Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.
As the 50-mile eat-local challenge winds down and we come closer to the annual Fall Fair, the end of summer looms on the horizon. Soon we will be in the thick of the wintertime: short wet days and long evenings and nights. Many people complain about the winters here on the coast, but I find it to be a good time of the year. The gardening and food preservation are done, everything is mulched, cover-cropped, or protected by a row cover from the relentless rains and cold winds. All the visiting and traveling slows down. It’s the time of year for retreating to the home, to the fireside, for the season of contemplation. Sometimes the summers here seem almost too frenzied, although once they start to fade into cooler and shorter days, you start to realize how many projects you somehow failed to get to. Oh well, you think, there’s always next year.
This summer felt like another watershed year for the local food movement. There was so much interest in the Edible Garden Tour that I’m already thinking about how to make it just that much bigger and better next year — without turning it into an unmanageable behemoth, just using it as a better way to bring people together around a shared interest in small-scale food growing. And my impression is that the Fruit Tree Project has grown considerably again this year: more fruit preserved; more people fed; less food wasted; and fewer bears led into temptation. The seed-saving pilot project sponsored by the Farmers’ Institute is coming to an end for this year, and it looks as though we’ll have plenty of carefully-raised local seed to share with the community at next year’s Seedy Saturday. The Garden to Table workshop series being sponsored through the Community Resource Centre in Powell River has been attracting good numbers of participants.
Recently, I was talking with someone about the upsurge in small-scale food production which is taking place not just here but all over North America. We were wondering to what extent this is motivated by awareness of peak oil or the frailty of the global food system; or by the economic downturn; or by less tangible motivations, such as a growing need to take control over parts of our lives which have been outsourced to corporations and gigantic impersonal systems. I’m not even sure that many of us could articulate our reasons for wanting to become more self-reliant. There’s a sense in which it’s just out there in the air we breathe these days: a feeling that the huge institutions which have taken care of our needs and wants are starting to fall into disrepair, joined with a fear that we have no clear Plan B for any of these, should they happen to fail. And the prospect of failure of the food supply is something that gets people moving pretty early.
I have noticed that there is a pretty rigid code of silence around the discussion of topics such as this. Even when you’re surrounded by like-minded people, it can be awkward to acknowledge that you are growing or storing food because you do not have complete faith in the future of the food supply. The urge to say nothing stems in large part from the power of the great myths which underlie the workings of the world we live in. One of the central ones for us is the myth of eternal growth. Somehow, against all rationality and in the face of everything we know about the natural world, we have come to believe that we can continue to keep growth going forever. Even when we accept we are pushed to the limit and we acknowledge that eternal growth is a fiction, we simply cannot see beyond the point where growth stops and becomes contraction. Nor can we imagine a society constructed around the idea of sufficiency or limit or moderation. A belief that there are limits to growth, and acting on that belief, are uncomfortable heresies best kept private.
In the domain of our food supply, this ethos of growth has led to a large and intricate system of production, processing, and transportation capable of managing the production of unimaginably huge quantities of staple foods around the world, getting them into a transportable and consumable form, and getting them to consumers. It’s a miracle of efficiency and productivity, so long as you don’t notice the waste and destruction hidden underneath the surface. There are real human and environmental costs associated with this system, costs which we mostly ignore — or, if forced to recognize them, we chalk them up to the usual minor inefficiencies that any large system will produce. And anyway, it’s not like we can see any real alternatives. Things grow. If something is good to begin with, then when it grows it’s better… right?
The goodness of Growth has become an almost unquestionable assumption at the base of our economy. Our economy is built on top of resource extraction and the production of goods carried out in the most rapacious and destructive manner, because to take anything less than everything is a sin against Growth. We cannot see how to get away from total resource extraction; if one company holds back in the interests of the environment, another will gladly step in and finish the job. The system of laws, norms, and social rules which define this culture have no way to express “less than everything”. And it’s not at all clear how, from within a culture of totalizing extraction and consumption, we can evolve a culture of sufficiency — one which can recognize limits and respect them in the interests of all people and other species. Some of us know we need to get there, but we can’t figure out how to get there from here.
I know that this doesn’t sound cheery. And this is another reason why we all find it hard to talk about these difficult truths. Who wants to be the ghost at the banquet? Not I. Not you. So we trundle onward, doing our best to question the foundational myths of a culture which shows every sign of heading off the rails, while trying not to question the small palliative measures which are acceptable enough to be rolled out in public (e.g., the “green economy”, “sustainable growth”, and so on), and feeling more and more alienated from a world built on top of what are intolerable and unsustainable practices.
It occurred to me recently, as I passed by one of our lovely local clearcuts, that one way we can more easily see the destruction caused by the normal workings of the growth economy is to ask the question: “If someone were doing this for free, what would we think of it?” Imagine that a community group sprang up whose purpose was to go out every weekend and cut down huge swathes of the forest in our back country. Would you join a social club which went out and dammed rivers just for the hell of it? How about raising funds so that we can contaminate the water supplies of First Nations communities with toxic chemicals? Maybe a telethon to send chemical fertilizers into the ocean where they will create an algae bloom visible from space? These are all repugnant ideas, aren’t they? Now if you imagine that these activities are carried out for the direct profit of a relatively small and élite group, then we are expected to accept them, to reward them, and to honour the men and women who do them. Our elected governments will use their full force to protect the right to engage in these activities. For now they are creating “economic development” and are beyond questioning. In fact, they are the fundamental activities — the rituals, if you like — around which we construct our world. We may acknowledge their ill effects, but when we put those in the scale and balance them against the unquestioned — unquestionable — benefits they bring to our economy, we have nothing to say.
Destruction redeemed by so-called economic benefits is a bad enough bargain when times are good and the limits to extraction are not in sight. But we now live in a time when those limits are slowly becoming visible. Despite some lingering controversy over the mathematical models, it is clear that we face the end of cheap petrochemicals by mid-century. The list of other endangered natural resources grows daily. It would have been good if we could have recognized natural limits to growth before hitting the crisis point, but there you have it. As a species, we have failed to exchange long-term crisis for short-term discomfort. We haven’t even been able to understand the terms of the exchange, and a lot of that is because we are in under the spell of Growth. Without growth, nothing makes any sense to us, so we choose not to think about the world beyond it.
So long as we remain stuck on the idea that there is no alternative to eternal growth; so long as we excuse the failings of corporatized large-scale production as minor glitches in an otherwise functional system; so long as we refuse to even imagine a steady-state economy which produces meaningful work and a reasonably fair distribution of good things; above all, so long as we allow ourselves to be silenced by the church of eternal growth — then there is not going to be a way out of the difficulties we find ourselves in. I’m going to take this up in future posts, since there are people out there beginning to talk about what a ‘de-growthed’ economy might look like, and how we can get there from here.