Environmental Perspective

Keynote Address at the Soul of Agriculture Conference

Minneapolis, Minnesota

As a long-time grassroots environmentalist, and as a creature living at the end of the twentieth century, I am intimately acquainted with the landscape of loss. This is undoubtedly true for everyone here. Often I despair. Near my home I’ve walked clearcuts that wrap around mountains, drop into valleys, then climb ridges to fragment watershed after watershed. I’ve sat silent near empty streams that two generations ago were “lashed into whiteness” by uncountable salmon coming home to spawn and die.

A few years ago I began to feel pretty apocalyptic. But I hesitated to use the word, in part because of those drawings I’ve seen of crazy penitents carrying “The End is Near” signs, and in part because of the power of the word itself. Apocalypse. I did not want to use it lightly.

But then a friend and fellow activist said, “What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse? The death of the salmon? Global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the cutting of remnants of this continent’s native forests? Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you will finally use that word.”

Thanks, George.


I used to know a rancher who ran several thousand head of cattle on hillsides of sage and rabbitbrush that stretched as far as you could see. We were good friends. When his wife left him for another man, I was the person with whom he spoke through that long next weekend, and when I was sick, it was to him I turned for help.

The friendship died because of ideology. I’d always been a closet treehugger, and as I came into the open, our relationship deteriorated into a final shouting match. He was an earth-hating son of a bitch greedily feeding at the public trough. He leased BLM lands at a fraction of their market value; his cattle trampled streams and shit on trout. He killed every coyote he saw, and loved to say mountain lion tasted like chicken. As for me, I was an elitist urban parasite who wouldn’t know a cow pie if one squished around the edges of my birkenstocks. I was a commercial beekeeper, but that didn’t count as a real farmer. “My family’s been doing this for three generations,” he said, “and now you’re going to tell me how to work the land? You’ve got a lot to learn. I was environmentalist when you were peeing your britches.”

The hostility between my rancher friend and me was misplaced. We were acting out a contradiction manifested in the daily activities of every human who participates in our economic system, and especially within every farmer. That schism represents a larger split between the needs of our economics and the needs of our survival.


If we are to survive, we need to discern the difference between real and false hopes. False hopes blind us to real possibilities, and bind us to unlivable situations. Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser, which since the turn of the century has deforested more than four million acres in the United States alone, will stop destroying forests? Does anyone really believe that the same corporate administrators who say they “wish salmon would go extinct so we could just get on with living” will act other than to fulfill their stated desires? Does anyone really believe that a pattern of exploitation old as our civilization, not as old as humanity, can be halted legislatively, judicially, or through any means other than a rejection of the mindset that engineers the exploitation in the first place, followed by actions based on that rejection? Which means if we want to stop the destruction, we have to root out the mindset. We can’t just paste stuff on. It’s like trying to fix an addiction, or an abusive relationship.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about revolution. In part because we’re losing, badly, on all fronts. Insofar as farming, we’re losing the battle for the heartland. Losing it to massive agricorporations that are the nothing more than a legal framework on which to base a system of exploitation and theft. I’ve been trying to figure out why revolutionary movements almost always fail to materially help the poor, the voiceless, and the people who work the land. This is true for armed revolutions such as the Russian Revolution, and for revolutions of the heart such as the teachings of Jesus. It’s true for agricultural revolutions. When the revolution is over, the new boss–whether he’s St. Augustine, Luther, Washington, Lenin, ADM, IBP, or Cargill–is inevitably, as the rock band The Who suggested, the same as the old boss.

To understand, I’ve done everything from interview a member of the Tupacamaristas–that’s the group that seized the Japanese Ambassador’s house in Peru–to read books with titles like Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation. At first I thought the problem was psychological. Having overturned the old social order, revolutionary leaders were unable to release their newfound power to the people themselves. But given the thousands of historical revolutions, somebody would have done it right. Obviously, many indigenous cultures have been able to construct and maintain egalitarian societies, as have some religious groups, and we need to look to them for answers on how to live, but within the mainstream of Western Civilization these groups are despairingly rare.

My second thought was that any group that succeeded in establishing a peaceful, nonhierarchical, sustainable community would not be allowed to survive. This is especially true if that community contains resources useful to those who know only power, greed, and force. Voluminous evidence supports this thesis, from the scores of overthrows by the United States, to the bloody repression within the former Soviet Union, to the genocidal assaults on indigenous peoples that continue as I speak. Still, this didn’t seem to suffice.

For now I’ve found an answer. It’s not good news. Just as the problem with farming is not simply psychological, only requiring we find better farmers, so too do we not simply need to find better revolutionaries. The problem resides in the structure and functioning of our society. And the same problem that damns revolutionary movements damns agricultural revolutions as well, unless we are very careful to follow an entirely different path.

The understanding came from the book I mentioned: Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, by Karl Kautsky. One of the groups Kautsky describes is the Taborites, Reformation-era communists who were never conquered externally, but whose experiment still devolved into a pseudo-community as selfish, militaristic, and intolerant as the rest. “The fate of Tabor is of the greatest interest;” Kautsky writes,” for it shows what would have been the outcome of the Mnzer movement . . . and of the Anabaptist movement . . . if they had remained unconquered.” Blah blah blah. He says a few sentences I disagree with, and then he says, and here’s the point, “While the needs of the poor engendered the struggle for communism, those of production demanded the existence of private proprietorship.”

There you have it. The needs of mass production–a funnelling of resources toward producers–is in opposition to the needs of the community–a siphoning of resources toward the poor, the voiceless, and once again, those who work the land. So long as we value production over relationship, and in fact over life, so long shall we follow our current path of ever-increasing immiseration for the ever-increasing majority. So long shall we continue to destroy life on Earth.

I need to bring in one more piece of this puzzle before we return to our agricultural production ethic. In the 1930s, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict began trying to discover why some cultures are “good,” to use her word, and some are not. She had noticed that members of some cultures were generally “surly and nasty,” while members of other cultures were almost invariably “nice.”

Within “nice” cultures, according to account after account, there is a minimum of hostility, violence, or cruelty, no harsh punishment, hardly any crime, and war is absent or plays a small role. Children are treated with kindness, and women and men are equal. There is little envy, greed, and exploitativeness. There is little competition and a lot of cooperation. There is an attitude of trust and confidence, not only in others but particularly in nature; a general prevalence of good humor, and a relative absence of depressive moods.

This is not noble savage bullshit, by the way. Read original accounts of explorers’ first contacts with indigenous peoples. Read Columbus’s journals. Read Benjamin Franklin, for crying out loud. At many prisoner exchanges, Indians ran joyously to their relatives while white captives had to be bound hand and foot to not run back to their captors. If you’re interested I’ve got citations.

Benedict found that good cultures, which she began to call “secure,” or “low aggression cultures,” and which I would call “sustainable,” for reasons I’ll soon get to, could not be differentiated from “surly and nasty” cultures on the basis of race, geography, climate, size, wealth, poverty, complexity, and so on. Here’s what does it: the social forms and institutions of nonaggressive cultures positively reinforce acts that benefit the group as a whole while negatively reinforcing acts (and eliminating goals) that harm some members of the group. It’s really simple.

The social forms of aggressive cultures, on the other hand, reward actions that emphasize individual gain, even or especially when that gain harms others in the community. A primary and sometimes all-consuming goal of members of these cultures is to come out ahead in their “dog eat dog” world. Sound familiar?

Another way to put this is that social arrangements of nonaggressive cultures eliminate the polarity between selfishness and altruism by making the two identical. It all comes down to how a culture handles wealth. If a culture manages it through what Benedict called a “siphon system,” whereby wealth is constantly siphoned from rich to poor, the society as a whole and its members as individuals will be, for obvious reasons, secure. Who is most esteemed? Those who give it all away. Those who help the community the most. On the other hand, if a culture uses a “funnel system,” in which those who accumulate wealth are esteemed, the result is that, as Benedict put it, “the advantage of one individual becomes a victory over another, and the majority who are not victorious must shift as they can.” Who is the most esteemed in our culture? The big producers, the big accumulators. That’s got to stop.

The commonsensical rule of a good culture, which most of us live by in our personal lives, is also a way to define sustainability: an activity is sustainable if it siphons energy back to the soil and to all members of the ecosystem. An activity is unsustainable if it funnels energy toward one source. Ecosystemic production requires every community give back at least as much as it takes.

I know we’ve been fed a bunch of nonsense about competition being central to the natural world, and how it’s all a battle for survival. The destruction of dodo birds, for example, may have been regrettable, but we simply couldn’t help ourselves, and in any case they were unfit. As for indigenous peoples, they, too, are “inferior” and must make way as we, and this is a direct quote used to justify genocide, “invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection.” Same with family farms. Same with farmers who care about their animals. Same with anyone who cannot compete with taxpayer-subsidized forms of institutionalized exploitation such as Tyson, ConAgra, Dreyfus, etc. I’m sorry, we will say, but that’s the way the world goes. But any attempt to say that ruthless competition is “the inexorable law of natural selection” is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to make our psychopathology seem natural.

If there is one thing I know about natural selection it is this: creatures who have survived in the long run, have survived in the long run. It is not possible to survive in the long run by taking from your surroundings more than you give back. It’s clearly in the interests of bears to make sure salmon return and berries ripen. They can eat them, but they cannot dominate or hyperexploit them and expect to survive. Insofar as even so-called competitors enrich and enliven the natural community in which they live, it is in bears’ best interests to see that they, too, thrive. The same can be said for all of us–human and nonhuman alike–that we cannot long survive lest we enrich the lives of those around us. Those who don’t cooperate don’t survive in the long run.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch–and I would like to thank Roger for the opportunity to say that line in public–here’s the contradiction: economic production requires that resources be funneled toward producers, not siphoned back to the ground. If these “extra” resources are not funneled toward producers, the producers, under our system, have no motivation to continue production. What this means in practice is that they get kicked off their land. As we see.

Now I say this, it sounds so obvious as to be silly. I dragged you through all this analysis just to tell you the needs of our economics is in fundamental opposition to the needs of the planet. Duh. If you didn’t already know that, you probably wouldn’t be here: you’d probably be a politician or a CEO.

But there you have it. And here’s why it isn’t silly: if we don’t resolve this contradiction, and that right soon, it won’t matter, because there won’t be many of us left to ponder it. If we cannot begin to grow food sustainably, we cannot hope to live sustainably. We can live without cars, computers, two-by-fours, and even hot showers. We cannot live without food. No longer do most of us–myself included–have the skills to raise or gather our own.

It really is simple: the physical production of food on a sustainable basis has different requirements than does the economic production of food. Simply pasting the word sustainable’ onto the front of our economic system, and onto the exploitative mindset that lies beneath, will in no way resolve the contradiction, but merely muddy the waters with another layer of mystification, and waste precious time, ecological integrity, and knowledge we cannot afford to lose. To merely tinker with our economy is like teaching table manners to a cannibal: it may grant a sense of accomplishment, and may even make things less messy, but it doesn’t get you off the menu.

The contradiction here is not between farmer and environmentalist. It is between our economics–which is nothing more than just another deathly manifestation of the same deathly culture that has brought us plutonium, the Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, and the Final Solution–on one hand, and on the other side of this contradiction: life on the planet. This contradiction plays itself out in the millions of tons of topsoil that blow away from farms each year, and in the small farmers evicted from their lands. It plays itself out in the destruction of wetlands and in the horrors of “10,000 unit hog factories.” It plays itself out in famines in Somalia and rioting farmers in India. It plays itself out in the deaths of friendships such as mine with the rancher. If we cannot resolve this contradiction we will not survive.

There’s one more point I would like to raise, and here is where my talk gets kind of depressing. Even if we as members of our different communities are able to resolve this contradiction–obviously by fundamentally changing our economics, which means fundamentally changing the culture, because wishing ain’t gonna change the needs of ecosystemic production–we still face one more problem. We need to be aware what happens to groups who live sustainably. This is sort of a good news bad news thing. The good news is we don’t have to invent anything; for the vast majority of human existence the vast majority of humans have been able to feed themselves–including agriculturally–in an entirely sustainable fashion. Humans lived on this continent for tens of thousands of years without destroying the great herds of bison, the islands of great auks, the great runs of salmon, the great flocks of passenger pigeons, and so on. The San of South Africa (and their evolutionary predecessors) lived in the same place for at least 2 million years. Now of course we’re killing them. So the good news is that if we allow ourselves to learn–or rather remember–and allow these cultures to continue their existence, they can teach us how to live. The animals themselves will teach us how to live. The land will teach us how to live. If you want to know how to live sustainably, ask the rivers, the soil, the earthworms, the pigs, the sea turtles. They’re dying to tell us. But are you willing to listen to what they say? And are you willing to act on it? No matter how inconvenient their insight? If these creatures could take on human manifestation, what would they say? What would they do? How would they run a farm? If children five generations from now could run your farm in their best interest, how would they do it?

Here’s the bad news: We need to be aware of what the dominant culture does to every nonhierarchical, sustainable culture. It destroys it. If we in our communities develop ways to live sustainably, but those in power want our resources, everyone here knows what will happen to our community, to our resources, and to us as individuals.

I asked the spokesperson for the Tupacamaristas what they want for the people of Peru, and he said, “We need to produce and distribute our own food. We already know how to do that. We merely need to be allowed to do so.”

I’d like to end with a parable. The parable begins with a box. The box is full of salmon, and the man who sits atop this box long ago hired armed guards to keep the rest of the people from eating these fish. The others, those sitting next to the empty river, starve to death. But they do not die of starvation. They die of a belief. Everyone believes that the man atop the box owns the fish; the soldiers believe it enough that they will kill to protect this illusion, and the others believe it enough that they will starve. But the truth is that there is a box, there is an emptied river, there is a man sitting atop the box, there are guns, and there are starving people.

We evolved as human creatures, and so we know in our bones what it means to survive in the long run. Everyone in this room knows how to live sustainably. We simply need first to allow ourselves to access that information, to not be afraid of its extremely dangerous and profound implications, and then we need to allow ourselves to begin living it. After that comes the hard part. We need to fight like hell to maintain it.

Transcript published in the Spring/Summer 1998 issue of Earth Ethics

Filed in Essays
No Responses — Written on November 14th — Filed in Essays

Comments are closed.