A century ago, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie believed that Darwin’s theories justified an economy of vicious competition and inequality. They left us with an ideological legacy that says the corporate economy, in which wealth concentrates in the hands of a few, produces the best for humanity. This was always a distortion of Darwin’s ideas. His 1871 book The Descent of Man argued that the human species had succeeded because of traits like sharing and compassion. “Those communities,” he wrote, “which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Darwin was no economist, but wealth-sharing and cooperation have always looked more consistent with his observations about human survival than the elitism and hierarchy that dominates contemporary corporate life.
In the previous post I explored the inherent contradiction between the desire to protect and conserve the environment and the need for development within the current economic system based on a growth economy examining the current political situation in Bolivia as a microcosm of this tension on a macro level. At the end of that post I suggested that the solution was to find a way to transition to a new kind of economy and development. David Korten wrote an article in Yes! Magazine entitled “Living Economies: Learning from the Biosphere” in which he said,
In our species’ immaturity, however, our dominant cultures have forgotten that our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole. We must now step to a new level of species maturity, redesign the culture and institutions of our economic system to mimic the structure and dynamics of the biosphere, and learn to live by life’s rules. 1
Korten lists three key ideas that he gleans from the natural world about how we should organize our economic life together: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. First I want to look at his ideas, along with some others within the idea of a steady-state economy. Then we will have to talk about how to get from here to there.
Toward An Anarchist Economy?
The first rule of “Cooperative Self-Organization” has to do with the principles of biodiversity and cooperation. Korten explains,
Ecosystems have no central control structure. Their health and vitality depend on processes of cooperative self-organization in which each species learns to meet its own needs in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of others. The more diverse and cooperative the bio-community, the greater its capacity to innovate and the greater its resilience in the face of crisis.” 1
The idea of not having central control structures sounds very scary to humans accustomed to all the trappings of civilization with its institutions, organization and hierarchy, but this is an invention of the human intellect and not something inherent in the natural order or observable in natural ecosystems. While many libertarians and advocates of a completely free market profess to believe in such a decentralized state of affairs, I’m not sure they would allow it when the time came to really let go of the control. Most of the more moderate advocates of a free market turn that phrase into a misnomer, because there is incredible attempts to impose central control and regulation on the system. Usually the rules are rigged to the benefit of the rulemakers, which might fit some natural law, but is unsustainable and thus violates the most important natural law: that the system itself must survive.
All of this makes me wonder what an anarchist (which is the leftist version of the libertarian impulse) economy might look like. I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this among Christian Anarchists that I read. But if economy only means how we order our lives together, then in terms of how we exchange goods and services for our own survival, any community of people that is able to sustain itself has some kind of economy. If there is any possibility of a practical anarchism that can be lived out, then there must be some kind of anarchist economics that governs or guides the way that people live together.
Diversity and Cooperation
What creates stability, security and flourishing in ecosystems is diversity and cooperation. Of course there is competition within and among species for sources of food, but this assumes a scarcity that is not the case in stable ecosystems. If you out-compete all the other prey species in an ecosystem for food then your survival will mean that you are now the only target left for whatever predators there are above you on the sacred predator pyramid scheme. There is a delicate web of interdependence in healthy ecosystems that demands both diversity of species and cooperation.
Financial investors already understand this principal somewhat when they diversify stock portfolios to lower the risk and secure a steady rate of return, even if it’s lower than higher risk portfolios. On a broader scale, however, our economy does not support the broadest diversity in terms of the kinds of business and other economic actors that it supports and/or allows to exist. On the contrary the current system heavily favors large corporations. The larger and more multinational the corporation, the more advantages it has in the marketplace.
Everyone gives lip service to small businesses, but no one is serious about taking on the rules that allow Wal-Mart and others to easily put small companies out of business wherever they go. Therefore the rule in a living economy based on the rule of diversity and cooperation would be to give real incentives for small businesses and those that are active in creating a community in which other small businesses can thrive. Korten puts the tension between healthy ecosystems and the privileges of corporations in these terms,
“In a living economy, the rights and interests of living communities of living, breathing people engaged in a living exchange with the natural systems of their bioregion properly take priority over the presumed rights of artificial corporate entities that value life only as a marketable commodity and operate by the moral code of a malignant cancer.”
This puts a further clarification on the practical implications. It cannot simply promote any small business, but small businesses that understand, value and promote the values of diversity and cooperation. They should embody these principles within their own business structures by following worker-owned models in which there is the most possible transparency, openness and sharing of both the rights and responsibilities of honest work. They should encourage other business and the interaction, cooperation and interdependence of businesses of all sizes, from a single person selling produce from their garden to the largest local company in the area.
Monocultures of any kind, whether agricultural or business, are a direct contradiction to principles that govern natural systems. They will likely fail in the long term for the same reasons that natural systems cannot be supported where biodiversity is lacking. The answer is to learn from science and promote the interdependence of natural system that create flourishing, dynamic, vibrant and healthy systems of diversity and cooperation.
That’s right, the reason you started reading this blog in the first place is back. The last post was April 26 of this year and before that January 10. For a while, I was disciplined in doing it once or twice a week. I’d like to get back to that.
Before diving into today’s passage I want to take a brief moment to point out that this is not an esoteric exercise in obscurity. My purpose in examining Food in the Bible is, like Ellen Davis, because an agrarian reading of the Bible is essential to fully understand the context of the text. In a culture so disconnected from the land and our food, we skim over those antiquated passages that have to do with agriculture. In so doing we have cut ourselves off from some of the most powerful elements of the biblical narrative and consequently some answers to many problems that plague modern civilization, society and globalization.
Matthew 13:24-43 This passage is a sandwich with the parable of the weeds (24-30) and the following explanation (36-43) as the bread and the parable of the mustard seed and yeast (31-35) the meat (or peanut butter for you vegetarians). I’d like to take them separately and then reflect on what it means that they’re sandwiched together here.
The Parable of the Weeds
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
In terms of agriculture the first thing I notice is that farmers have been dealing with the problem of weeds forever, surely since the dawn of agriculture. It’s important, and relevant to the parable, to remember that a “weed” is simply a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. People intentionally growing food crops on a plot of land view other plants in that plot as competitors. Plants that are aggressive (like bermuda grass) can outcompete other crops and ultimately kill the food you’re trying to grow.
One of the biggest difficulties with organic and no-till agriculture is how to deal with weeds. Industrial agriculture simply invented Round-up Ready seeds that could be sprayed with a broad spectrum herbicide and not die. So, you kill everything except the plant you want to grow. That method seems to have a number of problems with it (i.e. reliance on chemicals, loss of biodiversity, affect on the environment and concerns about GMO crops).
So, how do you deal with weeds? While it’s tempting to get into tillage practices and weed management, for the purpose of this post the method is usually to get rid of the weeds. However, many weeds are edible and there are other methods for growing food than the industrial monoculture we’ve come to know and love.
Jesus suggestion to the farmer in the parable sounds a lot like Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution. For those not familiar with his agricultural philosophy the two part interview with Larry Korn, a student of Fukuoka, on the Agroinnovations podcast is a great introduction. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” method is very similar and closely related to permaculture. Basically Fukuoma’s method was to observe the way nature worked without intervention. He would scatter seeds randomly in a field and then observe what happened. He would select the seeds of the plants that did well and try to understand why that particular plant did better. Was it something about the soil or topography, etc.? By mimicking and learning from nature Fukuoka was able to eventually get greater yields than his Japanese counterparts with a lot less work. If the workers in the parable let the weeds and their crop grow together their labor is greatly reduced as well.
In verses 36-43 Jesus gives an explanation of his parable in spiritual terms. This is a parable about the judgment at the “end of the age” and why the wicked are allowed to live along with the righteous. The meaning and intention is to use an agricultural metaphor to point to a spiritual reality. Often this is a way of sweeping away the parable itself and only focusing on the spiritual interpretation. Jesus chose parables and parabolic actions with purpose and intent. Why should we think that the spiritual application of the parable is separate from its physical, agricultural counterpart? Isn’t the nature of a parable in some way to join these two things?
Next… The Parable of the Mustard Seed and Yeast
There is no arguing that the revolution of agriculture changed the way that we relate to the world around us. Ishmael makes the argument that agriculture led us to see ourselves as competitors with everything that is not our food. Therefore, we kill off plants and weeds that compete with the grains and legumes that we want to harvest and eat. We then must also kill off the animals that feed on those competitors to our food. We might also have to kill off the animals that feed on those animals lest they come around licking their lips at us.
In this way of thinking we see nature primarily in terms of competition. Altruism and cooperation are really aberrations in the normalcy of competition and violence. This is the way it seems people tend to think about “survival of the fittest.” All the players in the ecosystem are competing for scarce resources against natural obstacles and barriers. Those who are able to beat out their competitors, within their own species or other species, survive and flourish. Isn’t that what we see on Discovery Channel when predators are hunting their prey and picking off the weak member of a herd?
The problem is that ecosystems are not made up of only predators, and even predators may not be as cutthroat as we think. More and more evidence suggests that cooperation is at least as powerful a force in nature as competition. In fact, it may be stronger than competition. It’s difficult for us to conceive that cooperation is a basic and primal force in nature. Our culture and world revolve around the idea of competition. Most of our economic ideas are based on the assumption that competition is the basic building block of nature and society and that when it is allowed to run free it results in the best possible results for all. Our education system is based on competition, scoring, testing, achievement and success. Sports and athletics are not influencing the rest of our culture. They are the natural outgrowth of a culture of competition.
Just as in nature, this may not be the best way to organize ourselves. Perhaps we have allowed our assumptions about the natural world to form the way we think about human society and civilization. There are plenty of examples where human societies valued cooperation over competition and flourished. Many Native American cultures made decisions based on consensus rather than voting which always excludes the minority. There are worker owned factories in Spain and Latin America (the specifics elude me) that have done very well with a cooperative approach to business.
How have our assumptions about the way the world is structured and functions on the most basic, natural level shaped the way we choose to organize ourselves and order life together? Is there another, better way? I hope and pray that there is.