Saturday, 19 September 2009

Farming, society, technology and the economy.

I spent a large part of the day sitting in the gallery in Tanunda.  It was great to see the paintings that I’d hung a couple of weeks ago.  They are spectacular in their size, and they are hung in a dim gallery with light shining on the paintings only,  all around the sides... this makes the whole experience quite different... one feels surrounded by a whole new environment... especially when the dimensions of these works are so large.  The biggest one is seven and a half metres long and nearly three metres high...  the scale is wonderful... this is not surround sound,  this is surround art.

While sitting in the gallery, and between customers,  I have been reading my “new” book about soil and how modern farming has destroyed it.  (“The Soil and Health”  by Albert Howard, 1947)

The whole natural system has been in some kind of equilibrium for thousands (perhaps millions) of years.  In the past,  this included people and and their work in the same way that other organisms are a part of the ecosystem.   Humans used to obtain energy from food and expend that energy as work, and like any other animal,  this needs to be in equilibrium.  

Albert Howard writes about the soils of England, and how they have been managed (or mismanaged) since the time of the Roman invasion. Before that invasion, farming had been relatively simple and more akin to subsistence farming of primitive peoples.  The Romans needed to produce vast crops of wheat for their soldiers.  This exhausted the soil.  Forests and marshland were cleared to grow more wheat. Fertility was reduced.

Later the Saxons introduced an open field system of farming in which farmers were required to produce extra food and income for taxation.  Each season the fertility used up in growth needs to be made good before the next crop is sown. All waste needs to be returned to the soil.  When compared with modern methods,  the yield is low, however, it is possible to maintain equilibrium, tilling the same land for many years.  There are examples (in India and China) where, in the past,  land has been cultivated over many generations without a reduction in fertility over many generations.  Even the methods of ploughing were less destructive to the soil than modern machinery appears to be.  Soil  inverting ploughs allow the oxidation of humus in the soil and the consequent reduction in fertility.   Estimates of fertility come from the number of bushels per acre of grain produced.

By the time of the middle ages,  the food supply was insufficient to maintain the health of the population.  There was unrest, disease and finally, the plague, an the population was reduced significantly.  Because of the lack of labour, much of the land was returned to grazing.  Soils regenerated and the increase in population and affluence attributed to the Tudor period in England may well have been associated with improved soil fertility.

Increasing population again led to the enclosure of lands and after the English revolution,  the landed gentry controlled the land, raised crops and livestock and became wealthy.  There was also a move to plant more trees to supply timber for shipbuilding.  This served also to improve the fertility of the soil.   A significant change during this time was for farming to cease to be a “way of life”,  but a means of acquiring wealth.  People who did not own land were compelled to work for wages or move to towns and earn money to survive.

The industrial revolution was produced by these people who were living in cities and towns.  Wastes from these city communities were diverted, at great expense.  There were additional demands for agricultural production also.  The price of wheat was regulated for many years so that workers and industrialists could afford to export their production at a profit.  Eventually,  in 1845, there was a disastrous harvest and a potato famine.  The price control was removed.  Farmers were no longer protected from price “crashes” either and when  a good year came,  their income was reduced.  Farmers found new ways to farm intensively.  Artificial fertilisers such as sodium nitrate and superphosphate came into use.  Feed was imported for livestock.  There was a period of prosperity that lasted until the great depression of 1879.

With competition from the “new world” and falling prices,  farming became less economically viable, the NPK mentality had replaced the “muck” mentality of previous generations.  Food production became costly, and food production was reduced until the outbreak of the second world war (and the submarine) threatened national starvation again.  After years of minimal tillage, there were stores of fertility in the soil, and grain crops were grown to feed people in Britain.  The production of agricultural products for profit and the need to exploit the soil has led to the destruction of soil fertility on a colossal scale.  

This exploitation of fertility is a transfer of past capital, and of future possibilities, to enrich a dishonest present.  The author (Howard) considers this is a particularly mean form of “banditry” because it involves robbing of future generations that are not here to defend themselves.

Nature supplies sufficient for primitive societies to survive, with only very small margins for error and very little surplus production.  However,  farmers are able to earn more profit by selecting a small variety of plants and animals and make these produce more intensively, often as monoculture.  This pursuit of quantity at all costs is dangerous in farming.  Lack of diversity in an ecosystem makes it vulnerable if conditions change.  All wastes need to be returned to the land.   Urban demand and the failure to return wastes to the land means a continual removal of fertility from the soil.  Having used up the fertility of the soil,  farmers have then gone on to transfer the stored up natural wealth from thousands of miles away...  guano, animal feed and manures, some of which has taken thousands of years to accumulate.  Fossil fuels that have taken millions of years to accumulate have been almost exhausted within 100 years or so.

In more modern reading,  Vandana Shiva (Soil not Oil, 2008) has discussed the three crises that we are facing... climate, energy and food.
She points out that the use of oil has produced climate change but that as this comes to an end (we are already experiencing unstable markets at peak oil) we will need to reinvent society, technology and the economy.

Physical work has been seen as degrading and replacing people’s effort has been seen as liberating them.  However robbing people of their productive capacity is not liberating, and there is no dignity in being treated as disposable.  

As we move beyond oil, it is necessary to bring people back into the economy and make human energy productive.   Making people redundant and replacing their work with energy from fossil fuel is not sustainable.  It is necessary to make changes to society, technology and the economy.

I hope that the transition to sustainable communities is treated with more urgency than it was in 1947.  However, when I read the work of these two authors,  it seems that, more than sixty years apart,  they are advocating the same changes to society, technology and the economy in order that we might live sustainably in our ecological niche.   This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s line “When will they ever learn?”

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