Archive for May, 2012

Our Food System’s Equation

Posted: 30 May 2012 in Uncategorized

This post was published in The Ellul Forum in 2010.  It was not available for free until recently.  I still think it is relevant and I am glad to share it here as Congress begins another round of discussions on the US Farm Bill.  You may not heard of Jacques Ellul (I quote him from time to time in this blog) and this will provide only a basic introduction to a small sliver of his thoughts.  It has some general interest parts and some Christian theological stuff (not for all tastes!)

Our Food System’s Equation:

Inattention to Ends + The Imperative of Technique =

Prodigious Food Producing Capacity and Food Insecurity for Hundreds of Millions

Inattention to Ends:

The first enormous fact that springs from our civilization is that today everything has become means.  There are no more ends.  We no longer know towards what we are heading.  We have forgotten our collective goals.  We have enormous means and we put into place prodigious machines in order to arrive nowhere . . .[1]

The Imperative of Technique:

[Reason] . . . takes account of the fixed end of technique–efficiency.  It notes what every means devised is capable of accomplishing and selects the ones that are the most efficient. . . . Thus the multiplicity of means is reduced to one: the most efficient.[2]

Prodigious Food Producing Capacity:

Earl “Rusty” Butz, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture . . . revolutionized American agriculture, helping to shift the food chain onto the foundation of cheap corn.

Butz made no secret of his agenda: He exhorted farmers to plant their fields “fencerow to fencerow” and advised them to “get big or get out . . .” [He] began replacing the New Deal system of supporting prices through loans, government grain purchases, and land idling with a new system of direct payments to farmers. . . .

[T]he new subsidies encouraged farmers to sell their corn at any price, since the government would make up the difference . . .  Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow–and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn.[3]

Food Insecurity for Hundreds of Millions:

Progress was made in reducing chronic hunger in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.  For the past decade hunger has been on the rise.[4]

FAO estimates that 1.02 billion people are under-nourished worldwide in 2009. This represents more hungry people than at any time since 1970 and a worsening of the unsatisfactory trends that were present even before the economic crisis. The increase in food insecurity is not a result of poor crop harvest . . .[5]

Our Food System: What Ends?

As the foregoing quotes reveal, we live in a world that simultaneously produces an extraordinary amount of food and sees a billion human beings facing food insecurity (which is not equivalent, but related, to the concept of chronic hunger).  The reasons for this level of food insecurity are complex but an understanding of the pillars of food security reveals how it can exist in a world in which enough food is produced.  Food security, according to the World Health Organization, is a function of food being physically available where people live, of people having sufficient financial resources to access food and of their ability to actually utilize the food they consume.  This last point concerns whether a person’s body can adequately absorb the nutrition from food s/he eats if that person has parasites or other diseases that impede absorption.

Increasing food security, then, requires that a complex set of factors be present within communities and households of which increasing food quantity (globally) is only one.  This points to an initial challenge with our current global food system: it is largely focused on the “end” of producing more food.  In itself this end is not bad but is not really an “end” at all. Rather it is a means to another end–food security.

The theme of “ends” runs through much of Jacques Ellul’s writing and he summarized its relation to technique in a series of interviews with William Vanderburg of the Canadian Broadcasting Network:

Technology[6] is the extreme development of means. Everything in the technological world is a means and only a means, while the ends have practically disappeared.  Technology does not develop toward attaining something.  It develops because the world of means has developed, and we are witnessing an extremely rapid causal growth.  At the same time, there is a suppression of meaning, the meaning of existence, the meaning of “why I am alive,” as technology so vastly develops its power. (1981, p. 50–emphases in the original)

The fact that our industrial food system is not oriented towards the “end” of increasing human food security, leads to a number of pernicious effects, one of which is the use of food for other “ends” besides enabling human flourishing.  The commodification of food is a simple fact of our industrial food system and places food at the mercy of global trade and markets. So a natural question might be “what are the ‘ends’ to which markets are oriented?”  William Cavanaugh (2008) suggests this response:

In the ideology of the free market . . . [t]here are no common ends to which our desires are directed. In the absence of such ends, all that remains is the sheer arbitrary power of one will against another. Freedom thus gives way to the aggrandizement of power and the manipulation of will and desire by the greater power . . .

Where there are no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to choose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

That the market does not provide a sense of the ends to which our desires should be directed comes as no surprise, but what Cavanaugh argues is that many economists–and others–consider even questioning the ends of market exchanges as meaningless.  However, if markets cannot assure a reasonable allocation of a commodity necessary for human survival (as the quotes at the beginning of this article suggest they do not) then the question of ends in relation to those markets would seem very relevant indeed. (more…)

Spring’s Promises

Posted: 12 May 2012 in Robert's Farm


Social Sustainability: What is it? Who is its champion?

Posted: 11 May 2012 in Uncategorized

This blog post concerns local issue in my hometown. You might find something useful in the discussion of social sustainability however.

When the Davis Chamber PAC announced its City Council Candidate endorsements in late April, spokesperson Steve Greenfield noted that there are three legs of the concept of sustainability for vibrant community: social sustainability, environmental sustainability and economic sustainability. At the event Mr. Greenfield noted that the last leg—economic sustainability—was what businesses, and the Chamber PAC needed to focus on. Even though Mr. Greenfield did not define “sustainability” it is clear that he and the Chamber PAC were suggesting that a vigorous community is one that is able provide a broadly healthy environment for its citizens today AND have in place policies and practices that will enable the continual renewal of the resources necessary for a healthy community into the future.

Right at the outset I want to thank the PAC—and the business interests it represents—for taking on the challenge of defining and promoting dialogue around the idea of economic sustainability. More recent descriptions by its leadership group reveal that, to the PAC, economic development is not simply about economic growth but is concerned with other factors that foster good jobs, a safe city, good schools, etc. I look forward to further discussions about what economic development entails for Davis in this era and thank the PAC for helping to provide some leadership around the theme.

I assume that many of us have ideas around the meaning of environmental sustainability even if we do not agree with all the details about how to achieve it. Clearly, in our local environment issues of air, water and land quality would be central to any discussion of environmental sustainability because any one of them can be squandered, misused and, therefore diminish in quality and quantity over time. I will say no more about this subject except to note that it would seem that organizations like the Sierra Club or the Cool Davis Initiative would be natural “champions” for this “leg” of sustainability.

But what of “social sustainability?” What is it and who are its natural champions? While many of us have likely had conversations about economic and environmental sustainability (whether we framed them as discussions about sustainability or not), how many of us have thought or talked about social development, conserving the social fabric of our town or what it means to create a socially sustainable town? And yet, I would concur with the Chamber PAC that it is a critical leg for a stable and vigorous community.

I would like to open a discussion about the meaning of social sustainability by suggesting three key elements of a socially healthy community and close with a question about who is/are the natural champion(s) of social sustainability (as Cool Davis is for environmental sustainability or the Chamber PAC is for economic sustainability). My purpose is to suggest some elements and solicit ideas from others so we can think about this critical element of our community’s health.

I would suggest that a socially healthy (and sustainable) community is one that

1) Actively engages in creating and building social capital—especially “bridging” capital.
2) Creates dialogue spaces in which complex issues can be respectfully explored together.
3) Develops and uses an array of conflict transformation mechanisms to deal with the inevitable (and I will argue welcome) conflicts that arise in any community. (more…)

These are not idle hands.  They are not the hands of privilege.  They are not the well-manicured hands of ease.

They are the hands pecked by protective hens as eggs are gathered from beneath them.  They are the hands that turn off irrigation water valves at 3 AM–plunged into the icy  mud to find the faucet.  They are the hands turned numb from pounding stakes to coax tomato plants to strive towards the sun.  They are the hands turned green from hacking out weeds by hand (organic means no chemicals).  They are the hands with dirt under the nails from plunging peat pots with their potential bounty of melons into the ground.

They are the hands of the family farmer.

They are hands we should shake–not the “cold fish” handshake of mere acquaintances–but the firm two-hand gripping kind of handshake reserved for those whom we love and respect.  They are hands we should kiss and caress. Hands we should hold in our own–press to our hearts.  These are the hands that feed us.

But they don’t just feed us.  Oh no.  They feed us while shepherding spare resources so that our children’s children’s children can benefit from the land that brings forth the bounty that benefits us all today.  They are the hands that stand in the breech between our hunger and our hope.

They are the hands we mangle, bite, shred and destroy even as we claim to care deeply about our brothers and sisters in the fields where they labor.

I know of a farm. I know of a farmer. His love for his land constrains his every decision.  I know a farmer who grows tired and maimed from the labor required to build a future-endowed farm.  I know a farmer’s wife who struggles to hold down two, three and four jobs to do the farm work, help pay the bills and figure out a way to provide medical care for the inevitable injuries and breakdowns that come with sustainable farm practices.

Ah yes… I know a farming family that may be undone because they cannot get the basic healthcare they need.

And I know the demagogues and the powerful of our land who trust that this inhuman thing we call the “unfettered hand of the market” will fill the need for health care that will keep the farming family supplied with the basics when a bone breaks, a respiratory ailment flares (farming is dusty work) or when old age causes all manner of failing systems. And I know others who tire of transferring their plenty (the burden of wealth is hard work) to ones such as these so the latter can continue to do that thing they are uniquely gifted to do.  I know those who disdain the poor family farmer–who call him/her and all poor a “net drain” on society, who refer  him/her as having an “entitlement” mentality.

Look at their hands… Oh the things we do to those hands.