I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).” My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. The third in the series looked at how leadership becomes disconnected from the rest of us. This post examines the forth of “my truths.”
My Truth Four: many of us in agriculture are running ever faster to stay even – on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term solutions, researchers pursue the next grant, and teachers offer ever bigger classes. There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we relate to the earth.
Everyone seems to be running ever faster to stay even. At least 96% of the survey respondents thought so, indicating strong or full agreement with this truth (see my introduction blog).
Farmers adopting the latest technology are particularly vulnerable. Each new technology that enhances productivity or improves efficiency makes the technology treadmill run faster. For those who know how to read a systems model (see this link for instructions), the diagram here presents the dilemma.
The problem is not intuitively obvious. Most of us think increases in food production would be a good thing. But the diagram above suggests that as Total Production increases, Commodity Supply also increases (the “s” indicates it moves in the same direction). Therefore a technology that increases yield does little to benefit individual farmers as competitors quickly adopt the new technology and total production drives prices down. The major beneficiary is the company that created the new technology and consumers who realize lower food prices. In the industrial farming system the greatest return on investments in technology go not to farmers but corporations. The technology treadmill turns and if you don’t get on, you get lost. But if you do get on, you have to run faster to stay even. As a society, little is gained but much is lost. Food is cheap, but there are other problems.
One survey participant wrote:
“The loss of community, the ungluing of stable human relationships, and the substitution of material things for substance have played a major role in the injustice and despair that have plagued agriculture and society and have caused untold unconscious damage to our planet and ourselves.”
This is true for both “agriculture and society” as the quote suggests. We substitute material things for ‘substance’ and sacrifice honest relationships, personal serenity, ecological integrity, and inter-generational responsibility. What we have gained is fast, cheap food and very busy lives.
There is no end in sight so we run ever faster, yet it doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the accelerating speed of the treadmill. Many of us (farmers and non-farmers alike) know we are caught in our own personal treadmills but don’t get off, thus we each contribute to making the treadmill run faster.
Stepping off before the inevitable fall is difficult, but is a necessary act of honesty and courage. According to T.S. Eliot again, in our normal workday lives all too many of us wear…
…strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
We search for meaning in ‘distractions’ and amusements. We find our days filled with emptiness, so we run faster. Some of us deaden this feeling with addictions like yet more work, desiring something indefinable but not achievable. And the treadmill keeps moving, turning, ever turning. Eliot writes. . .
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
The process of getting off the treadmill begins with telling your own truth and acting according to a clear set of personal values. When I am clear on my personal values and my actions are consistent with those values, I know that I am not only more effective in my work but I find more joy in my life.
Many of us who came to work in agriculture because we deeply cared about people, hunger, or the environment found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who hold money and power. But we can’t see the truth of what has happened as long as we are on the treadmill.
The industrial agricultural system and the public university that supports it are on an economic treadmill that won’t change unless we change individually. We need our lives to be less busy and more full. We must step off the treadmill before we fall off, and in doing so perhaps save ourselves and the earth.
My fifth and last truth suggests that the quest to discover wisdom in humility may be what we need to save ourselves from our own “busyness” and wake up to “the truth.”
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