Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sustainable Farming: An Imperative

We hear it all the time: farming is 'in crisis'. In Europe, and across the 'developed' world, there is not a day that passes without more reports of farmers going to the brink, even committing suicide out of despair at the state of their industry. It is not unusual to hear farmers cry that this is the worst crisis on the land since the depression of the 1930s. Unfortunately, it isn't getting any better.

Governments are of no help. The solutions they advanced are a combination of short-termism and defeatism. Give more money to the farmers, in the form of ever-larger subsidies, whilst accepting that, in the long term, traditional farming is doomed, and the only way to go is to engage in an ever-more intensification, combined with 'diversification' for those who don't have the machines, money or land area to rough it out in the new global agricultural market.

At the other end of the equation, mostly in the 'Third World', are peasant subsistence farmers who are finding it difficult to survive whilst their centuries-old farming systems are being undermined by global politics and economics, and who would consider themselves lucky if they produce enough food for their families, let alone generate a surplus for sale.

There is a clear connection between the problems of farmers in the developed and undeveloped worlds. Both are brought by a global trade in agriculture which subsidizes and promotes vast, intensive, capital-rich farmers and destroys everyone else. This approach benefits big 'agribusinesses' and supermarkets, but not the countryside, smaller farmers and the communities that they support. It does not take into consideration the ecological, social and cultural factors necessary to real agriculture. On the contrary, it undermines centuries-old traditional farming practices and drives farmers already in a desperate situation into a vicious circle of technological dependence that further weakens their vital cultural links with the land.

The system that is killing farmers and farming all over the world is a system that regards agriculture as just another industry - a global food factory, subject to the same rules of 'free' trade as car factories or mining. This is a fallacy, but within the current system, it is one which remains virtually unchallenged. For within the current paradigm of global-tradecomes-before-all-else there is, as Margaret Thatcher once famously put it, 'no alternative'.

But there is. And it works.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Towards A New Relationship With The land

Profiteering from land transactions degrades both the nature-human relationship and the social fabric of humanity.

Access to land is important in the economic sphere (as well as the residential sphere, of course). But when access is perpetuated, once the productive purpose has stopped, it becomes inappropriate and destructive.

This article is not promoting socialism, per se. It is not recommending that means of production be transferred to common ownership. As Steiner indicates: “Instead of common ownership of the means of production, a circulation of the means of production will come about within the social organization, so that these continually become available to the people whose individual capacities can render them of greatest possible use to the whole community.”

In this model, land-property ceases to be what it has been up until now. And it does not revert to an old, outdated form, such as common ownership represents, but is led forward to become something wholly new. Land-property is made more fluid, entering the flow of social relationships and processes. The individual can no longer manage land in his own interest to the detriment of the general interest; but nor can the general community manage it bureaucratically to the individual’s detriment. Instead, suitable individuals will gain access to it, and use it to serve the community.

Of course, this social renewal also includes the cultivation of spiritual and creative faculties, faculties that are largely over-whelmed at this time by our materialistic focus. For example, economic theorists often cite profit motivation as a necessary driving force in the economic realm of society. However, once an individual discovers the greater profit that is born out of his/her individual spiritual and creative process, and that moves into the world as a beneficial resource for the well-being of the community, or overall social organism, material profit as a motivation becomes redundant.

Finally, a quote from Vision and Action for Another World – Powerful Ideas and Inspiring Practical Approaches, ed. Ulrich Roesch:

“Land belongs to everyone, though it is utilized by individuals. In this sense, individual ‘ownership’ of land can only refer to the right of utilization. As long as such individual utilization continues unchanged, there is no need for societal action. Society only has to ensure that a new user can step into the rights of the previous user, when the previous user quits. In such a system, the right of land utilization would change hands only by assignment, not by sale. In this way, land ‘ownership’ would be brought back into circulation within the social system.. Society would not manage the land; it would only ensure that it is available to (suitable) individuals for utilization, and also that such utilization is not made impossible because of prohibitive pricing.

Instead of a purchase price paid to the previous owner, society could impose a social compensation payment for any ongoing utilization of land. This is justified because the use of land by one individual excludes everyone else from using the same plot. Communal income accruing from the compensation payments would be used to benefit all people in the respective region of that part of the world. Such compensation payments do not constitute interest on capital, since no sale, and thus no capital transfer, has taken place. Their quantification would not be determined by supply and demand but by social considerations. For instance, society can adjust the amount of payment so as to further ecological agriculture, or some other societal goal.”

Further resources:

The reader is invited to visit the full version from which this article has been excerpted - The End of Real Estate - and what can take its place.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Important Differences Between "Climate Change" and "Global Warming"

Many people in the media (and elsewhere) use the terms "climate change" and "global warming" interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. But there are differences between the meanings of the two terms. 

Getting a better handle on the definitions of and differences between "global warming" and "climate change" will help us understand why the threat caused by continued warming of the planet is so serious.

Planet Earth's current warming trend is based largely on natural warming and cooling cycles that have been happening for eons; as well as human-caused additions to greenhouse gases, which are boosting the atmosphere's ability to trap heat in the biosphere. Minor factors like an overall increase in the sun's solar intensity play a smaller role.

While greenhouse gases are an essential component of a livable planet - they're what keep Earth from being a lifeless ball of ice - humans are causing greenhouse gas levels to increase so quickly that it's causing the average global temperature to rise much faster than it would naturally. This warming is predicted to lead to a variety of negative effects, including:

1) Melting (and possible disappearance) of glaciers and mountain snow caps that feed the world's rivers and supply a large portion of the fresh water used for drinking and irrigation.

2) A rise in sea levels due to the melting of the land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, with many islands and coastal areas ending up more exposed to storm damage or even underwater.

3) Increasingly costly "bad weather" events such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and severe storms.

4) Lowered agricultural productivity due to less favorable weather conditions, less available irrigation water, increased heat stress to plants, and an increase in pest activity due to warmer temperatures.

5) Increases in vector-borne infectious diseases like malaria and Lyme Disease.

6) Large numbers of extinctions of higher-level species due to their inability to adapt to rapidly changing climate and habitat conditions.

The first two of these effects are mostly related to increasing average temperatures. Items 3-6 are related to heat too, but also playing a role are non-temperature factors - i.e. "climate-change factors."

Climate change is about much more than how warm or cool our temperatures are. Whereas "global warming" refers to increasing global temperatures, "climate change" refers to regional conditions. Climate is defined by a number of factors, including:

1) Average regional temperature as well as day/night temperature patterns and seasonal temperature patterns.

2) Humidity.

3) Precipitation (average amounts and seasonal patterns).

4) Average amount of sunshine and level of cloudiness.

5) Air pressure and winds.

6) Storm events (type, average number per year, and seasonal patterns).

To a great extent, this is what we think of as "weather." Indeed, weather patterns are predicted to change in response to global warming:

1) Some areas will become drier, some will become wetter.

2) Many areas will experience an increase in severe weather events like killer heat waves, hurricanes, flood-level rains, and hail storms.

It's tempting to think that all of these changes to the world's climate regions will average out over time and geography and things will be fine. In fact, colder climates like Canada may even see improved agricultural yields as their seasonal temperatures rise. But overall, humanity has made a huge investment in "things as they are now, where they are now."

Gone are the days of millennia ago when an unfavorable change in climate might cause a village to pack up their relatively few belongings and move to a better area. We have massive societal and industrial infrastructure in place, and it cannot be easily moved. Climate-change effects will generally not be geographically escapable in the timeframe over which they happen, at least not for the majority of humans and species.

 James Nash