s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 28 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 28   (Spring 2002)

Thinking Economically

The Meaning of Green Agriculture

by Paul Gilk, The Loghouse

The word “Green,” as applied to gardening, farming, and agriculture, is, in my estimation, pretty poorly understood. In fact, the implications of a “Green” food supply probably cause, or will cause, some uneasiness even to those of us who like to think in terms of “organic” or “sustainable” food production. The word “Green” in the broadest conception of the culture of food production, means a great deal more than just a set of techniques or methodologies applied to food?growing processes.

Knowing that you can obtain excellent how?to information from a multitude of sources—how to garden, how to farm, how to spin and weave, how to put together your own alternative energy equipment—I am going to tax your patience by talking about history and culture.

The biggest word we have for all the aspects of food production is not agri-method or agri-technique or even (though becoming so) agri-business but agri-culture. And the Latin roots of agriculture come from words which refer to field cultivation. The words “cultivate,” “culture,” and “cult” are all related and they reflect, sequentially, the practical methodologies, the social relations, and the spiritual or religious significance of how we grow, share, and are grateful for the Earth products which enable us to live, individually and collectively.

A good part of the Green criticism of and even anger toward agribusiness lies in the recognition that agribusiness represents a kind of how-to, chemically-reductionist tunnel vision—concerned only with maximized yields and maximized profits. (“Get big or get out,” as former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz proclaimed.) Agribusiness does not care about and is not interested in the cultural meaning and spiritual content of non?market food production.

The word “market” is a kind of cultural gate between agriculture and agribusiness. That is, if you believe that the only real way to understand food production is in terms of the market, you are by definition in the camp of agribusiness. Now you may argue for an “organic” agribusiness because of concerns about chemicals or genetic engineering. That would put some jolly Green make-up on the agribusiness giant. We do realize though, without quite grasping or being able to predict the dimensions, that an “organic” agribusiness would necessitate smaller farms and more labor, for if you can’t poison a field or critters into submission, you’ve got to spend more hands-on time out there cultivating. And that means being more labor-intensive.

This is a small step toward what “Green” means and requires and we haven’t yet even come close to Wendell Berry’s insight that it is “the subsistence part of the agrarian economy that assures its stability and its survival.”

Agriculture is relatively new in human history. It originated in the Late Stone Age and—so the anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians tell us—derives primarily from gatherers, not hunters.

That is, women as the foragers for roots, nuts, fruits, and seeds discovered and were the first to practice the intentional planting of crops for human consumption. The abundance so produced, over time, resulted in a number of things. It led to villages which were stable in location, because people no longer had to follow the food, as it were. It led to a greater density of human population. It made hunting somewhat obsolete because of the eventual domestication of various animals, including the cow, donkey, chicken, and horse. This abundance has led one great historian, Lewis Mumford, to talk of “the Golden Age” of the agrarian village prior to the rise of civilization proper.

I am now, perhaps, going to challenge your understanding of history as well as your understanding of what “Green” implies. I want each of you to take a few seconds to weigh and measure, inside yourselves, the ethical and moral valuation of the common words civility, civilize, and civilization.

… civilization is the perpetual enemy of agriculture.

If you grew up in the same conventional cultural atmosphere I did, you will find inside yourselves a positive meaning for these words. And if I were to ask you to name the negative opposites of civility, civilize, and civilization, you probably would come up with words like savage, barbarian, villain, heathen, or pagan. I will tell you right now that my cultural understanding, largely unconscious, floated in this conventional terminology until I began to probe, in determined seriousness, for the roots of what we now call “the farm crisis.”

In the briefest formulation, this is what I discovered: civilization is the perpetual enemy of agriculture. Every civilization properly identified—from the Babylonian to the Aztec, from the Chinese dynasties Stalin’s Soviet state, from Plato’s Greece to Cicero’s Rome, from the Egyptian Pharaohs to the American Presidents—has been, through violence, organized in such a way so as to cause wealth to accumulate in the hands of a few. In classical terms, the name for this wealthy few is aristocracy. We claim to have democratized civilization although we very much continue to have an aristocracy of wealth—and nobody seems particularly puzzled by this obvious and outrageous contradiction.

At the root of the aristocracy of wealth lies civilization proper. Civilization is the predatory theft of agrarian abundance from the villages of the “golden age” and from all subsequent peasant villages and farming communities. We have no historical model for a civilization that does not steal, by one method or another, the production of primary producers. And at the base of primary production stands the peasant village, for nothing is more basic than our need for food.

With the emergence of civilization came institutionalized warfare and institutionalized slavery. These two realities—the expansion of the boundaries of empire through war and conquest, and the enslavement of vast numbers of conquered people who were forced to produce and construct—are open to view in the history of civilization up until the implementation of the industrial revolution. At that point, while expansion of empire in some instances wildly accelerated, the overt enslavement of people was mitigated by new technologies that now enslaved nature directly, with machines and chemicals, rather than with human labor.

Green politics has emerged out of the growing ecological crises and growing ecological awareness of the last 50 years or so—since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And each of the main ecological insights (global warming, for instance) has to do with the relatedness of so many seemingly separate aspects of life and human conduct. Another Green insight is this: the total commercialization of food production—the destruction of what Wendell Berry calls “the subsistence part”—occurs precisely as civilization achieves an historically unprecedented degree of global control. The culture of the peasant village, of small-farm neighborhoods, is in the process of being destroyed all over the world. The self-provisioning aspects of non-civilized food production are being globally wiped out, and the murdering thief who overran the agrarian villages at the end of the Late Stone Age is now in command, with his terminator seeds, the world over.

What this means is that Green politics is a revolutionary force, for at the core of Green politics is Green agriculture, and at the core of Green agriculture is the unconditional demand for the rectification of the great historic evil committed by civilization against the agrarian village and the Earth. The ultimate goal of Green politics is to encourage and create the conditions for ecological living on Earth. At the core of ecological living is the question of the culture of our food production, for our most fundamental need is to eat, and we eat from life which grows on Earth.

The most basic ethical teachings of the world’s great religions stand on two legs. One leg is stewardship in Creation. The other leg is sharing among our own kind. Green politics emobodies a new synthesis of de-centralized, ecological, democratic socialism integrated with a compassionate, Earth-based global stewardship. Green politics does not yet recognize how politically revolutionary and ecologically conservative it truly is.

The eventual victory of Green politics requires the cooperative resettlement of the countryside, an economy of real needs, energy conservation, de-militarization, reverence for nature, racial integration, gender reconciliation, spiritual respect—and the end of civilization as we know it. Green thinking has begun to lead us out of the civilized slavery of consumerism. But we have to do our part. We not only have to envision Green culture, we also have to trust that Green culture is sustainable, and that living it will be a blessing and a joy.

The eventual victory of Green politics requires … the end of civilization as we know it.

Green culture is, in fact, the only sane option, for civilization supreme is violence, murder, theft, and slavery supreme; and that kind of supremacy, in a world with literally thousands of nuclear missiles, warheads, and bombs, is a global disaster, a mammalian extermination, waiting to happen.

The Green political task is multidimensional, as the Nader candidacy has shown. There are a few brilliant leaders who, by their selfless dedication to issues of public policy, have an extraordinary grasp not only of the complexity of ecological, cultural, social, political, and economic problems but a set of powerful proposals for structural correctives. And although Green politics includes basic socialist insights and proposals, Green is not about creating a larger and larger economic pie. In this respect, Green politics is, of ethical necessity, daringly unique. More of everything spells ecological disaster; and so Green stands alone in its demand for the disciplining of consumption, for genuine economic restraint, and even for a kind of environmental asceticism.

This, again, is a cultural gate with spiritual hinges. That is, Green culture presupposes a certain Creation-based spirituality which is not only willing to forgo the shallow allurements of sensational modernity, it also presupposes a fundamental trust that a good, culturally rich life is not only possible in the exigencies of ecological living but, by taking our foundational spiritual teachings seriously, inevitable.

But because the agrarian village lies, humanly speaking, at the base of the civilized pyramid, squashed by the economic, political, and cultural presumptions of civility, the liberation of the agrarian village—of agriculture—is the keystone of Green revolution. Agriculture is the soul of Green politics: an ecological socialism, a resurrected peasantry, and the culturally rich, cooperative re-inhabitation of the Earth.

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 28 Contents