Landscapes calling for their people
- finding our place in the web of life
I love you – you give me fish.
This line, from the multi-awarded movie Triangle of Sadness by Ruben Östlund, is the movie experience of a decade for me. I very briefly recount the story in the roundtable on Food and Community in the Ruins with Chris Smaje and Dougald Hine on Nate Hagens excellent podcast The Great Simplification. When a yacht full of billionaires is sunk by pirates, a small group of people - some rich guests, a couple of supermodels, a staff manager and a cleaning lady - find themselves shipwrecked on an island. The cleaner, Abigail from the Philippines, is the only one with any survival skills. She makes fire and feeds the group. The staff manager tries to boss her around like she used to, but now power relations have shifted: Abigail is not interested in serving anyone. She takes the best food, the lifeboat as sleeping quarters and the male supermodel, Carl, as her lover. It is he who says to Abigail “I love you – you give me fish” (thereby betraying his fiancé Yaya, who is also on the island).
Any system which assumes control over basic needs may slip into authoritarianism – by whatever color. If there are no options, if we are utterly dependent on something or someone for our survival, we loose our sovereignty and become domesticated. We may allow the most horrible violations of our own dignity, and the dignity of others.
There may not be ways out of the overshoot created by the carbon pulse we are living in, other than collapse. I don´t know. But I am pretty sure that the direction we need to go must be towards an understanding of the fact that we are a part of the web of life. For the food system, this probably means moving towards small-scale regenerative farming. As soon as you start discussing this (as shown by some comments to the roundtable) you will be accused of being ignorant of the fact that a lot of people live in cities with limited possibilities to produce food. George Monbiot, in characteristic drastic language, calls it a quest for rural simplicity that has “drifted into a formula for mass death”. In his recent book Regenesis he envisions a food system without farms, getting rid of cows and other ruminants and replace them with bacteria producing fat and protein. In the text “The cruel fantasies of well-fed people”, a response to Chris Smajes book Saying no to a farm free future, he calls their different perspectives “the greatest of all rifts within environmental movements”. I suspect he is right, which makes this a very noteworthy debate.
A fundamental problem of our society is that it is far removed from nature, from the realities of what it takes to fulfill our needs. When the fish we eat is from the lake close to home, we will eat no fish when we have been fishing to much. When it is from the supermarket, we just choose fish from some other lake. The world and how we belong in it becomes obscure like the eutrophicated Baltic Sea, where the herring populations are now on the verge of collapse. 90 % of the herring is sold as fodder to farmed salmons and ends up as eutrophication in Norwegian fiords. The industrial growth society functions like a complex machine, (or superorganism in Nate Hagens vocabulary) with a huge and negative impact on the landscapes from which we get water, food, building materials, clothes etc, while being unaware of it. With the use of fossil energy, our arms have become so long that we don´t see what our hands are doing. We deplete fish stocks, exhaust topsoil, kill forests and poison soil and water essentially with no feedback from the system. What seems cheap is not cheap at all, it is just that the cost is outsourced somewhere else. Often to someone far away in space or time. The Machine of an industrial growth society is rapidly devouring the planet.
A food system that is increasingly disconnected from ecosystems is increasingly more dependent on the Machine – which is dependent on a finite subsidy of ancient sunlight, refined and concentrated into fossil fuels over millions of years. The food system has been replacing human work with global supply chains of fertilisers, pesticides, and machinery as well as increased ownership by huge corporations, rendering it vulnerable as peak everything is approaching.
In 1995, 500 politicians, business leaders and academics - among them Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Milton Friedman and Ted Turner - met at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco to discuss international political goals of the 21st century by invitation of the Gorbachev Foundation. As described by Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann in The Global Trap - Globalization and the Assault on Democracy and Prosperity, focus for the discussion was the "20/80 society". The Machine-managing participants of the conference envisaged that 20 percent of the working age population will be enough to keep the world economy going. They will live an active life, earn money, and have the capacity to be good consumers, regardless of which country they come from. But what about the rest, the 80 percent? The word tittytainment was coined, describing the need for plenty of entertainment and enough food (tits) to keep the world's frustrated 80 percent in a good mood. Tittytainment is a mixture of “intoxicating entertainment and sufficient nourishment” that can “tranquilize the frustrated minds of the globe's population.” “What a world to live in! We could be describing the Roman Empire just before its fall”, write Martin and Schumann. I read this sinister description at the turn of the millennium, at the height of the anti-globalisation movement. To see George Monbiot, whom I have been inspired and informed by for many years, happily describe the titty part of this dystopia is indeed astonishing. Why does he trust the superorganism to deliver what people most need, adding layers of obscurity and complexity by constructing steel cows in food factories?
Jason Bradford explains how perplexed he is by Monbiots vision in a review of Smajes book: “Step back and envision the full picture here. On the one hand we have farming, which has fed people for thousands of years using domesticated plants and animals that reproduce themselves via seeds, eggs, and uteri. On the other hand we have a proposal to mostly eliminate farms and replace them with massive arrays of solar panels, wind turbines, steel vats, pumps, and various other equipment that will continually break and need rebuilding. I am honestly dumbfounded that this unproven-at-scale, energy-hogging, and technically complex scheme is finding any traction.”
So why does this scheme find traction? Perhaps because since we have lost the ability to feed ourselves, we have to love, trust and believe in the Machine. We are domesticated into believing we must comply with the destructive system we inhabit - as without it we will not eat. But also because it is the logical continuation of an idea of progress as separation from nature, where involvement in producing food is the least worthy activity one could partake in. Further removal from the landscapes (that still have to deliver the resources, though) is the direction of society since hundreds of years. We are not talking about regenesis at all here.
Monbiot cites numbers that show how people in densely populated areas cannot feed themselves from nearby, saying that “people of Chris’s persuasion most furiously object (to these numbers), even though they have no answer to them. Why? Because the numbers are incompatible with their worldview.”
There are a lot of facts and numbers one may pick as weapons in this battle (e g is there really a food problem? I also recommend Gunnar Rundgrens excellent defence of farming). But this is something deeper than a numbers game. Even if Monbiots ideas were more favourable in terms of energy return on investment (which they probably are not) they would lead us astray. I believe Monbiot is right to talk about worldview. This “greatest of all rifts” represents a reflection of different understandings of what it means to be human, and two very different paths to take. One where humans belong and can be healthy participants in the community of life. The other where humans are destructive and therefore have to be removed for nature to thrive. Monbiot sees the destruction of the living world brought about by the industrial food system, thinking that it would be better to put humans and their food in containers, feed them tittytainment and rewild the rest. This is the path envisaged by the Machine and its most powerful managers. But where is it leading? Just further into the delusion that nature is something separate from us, further into helplessness and lack of meaning. “Why would I care about nature – what has nature ever done for me?”
I think the main reason we are in this metacrisis is that we have forgotten the fundamental fact that humans are a part of the living world. We are talking about community in Nate´s podcast. Community begins when we understand that we need each other. Today, we have to understand that the idea of progress as separation from nature while trying to dominate and control the living world for nothing but human benefit, was an adolescent adventure that is now becoming dangerous. We have to grow up and recognize that we still need the rest of the living world, and start developing community with land. As a society, we will only do this if enough people are engaging in healthy relationships with land (and water. I love you - you give me fish). More of us have to engage in regenerative food production. Is that really such a terrible thing? I think the empowerment, sovereignty and connection that comes from this path is a lot more enticing and meaningful than tittytainment. The landscapes are calling for people to remember ourselves as belonging in the web of life, but they are also calling for people to revive and restore the lands that have been violated and impoverished by the monocultures of the Machine, and to defend them from further assaults. This will not be possible as long as the relationships are broken. Developing community with land is also about becoming fully human. With Thomas Berrys words: “The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.”
Maybe the time has come to become magnificient human beings by finding our place in the web of life? This may be thought about as a rewilding adventure, moving beyond the domestication of the Machine. Rewilding means getting closer to life, tending to the relationships that keeps us alive. In a society that has lost this practice and capacity, food is a good place to start.
Triangle of Sadness is now available on TV in Sweden and Monbiots book is just out in swedish. I thank the regenerative farmer Jörgen Andersson for the saying that landscapes calling for their people (and George Monbiot for opening the space for so much thought).
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