Monday, February 9, 2009

Alan's Soapbox - Organics will not save us

Alan Savory, founder of Holistic Management and a thinker I truly admire, was the keynote speaker at an organics conference I attended a few years ago. In his speech he said, in effect, "organic agriculture has been responsible for the destruction of more civilizations than all the wars combined." This really offended me and most of the other people at the conference. I don't think we really heard the rest of what he had to say. We were all passionate believers in organics as THE way forward. We thought if we could only convert all the farms to smaller organic ones everything would be alright. So, I wrote Mr. Savory off as wrong on this point, took some of his other ideas and went on with my quest to create the perfect small organic farm. What he said, however, never really left me. It was always there, niggling at the back of my mind. How could someone who was so right on so many things be so wrong about organics. It has taken me years to figure it out. Turns out he was right. I misunderstood what he said because I put the emphasis on the wrong part. It wasn't about organic farming techniques at all, it was about agriculture. We get all up in arms against "conventional" agriculture, and there are some things to be really bothered by, but what we call "conventional" is a really new development. For the past 10000 years agriculture has been organic. So, if there is a problem with agriculture, changing to organic methods will not solve the problem.

Our method of agriculture, and all the business structures that grew out of the agricultural model as civilization expanded, operates on the principal of producing excess by using resources from elsewhere (and now also from elsewhen). Ancient civilizations collapsed because they hit the limit of their ability to extract resources from elsewhere and couldn't meet the needs of their expanded population. (One of nature's Laws is that when the food supply is increased the population increases. That is what fuels our exponential population growth and provided the workforce to build our civilization.) This time around we have been able to keep pushing the range from which we can take resources by improving our technology. We have come close to collapse a few times, but always found a way to squeeze more out of the resources we had or found more "untapped" resource pools to take from. We now pull resources from all over the globe and from millions of years in the past to keep the civilization machine running. Problem is, we are again hitting the limit of resources we can tap. We are also seeing the cumulative result of damage we have done to global environmental systems. This is why organic agriculture can't save us.

One of the main tenants of organics, biodynamics, permaculture, alternative energy, and all the other "green" movements is "Do less harm." "Reduce our footprint."

The thing is, we are asking the wrong question. The question is not "How can I have less impact on the natural systems?", it is "How can I live in accord with, as a part of the natural systems." Organic methods have a place in the answer, so don't throw them out. However, the way in which those methods are used, the system in which they are applied must change.

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