An entry in How To Be Poor
One of the primary troubles with living well in a time of peak oil and deindustrialization is the tendency in our society to think in reductionist patterns rather than within the context of whole systems. Reductionist patterns of thinking have often—though certainly not always—served well within the context of industrialization and, as such, they’ve become one of the more dominant tendencies of our time. When faced with problems or predicaments, we often devolve into arguing over the details in an attempt to build a perfect response to the problem at hand. Seeing a list of troubled variables, we focus on them one by one (or simply focus on one of them at the expense of all the others) and attempt to mold said variable more to our liking. But in doing this, we too often ignore the effects such moldings will have on the other variables affected within the system and it’s there that we run into trouble.
As a prime example, let’s consider the question of how to eat well in a world with diminishing energy and resources, fraught with economic contraction and ecological destruction. Some years ago, I took a college class in sustainability and, to this day, I remember particularly some of the discussion around what sort of diet we may be able to provide the population in a world seriously lacking in fossil fuels and more focused on sustainability. The problem was defined largely as thus: we will need to feed somewhere between seven and nine billion people without destroying the environment and with reduced energy availability, so how shall we do that? The solution, as it turns out, was a textbook response in reductionist thinking.
The solution proffered, in vague and general terms, was that the world’s population would have to shift to eating mostly a plant-based diet. Prime farmland would be used for growing staple grains for human consumption, rather than animal consumption, and the eating of animal protein would drop dramatically. It would not be eliminated, though. Certain range lands that would prove inadequate for growing staple crops or fresh vegetables—due to poor soil and a lack of water—could be used as grazing lands for cattle. That would be the main source of meat for the world’s hungry mouths, and it would come more in the form of ground beef than steaks, because the range lands wouldn’t provide for nice, juicy cuts. (Yes, I specifically remember that point being made, which even at the time seemed strange to me.)
You can clearly see the reductionist thinking behind this solution. It boils down to a few variables: the number of mouths to feed, the amount of land available for farming, and how we might maximize that land to provide a certain number of calories per mouth. That was the entirety of the approach to the question of how to feed the world. It took an entire planet, reduced the uncountable number of ecosystems down to one large number accounting for the world’s arable acreage, and started making calorie calculations of staple grains, perhaps of mixed-crop rotations. You can see this sort of reductionist pattern in other approaches to sustainability issues. There’s no shortage of people concerned about fossil fuel energy who will comment on the amount of solar energy that falls on this planet in any given day, the conversion efficiency of the latest solar panel technology, and from there whip up a quick calculation to note how many acres of the world’s land we simple need to cover in solar panels to start generating all our electrical needs from the sun. If you really want to get fancy, you can throw in climate variables, ideal sitings of the aforementioned solar panels, and so on.
This is reductionism run amok and it’s a particularly unhelpful way to grapple with our future. The simple reality is that being a reductionist in the deindustrializing future is not going to pay the same sorts of dividends as it has in the industrialized past. Going forward, we’re going to be losing our access to the sort of energy and resource reserves that have allowed us to consistently approach our problems with reductionist methods, and that reality is going to leave us more at the mercy of whole systems than we have been. Or, more specifically, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of whole systems, as we always have been, but our ability to create problems one variable at a time is going to go away.
That last sentence might be a bit obtuse, so let me better explain. In Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay, “Solving for Pattern,” [pdf] he notes that attempts to solve problems on a variable by variable basis tend to cause “a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.” (p. 135 in The Gift of Good Land.) For instance, in attempts to create better economies of scale for raising livestock, an industrial solution has been to take cattle off pasture and put them in feed lots. Setting aside the question of whether or not this was a “problem” that needed solving (that set aside answer, by the way, is “no”) this caused a number of new problems. Placed in a confined environment, fed a diet unnaturally heavy on grain, and left too often to mill about in massive amounts of their own manure, the cattle begin to experience poor health. With a reductionist focus on the problem of poor health, divorced from considerations of changing the root cause of it, the reductionist solution was to provide steady doses of antibiotics to the cattle. This creates a host of new problems—increased costs for the farmer, the eventual evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes, and so on—which are then either ignored or dealt with in the same reductionist manner, which then creates still new problems. And, of course, that’s just one path of problems. There’s a number of other paths meandering off from the decision to confine cattle, from the problem of waste disposal, the need for imported feed, the heavy environmental costs of ignoring the land’s carrying capacity, the overproduction of meat, the declining health value of the resultant meat, the abuse of animals, the centralization of agricultural production, the resulting economic impacts, and yet more. It spirals out everywhere—confined animal feeding operations lead to industrial-scale slaughterhouses that horrifically abuse both animals and humans, an industrial form of grain production arises to feed the CAFOs, which abuses and degrades the land, which in turn abuses and degrades farmers, which in turn abuses and degrades rural communities and economies, which in turn abuses and degrades urban communities and economies. In our blind focus on variables, we tend to degrade and oftentimes destroy the entire system.
Yet, as Berry argues in his essay, there are more elegant ways of solving our problems, and those tend to be rooted in whole systems thinking. He notes that such solutions that take into account the health of a system, rather than focusing exclusively on independent variables, cause “a ramifying series of solutions—as when meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm” (p. 137.) In solving for pattern—engaging in whole systems thinking, in other words—one often can discover solutions that nestle within one another, increasing the strength of the entire system and restoring much of its health. If there is a problem of poor health with animals in a CAFO, then perhaps eliminating the CAFO and returning the animals to pasture is a holistic response to the problem rather than in attempting to control the illness without confronting the source of the illness. In returning the animals to pasture, we will necessarily have to reduce the number of animals to the point that the land’s carrying capacity is not exceeded. In scaling back the number of animals being raised for meat, we help to reduce the problem of over-consumption of meat and offer opportunities for more balanced ways of eating. In doing so, we are reducing the impact on the environment and the ecological destruction that so easily arises from CAFOs. Further, we decentralize our agricultural system, providing the opportunity for more people to make a living farming, which then provides for the reemergence of healthy rural economies and communities, which then benefits the health of urban economies and communities.
This is not the end of the story, though, and neither are those final few sentences a resolution to the issue of eating sustainably. Let’s go back to the reductionist solutions proffered to the question of how to feed the world’s population. It seems to make sense that if the world’s population subsisted on a diet lower on the food chain, then less energy will be required to feed the world. And indeed, you can consistently find arguments in support of vegetarianism as an appropriate response to ecological destruction and unsustainable ways of living. We are reminded again and again that eating animals is eating higher on the food chain and that, therefore, every calorie taken in is necessarily the result of a greater number of calories of energy expended than if we had taken in a calorie of plant food.
I obviously don’t dispute the simple fact that one calorie of animal protein is the result of multiple calories of plant protein. It follows that to eat the calorie of plant protein requires less calories taken out of the system as a whole. That’s logical enough, and just because it’s rooted in a certain reductionism doesn’t make it untrue. (Reductionism does have its uses, after all.) However, how one plant or one animal calorie gets to my mouth is dependent on a wide variety of variables, so each calorie is not made the same. The whole system of food arriving in my stomach contains a number of variables beyond simply what segment of the food chain it came from.
In this sense, the question of diet has to be considered in a whole systems context, rather than a reductionist context. I already argued this point to a degree in an earlier post in this series, There are No Vegetarians in a Famine, but if we’re going to grapple honestly with the question of what’s the most sustainable and coherent way to eat, it’s going to involve a lot of consideration of personal context, local landscape, and the local ecology. How does killing and eating a local wild animals compare to eating locally raised beef that lived on pasture? How do those options compare to beef from the industrial agriculture system? And how does all that compare to eating organic staple grains from a monoculture operation in California or Canada or the Midwest? What about conventional staple grains? Or how about an array of locally grown, organic vegetables? An intensive organic vegetable operation, a permaculture homestead, a mixed-crop and animal rotational system? The question of which of these foods or methods of production are most sustainable are rooted in locality and each individual person, as is the question of the health and satisfaction of a particular diet.
The trouble with using reductionist thinking to come up with a solution of staple grains and range land beef is that it presupposes a number of other variables that may or may not be viable in a deindustrializing future. The number of calories of energy it takes to produce a calorie of beef is usually calculated based on industrial agriculture rooted in the feed lot system. How does that compare to small, local farms utilizing a rotational grazing system and not feeding their cattle grain? The number of calories necessary to produce a calorie of soy or corn or oat or wheat is dependent on the way those plants were grown, what seed was used, what pesticides and fertilizers were or were not used, where it was grown, where it’s being consumed, and perhaps even on whether or not a person feels more satiated on an equivalent number of calories of grain versus meat or any other type of food (assuming the person in question has options, which is not an assumption that can be blithely made in a deindustrializing future.) Most of these examinations of the most sustainable ways to eat are rooted in assumptions of industrial agriculture, as well as in assumptions that we can just pick and choose our diet without concern for our local realities. All of those are also assumptions that cannot be blithely made in a deindustrializing future. We don’t know if the future will allow us centralized forms of agriculture that can create a somewhat consistent diet for the world at large. I would argue that it won’t. A sustainable diet in the future may boil down to what’s produced locally, and that will vary widely if local production is rooted in natural systems, on-site recycling of nutrients and no or little more energy than is provided by the sun that falls on the land. In such a system, you’re a lot more likely to find systems of food production that utilize a mix of locally-appropriate annual and perennial crops along with various types of livestock. That’s one of our better approximations of a natural ecosystem, and the natural ecosystem is the model that we’re going to have to use if excess energy becomes scarce.
This brings me to a question I’ve been considering of late, which is how I might eat locally and sustainably, with the least amount of money. It’s a question rooted in my attempts at voluntary poverty, my concern for the health of our world, and my desire for a graceful and sustainable future. The best solution I can come up with is not one that’s overly concerned about the food chain, but one that’s overly concerned with my particular context. It seems to me that the best way I could eat would be a diet that focused primarily on locally-grown, organic vegetables, berries and fruit, both from my own garden and from local, small-scale farms; pasture-raised meat from the two small farms I currently work as a farm hand for; my local source of raw milk, which I can also make butter, yogurt, and cheese from; chicken and duck eggs from local sources; some organic staple grains from the local grocery, including wheat from which I can bake my own bread; and some trade at the farmers market for other items, such as honey, fruit, cheese, and perhaps some baked goods. My diet already is partially made up of these particulars, but I have yet to embrace it completely.
The benefits of this diet are multiple. For starters, it’s enjoyable and healthy. It’s a diet I would and do take pleasure in. It strikes me as sustainable in the sense that it is focused mostly on food grown and raised within a radius of 15 miles of where I live, and it’s food raised well, food the production of which I know intimately. It’s whole food, and thus it eliminates much of the cost in energy, resources and money of processing, and greatly reduces packaging. It’s also resilient in that most of it is not as reliant on long supply chains as the food in the grocery store is (though there is still reliance—all the local farms I know of use at least some inputs, though nothing like what industrial agriculture uses.) It strengthens the community by supporting local farms and farmers and it even strengthens my own work, as two of those local farms employ me. Relatedly, I can reduce my need for cash by gaining a good amount of that food via work-trade or other forms of trade. Furthermore, this diet solidifies relationships, care, and good work. It is inherently of my context, completely unique to me. I think that’s important.
I’m not saying this is the perfect diet. And there may be a diet available to me that overall uses less energy and is a bit kinder to the environment, in certain ways. But this strikes me as a uniquely good diet for me, rooted in the consideration of the entire system in which I live and from which I gain my sustenance. Furthermore, this strikes me as a particularly resilient diet in the face of an uncertain future, and that’s of the utmost importance. Perhaps just as importantly, this is a diet that works with and largely accepts my local limitations, rather than resorting to the blunt attempts at control that so often underlie reductionist thinking.
In fact, the resilience of this diet, the idea of resiliency in general, the folly of strained attempts at control in a deindustrializing future, and the necessities for engagement with community are all important considerations of both reductionism and whole systems thinking—as well as voluntary poverty and any response to a post-peak oil world—and those are the topics about which I’ll be writing in the next entry in How To Be Poor.