State of Stuck

March 24th, 2012 by Christian Ford

When it comes to the production of food, we have a problem.  Succinctly, we get our food from a system that strip-mines the ecosystems that produce the food.  The damage we do — to the oceans, to the limited land that we call “arable,” to the atmosphere that keeps it all alive — reduces the ability of those ecosystems to produce food.   We compensate for that reduced ability with ever larger inputs of petrochemicals, which become more expensive by the year.

Unsustainable is the word that captures this, but “unsustainable,” too, has proven to be unsustainable, becoming nearly meaningless through overuse.  Nevertheless, let’s squeeze out one more harvest.

To sustain is to continue.  So, when something is unsustainable it will, by definition, no longer continue.  That is, sooner or later, it will stop.  Like Monty Python’s ex-parrot, it will cease to be.

In some ways, the ceasing will be a good thing.  This is, after all, a system that manages the bewildering feat of leaving a billion lethally thin, while simultaneously making a billion fatally fat… which I guess is what happens when your food-production system is really a global money-concentration system that uses food for that purpose.

Call the current system unsustainable or immoral, but whatever you do, don’t call for its replacement, because if you do you’ll be told that, even if industrial farming is imperfect, there’s no choice.  We have seven billion mouths to feed.  It’s a big job, and only Big Ag can do the heavy lifting.  So it’s real news when Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur (that means “investigator”) for the Right to Food, issues a report stating that sustainable agriculture can not only feed the world, but is the only way we’re going to keep feeding the world.

It’s not just him.  The UK, the University of Michigan, Worldwatch, and an increasing number of research and reports are all saying the same thing:  unsustainable agriculture is (surprise!) unsustainable and (real surprise) sustainable agriculture can get the job done.  This is hugely good news.

Theoretically.  Because, just like world peace and brotherly love, possible doesn’t equal inevitable.  Knowing the right thing and doing the right thing just aren’t the same thing, and that is the essence of the State of Stuck.

Now, there are lots of reasons for stuck.  You could fix your attention on such manifestations of corporate rule as a “progressive” administration appointing a pesticide lobbyist as Chief Agricultural Negotiator — the face of US Agriculture to the world.  Or you could, without breaking a sweat, conjure an accurate image of greedy and inhuman executives calling the shots at titanic agribusinesses.  But as real as those problems are, they’re really just components of the actual problem, which is the “system” itself.

System, like sustainable, is one of those important words drained of meaning by misuse.  A system, in the words of pioneering system theorist Donella Meadows, is a “set of things,” plants, animals, objects, machines, what have you “…interconnected in a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”   Societies are systems, like economies, bicycles and airplanes, diseases and farms.  It’s a complex and frequently counterintuitive field of study, but for our purposes, these are the key things to know:

1. Systems have purpose; all those parts working together to do something.

2.  Systems frequently cause their own behavior; often that behavior isn’t what you wanted or expected.

3.  Any functioning system works to perpetuate itself.

Translated to the global food system, this means:

1. When a system fails to properly feed 30% of its dependents, do you still think that its actual purpose is to deliver food?

2. Did anyone really plan that almost 90% of the (painfully subsidized) US corn crop would be fed to cows and cars?

3. It’s not going quietly.  Just because we might confront the global food system with evidence of its misdeeds, doesn’t mean that it’s going to evaporate in a puff of corn syrup smoke.  Rather, it’s going to do what all systems do — use its resources to ensure that it continues to function.

From the human side of the equation, the problem of a system that won’t go even when its number is up is called Path Dependence.  The keyboard that I’m typing on is a classic example.  As you may know, the QWERTY keyboard was specifically designed to slow the typist.  The reason was that the mechanisms of early typewriters couldn’t keep up with typists and the consequently, the keys would frequently jam.

That jamming mechanism was history by the 1930s, and there was a superior layout designed and demonstrated.  But QWERTY wouldn’t die, because there was a system — that no one built — composed of secretarial academies, typewriter manufacturers, the International Commercial Schools Contest, employment agencies and so on.  This nameless system had the function of perpetuating the QWERTY keyboard even in the face of the overtly superior Dvorak layout.  It’s an interesting system, because it outlived the typewriter makers and the secretarial schools and kept right on going into the computer age.  That is, it adapted over time by using different constituents to continue to fulfill its purpose.

So there’s a benign instance of Path Dependence (or maybe not-so-benign when I think of how long it takes me to type up one of these pieces vs the world record holding typist who hit speeds of 212 words per minute using a Dvorak keyboard.)  But Path Dependence isn’t always benign, as is hinted at by its nickname, “lock-in.”

Our food system lock-in is immense.  We have reshaped the earth, cleared forests, moved rivers; the scale is so big you can see it from space.  Gargantuan flows of money — the function of this system, recall — move through a global network that is enforced and protected by a web of political, financial and legal entities and laws.  Then, of course, there’s the treadmill aspect of it all, because you can’t just shut the whole thing down while you retool it.  No, the train needs to be rebuilt from the wheels up while it’s in motion and we’re all passengers.

At every level, there are people and corporations (successors to those typewriter manufacturers and secretarial schools) who are dependent for their economic survival on the survival of this system that, by definition, won’t survive.   Sinclair Lewis was talking about lock-in when he said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

This is where lock-in gets genuinely scary, when it sets up shop between our ears.  When Olivier de Schutter says low-energy, low-inputs sustainable agriculture is the way of the future, most people see the past.  They conjure up all those things that we know from the history books, of the uncertainty of farming, of the famines, of the backbreaking labor.  In short, our imaginations lurch from the 21st Century directly to the 19th, as though the rejection of our current industrial farming system can only mean going backwards.  In other words, there was no other way forwards besides the one that we took.   That, is lock-in, when a system is so psychologically internalized that it fundamentally controls our ability to so much as imagine different possibilities.

That’s a curious thing because, even if it was our goal to exactly replicate the world of 19th Century agriculture, we couldn’t do it.  Some of that knowledge has been lost.  And we wouldn’t do it, because an astonishing body of knowledge has also been gained.  Agriculturally, we know a hell of a lot more than our pre-industrial-ag ancestors.  I wouldn’t say we’re smarter, because to be smarter you’ve got to know more and use it.  But the knowledge is there, waiting.

The global food system we’ve got was built with brute force.  It’s difficult to imagine (which phrase, by the way, is an indicator that another lock-in is roaming the neighborhood) just how much raw power the oil age has put at our fingertips.  If you do the math to determine what it would take to run the average American lifestyle with manpower instead of oil power, you’ll find that our households are way too small.  Each person in America uses about 25 barrels worth of oil every year.  Converted to “energy slaves” that gives you 204.  That’s 204 adults working full time, full out to produce the power we effortlessly tap by flipping switches and turning keys.  (That 204, by the way, is five times the number of actual slaves it took to operate actual 19th Century agriculture in the Old South.)

If all that’s just too much math, then try pushing your car for a block and then think about how much oomph is in that tablespoon of gas it would have taken to drive.

So, power.  Lots and lots of power.  And there seems to be an inverse correlation between how much power you have at your disposal and how clever you are.  In other words, power makes you dumb.

For example:  the Viking Longship.  Seventy to 120 feet long, about 20 feet wide, capable of crossing oceans and terrorizing entire civilizations.  Now here’s an interesting fact — well, actually, I was dumbfounded by it.  The vikings made those boats without saws.  So tell me, dear reader, how on earth do turn trees into boats, especially these boats, without a saw?

To us, a saw is a tool.  A viking would have better understood just how much power was embedded in such a thing.  The men hacking the ore out of the earth, the oxen hauling it to the smelter, the trees felled and chopped to fire the furnaces, more wood and more manpower to forge the thing, and then hours of labor to cut teeth into the blade.  For a sword?  Worth it.  For a saw that would become dull before finishing the first plank…?

No.  Only a fool would waste so much effort and power when you could be smart instead.  The vikings saved their saws for details and did the big work by riving.  The word is almost as extinct as the knowledge it refers to; it means to split green (fresh) wood in the direction of the long fibers.  In other words, if you’re a viking, you can chop down a tree and casually split it into the boards that you assemble into your longship, actually steering the splits to control the thickness of each plank.  Now that, in my book, is genuinely wily.  Use a minimum of force, exploit the tree’s inherent weakness for ease of construction and inherent strength for maximum utility and when you’re done, discover North America hundreds of years before Columbus.

So when the Special Rapporteur tells us to get on the sustain train before the old one runs off the rails, I have real hope.  We have as a foundation, things such as the Farmers of Forty Centuries, the pre-industrial Chinese tradition of agriculture which worked the same plots for  4,000 years without exhausting the soil.  And we’ve got a wealth of modern understanding about how to do the same thing using all sorts of different techniques: permaculture, polyculture, terraquaculture, agroforestry, bio-intensive, forest gardening, the list goes on.  In short, we have all the mental tools needed to make this change and when we’re done, we won’t all be in bondage in the fields;  the few intrepid forest gardeners are feeding themselves with only 20 days of work per year.

But then, the Dvorak keyboard was there, too, with Barbara Blackburn banging out sustainable speeds of 150 words per minute, and nothing changed.

One day last spring, I watched lock-in actually put an expression on a man’s face.  It happened on a dock in Seattle where people had come to see a gathering of wooden boats. A local boat builder was answering questions about the lovely example he’d made.  It was a lapstrake boat, made the same way the vikings made their ships.  An onlooker asked the reasonable question of how, exactly, do you make identical pairs of sixteen foot long planks with flawless curves of continuously changing radius?  He ended with question with, “the computer cuts them?”

Now the thing is, the computer does cut things like that all the time.  CNC (“computer numerically controlled”) machining does astonishing stuff, cutting with blades, with lasers, even with high pressure waterjets.  Our world is littered with CNC handicraft.  You can, in fact, even get a “kit” of a lapstrake boat, the planks cut to shape by CNC.

But that wasn’t the case here.  “No,” the builder said matter-of-factly.  “You shape them by hand.”

That’s when lock-in came out of hiding.  A moment of uncertainty on the man’s face: Did I hear that right?  Then a smile, self-conscious:  Have I made a fool of myself?  And then, a very strange thing, a kind of confident doubt:  “Okay…”

He didn’t believe it.   I’m sure he didn’t think anyone was lying.  But what he’d just been told and what he knew was possible — they simply didn’t connect.  His experience was the experience of almost all of us, of the world of brute force, where machines do all the things that are complex, or difficult or important.  Looking at that boat — a boat that he had an ambition in making himself — his imagination couldn’t bridge the distance to the place where a person could accomplish such a thing.

Lock-in kills imagination.  It shrinks the horizon, winnows the future to variations of the present.   It’s the system’s most potent weapon of self-preservation, because the greatest threat to any system is a change in paradigm, the basic, unquestioned thoughts about how things work.  It’s one of the reasons that fundamental change frequently arises from disaster.  When stability and order go to pieces, they usually take the reigning paradigms down with them.  Lock-in takes a hike, and imagination is suddenly pressed into service back in its original role, as a survival mechanism, a way of thinking new thoughts and finding doors that you never knew were there.

Of course, we don’t need to wait for cataclysm to unshackle our imaginations.  We could decide to let them roam recklessly, just for fun.  We could spend one day a week assuming that everything we assume doesn’t have to be.  It’s only imagination.  What harm could possibly come from thinking the two words that the global food system never, ever wants to hear.

What if…?


Typewriter by Matt Stratmoen
The Gokstad Ship via Wikipedia
Obesity System by pushandplay
Ceramic System by Matthew McConnell

Tags:  Food Culture 
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