Monday, September 28, 2009

The Rat Race, Lap 36

[Update: that's Borlaug with a B.]

I am sure I was responding to movie ads, but at eleven years old (even more than now), a book was the ideal vehicle to develop the conspiratorial air that this story about rats promised (and delivered). The technological life that the former lab rats managed to pull off was almost as cool as the lair that the three investigators carved out of the heart of the junkyard, and as a quiet kid I really identified with the idea of creating your own advanced space amid the hustle and bustle of a world that was a lot bigger than I was, and although the refugees from NIMH were still bound by their rat natures, scavengers, they were human enough, perfectly allegorical little creatures. I remember that I liked the mordant jokes they told Mrs. Frisby about the so-called rat race, but the philosophical bludgeon bounced harmlessly off of that fifth grader, who was far more impressed by the clever doodads. ("Yeah Nicodemus, but vacuum cleaners work better than brooms!") I was horrified that the rats' plan, the solution to their precarious technological existence, wasn't to better outwit the human threat, but to haul off and start an agricultural commune and leave behind the coolest fort ever. "Fuck that noise," I thought (at eleven, using the equivalent language), "Jenner's got it right." I can't say I experienced very many you-must-be-an-engineer moments as a boy but that was one of them.

Grow plants and live outdoors, or better living through technology? I just read, in a blog that will make the sidebar just as soon as I can be bothered to update it, that the cheese has once again left the can: the world has lost one of the architects the green revolution. Norman VBorlaug was a seminal (so to speak) inventor, creating some high-yield strains of wheat, and advocated scientific advancement as a means to solve world hunger, and counteract the looming threat of deforestation. It's bittersweet, of course, considering that getting more yield per acre just got us less arable acres, and his strains also assumed infinite resource availability, unable to propagate at that capacity without massive infusions of irrigation and petrochemicals, and there was the unfortunate side effect of doubling up the worlds population, getting millions or billions scythe-ready for when the oil-based feedstock gets scarce. I've aired out my difficulties with the slow-motion pileup of demographics, resource management, science and macroeconomics at tedious length (I'll spare you the links this time), and if I'm about manifestoed out, well, here I am again. The verdict on the species hasn't much changed: (respectively) two guilties, one hung jury, and one twelfth angry man trying to talk fast. Improving crop yields was the right idea, but it wasn't thought through very well in terms of the other three items. Rats!

When I was eleven, my family lived pretty close (excepting the citrus and other odds and ends) to switters' proposal. Mom helped out the farmer up the street and bought us fresh milk and meat only from animals with names, sometimes one creature at a time. She gardened for (negligible) profit and canned, raised chickens, belonged to a natural food co-op (which even in the early 80s meant bulk cheese and all sorts of nasty whole grain products). Unfortunately for the Borlaug on my right shoulder, I know what real food tastes like. For the green angel on my left, it sure looked like a lot of work. I don't know how much the local fresh food helped my family stay frugal, really. My parents got less thrifty once we kids got older and my mother got back into the regular workforce, and it's contributed to the impression that living cheaply but well was easier even 25 years ago. Most of those old farms are now housing developments for a reason, and there's big open spaces only in the communities that are filthy rich enough to afford it, at least around here.

And freeze, okay? I've been stalling right at this point for a couple of days, and not just because it's hard to anything new to say on this subject. I keep finding my own experience inadequate to describe what I'm feeling about this, and generalizations keep coming out, boring and poorly supported, like angry student polemics. I've got my own fantasies about reducing my grid presence, and I've been focusing a lot on the tyranny of employment, debt, and society in recent reading. But I can't let it go that the modern labor economy is only a hundred fifty years old. Getting on the grid was a huge societal advance. The heavily subsidized (thinking of home mortgage discounts, lucrative development incentives, employer-based health insurance, artifically cheap central food production) worker/consumer economy has stabilized pretty well to a customary inequality (despite a few hard-fought and/or fortuitous historical windows), but agrarian America fostered no shortage of inequality in its day--not the best time to be a woman, for one non-trivial example, or black, or in debt, or seasonally employed--and was its own environmental clusterfuck, for that matter, even when there was an order of magnitude less people. Are we going to start cutting all the economic breaks to landowners (again)? Going back would be a catastrophe too.

The optimist's future of food, energy, and technology really has to thread the needle. It trends both toward more local production, and also toward greater integration. Some of this kind of organization will be inevitable if energy prices climb enough, nickel and diming our way into enough energy to power vital services, and being as independent as we can, optimizing the available space, maybe even make it sustainable for more than 40 or 50 years, doing our best with the existing Imperial vias, but there's no guarantee it'll be better. The best case will take no small amount of engineering miracles, and large-scale state or economic power will have to be less convenient, so, you know, good luck with that. But when it comes to the rats' dillemma, I still reject it as a false equivalency (convenient for me, since I posed it): science and technology is only what we have learned and what we have learned to do, and we ignore that knowledge, or apply it, at our peril. There is a future for innovation, probably even in agriculture, but if it's to keep working for very long (and it probably isn't), it'll have to keep local ecosystems in mind.

See what I mean about unsatisfying polemic? This sucks. Let's return to the inadequacy of anecdote, see if I can avoid going full retard David Brooks on y'all.

Those farmers I knew growing up didn't seem to live a simple life: uncomplicated, yes, in ways I don't love, but difficult, and I've seen a lot of them ultimately, and depressingly, fail. But as I think through more recent experiences, I can spot agrarian lifestyles working in better harmony with the consumer universe, and I have to tell you, they look a lot more satisfying to me: I've got a few personal stories, some of which I've already burned through, of western MA cheese, western CT farms, eating in the North Fork, connections to a local orchard/restaurant, and the mixed blessing of living a year in an attempted suburban reproduction of rural Italy (let's say I loved the idea, but it was hard to be a renter there), and while all of these things needed the local economy to really stay alive, not all of them were wealthy, and each one basically worked. I mean, there's no reason any other rat couldn't support a few food animals and some useful greenery. Maybe there's hope for compromise somewhere in there, if you're brave enough to demand one, or can afford it, or it becomes necessary.


switters said...

Pretty brilliant, there, Keifus. Seriously. You're holding out on us, aren't you? I.e., stop living a lie and confess that you write for Esquire.

I'll repost the National Geographic article in case folks didn't see it over there.

Subsistence farming is so... next year. And Al Gore, turns out, isn't a stupid nut case. Food, Inc. will certainly turn some heads, but I don't think anyone's going to pay much attention until our beloved (not so much) Michael Moore takes on Monsanto.

Anyways, fantastic stuff. Well done.

Keifus said...

Nah, although as far as secret lives go, I sometimes wonder if it's wise to record my occasional departures from believerism.

The problem with Michael Moore is that he's the sort of nincompoop that thinks haranguing the president of Tyson would be most compelling if he were dressed up in a chicken suit. (I think that was a Seinfeld episode, actually.)

Was talking to my wife yesterday: maybe we could end up near some urban hippie haven in Vermont or somewhere like that (where else could anyone afford it?), after the kids are off in school. Maybe start working part time in our late-but-still-vibrant 40s instead of trying to retire twenty years later on dubious savings. Probably just dreaming.

You know, if people were as small as rats, we'd do a lot less damage. Far-fetched genetic engineering there--what could possibly go wrong?

switters said...

Some of your stuff is a near perfect combination of Answer Fella and Stacey Grenrock Woods. (That's a complement, in case you weren't aware.)

Here's a conundrum that occurred to me in the grocery store last month while I was in the produce section. Michael Pollan claims that the best food for you is around the perimeter of the grocery store, which includes the produce. But much if not all the produce isn't grown just outside of town; it's grown everywhere from California to Mexico to Brazil (or wherever bananas come from) on giant farms that use pesticides and synthetic fertilizer.

Which means, perhaps, when it comes to vegetables, that the canned vegetables are actually better. Though they too have been grown on giant farms with pesticides and fertilizer, they weren't picked before they were ripe (maybe) in order to travel (maybe), they weren't genetically altered to travel well (maybe), and they were canned at the peak of their flavor (again maybe).

Also, the simplest problem: we eat to much meat/poultry/pork. And the red meat we eat isn't grass-fed.

Trapped between a rock and a rat race indeed.

Keifus said...

That sounds like a sweet gig. You know, if I have a skill set, it's along the lines of being a convincing dilletante in a variety of geeky fields. And writing proposals. I wonder how much an answer dude job pays.

Frozen veggie stuff ain't so bad, and if you don't have much cash, it's really cheap. As for the edges, I've got to think fiber-with-pesticides still has got to be better than whatever's in Twinkies. Canned stuff doesn't need a lot of preservatives (obviously), but they do chuck in a lot of flavor and texture savers(salt). It's why your canned tomatoes will make great sauce, but the supermarket ones never cook down very well.

K (You know, trying that thing out)

artandsoul said...
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