The Call, Column 99 – A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

10 07 2018

(July 8, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

The universe is estimated to be about 15 billion years old. The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The first bacterial life appeared around 3.8 billion years ago, the first animal life around 540 million years ago, and the first human-like primates just a couple of million years ago.

Only 200,000 years ago did the first modern humans evolve, and only around 10,000 years ago did they begin agriculture, and form civilization. And in that short 10,000 years, this species has recorded history, developed math, science, art, and philosophy, and made huge strides in physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology, so much so that we can accurately be called, in the words of the late cosmologist Carl Sagan, “a way for the universe to know itself”.

And in that short 10,000 years, that species has expanded to a population of 7 billion, covering the entire planet, and exhausting stores of natural resources – fossil fuels, fossil water, fossil topsoil, and even (as I’ve termed it) “fossil atmosphere” – that took the Earth its entire  lifetime to create.

And we’ve done all of this, and created massive technological development which has, among other things, now extended our lifespans beyond what they were prior to starting agriculture, largely using borrowed resources and borrowed time; we’ve done all of this by working our Earth, our land, and fellow members of our species to the point of near exhaustion, so much so that we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond maybe 100 years.

Depending on whom you ask, we owe our entire existence either to the random formation of complex systems during the expansion and cooling of the universe, or to the deterministic sequence of events following the big bang, or to an intelligently overseen creation process.

Whichever of these you believe, we know for certain that the universe began as a single point of light, progressed towards the development of sentient life, and currently harbors beings which are capable of performing science, creating art, experiencing love and sorrow and anxiety, sustaining their own existence indefinitely into the future, and destroying themselves completely in the span of no more than a few days. That’s pretty flipping important.

You are pretty flipping important. You are part of the greatest story ever told – maybe the only story ever told – which has been told for 15 billion years, and is told continuously by the spin of electrons, the making and breaking of chemical bonds, the replication of DNA, the existence of biological life, and the joys and sorrows experienced by every one of the nearly 7 billion human beings that live on this planet.

You are part of the most important experiment in the history of all of existence. A planet-wide…no, a cosmos-wide creation process, wherein by some (we might call it “divine”) mystery, the material world was made able to look back on itself, and experience itself, and know itself. You are the universe, you are the Earth, and your brain is somehow able to understand these things of which it is a part…and worry about them.

And therein lies the rub. The human brain is arguably the first material thing, in the history of all of existence, that is capable of perceiving itself and the Earth and universe of which it is a tiny part, and knowing how to change these things, and having moral and ethical and intellectual and spiritual motivations to try and cause changes. Human beings possess the knowledge of good and evil, and the further we drift from our elemental roots as animals, as hunter-gatherers, we seem destined as a collective group to choose evil.

You are given one Earthly life, and as far as you or I or anyone else knows, every single iota of meaning that can and will ever be attached to your consciousness and free agency and very existence is defined by the things that you use that life to do.

As far as any of us know, we on the surface of this planet are the sole instance of biological life that is, ever was, and ever will be in existence in the universe. Somehow, the material world is able to create and sustain life – big sacks of chemicals, that themselves are capable of love, compassion, goodness, intelligence, and hope. Whether you believe this happened by random accident, or deterministic materialism, or theological design, and whether you believe that this existence has meaning or not, and if so, whether that meaning is intrinsic or made-up, doesn’t really matter in terms of how it affects your basic conduct.

You are part of the most advanced species of the most complex type of chemical system, living on the most intricate planetary surface in the known universe. This may be it: our sole opportunity to get it right, to understand and maintain and preserve and sustainably expand biological life – human life. We may not get another shot, and as I said above, you live at a particularly important moment in history, where we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond 100 years.

We have decisions to make, big ones, and maybe tough ones. Decisions about the collective sacrifice of some of our freedoms – the freedom to be bad, the freedom to take advantage of other people, the freedom to exploit natural resources and destroy natural commons which do not belong to us as individuals, the freedom to act solely and boldly in defense of individual prosperity at the expense of collective prosperity – in order to protect our species as a whole.

We must make those decisions in order to ensure that human greed, 7 billion times over, doesn’t rob the universe of this only known instance of life.

What we do now, matters. And what we don’t do also matters. If we ignore the degradation of topsoil, if we ignore the depletion of freshwater, if we ignore the cries of children in cages and disadvantaged people around the world, if we ignore the destruction of natural landscapes to make way for further development, if we ignore the melting ice caps and warming atmosphere – we have only ourselves to blame when we can no longer take for granted the planet we call home.

We are a way for the universe to know itself. We are a way for the Earth to know itself. We are a way for the topsoil, and water, the air, and the single-celled prokaryotic organisms from which all life originated – to know themselves. And we know that we are collectively choosing to destroy it all.

Environmentalism, conservation, “woke-ness” – these are no longer fringe choices. They are no longer political beliefs (as if they ever should have been). They are moral imperatives. We have no right to destroy this which does not belong to us, and we know enough that we have no excuse to let it happen. We are educated enough, capable enough, and obliged enough to fix the problems we have caused.

Let’s start acting like it.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 83 – More Food for Thought

29 10 2017

(October 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

More Food for Thought

            What is food?

This question began my last column, starting us on an adventure through the history of hungry living things on our planet. We left off around 10,000 years ago, with the basic definition of “food” that has sustained essentially every single animal, since we first emerged from the primordial soup hundreds of millions of years ago: food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts, from which energy and nutrients can be obtained.

Every species on the planet – ourselves included, at least until 10,000 years ago when we started agriculture – eats according to this basic definition of food, defined by their particular evolutionary history. And I would argue that eating this species-specific definition of “food” produces the greatest likelihood for achieving individual health and longevity.

But then, at least for the human animal, everything changed. Our hubris put an end to the golden era of diet, as it does to most good things. We ate from the Forbidden Tree, choosing to toil in the field in order to eat our bread. And we took upon ourselves the responsibility of gods, but with neither the wisdom, nor the power, nor the benevolence of the One who originally established us as hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture turned food into a human creation. No longer was our diet extracted from the same basic plants and animals on whose flesh we had evolved; rather, it was the product of our own toil, the spoils of our conquest and subjugation of previously-wild land, previously-wild plants, and previously-wild animals. This allowed tribes of early modern human beings to settle in one area, enabling them to produce more food per square foot than at any time prior, but making them dependent on their own labor to keep closed the thin veil between survival and starvation.

I cannot overstate the significance of this event, probably more than any other in our history. This marked the birth of civilization, and was the original cause of everything, good and bad, that has come with civilization. Settling down as agriculturalists naturally resulted in the development of human communities…at the expense of the long-term health of the land on which we settled. It allowed for the division of labor, and also for caste systems and the exploitation of the lower classes. It sparked the beginning of commerce and trade, and resulted in warfare between neighboring tribes in competition for the same (unnecessarily-) limited resources. It provided us with a more stable food supply, but made us susceptible to basically every disease we struggle against to this day.

Civilization allowed for all of this. We can argue until the cows come home whether it improved or worsened our species’ overall wellbeing, but it happened. And at the root of every product of civilization, as the basic premise upon which all of human endeavor sits, is the fact that we cultivate, rather than the hunt and gather, essentially all of our food. Food became the foundation and basis of human society.

And then, as the story goes, the first tribal communities morphed into nation-states. Agriculture-based settlements set themselves apart by more than just geographical distance. Human beings began to bow to different leaders, worship different gods, trade in different goods and currencies; and all the while, each state was but one strategic maneuver away from their rightful expansion into their neighbors’ land, or one wrong move away from the loss of their own. Food was a finite resource to be guarded, stolen, traded for, and won, and every cow your neighbor owned, every acre he planted, every bite he took…was one fewer for you.

Simultaneous to the political differentiation enabled by agriculture was the cultural differentiation. The development of a quasi-stable society, which was set in motion by the start of agriculture, freed up peoples’ time and brain-power for more nuanced work than hunting and gathering their food, or even growing it. Some were free to create poetry, music, and art of all kind; they studied philosophy and science; they practiced astrology and founded complex, often politically-charged religions. Distinct cultures developed, and the diets, culinary practices, and agricultural strategies unique to a certain people became one of the ways to define and distinguish them from others. Food became culture.

These basic definitions – food as a finite resource, as an element of culture, as the elemental foundation of civilized society and community – persisted for much of modern human history. Nearly all of us were agrarians, by association if not as farmers ourselves. Food was politics; it was culture; it was vocation; and it was limited. But despite being under domestication, it was still understood as an outcropping of the natural world. That is, until the late 19th century. And here’s where it gets really ugly, really fast.

As the Industrial Revolution burgeoned in the Western World, efficiency and uniformity became the name of the game. It stopped mattering, how tasty or nutritious your tomatoes were; margins were tight and global demand was skyrocketing, so it only mattered how many pounds you could squeeze out of every square foot. The question “is this cow being raised as healthfully as possible” was replaced with a more economical one, “is this cow being raised as efficiently as possible”. And as an answer to that question, the CAFO was developed.

Food, like every other consumable good, became a commodity under industrialization. My ear of corn is the same as your ear of corn, which is the same as one grown in Mexico or Greece or Arkansas – they are distinguishable only by how cheaply each can be grown and shipped.

And here, my friends, something strange happened. Up until some point in the early 20th century, we were still heterotrophs, relying on other “food” organisms to gather solar energy (plants), or concentrate it in an easily-digestible package (animals). But with the widespread implementation of fossil fuels as energy sources, and their adoption into agriculture – as both fuels and fertilizers – we began to both figuratively and quite literally eat fossil fuels. We, the kings and queens of the heterotrophs, have come to the point of using more non-biological, chemically-stored energy to feed ourselves than biological! Food has become a commodity, and somehow, it is a non-renewable, fossil-fuel-based commodity

We would be justified to leave the conversation here. This is an accurate description of food as it is currently defined. But it isn’t the only definition…and they only get worse.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a cold, soulless, reductionist view of food and human nutrition, one I’m sure that you are intimately familiar with…though I hope you know to look beyond it.

Modern nutrition has taken the approach of defining food as a means to an end – foods are simply combinations of water, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and micronutrients, and eating is simply a means towards consuming the perfectly-understood amounts of each of these substances needed to maintain a healthy life. There is no nuance, according to nutritional science, and food is not only a commodity, but simply the sum of its parts…just like the human beings consuming it. It is measurable and quantifiable. “Food” is just a number of Calories and associated amounts of vitamins and minerals; and balancing these numbers with your body’s requirements is the only consideration that is needed in order to be healthy. Food is a means to an end, and that’s it. How utterly absurd!

And finally, we’ve reached modern day. From a political standpoint, food is a commodity; from a scientific one, it’s a means to a nutritional end. But there is one more definition that arose together with our Postmodern Western Corporatocracy; the idea that’s more immediately responsible for our horrible “relationship with food” (God, I hate that phrase) than any other: Food. Is. A. Vice.

We are bombarded by aggressive marketing campaigns whose basic message is that our lives can be made better if we just eat the product that they’re selling. We are told to consume alcohol, sugar, and fast food as methods to cope with the stress of modern life. Ads convince us that good taste is what we crave – that consuming their “cheezy”, or “lo-fat”, or “naturally-sweetened” product, as part of a balanced lifestyle of course, will make us enjoy our lives more. And we’ve been convinced that the conspicuous consumption of certain foods – specific brands, certain health foods, that special new box of reconstituted garbage – can help to advance our place in society. I know, it’s hardly an intelligent view of food. But I didn’t say it…the TV did.

And there you have it. Food has gone from the basic energy and nutrients required by a species to live, to an agricultural commodity, all the way to a means of mass mind-control. At this point, it’s just a way to sell flashy combinations of wheat, corn, soy, milk, and sugar, the commodity crops that governments around the world subsidize in order to prevent food shortages and the associated political unrest. We’re in a bad place; there’s no kinder way to say it. We’ve discussed solutions to this problem in the past, and will do so in the future. But today, I just hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 82 – Food for Thought

17 10 2017

(October 15, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Food for Thought

            What is food?

That’s a question you probably haven’t heard before. And it might have caught you off guard, being that you and I are the Urban Farmer family, and food is kind of our thing.

But really, have you ever actually stopped and thought deeply about food? For me, it took many years of urban farming, developing an environmental awareness, steeping myself in evolutionary/Paleolithic nutrition, reading enough Wendell Berry, and (no word of lie) debating with people in the comment sections of food-related articles to really get me to think deeply about this question. And it’s a rabbit hole that you’ll probably find just as interesting as I do. Grab a flashlight, Alice, because Wonderland awaits!

Let me take you back a few billion years, when the Earth brought forth the first single-celled life. This, I think, is a good starting point for the definition that we’re trying to build today. One of the basic characteristics that defines life is the use of metabolism; that is, taking in energy and materials from the environment in order to support internal functions. This is true of every life-form on the planet, and as far as I’m concerned, it is the basic definition of “food” after all other nuance is stripped away. Food is energy and nutrients from the environment.

The first life on Earth was autotrophic; in addition to taking in materials from its environment, it “created its own energy” by taking in energy from non-living sources, either sunlight (photosynthesis) or chemicals/heat in its environment (chemosynthesis). Plants as well as certain bacteria and algae are autotrophs still present on Earth today.

But, contrary to what some would have you believe, we are not autotrophs. We are heterotrophs, organisms that must steal from, maim, or kill other organisms to supply themselves with energy. Like all other animals, fungus, and some microorganisms, our food must come from the body parts of other living things.

This sort of realization was striking for me, when I made it a year or two ago. There are people who claim that meat/eggs/milk are “not food, they’re murder/theft/etc”. Murder is defined as killing another human being, of course; but inflammatory terminology aside, this sentiment isn’t exactly wrong. ALL of a heterotroph’s food is the product of killing or stealing, by definition, if we believe that these acts are still defined as such when perpetrated against a non-human (they aren’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s broaden their definition). In this scope, “food” doesn’t actually exist. There is no lifeless sludge from which we can extract nourishment (Twinkies notwithstanding). Seeds are the unborn fetuses of plants; fruits are their ovaries; sap is the literal lifeblood (blueberry pancakes with extra syrup, anyone?).

This all might have turned your stomach, but it shouldn’t. We can’t photosynthesize, we can’t live off of volcanic heat, and we aren’t breatharians; for heterotrophs like us, food is the literal bodies of other organisms that contain energy and nutrients.

Getting a little more specific, all of life on Earth is divided into various levels of categorization. The principle, and arguably narrowest of these, is a “species”, a group of very similar organisms that can reproduce with one another.

Among other things, a species is defined by its diet, the things it eats in order to survive. Taking this a little further (warning: justifiable bias ahead), a species’ “optimal diet” is the subset of those things that it CAN eat, in the appropriate amounts necessary to both provide it with all energy and nutrients it needs, in optimal chemical form, but also minimizing its intake of toxins to a manageable level. This optimal diet is developed as an integral part, both a cause and effect, of its evolution.

Wild ruminants eat grass; that’s their optimal diet. They eat grass, because they have multiple stomachs and special bacteria in order to be able to digest grass; because they eat grass; because their stomachs and gut bacteria are supposed to digest grass; because they eat grass. Do you see my point? Their optimal diet developed as an integral part of their evolution. Domesticated cows are also supposed to eat exclusively grass as well, but our government subsidizes corn and soy in order to placate us…so we feed them an evolutionarily-inappropriate diet.

But wild species – animals, plants, fungus, microbes – they basically eat their optimal diets in almost every case. A tree “eats” sunlight and certain soil micronutrients because that’s what its evolutionary history dictates; with low-quality soil, it becomes sickly, and without sunlight, it dies. A robin eats earthworms, seeds, and the bottom half of each perfectly-ripe raspberry in my yard, because that’s what its evolutionary history dictates; if it doesn’t get the protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, and beneficial microorganisms that it needs from those foods, its health becomes suboptimal and it becomes more a more likely target for evolutionary purging.

The adherence to optimal, appropriate diet is a benchmark quality of healthy, stable species on Earth. Those individuals that eat appropriately are healthier and better able to survive, reproduce, and teach their offspring to eat similarly; those who don’t, aren’t. For the vast majority of species on earth, essentially all but human beings and their domesticated plants and animals, food is the bodies of the right organisms, in the right amounts.

If the answer to our question, “what is food?”, stopped here, with this last definition, all would be good. This definition is by-and-large the historically- and evolutionarily-normal one, acted upon for basically all of human history (and all of the history of every other species).

But we didn’t stop there. Next time, we will kick off at the start of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, when the definition of food changed enormously, and has continued to do so throughout written history. Food is a lot more complicated now than ever before. Stay tuned.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.