that Galeano details in depth.

We are not experiencing the primitive infancy of capitalism, but its vicious senility. Underdevelopment isn’t a stage of development, but its consequence.

We like to think that the United States perfected the ideals of capitalism and democracy and that our job is to help the rest of the world catch up. What we fail to account for is the fact that the rest of the world, Latin America in particular, has been an essential part of the “American” experiment from the beginning. Galeano shows how the exploitation of natural resources in Latin America provided the wealth that made the industrial revolution possible.

We would like to think that something called “American ingenuity”, or even Enlightenment principles, made the success of the United States and other western countries possible. The harsh reality is that it has always come at the expense and exploitation of other people and their natural resources, whether Native or Latin Americans. Lest we think that this is merely some dark corner of American history, we should track down the ingredients or components of any number of products that we consume. It is highly likely that a good portion of the minerals used to create our technology came from Latin America. If you eat bananas in North America, then you should think about sending a personal letter of thanks (and perhaps also apology) sometime to one of the former “banana republics” that continue to be dominated by that industry.

So, enjoy your fireworks today, but don’t ask where they were made. If you do, you might realize that the independence we declared from the British on this day 235 years ago has always been in the shadow of our dependence on the rest of the Americas.