Denial, Avoidance & System Failure

Those of us who have toiled much of our adult lives in the world of alternative and sustainable agriculture sometimes feel like we’ve been dressed up for years to attend a party that has never arrived.  We get closer and closer, it seems, though the main event just doesn’t materialize. But even without the culminating experience we hope for and expect – a complete revolution in farming and food systems – we also know that its achievement is no less critical.

Problem is, there is no amount of empirical evidence or scientific analysis that can make a true revolution happen. Such input just piles up, as though behind some kind of socio-political dam until desperate situations can unleash the change that will flow down like rushing waters. The science itself can sometimes become part of that obstruction, preventing necessary change more than pushing it ahead as we’d like to believe.

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating – there has never been a time in human history when we’ve known so much about what must happen, yet remain so incapable of taking constructive steps toward a better future.  We see the tragic loss of topsoil and biodiversity around the globe, the rise of super-pests of all kinds, driven by technology unfettered with ethics, and the increasingly failed economic systems that enrich the barons of Big Food while leaving farmers quite literally “in the dust.” We see the rise of chronic illness corresponding to the nutritional diminishment of our food, and rural communities choosing to install prisons and landfills as “hopeful” strategies to achieve economic development. We see the condition of the natural environment changing right before our eyes, as we continue to invent increasingly efficient methods for extracting fossil fuels and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.  However, we can’t seem to muster the necessary determination to do anything broadly effective about any of this.

There are many reasons for our inability to act, but chief among them I believe are the related conditions of denial and avoidance that often get in the way of resolving many of life’s big dilemmas.  Denial can be a temporary and helpful response to trauma, a gift of nature that allows us to take on only the amount of stress we can withstand at any one time, though it can also become pathological in some chronic situations like addiction. Avoidance, however, is much more common, representing a more willful condition of ignorance and/or inaction in response to challenges that are surmountable, though perhaps tremendously inconvenient. Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this . . . civilization, as we know it, is currently afflicted with a lethal combination of chronic denial and willful avoidance that keeps the solutions we know to be tested and true relegated to the fringes of agricultural policy and practice.

So what can we do?  Well, there are many solutions that exist, evidenced by the array of workshops and conferences offered throughout the year by various sustainable farming organizations. The list is by now rather familiar, including the use of cover crops and crop rotations, biological or minimally invasive controls for all types of pests, grass-based systems of livestock production, innovative strategies for marketing, including especially expansion of local and regional market outlets, and many creative approaches for increasing biodiversity in food production worldwide.  Basically we can, and urgently need to, replace current practices with those we clearly understand to be more sustainable, and to engage in continuous improvement through additional research, experience and collaboration along the way.

I wish it was that easy, but denial is resistant to reason, and avoidance even more insidious due to its willful nature. And aside from outright violence, whether to a person or the planet, there is nothing more destructive in our lives together than these two regressive forces working together. We humans have a tendency to seek the path of least resistance, especially when confronted by enormous problems. Recognition of that tendency, and the need to overcome it, is at the heart of nearly every one of the world’s great religious traditions. But the outcome is never assured . . . human decision and action is always required to make things come out right, usually in conjunction with some type of divine or natural force that is leading the way.

It is clearly time, right now, for us as a world of civilized peoples, to access our collective potential for discerning, deciding and actively defending the future of life on this planet. This is not one of those once-in-a-decade calls for renewal of spirit and purpose. We are rapidly approaching the carrying capacity of the natural systems we depend on for sustenance and quality of life, and massive system failure is a very real and present possibility.

It is even difficult for me to write these words while thinking of my own children, who must live with the consequences of our decisions, or indecisions, within the very near-term future.  Such thoughts may seem alarmist, but I think everyone who reads this column understands that those of us involved with agriculture and food systems have a very big job to do, and failure is not an option we wish to contemplate.  The only question will be whether or not we can get past the denial and avoidance now blocking the way to collective action and success.

10 thoughts on “Denial, Avoidance & System Failure

  1. Brian, well written. I think that a large, contributing factor to both willful denial and willful avoidance is the power of money to influence: public (mis)perceptions, laws and commerce. As those with money (power) stop gmo-labeling, or try to create reasonable doubt in situations where there is none, etc., we the poor “voters” must take our food dollars and put them (voting) where the impact is best and greatest since that is the best weapon we have to counter massive public relations/advertising programs by Big Biz (whether Big Ag, Big Pharm, Big Energy, etc.). May this message get to those who need to hear it. And may it make an impact.

    • You are so right T.Lyle, though we cannot miss the fact that all of us are more or less addicted (goes along with denial) to a lifestyle that plays right into the hands of the Big Moneyed interests, i.e. one that presumes we can continue to use up resources faster than they can ever be restored or even compensated for in another way. At some point we have to just stop and turn the ship around, and big biz is never going to do that for us. As you point out, it starts as a personal decision for each and every person, which hopefully can become a groundswell in time to make a difference.

  2. Brian,
    Late reading this, but found it on point. Denial and avoidance are our biggest problems, the flip side of investment in faith in technology and progress. Unfortunately, we are not nearing, but way past the carrying capacity of the planet. Massive system failure is already happening, but it is happening unevenly, unequally and geographically sporadic. As we continue to draw down out future to pay for today’s excesses, the ultimate cost rises. Serious climate change is already locked in, although no one knows exactly how it will play out, serious meteorologists nave some ideas. None of us will be exempt.
    I had the privilege of hearing and chatting Dennis Meadows last week….one of the original co-authors of The Limits of Growth, which 40 years on, has been almost completely borne out by developments. Two things stuck with me — first that he said that he was very naive and had no idea that its original publication would be met with such a stonewall of denial (he was barely 30) and second, that since he now understands that we are too far along to choose the path that would avoid collapse, we know have to reset our thinking to how we keep some control over the way down.

    • Thanks for your comments Jerry. I tend to agree with your assessment, though am holding out some hope that we can still turn this ship around. As Wes Jackson says whenever he speaks these days “I am hopeful, but not optimistic.” I think the greatest source of hope remains the potential we have to use agriculture as a massive carbon sink, if only we can get past our denial and avoidance and move on to collective — and internationally coordinated — action.

  3. As usual, you are one of the most clear-headed and astute thinkers I have had the pleasure of reading. And a depressing scenario, to boot…being involved so full time at the forefront of our food/farming system sustainability fight, I can barely imagine what you must feel on a daily basis, standing at the foot of such a mountain. So much of one’s outlook is influenced by our perceptions of the whole (for better or for worse). How truly maddening indeed it is to face the complacency, ignorance, denial and avoidance of so many who are so close to each of us. The situation is what I sometimes call the activists dilemma: it’s so bad, the great temptation is to give up, or be consumed by anger. I try to pursue a path that might be described as humility and loyalty. Here on my little 25 acre farm in its infancy, working to build a community supported teaching kitchen (like 3 stone hearth in CA), and endeavoring to write about these experiences…are the substance of my loyalty and humility, as well as my contribution to dispelling ignorance, willful or otherwise. It might feel like a drop in the ocean sometimes, but as Mother Theresa (I believe) once said: “We cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love.” It is the cumulative effect of our collective actions that will win the day, (though almost certainly not to the degree we wish for in our lifetimes). I took great comfort from this concept expressed to our Ohio Herd Share Committee by Peggy Beals of Michigan, whose group, The Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Work Group collaborated for six years to achieve a policy change by the MI Department of Agriculture that officially recognizes herd shares without regulation.

    • Very nice comments, and thanks for the kind words! You are certainly right that we all have to start where are, in small ways, that can eventually add up to larger realities. But I’m afraid we’ll not make a big enough difference unless we can do something about the denial and avoidance ingrained in our political systems, so that restorative action on a larger scale can be possible, before it’s too late!

  4. Thank you for these words of wisdom! This piece couldn’t have been more timely for us. As new organic farmers we have been struggling lately to try and enlighten some of our immediate family about all the horrible things that are happening to our food. These are educated people but they want to believe their food comes from a store, and if its on the shelf it must be healthy and safe. They are the same people who will kick and scream when they feel they have been wronged by anything other than our food system. Complacency and denial are tough things to overcome but we keep trying and hoping that one day the light bulb will turn on.

    • Hang in there, and keep up the good fight! Our biggest enemy, it seems, is that tendency for people to believe that “what is” is right, simply because no one has moved aggressively to change it. What a horrible circular argument in favor of the status quo! We must resist that type of thinking, and it seems you are certainly doing your part in that effort.

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