Thursday, August 25, 2011

Farmers of Forty Centuries

In 1909, F. H. King visited farm country in China, Japan, and Korea.  He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the Chief of Soil Management at the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  The purpose of his visit was to learn how the farmers of Asia produced so much food per acre, and the techniques that allowed some regions to be farmed continuously for 4,000 years.  He published Farmers of Forty Centuries in 1911, which documented his findings.

The book provides a fascinating glimpse into a world of low-tech organic farming that was performed with maximum efficiency.  Almost all of the work was performed by human muscle power, and all of the fertilizer came from nutrient recycling — no guano or mineral fertilizers were used.  King observed long daily caravans of peasants pulling handcarts from town to farms, each loaded with 60 gallons of fresh sewage.  Manure and crop residues were carefully gathered and composted.  Weeds and bugs were picked by hand.

Because food production was extremely labor-intensive, most of the population was rural.  The labor was back-breaking, seven days a week.  Following many generations of population growth, the farms were postage stamp sized.  It was not uncommon for ten people and a few animals to be fed from a two or three acre farm.  In lucky times, everyone had something to eat.  In bad years, people starved.  There were no safety nets.  Everyone lived on the razor’s edge.  The surrounding region was stripped clean of everything wild.  The land was under the total domination of agriculture, and every year its health declined.

King, the agriculture wonk, was fascinated by how hard the people worked, and how much grain per acre they produced.  He was not an advocate of workers’ rights.  He reported that the farm folks seemed to be happy and content.  He was eager to bring this system home to America, to provide a significant boost to farm productivity.

King was not an ecologist.  He did not mourn the loss of what these lands had once been — the forests, the grasslands, the wetlands, the fish, the birds, the deer.  He was observing a system that was completely maxed out, approaching the brink of collapse.  Long-lived farming systems have a pattern.  They practice an unsustainable mode of farming until chronic problems emerge, or a new technology becomes available, and then change their ways — to another unsustainable mode of farming, and then another, and then another, until the land is permanently ruined.

Today, the land is worked with machinery and chemotherapy: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers.  Many of the rural folks have moved to town to make cell phones and running shoes.  Much of the former cropland in China has been abandoned, because of serious erosion problems and urban sprawl.  And now, the end of the era of cheap and abundant energy is approaching, and it’s time to start building shit wagons again.

The way of life that King observed is very likely similar to how we will be living in the coming decades, and the rest of the world, too.  He presents us with a time-proven model of how to live when fossil fuels, farm chemicals, and traction animals are not available.  This is not a model of sustainable agriculture.  Yes, it’s absolutely organic, but organic agriculture is almost never sustainable, in the genuine sense of that term.  On the plus side, it’s far less wasteful, polluting, and destructive than organic agriculture practiced on an industrial scale.

King, Franklin Hiram, Farmers of Forty Centuries — Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan, Jonathan Cape Limited, London, 1911.  The full contents of this book can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn was written by Christopher Ryan (psychologist) and Dr. Cacilda Jethá (psychiatrist).  It is a book that I will never forget.  It’s packed with provocative ideas, intensely intelligent, well written, and quite funny, too.
The authors say that our deeply held beliefs about sexual fidelity and monogamy are largely at odds with millions of years of primate evolution, and this provides a terrific recipe for a dysfunctional society.  They perceive that “conventional marriage is a full-blown disaster for millions of men, women, and children right now.  Emotionally, economically, psychologically, and sexually, it just doesn’t work over the long term for too many couples.”
Chimps and bonobos are our closest relatives, and they are notable for being highly promiscuous, and absolutely non-monogamous.  The authors suggest that humans were cast in the same mold.  Life was free, easy, and very pleasurable in the good old days, prior to the emergence of agriculture.
Then came the farmers, and everything went sideways — property, wealth, poverty, warfare, masters & slaves — my field, my house, my cow, my grain, my wife.  With the privatizing of the planet, for the first time in history, men became very concerned about the issue of paternity.  Nobody wanted another man’s son to inherit their ranch.  Promiscuity lost much of its sparkle when mobs of crabby men started stoning adulterers to death.  But we have never given up a lusty interest in it, and we never will.
The emergence of agriculture radically changed human life.  It was especially a downer for women, who lost their respected and equal position in society, and were reduced to mere possessions of their husbands.  Wives were pushed into a prostitute-like role, where they were required to trade exclusive sexual access in exchange for food, shelter, and security.
Several chapters are devoted to challenging rusty old myths about the horrors of wild societies (i.e, prehistoric life was nasty, brutish, and short).  Our misconceptions are so deeply rooted that it’s difficult for us to seriously imagine a return to wild (and sustainable) living as a healthy alternative to our dying way of life.  We remain committed to a fervent blind faith that the Technology Fairy will miraculously save us, and enable yet another binge of moronic unsustainable excess.
The core idea of the book is that promiscuity is normal for humans, not naughty; and that monogamy is a practice for which sex-crazed humans are perfectly unsuitable.  Humans thrive in egalitarian clans, where everyone takes care of everyone.  Nuclear families don’t work nearly as well, especially when they are unhappy or broken.
One memorable side-trip in the book is a discussion of the Mosuo people in China, a society in which both men and women enjoy nearly absolute sexual freedom, and participate in hundreds of relationships.  Property and the family name are passed from mother to daughters.  They have no words for husband, wife, murder, war, or rape.  “Societies in which women have lots of autonomy and authority tend to be decidedly male-friendly, relaxed, tolerant, and plenty sexy.”  This provides a pleasant subject for euphoric daydreams.
The book provides few solutions beyond patience, expanded consciousness, and better communication.  But by questioning the foundations of our dysfunctional way of life, the authors provide a vital service.  If humans hope to survive, and return to a healthy way of life, everything needs to be questioned, and many things need to be thrown overboard, as soon as possible.  Open-minded readers are served a delicious banquet of food for thought.  Read it, you’ll like it.
Ryan, Christopher and Jethá, Cacilda, Sex at Dawn — The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, Harper Collins, New York, 2010.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Mother of all Posts

Welcome to the What Is Sustainable blog, an online companion to the book.  The purpose of this blog is learning.  I want to learn from my readers, and I want to share things I’ve learned.
I’ve read many books over the years, and I’ve taken detailed notes on about 250 of them.  The grand plan is to post a book review every week or so.  There are a number of bright thinkers out there, both living and dead, and many of them are not enjoying a life in the spotlights — and they should be.
I confess that I haven’t spent much time in the blogosphere, and this fact will undoubtedly be apparent to those who have.  I’m open to suggestions, and to sincere feedback.  I’m not interested in spam or personal attacks, so comments of this sort will be buried without ceremony.

The book has not yet been released, but it should appear within a few weeks on first, in printed and Kindle versions.  Nook and iBook versions will come later.