mustardseed

I confess that until now I have never read anything by Wendell Berry. In fact, I deliberately avoided reading anything by him, or indeed by any agrarian writer. There was a strategic reason for this. The bulk of my work is devoted to explicating distributism in purely economic terms, and distributism is often accused of being “merely” an agrarian system and therefore an exercise in nostalgia and romanticism. Hence, I have been at great pains to show distributism’s scientific basis and its industrial examples, which are many, and avoiding any imputation of being (oh horror!) a “mere agrarian.” But now, with two books under my belt, and hardly an agrarian to haunt the bibliographies, I feel I can safely add these authors to my reading list. And so, when the University of Dallas chose Berry’s latest collection of essays, What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, as the book for its Faculty Book Discussion, it came as a providential opportunity.

The aversion that so many modern economists have to agrarianism is somewhat strange, given that the generally acknowledged founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, considered himself to be an agrarian. Book IV of The Wealth of Nations discusses “Systems of Political Œconomy,” which he divides into mercantilist and agricultural systems. In chapter IX of that book, he renders his verdict:

[The Agricultural] system…is, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political œconomy, and is upon that account well worth the consideration of every man who wishes to examine with attention the principles of that very important science.

Concerning the mercantilists (who are the original globalists), Smith says,

[B]y encouraging manufacturing and foreign trade more than agriculture, [he] turns a certain portion of the capital of the society from supporting a more advantageous to supporting a less advantageous species of industry.

For Smith, the wealth of a nation is firmly rooted in its fields and farms, and manufacturing justifies itself by its ability to lower the costs to the farmer of the things that cannot be produced on the farm, or can be produced only with great difficulty. There is a clear priority given by Smith to the farm, and it is just this priority that Wendell Berry seeks to revive.

What Matters is a collection of essays written over a long period of time, and hence not a systematic presentation of some economic “system”; there is not a single chart or table in the whole work. Rather it is an extended critique of the failures of modern economists to comprehend the true nature of their science. This is a rich and pithy critique, one that defies easy summation by a reviewer. For example, Berry has the best one-line summary of the cause of the current crisis, namely the willingness of the banks to sell “a bet on a debt as an asset.” That summarizes several books on the subject.

Berry points out that current economics have severed all connection with the real economy, which he calls “The Great Economy.” More of that economy in a moment, but what really occupies most of our “economists,” he points out, is not really economics at all, but chrematistics. Economics (from oikonomia, “household management”) is about the material provisioning of society; chrematistics is about individuals amassing abstract wealth in the form of money, and has no necessary connection with the material well-being of society, that is, with the production of real goods and services. And although chrematistics is poorly connected to real world oikonomia, its predominance over the real economy can bring that economy down, as it has now and many times in the past. And as long as we practice chrematistics rather than real oikonomia, it will continue to bring the economy down until there is no economy left to raise up. “Our economy,” Berry notes, “has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.”

So where does the real economy begin? As for Smith, this real economy begins in the natural order, which means that it begins on the farms, along with the forests, fisheries, fields, and mines. These are the gifts of nature upon which our livelihoods depend. This natural order must be used according to its own nature, which Berry calls “The Kingdom of God” or “The Great Economy.” Berry gives us five principles of the Great Economy:

  1. It includes everything, even the fall of a sparrow. There is nothing outside this economy. “We are in it whether we know it or not or whether we wish to be or not.”
  2. It connects everything to everything. Things within The Great Economy are not so much parts as a participation in the whole, with each thing reflecting the whole.
  3. The Great Economy comprehends humans, but humans cannot give a complete or even adequate description of this Great Economy, nor perceive the whole order by which its elements are connected.
  4. Nevertheless, we cannot violate for long the patterns of this Kingdom without incurring severe penalties.
  5. There is no end to the Great Economy; we cannot by “scientific” or other means get outside of it.

We are commanded to seek the Kingdom of God first, but not exclusively. Doing that would leave the field open to people who seek other kingdoms. Indeed, within the Kingdom of God, the Great Economy, we must build “little economies” by which “we can carve out a narrow circle within which things are manageable by the use of our wits.” These little economies originate, manage, and distribute the secondary values that human work and wit can add to the primary values of the Great Economy. But they must receive these primary values “gratefully and use them in such a way as not to diminish them.” The little economies must be run in harmony with the Great Economy, which means, among other things, that there must be a “law of return,” a law which dictates that anything taken from nature must be given back; “The fertility cycle must be maintained in a continuous rotation.” Of course, some commodities cannot be given back because they are consumed, things such as oil. These must be used conservatively and not for frivolous purposes, or on the assumption that supplies are inexhaustible.

But we also consume things that we should be renewing; soil, for example. Topsoil is something we cannot make. We have no substitute for it, and in fact it escapes scientific description:

For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it. It is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call “unearthly”: it is making life out of death. Not so very long ago, had we known about it what we know now, we would probably have called it “miraculous.”

Berry is right to use soil as the example, since peak soil rather than peak oil may turn out to be our greatest problem. We can learn to do without oil, but not without soil. Topsoil is disappearing at an alarming rate, and not being replaced; the law of return is being violated. Further, the soil that remains is being poisoned with toxic chemicals, which then leach into the groundwater. Indeed, some forms of industrial farming use soil only as something to hold the roots and not as a real source of life or nutrients; they would replace it with styrofoam or some other dead substance if they could. This violation of the law of return means that “[t]he industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy.”

This pillage reduces the Great Economy to “raw materials” which have only a price, not a principle that needs to be conserved. The price is set by the cult of competition, whose main sentimental tenet is that greed is sufficient to produce the good, merely by producing the goods. Within this cult, every transaction involves a winner and loser. But competition, elevated to the status of a cult, does not result in the common good. Inevitably, the class of winners narrows and that of losers widens. The winners are not only so in the economic realm, but in the political realm, where they are able to obtain more and more privileges and subsidies for themselves. Such a cult can only lead to dominance by the strongest. Not indeed, the “strongest” in the moral sense, but purely in the economic sense.

Communities cannot survive the cult of competition:

The great fault of this approach to things is that it is so drastically reductive; it does not permit us to live and work as human beings, as the best of our inheritance defines us. Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the law of justice and mercy.

Global economy seeks only to make things where they are cheapest and sell them where they are dearest. But this divorces producers and consumers and means that there can be no responsibility. Only the community can care for its environment, and for its young. For the community that merely exports its natural resources to someone else will end up exporting its young. The first thing a community must do is protect its productive capacity. The economy must look first to local needs, and only then, and from its surplus, to export. It does not import what it can make for itself. But we have reached the state where we cannot actually make anything for ourselves, where we cannot supply our own necessities. If we needed shoes, for example, we no longer have the means to make them. “’Outsourcing’ the manufacture of frivolities is at least partly frivolous; outsourcing the manufacture of necessities is entirely foolish.” The local economy is built on neighborhood and subsistence, and neighborliness requires that we export only after we have met the needs of the community’s subsistence.

Berry gives us a list of 14 assumptions of the “free” market (a market that largely guarantees freedom to some by depriving others) which are dubious at best. A sample of these assumptions:

2. That there can be no conflict between economic advantage and economic justice.

5. That it is all right for a nation’s subsistence to be foreign-based, dependent on long-distance transport, and entirely controlled by corporations.

11. That an economy is a machine, of which people are merely the interchangeable parts.

13. That stable and preserving relationships among people, places, and things do not matter and are of no worth.

14. That cultures or religions have no legitimate practical or economic concerns.

At this point, one must make a fundamental decision. The very terms that Berry proposes are foreign to economic discourse. Terms like “Kingdom of God,” “Great Economy,” “values,” “justice,” “mercy,” and so forth are not ones normally encountered in economic texts. Can economics subject itself to such terms and still remain a “science”? And since Berry proposes no systematic approach to economics, it might be difficult for economists to translate Berry’s terms into their own science. So we must ask, “Should the science of economics be subject to the terms that Berry proposes?”

Two points are relevant here. The first is that in the 19th century, “political economy” tried to remake itself into the “physical” or “deductive” science of “economics.” But clearly, economics is neither a physical nor a deductive science; it is a practical, humane science, one that deals with the human relationships that are necessary for the material provisioning of society. As a humane science, it is subject to higher sciences of human relationships—psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy, and ultimately theology—and these sciences all culminate in a study of justice, which is the natural standard of human relationships, and in love, which is the supernatural standard. Economics cannot divorce itself from these terms and still remain a science.

And in fact it doesn’t. In fact, economics has become a totalizing system claiming the power to explain all things. It is as much a religious system—by another name—as is Berry’s Great Economy. It is a substitute religion with its own creed and its own myth. Its creed underlies all things and its myth, like all myths, explains all things. The central tenet of its creed is that all things are private property—even life forms—have price, and are for sale. Its myth is that given enough time, the market will correctly price all things and provide all with liberty (usually undefined or inadequately defined), and that justice will prevail. This is the sentimental capitalism that justifies all current difficulties in the name of ultimate justice, but a justice that is always deferred to the future. Here sentimental capitalism shares its myth with sentimental communism, which is always justifying the present horrors of the gulag in the name of the ultimate—but always deferred—victory of the proletariat.

In Berry’s Great Economy, the future is not deferred, but is made present in the care and conservation of the community and its resources, which have to be passed intact and improved to the next generation. The critique that he presents no system is certainly justified, but misses the point. He sets out the terms that any system must observe if it is to be a true science of economics, and not mere chrematistics. For unless economics is pointless (in which case, why bother with it?), it must serve the real needs of humans and their necessary communities. Chrematistics cannot do this, and economics generally will not do it, as presently understood. In fact, it functions by externalizing the natural and humane orders; it is a totalizing system that leaves out almost everything.

The last word in this should go to Berry, from the last words in his book:

A total economy, for all practical purposes, is a total government. The “free trade,” which from the standpoint of the corporate economy brings “unprecedented economic growth,” from the standpoint of the land and its local populations, and ultimately from the standpoint of the cities, is destruction and slavery. Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar C. R. Wiley August 5, 2010 at 6:12 am

Excellent. I must read this. Wonderful critique of economic studies as well. Very helpful.

avatar Russell Arben Fox August 5, 2010 at 7:33 am

A great write-up, John. But the book’s short, wonderful, self-depreciating introduction by Herman Daly is worth acknowledgment as well. Daly, co-author of what ought to be one of the core FPR texts, For the Common Good, has long been one of my favorite authors, someone humbly trying to re-orient economics towards a broader, fuller understanding of what it means of what it means to live in a just community. (Hint: it ain’t just protecting property rights.) Maybe the intro isn’t worth the cost of the book alone, but it’s close.

avatar Marchmaine August 5, 2010 at 7:37 am

Nicely done; Berry could well use more secondary synthesis to sharpen his broad works into an effective point.

avatar John Médaille August 5, 2010 at 9:50 am

Russell, you are correct; I should have acknowledged Herman Daly’s excellent introduction. But then, there is a lot in this book that I didn’t touch upon.

Marchmaine, you’re in luck. The purpose of my new book is precisely to express these ideas in terms intelligible to an economist. http://www.isi.org/books/bookdetail.aspx?id=eb565cff-c3d4-44ed-8029-bd74a87f2a2b

avatar Michael DeMoor August 5, 2010 at 10:32 am

Niggly point, I know, but when Smith praises the “Agricultural System” doesn’t he mean that of the physiocrats? Are they “agrarians” in anything like Berry’s?

avatar John Médaille August 5, 2010 at 11:59 am

Michael, not a niggling point at all, but a common misconception about the physiocrats. On the agrarian scale, they were to the right of Wendell Berry, assigning zero net value to manufacturing and calling it “barren.” Even Smith had to correct them on that point.

avatar Michael DeMoor August 5, 2010 at 3:08 pm

True enough… and i’m not an expert, but I suppose the disanalogy to between the kind of agrarians the physiocrats were and the kind championed on this site (by many) is that the physiocrats were no localists. But be that as it may….

avatar Bruce Smith August 6, 2010 at 7:10 am

John. Thanks for the Berry one-liner “a bet on a debt as an asset.” What a superb symbol of a society in collapse manufacturing IED’s.

avatar blue sun August 6, 2010 at 1:27 pm

As a pretty regular reader of the Front Porch Republic, I’m surprised I don’t come across more references to John Michael Greer. I know I’ve recommended the Front Porch to readers of his weekly blog.

I would guess that people who read the Front Porch love to make intellectual connections, and I can’t think of a better connection than the topic of this essay. I recommend anyone reading this to go check out Mr. Greer’s blog, which puts forth much of what is in his books.

This is a complex matter and very few thinkers have cut through all the garbage we hear today about “the economy.” John Michael Greer has done so in a way clear and simple enough for any layperson. His designations of the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Economy expand on some of the concepts put forth by E.F. Schumacher.

Mr. Greer’s prose is excellent and easy to understand. It is well worth visiting his essays on this subject of economics from July 2009, accessible here:

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2009_07_01_archive.html

avatar Wessexman August 6, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Excellent post. I have not read much of Berry’s works myself although he turns up in quite a few collections of essays that I have bought. The above points on soil are indeed very close to one of Berry’s influences the late Lord Northbourne and no doubt were also influenced by Schumacher(who in turn was influenced again by Lord Northbourne.).

avatar drake August 7, 2010 at 7:13 am

When the text says:
“Topsoil is something we cannot make. We have no substitute for it, and in fact it escapes scientific description…”

I read that as:

“We don’t know how to make topsoil.”

Organic compost can be generated from manure; it can be added to soil in order to replenish nutrients. Earthworms, etc. can be added as necessary.

Now you know how to make topsoil.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 7, 2010 at 11:02 am

drake,
While your recipe for composted topsoil and amendments is conventionally true, you should not discount the notion of “Peak Soil” Medaille puts forth. We’re well beyond “Peak soil” with a stunning degree of soil loss that manifests itself as part of the problem with the hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico. The combined annual bullshit output emanating from the buildings within the Washington Beltway, public and private is not enough compost to counter the rate of soil loss in our current industrialized agriculture.

Agrarianism is husbandry. This alone is why it should always be integrated with the other aspects of one’s economic system if just to impart a spirit of husbandry to non-agricultural pursuits. It also understands the concept of entropy and as the Druid Greer points out, disregard of the process of entropy is one of the chief delusions of our economic system.

avatar John Médaille August 7, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Michael, the Physiocrats are a case study of the meeting of the extremes. They were strict agrarians, but wanted zero regulation of (or support for) industry because they thought its only value was in supplying goods to the farm. Hence, laissez faire, laissez passé. We all know how well that’s worked.

Drake, we know how nature makes soil, and we know she is not making it as fast as we deplete it.

DW and Blue Sun, we can indeed overcome entropy with husbandry if we accept the notion of limits. Money, considered as an abstract quantity, destroys limits and runs smack-dab into entropy, as the a-level druid says.

avatar Greg August 7, 2010 at 9:29 pm

If you truly believe in distributism, will you allow for me to have a column on Front Page Republic and share in the profits? Doubtful. Distributism is impractical at best, socialism at worst.

avatar John Médaille August 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Well, Greg, I don’t run this place, but I suspect that the people who do will be more than happy to let you share in the profits. In fact, I think they will even volunteer to give you 100% of them.

avatar Wessexman August 9, 2010 at 3:33 am

Greg, personally I’m unsure how distributism could be considered impractical.

Certainly it could be seen as impractical because it is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, to influence any of the major parties and gov’ts in the US or Britain or (as far as I know.) the West but that isn’t generally what is meant when something is called impractical and let’s face it by such a definition most of the opinion on this site is impractical. If we gave up on anything that definition considered impractical then political, social and economic discussion would be a very dull affair; it would be at best(or worst.) be represented by Michael Moore versus Sean Hannity.

But on its own distributism is not impractical and if one is really worried about its impracticality then it would certainly be possible for a distributist oriented gov’t to act cautiously and gradually to bring it about. There needn’t be a five year plan to create, or even half create, a distributist economy and pieceful, careful reform that alters one part of the corporate-capitalist economy at a time in moderate steps would certainly be possible.

When it comes to socialism it is corporate-capitalism that needs massive state intervention far more than distributism ever will. Corporate-capitalism is a profoundly statist system and couldn’t not be.

avatar C. R. Wiley August 9, 2010 at 5:39 am

Corporate capitalism and the welfare state — the yin and yang of the modern world. I suspect that those who consider distributivism impractical do so because it doesn’t further the ends of either.

avatar John Médaille August 9, 2010 at 9:14 am

Wessexman and C.R., understand that Greg is carrying over a debate from another forum entirely, which is why he says nothing about the subject under discussion, Wendell Berry and the Great Economy. Greg’s argument is that since distributism is on the ground and working, it can’t possibly work; since it has such a long history, it can have no further history; since it provides from its own resources in Mondragon a school system, a social safety network, research institutes, and a university all without gov’t help, it therefore requires a massive gov’t. I must say that I am not sophisticated enough to follow that argument. But this is all off topic.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 10, 2010 at 5:41 pm

One can never overcome entropy, one finds a new plot and gardens one’s way around it. Entropy finds its greatest host in the over-fertilized fields of Empire, where hubris passes as intelligence and vigorous opinion seems, at first bite, as good as food. It never is.

Distributism, as best as I can tell is one avenue for like-minded people to proceed toward a self-empowered aim for the benefit of those involved. It is an avenue for cooperation and individuation within the construct of a cooperative and it does not implicitly require the offices of the Nation State. It asks for the support of neighbors in an effort to ford the rushing waters of globalism.

We are so enthralled by the notion of individuation in this nation of scoundrels and opportunists now that we impugn the license of the cooperative because they are operating counter to the the free market…a resounding fakery now ……..rather than in opposition……or innovation to it.

It is an avenue now, a working model, something to throw up against the rotting hulk of our globalist presumptions. There is something decidedly comic in the idea that after the tide of illusions of the modern age has washed out, leaving a detritus of garbage behind, that the idea of communal action might be somehow suspect. The supreme victory of the Globalist Consumer Juggernaut of Waste with a capital “W” is that we should suspect our neighbors rather than embrace them.

But in the pause, we must always remember both the kulak and their apparatchik opponent, both sitting like a fat termite queen, expecting sustenance to come of decay. It does for a while.

Decay, it has its proponents and practitioners. One could assert now that the post Cold War world
in America has been partial to the notion of decay. We let our own prodigiously productive fundament decay while sitting on the fundament of our ass, spectators, consumers, mining the productions of the poorer world because it suits the consumers of our richer world. Meanwhile, the riches erode, the energy wanes, entropy abides. We war now to disguise our failures. Security is the new freedom, liberty is a mood.

Agrarianism, on the other hand, it birthed this kneejerk unwise homo sapiens and if there is one thing that agrarianism taught us down the ages is that making enemies was never good for the harvest.

avatar Jason Peters August 13, 2010 at 7:25 am

Two handfulls of grist for the mill, to be done with as you (all) see fit:

(1) Lester Brown (of the Earth Policy Institute) reports that we are losing topsoil in the US 10 times faster than the natural rate of replenishment. That rate in China is 30-40 times faster. This should alarm anyone who likes to eat. But it seems to interest “leading” economists only in the manner that climate change interests them: as statistically insignificant.

(It was Herman Daly who pointed out that William Nordhaus [Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale], Wilfred Beckerman [Oxford economist who wrote Small is Stupid: Blowing the Whistle on the Greens], and Thomas Schilling [former prez of the American Economic Association and--in 2005--a Noble laureate] all regard climate change as insignificant, because it affects only agriculture, and agriculture is only 3.5% of the GDP. [See this.]

Alas, how the specialist increases knowledge at the cost of fragmenting it!)

(2) The opening essay of the collection that Mr. Medaille has more than competently reviewed is titled “Money versus Goods.” It was originally two essays, both published in The Progressive (edited by Matt Rothschild). Berry recently told me that some readers of The Progressive threatened to cancel their subscriptions because of Berry’s inclusion in the magazine.

avatar John Médaille August 13, 2010 at 8:03 am

Jason, as an avid consumer of books on theology, politics, and economics, I thought I was pretty well jaded when it came to stupid statements from “leading experts.” But every once in a while, you read a pronouncement that reveals the depth of ignorance in the ranks of the experts. Schilling is not some fringe figure, but right at the center of economic “expertise.”

I know somewhat of the habits of mind of these people, and undoubtedly he regards all commodities as “substitution-able”; some other alternative to digging in the dirt for our daily bread will be found by a beneficent industrial system. I don’t know what that might be; perhaps soylent green. But even that won’t work; we’ve already eaten up our children–those few we bothered to have–with debts they cannot pay, wars cannot win, obligations they cannot meet.

avatar Dave Taylor August 13, 2010 at 9:09 am

I agree entirely with what Berry says via John in this stimulating review, but what seems to be missing is an adequate account of how money and “education” fit in to the picture (or rather, spoil it).

If I might share and take up Blue Sun’s appreciation of John Michael Greer, is the point perhaps that there is yet another layer on top of JMG’s Primary, Secondary and Tertiary economies. Distribution of Money sits atop the Educational R & D economy investing the surplus of the Productive economy with little regard for the maintenance of Berry’s “Great Economy” of Nature, underpinning all.

Somehow this moved me to look again Philip Mirowski’s “Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science” (2002), then back to Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” (1947), which ends up with criticism of economics: based like G K Chesterton’s “Outline of Sanity” (1926) on the irrationality of relying on only half our brain. Wiener, like me, concludes that an economy is not a power system but an ambiguous information system, in which knaves can play games with fools.

Mirowski’s “Cyborg” – part cybernetic machine, part cybernetic organism – has in short two forms: one where the organisms control the machine and the other where the machine (controlled by “The Lords of Things as They Are”) controls half-baked organisms. Wiener, like Chesterton, finds self-controlling small communities beautiful. He rebuffs excessive optimism about scientific education improving society as rapidly as it has done technology, but in my own spirit of “he who plants pears, plants for his heirs”.

For those who have faith in the power of Truth, where to plant the Christian “grain of mustard seed”? The problems in the Primary and Secondary economies being down to the maldistribution of money in the Fourth level economy, the obvious place is at the Tertiary level of Educational R & D, where economists are educated in monetary fashions and good examples in the Primary and Secondary levels are ignored.

avatar Dave Taylor August 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm

So (re my previous post), why DID I look back at Wiener’s Cybernetics? Probably because I had seen JMG’s archdruid report on “The Cybernetics of Black Knights”! That most helpfully cites Gregory Bateson’s Shannonesque definition of information as “a difference which makes a difference”, then relates different kinds of information to the significance our intentions. How very interesting!

avatar Wessexman August 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

Btw Thomas Schilling is not a noble laureate unless he got it for some other area than economics because there is no Noble prize for economics, they refused to give one. It is a different body that grants these “Noble” prizes, it is little different to Frontporchrepublic deciding to hand them out to commentators here.

avatar John Médaille August 14, 2010 at 8:35 am

Wessexman, you are correct. The Nobel Committees give prizes to failed politicians, minor advances in product research, third-rate works literary figures, and outright terrorists; but they draw the line at giving prizes to economists. We’ve got to have some standards, after all. The Swedish bank gives prizes to economists “in honor of Alfred Nobel.” It is the only prize that is awarded in successive to people who say opposite things, and in one year, it was awarded to two people who said said opposite things (Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrick Hayek.)

avatar Rob G August 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I’ve just read a marvelous essay by Berry from his collection ‘The Way of Ignorance.’ It’s the piece titled “Renewing Husbandry,” and it’s probably the best brief treatment of his views on agricultural/cultural issues — a valuable distillation/precis of Berry’s take on those matters. I’ve read a lot of his essays, but in future I’ll be recommending this one to folks coming to him for the first time, as well as to those who want a concise but accurate “snapshot” view.

avatar Alan August 15, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Dr Medaille:
“some forms of industrial farming use soil only as something to hold the roots and not as a real source of life or nutrients; they would replace it with styrofoam or some other dead substance if they could”

1. Some wag said that modern agriculture is (paraphrasing from memory, here) “an incredibly efficient system for converting petroleum into food crops, using the soil as an incidental intermediary”.

2. The loss of topsoil really is alarming, but not because topsoil is hard to build (as Drake reminds us). What is hard is — as Wendell Berry might aver — to have sufficient character to live and exchange in a way that does NOT allow or encourage massive loss of topsoil. The solutions to our problems are simple, technologically, but difficult, characterologically or spiritually. Peak oil? Yes. Peak soil? Yes. But more fundamentally, peak character. We can deal with the peak oil and the peak soil problems easily enough. The hard part is to be good.

3. Orthogonally: Let’s not forget that hydroponics — using “styrofoam or some other dead substance” (e.g. coconut fiber) in place of soil — is a valid and very useful technology for producing food. Topsoil is great and wonderful, but it is not everything. To say that is not to say that it is OK to allow continued massive loss of topsoil, nor (certainly) is it to justify any of the other massive life-hostile processes underway. (Did I need to say that? No? Good! :-) )

avatar John Médaille August 15, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Alan, It’s “Mr.” not “Dr.”; I am but a simple master of the theological arts, and my colleagues would get touchy should I appropriate their hard-won titles. More properly, it’s “John.”

The “hard part is to be good.” Harder than you think. I read Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” not too long ago. Silly book, to be sure, but it got a lot of play. In discussing possible theories of collapse, he covers a dozen or so in a fairly even-handed manner. Then he gets to the theory that a loss of virtue might have something to do with it; at this point he goes postal. He classifies this as a “mystical theory” and lumps it with racial theories.

avatar Alan August 16, 2010 at 8:48 am

Got it, Doc. ;-) For some reason I THINK of you as “doctor”; I look up to you as a man of accomplishment and deep insight. On the other hand, I don’t much like pretentious titles, so I’ll go with “John” or “Mr”.

Why was Tainter’s book “silly”? The hard part is to be good, but we are always “good” or “bad” in a context — a context that predisposes to said goodness or badness. The highly-complex context that Tainter describes as the precursor of collapse predisposes to badness and makes it very difficult to be good. The badness is as though (AS THOUGH) built-in to the complexity. Yes, it is possible for extraordinary individuals to resist, but is it reasonable to expect everyone, the non-extraordinary, to do so? Personal virtue is important, but it is not everything (in the broad, social context). When I said “the hard part is to be good”, I did not mean to suggest that individual, heroic effort was all there is or could be.

avatar John Médaille August 16, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Alan, I think you are adding something to Tainter he just didn’t say. His theory was based on the declining marginal productivity of social systems. Now, that sounds scientific, but it really doesn’t say anything. What is the “marginal productivity” of a complex society? The problems became evident when he tried to apply the theory, and quietly dropped any actual measurement of this “scientific” number. It stayed at the level of assertions. And then got absurd. For example, He seemed to be blaming the 5th century collapse of the Roman Empire on the 3rd century devaluation of the currency. Not a real strong connection there, and his discussion revealed that he doesn’t know much about money in general and Roman coinage in particular. Further, the same devaluation occurred in the East, but in managed to hang on for another millennium. About that, he can only offer a few mumbled paragraphs that quite contradict his thesis.

A discussion of complexity has to be centered around the question of why some kinds of complexity lead to robustness and some to fragility, and some from robustness to fragility. Complexity is the original answer to primitive fragility, but complex systems have a tendency to enthrone powers that were relevant to the original solution, but become irrelevant, and obstructive, with time. That is, a society becomes perfectly positioned to solve the problems it no longer has, but has no means to turn and face the ones it does.

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