Stan Cox is on a roll over at CommonDreams.org; in a percipient and timely essay he reminds us that simply cultivating our back (or front, in defiance of the HOA) yard is not enough to fix the corporate version of agriculture. Our dependence on staple “commodity” crops like grain and oil-seeds (hard to grow on small parcels) is not only abject, it’s historically engineered…
Humanity’s attachment to cereals, grain legumes, and oilseeds has acquired a much harder edge in the industrial era, but as a base for political and economic power, the staple grains have always been unsurpassed. Because they hold calories and nutrients in a dense package that can be easily stored for long periods and transported, the more fortunate members of ancient societies could accumulate surpluses. Those surpluses are recognized by the majority of scholars as necessary to the birth of market economies, which allowed the prosperous to exercise control over society’s have-nots. Eventually, states used control over grains to exert political power over entire populations.
Few foods could have filled that role. Noting that before grain agriculture came along, ancient Egyptians might have gathered a surplus of various foods from nature, most of them highly perishable, economic historian Robert Allen once wrote, “If all a tax collector could get from foragers was a load of waterlilies that would wilt by next morning, what was the point of having them?” The Pharaohs managed to exert control over the area’s population only after people started farming wheat and barley.
The even bigger problem with grains — which are short-lived annual plants, grown largely in monoculture — is that they supplanted the diverse, perennial plant ecosystems that covered the earth before the dawn of agriculture. We’ve been living with the resulting soil erosion and water pollution ever since.
Then, when grains became fully commodified a couple of centuries ago, things really started to go downhill. In discussing his new book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Raj Patel cited India as an example: “The social safety nets that existed in India under feudal society had been knocked away by the British. If people couldn’t afford food, they didn’t get to eat, and if they couldn’t buy food, they starved. As a result of the imposition of markets in food, 13 million people across the world died in the 19th century. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism. Those are the origins of markets in food.”
Indeed, if capitalism were a wine, it would be a wine that doesn’t go well with any type of food.
Most food today is produced not as an end in itself but as a by-product of a global economy with the singular goal of turning maximum profit. That is a dysfunctional arrangement, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the founder of ecological economics explained almost 40 years ago in his book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process: “So vital is the dependence of terrestrial life on the energy received from the sun that the cyclic rhythm in which this energy reaches each region on the earth has gradually built itself through natural selection into the reproductive pattern of almost every species, vegetal or animal … Yet the general tenor among economists has been to deny any substantial difference between the structures of agricultural and industrial productive activities.”
Industrial or commercial output can be increased by building more capacity, stepping up the consumption of inputs, taking on more workers, and pushing workers harder and for longer hours. Farming, by contrast, is inevitably bound by the calendar – by month-to-month variation in the capacity of soil and sunlight to support the growth of plants. It depends fundamentally on the productivity and the habits of non-human biological organisms over which humans can exert control only up to a point.
That clearly isn’t the ideal pattern for efficient wealth generation, so the past century has seen relentless efforts to mold agriculture into the factory model as closely as possible and, where that can’t be done, to graft more easily regimented industries — farm machinery, fertilizers, chemicals, food processing, the restaurant industry, packaging, advertising — onto an agricultural rootstock. In the US, the dollar outputs of those dependent industries are growing at two to four times the rate of agriculture’s own dollar output, putting ever-greater demands on the soil.
With a wholesale shift toward mechanization of US agriculture, 75 percent of economic output now comes from fewer than 7 percent of farms; furthermore, there has been a steep rise in the proportion of farms owned by investors living in distant cities (some of them perhaps avid urban gardeners).
One could take issue with bits and bobs of Cox’s article; I think he underestimates the productivity of small-scale dense polyculture, but even so, his big-picture sketch is a welcome reality check. Relocalising our food supply means more than just tending our own little gardens — though they are well worth tending. But as Cox concludes,
With land and wealth being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (and with more prisoners than farmers in today’s America) we have actually reached a point at which land reform is as necessary here as it is in any nation of Latin America or Asia. Only when we get more people back on the land, working to feed people and not Monsanto, will the system have a chance to work.
Actually… after such a stunning reform, “the system” would not be anything that we’ve ever known as such. It would be something so different that it we could hardly call it “the system” — it would be an ecosystem, with all the complexity and fractal variation that this implies, rather than a “system” in the dimbrained, mechanistic/engineering sense that the chief apologists for capitalism (economists, I mean) iconified by borrowing (without permission or blessing) the formal style of Newtonian physics…
Neoclassical economics began as a project to fashion an economic model in the image of Newtonian mechanics, one in which economic agents could be treated as if they were particles obeying mechanical laws, and all of whose behaviour could, in principle, be described simultaneously by a solvable system of equations. This narrative required the treatment of human desires as fundamental data, which, like the masses of physical bodies in classical mechanics, are not affected by the relations being modelled. [...] [T]he dream of a determinate model of the economic universe was realized in the 1870s by William Stanley Jevons and, especially, by Léon Walras, both of whom were in part physicists by training. Called the model of general equilibrium, this elaborate mechanistic metaphor, proudly devoid of empirical content, remains the grand narrative of economic theory for students and economists everywhere.
“The Strange History of Economics” from the PAE Review.
As an astute commenter at ET notes
In an opinion piece in the April, 2008 issue of “Scientific American” Robert Nadeau, who teaches environmental science and public policy at George Mason University notes that the founders of Neo-classical economics, W.S.Jevons, Leon Walrus, Maria Edgeworth and Vilfredo Paraeto did not derive from observation the rigorous mathematical formulations which were credited with transforming economics into a science. Instead they borrowed them from von Helmholtz who proposed them as a solution to lacunae in Newtonian physics to account for phenomena of heat, light and electricity. Other theories prevailed in physics, James Clerk Maxwell’s Electrical Field Theory and Boltzmann’s formulations in thermodynamics, for instance. Physicists and mathematicians told the economists that there was no theoretical basis for substituting economic variables for physical variables in Helmholtz’s equations, but they were undeterred. This “borrowing” was forgotten and subsequent generations of “mainstream” economists accepted the claim that the theory was scientific.
Neo-classical Economics is essentially a rhetorical system, rather like a collection of “Just So” stories, that is axiomatic and well adapted to confounding critics. If a student disagrees with the axions, they will not do well in the class. Adam Smith’s METAPHOR of “the invisible hand of the market” has been inflated beyond all recognition to become more like the LEFT HAND OF GOD. Tobin at Yale has commented to the effect that, after 200 years, if it was more than a metaphor one would think that the economists would have at least articulated some of the fingers.
In this clever, original, and wide-ranging study Philip Mirowski criticizes neoclassical economics for using metaphors and analogies from physics. As Mirowski sees it, physics analogies were inappropriate in the first place, and the founders of modern economics picked the wrong metaphor to boot. The physics which economics has mimicked is vintage 1860 and cannot deal with entropy, let alone relativity or quantum theory. Economists fell into these errors because they did not understand the physics they borrowed and were poor mathematicians, shallow logicians, and in some cases unscrupulous academics who emulated science in order to appropriate respectability at the expense of “soft” sociologists.
[...] Physics envy in economics, as Mirowski calls it, has a long and dishonorable history.
It sounds like a good read. And the phrase that leaps out at me is that one about the vintage 1860 physics which economists appropriated as a respectable armature on which to hang their apologia for greed and the primacy of financiers. A physics which cannot deal with entropy? Refusing to deal with entropy is kinda like refusing to deal with gravity… not a good idea. As the real-world crises all around us illustrate, in living colour.
Aside from cultivating our own gardens, we have some weeding to do in the realm of public ideas — starting with the self-serving, disingenuous and wrongheaded mishmash of wishful thinking and Lysenkoism that is “modern economics.”