Good as in not ungood

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
― George Orwell, 1984

The current political inferno has ravaged our collective psyche as it upends the meanings of words like “great”, “again”, “nasty”, and even recently resurfaced compound words like “superpredator”. Just when I was coming to terms with the realization that we might have finally arrived at a true dystopia of doublethink logic, along comes an Op Ed in the New York Times that – to paraphrase Big Daddy Orwell himself – denies the existence of objective reality and all the while takes into account the reality denied.

The piece, titled Why Industrial Farms Are Good For the Environment, urges us to finally  give in; just accept that operative words no longer hold agreed upon meanings. We are urged to concede that the highly subjective word “good” isn’t merely another way to say “less terrible”. Before we are allowed to ponder such a thoughtcrime, we are whisked along the conveyor belt of modern advancement and are asked to invest our trust in the shrewd business man known as the larger farmer.

Large farmers … are among the most progressive, technologically savvy growers on the planet. Their technology has helped make them far gentler on the environment than at any time in history.

Let’s examine this introduction. First, there is the gross assumption that progress and technological sophistication are inherently virtuous – as though the same thrust of innovation that created our ecological predicament can miraculously correct it. “GPS signals drive many of today’s tractors”, we are told – as though we are ignorant to the fact that global positioning software on our phones haven’t exactly solved our car traffic problems, or lessened the amount of greenhouse gasses our cars emit.

Then there is the author’s near-sighted concept of history that apparently begins no sooner than the early 1800’s when the first contractions of the industrial revolution began to propel society away from animal and human-powered farming and into food production of a ballooning scale that required an ever-increasing misuse of natural resources, chemicals, and of course oil. Such a narrow scope of history is convenient because it allows the writer to limit himself to only those farms that can accommodate the reach of a tractor or a combine. Never mind the centuries of subsistence farming practices prior to the tractor that were so gentle on the environment that they hardly even registered long-term damage. Never mind the rich history of agricultural societies other than our own such as China, where for thousands of years small parcels of farmland have been worked by the hands of people, not machines. Never mind the fact that the same human-powered farms like those in China can yield nearly ten times as many calories as we do in the United States, according to reports from our own Department of Agriculture.

This particular flavor of propaganda is nothing less than historical negationism, and it seeks to thicken the fog of memory by distorting not only our collective notions of truth, but also our own innate sense of harmony: harmony with the earth that has nurtured us for hundreds of years prior to the catastrophe of Big Agriculture.

Next, the author assumes the role of the Industrialist as Environmental Technician who insists that farming has influence over the environment, rather than comprising the environment itself. The Technician tinkers with his subject like a mechanic under the hood of an invisible airplane, blissfully ignorant of the fact that he himself stands on the deck of a giant invisible aircraft carrier that floats us all down the same seas.

The Technician’s work obscures our ancestral memory by helping us to forget that every thing is entwined with its environment on an absolutely cellular level. The ability to perceive the expanse of that environment is determined by consciousness and the sense organs, without which one is unaware yet nevertheless still entwined. A microscopic bacteria in my gut dwells in the environment of my body, a body which is involved in a constant exchange with what I eat, breath, think, and produce – and all environmental interactions extrapolate out from there to the edges of the universe. And yet the myopic Technician cannot see it, or if he can he nevertheless chooses to pretend that the farmer and his farm are an island immune from environmental cause and effect. In either case, the doublethink logic rattles on ad infinitum, furthering the misguided politics of Big Progress, Big Agriculture, and Big Money.

A few days after the publication of the Op Ed in question, the Times released a photo essay titled Super Size: The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st-Century of Agriculture. Let’s look at one particular image from the essay: a farm that stretches over 40,000 acres in Lapwai, Idaho. I would argue that not only is such a farm ungood for the environment, it is as much the environment as my gut, Yellowstone National Park, or the atmosphere that fades into the nether regions of space.

If one were to stand in the center of those 40,000 acres, one could rotate 360 degrees and see nothing but an endless expanse of one or two single crop species – in this case wheat and legumes. As a tiny speck among the hundreds or even thousands of football fields of monocrop (the author brags that the median size of a lettuce field is 1,373 football fields – or a relatively modest 1,800 acres), one could hardly even orient oneself as a human being. In fact, one could barely even conceptualize the scale of such a place.

Although the author would be hard pressed to admit it, these thousands of football fields that stretch across our country are indeed an environment that is inescapably interconnected with THE environment to which he no doubt refers: the place out there, to be either saved or protected in accordance with one’s political position. In such an environment one would have no way of fashioning a shelter against the elements. One would likely become ill from exposure to pesticides before starving to death. Even if one’s body systems could somehow survive such an alien landscape, one would search in vain for any kind of culture or idioms or any recognizable system of living that could make one’s time on this earth tolerable. Like a hall of mirrors that stubbornly refuses to reflect the creature who beholds it, any hint of the way one’s ancestors had lived – even of the way one’s grandparents had lived – would not only be impossible to find but would be impossible to find.

Alone and forsaken, one would stand as the sole stranger in a very strange and starkly indifferent land. And if one wandered far enough and miraculously reached the border fences of this uninhabitable wasteland, the “environment” neighboring it might contain more biodiversity, but would inevitably suffer from the chemical runoff and cultural vacuum that the behemoth factory farm emits.

And yet in an ironic twist, we are fed this line by the Technician’s own Ministry of Love:

Many food shoppers have difficulty comprehending the scale and complexity facing modern farmers, especially those who compete in a global marketplace.

As one of those many food shoppers, I can take the Technician’s bait only because I too have difficulty comprehending the scale and complexity that faces me as I scan the isles at my neighborhood corporate grocery store. I am adrift in a kaleidoscopic sea of sugar-processed and nutritionally-deficient products. However, I stop short of empathizing with the farmer’s struggles to compete in the “global marketplace”, simply because I am far too dumbstruck by the onslaught of choices to free up the emotional space. In fact, I wouldn’t wish my food dilemmas on the citizens of any foreign country. I wish for them neighborhood markets offering honest, whole foods grown within a reasonable driving distance. I wish for them to opt out of the global marketplace altogether in favor of the local marketplace. I wish for them more community and the rejection of competition.

The author would like us to willingly sacrifice any kind of agriculturally graceful way of life for something called food security – another bastardized bit of language that since the industrial revolution has been nudging farming ever closer to the realms of the military industrial complex. It’s no secret that the same herbicides that have been routinely poisoning our food since the 1950’s very closely resemble chemical weapons like Agent Orange.

The grotesque notion that satellite-guided farming practices somehow function as the savior for an increasingly hungry and growing global population is incorrect at best, and overt fear-mongering at worst. Big Ag is too big to fail, we are led to believe, so we might as well start sliding our scale away from our own ancestral sanity toward a world of the reductionist future, where we are meant to feel more secure after reading claims like this:

Using location-specific information about soil nutrients, moisture and productivity of the previous year, new tools, known as “variable rate applicators,” can put fertilizer only on those areas of the field that need it (which may reduce nitrogen runoff into waterways).

Since the author has rightly admitted that nitrogen runoff is a serious problem facing industrial agriculture, the reader is forced to hang his or her hopes on the eternal “may”. Finding little consolation, the reader may consider a time-honored “variable rate applicator” used by subsistence farmers for generations: the pitchfork. Armed with nothing more than a wheel-barrow and pitchfork, the farmer knows which areas of his field require fertilizer because he has walked its rows year after year, making note of every variation of productivity. His fertilizer of choice runs little risk of polluting nearby waterways, because it isn’t a volatile chemical from a lab but rather the composted waste from his livestock. When managed properly, his small farm wastes nothing because all organic waste is cycled through an intricate web of relationships between plants and animals. When the right balance among these parts is struck, a harmony presents itself and the place becomes whole.

Such a responsibly-sized farm is able to be monitored by a single farmer on foot, rather than flying drones that “monitor crop yields, insect infestations and the location and health of cattle.” Insect infestations are a non-issue to the small farm, since biodiversity ensures that pests are managed by balancing forces of nature, not pesticides.

More small, walkable farms means the requirement of more people interested in farming. According to the author, agriculture is using nearly half the human labor that it did in 1970. His statistic is presented as a positive, but I would counter that fewer humans on farms means less oversight (to use an industrial term), and less connection. We need to feel a connection to farming if we are ever to care for it. If our criteria for a good farm includes healthy soil and healthy people, we must flip the paradigm of farms as profit-producers to one that respects farms as places to nurture life. When that paradigm is reconstructed, walking farmers will become skeptics of doublethink propaganda that seeks to redefine what is good. They will regard any attempt to create distance between themselves and the place that nurtures them with contempt.

Words and their meanings will be measured against the substance of healthy soil that yields gently to the weight of their bodies; bodies that inhale the environment, behold the environment, and become it.

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