We Have No Choice

I read Underground Airlines yesterday. It’s fresh in my memory. This morning browsing through Edible Santa Fe I ran across an advertisement for work the Quivera Coalition is doing with the Southwest Grassfed Alliance. And a sense of why some arguments bother me congealed.

We have no choice. This is the only way we can [fill in the blank].

If you haven’t read Underground Airlines do so. It’s a quick read, a well done alternate history set in the present day whose initial conceit is that Lincoln was assassinated on his way from Springfield to Washington, D. C., which led to the passage of the Crittenden Compromise. At the time of the novel, slavery remains only in four states, though its presence, not unlike apartheid in South Africa, has tainted the economic relations of the United States with the rest of the world: The North is impoverished due to the high cost of its labor and the embargo, while the South maintains a veneer of prosperity because exploiting slave labor is cheap.

Handily enough the state conventions on secession published the causes of their course of action. First among them was that abolishing slavery would destroy the South’s way of life. What was meant was not a vague Heritage or Rightful Order of Things, but the economic underpinnings of the dominant industry. King Cotton was impossible without slave labor. As Mississippi forthrightly stated,

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

The South argued that without slavery the looms of Manchester would fall silent. They didn’t. Cotton was imported from Egypt instead. Which begs the question, who performed that labor?

Hand-in-hand with “this is way we’ve always done it” is “this is the only way we can do it.” Whatever it is.

I’m thinking at the moment of agriculture, but those twin arguments show up in disparate circumstances. You may have noticed some extremity in online rhetoric recently, often a holy war variety that will brook no disputation, only the flinging of insults which the other side wears as badges of honor. Yet even in those forums where an attempt is made at reasoned discussion, a few souls insist there’s nothing to talk about. It’s not unlike the proverbial Thanksgiving dinner of Hollywood legend. I lurk in a group of this nature which purports to discuss the hot button topics afflicting agriculture: to whit, conventional versus organic farming methods. Aside from all of the woo-slinging that results, someone usually brings up the Green Revolution and needing to feed the world. At which point they say, emphatically, we have to produce more! The only way to feed the burgeoning population, then, is to further intensify agricultural production by doing exactly the same thing we did yesterday.

The problem with this is that in many cases famine is as often a political and economic failure as one of environmental conditions: the Great Famine of Ireland between 1845 and 1849, the Great Soviet Famine of 1932-1933, and the Bengal Famine of 1943 come particularly to mind. That is, famine is not entirely a production problem but one of distribution and logistics, so why do we continue to focus on the production aspect of the problem, particularly when that aspect appears to be, in effect, eating the seed corn of future generations? There’s no other option, apparently.

It’s all quite beyond our control.

Also published on Medium.

1 Comment

  1. One learns trivia in the most intriguing ways. A piece in The Guardian on how wonderful Finland is begins:

    Western Europe’s last naturally caused famine ended 150 years ago this winter. In a poor and backward part of the Russian empire called Finland, more than a quarter of a million people – nearly 10% of the population – starved to death.

    Last year, on the centenary of its independence, Finland was ranked, by assorted international indices, the most stable, the safest and the best-governed country in the world. It was also the third wealthiest, the third least corrupt, the second most socially progressive and the third most socially just.

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