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.