Arguing With Success

Tom Philpot at Grist links to this quote from Virginia farmer, Joel Salatin:

Number one is that it[industrial agriculture] destroys soil. Absolutely and completely. The soil is the only thread upon which civilization can exist, and it’s such a narrow strip around the globe if a person could ever realize that our existence depends on literally inches of active aerobic microbial life on terra firma, we might begin to appreciate the ecological umbilical to which we are all still attached. The food industry, I’m convinced, actually believes we don’t need soil to live. That we are more clever than that.

At the advent of industrial agriculture, right after the Great Depression and really catching fire right after World War II, the only consideration for the natural world was as an abstraction of our national heritage. We didn’t have a large body of oil paintings or bronze sculpture – Americans had land, mountains, canyons and sky, which we assumed went on forever and we owned. Environment as a resource was only concerned with economic determinism. No ideas of preservation, only the concept of a bottomless well. This is not castigation – it’s genuinely difficult to appreciate the past in its own time. During and after the Dust Bowl we couldn’t eat, and we recognized the fact that we couldn’t produce enough food on our farms. So we reacted, and brilliant technicians solved the problem, based on what we knew at the time.

There was no ecology, no environmental science much less any larger systems view as to how these elements of plantary ebb and flow worked together. And so the shift to industrial agriculture worked; we grow food in copious volume. It’s hard to argue down successful ventures.

But that’s exactly what we must be able to do, in a sense, in order to transition to something other than a catastrophe based on the multiple negative externalities that have been produced as a result of our great success. And they have been great. But now in possession of a greater consciousness – we can perceive the problems our actions create. Plus, as it is easy to see, we know much, much more, about our planet, our problems and our solutions. We know the problems are far more complex than is navigable with conventional responses. The non-safety, non-economic externalities are the ones that have caught up with our grand abilities to provide and prosper, which is why these are should be the first things to be brought into question, upon honest appraisal. Instead of twitching at the notion of lower inputs, we’ll have to bore into it with all we have and then some.

As a colleague said to me on this very note, “the science that got us into this situation will not be able to get us out.”