Faith in Humanity?

An internet meme set off a chain of thoughts that came to an essential question for me. It really is at the bottom of so much of my philosophy, particularly when it comes to politics.

“Do you have faith in humanity?”

 

Now, I have to be honest. Vague questions like this make me itchy. Faith in humanity to do what? Faith in what sense? Individuals, groups, or literally every human?

So let me tease this out a little.

 

My immediate reaction is that in a group of humans, I do have faith that a couple of things will happen:

  1. Some of them will do brilliant, creative, beautiful things.
  1. Many, perhaps most, of them will only look out for their own interests or the interests of their small group of insiders, family members, club, tribe – instead of the greater good and/or future sustainability.
  1. A few will take advantage of more than their share of limited/finite resources. They will know or willfully ignore the fact that their actions hurt others.
  1. Some will come up with genius solutions to problems.

 

Some people will look at this list and say that I’m talking about “human nature”. Once again, I get itchy. If you notice, nothing on that list is an “all” or “nobody” statement. There are very few statements about human behavior that fall into those categories, as far as I can tell. There are any number of behaviors that people assured me were “human nature” that never seemed particularly natural for me (e.g. being attracted to the opposite sex, eating meat), so I tend to distrust any talk like that.

So, how does this lead me to politics? For one, it means that although I value freedom, I am not an anarchist. I have written about this before, specifically with regard to the environment. We absolutely need environmental regulations and someone to enforce them, because even if we somehow create a culture where most people are responsible and motivated to protect the air, water, and wild places, someone will screw it up for the rest of us. Someone will quarry the Grand Canyon. Someone will build a smokestack to belch smoke. Someone will dump toxic waste into pristine waterways.

So we need some kind of governance to restrain those who would ruin vital resources for the rest of us. We need governance to restrain those who would abuse people, animals, and natural places. We need governance to restrain those who would take away the freedom of others.

 

But beyond that, taking into account the list above, what should a political system look like?

In our current economic system, bolstered by our political system, there is a variation of a Capitalist free market economy in play. In classical free market, the market determines the price and value of a limited commodity based on supply and demand. The tendencies in #2 above are encouraged, and the “invisible hand” of the market will lead to an equilibrium. The pitfalls of #3 are pretty much ignored.

There’s no value assigned to wild natural places – they are simply assigned a value as raw materials. Even animals are considered nothing but possessions and commodities. Creations of beauty – music, poetry, art, dance, theatre – are only considered valuable if someone is paying for them or if they are used to sell something else.

In our corporate Capitalist society, time –as the saying goes – is money. Many of us give our labor – our time, our energy, our physical work – to our employers. It is only through government regulation (thanks to the pressure of the labor movement) that prevents employers from demanding virtually all of an employee’s time and labor. Even so, many people still give long hours and all their energy to their employer or employers, just to survive financially. There’s no time or energy for creating the beautiful and the brilliant, and little to no breathing room for the genius to emerge.

So what should the political system look like based on all this? I will write about that in the near future.

Food Diversity and Monoculture

I think a lot about food. Not just because I like to eat and I like to cook. I think a lot about the ethical implications of the food choices that I make and I have written about that in the past, particularly on the subject of raising animals for food. But there are other aspects of our current food culture that I think are causing real problems for us, which will only get worse over time.

Much of the world’s food supply is made up of a shrinking list of food varieties. Wheat, rice, corn, sugar, soybean, potatoes, etc. Even these foods, which have multiple genetic varieties, are increasingly grown only in a few varieties, often those engineered and marketed by large agricultural suppliers. These are grown as monocultures – large fields, even plantations that all plant the same crop over square mile after square mile. It provides efficiency for the mechanical nature of current farming. It’s easier to spray from airplanes and harvest by machine.

But it’s absolutely destructive to local flora and fauna. The complete lack of biodiversity means that farmer’s fields are essentially deserts, inhospitable to anything other than one specific crop. Also, since all the plants are making the same demands on the soil, it depletes nutrients in the soil, which then requires inputs – meaning fertilizer, often petroleum based products.

Monoculture also encourages pests. Effective predators of that particular crop have a bonanza – which then leads to increased uses of pesticides. And this combination of chemical pesticides and fertilizers can cause major issues with groundwater and waterway contamination.

Here is Michael Pollan talking about Monoculture

To walk through a grocery store, it may look like we have a lot of variety to choose from, but a lot of that variety is an illusion. Walk down the cereal aisle. Hundreds of brightly colored boxes shout for attention. Some are fun for kids (high in sugar and artificial flavors) others are supposed to be healthy (some whole grains are preserved and vitamins are sprayed on). In reality 99% of the ingredients are from a short list of crops, processed in various ways – wheat, corn, sugar, a bit of rice and oats – the rest is mostly small amounts of additives to manipulate the flavor, color and texture.

Bread, pasta, packaged side dishes – the same is true for all of these. And for meat eaters, many of the animals are fed with these same crops, particularly corn and soy, so ultimately those same crops are being consumed, just one step removed.

 

There are enormous benefits to food diversity. One is definitely a healthy diet. The common staple foods may be effective at delivering calories/basic energy, but we also require a wide variety of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and other health-giving substances found in particular plants. Only by eating a variety of different types of foods can we ensure that we are getting the full array of these micronutrients. Many food experts use the natural colors of food as a shorthand for different nutritional profiles. Leafy greens, red tomatoes and peppers, orange root vegetables, blue and purple berries – all these have unique and valuable contributions to your diet. Meanwhile, over-dependence on processed flour, sugar and oils can lead to higher incidence of diabetes, obesity and digestive issues.

Increased diversity also helps food security, since monoculture crops are susceptible to collapse. Here are a few outside sources with more information about the problems associated with monoculture.

“Crop diversity decline ‘threatens food security'” from BBC News

“6 Problems with Monoculture Farming” from Permaculture Magazine

 

An antidote to monoculture is the permaculture movement. It is a complex combination of agriculture strategies that encourages biodiversity, appropriate plants for the microclimate, complementary planting schemes to avoid the need for pesticides and fertilizers, as well as other methods. It can incorporate the concepts of Forest Gardening, Hügelkultur, heirloom plants species, as well as more common ideas such as composting, mulching, and organic farming techniques. All permaculture projects are guided by the natural patterns of the area in question, and try to use the natural features and plantings together to maximize output and minimize environmental damage. It requires more thoughtfulness than monoculture, but if it works properly, it requires far less in terms of outside and unsustainable resources and will produce abundant and varied crops.

 

We may not all be ready to start our own permaculture garden, but we can all take steps to encourage biodiversity. Having our own garden is a great step, but supporting farmers markets and CSA deliveries (community supported agriculture) are also great steps if these are available to you. Eating locally grown foods in season is a wonderful step to get away from corporate run monoculture. You will notice that the variety of foods that you see at a farmers market or CSA is far more diverse than what you see in a grocery store. Find heirloom tomatoes, vegetables like rutabagas and mustard greens that your grandmother may have known, but that are rarely seen today.  And if you do have a garden, take a look at some of the seed catalogs that specialize in heirloom, organic and unusual varieties – you will see vegetables you will never see in the grocery store. Pick out a few and put them in your garden. You will be in for an adventure and learning experience in taste and variety.

 

Anger, Frustration

I envy those who seem to be able to use their anger to fuel a furnace to create change. I’m not set up that way. I can’t let anger take hold. I know it will destroy me if I do.

For me it just settles in as a crimp in the neck and knot in the shoulders. It settles in as an acid taste coming up my esophagus into my mouth. It eats away at me and cripples me. I can’t let it stay.

Please understand, this is not because there is no reason to be angry. There is plenty of reason. Each moment is filled with a thousand injustices and indignities big and small aimed at those I admire and respect. Insults and punches are thrown at people for the way they look or the way they speak. Beautiful people live in fear of the bullies and the trolls. And sometimes people’s blood is spilled for no good reason at all.

I know this. I don’t forget.

But if I want to live, I can’t let the anger live here with me, crippling me, eating at me, turning me into a twisted and burned wreck.

So I will cry. And I will shout. And I will punch a pillow. And then I will breathe deeply. And I will collect myself. I will put the anger somewhere outside of me. I won’t forget it and its lesson, but it can’t stay here.

 

I have been having a rough time lately. I feel disconnected from friends. Relationships from the global to the interpersonal seem especially contentious and uncooperative lately. People are ready to accuse and take offense, slow to listen and discuss.

I have had waves of mourning for my father, whose dementia has been progressing lately. He’s safe, thanks especially to my sister, but the man we knew growing up is gone.

The concrete evidence of environmental destruction seems very evident lately. News story after news story shows how much human activity has thrown off the balance of the natural world. Melting permafrost, flooding lowlands and islands, polluted rivers, methane and nuclear leaks – the bad news keeps coming.

Our country’s political climate has been unusually contentious. Even among those who I think of as politically “like me”, the escalating viciousness of the Sanders vs. Clinton rhetoric has been troubling. And that’s not even to mention the xenophobia, sexism, and crassness that has been coming from the presumptive Republican nominee.

And all this is against a background of violence, poverty, and injustice. The justice system is heavy-handed and full of prejudice. The social safety nets are being dismantled.

All this has me a bit exhausted.

 

I wish that I could wrap this up with a solution or at least a message of hope. That’s the way I often try to end these blog posts. Not today. Today, the best I can hope for is to see these situations clearly and take some deep breaths. Some of these troubles will pass. Some will continue to get worse. Some of these I can try to change another day, when I have the energy.