Industrial Harvest

The Assumption by Ben Walker
March 21, 2010, 10:25 am
Filed under: solutions & positive steps, Uncategorized

Posted By: Ben, a.k.a. HINTERHEARTH
These first couple posts might seem somewhat inappropriate in their lack of wheat-related content, but, after staying up many nights mulling it over, I realized that they were necessary as introductions to the astoundingly broad historical context of this familiar foodstuff, and so to its contemporary relevance to conversations of sustainability and social change. So with the hope that said introductions are interesting, and with the promise that I will indeed blog on wheat extensively in posts to come, I begin.

In any analysis that is as wide-ranging as I dream of this project being, it is especially important to be up front about our assumptions. As specific people having specific experiences within specific cultural contexts, it is unwise to imagine ourselves capable of espousing a view that is objective or unbiased in any absolute sense. This is not to imply some flaccid relativism in which it is hopeless to make any attempt to inform and guide our behavior. There exists plenty of room, and plenty more need, for a sort of relative objectivity, within which we do our very best to pay mind to the dynamic tension between such polar notions as subjective and objective, relative and absolute. This in-between space is where real life happens, and as real live people, the ideas we shape must be concrete enough to act by, but flexible enough to re-examine. In our writing and our framing of further discussions, we will necessarily make some broad assumptions, not in an attempt to assert their incontrovertible truth, but to suggest their relevance to a workable understanding of the world we live in.

The most basic assumption underlying this work we are beginning has to do with the relationship between humans and the environment in which and from which they live. It deals, both initially and finally, with but one general pattern of interaction between people and their surroundings. We may use any number of descriptors for this pattern; industrial/post-industrial, global-capitalist, First World, modern/post-modern, Western civilized, fossil-fueled, and so on (to say nothing, at the moment, of patriarchy or euro-centricity). On the scale of our history as a species, it is very recently emerged and revolutionary in its break from many of the paradigms that were central to all previous modes of human living. Of the most interest is a shift from dependence on what can be described as “current” solar energy (sunlight recently embodied in the tissues of plants and animals, or as usable currents in the atmospheric cycles and patterns of water and wind) to “fossil” forms of solar energy (sunlight trapped through photosynthesis millions (oil) to hundreds of millions (coal) of years ago, and preserved and concentrated through geologic processes. Natural gas fits here too). These fuel sources don’t by any means account for all of the energy used by this society, but their unique qualities, particularly those of oil, have contributed to many of its distinctive features, and present us with some of the most immediately troublesome consequences of extensive use.

In seeking the broadest and most appropriate general consensus from which to begin, we align ourselves with the diverse critiques calling into serious question the sustainability of this form, based both on its dependence upon nonrenewable resources, and the widespread degradation and destabilization of crucial natural systems that have accompanied its spread, which, in all likelihood, will amplify into the future. We also recognize, and stress, that resource renewability and ecological integrity, though tremendously important, are not by any means the only measures of the sustainability of a society. Social justice in all its dimensions is a topic that deserves at least as much consideration, and not as a separate issue to be considered alongside environmental concerns. As I’ll explore in my next post, the ways in which human beings relate to each other are inextricably connected to the ways in which they relate to the non-human world.

Initially, however, we’ll frame our assumptions in the expansion upon those general environmental themes: We assume that if the current patterns of industrialized society continue, then at some point, either the nonrenewable energies or the basic ecological functions on which it depends will be sufficiently depleted or degraded as to imperil billions of lives, if not the entirety of humanity. Though it doesn’t do justice to the localized complexities of this situation, there are some initial advantages to an outlook that is so decidedly abstract and global in scope.

The foundations of modern scientific thought that make such a vast and powerful viewpoint possible, that enable individual human beings to recognize the thread of relatedness that connects their day to day activities with processes that affect the fate of the entire planet and the lives of future generations, have been laid within the unfolding of the very civilizational forms that we are calling into question. Any serious inquiry into alternative paths requires an examination that presses beyond a superficial understanding of our crisis of civilization and challenges the deep-held assumptions and societal patterns that have marked its progression. It is on these grounds that we hope for this project to take root; in a simultaneous reckoning and rediscovery through which we confront the legacy of human destruction and domination with one hand, and embrace with the other the rich possibilities for cooperation and sustainability with which that legacy has been intertwined throughout our history and into the present.


1 Comment so far
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nice post, Ben!
It seems pretty common, and dare I say, natural to assume that that these huge systems of exchange / commerce / etc (of which the Board of Trade is one) were destined to be the way they are now from the beginning – but when we look at the changes that have taken place over the last 150 years it’s possible to see that things could have evolved quite differently. Our civilization has been shaped by unintended consequences more than anything else, I think, and although this is typically lost to history, it’s something we can’t ignore as we think about alternatives – especially in regard to social and global justice. The impact of biofuel requirements on corn prices in Mexico / deforestation in Madagascar is a great example of a reluctance to deeply think about the potential consequences of an action (to the point of willful ignorance / indifference in this particular case) which may on the surface seem beneficial.

Of course, there’s also the very real problem that the future is tough to predict, especially with the tangled web of global environmental / political / social / economic factors pushing and pulling on each other. The precautionary principle is great in theory, but taken to an extreme it could encourage a do-nothing approach in order to avoid harm, when the greatest harm may be in failing to respond. Looking back on the events of the last several years, it seems more obvious that no one can see the future no matter how much data they have at their disposal, and most systems are more fragile than they seem.

Comment by sarah kavage

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