Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Story of B

I have encountered the writings of many incredible people over the past few years, but none resonate so greatly with my own view of humankind and what's wrong with it than the writings of Daniel Quinn. In short, his view is that there isn't anything wrong with humankind as a whole, but only with one particular culture: our culture. By "our culture," he is referring to intensive agricultural peoples, East and West. Very simply put, if you put more food into a population than it needs, that population will increase. Our lifestyle is designed to always produce more food than the population needs, so the population is constantly increasing. The problems we see today began thousands of years ago (not tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago), and are simply the result of overcrowding. The other problem is that we could see this for ourselves, if we didn't have such blind faith in our own system.

He suggests that what we need isn't simply a change in what we do; we need a change in the way we think. He doesn't know how the people that think in a new way will live, any more than the people who first began living our way could have predicted the way we live today. The change is that we need to stop thinking that we were created to conquer and rule the world, and that anything we do is excusable, and need to start living in a way that won't end up driving ourselves to extinction.

Unfortunately, this blog isn't flowing like water like I'd hope, so I'll cut to the chase.

Ultimately, the changes we need to make are no longer material changes, they are moral, spiritual changes. We have plenty of food. Indeed, over the whole population of humankind, we have always had plenty of food. How else could the human population have kept increasing as it had? Hunger, starvation, and famine are localized things, limited to specific classes which are denied food by other classes, or specific populations which are denied food by a localized crop failure, and a lack of other food sources to fall back upon.

In this day and age, there is simply no excuse for hunger. In the past, logistical difficulties could be considered an excuse—a food surplus in one place means nothing to a faraway land, due the difficulty of getting it there. But today, we have trains, trucks, airplanes, even spacecraft; there is no difficulty getting food from one place to another, when necessary. We don't need to increase production. We need, instead, to get the food where it needs to be. Probably the best way to go about this is to change the way we go about producing food.

Intensive agriculture is not good. It is probably one of the most pollutive activities we engage in, as my groundwater studying wife knows. It is an undiversified approach, meaning a crop failure is a total failure. When the whole land is covered in farmland and asphalt, a plant disease, a new insect pest, or anything that can cause a crop failure causes a famine.

Probably better is to localize food output more. Rather than relying upon "bread basket" areas to feed entire nations, perhaps we should find ways of getting more food out of other areas, and perhaps getting less food out of the "bread baskets." It might be good to leave more land completely uncultivated, so that, in the event of a crop failure, we can fall back upon the resources the wilderness provides, back on what little hunting and gathering can provide at least until a food shipment can be brought in.

Unlike Quinn, I do not consider the teachings of Jesus to be necessarily a part of the problem. Rather, I think that, were his teaching held to, we would not be in the mess we are in today. We and our ancestors hold to two different ideals: Do not murder, but love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Thus, it is okay to murder our enemies. Do not steal, but love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Thus, it is acceptable to steal from our enemies. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy—but Jesus directed us to love our enemies also! Do not murder—but Jesus directed us not even to think ill of our brothers! Do not steal—do not even covet the things of others.

Were our civilization truly a Christian civilization, we would not be in the mess we are in. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and Moses told the Jews not to steal, and yet we have stolen the land of every people we have ever encountered. Do not even curse your brother, Jesus said, and yet we have declared as unfit for life every person and every thing that is not directed toward the goal of maximum productivity. We continue to do this today—I have little doubt that the primary motivation behind the Iraq war was gaining control over their oil resources. Its the most likely reason Bush will not privatized the oil resources of Iraq: a government can always be pressured, but a private citizen can choose where he sells. The oil, owned by the government, can then be used to pay back debts to the United States, debts which, ultimately, are owed to the corporations the Bush family, and George W in particular (as well as the Saudis and Bin Ladens) have been entangled with for years.

I'm getting off the subject. If we would simply respect the property of others, we wouldn't be in this mess. We would never have reached the population level we have, because there are many cultures that actually prefer living the way they do, rather than maximizing food production. These people are inevitably swept away, though, because that which we cannot trade for we take by force.

Think about it. Back in the early days of the United States, treaties and land deeds were handed out to the native populations. Those treaties and land deeds were then ignored, and the natives expelled from their land. It wasn't ours, it was theirs, and we took it from them. If you believe in property rights, our ancestors had no right whatsoever to do as they did. It doesn't matter that they didn't know to draw up land deeds. Our land deeds merely record and specify land rights, they do not create them. The moral thing to do would have been to draw up a land deed for them, and then respected those deeds and demanded that others do the same. They would have been, of course, transferable, as all property is, and those that sold willingly (and the considerable wealth our culture generates would likely have been a considerable incentive), would not have been cheated. We'd probably still have considerable pockets of land where sustainable food production practices are practiced. There'd be no need for a national park system; they would be the national park system, where they didn't end up adopting our ways.

But, instead, we stole, and we continue to steal. There's something else we're doing today.

I recently heard a story about how a Native American population (in Canada or Alaska?) had to be relocated because the ice on the lake they normally went ice fishing on every year (a vital source of food for them) was no longer thick enough to support their weight. The culprit: global warming.

Now, suppose one of our own farmers noticed that his land wasn't producing the way it had in previous years. Suppose he discovered that the reason was that a nearby farmer was engaging in a practice that not only poisoned his own land, but the first farmer's, as well. He would have standing to file a civil suit against this other farmer, demanding that he cease his activities and/or pay reparations for his actions.

Yet we as a culture readily dismiss the claim that when our activities harm someone who is NOT of our people, it's not our problem. What is the difference, where justice is concerned? Is it that we are so callous and indifferent a people that, without judges and officers, we will quickly fall upon one another in a predatory fashion? That can't be the case, since we established those authorities in the first place.

Hah! My first real ramble in years. Now, where was I going with this?

Don't get me wrong. I think there is a place in the world for our style of civilization, I just don't think the entire world is that place.

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