Films and short videos are a powerful way of increasing awareness of and interest in the food system. With equal parts technology and artistry, filmmakers can bring an audience to a vegetable garden in Uganda, a fast food workers’ rights protest in New York City, or an urban farm in Singapore. And animation can help paint a picture of what a sustainable, just, and fair food system might look like. Film is an incredible tool for effecting change through transforming behaviors and ways of thinking.
This poem is too short to quote from and make any sense. So, I will quote the whole thing. “The Want of Peace” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
The first and second stanzas stand in contrast to each other. The first represents the desire to live in peace with the world around us (and consequently each other), while the second reveals the truth about ourselves and the world we have created. This poem touches on some of the same themes discussed in the poem “The Dream” previously, the world as it should be contrasted with the world as it is, including ourselves.
I would like to focus on the other theme of this poem, peace. You may have heard that peace is not just the absence of conflict. This is still not a definition, but continues to allow the concept to be defined in the negative. “Not the absence of conflict”, I count three negatives in that short phrase. If it’s not the absence of something negative then it must involve the presence of something positive. I think Berry hints here, even in the negative, that presence itself is part of what is missing.
We have precious little practice or time in our culture for presence. There are too many advertisements, meetings, jobs, things to do and things to buy for us to be wholly present at any of them. Indeed, North American culture’s favorite past time substitutes the absence of activity, choosing instead to passively watch various screens, for any sort of real presence. (Insert thought here about transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the “real presence” of the Eucharist.) “Going to the movies” or “watching TV” sound like activities, but in reality they are extended periods of inactivity and absence.
In contrast, real peace can be found in things that seem like inactivity, but are pregnant with presence and mindfulness, like the “fisherman’s silence” or “the gardener’s musing on rows”. John Zerzan talks about the way that language often (or always according to him) mediates our experience and keeps from an authentic encounter with the world. The presence in silence and musing is an unmediated experience in which we can find profound peace. So, peace can be found in silence. I could do a whole post on this topic, meditation and the Christian practice of centering prayer. Silence is where we are forced to encounter ourselves as we are, without the image mediated to us by advertising, popular culture and the media.
The poem concludes with the thought that we are led into this lack of peace by “burning men”. Indeed our leaders seem unanimous in their quest to build and sell violence in many forms, weapons and wars on everything from crime to drugs, not to mention nations and finally the never ending nebulous war on terrorism. The weapons of war have brought us everything from ammonium nitrate and agrochemicals to nuclear power. Yet, we expect something other than violence from these technologies.
When we finally acknowledge the absence of peace, the gaping hole left in the wake of these weapons, both physical and mental, we find ourselves in darkness. Yet, perhaps Berry is pointing us in this direction, the darkness is precisely where we find the “dumb life of roots”. The life cultivating the hidden mysteries of the soil is looked down on in a society that creates this absence of peace in order to fuel its unquenchable desire for growth. This is our refuge, or at least I know it is mine. With all my “education”, it is the life spent cultivating life above and below ground that allows presence into my life.
We’re more about making money than making things. -Stephen Bechtel
There is a movie that looks very interesting about the Water Wars in Cochabamba called Tambien La Lluvia (Even the Rain). The plot is that a film about Columbus is being made in Cochabamba exposing all the horrible atrocities that came with his “discovery” of America. Meanwhile the making of the film is hampered by protests and riots against the take over of water systems in Cochabamba by the Bechtel Corporation. I haven’t seen the movie, but the idea of linking past exploitation to present and seeing them juxtaposed sounds like an interesting one to explore. The title of the film (and this post) is a reference to the fact that under privatization people would be charged by Aguas del Turani, a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, for collecting rainwater.
So, how did this happen? The story exposes some of the worst of the manipulative practices of the World Bank and Multinational corporations in developing countries. Water had been a problem in Cochabamba for decades as the population of the city continued to swell, reaching 500,000 at the time of the Water Wars in 1999. Corruption, scandals and lack of funding left the issues unresolved over the decades. One year prior to the conflict the public water system only reached 60% of the city’s citizens, the remaining people received water from self-organized wells and hookups or private distributors at exorbitant prices.(58)
The beginnings of the conflict are in a 1996 agreement between the government and World Bank to privatize Cochabamba’s water supply. World Bank threatened to withhold $600 million in debt relief if they did not agree to the plan. The agreement gave Aguas del Turani control over rural irrigation systems and community wells that had been built and financed by the local community. Villa San Miguel, a town just outside Cochabamba, financed and built their own water system that provided water to 210 families for $2-5 a month to cover costs for the pump and maintenance. After taking over the company immediately raised the rates, installed metering equipment and charged the people for the installation (59).
In a city where the monthly minimum wage is $60, many Cochabambinos found meeting water costs of $15-20 per month impossible.
Aiding the process of privatization was a law passed by the government, the Water Law 2029, which “favored the use of water by international companies for mining, agriculture, and electrical purpose over human consumption” (59). This paved the way for Bechtel which is
over a century old and works in everything from railroads, mines and oil to airports, defense and aerospace facilities. It is the largest construction company on the planet with 19,000 projects in 140 countries, including every continent except Antarctica (61).
Even when Bechtel representatives heard protests from the streets during a festive contract-signing party, Bolivian president and former dictator Hugo Banzer told them, “I’m used to that sort of background music” (57). Unfortunately for Bechtel and Banzer the people would not be denied so easily. Coordinated protests and blockades against the privatization began in January 2000. The government responded with brutal violence against protestors for months. The persistence of the grassroots organizations and coordinated efforts to maintain blockades and protests in the face of repression from police and military eventually forced the authorities to change Law 2029 and made the water company public.
There were still many obstacles and difficulties in managing and improving the water system, but now the “slow process of democratization of the public water company” was in its beginning stages (68). It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Bechtel would drop its claims to $50 million from the Bolivian government after international campaigns and protests. “Bechtel left with a symbolic 30 cents in their pocket” (69).
As Dangl points out the conflict in Cochabamba is part of a global issue concerning the depletion of water resources and increasing conflict over water rights as private industry seeks to profit off the crisis.
If the population continues to grow at the current rate, total human usage of water will reach 100 percent by the middle of the 21st century…More than a billion people, 20 percent of the global population, currently lack access to safe drinking water. At the same time,, around 70 percent of all fresh water utilized by humans from lakes, aquifers, and rivers is used for agriculture (57).
Many have predicted and continue to predict that wars will be fought over water in the future because of this situation. What we ignore at our peril is that these wars have already begun. Dangl concludes with a quote from Uruguyan historian Eduardo Galeano on his own country’s struggle for water rights,
More than five centuries have passed since Columbus. How long can we go on trading gold for glass beads? (70-71)
It’s possible I’ve been reading too much Zerzan and have primitivism on the brain. I couldn’t help, but think about the troubled young boy in Where The Wild Things Are as a symptom of the disease of our society. He is shunned by his only sibling in favor of her friends. His father is gone, presumably dead. His mother must work and is gone a lot. A visit from the mother’s boyfriend sets him off and he goes into a rage. He ends up biting his mother and then running away. He escapes to a place that is wild.
I remember the book by Maurice Sendak when I was growing up. It stood out among children’s books because it was so strange and dark. There was mystery and danger in the pages. I appreciate that the movie kept this tone. Though the wild things become his friends, you never quite feel like they are safe. The story always teeters on the brink of danger, whether it is the doubt about whether the wild things will eat Max or whether he will plunge off a cliff.
I’ve also had conversations with several friends recently about some of the symptoms of our diseased society. Anxiety, depression and suicide continue to climb to unheard of rates. New “disorders” are popping up all the time. Zerzan talks about the way that pyschiatry and psychology approach many of these problems. The disease lies within the individual and it is the therapists job to help the individual learn how to function again within society. Zerzan posits that the preponderance of depression, anxiety and other disorders is instead a symptom of the epidemic of alienation in our culture. We are right to have anxiety, depression and feel suicidal because the society we live in is so far removed from the intended pattern of life on this planet.
Max learns how to relate better through his encounter with the wild things. It seems that he can learn something in the wild that eludes him in the “real” world.
To connect this to food, a friend who is on medication for ADHD told me about several books he read that described ADHD as a stimuli addiction. They did studies that showed action-based video games stimulated the same areas of the brain as cocaine use. I’ve also read about a strong connection between the intake of refined sugar and ADHD. Anecdotally, I had a kid in my youth group who had been on medication a long time who also happened to always have candy in his pockets. Coincidence? Some claim that ADHD can be treated entirely through changes in diet.
There are illnesses of the body like colds or influenza that can be traced to bacteria or viruses as a cause. Diseases of the mind and spirit cannot simply be ascribed to an individual’s neuroses. We are social creatures and as such the sickness of our minds also has to do with problems in our society, not just ourselves.
We could all use some more howling, time in the outdoors and a little danger to remind us that we are both alive and mortal at the same time.
In case you forgot the crisis in Darfur continues. One of the major risks for women in refugee camps is cooking. That’s right cooking!! They are exposed to rape and violence when they are out collecting firewood for their traditional three stone stoves. They have to collect firewood often because the stoves are so inefficient. Enter good ol’ fashioned American ingenuity.
KQED’s Quest has a video of the incredible story of the Darfur Stoves Project. You can download or watch the video online through the Quest site. It’s less than ten minutes long. It’s stories like these that continue to give me hope for the future of our world. I’m amazed when the best minds we have put their skills, creativity and imagination into projects that can have such a huge impact.