This is a call to farms. It is and is not a response. It is not a response to the route of any one brigade, the military mind that mapped it or the propaganda that is translating it into ideological talking points. It is a response to the forces that turned—lo’ these few brief millennia, and lo’er these few brief centuries, and lo’er yet (you’d think lo’est, surely, but no, there seems no end to the Great Acceleration) these few brief decades, these few brief tweets, these few brief algorithmic breaths, these few brief ultra-fast bursts of ones and zeroes—the Fertile Crescent into the Oil Patch and amber waves of grain into food as fuel, food as weapon, food as store of cheap calories and industrial power.
This is a call to farms because there is healing to be done. There is trust to be restored. Mutuality to be rekindled. Biodiversity to be valued. Conviviality to be nurtured. Carbon to be sequestered. Bread to be broken. Affection to be shared. Humility to be cultivated.
The overwhelming sadness I am feeling these days, witnessing the siege of Mariupol and Valodymyr’s leadership and Vladimir’s propagandizing and NATO’s struggle to respond without escalation, is deeper than generalized helplessness. There is a lifetime of barely repressed cognitive dissonance and American remorseful conscience to it. I say “barely repressed” because I’ve been imperfectly dealing with cognitive dissonance and remorseful conscience ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis, when, as I entered adolescence, I was just old enough to sense that as the nation that developed nuclear weapons and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a certain inevitability to the crisis we then faced in the form of Russian nuclear warheads wending their way to Cuba.
I’ve been mulling anew, in these current hours of war in Europe, the roots of my American cognitive dissonance. How do we reconcile the American Dream and the military industrial complex? American Exceptionalism and 393 million guns? Going to the moon and thousands of nuclear warheads? Amber waves of grain and McWorld?
McWorld. That word encapsulates, perhaps more than any other, the blithe self-assuredness with which industrial capitalism has planted its flag all over the globe. For years, McDonald’s trumpeted its numbers on the golden arches themselves: “X” million burgers sold. They stopped putting the numbers up there in 1994, as the 100 million mark was being approached, because, observers suggest, the numbers had become so large they were starting to be a liability in the Quantity vs. Quality School of Value Creation and Marketing.
McWorld. So enthralled have we been with the entrepreneurial success of companies that have global reach that we’ve even wanted to believe they could represent a pathway to peace. Thomas Friedman wrote in 1996:
The thesis is this: No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other. . .
There was enough of a correlation for me to ask James Cantalupo, president of McDonald’s International and its de facto Secretary of State, what might be behind this Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention — which stipulates that when a country reaches a certain level of economic development, when it has a middle class big enough to support a McDonald’s, it becomes a McDonald’s country, and people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars; they like to wait in line for burgers.
McWorld. When Benjamin Barber wrote McWorld vs. Jihad in 1994, Jihad was not as clear to many in the West as it was destined to become. We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of coming to grips with the implications of McWorld.
But rather than tallying what is good and what is bad in McWorld, let’s look to the question of balance. Isn’t it obvious enough that both McWorld and Jihad as poles, as worldviews institutionalized and ideologized in opposition to one another, do harm? Isn’t it obvious that consumerism, militarism, exceptionalism and fundamentalism too easily run to the extremes?
Less obvious, but no less important, is something we can call investorism. This is the culture of Buy Low/Sell High, Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later taken to extreme, the culture that prioritizes transactions over relationships, that, in Oscar Wilde’s famous words, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The price of a Tomahawk missile is $1 million. The price of a pallet of two-by-fours is $X. A loaf of bread in Cairo costs $Y. The price of a dose of insulin is $Z.
We cannot get all the way to peace and health by being more conscious consumers, nor by being more conscious investors—at least not so long as we understand investing to mean the anonymous trading of securities and portfolios of financial instruments that are too complex, too abstract to understand. That’s investing 20th-century-style, courtesy of a few centuries of industrialization and corporatization and fiduciarization. In the 21st century, we need to put some of our own money, and lots of our intention, and meaningful chunks of our time, into a new kind of investing—putting money to work near where we live, in things that we understand, starting with food, not with an eye towards how much money we can make, but towards how effectively we promote cultural, ecological and economic diversity, community resilience, health and peace.
A call to farms. . .
What kind of wordplay is this, offered
In the face of. . .in the face of. . .
this warfare on the Steppes,
these implosions of the impossible,
wounds of geopolitical reductionism wrought,
ruthless obliterations of all poetic ought,
dropping from the sky
as if peace were a trinket?
Can a call to farms be made
in the shadow of. . .in the shadow of. . .?
The words “World War Three” issue forth.
A dull inevitability accompanies such punditry.
The Dnieper flows to the Black Sea.
Everything that had been taught, erased.
Every step that had been forgotten, retraced.
Every seed that had been planted, laid waste.
Tincture of treaty. Shadow of indecision.
The cancer had only been in remission.
Back in the Fifties, in countless dens of countless
tract homes in countless U.S. suburbs, countless
boys lay prone, playing with plastic army men
in various positions, making shooting sounds,
World War II in their heads in some way,
fathers in their heads in some way,
survival in their heads in some way,
being at such a great yet minimal remove
in their heads in some way, vaguely aware,
but not, of being a generation removed,
a continent removed, an American Dream
removed, a whole that never would be whole
removed, and removed again, displaced, free,
victorious, unwittingly emboldened, as only
those on the right side of history can be.
Elsewhere, gods and ghosts cavorted,
unsure whether to celebrate or weep.
Under the banner of Democracy’s victory,
Technology consorted with some demi-goddess
or other, and Nuclear Proliferation was conceived.
The ghost of Stalin stalked the empty Yalta grounds.
Around Gaia’s slender shoulders was draped
the shroud of unlimited economic growth—
with a certain alienated majesty she wore it,
while at the banquet table, revelers shouted.
The festivities were not long lived.
Everything was put on the market.
There were plenty of buyers.
There were as many buyers
as there were shares to be bought.
As there were battles to be fought.
As there were preachers to thunder.
As there were desks to hide under.
Then, as the millennium wound down
were myriad financial instruments sown,
the broad acreages of our non-bewilderment
receiving them without so much as a whimper.
Who knew there could be so many ways
to maximize return and minimize chance?
Scattered in fields of Ukrainian wheat,
The thread of such concerns goes back to Thoreau and then runs to Tolstoy, Ruskin, Gandhi and Schumacher, and thence to Dana Meadows, Hazel Henderson, Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben. Greta Thunberg has picked up the banner for the next generation, calling out “fairy tales of unending economic growth.”
She reminds us that we run the risk, in railing against capitalism or against socialism, of failing to focus on them—those fairy tales of unending economic growth.
It is not as important to be against capitalism or against socialism as it is to be for humanism. Any economic system that belittles humans, that puts institutions and ideologies and financial abstractions ahead of people and the places where we live, is not an economic system under whose banner we should rally.
To be for humanism is to harbor a certain skepticism when it comes to consumerism, investorism, exceptionalism, fundamentalism and militarism.
This is the beauty and the subtle power of community supported agriculture. Community supported agriculture could be described as one part capitalism, one part socialism, two parts localism, but such a description would belie the degree to which, in their informality and deep mutuality, CSAs constitute a kind of stand against isms, altogether.
The first wave of community supported agriculture, which grew from the first CSA in the U.S. in 1986 to some 7,000 CSAs with 600,000 members today, is an indicator. It points in a direction. We must build on this foundation, heading towards a food system in which meaningful portions of the food supply are produced locally and regionally. How much is “meaningful?” Over time, we may arrive at a percentage. For now, we can just affirm that a few percent is not enough.
What impels us is not just the desire to know our local farmers, although knowing them is surely a good thing. What impels us is not just the desire for fresh, toxic-free food and carbon rich soil, although these are surely goods of the highest order, too. What impels us is not just the desire to reduce the outsourcing of food production to corporations controlled by invisible shareholders, although enhancing local control of food and reducing the extent of our dependence on global supply chains is surely a worthy pursuit. What impels us is the deepest of suspicions that structural reform is needed and that it may never be possible from the top, down.
When we send our money to Wall Street, Washington and Silicon Valley, it doesn’t readily come back in ways that can repair the damage done by the sending.
In 1969, Wendell Berry wrote the essay Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Donald Pratt. Pratt had been arrested for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
I still cannot read Berry’s essay without getting goose bumps. It stands next to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. As I’ve already excerpted it heavily elsewhere (in AHA!: Fake Trillions, Real Billions, Beetcoin and the Great American Do-Over), let’s just reflect on one snippet here:
No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as earthworms. To cease to know this, and to fail to act upon the knowledge, is to begin to die the death of a broken machine.
Perhaps some of my goose bumps derive from the narrowness of my own escape from the draft, which ended in 1973, as I was graduating from college. Or perhaps they go back further, to JFK. In 1963, several months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a few months before he would be assassinated, President Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University. Titled “A Strategy for Peace,” it surprised the world with a bold announcement that the U.S. would unilaterally halt all atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons:
Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable–that mankind is doomed–that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade–therefore, they can be solved by man.
The military-industrial complex and nuclear proliferation do not have lives of their own, however much it may seem so. They are not blind forces over which we have no sway. We give them power by owing our allegiance in certain ways, by allowing our money to flow in certain ways.
We can cause our money to flow in certain other ways, as well, supporting decentralization, disintermediation, deceleration, and anti-deracination (?!), a.k.a. the slow, the small and the local, not as ideological alternatives to global systems, but as practical countervailing forces, promoting balance and healing at the level of household, community and bioregion.
In the mid-19th century, Thoreau dug into fundamental questions about conscience, war and where our money goes, questions that are as vital today as they were then. Reflecting on his refusal to pay federal taxes because a portion of those taxes was funding war with Mexico, he wrote:
It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. . .
I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.
Money finds its way to war. “Cast your whole vote,” Thoreau continued, “not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” If we bring our whole selves to the question of where our money is going, we can find ways to put it to work more peaceably.
Healing the wounds of the industrial food system is not, as a project, on the same pedestal of urgency as ending war, but it is an urgent project, nonetheless, and not entirely unrelated. We are called to root out violence at all levels. Responding to immediate crises is one thing, attenuating causes of future crises, another.
At certain junctures, a few extraordinary souls may make the difficult and complicated choice to become a conscientious objector. The choice to become a conscientious investor is far less dramatic, far less binary, far friendlier—driven, sure, by being mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore, but also by a certain conscientious affection.
Civilization is an awfully fragile thing, so prone it is to institutionalized violence, all the way down to the whys and wherefores of industrial agriculture, which, if not managed with the greatest of care, damages the web of life.
No Till agriculture is a wonderfully practical thing. It aims to leave carbon in the soil and put more there, pointing us in a certain direction as to our manner of comportment in relation to the earth and the cycles of life.
Do No Harm is a gloriously noble thing, although elevating it to the level of religious dogma is a way to kill its essence as surely as any plowshare ever killed an earthworm.
It is generally assumed, when calling for systemic reform, that big problems require big solutions and that big solutions require large-scale government intervention. The playing field, this thinking goes, can only be leveled by the machinery of state.
It seems incontrovertible that if the job at hand is the leveling of playing fields, then bulldozers are preferable to trowels.
But what if the leveling of playing fields is not the only job at hand? What if we are also called to cultivate new gardens?
This is not a theoretical call to farms. This is a rallying cry of the most pragmatic kind—yet not without some poetry about it.
There is nothing more pragmatic and more poetic, both, than a small, diversified organic farm. Such a farm is a supremely entrepreneurial affair and its steward must be a supremely adept entrepreneur. A community fed by supremely adept farmer-entrepreneur-stewards is a healthier community. A successful organic farm is also, in its dance of biodiversity and constant experiments in doing less harm, an affair of considerable poetic possibility.
Soil fertility, too, is an embodiment of pragmatism and poetry. It is the opposite of reductionist, linear, mechanistic thinking. There is much that we do not know about it. The microorganisms in fertile soil are almost beyond counting. It has been said by an Italian poet that wine is the poetry of the earth; the same may be said for fertility. Fertility is the soil’s imaginative expression of harmonious coexistence. (That’s not nearly as pithy, but then nothing can touch an Italian poet opining about wine.)
Poetry is the sweet nothings whispered
by Rhyme in Reason’s ear
by Ecology in Economy’s ear
by Aphrodite in Apollo’s ear
by Tanya in Wendell’s ear.
From such sweet nothingry do somethingries shoot,
allowing possibility and peace to bloom.
For a few precious moments,
even the dullest roots,
even those damaged by war’s cruelest winter,
find ways to stir according to the seasons.
“There is the battle on the ground,” comments a BBC reporter in Kyiv, “and then there is the battle for the narrative.” In the information age, information is weaponized.
So is money. Abstract financial instruments and complex intermediation schemes erode trust. The trading mentality invades all spheres of culture. Investment banker Felix Rohaytn described derivatives as “financial hydrogen bombs built on computers by 24-year-olds with MBAs.” Warren Buffett described them as “financial weapons of mass destruction.”
Through this war and that, from military war to class warfare, we remain governed by the same economic narrative. This is the story of giving our money to people we don’t know very well, to invest in things they don’t understand very well, in places most of us will never visit. So long as the economy keeps growing and the stock market keeps going up, we are content relegating even the stubbornest systemic problems, especially the stubbornest systemic problems, to the realm of footnotes.
What will be the final narrative of homo sapiens? That we never found a way to trump war? That we continued laying waste, ad infinitum? Or that we found a different path, a path to healing, ultimately doing what no other species has ever done or could do—using our symbolic reasoning to self-limit and co-exist? Perhaps this would not be so much the final narrative of homo sapiens as the first narrative of homo philia.
Someday, Mariupol will be rebuilt. There will be many jobs created in the rebuilding, much money to be made, just as there was much money made in the manufacture of the munitions and the military systems that are being used to destroy Mariupol. But not even a mad economist would construe these as arguments in favor of the destruction. Similarly, no one should argue that wealth creation is a good in and of itself, or that the prospect of using said wealth to fund philanthropy and public works is an argument in favor of enshrining consumption, economic growth and war, or enshrining one economic system over another, or enshrining economics over other measures of the worth of human beings and the value of life, the value of peace.
The question before us, then, is not only how we will mobilize to redress the immediate harm done by militarism. The question is also how we will plant the seeds of a peaceable economy. There is no better place to start than with how we grow food, how we feed ourselves and one another, how we relate to and care for the land.
Before you dismiss such a statement as the idle musings of someone who has eaten at too many farm to table restaurants for his own good, consider this. A well run, small, diversified organic farm can generate $50,000 per acre in revenue, while industrial monocultures of grain grown in multi-thousand-acre-swaths generate something like $1,000 per acre in revenues for their commodity crop. Small is not only beautiful; it can also be extremely productive. But let’s zoom out from the numbers as quickly as we zoomed in, because there are many in-and-outs to them and numbers never tell the whole story.
As awe-inspiring as globalization is, and as terrifying as the shadows of ancient tribal antipathies and geopolitical ambitions are, they must not absorb the whole of our attention. While we deal with them, we must also prepare the ground for what comes next.
Let us nurture a great awakening of local conscientiousness, a great coming together in communities and watersheds and foodsheds around the world, so that what Slow Food’s Carlo Petrini calls “virtuous globalization” can sink deep, perennial roots into a complementary process of virtuous localization.
Let us imagine, and then march forthrightly in the direction of, with a kind of affection and gumption for the ages, the vision of millions of individuals in thousands of communities around the world, bringing money back down to earth, in the name of health and peace.