Resettling America – and the rest of the world as well

Posted April 8th, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Resettling America – and the rest of the world as well

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Meaning and Culture

by Margaret Swedish

The Mad Kentucky Farmer himself

I liked very much this reflection by Wes Jackson at the beginning of the conference I just attended in Kentucky sponsored by The Berry Center. The event was entitled: “From Unsettling to Resettling: What Will It Take to Resettle America,” echoing Wendell Berry’s seminal work from the 1970s, The Unsettling of America.

Jackson is the founder and president of The Land Institute in Kansas and was the first keynote speaker at the conference. He began by quoting Berry, recalling that “we came [to this land] with memories of where we came from, but without sight of where we are…” And, said Jackson, “with no concept of what it was we were undoing.”

And so we have been undoing it now for three centuries, with particular destructiveness and savagery since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The price we pay, the price this precious land is paying, is mounting, as we all know. In fact, the undoing is becoming so precipitous, so rapid, so widespread, that we are for the first time as a species facing a crisis unprecedented and perhaps irreversible – we are shredding, covering over, and poisoning the very habitats we need to exist at all.

The conference was mostly about land and food. It was about how real farming has been replaced with industrial agribusiness based in mono-cropping and completely dependent on industrial inputs, like oil, pesticides, fertilizers, and huge machines, which have replaced human workers and animals, machines that tear up and destroy the soil and have caused major degradation of our farmlands across the nation and more and more of our world. It is energy intensive, highly destructive, and produces less and less good, healthy food. In fact, a greater and greater share of industrial agriculture is going into the production of fuel rather than food.

It cannot last. It is bringing us rapidly to ecological limits, to its own demise, by way of its own self-destructive drivers built into the system.


Milwaukee’s own coal fired power plant. Switching soon to natural gas. Pick your poisons.

Jackson reiterated eloquently the conundrum of our fossil-fueled way of life – it is highly seductive.  He spoke of the “ghostlike power of carbon dense fuel and how it rules us.” We don’t like to ponder this too much, given the limits we are reaching, but there are almost no aspects of our lives in this culture that are not in some way dependent upon carbon dense fuel, except maybe my walk later along Lake Michigan.

He said we must acknowledge how seductive that power is, even as we have to “put on lids and acknowledge the limits.” What that means, of course, is that, in order to survive, we have to leave that carbon in the ground where it belongs. As many climate scientists have been trying to tell us, if we attempt to burn it all, the planet will heat up rapidly and become uninhabitable for most of what now lives within it.

Jackson also reminded us of some very uncomfortable realities – that putting up solar panels, buying Priuses and “squiggly” light bulbs, and loading up our recycling bins cannot save us. These industries are also completely dependent on carbon dense fuels in order to get their products into our car dealerships and onto our store shelves. They are manufactured through carbon dense production processes, as are our recycling plants for all those plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and paper refuse.

In other words, we can’t solve our planetary crisis by replacing what we consume with other consumer items, but only by consuming less and consuming locally, by simplifying, bringing down the consumer culture, replacing carbon dense lifestyles with friendship, resilient neighborhoods, eating locally and seasonally, staying home more, and restoring our connections with “place.”

For it is our ignorance of “place,” our ignorance of the resilient biodiverse complexity and wonder of the eco-communities in which we live that is one essential reason for why it is so easy for us to destroy them. We think we can engineer them and fit them into the logic of our individual capitalist consumer lifestyles, but what we are doing is destroying the very habitats the health of which are the only natural contexts that keeps us alive.

We are destroying that which, out of our ignorance, we do not know and therefore cannot love. Restoring those connections, those relationships, is necessary so that we can love again the “place” where we exist, where we live and move and have our being.


Vandana Shiva

Our second keynote speaker that first day was Vandana Shiva. How she describes the world of agri-industry always has the ring of truth about it. The industrial food economy has made those who work in it “energy slaves,” and the rest of us who eat this stuff dependent on that slavery. The corporations that control agricultural inputs and now genetically modified seeds also control our lives, and they are working and strategizing every single day to enhance that control. We have to face this reality – those who control food systems and our water access and quality control our lives at the most fundamental levels.

Shiva has been working fiercely to draw attention to the threat of corporations like Monsanto and Cargill. As she said, seeds are “the first link in the food chain,” so whoever controls the seeds, well, you know… She also made the point we need to drive home to our people as fiercely and directly as we can:  “US foreign policy and GMOs are now inextricably linked.” In that regard, food has become a weapon of that policy. This is being done in our name and with our tax dollars, so our responsibility here is pretty apparent.

Vandana always comes loaded with disturbing facts that unsettle my innards. Here’s one: three crops now account for 60% of the calories people consume. Here’s another: 90% of what’s grown is not for food.

26 - factory-farm-runoff

Factory farm run-off. You cannot make good food here.

Sit with those two facts for a while and let them sink in. This is how our rapidly eroding farmland around the world is being used, even as hunger increases along with population growth, most of which growth will be in poor countries.

Meanwhile, 80% of the real food we eat is from small farms. Right. Go out to “farm” country now and see what’s growing – vast industrial fields of mono-crops, mostly corn, wheat, and soy, and almost all of that modified and sprayed using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, including nitrogen that runs off in the rains and spring snowmelts, flowing into streams and lakes and oceans causing vast dead zones from oxygen depletion.

That’s not real food. Nor should we be eating the meat and poultry that come from the cruelty and other horrors of industrial livestock production, which I have written about many times here.

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Real food

Meanwhile, go to your local real farmer, or to the farmers markets where real food is being sold, food that was grown by real people, and see how hard they work for so little money in a labor they love, and wish we loved more, for the real food that is necessary for our health and well-being, and the health and well-being of our earth. They are not subsidized, as is industrial agriculture that is sickening our bodies and the planet. You know why that bad food is cheaper at the store – because of those subsidies. But we pay back in spades for the destruction of the environment and the health bills that come from cancers and heart disease and autism and so many other contaminant-based illnesses.

If you want to save the planet, be willing to spend more for real food to support real farmers, and advocate for the end of taxpayer subsidies to the industries that are harming us all.

If we want to save life on this planet, the atmosphere and biosphere in which we dwell, we must stop supporting these industries by taking their products into our bodies, our cars, our waters, our soils. About farming, Shiva said something so simple, so obvious, that you have to wonder about our ignorance at this point in our cultural evolution (or devolution): “Good farming produces clean water; if water is being polluted, it is not good farming.” Obvious – and completely radical in the context of agri-industry and the government programs that support it.

Shiva called the new biotechnologies making all this possible “violent technologies.” That is more than apt and presents to the justice and peace world the moral and ethical challenge of getting out of that market and working to end it. If we want to end violence, it is not enough to end war and to get decent gun control laws passed. We must work to end the violence inherent in the global economy as it destroys life and living systems all across the planet.

And we have to commit to a whole lot more than altering our individual consumer habits, a luxury of the affluent. We need to start thinking about how we can best contribute to the global resettling movement that is now necessary and urgent.

“The resettling movement is global, an indivisible search for freedom,” said Shiva. Yes, the search for freedom from our slavery to the logic of corporations, that logic that controls our lives.

Resettling “must be a planetary movement engaged in locally.” With Gandhi as her example, she said that we must be willing to defy laws that protect this corporate culture. “When laws become unjust and brutal, you have to say no to those laws.” At the same time, in order to foster the resettling-in-place, we “must intensify loving and living knowledge.”

Okay, this is getting long, and I realize now I need to do this in two parts. I haven’t even gotten to Wendell Barry yet, to the privilege of sitting in for a live, taped, interview between Berry and Bill Moyers (soon to be aired), which was incredible, to the cheerleading talk given to us by Bill McKibben over our last lunch together, to the input of a good number of panelists, sparking a lot of thought and debate about how to proceed through this crisis that is falling upon us and over our world.

So, I will write a Part Two later in the week. But I want to end with this thought, because when it was first said, it startled me – not because I am surprised by the content, because it is what I have been saying for years now, but because someone else said it so clearly. I could tell from the response of attendees that I was not the only one struck by the declarative statement of this harsh truth. It came from Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills NY. And it is this:

“Our task now is not to make change, but to prepare for the changes that are coming.”

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Help us help others prepare for the changes that are coming. Your contributions are tax deductible.

Tough statement, right? What does he mean? The reality we face now is that we are past the point where we can make the kind of change that will keep the bad things from happening. From climate change to soil erosion to the destruction already perpetrated by fossil fuel extraction and production to species extinctions and on – we can’t make the change that once might have kept these things from happening. Now we are going to be living with the changes coming, the changes already unfolding, dramatic ones, to our atmosphere and biosphere. This is going to be a sobering, difficult, at times heartrending work – but it is our work, like it or not. It’s what our generation has been given – how to make a habitable planet out of the mess we have made – habitable not for lives of misery, but for lives of meaning, abundance, and hope.

Where does such work begin? Where it has already begun in many places – by moving into a healing relationship with all that has been harmed. About land, Kirschenmann said, “Land is not a commodity but a community to which we belong. The whole biotic community needs to be healthy if we are to be healthy.”

You see, the communities of which we are a part, the “family” in which we exist, our nearest and dearest relations, are not only the human ones we care about so much, they are all the living beings, all the sentient and non-sentient beings with which we are in deep relationship every moment of our day. If we are not in healthy relationship with those beings, our human community is also not healthy. In fact, what we know right now is that that community is quite ill.

Doing this work in a way that will have any meaningful impact on our prospects for the future means moving away from or outside as much as possible the “market” system in which our lives have become embedded. And it means becoming deeply conscious of all that forms the community of ecologically alive and vibrant habitats in which we live, and then striving to make those relationships as healthy, loving, and caring as we can.

So, more to come. Stay tuned!


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