Posts Tagged ‘green economy’

Will The Real Sustainable Agriculture Please Stand Up

April 5, 2013

Recently, hereabouts, there has been a lot of activity concerning sustainable agriculture, farming. Locally, a few conferences have taken place amongst those already engaged in sustainable farming. There are also some folks hoping to enter into it in 2013. However, the portrait of this sustainable farming presented here in central Ohio does not look much like the one presented globally by the likes of activists like Vandana Shiva, Jerry Mander, etc. According to these writers, American agriculture (monoculture farming), touted by agribusiness as the greatest in the world, fails. They cite the obesity of the consumer as one symptom of this failure (I believe the statistics are at the level of 40% of Americans). If American monoculture farming were so incredible, why do those who eat all this great food look more like the steroid saturated livestock in the feedlots than the Greek ideal of svelteness? They ascribe this to the industrial processed food derived from the monoculture harvest. Another reason given is that so many Americans farmers rely on off the farm income in order to keep farming. The last census puts this at over 80% of family farmers are in this situation. Food is cheap, and hence farming is a precarious way to earn a living, a low paying job for most. Subsidies go to the large agribusiness farming operations/processors (not to the small individual farmer), hence monoculture farming with its overriding emphasis on a steady, predictable cash crop. Sustainable farming for these globally oriented interpreters has to do with sustenance. It has to do with livelihood as opposed to earning a living. It is not a job or entrepreneurial enterprise but something someone does with what they have, what is available in order to stay alive, to “sustain” their livelihood. Literally. Here in central Ohio (and I’m sure within much of American culture) “sustainable” is used pretty much within the same methodology as adjectives like “green” (shale gas is the green energy solution), “recyclable”, “carbon footprint” and “energy efficient”. That is, sustainable farming is one that doesn’t diminish the environment, always leaves more for the next go round, thus building up the soil as well as the nutritional content of what is consumed, etc. The disparity between the two interpretations enters with the place and role of subsidy. American sustainable farming is in competition with industrialized monoculture farming, both in technique as well as product marketing. Industrialized farming doesn’t tolerate competition, whether in the field (systemic insecticides spell death to the transgressor) or in the market (legislation that forbids labeling food in order to differentiate source, origin or composition). The higher price demanded for its product still is not enough to make American sustainable farming, well, sustainable. For American sustainable farmers, the “entrepreneurial enterprise” is not “something someone does with what they have, what is available in order to stay alive”. Rather, it is something someone does in competition with industrial agriculture, both in terms of accessing resources, like land and water, as well as securing market share. Within this competitive environment, being subsidized to start up, let alone continue such a practice of farming, is considered quite acceptable, if not downright essential. And there’s the rub. For Shiva, Mander, etc. it is the very subsidizing of agriculture that contributes to the elimination and degradation of “sustainable” farming. A lack of fairness is intrinsic to the practice of subsidy. Yet without the subsidy, whether through Government grants or off farm income, how sustainable would sustainable farming really be in the US? The irony that presents itself is that not only are the wealthy the only ones who can afford to consume a third world diet (to stay healthy), but they are also becoming the only ones who can afford the farming practices that produce such a diet.

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Becoming Amish

August 19, 2012

            Imagine: High above a downtown parking lot, we build an overhead urban garden with green house and solar panels to generate electricity. Not only will we have electric power for our restaurant next door (and a saleable surplus ), but we will be able to grow much of the produce consumed there, starting earlier and having produce later into the season (maybe even year round). The work involved with the solar panel installation will educate apprentice technicians in green energy; folks in need of jobs and a marketable practice. The green house/urban farm will employ those within the city who can’t find work or lack a work history to land that first “real” job. Below, in the open parking lot space will be the weekly farmers’ market where the surplus from above along with that of other local producers will be made available to the folks who dwell in town. All this in a small town where property rental is one of the largest industries, but employs the least number of inhabitants.  40% of the residencies are non-owner occupant and the downtown business district is in need of “revitalization”- landlords sitting on outdated “investments” badly in need of upgrading (or demolition), currently vacant, and overpriced. Downtowns of this description are repeated throughout the American mid west. Pretty incredible solution, huh?

            “Well, we’ve got to do something!” “People have a great need and the political process is at a stalemate.” So the “creative alternative” is to forge ahead through non-profits, church groups and “gov’t grants” to form real concrete avenues of hope. Amazingly enough, the rationale for such endeavors parallels the survivalist strategies that motivate many to form compounds, stock pile guns and food, and close the gates on the outside world. How so, you say?

            In a lecture at Denison University (archives 3-4-2010 Well, Who Ya Makin’ Art For?) Professor Rajani K. Kanth likened recession to money going on strike. OK, OK, so those in the know say the recession is over, only in this case the names have been changed to protect the guilty. Repeatedly it has been reported that American businesses and worldwide corporations are sitting on a mountain of cash, but won’t invest until the economic environment stabilizes and the atmosphere clears. Jamie Dimon loses 5-7 billion at Chase and everyone says it is no big deal for them. Kanth was right. Money wants more before it will go back to work and earn a higher rate of return. Barclays tries to make more with Libor manipulation. Another way to get more if you are sitting on a big pile of money is to tell those already in your employ to work for less. If they refuse, they are out of work. Who do you think will last longer? The historic marker in downtown Nelsonville Ohio confirms that approach, the recent events at the Lonmin PLC mine in South Africa make it current once again. A variation of this strategy is filing for bankruptcy in order to escape the liability of some environmental catastrophe, or contractual labor pay/pension obligations (Union Carbide springs to mind, but American Airlines is the current manifestation).

            Today one finds many entrepreneurial/social endeavors in urban farming. Is this just a variation on a form of finding a way to hold out while money is on strike? Or is it just more hard scrabble farming where what you produce is never enough and the “real” jobs and money are always somewhere else? Analogous to the survivalists, is this not, once again, the formation of a “sub” class of humans building a sub culture of its own outside (but within) the mainstream? Something akin to becoming Amish?

A Growing Dilemma

January 21, 2012

            Mention the word religion and what usually springs to mind is churches, mosques and temples with congregations of people gathered there. Mention the word agriculture and most folks think of “down on the farm” with livestock, pastures, and cultivated fields. Not that you can’t find those if you go looking for a farm; no more or less than you will find the faithful gathered in buildings when you look for religion. Few today would think of Luke Skywalker’s childhood home when they think of agriculture.

            Contained within the word “agriculture” is the word “culture”. The first definition given within Webster’s College Dictionary of the latter term is “artistic and intellectual pursuits and products”. What could farming have to do with that?

            Farmers today are doing quite well. The value of agricultural land and what it produces are very high and increasing. The markets claim one set of reasons for that (global demand), technology accounts for another (genetically modified cultivars and methodology) and the smaller percentage of people engaged in the practice may account for still another reason. A recent local news item concerned a township trustee suspected of a conflict of interest in terms of his civic responsibilities. Coming from a multi generational family farm background, his credentials for public service appeared impeccable. Now it is revealed that he individually farms over 2,000 acres and was steering development away from land he leases. “Intellectual pursuits and products” become apparent when considering traditional farming methods of retaining some of the harvest to be reused as seed in the following year’s planting. Do that today and you might find yourself sued for patent infringement on intellectual property. GM planting and methodology assume agreement with the terms of use which essentially retain ownership of how the product is used thereby eliminating the ability to reuse the end result for further production. Luke Skywalker might feel right at home with the “double loop”. Overheard on a morning radio ag talk show, it was mentioned casually as a contemporary matter of fact, much as a cell phone or hybrid automobile. Within that touted efficiency, the agricultural product is marketed as a resource for an energy manufacturing facility (such as biodiesel or ethanol). The residue (waste) from that production is then “recycled” back as animal feed. The residue (waste) from the livestock operation is then used to produce methane, another source of energy. The discussion on supplying the cash crop of energy failed to mention that the livestock are ultimately kept for human consumption (a traditional given). The emphasis of “intellectual pursuits and products” has shifted from supplying food for the table to satisfying the globe’s insatiable appetite for energy, and carbon based energy at that. This has various repercussions other than just, ultimately, global warming. One news item recently indicated that the GM phenomenon of huge per acre yields (allowing for the use of what the land yields as a resource for energy production) has been put into jeopardy by the very mechanism which originally stimulated its patented invention. Under the terms of use agreement, the agri business is to reserve 20% of its corn planting to a non GM cultivar, thereby providing “islands” of refuge for the destructive rootworms found in the soil in order that the 80% GM strain will maintain its rootworm resistance viability. Given the incredibly high yields per acre possible with GM products, and the high price for those products, many are choosing not to forgo that extra 20% earning potential. Studies in the Midwest indicate that this results in the evolution of a rootworm that is impervious to the systemic insecticidal features of GM corn. The entire house of cards is threatened to come down by the greed of a handful who want, or need to have that additional 20% immediately. We’ve seen this movie before. It is not a healthy outlook when agriculture stops being “farming” (with all its unpredictability), and decides to be like manufacturing or mining (with its singular and complete focus on end product and efficiency).

            Other farm related news out stated that last year saw an increase of first time farmers; mostly young people wanting to supply the veggies, etc. that the farmers’ market, healthy eating craze has created. Good news indeed as small scale farming doesn’t require the enormous capital/cash flow that agri business demands, is very compatible with current high tech media marketing, and allows for part time off farm income opportunities. One becomes apprehensive of the sustainability of such practices when one considers that family farms became agri businesses primarily for the benefit of the family. Come again, you say? Folks that farm also want their kids to have a better life and, like all parents, will do whatever in their means to help their children thrive. They want their kids to go to college, as well as have their own homes, etc. Such aspirations can be met by farming 2,000 acres, etc. But will the small scale, start up “family” farmers working to meet the demand of organic restaurants and pricey farm markets forego such desire? The day to day budget may be balanced with maybe some left over for health care and the homestead serving as a retirement investment, but will the children’s future be neglected? Is it that easy (or obvious) to slip the bondage of progressive modernity with all its genetic engineering and convoluted loops of economy?

On The Banks Of The Styx

March 18, 2011

            Charon must have been one of the first beekeepers, ferrying the dead hives home with the start of each new season. This blog post was going to be about a different perspective on economics and capitalism derived from the bees. It was going to reference yet another report out, this time from the UN (UN Alarmed at Huge Decline of Bee Numbers, Peter Capella, AFP, March 10, 2011). That report notes the shrinking number of bees and bee keepers, and the large percentage of food consumed globally that is reliant on their pollination. This post was going to examine the failing economics of beekeeping with an eye toward what would, or could, reverse the decline. It was going to point out that the market solution just doesn’t work with bees because more money doesn’t necessarily equate with more bees, hence more money “invested” in bees, as bee numbers decline, would not produce an even greater return (scarcity being one factor that affects exchange value). This post was going to say that this is so because the “soup” the bees swim in is already so toxic, and that the diminishing foraging environment includes an ever shrinking amount of required flora. It was going to suggest that the alternative of no bees was rather unappetizing: GM cultivars of questionable quality let alone variety, hand pollinated “museum” cultivars (so we could remember what they were like), or synthetic fruits and veggies reliant on artificial flavoring (much as we have faux crab meat, beef, chicken, etc.). The post was going to conclude with an insight ultimately suggesting that only a “not for profit” type of policy regarding bees and beekeeping, that favors them as a natural resource (like water or air), as a kind of “national treasure” would radically change the orientation. But then the images coming out of Japan overwhelmed. Images even more bizarre and grotesque than any out of Katrina, the BP oil spill, Haiti, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.(ad nauseam). Here was a hybrid, a marriage of Mad Max and future Sci Fi; an obliterated environment populated by inhabitants dressed in high tech protective gear.

            Money flees trouble, devastation and catastrophe as evidenced by the immediate drop in stock markets. Glaringly absent in the aftermath of this catastrophe is the presence of names like Toyota, Toshiba, Sony, Honda, Panasonic, etc. Unlike the beekeeper un-empowered to affect the environment from which the bees, beekeepers and others benefit, multi national companies are empowered to have a huge impact on the environment from which they derive their profits. The people of Japan contributed to these companies’ successes, no matter in how miniscule a fashion. To say that these folks were already compensated for their contributions at the time and no other obligation adheres is like relying on the market to reverse the decline of bees and beekeepers. The economics just don’t work that way.

            Post Script: The Irony – A year ago at this time, in a post entitled Post Warhol Possibility, I elaborating on the impossibility of a commercial “green art”.

Spam Camouflage

May 30, 2010

            Artworkshop International keeps sending me spam. Do you think they are trying to tell me something? The subject line always refers to some international art workshop with some artist whose name is always unknown to me. I’m sure the artist of the week has a practice, of which networking and being an educator probably occupy the greatest part.

            One of America’s longest running wars, with no determinable outcome in site, has been the one in Afghanistan. Their president, whose country is the site of our war, is often quoted chastising the NATO or US forces for perpetrating civilian deaths. The curious realization is that he never criticizes the Taliban for civilian deaths. A raid by the occupation forces which has gone awry resulting in civilian casualties is, of course, a cause for concern and regret. But a roadside bomb or suicide attack, resulting only in civilian casualties has no effect on Hamid Karzai’s ire.

            This past month the international corporate giant, BP, has been hogging the news with the mess they are creating in the Gulf of Mexico. In the past, when the Mexican currency was devalued, or Hugo Chavez did something or other in Venezuela, or Nigerian rebels threatened Shell oil production, or the Iranians rattled their sabers, etc. the price of petroleum products shot up and the stock market reacted sharply. This past month, neither has happened. The stock market has gyrated, mostly on the basis of the European debt crisis, and the price of petroleum products has actually decreased.

            What is it that remains hidden within these “news” events (OK, so spam isn’t news)? Where’s the theory interface that can shed some light on our everyday?

            With the international art workshops, it is almost obvious. The topic of hierarchy, and the binary representation of what is deemed “art” and what is not, was covered within the post entitled House Haunting (January 21, 2010)  as well as briefly elsewhere. It is a recurring theme with this blog. And sure enough, that is what is hidden in all the spam from Artworkshop International. The commercial exploitation of the covert pressure exerted by this binary mystification of what constitutes “real” art provides fertile ground for this ongoing educational enterprise. The educator must be the “real” artist, the student is just a wannabe. As an artist, at some point, one must learn to make discoveries and self educate. Otherwise, being an artist becomes little more than someone proficient at coloring between the lines.

            With Hamid it is just as obvious only stating it reveals so much more about us than him. As long as Afghanistan is occupied, for Afghans the occupier will always be considered the “Other”. For Hamid Karzai to embrace humanism (or religious tolerance) by extending 18th century notions of equality and equity to ALL acts of war that result in civilian casualties would be to abandon his own solidarity with his countrymen and its reliance on an “Other”.  After all, what is war if not the actualization of an Other?

            The BP debacle is the most curious. It defies interpretation as a “hidden”. Yet the “hidden” aspect is the most revealing one for our times. All previous stock market reactions and petroleum product increases have been due to international “governmental” political reasons (politics can be interpreted variously, by some accounts everything can be political), or some “natural” disaster or incidental mishap within the chain of delivery. This time the producer has erred internally within their own production. There have been no repercussions as there were for the other events. The other events were primarily State interference or dabbling in the “market”. Now, however, the State has been totally powerless. And the market hasn’t flinched. It is as though BP, being such a huge source of revenue for the market, has asserted its hegemony. It (as well as Exxon Mobil, Shell, etc.) calls the shots and determines value (We are too big to fail). It is a goose laying golden eggs and no one wants to have it otherwise (so the eggs are a little soiled, so what?). There is no threat to delivery of product, so the markets remain unaffected. This in itself implicates the complete incompatibility of a “green” economy and the market. It makes no difference whether super tankers sail on pristine blue waters or on a cesspool, as long as product delivery remains unaffected. We watched as major businesses were ostensibly monopolized by the State under Putin in Russia, thinking it was simply part of the “Soviet” DNA. Ditto for China. Now, for a brief instant, we have been given a glimpse into what otherwise must remain hidden. The actual, real order of things has now been briefly but completely exposed by BP’s screw up. It is that giant international business affiliations determine how States are run, and not that States determine how business should be conducted within their borders. This is borne out by BP’s emphasis on “recapture” of its oil during the first month, not on plugging the leak. Maintaining continued access to their product motivated the initial response to the loss of lives and environment. The only real solution, they have constantly reminded us, is to drill another well.

            Spam always insures that there is something we are not to see.