Farming and the crazy cult of individual supremacy

Farm! The word is so homely, creating a nostalgic vision of waddling ducks splashing in a farmyard pond, an orchard red with ripe apples, a barn full of hay and straw, and cows munching in a paddock. Most farms are not at all like that, because commercial pressures have forced farmers to specialise, and to replace their highly skilled workers with machines.

This has happened because of a fatal flaw in the way we calculate costs. We do not have a system for pricing goods according to the real cost of producing them. Why not? It’s due, I think, to a legal system that privileges personal property rights over community rights. Persons, and corporations, acquire rights to extract, process, manufacture and sell commodities, without reference to the potential harmful impacts of those commodities, or to the future lack of finite commodities. Ownership rights are vested in the here and now, are not held in trust for future generations.

When Henry Ford and the other early manufacturers of powered vehicles ushered in the end of the age of horse power, they priced their shiny tractors according to farmers’ ability to pay.  It would have been commercially crazy for manufacturers to increase the prices of their tractors to include sums for compensating those same farmers and their communities for the harm tractors caused to soils (compaction in the wet, open acres of flyaway dust in dry times); the harm to rural villages and small towns (machines taking people’s jobs); the harm to future energy availability (tractors run either on fossil fuel, or on diesel produced from plants which compete with food crops for land).

‘Commercially crazy’. These words are at the heart of our dilemma.  Ever since we humans began devouring resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished, it has been commercially crazy to even try and cost them properly. There is no Earth protection organisation with the power to limit or stop the extraction of irreplaceable, finite resources. The lack of enforceable governance has enabled smash-and-grab to prevail.

Laws that criminalise smash-and-grab robberies against businesses and householders are common around the world, but there is a stark absence of laws to protect our communal and only planet. This is the dilemma illuminated by Garrett Hardin in his article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin argued that individuals acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.[i]

The mis-appropriation of resources, and the consequences of past misappropriations, threaten the survival of humanity itself. We could live without the throwaway gadgets of 21st century technology, but not without food and water, and future supplies of both are looking uncertain.

Water and soil are critical factors in the production of food. Both water scarcity and floods can be lethal. Only 1% of the Earth’s water resources are available for drinking, irrigation and industrial processes, the US charity The Water Project reminds us.[ii] Fresh water amounts to just 2.5% of Earth’s total water, and more than two-thirds of our extremely limited fresh water is, in 2010, frozen in glaciers and ice caps. In industrialising countries, about 90% of sewage and 70% of industrial wastes are discharged untreated into rivers and streams, making the water dangerous for drinking or irrigation.

Soil degradation maps produced by the United National Environment Programme and the International Soil Reference and Information Centre present alarming data even though much of the mapping was done in the 1980s, and the rate of degradation has since quickened in many regions of the world. The maps, available from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, show soil degradation country by country. The Soil Degradation Assessment accompanying the maps reports that “[i]n South East Asia, virtually all land is regarded as degraded, more than 80% of it to at least a moderate degree. Ninety percent of the long-settled lands of Europe are degraded to some degree…. Fifteen countries have 99-100% of their land severely degraded.”

Brazil, the vast country from which China seeks more and more food, already in the 1980s had 7.29% of its land area severely degraded and another 2.40% very severely degraded. Most of the land that has escaped substantial degradation is in the Amazon basin under rain forest that the earth needs to retain, for its related roles in regulating climate and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as for its rich variety of plant and animal species.

[i] Published in Science 1968 Vol.162, No. 3859, pp1243-1248.

[ii], accessed October 28th 2010.


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