Thursday, September 24, 2015

choose your value hierarchy, not your consumer products

The article in the Guardian:
growing food in the desert panacea about growing food in the desert as yet another triumph of Technology, neo-liberal Economics and the ever onward and upward March of Progress, presents an excellent illustration of several points I have been trying to make in this blog.

First of all, the title is very dramatic, but wait.. What food crisis? The same alarmist propaganda was used by the corporations (e.g. Monsanto) who brought us the “Green Revolution” and they have produced more problems than they have solved (soil depletion, addiction to petroleum, unexpected deleterious health effects, superweeds, putting family farms out of business, breaking up small farming communities etc). Sundrop seems to use the same strategy and same mentality to sell their product, with probably similar results.

There are people in certain parts of the third world (and arguably the first world with its obesity and diabetes “crisis”) who are malnourished, and this could possibly be called a crisis, but how is producing more food going to help them? The problem is not lack of food, there is an overabundance of food production. In the mainstream paradigm, there are distribution issues, but this is not addressed by Sundrop. Sundrop is most interested in making a profit at yuppie supermarkets and less in helping starving people in Africa. As most baby boomers, Sundrop's PR media would probably deny this and say they can have it all and not have to prioritize their values, but their behavior so far demonstrates otherwise and for good, game theoretic reason: in order to stay competitive in the global market, profit HAS to come first. But in order to create a better world, we need to try something different than the value hierarchy (with profit and convenience at the top) that have driven our society since the industrial revolution.

Perhaps Sundrop is proposing that there is a crisis in food production because most food is not organic?  But Sundrop isn't organic either, using artificially produced nutrients for their plants in a way that has not been tested extensively on human for long-term health effects.  Maybe they claim to be more sustainable than Cascadian Farms or other industrial organic farms? This needs to be shown. It is not true, as the author of the article claims, that they use virtually no fossil fuels. All their solar panels, desalination plant and GAS (fossil fuel!) backup generator all used fossil fuels in their construction, and their capital costs show it. These machines will need to be constantly maintained and updated with fossil fuel inputs. Greenhouse plastic is a petroleum byproduct and needs to be replaced every four years, probably sooner in the intense UV sunlight of the desert.  The many plastic pipes used in aquaponics suffer from the same shortcoming. Transporting the food to “billions”, as the article mentions, again uses fossil fuels. There are alternatives that avoid these unsustainable dependencies on fossil fuels, but they involve a new paradigm, which has been discussed in this blog before, which can be called radical re-localization.

Besides the by-definition-unsustainable (because it is finite, more than half gone, getting more difficult to extract and can't be replenished at quick enough rates) fossil fuel use in Sundrop's operation, there are other environmental costs which sundrop does not take on. This is the realm of environmental externalities—all the pollution in the manufacturing of the machines, materials and transport mentioned above. But that is just de rigueur in global capitalism. He who externalized costs most, wins, but as in all prisoner's dillemma games, society and the environmental commons lose.

Last, so far Sundrop has produced tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. These provide very little calories per pound of food and in order to provide a significant fraction of people's caloric (and nutritional in general) needs, many other crops would need to be grown in the hydroponic environment. My understanding is that this is not possible, only a few crops are amenable to the conditions of hydroponic culture. But this is no problem if you fall for the hype, so standard nowadays in this superficial culture of image over substance.

The article mentions a “difference in styles” (see values vs lifestyles for more insight into global capitalism's use and co-option of “lifestyle”) or a political difference between old/new labor (and Hurray for Corbyn for showing that old labor can be more pragmatic and win) as prime reasons why Patton and Saumweber have parted ways, but this is very superficial. I do not know Patton and Saumweber at all, but I am guessing there is a difference in paradigms between the two men, not in “lifestyles”. Patton comes from a tradition of british thinkers and doers who lived these values which includes Albert Howard, Alan Chadwick, Rob Hopkins and John Seymour. He values profit less than community, edifying work, individual autonomy and a mutualistic relationship with nature.  Saumweber does not seem to care about these 4 values at all, and certainly values profit more than any of them. To see why this is, let's look at each of these 4 values in turn, relating them to Sundrop's operation and Patton's life.

1. Community-- compare producing food for “billions” of people through an impersonal market with the click of a few buttons on a smart phone, with a local economic network (or many such networks) of hundreds of producers/consumers who each connect with many others in the network personally as suppliers and customers for each other,  and genuinely need each other. The first produces the alienation of the modern era which Marx first diagnosed and Wendell Berry made relevant to farming communities and the so-called “environmental crisis” in the US. The first focuses on mass production, which is the only way to make a profit in the global economy, the second on people as if they were more than animals to be fed in a trough en masse (“billions served”). Community is an organism with a soul, whose cells (the individual people) need to interact in complex ways, not just fed like cattle. Patton cares about keeping things small, local and personal, the fertile ground for community. His family is his main community, though I bet he is connected to others in a more personal way than Saumweber, the “king of the spreadsheet”.
2. Edifying work-for a few engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs the Sundrop operation might provide edifying work. But these you can count on your fingers. The rest of the “billions” now have nothing to do (structural unemployment) or bullshit work not worthy of human beings.
3. Individual autonomy—though this value is often traded off with community, in our global economy most people do not have very much of either autonomy or community. The wealthy have autonomy but everyone else is a slave to the global market and their life is highly constrained by laws, debts and institutions. After they pick a career or job, their only choices are consumer choices. This was not the promise of the industrial revolution, but it was its result. People were supposed to be freed of menial labor and replaced by machines. Though machines have proliferated, people's freedom has declined, either in active leisure or in work. Hundreds of farmers and craftspeople connected through their local market, work, leisure and products produces more individual freedom than billions of people connected through their computers, smart phones, spreadsheets, impersonal market and passive television.
4. Though Saumweber says he has “eco-values”, what he really means by this is that he sees the eco-movement as a profit-making market opportunity.. I have personally known people of his ilk. There is very little love of nature, not as a resource to be exploited and parasitized, but as a living being to exchange love and reciprocate energy with. The whole operation is about market  efficiency (profit/costs); the desert, highly controlled greenhouse environement and machines are so far removed from any deep eco-ethos as to be laughable.  Saumweber is about PR, which is about image, not substance or soul. To connect with nature one needs a soul, depth, substance. To make a lot of money one needs to sell one's soul, image, superficiality,

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