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the glass is half empty…so pass the next bottle

May 23, 2011

Lately things have been a bit rough…everybody is fighting about…everything.  The cups of tea and bin Laden discussions have been interesting but also a bit hard to stomach at times.  Add to that Syria, Libya, starvation, rape controversies in Congo, flooding, fighting…a friend remarked to me the other day that my twitter timeline (which mostly involves a lot of development, aid, human rights, youth, and/or geography peoples and organizations) made her feel fairly “glass half empty.”  To which I replied, “so pass the next bottle.” I said this not because I am particularly witty but because it’s one of my favorite verses of all time, from a song called “Low Light Low Life,” which you can find above (the said quote is from the second verse, via Dessa, in case you’re curious). The song as a whole feels very apropos right now.

I can’t argue with her…things do seem pretty glass half empty lately.  And a lot of it seems to be our doing. And I don’t mean “our” as in the U.S. necessarily…I mean we as people…particularly those of us people with a fair amount of education and resources…particularly in more developed countries.  My response to “pass the next bottle” wasn’t just a recitation of lyrics though…it’s something I had been thinking about for awhile…perhaps it’s time we stopped and reevaluated things.  Perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board…I don’t know that we necessarily need to wipe the slate clean but…man, I’m going to pardon my language here…we’re fucking up.  It seems like nothing we’re doing (or not doing) regarding people or the environment is durable…let alone sustainable.  I think first and foremost in my mind is the need to stop looking for a panacea.  There isn’t one, so let’s stop looking for one, or trying to prove that one exists, or trying to prove that someone else’s work or idea isn’t the panacea.  I don’t have any of this “data” everyone is so keen on lately but based on my experience and those of many folks I know I’d put good, solid money on most successful solutions to many problems we’re facing being highly place based.  That being said, there’s definitely larger ideas that could be adapted and applied on a larger scale.  There’s a lot of these issues I could discuss but this month is supposed to be about food so I’m going to attempt to use food as an example.

In case you were unawares, one of the core issues with modern agriculture is that all of our major cereal crops are annuals.  I’m going to give you the dumb downed version, not because I think you guys are dummies, but because I don’t want to bore you, and if you want “data” or “proof” or simply more detailed information on a lot of this stuff, you can go look it up.  An annual plant is one that has to be replanted every year, and that also tend to have certain physiological characteristics that I won’t go into because, again, I don’t want to bore you, and you can look it up if you want more.  But it sort of makes them not as good as perennial plants (which, for example, tend to have a much more extensive root system) in terms of crops (particularly cereal), to put things more than simply. We keep talking about making the current food system more sustainable…but it’s an inherently unsustainable system for the most part and so a few folks decided to “pass the next bottle,” so to speak, and are at work trying to create varieties of major cereal crops that would work as perennials.

Meaning they wouldn’t have to be planted every year…meaning we wouldn’t have to do all that fossil fuel guzzling, soil erosion inducing work that is currently required with annuals.  This is a fairly major overhaul of the current system. Many solutions have tended towards patchwork solutions in the past…simply adding on to the current system…like a city that grows and just keeps slapping transportation infrastructure and winds up with an extensive but highly inefficient system, instead of going back and redrawing things to create a more efficient system.  I’m a huge fan of duct tape, resourcefulness, working with what you have, and jury rigging (better known to me as farm or ranch rigging) but at some point, things get so bad or unwieldy that it doesn’t do to just keep jury rigging things or slapping duct tape on…at some point you just need to do a complete overhaul.  We can’t “fix” the current ag/food system.  We need a new one.

Which leads into another aspect of the current food situation and it’s connections with development.  A lot of development has been focused on entering people into the global market, and whether intentional or not, for a lot of the people I’ve talked to in agricultural communities in Southeast Asia, they have interpreted this as meaning particularly the global food market. They have poured a lot of time, money and other resources into thinking and attempting to move from a system based on subsistence and local markets to one that has a much larger emphasis on entering into the global, or at least regional, market.  I have yet to see very many examples of a successful transition, and in the few that have made that transition, it has not lead to even moderately substantial changes. But all of this, I believe, is beside the point. I don’t believe our current global food system (or even the larger global market) is sustainable, and I’m not even talking one hundred years down the road sustainable (which really isn’t all that long), but more on the scale of twenty years.  Are we choosing to ignore the looming impacts of climate change and peak oil in our development and food solutions?  Because that seems like a huge mistake that could lead to even greater problems in the not at all too distant future (in fact if put on the spot, I’d likely argue that it’s already become a problem).  I’m not convinced the current global economy can survive the oil crisis…particularly since we seem to be less than proactive in coming up with alternative energy/transportation solutions…there is no indicator that we will have adequate solutions in time to avoid some fairly large scale catastrophes. There will be a lag between the problems arising due to lack of fossil fuels and climate change impacts (and again, I would argue these are already occurring, just not in the countries that have the most power to do serious r&d or that are seeing problems that present enough of an issue to be an incentive to really get cracking on things), and the solutions to those problems. And those lag years will be rough, on many of us, but most likely, in particular on those we are currently attempting to help develop and who are already currently struggling with food and lack of it. Relying on the movement of goods and food around the globe does not seem like a real strong plan, in my opinion.

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