Patrick Burns, our friend and reader, can make an argument worthy of a terrier. His mind is unrelenting, unafraid to dig and always pressing home. While you may get in a bite or two, you’ll soon find all your exits blocked and him waiting with a snare. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you go unharmed.
Happily, Patrick is one of the good guys. He’s a champion of working dogs and a no-joke sporting gentleman of the old school. He is also an expert in public policy and a general polymath. He is several different kinds of the real thing.
But as a regular reader of his Daily Dose, I know our opinions collide at odd angles; and given the large field of our agreement, this always takes me a little off guard.
One of Patrick’s recent posts hit a particularly tender spot, right between my Wendell and Berry, you could say. In this essay (read it here and some of our discussion in comments), Patrick pulls the rug from under Michael Pollan by placing the blame for modern industrial agriculture (see: Food, Inc.) in our own laps.
Rather than the result of bad government policy and Big Ag greed, America’s disaster diet of corn syrup and soy protein is our own fault: to wit, we choose poorly in the supermarket aisles, clearly preferring processed foods over whole, and so driving the demand for Cheez-its.
Thus, says Patrick, we have our current system of vast protein and sugar monocultures, grown with fossil fertilizer in diminishing topsoil and harvested by an army of migrant foreign workers. We support it willingly with our wallets. Conversely, the organic revolution has very thin grass roots.
“And you know what? It’s not such a bad thing.
“So what if there is no longer ‘a season’ in America’s supermarkets? Why is it such a bad thing that folks can get lemons, oranges, melons and mangoes in winter?
“And why don’t we stop blaming America’s farmers and supermarkets for the fact that so many of us are fat and stupid?
“Each of us controls what we buy for food, and what we put in our own mouth.
“It’s time we stopped infantalizing ourselves and took responsibility for what we eat and how we look.
“The problem with the American diet is not in our fields, it’s between our ears; the same place it has always been.”
The delicious malevolence of Patrick’s arguments is part of their appeal.
But while it’s always fun to blame fat, stupid, and irresponsible Americans for our collective woes, it leaves us rather vulnerable if in fact the case is more complicated than that.
Bad government policy and corporate greed are at least as guilty for the pitiful state of American agriculture as is our own thoughtless consumerism. Together these forces have turned a healthy, decentralized agricultural system, comprised of millions of independent small land-holders, into an unsustainable colossus of profit and tradable surplus benefiting a tiny minority and imperial interests.
But here’s the thing: Regardless whom you choose to blame, the threats of the current food system to national security (of which “food security” is only a part) and to democracy are equally serious. Whether driven by personal gluttony or industrial greed, we are a weaker nation for our dependence on fossil fuel farming and our vast, vulnerable monocultures. We are a less democratic one for our corporate monopolies and centralized policies, and their collusion in the global economy.
Given a greater facility with the relevant data, I believe I could twist a few small concessions from Patrick. But like many apologists for the status quo, Patrick’s unassailable trump is: We can’t go back to schooners and candles!
“Why do we need to go to 19th Century production? To support Wendell Berry’s unsupportable romantic philosophy?”
“I love reading Wendell Berry, and I love his values, but as far as agricultural policy or economics, it is largely nonsense. Berry lives in Ketucky and works 125 acres with horses, and horses alone (no engines at all). Great. In my area, land is a million dollars an acre, and I don’t have 125 million dollars. Even in rural Virginia, land is $3,000 to $10,000 an acre, so Berry’s little farm would cost me somewhere between $375,000 and $1,240,000 for the land alone (no house). Berry is about 75 years old now. Question: who is going to hitch his horses when he is 80?
“…we no longer live in an era of schooners and candles, and the reason we had to get rid of the horses (and invent the car) was that we had no place to pasture them because there were too many humans in America and in the world. And guess what? We STILL don’t have the room to pasture all those horses of Wendell Berry’s.”
Patrick charts our course to the present as if it was inevitable and our path to the future as the product of continuing technological advances.
“…the good news here (and there is good news) is that we have TONS of energy (we always have had), in the form of solarpower, geo-cooling and heating power, tidal power, bio-gas fuels (ethanol and biodiesel), nuclear, stream and river power, wind power, coal, natural gas, methanol, methane hydrides, etc. There is no shortage of energy — only a bit of confusion as we decide which one is best for economics and sustainability. We are transitioning from oil to whatever, as we once transitioned from coal and wood to oil. There will be some bumps and burps, but we are getting there very fast, I think.
“As for fertilizer, there is no shortage of fertilizer: we get most of it from the air (nitrogen fertilizer plants can be put anywhere). We only use petroleum fertilizers because they are so cheap, and fertilizer is an easy byproduct of oil production. Once oil is gone, we will still have fertilizer so long as we have air.”
Yet where in these technological solutions do we find the necessary limits that will bring our own burgeoning population under control?
Patrick’s Number One concern (human overpopulation) is handicapped by his faith in endless technological progress. Fueling our growth economy with supposedly unlimited nuclear, solar and geological energies will do nothing, by itself, to stem the tide of human growth. It can only support it.
I suppose that in such a scenario, wise government policy will provide the guiding hand and necessary check on human expansion. Very smart people can no doubt imagine successful schemes to contain bulging populations, move or omit them from certain areas, settle their disputes and keep them fed. And when the last possible nuclear-powered house butts against the last acre of farmland, I’m sure we’ll switch to processed kelp, or colonize Mars.
I admit to wishful thinking about a world of schooners and candles. I do. And I make my coffee in a stove-top percolator, ride a bicycle to work and hunt rabbits with a trained hawk. I am a guilty romantic. I am guilty also of using a computer to make this statement and relying on coal-fired electricity to put it before you. Like my blog partners and many of our readers, I straddle a fence between two worlds.
But in one of these worlds lies the possibility for life in abundance, for a life compatibly in context of the place in which it was created. In the other I see only a life in constant conflict with its own setting—one that can’t be satisfied without more concrete.
I’m not going to win this one. I know it. The terms of a fight are dictated by the stronger hand; the winning side here speaks in quantifying figures (measurements, percentages and money) while the losing side values qualities impossible to enumerate. The true champion of the losing side is not Michael Pollan nor even Wendell Berry but rather John Milton. And he’s been dead for 335 years.