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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Friday, July 12, 2013

Where do you think you're going, humanity?

Yesterday, my wife and I went to see "One night with Janis Joplin" at the Zach Theater in Austin.  Kacee Claton looks and sings eerily like Joplin.  Janis Joplin was a bright comet that lit up the skies decades ago and combusted in front of our eyes wide-shut.  Fifty years later, we continue to bask in Joplin's light and wipe off tears when she touches us with her raw emotions and makes love to all of us.  The timeless Janis Joplin, who tragically died when she was barely 27, is the essence of what a human can give to others, including her loneliness and drug addiction.

For decades, Joplin's Cry Baby, has echoed in my head whenever I think about the wounds humans have been inflicting on this Earth of ours.  But why are we stumbling down a slippery path of environmental destruction that must lead to an inevitable collapse of modern civilization?  My explanation is that most people have a wrong frame of reference.  For example, what is the essence of agriculture? As Martin Heidegger has taught us, the essence of technology is non-technological.  Therefore, the essence of agriculture must also be non-agricultural.  We think of agriculture as a human technology, a meta-machine that uses nature as one of the inputs, and spits out the desired products we see and the environmental destruction we don't.

In fact, Monsanto's model of agriculture is one of a giant, super-efficient machine that uses nature as an invisible substrate for the carefully engineered plants.  Monsanto researchers are playing God with nature.  Nature of course runs circles around Monsanto's technocrats, who are dripping with hubris.  Bacteria, fungi, viruses, phages, weeds, worms, and insects will inevitably have the last laugh at Monsanto's clumsy attempts to control them while ignoring nature. But when they all dance on Monsanto's cold dark grave, you and I and our children will be the collateral damage.

And what is technology?  In its essence, technology challenges and reveals the Earth, teaches Heidegger.  Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew.  Everywhere, everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for further ordering.

Technology is a standing reserve of energy for humans to order and consume nature.  In turn, warns Heidegger, humans are ordered and consumed by the technology they have created and naively think can control.  Can you see how agriculture and agrofuels are embedded into this metaphor?

When we think about machines, most people envision the fossil-fuel-driven motors, cars, and such.  These machines are quite efficient. So when agriculture is thought about as a machine, by extension we endow it with a similar efficiency.  Because of many complex factors, this notion of efficient agriculture ordering nature to give us energy is false. In truth, agriculture is a pitifully inefficient means of converting solar energy, carbon dioxide, inorganic nutrients, and water into biomass. What agriculture lacks in efficiency it makes up by taking over the giant swaths of the formerly most nutritious Earth.  

Hill slope erosion.
To make things worse, for anyone who has seen an agricultural crop being harvested from a field, it is difficult to accept that to be sustained this field needs to be completely renewed each year.  This was true for a few thousand years on the rice paddies of China.  They were continuously renewed by hand-carrying the washed out soil and shells and dead fish back to the fields.  Women carried this soil in baskets on their backs. Natural fertilizers, ash from the stoves, even old clothing, were all recycled back to the fields.  Not anymore. Today we pour mineral fertilizers and chemical poisons on the huge fields that are impossible to manage with human labor alone.  The once fertile soil resembles sterile dirt, a substrate for the artificially fed plants, easy to wash away by rain and blow to dust by wind.

Is it possible to switch to a more sustainable agriculture?  Yes.  And that agriculture would have to span much smaller scales and have people, animals, and small infrastructure intermixed with it.  For the time being, as you watch your favorite TV distraction, or focus on the Royal Baby, this life-giving planet of yours is being trashed in front of your eyes wide-shut.

If you want to see what is in store for our children, observe the Middle East and North Africa, the harbingers of things to come for most of us. Also, parts of north and northeast China are becoming hellish polluted deserts, where no one lives too long.

Are you still sure you know where you are going?