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Alexandria, VA. From time to time, I hope to re-post here on this site some writings I’ve previously posted on my website, “What I Saw in America.”  This entry – dated April 27, 2008 – has proven to be among the most frequented postings I’ve published to date.  For whatever reason, a good many people undertake web searches for the word “monoculture,” and my post seems to be one of the first “hits” that comes up.  My reflections here may be less immediately useful than a wikipedia entry, but I dare hope are more provocative.

Against Monoculture

Nature abhors monocultures. Nature abhors them so much that they do not exist in accordance with nature. They would be unknown but for modern man.

A monoculture is a single form of life – or, by extension, a single culture – that exists over a large expanse of space, even globally. Nature abhors monocultures because they are so susceptible to annihilation by one agent of destruction. In plant or animal life, for example, a single virus or bacteria, a single destructive fungus or disease, a single hostile predator or pest would wipe out an entire monoculture without the barest resistance. It is the very nature of nature to avoid monocultures – indeed, it cannot be otherwise since any form of monoculture cannot long exist in nature. Life in the natural realm is manifold and varied, precisely so that some life will weather the inevitable deadly challenges that arise.

It could be posited that modernity is defined by the introduction of monocultures. In politics, thinkers like Hobbes and Locke articulate the first universal and anti-cultural theory of politics, obliterating considerations of local culture, history and tradition in the name of a singular and monolithic conception of political legitimacy. In economics, thinkers such as Adam Smith introduce a world-transforming economic theory that renders the entire globe subject to the logic of the market. In the sciences, thinkers like Bacon, Descartes and Spinoza introduce a method that renders all local knowledge irrelevant to the specialized knowledge of the expert, the universally valid findings of science.

We live at a moment of monoculture’s triumph – and demise. Around us is the evidence of the near-total victory of monocultures in nearly every field of human activity, at the same time that the recklessness and fragility of monocultures comes ever more fully into focus.

In agriculture we have sought efficiency through crop monocultures, circumventing the need for rotation and variety through high levels of petroleum inputs. We have created monocultures of wheat, corn, potato, rice – all with a growing sense of fragility of their futures in a world of constrained petroleum and water. Industrial methods of farming have severely depleted topsoil around the world, the very source of agriculture and hence human life. Agricultural monocultures – attractive because they can be efficiently extracted by means of industrial production – have led to an atrophy of knowledge of how to grow numerous other crops. Even as we face the prospects of decreasing supplies of industrially produced crops, we want the knowledge of how to produce in accordance with local conditions that is the possession of a dying generation.

In finance we have “rationalized” our economy to a worldwide scale, seeking to avoid the risk of a failure of local or regional markets by spreading risk across a worldwide market. For instance, where once mortgages were made and held by local banks whose interest in their soundness was vested in the community, now those same loans are immediately sold to distant financiers who in turn chop, separate, recombine and sell these loans as a variety of debt instruments to the broadest possible array of buyers. The fact that no one bears responsibility or accountability actually increases the risk of default, since there was every impetus to make loans to people who could not repay, secure in the knowledge that the loan would be off the lender’s books within 24 hours. In turn, the mortgage crisis is a worldwide phenomenon in spite of the vast majority of loans made on American properties, damaging banks and investment firms on every corner of the globe. The Bear Stearns debacle – and the Fed’s unprecedented intervention – was the consequence of the deep intertwining of the finances of innumerable firms with the largest financial concerns in America, and hence the reason why it could not be allowed to fail. Had BS failed, by all accounts it would have led to a worldwide “run on the bank” – a panic that could have resulted in international chaos and upheaval as all money ceased to have value.

The schools that are supposed to educate human beings for responsible lives also are undergoing transformation into a monoculture. Their aim is to create a mobile army of itinerant vandals, laborers in the international corporate culture whose one and only aim is to produce a monoculture of economic growth. Our schools were once a patchwork of local and particular traditions – regional, religious, pedagogical diversity, as diverse and lovely as a local ecosystem. Now they all race to be identical, deathly afraid that they may not be conforming closely enough to the nearest competitor who harbors exactly the same fears. During my fifth year at Princeton University – a year before I was to submit materials for tenure – I attended a meeting for all fifth-year untenured faculty held by the Dean of the Faculty. His most memorable advice (in addition to, “publish, publish, publish”) was to apply for other jobs. The reason: a job offer from another institution would prove your worth in the eyes of Princeton. I asked, “if Princeton looks to other institutions to establish the worth of a faculty member, who is actually establishing their value?” Dean of Faculty: “The market.” Me: “I thought WE set the standard. Why else do we brag about our number one ranking?” The message was clear: the standard was “academic excellence” defined as our reputation beyond the gates of Princeton, and as defined by the international community of scholars. Its coin was publication in refereed journals – “the creation of knowledge” – and not the contributions we were making specifically, and even possibly limited to, the community at Princeton. It is in the image of this ambition for “academic excellence” that all institutions are being remade, all in the same and monolithic fashion.

In the end, we were told, there was no standard other than a vast and anonymous interchangeable monoculture of higher education. In the end, it didn’t matter if anyone who received an offer stayed at Princeton or left, since one would find the same sorts of colleagues and students at any elite institution. Money and esteem by the international community of scholars – not institutional particularlity and loyalty – increasingly becomes the currency for faculty, just as it is for students. An itinerant and rootless intellectual class prepares an itinerant and rootless student class – indeed, considers such interancy and rootlessness the sign of success. All prepare and assume equally that the future is one of economic growth and expanding globalization, without the slightest hesitation or doubt that it could be otherwise. The monoculture of higher education prepares our students for the monoculture of the world. It is at once the agent of, and the consequence of, modernity’s monocultures.

In these three cases – and one could offer many more – the potential for failure is acute. In agriculture and finance, the dangers posed by our monocultures are obvious. In education we are more prone to self-congratulation, but we no less embrace a monoculture that could fail in the increasingly likely event that the future does not align with the expectations for which we blithely prepare our students. At this moment especially we should be protecting actual diversity – bio-diversity, financial diversity (i.e., local markets) and educational diversity in the name of local, regional, religious and pedagogical traditions (rather than being blinded by the monoculture-based claims of “multiculturalism”). Yet, at this moment we are apt to cling to our modern faith in the logic of monocultures, even as the news seems to be undeniable that nature hates monocultures, and nature will not be indefinitely denied.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I agree. We should accept the fact that there is a natural cap of efficiency, profit, and success, and understand that diversification is the key to long term survival in more areas than just one.

    The question arises: how do we turn this thing around? How do we convince multi-billion dollar industries to rein it in, lower their sights, till up those corn fields, restructure their educational programs, and do whatever else that needs to be done, all for the sake of the greater good? History tells us nothing ever works like that.

  2. Reading this brought to mind words from Plato’s Republic that we examined in my democratic theory course earlier in the semester. One of Plato’s concerns about democracy is that the state becomes “like an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower” (Book VIII). Variety is the inevitable outcome of a state composed of lovers of freedom.

    Yet you claim that one of the issues with modernity is the opposite tendency toward monoculture. As I understand what you have written elsewhere, democracy leads to a variety of practices and perspectives, yet this variety focuses primarily on individuals in ways that separate them from those around them, as well as from past traditions and future generations. At the same time, modernity imposes a monoculture that leads individuals to much more conformity than this description of variety may imply. The cure for these tendencies, if I understand you correctly, is the building up of local culture.

    If my interpretation is not completely off base, I wonder exactly how “local” a culture must be if it is to be a corrective for these tendencies. If too localized, it may end up reinforcing the separation from others that concerns Tocqueville. If it becomes too large, then it threatens, to use your agricultural analogy, the creation of a culture vulnerable to the pests and pathogens that could wipe it out.

    Wouldn’t another concern also be that localized cultures can be “mini-monocultures?” I am limited in my understanding of agriculture, but I believe that the point of crop rotation is that you plant different crops in the same field. Local cultures may have the tendency to be just as monolithic in their locality as the global monoculture you describe.

    As usual, your posting has provoked much thinking on my part; I appreciate it.

  3. Mr. Morrell,
    A great question and point. Might it be said that the very apparent variety among individuals leads to a monoculture of culture – namely, the “multicultural” patchwork in which all humans are essentially to be the same, that is, relativist, tolerant, secular, liberal ironists? Recall, Socrates relates that democracies are not able to punish criminals any longer – there is no right or wrong. A “live and let live” culture ceases to be a culture in any distinctive sense. It tends exactly toward political and social monoculture.

    You should supplement your reading of Plato with more Tocqueville. Tocqueville does not fear localisms; he encourages them, in the form of the cultivation of the “arts of association.” His is a commendation of intermediate institutions of a wide variety, places where our voices matter, where we can find people with whom to speak and to whom to listen – where “the heart is enlarged.”

    Of course, as you point out, the question then becomes, what constitutes “local.” I think that’s a more productive and interesting question than the current one, which is how do we accommodate ourselves to globalization. It’s a question without an easy answer, except that it involves a set of stable and longstanding relationships that exist over time and in a place. Its number will vary, and it will include things so local as family, neighborhood, community, town, region, and nation, ultimately humanity – but that in order of relative importance. It will involve prudence and negotiation, the hard work of politics and living together. It’s a question and problem that, in our age, we largely prefer to avoid, precisely because it’s difficult.

    Wellsy asks perhaps THE question – what is to be done? I’m not sure any of us here have THE answer, because there can be no single answer to so vast a challenge – anything that would be that comprehensive would be as bad as the challenge we face. That said, a good number of people have been asking me just this – particularly in the wake of the launch of this site, which seems to have prompted the hope among some that there is sufficient critical mass in the nation to begin to advance some change on these issues – and so I hope, in coming weeks, to offer some suggestions, and will invite my fellow denizens of the Front Porch to do the same.

  4. Ahhhh yes , the great Moloch Efficiency. With Efficient means of production comes an equally felicitous means of destruction. It is actually kind of a dare, begging an answer.

    Your combining of Education, Agriculture and Finance into a discussion of the hazards of monoculture is sharp. Checks, balances and the Geneva Conventions were “quaint” anachronisms last year and would appear to still be considered quaint today. Big disasters resulting from Big Successes demand Big Solutions.
    Meanwhile, any fundamental assessment of the underlying issues remain unexamined lest someone insult the Great Moloch Efficiency. Best to hand out pitchforks to the rabble to let off a little steam and keep the great fires of monodistraction burning.

    Exactly why do we still laugh at the Lemmings?

  5. Although I’m in broad sympathy with your case against monocultures (and by extension “bigness” generally), I wonder if there is not something to be said for the increased efficiency that comes with scale, standarization and the like — both economically and even politically. I certainly wouldn’t want to trumpet efficiency as a value in itself, but many of the genuine successes of modernity (increased food security, increased life expectancy, fairer representative political institutions, etc.) have been achieved (at least in part) by increases in efficiency that are possible only by creating common standards across disparate communities and by doing some things at a more-than-local scale. Efficiency may be lousy as an end in itself, but it can be a genuine and significant instrumental good… perhaps even an indispensable one for achieving certain ends.

  6. Well that’s the trouble with monocultures, or with the instruments of modernity in general. They do in fact bring us good things: “increased food security, increased life expectancy, fairer representative political institutions,” and one could add unprecedented prosperity, near-elimination of humiliating drudgery–the list goes on and on. It’s a Faustian bargain: no one would ever make a deal with the devil unless the devil had some really good things to offer.

    The vulgar version of the embryonic stem cell debate, where it’s reduced to a choice between curing Granny’s Alzheimer’s or saving a few embryos, works as a sort of morality play for this dilemma. In the real world, of course, embryonic stem cells are no magic bullet. But something like monoculture seems to have been. When, as a society, we made the decision to grow our food through industrial agriculture, we liberated most of our people from the grueling lifestyle (and generally low education level) of the private farmer.

    We’re living in the aftermath of that now; but who of us would have been willing to stop the process? The dream of perpetual progress may be illusory, but when there was real progress to be had, what arguments could we have raised to stop it?

  7. Michael DeMoor: But is it sustainable? It’s wonderful if it serves us, but will it serve our grandchildren and generations beyond? Are we even capable of operating within that philosophy when we’re only working to achieve the best possible efficiency for today?

  8. Is “increased life expectancy” an end in itself? What is the life? My grandfather got cancer in his early eighties, accepted mortality and died within a year or two. His widow would have died in her sleep a few years later had some MD not convinced her of the need for an angioplasty and a pacemaker. Her reward was fifteen years of dementia in a nursing home that sucked a once-respectably-sized family fortune (including a house and eight acres that had been in the family for 150 years)and innumerable tax dollars into some corporate coffer. We are not equally long-lived: the prolongation of “life” by mechanical and pharmaceutical means is just another form of monoculture.

  9. In response to Kevin at #25: what of the grueling lifestyle and generally low education of the contemporary “service worker,” or, for that matter, office worker?

  10. Joel,

    Of course the Polywell can’t work. The US Navy has just commissioned version version WB-7.1 to do further research. The head researcher, Rick Nebel, says no show stoppers so far. Which is not to say it is a slam dunk. It all depends on the Wiffle Ball effect. Do the circulating currents choke off the loss channels? Can the electron losses be kept below 1E-5 per pass through the system? Another year or two of experiments should give us the answer.

    ===

    And yes – reading lights are good. But you don’t get civilization from reading lights. You get it by replacing human and animal energy slaves with inanimate energy slaves. That requires kilowatts per person not milliwatts. About a million times more power.

    If you think of microhydro as a starter system you are on the right track. It is not enough to run a full up advanced technological civilization at this time.

    ==

    BTW one thing many people don’t seem to get is that well functioning technological systems are organic. They cannot properly be designed top down. Because a well functioning system is always looking for new ecological niches to fill. It is similar to the idea that the most interesting cities aren’t planned. People just react to their local environment. The same way organs grow in the human body. A lot of sprawl is caused by zoning. Of course zoning separates production, sales, and living so a car becomes almost essential in colder climates. But in exchange for the rigidity of zoning we get a plan.

    Some how we got the idea that passing laws can fix things. Forgetting the fact that unintended consequences are the result of emergent qualities of a system that are very hard to predict.

    Who predicted that zoning commissions would lead to (or at least abet) urban sprawl? And you know planning/zoning was at one time the progressive position. Get people into cleaner environments away from commerce.

  11. Thanks for sharing this! The frightening thing now is that some 20 Million US Dollars is going to be thrown into monoculture to “feed the hungry”. I felt sick after knowing this!

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