For awhile now I have been saying that the complex systems which supposedly serve us actually serve themselves: they call the tune and we dance as directed. But I haven’t offered a whole lot of examples of what I mean. Now I would like to remedy that by offering some examples of how systems may interlock with each other and lock us into their individual and collective agendas. I will jump in – not at the beginning, but in medias res – the world I was born into, in the middle of World War Two.
At this time, the bomb factories were manufacturing great guns here in America thanks to a discovery made in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century by Fritz Haber. The Haber process, for which Haber received the Nobel Prize, is a way of turning atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which can in turn be used as a basis for making military weapons like bombs. Munitions factories built amazing industrial capacity during the war years, but then, finally, the war came to an end. With such industrial infrastructure already in place, but with the cash flow drying up, there was incentive within these corporate-owned businesses to keep all their interconnected systems of extraction, production, and distribution chugging along, which, thanks to the Green Revolution, they were able to do by cranking out artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and other agro-chemicals.
During these same war years scientist Norman Borlaug was developing hybrid strains of wheat and other grains that required intensive irrigation and just the kinds of artificial fertilizers that these erstwhile bomb factories were now turning out. And thus began a revolution in land use, a population explosion, and a movement of people off the land and into cities. The institution of the small family farm, where parents and children worked together to make a living off the land, would come to be seen as an archaic way of life, and American Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, would intone the new mantra of “Get big or get out” of agriculture. A later Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, would enjoin those still on the farm to “plant fencerow to fencerow,” getting rid even of kitchen gardens and the trees that acted as wind breaks and thermal insulation in order to maximize “efficiency” in this industrial model of the economies of scale. In this atmosphere of postwar boom-times, America’s once small-scale farming became large-scale agribusiness where giant machines, artificial fertilizer, hybridized seed, and imported irrigation water became the order of the day. This trend continues, as less than two percent of Americans now make their living farming, while genetic engineering is touted as a technological breakthrough that will “feed the world.”
Many, many systems are involved in this revolution that has changed the face of America in our lifetimes. Two cultural institutions that preceded this land-use and societal revolution are the corporation and the banks, and both these have served as important drivers to the way things played out on the ground and in people’s lives. What keeps the banks in business is the culturally established convention of interest on debt. Money is borrowed to accomplish some desired project with the understanding (in the form of a contract) that all the money would be paid back plus a large bonus to the lenders: interest paid on debt is a huge factor in our economic system and a driver of continual growth. The system imperative of interest on debt is in fact a pyramid scheme that requires new players to enter the game in order to keep this system going. Likewise, the corporation, with its imperative to earn profits for shareholders above any societal or other value, requires management decisions that maximize profits while minimizing costs and risks to that single class of people. And this imperative is also a driver of growth. The “get big or get out” injunction applies not only to farmers; it applies at nearly all levels of business.
Between them, Fritz Haber and Norman Borlaug are credited with allowing the human population to grow to twice the size that it could have without the intervention of the systems their innovations set in motion. A burgeoning population in turn drives all the systems to do more and more: more extraction, more production, more distribution, more consumption, along with more waste products coming out of each one of these systems of the global industrial economy. Add to this the revolution of rising expectations, where everybody wants to live in the lavish way we do, and you have a recipe for using up every last asset of a living planet, until it is stripped down to a lifeless cinder. This is the direction we are headed in, and we are not slowing this juggernaut down; in fact, it is accelerating, as we add more people, more systems, and more drivers to push us at breakneck speed, toward what?
But let’s go back and consider some other implications of bomb factories becoming a driver of industrial-style agriculture. We have built one hell of a lot of dams in the last half of the twentieth century in order to supply irrigation water to chemically-enhanced crops on machine-carved, corporately-owned land. Redistributing the natural flow of rivers has been less than a boon to fish populations, including migratory fish like steelhead and salmon. Runoff of nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers has created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and everywhere this form of agriculture (temporarily) flourishes. All the little scraps of land that were once saved for wildlife by the small farmer have been effectively removed in the name of efficiency. The relationship that the small farmer once had to the land is all but gone now, replaced by a relationship to massive machines, and to the banks. All those small farmers who have lost their land to the economics of giant-sized agribusiness have surrendered a life they loved for something far less satisfactory, and how much less satisfactory is attested to by many a farmer suicide-sometimes by drinking the poisonous chemicals used to saturate the land. And the land itself is now all but dead, its living topsoil blown and washed away, and what is left depleted of its living, soil-building organisms. When the organisms that build soil health are drenched with poisons and leached away, the plants that grow in this diminished medium are robbed of much of their nutritional value, including many of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are so important to human health. Deprived of full nutrition, the health of the people suffers-as we now see all around us.
This is just a sketch of some the interconnected systems that impinge on our lives. I personally don’t see much opportunity here for human interventions that are going to make meaningful change, and the reasons for this are several. The systems we find ourselves entangled in all seem to share in the same imperative for growth, and this growth manifests in several ways. One way it manifests can be seen is in the growth of medium-sized corporations in global mega-corporations, through mergers, buyouts, and hostile takeovers, resulting in an ever greater concentration of power in the hands of a few. This is a trend that became evident in post-war America, and has only intensified in the years since-despite lip service to anti-trust laws designed to prevent monopolistic distortions of a market that calls itself ‘free.’ The explosion of the human population, from 1.6 billion at the twentieth century’s start to 6.1 billion at its end, is another obvious example of the growth imperative gone off the rails. What may not be so obvious is how feedback loops between our population growth and the complex systems in which we were – and are – entangled, have swapped roles as driver in the growth of the other; were, and are, mutually reinforcing causes, while also being mutually reinforcing effects, of synergistic runaway growth. I personally don’t see that we humans have the clear option of disconnecting ourselves from these systems that both serve us and cause us to serve them. Something from outside this entangled relationship could break these very sticky bonds-something big, like Mother Nature, for instance. Short of such an intervention, I don’t expect to see our trajectory changing direction anytime soon.