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Yes, Virginia, There Really is a Capitalist Conspiracy
Paul Durrenberger March 5, 2016
Bri Farber, our resident field worker (anthropologists of farming and agriculture chew on that ambiguity for a while) came in with this:
“Wanna hear a lawyer joke?” “Sure.” “How’s a lawyer lubricate a combine?” “I don’t know, how?” “Pretty good, but you haveta feed him in real slow.” A woman lawyer friend of mine once quipped: “Wanna know why there are so many lawyer jokes?” “Sure,” I said, always game for the light side of any culture. “’Cause everyone wants to be one but can’t.” “Ok, basic jealousy, like blondes? I said to my statuesque brunette pal.” “Sure.” But there’s another reason. Change the combine to the signature machinery of any industrial system and the workers could use the same joke. I could imagine it coming from shrimpers I worked with on the Gulf Coast, factory worker or industrial workers in Chicago or healthcare workers in Pennsylvania. “How’s a lawyer lubricate an industrial oven?” Because wherever you see the capitalist class in action you see their lawyers out front to protect them, always putting the interests of their clients first, above everything, including justice. There are countless hearings across the U.S. every day regarding the implementation of various laws that call for regulating this or that. Every interested party is invited to attend with comments. The policymakers hear them all impassively. But the lawyers are there with suits and ties on to be sure their clients get the long end of the stick. Or in high heels and stockings. Representing their clients, whatever the relevant industry is from fishing to agriculture to baking or banking. And it’s the industry that usually turns out benefiting, oddly enough, by the regulations. I once read that Uncle Sam was created as an image of a kind of anti-Santa Claus, skinny, gaunt and sort of dour, a point for point un-Santa. And so he is, unless you’re a capitalist. And then he is opening up his bag of treasures for you. Old fashioned imagery. And “conspiracy” has that moldy air about it too. “Are you a conspiracy theorist?” “No, you don’t have to be a theorist to see conspiracies, just look at facts. No, I’m a coincidence theorist. That’s what takes a lot of theoretical work, to imagine coincidences.” This from a conversation with anthropologist Fadwa Al Guindi. Let’s rather speak of collective action. That comes from the theorizing of economist Elinor Ostrom. The idea is to develop hypotheses that can help us understand why people ever act in concert to try to achieve shared goals. It’s a puzzle to economists because they start with the assumption of methodological individualism, that is, that the social order we see around us from people driving on the correct side of the road (whether it be left or right), stopping at traffic lights, and more or less obeying the rules of the road most of the time to form predictable flows of traffic emerges from a series of individual decisions, just as prices emerge from the individual decisions of purchasers. That’s why, for instance, the price of gasoline goes up and down: because of supply and demand. Were we talking about Santa Claus before? Speaking of myths? So ok, call it capitalist collective action. It comes to the same thing. Maybe it’s not a conspiracy if people do it out in the open. But that’s what the Petroleum Institute is along with the National Manufacturers’ Association, the National Chambers of Commerce and other champions of capitalism and the American way. Ever wonder why it doesn’t play in Iraq? Or Afghanistan. That’s another matter. Unions are straightforwardly about collective action. It’s part of their name. The National Farmer’s Union, for instance. When the president of that organization visited Iowa this past winter for the annual meeting of the Iowa Farmers’ Union, I asked him, over dinner, whether he figured maybe the small membership numbers had anything to do with the National throwing the Iowa chapter out in the 50s when their president refused to fall in line with Truman’s foreign policy for a war in Korea to deal with Communism. He said that was a long time ago and people forget this stuff. This is America, after all. But it’s the same in the labor movement. About the same time there was a drive to purge radicals and communists from the labor movement. This fueled the rise of politicians such as McCarthy from Wisconsin as well as Nixon and Reagan from California. Not to mentioned the iron-jawed cold warrior from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy and his kin, sons of capitalists all. They would protect us from a Communist Conspiracy that was stalking the halls of Congress and the rest of the world from Veet Nam to Cuber to Venezuela to Argentina and Guatemala and all of the Americas. And as a by-catch this movement would turn the labor movement against itself and decimate it. That and the 1949 Taft-Hartley amendments to the 1935 enabling Wagner Act turned the unions from social movements on behalf of working people into paternalistic shuffling bureaucratic zombies that supplied workers to the various industries of the organized capitalist class and kept them disciplined. And so for farmers. And so family farms, those bastions of Jeffersonian rural democracy, were converted from farms to agribusinesses. Was there a conspiracy to do this? You bet! All of the Morrill Land Grant institutions, our agricultural colleges of every state, Iowa State, University of Illinois, Texas A&M, Rutgers, Cornell, all organized to promote the ideology, the doctrine of farmer as businessman. This was congenial to Americans who wanted nothing more than to not be peasants, but it re-defined farming from a family operation to an industry. Add to that the American Farm Bureau Federation and its successful battle against the cooperative movement, the only really viable threat to capitalism that ever emerged on American soil. Is it a coincidence that NAFTA contributed to the decimation of American Unions and contributed to the increasing maldistribution of wealth? At the same time there was what anthropologist Dimitra Doukas calls a Cultural Revolution to make the world safe for the emerging corporations and make their rapacity seem natural and inevitable rather than something people do that hurts other people. Part of that revolution was the creation and fostering of the discipline of economics to provide a cloak of scientific respectability for economic rape. So today, when young beginning farmers ask why it is so difficult for them to find a piece of land on which to grow healthy food, I have to say, “It’s no coincidence. Did you hear the one about how lawyers lubricate combines?” Cinnamon Rolls Paul Durrenberger 5 December, 2015 I’ve been baking our bread since we moved to Draco Hill in 2010. I tried different recipes until I cobbled together bits of several that work for me. When young volunteers ask me to teach them how to do it, I walk them through it a couple of times and then they can bake bread too. So I guess I was getting cocky about my baking skills. Suzan went off to Des Moines to tend to SILT business and I thought it would be nice to fill the house with good baking smells for her return. And Christmas is coming up, and that’s the season for cinnamon rolls. I looked up the recipe my sister sent me long ago for the ones my mom made from the recipe from her mother-in-law. I checked it against a couple of cook books and set on one that wouldn’t make quite so many as my mom needed to feed the tribe of siblings I grew up with. I went into the pantry, pulled the mixer from the corner where it sleeps, and started in. Bri Farber, the young anthropologist who is staying with us while she studies the relationship of Iowa people to their water, came into the kitchen and asked what I was making. “We’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the oven,” I said because I know that good intentions are not enough to base a prediction on. Sometimes they match the result, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it. So, my Delphic answer. I mixed all the stuff, put it in a bowl, covered it, and waited two hours. Not much happened. My bread dough is usually busting out of the bowl by then. Maybe the pantry was too cold. To accelerate the process I put the bowl into the oven for a while. Not much success. So, I figured I’d better see it through and I rolled out the dough, put in the filling, rolled it up, cut it, put the pieces into the pan and covered that for the second rising. This time they rose. At least a bit. Having done this before, I knew the rolls would rise even more in the baking and run into each other to make a continuous mass. But I put some of the pieces into a muffin tin per the recipe in order to get that brown crust all the way around them. In they went and 400 degrees for half an hour while Bri and I ate supper. When the oven timer went off, I took out the pans to see what I’d made. I’m not sure what to call them, but they weren’t what I had in mind when I started. A couple of hours later when Suzan came home, the house was full of a smell, but not the one I intended, rather a little acrid, that after-smell of something burned somewhere. It’s a good thing I had a bottle of wine ready to open to hear about her day. This morning, the results of my work were ready for consumption. I noticed Bri was eating granola. Not a good sign. I got some of my baked goods—dark brown to black on the outside with the mouth-feel of charcoal briquettes. And so, once again, I felt confirmed in my answer to Bri and in the empiricist approach to life. Do the process and see what happens. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. And you can only judge by the product and no amount of good intentions would stretch between those charred hockey pucks and the cinnamon rolls I had in mind. Science at Work Paul Durrenberger 29 November, 2015 Photos by Bri Farber We belong to the Iowa Farmers Union, the oldest farm organization in our state. It’s the group that was implicated in the Cow Wars here in Cedar County in 1930; it’s the group that was thrown out of the National Farmers’ Union when its president wouldn’t support the Korean war and the members wouldn’t oust him. It’s the group that lobbies for legislation to control pesticide drift. So we went to their annual convention in Des Moines last week. The IFU has lost a lot of steam since those days. When the president of the national union, who was there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the group, sat down at our table I asked about those events of the 1950s and how being thrown out of the national might have affected membership in the state organization. “That was more than two generations ago; that shouldn’t have any effect now.” I tucked into my pulled pork. We’re in Iowa. You gotta be nice. It’s part of the deal. Fred Stover was the president back then, a guy who was being red-baited by Joe McCarthy. After the Iowa union was ousted, Stover went on to organize other farm groups and died in 1990 at the age of 90. It wasn’t all that long ago. Even by the standards of American amnesia. I don’t have an answer to my own question; I haven’t done the empirical work, but I can’t help thinking there might be a connection because membership in the Iowa branch dropped by half immediately. So after lunch I went to a meeting about the causes of Iowa’s water problems. A woman from the Wallace center talked about how we should all be polite, civil, is the word she used, nice. We are all in the same boat here. I thought of anthropologist Laura Nader’s (Ralph’s big sister) writing on compulsory harmony, the ideology of all having common interests when one side has sufficient force to compel the other to agree against its interests. Then came a woman from the Iowa Environmental Council. Again, lots of common interests here. No bad guys. Not here in Iowa. Then came a guy from the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance. I first came upon this group when one of their folks had a seat on a panel at a meeting about water quality in Iowa City. Most of the speakers were doing research on water issues, and most were from the University of Iowa. But not this guy. I noticed he had been sitting at a table with a handful of other guys in suits. The ones that were not like the other ones. Industry guys, it turned out, one from the Soybean Producers, one from the Corn Producers, and one from the Pork Producers. And their shill. Who cruised under the flag of the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance. I don’t know if the guy who next took the podium that day in DesMoines was the same guy, but he was talking the same line. “I’m a scientist,” he said, suggesting that the other two were just civilians, “So I have lots of charts and graphs,” that you can believe, as opposed to this stuff the women were talking about. Interestingly, the originally scheduled spokes-person for this industry group was a woman, the communications director, but she’d now been replaced by a real scientist, and a guy to boot, someone who would compel belief and consensus on his side. But I heard she was in the audience. So he put up a slide to prove to us that Iowa was only a very minor part of the problem of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; lots of states were contributing, all the way east to Pennsylvania and out west to the Continental Divide. So, this slide suggested, even if Iowa contributed nothing, the problem would remain at about the same level. So what’s all the fuss about? Eutrophication, schumitrofication. I woke up. Oh real science! I’m on it. I’m here. Tell me more. So he did. Climate change is doing a job on everything, including our water. And then a slide from Iowa State, he said…. Now, some folks would have quit listening then, but he said it was science from Iowa State, so I listened to how most of the nitrates in the soil, the bad stuff that washes out into the waters and rivers of Iowa and on down to the Gulf, most of that is natural, banked up in the soil, and we can’t really sort out how much is from that and how much from ag chemicals. The big box in the picture was natural nitrates; the little one, just insignificant contributions from farm chemicals. So first, it’s not a big deal; second climate change probably did it; third, the problem is natural, not from ag chemicals. And that’s science. From Iowa State. Then he sat down. I don’t think there was any discussion. We were done; this guy had set us all straight with his science from Iowa State and corrected any lingering false conclusions we might have drawn from the women who spoke before him. And all was well in Iowa. Well, the guy got to practice his spiel; maybe he can use it in a court of law because the director of the Des Moines Water Works is suing the counties upriver from him for polluting his water and making the people in his service area pay big bucks to remove the nitrates. Those same nitrates that derive from the routine practice of industrial agriculture as preached by Iowa State using products from chemical firms and agribusiness companies that feed the world and are the center of the Iowa economy and the major support for Iowa State. And the Soybean Producers, Corn Producers and Pork Producers can rest secure that the threat of having to actually do something to repair the damage they are doing to the rivers, the state, the Mississippi, the Gulf and the planet is once again muted by their science guy. See? I can be nice too. Prairie Parthenon Paul Durrenberger 14 September, 2015 Building with natural materials means nothing is square and nothing is quite straight. This violates the basic principles of carpentry right off the bat. How can you make structures that are level, straight, and square? The answer is, you can’t. You have to just drop the plumb bob and square and go on what looks more or less right. Euclid’s geometry is an exercise in sheer abstraction. That’s the beauty of it as an introduction to mathematics. It defines purely imaginary relationships. None of those forms occur in nature. There are no square corners. In that, it’s like money. Another abstraction from reality. Useful, maybe, but not real. The Iranian architect Nader Khalil knew the mathematics of structures. But he also knew that if he wanted to teach people how to build them from materials at hand such as sandbags, he couldn’t use the architectural approach of developing an abstract plan and then trying to realize it as a structure. He had to use what he called pragmatic geometry, the geometry of simple relationships in place. The geometry of his domes starts with a circle. A nail is the center; a string is a compass. All else follows the relationships of circles on and within circles. At one point Suzan asked me exactly what was my plan for this pergola. I said I didn’t have a plan so much as a procedure.But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had some grape plants and no trellis for them to grow on. I thought I’d use material from our woods to build a pergola, a structure we could use to watch the sunsets, talk to visitors, and support the growing grape vines. So Suzan geared up and took some woofers down to a place where she’d girdled some invasive honey locusts last fall. Our original plan was to let them stand and then some time in the future they’d come down either in a storm or in a prairie burn. In the meantime they’d provide habitat for wildlife. Naturally rot resistant, they’d provide the material. My lumber yard for this project. First we had to decide on a site and lay it out. There ensued much discussion and debate between us and our friends about the best location. We finally settled on a place and I put flags at each corner of a square, laid out as I’d learned to lay out squares for archaeological excavations. I wanted a level floor but the ground was anything but. It sloped down. How tall each corner pole would have to be to be 6 feet tall above the floor of the pergola. Plus 3 feet to set the posts below the frost line. Each pole had to be a different length. Ten at the shortest, allowing a foot for fudge room, fourteen at the longest. So my procedure was to figure out what parts I needed, collect the parts in one place, then shape them so they’d fit together and then put them together. First four corner poles, each of different lengths. More or less straight and tall trees. Then a framework for the floor, a square fastened to the four poles. Then planks for the floor. That was my one concession to the laws of carpentry. I had tried splitting logs for planks but there was no way I could make them smooth or straight enough to be useful. Those I’d get at the lumber yard. With Suzan’s chainsaw work and the EV, our electrical vehicle, I began to collect the pieces into a pile. One pile was 6 or 8 candidates for corner poles, all in one pile; the other pile for the framework and the joists to hold up the planks. Then I began splitting the logs for the floor frame. After I had those, I used saw and chisel to make mortises in corner poles I’d selected from the pile of candidates. Then I augured holes for each pole and used a level to set the poles. I say I used a level, but none of the poles was sufficiently straight to get a good reading of perpendicular, so I wound up just eyeballing each one, knowing that the curve of the lenses of my glasses sometimes distorts realities. Then I checked to see how close my measurements and calcuations for the locations of the mortises had been. The were all within an inch, so I made the corrections and used lag screws to fasten the framework in place. Then I cut mortises in the cross members to receive the tenons of the joists. I brought out my squares to test the corners, but that was useless. I did check everything for level and in my tool box was the hammer, chisel, saw and level. Level I could measure and realize in the structure. One rule of carpentry.I write as though these things happened smoothly, but none of them did. At each step I had to adjust to the materials I’d selected and how they fit with the other pieces that were already in place. With the framework and joists in place, I screwed down the planks and the thing began to look intentional rather than like a more than usually orderly pile of stuff from the forest. I’d used the tape measure enough trying to figure out the lengths of the poles and the locations of the mortises on them. For the top I needed another square to which I could attach cross members to make a trellis. But that didn’t need to be level. The grape vines wouldn’t care. Finally, one day it was done. I’m no carpenter, so it wasn’t as neat as a pro would have made it. You could see mistakes and corrections at every juncture, but it held together and it looked pretty good….from some vantages.It brought home that saying about it all depends on how you look at it. Coming up the driveway, you see a nice group of four poles standing proudly erect and parallel to each other and perpendicular to the surface of the ground. Coming up from the orchard, it looks good too. But, when you step out of the door of the house, it looks all cattywampus….skewed, lopsided, misaligned. But then I thought of the guy who built the Parthenon in the Acropolis for Athens, the building with all the columns on the plateau above the city. He shaped each column to be a unique size, a size that would look good from the city below. He didn’t know about perspective, a concept that was a few hundred years in the future. So it bothered him to see the far away columns as different from the closer ones. So he made them fatter so they’d look good. So I thought I was in pretty good company. My pergola, the Parthenon. Oh well…I guess it depends on your perspective, how you look at it, or maybe from where. But it looks ok from most perspectives. And it stands up. Whether any of my grape plants will deign to grow up it and shade us next summer is a whole different question. The Power of Good Intentions Paul Durrenberger 6/31/2015 Camus wrote that truth unfolds in our actions, not in our talk or thoughts or intentions. “How do you like this dry weather we’ve been having?” asks the cook at the restaurant as I eat the breakfast he’s laid out on the buffet at the hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska. We’re up there for Ayshe’s graduation from University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “Gonna be a lot of fires. That military base. That’s where they start. Doing that firing practice, shooting over their heads, it starts the fires. They get some commander in there from the Northeast where they get rain all the time and he doesn’t know the difference. He’ll see the alert, but he won’t believe it. He’ll think it don’t make any difference. And he’ll start a fire.” That was the relevant truth for this guy, the fires, not the intentions of the clueless commander. “You a fire fighter?” I ask, just to contribute to the conversation. “No/” He laughs. “Knee problems, lung problems.” He laughs again. Then he gets called back to his kitchen. Long ago when Suzan asked whether I thought the intention or the act was more important I answered that the act was more important; that the intention was usually something someone made up to excuse an unacceptable act. This was running through my head because I’d been reading a “debate” between some kid and Noam Chomsky on U.S. foreign policy. The kid alleged that the killings of millions of Iraqis was understandable because the president’s intentions had been noble. And so on incident after incident. They fastened on Bill Clinton’s missile attack on a Somali drug manufacturing facility. The kid said it was excusable because Clinton thought they were making chemical weapons. Chomsky suggested he contemplate an event of similar magnitude happening in the U.S. depriving us of half of our capacity to produce drugs and so on. And so it went, each past the other with no hope of resolution, the kid, I think, gratified that a person of Chomsky’s stature would even engage his sophisms. Chomsky drew a portrait of a well-intended but ignorant bumbling fool stumbling around the planet screwing things up for most of the other people that share this earth with Americans. The kid thought that was ok, as long as the intentions were noble. Chomsky suggested that the fact that those actions gravely hurt many people could be a reason for the hatred they express toward our land. And that discussion, in turn, caught my eye because I’d been contemplating people who bumble through the world, screwing things up for other people, but excusing themselves and expecting everyone else to excuse them because they meant well and because they’re nice and nice people don’t do bad things, not on purpose. In Iowa, you can count on people to just be quiet, not question anyone’s motives, and keep on keeping on. Iowans are not a contentious lot, and certainly would never inquire as to someone’s intent, even though the person might reveal the purity of his intentions as a way to justify an action. “I’m sorry” cuts it for these people. At least, it avoids the discussion and that’s the important thing in Iowa. “Where are you from?” the cook asks when he returns. “Iowa.” “Got wolves in Iowa?” “No. Coyotes.” “Must be a lot of mountain lions.” “Nope.” “Lotta forest fires?” “No forests. Most of the land is plowed. Corn.” I didn’t add that, like the base commander or the kid’s conception of American leaders, the farmers never intended to destroy the environment, make Iowa’s waters the worst in the nation and kill the life in the Gulf of Mexico. Those may be the salient facts, but their intention was to feed the world. The farmers provide the corn, Monsanto provides the slogans. But Iowans don’t question intentions. It’s not nice. “Here we areal hunt wolves. Got a bounty. I see on the weather they got some storms down there.” The truth is that the rain will erode soil that farmers have tilled for beans or corn, will fill Iowa’s waterways with agricultural pollutants, and contribute to environmental destruction. The intentions of the Alaskan base commander, American leaders, Iowa farmers and all those clueless people that bumble through life being nice and screwing up peoples’ lives are all good. Who would accuse them of anyting else? Not an Iowan. And as long as that counts for more than the truths revealed through their actions, nothing can change. Feeling Ticky Paul Durrenberger 5/18/2015 You feel them crawling all over you. There’s one now on your calf, crawling its way up to your knee. You rub the calf against the other shin. Now it’s on the other calf and still headed north. They feel like sweat dripping down your body, except instead of down, they always go up. Now it’s on your left ribs. There are two major types of ticks in our part of Iowa. One is the usual dog ticks that ride in on our dogs like San Franciscans on their cable cars, hopping a ride and jumping off to see what the inside of the house has to offer. We see them walking up an odd wall. Sometimes a bloated tick will fall off a dog and lay stranded, feet in the air, helpless or waddle along if its feet can still reach the ground. We got Guinea fowl to eat the ticks. That was their major purpose. They lay eggs, but if we valued the eggs at the value of their feed it’d be king’s ransom for a season’s eggs. No, we got them because everything we read about them said they were tick eaters and that’s what we needed. Tick eaters. But then we read a research piece in which some guy in Turkey bothered to actually check that allegation. He found that they don’t eat many ticks. But they do have a relationship with ticks—they, like the dogs, are tick busses. Fortunately, we don’t let the guineas into our house. And they kind of grow on you, with their animated conversations about whatever they are discussing and sudden changes of direction. The other kind of ticks are deer ticks that have hitch-hiked in from Lyme, Maine and spread Lyme disease. Those are more difficult to see and I’ve not seen one, but we know they’re here because we know people who have developed the characteristic target rash of Lyme disease and one who went on to have the full suite of symptoms before getting antibiotic treatment for it. Now it’s walking up your right thigh. There’s actually a third kind of tick, more insidious than the other two known to science. We heard on the news that gas prices were going up. We were shocked. The newscaster asked someone what that had to do with supply and demand because we all know that that’s what sets the prices of everything. Economists say so. It must be true. So the person on the radio said that supply and demand hadn’t changed but the Saudis anticipated demand would increase, so raised their prices accordingly. Thus the price of a barrel of crude had gone up by a third and we’d be feeling that at the gas pumps soon. Anticipated demand. Anticipation is an act of the imagination, so let’s call that “imaginary demand.” Now that’s the finest kind of demand. It’s hard to measure because it’s not real, but just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect prices. No. It can still be powerful. Like fear on Wall Street. So that brings us back to the third and worst kind of tick of all…the imaginary ticks. Those are the worst because, like anticipated demand, you can’t see them. You look and look but your skin is free of all crawling beasts. Nothing is there. You put your clothes on again and again, there it is, the crawling…on your left thigh. That response to the imaginary ticks is what we call “feeling ticky.” There’s nothing to do for it except to be sure it’s really imaginary and then get on with whatever you were doing and wait for it go away. But that’s what makes it by far the worst kind of tick. Iowa Landscapes August 21, 2014 Recently Suzan and I were walking across parts of the landscape of Northwestern Iowa with a group of people interested in agricultural ecology. We heard explanations of the formation of the various landforms from the most recent glacier’s dumping of a gravel moraine to the scouring out of lakes to the formation of micro habitats for amphibians such as small areas of fen. Every now and then as we paused to contemplate the scenes in front of us, I’d raise my eyes to the horizon to see a continuous panorama of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the high-rise grain elevators the provide their feed, and the highways that tie them together to the slaughter houses where the animals are processed, often never leaving the ownership of the large firms that control the whole process. But it all looked so bucolic, so green. I remembered visiting the defunct Bethlehem Steel factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and marveling at its massive structures. It created its own landscapes and landforms. In another part of Pennsylvania near the home of Penn State, there’s a place named “the Barrens” because not much grows there. It was the site of an early incarnation of Beth Steel, left behind a hundred years before as a scar on the landscape. These sites unapologetically billowed pollution into the air and water for decades. No one is surprised to learn that certain streams are so polluted from mining and manufacturing operations of the past that fish can’t live in them. No one is amazed at the towering “boney piles” of waste material removed from mines or that the water that seeps through the long abandoned mines is toxic. Iowa farmers refer to their massive machines collectively as, “iron.” I heard one guy say, “There’s nothing more frustrating than having all this iron and none of it working while you wait for someone to reprogram one computer.” I began to imagine what it would look like if you could pile up all the iron in one spot, one machine on top of another until they resembled something like a red and green and yellow Beth Steel. Red, green and yellow are favorite corporate colors for implements. Or take Beth Steel and all the other old smokestack industries and mines and put them into some giant blender to reduce them to pieces the size of a brick. Then paint them green and spread them evenly across the landscape. That’s what Iowa’s true landscape is. An industrial one disguised as farms. Talk about greenwashing! As Iowa’s land owners age, they rent out their land to insure income for themselves and their descendants. When people are renting land and farming 10,000 acres as one operation, that’s not farming; that’s industry, even if it is a thinly spread layer of green across the land. And it’s just as polluting as those old smokestack industries. There’s just as little concern for their pollution as there was when Beth Steel was setting the foundations for global warming. That’s what American agricultural policy is promoting and that’s what the land-grant colleges, Penn State and Iowa State among them, are teaching as necessary and desirable. “We feed the world,” crow the good-looking young farmers on Monsanto billboards. And the industrial farmers echo the slogan like they might just believe it, though they know they’d never eat anything that came from one of their operations. They couldn’t eat it until it was run through a factory and then chances are just as good that it would turn out as fiber or fuel rather than sweetener or some other component of the industrial food system that fuels the American obesity epidemic. But then I’d lower my eyes and try to concentrate on just how a glacier moved that gravel into that pile and how those fens were formed. It’s a distraction from the continual degradation of our environment, political system and economy that agribusiness and the land-grants are wreaking in the name of farming. Isn’t it better than a distraction? Isn’t it a reminder of the grand force of nature, of how everything changes, and inevitably this will too and that we might just have some say, if just a little, in the matter if we change what we’re doing now? If You Have to Ask, the Answer Must Always be “No.” I was musing on my previous post here, the one about measuring ecotopia when I recalled a lesson I’d learned some years ago. It took years to learn it, though. When I was a graduate student, I took a course on anthropology and Japanese literature. Along with notions of duty and shame, one of the ideas I came across through which to understand the novels was something like “honorable man,” which, extend to something like “accomplished.” The professor who taught the course was on my committee and after I finished my comprehensive exam I asked him whether I’d achieved that status. “No,” he answered. I went to Thailand and did field work for a couple of years, returned, wrote a dissertation, and defended it. After that I asked whether I’d made the grade. “No,” he said again without elaboration. Years went by and I was a full professor at the University of Iowa when the same professor came to visit to give some lectures to the Asian Studies folks. We had supper one evening during his visit. As we sat in the restaurant I remembered those two brief conversations and wondered whether I should ask again. But by then maybe I’d actually learned something worth knowing, so I understood that if I asked again, he would answer the same way. But then I understood that the reason was that if I had to ask someone else, the answer had to be, “No.” The only way one could reach that state was to know it within one’s own self and not have to ask. And so for abandoning the idea of progress. If you give up that notion, then you don’t have to ask anyone else’s opinion of how you’re doing. You just do it and if it’s satisfying to you, that’s enough; that’s the measure. So anyone or group that has to ask for a measure of progress in this sense will always get the enigmatic “No,” until they figure it out and quit asking. ############ Last time I posted, I told you what I said at the meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Albuquerque a couple of weeks ago. There were lots of interesting sessions, among them one devoted to anthropologists studying groups involved in alternative models of agriculture like us here at Draco Hill. These are my reflections on one of those sessions. If you want to know how I came to be here, you can read my new memoir, At the Foot of the Mountain: A Journey through Existentialism, Anthropology and Life. Here I mention Russian and Iowa Aggies; in the memoir I describe that research. Measuring Eco-villages Anthropologists working with eco-villages are having a problem. Residents want to know how well they are doing at escaping from the grips of contemporary capitalism and providing alternatives. As Suzan and I watched the slides we saw an assemblage of industrial artifacts–Mason jars, garbage cans, solar collectors. We’re glad we didn’t dedicate ourselves to such withdrawal because we, like everyone else we know, have to raise enough coin of the realm to pay our land taxes. There is no escape. But measuring progress toward these goals proved to be difficult for my colleagues. Our speaker showed us graphs to illustrate the amount of electrical usage, how much garbage and trash each person generated, and some other measures vs. the staggering amounts of typical Americans.. All of this reminded me of how impatient I was when I was doing fieldwork in the hills of Northern Thailand. I wrote to one of my former professors of my frustration at the wasted time. He wrote back with a story of a neighboring apple farmer from his native Massachusetts. Every year the guy hitched his nag to his wagon and took a load of apples to market. Someone persuaded him that he should keep some records. The records showed that he was losing money, so he quit keeping records and went back to doing it the old fashioned way because that’s what worked for him. Or the story of the Italian immigrant who opens a restaurant and does well enough to send his kids to college. One of them studies business and after graduating tells the dad he just can’t keep money in a cigar box under the counter. He asks how he can figure his profit. The father says that the educated kids with jobs and houses and their own kids are his profit. I’m a great fan of quantification as long as we can figure out what we’re counting and why. In the 1920s and 30s aggies in Iowa and Russia tried to figure out family farms. The Iowa aggies couldn’t figure out how these could be businesses as capitalist theory said they must be because they typically returned negative profits at the end of the year. The Russians found the same thing and concluded that the farms weren’t businesses as Marxist theory said they should be, but household economies. The Russians found the people didn’t measure their lives in terms of profits or losses but how well they met their needs. Like the Italian immigrant restaurant owner or the Yankee apple grower. That was not an acceptable answer in Iowa, so the aggies there concluded those farmers were just bad businessmen. The Russians changed their measurements to coincide with what the farmers were doing; the Iowans tried to change the farmers to coincide with what their bosses told them to measure, to make them fit the model. At another meeting of anthropologists I heard about some folks in BC up in Canada who organized a CSA using postage-stamp parcels of land they pieced together in people’s yards and other odd places in the city. It worked. A little later I was talking to an Iowan who had thought about the same plan, but said it wouldn’t work. He’d done the spreadsheets and found that there was no way to make any money doing that. I told him about the BC project. He thought about it for a minute and said, “Maybe I should change the model.” I agreed. You may have heard the story of the aeronautics engineer who proved that bumblebees couldn’t fly because they didn’t fit the assumptions of aerodynamic science. So I think the job of those eco-village anthropologists isn’t finished yet. I think that like the Russian aggies, they might consider changing their model and trying again to assess progress. Part of the relevant model might just be to escape from damaging ideas like progress. Maybe anthropologists could help the eco-villagers measure progress in that direction. But all in all it’s good to see fellow-anthropologists struggling with how to understand people like us at Draco Hill where we say that making money is not part of our business model and that nothing’s at stake. I’m looking forward to hearing the results one of these days at one of their meetings. Meanwhile we’re running out of dried watermelon from last summer but the freezer is full of venison the people who hunt the place have provided and we’re waiting for spring to finally get here so we can get outside and grow some more food. Just the finish the story of the aggies…. The Russian guy who wanted to change the model? Stalin said he had the wrong answer and had him shot. Now that’s peer review for you. Stalin hired some of the Iowa aggies from ISU to come over to Siberia and show them how best to industrialize their farms. Here in Iowa, the aggies just kept on with the program of industrialization until they’d driven all of those bad business-persons out of farming and established corn-bean-Monsanto-Dupont monoculture. To see how that’s working out, read any of the good books on the topic from Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma to Leah and Author Dunham’s America’s Two Headed Pig or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. But that’s another story. Last week Suzan and I hopped Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Albuquerque for the meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology to receive the Malinowski award and deliver the address. Some may wonder what I think about universities and academics. If you’re interested in where all this came from, I’ve just published a memoir, At the Foot of the Mountain: A Journey through Existentialism, Anthropology and Life. In there I talk about hopping freight trains, brakemen, engineers and bulls. Amtrak is much more comfortable and we even had a very nice dinner-time conversation with an engineer who was traveling from Chicago to California on union business and had a chance to mention fellow-anthropologist and engineer Fred Gamst. As the conversation evolved he asked, “What kind of people are you? You favor unions and Amtrak…. You must be on some list of subversives.” So, this is what I said to the anthropologists in Albuquerque: Living up to our Words Paul Durrenberger Draco Hill Thanks for the introduction and thank you all for honoring me with this award. I thank Kendall Thu and Barbara Dilly for putting me up for this and filling out all the paperwork it required. And all of the people who wrote letters of support. And I want to thank my wife, partner, and collaborator, Suzan Erem for all that she has been and is to me now. I dedicate my talk today to the memory of Robert O’Brien who died on June 1st of 2012 in Philadelphia at the age of 44. He epitomized the values and outlook I advocate here and helped to lead the struggle for equality and dignity. I won’t make a case for applied anthropology. We have already done that with our work.
- on city streets, battlefields and in hospitals, we have saved lives.
- In the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development we have given voice to untold numbers of otherwise voiceless people.
- We have put fishing peoples into fisheries management and the users into IT products from copy machines to computer programs.
- Archaeologists have preserved the memory of labor struggles and documented the conditions of enslaved Africans that would otherwise escape the notice of history.
- We are in the eco villages, farmer’s markets and alternative agriculture movements.
- In the Occupy Movement we have helped to organize the 99%.
That’s a wide swath through contemporary government, private, corporate and resistance practice. Nobody needs to make a case for applied anthropology. We are here. Walter Goldschmidt (2001) argued that applied anthropology is a testing ground for theory. Some examples.
- The tragedy of the commons has become a comedy of economists (McCay and Acheson 1987).
- Malinowski’s (1922) critique of methodological individualism and economic man has been validated time and again (Durrenberger 2009).
- The ethnography has repeatedly shown that privatization is not a viable solution to resource management problems (Acheson 2000, Durrenberger and Palsson in press, Carrier in press).
- The ethnography shows that whenever you hear, “all things being equal,” you have a good reason to stop listening.
- Finally we know that objective ethnography cannot be dismissed as simply “the objectivist narrative,” one story among many,
- nor is it the exclusive domain of disengaged observers (Singer 1995)..
These developments reiterate the wisdom of Malinowski’s classic ethnography:
- assume nothing,
- listen to the people you want to understand,
- don’t substitute your understandings for theirs,
- honor your observations.
Where else but anthropology can we scrap all of the assumptions and examine living social orders for empirical answers to questions about human nature? Thomas Weaver’s compilation of Malinowski Award Addresses (2002) suggests common themes through four decades—concern for:
- policy and influencing policymakers,
- empirical and accurate reportage and
- public service
I rephrased these as:
- be empirical,
- affect change,
- serve the people.
And that’s what I want to talk about tonight. Unlike many of you, I’ve been institutionalized for most of my life. I’ve recently finished fifteen years at Penn State, Pennsylvania’s Land-Grant college, another branch of Monsanto U, created to serve the people, but hijacked to become the research and development arm of agribusiness. Before that, I was 25 years at the University of Iowa, that state’s liberal arts university whose chief role is to serve the pharmaceutical industry. Anthropology is rooted in the academy. So, let’s pause to understand the role of universities in our economic and ideological systems. The American working class has two segments. One does the work. The other manages them. In return for their service, the ruling class grants the managerial part of the working class privileges such as suburban houses or urban lofts, cars, and the chance to get their kids into the managerial class via university educations (Ehrenreich 1990).. The role of universities is to make that system seem reasonable, natural and inevitable and to reassure the students of what they’ve heard since they were born–that their inherent merit entitles them to privileges–but that they have to prove it by what we, the soft handed, are pleased to call “hard work.” Graduation certifies that we have convinced reasonable people to take absurd systems seriously and function in them without going too crazy too often. Sound familiar? So that’s what I’ve devoted MY life to. I did this explicitly when I developed a course on business anthropology. A young woman named Erin Holland graduated from Penn State with a degree in anthropology. She was working with a marketing firm in Pittsburgh and her employers wanted to hire more anthropology graduates. I went to Pittsburgh to visit her and talk with her bosses who agreed to let Erin work with me to develop a course on business anthropology. I wanted to check with the people who hire anthropologists to see what skills they need. So in 2007 I went the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) to ask them. They told me PhDs were too set in their ways. They wanted people could think like anthropologists. And they wanted people who could work
- on schedules,
- with teams,
- and make themselves intelligible to their bosses—
skills that are well beyond the reach of many PhDs. So Erin and I developed a syllabus to do those things. Undergraduates would have to learn how to think like anthropologists in other courses; this one was just for technique. They didn’t need to go to graduate school and learn obfuscatoriality. At another EPIC I heard anthropologists working at Xerox (Watts-Perotti et al. 2009). discuss the future of paper in business. Their ethnographic observations convinced them paper was only useful for patching between computer applications that didn’t interface very well. Yet. They reminded us of the Kodak Corporation’s discovery of digital photography and their ten year plan to deal with it. And that five years later, they were out of business. That was five years ago. By now technology has just about wiped out the need for paper. I couldn’t get that out of my mind as I returned to my teaching at Penn State. I was already well along in a course on Global Processes and Local Systems. At the meeting of that class after I returned, I told the students to scrap all their assignments. They were all for a paper this or paper that and paper was no longer in the future. But, I admitted, I was at a loss as to what else to do. So their first assignment was to let me know what they would like to do instead. On paper, of course. They told me: Animations, videos, a teach-in, dramatic presentations, art. A grad student, Nuno Ribeiro, worked with others who called themselves the Anthro 450 Collective to bring together all of these elements into one coherent evening event in a large auditorium. The MC assured the unsuspecting spectators that the uniformed security guards were there to insure their own safety. The leader of this group happened to be a prison guard during his working hours so his demeanor added a note of verisimilitude. At that time, Victoria’s Secret’s Pink campaign at universities was very much in the news. Some students who were members of United Students Against Sweathsops, USAS found that PINK’s goods were produced in sweatshops. They started the event with a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Security didn’t remove any of them. But they did forcibly remove the students who posed as workers to rise from the audience to protest that the merchandise was made in sweatshops. Another group had gone to Pittsburgh to video the protests against the G20 meeting. It was the same scene we see enacted around the planet—the mass of police in riot gear and gas masks with their batons … the running crowd … the tear gas. I had asked my students to avoid getting hurt or busted because we needed their video for our event, after all. If anthropology is a creature of universities, another is student protest movements
- the civil rights movement
- the anti-Vietnam War movement
- the South Africa divestiture movement
- the environmental movement
- United Students Against Sweatshops, USAS.
The goal of USAS is to insure that merchandise that bears a university’s licensed logos is not made in sweatshops. Their activism did more than just spice up our class project. When one of their members was arrested at Penn State and assessed an outrageous fine by the University, I organized a faculty response with a letter to President Spanier and I collected money from my colleagues to pay the fine. That’s when I confronted Penn State’s culture of fear. There’s a lot of fear in academia. Undergrads are afraid of exams; grad students are afraid of crossing professors, losing funding and sponsorship; junior faculty are afraid of not getting tenure, and by the time people are tenured, fear has become a habit. One faculty member whose son had been arrested refused to sign the letter because he was coming up for tenure. A very senior colleague told me at great length that while he sympathized, he could do nothing because one line of his funding came directly from the president’s office. That’s what the ruling class is counting on. A fearful faculty cannot teach boldness. When USAS organized a sit-in at the president’s office, I went with them. When they organized an action in front of Old Main, I led my class out to join them. And, when they got a meeting with the president, Suzan and I did role play training to help insure they wouldn’t be drawing blanks when they faced a dismissive and arrogant administration. That worked. An otherwise shy USAS representative refused to allow President Spanier to talk over him. When it became obvious that the administration lawyers were evading the issues, the USAS representatives caucused and then walked out. That was a great victory and left the administration stunned. Students don’t act that way! What did that accomplish? I expect Penn State merchandise is still made in sweatshops, but those efforts produced a handful of dedicated, savvy and smart organizers who are now working with unions and other activist organizations in Pennsylvania and other parts of the world. All without PhDs. Be empirical, affect change, serve the people. I gave no tests. Taking tests is not a useful skill. It only ratifies a fallacious ideology of meritocratic individualism. I organized class meetings as student-led discussions of student-submitted questions about assigned readings. The questions and discussion let me know which students had done the reading. At the end of the semester I’d ask students to write a brief essay on what they’d learned. One of the most poignant was a young woman who wrote that she’d learned the most important lesson of her university education in one of my classes: “There but for the grace of God go I.” In other words, she’s just like everyone else, vulnerable, weak, helpless, exposed. Anything that happens to anyone else could happen to me–to her–to you. Taking that seriously motivates solidarity—people joining together to defend the weakest among them because they know that an injury to one is an injury to all. So for Nuer and Bedouin with their segmentary systems (Evans-Pritchard 1940, 1949); and so even for the longshoremen who load and unload ships at our ports every day. Early in 2000 when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in California heard about the troubles of their brother longshoremen in South Carolina, they immediately started to organize support. Even though they belonged to a different union. . . . Even though their international told them not to. Even though the national labor confederation, the AFL-CIO refused to support them. When dockers in Europe, Latin America and Asia ignored their national unions and joined the South Carolina local, there was a real prospect of shutting down global trade networks. They knew the loss of the longshoremen’s local in Charleston would be a loss to all longshoremen. Suzan and I spent three and a half years working on a book about that story, On The Global Waterfront. The union purchased a thousand copies to give to all its members and sparked what one observer called a cultural revolution on the waterfront. Longshoremen were sitting in their pickup trucks on their breaks reading the book. Thinking about solidarity and their role in it. The same thing happened in California and in Australia. Spanish dockers had it translated into Spanish. Sometimes it helps to recognize and record peoples’ actions. It lets them know they are not invisible. It prepares them for the next battle. The books we write can make a difference. Supporting those who are most threatened, those at the bottom, serves the interests of all workers. How does that pertain to us? Are we not also workers? Like the hotel workers here? For one brief moment anthropologists showed sufficient courage to join the struggle and show solidarity with our fellow-workers. The1999 meeting of the AAA was in a Chicago hotel close to the Congress Hotel and a not far from a large homeless shelter. Suzan and I were taking a big plastic bag full of left-over food from the meeting to the homeless shelter and passed the picket line at the Congress Hotel. The workers there had been out on strike for a long time. The conjunction of the surplus high-end food on my shoulder, the homeless shelter, and the picket line caused me to wonder aloud what a bunch of anthropologists could do about anything. Aside from sit in a hotel and talk about it. We are, after all, a bunch of academics. Suzan, who learned about organizing in the labor movement, pointed out that our meetings themselves are a resource and that we could have some clout if we agreed to meet only in facilities whose workers were represented by unions. As president of the Central States Anthropological Society, I drafted a letter to the Executive Board of the AAA, but that didn’t go anywhere. Then I drafted a motion to that effect and took it to the Section Assembly for a vote. “But that would cost more,” some protested. I provided data to refute that claim. After all, who ever thought that the wages of workers determined the prices of products? If adjunct wages determined tuition rates, there wouldn’t be half as much student debt in this country as there is today. The motion carried with a huge majority. The AAA executive board adopted the motion and it became policy. Then came 2004. The AAA contracted to meet in the San Francisco Hilton. But the hotel had locked out its workers and refused to negotiate with the representatives of their union. Perhaps it would be resolved before our meeting. Time wore on. Nothing happened. Finally, AAA staff and leadership canceled the San Francisco venue. Other organizations joined us, and before long the San Francisco Hilton was negotiating with its workers and soon they were back to work with a new contract. That worked. That action accomplished something. That was solidarity. We anthropologists led the way for other scholarly organizations. But only because the policy was in place. But we’re professionals; why should we support unions? Look at the data from the Economic Policy Institute’s yearly, State of Working America. Having a union raises workers’ wages, closes the gender and race gaps and increases the chances workers will have health and pension benefits. A union contract provides a shield against arbitrary and capricious bosses. Affect change. Serve the people. It’s something we can do. But it raises costs to us, right? That’s like the argument that a higher minimum wage decreases the number of jobs. Remember, be empirical. That has never happened. Ever. And it’s the same for hotel costs. Union hotels don’t cost more. But there were costs. The AAA had to pay a stiff penalty for breaking a contract. The AAA meeting was disrupted. Some people couldn’t give their papers; some could not get to their job interviews; some members lost the price of their air tickets. But how can we weigh the cost of not getting a job interview, not giving a paper, not meeting friends against the benefit of helping hotel workers in their struggle for representation? The logic of solidarity means that when you need that kind of help, you can hope that someone will be there to help you. There but for the grace of god go you. But, the managerial part of the working class is supposed to have that logic of solidarity educated out of them. For years it’s drummed into them: the market determines everything equitably. You get what you deserve. You don’t need any help. I don’t know how it would have played out for the Charleston longshoremen if the California or Spanish dockers had asked the cost of their actions. Or if they’d been afraid to act. But that would have made the shipping companies all very happy because it would have been their signal that they wouldn’t need to put up with longshoremens’ unions any more. Anywhere. The ruling class likes that kind of message. It’s just the message SfAA sent from Baltimore in 2012 when it violated a union boycott and refused to support hotel workers. The workers of this hotel do not enjoy the benefits of union representation. Imagine what would happen if every organization told the conference bureau of Albuquerque that they could not meet in this town until its hotel workers were represented by unions. For a brief moment, the AAA made a difference to working people. During the same period I was on the SfAA Board of Directors and it would not even entertain the idea of such a policy of solidarity with unions. Thus, Baltimore. Your board and offices have had more than two years to talk about it since Baltimore. Betsy Taylor, Mark Schuller and others on SfAA’s Human Rights and Social Justice Committee have provided the Board all the information it needs. Now it is time to adopt a policy: Don’t meet in hotels whose workers are not represented by unions. If the town you want to meet in has no union hotels, be content to wait until the workers win that fight. Until then, meet in other cities. There are plenty of them. The board doesn’t need more details. If the current board can’t support such a change, then vote them out and run a slate that can. But, I was talking about universities. So let’s get back to that. The focal point for corporate universities, like corporations, is the bottom line. The main task of faculty is to bring in enough outside money to convert departments from cost centers to profit centers. The administration gets half of any research money a faculty member gets. They use it to pay utilities, maintenance, and the expenses of a huge bureaucracy, especially administrative salaries, typically three times those of any faculty member. Because it only returns a part of tuition money, teaching is largely unrecompensed use of faculty time. So administrators hatched a plan of hiring qualified but low paid people to teach. Then they elevated researchers to higher levels of prestige and sometimes salary. So the pattern shifted from having a largely tenured faculty involved in teaching to having a small core of tenured researchers that don’t teach and a large low paid and rotating group of adjunct teaching staff. That’s where many of our younger colleagues are today…and that’s why so many of them are talking about unions. In one of her articles on the Baltimore debacle in the SfAA News, Betsy Taylor says (2012:28. Emphasis original):: ….the labor problems of the ‘working poor’ in hotels and hospitality industries are converging with the labor problems of the ‘working poor’ in academe and professions. It is inaccurate to argue that we should accept bad wages and work conditions for hotel workers to create cheap meetings for underpaid anthropologists. The same forces push down all wages. There but for the grace of God go us all. One of the courses that adjuncts often teach is the introductory anthropology course that every university offers every semester. Across this country and others a lot of students take that course. That means a huge market for a universal book that has lots of pretty pictures and makes a lot of money for the publishing house and doesn’t make any administrators or students uncomfortable. So came the age of bland bad intro books that cost a hundred and thirty bucks a pop. To me, that’s a class issue. I was discussing this with Dean Birkenkamp of Paradigm Publishers when I said in frustration, “What this country needs is a good ten buck intro book.” He said, “You write it and I’ll publish it.” So Suzan and I put our heads together and wrote Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century. We start with the assumption that every person on the planet deserves one share of the planet. No more; no less. We acknowledge that the world is not a fair place and explain why that is, but we also suggest that the people who read the book bend their efforts to make the world a fair place. I’ve taught the book. It’s tough to teach. It makes you be truthful. But then again, as anthropologists, isn’t that our job? So I’ve given you a few good reasons for those of you still at universities to think of de-institutionalizing yourselves. And maybe figuring a way to join with others in the same boat and organizing for common benefit. You can’t rely on the organizations you now have. That’s for sure. And these days a PhD is an impediment, not a benefit for getting paid to use what you know about anthropology. What does it get you if the best you can look forward to is a low paying marginalized adjunct position? It simply supports the corporate university PhD mill that needs low paid teaching and research assistants and adjuncts. Corporate universities have followed the rest of industry in substituting capital for labor, and no one is immune. Machines can replace anyone. From the advent of the first recording devices, forward looking administrators have anticipated the day they could mechanize lectures. The internet removes the necessity for classrooms with the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Political scientist, Benjamin Ginsberg (2013), of Johns Hopkins, is a step ahead with his plan for Massive Open Online Administrations—MOOA. Administrators everywhere face the same problems so they standardize solutions with best practices. With MOOA, one administrator can resolve the problems of all with a few keystrokes. The only downside, Ginsberg points out, is unemployment among university administrators. But they’re qualified for work in the growing industries of retail sales, hospitality, and food services. Then they might see the wisdom of union representation. But let’s get real. With no resident students, classes or administrators, vast areas of dormitories, classrooms, and administrative offices will be vacant. Mostly climate controlled. A bottom line focused solution is to convert this space to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs, to fatten hogs, chickens and turkeys — perhaps in conjunction with the now Chinese-owned Smithfield corporation–to finally achieve the dream of the university as a profit center. Affect Change? I know something about CAFOs, because I’ve studied them. Kendall Thu and I offered the first warnings to the people of Iowa in the mid-90s. The Iowa swine industry kept saying, “we’ll do for Iowa what we did for N. Carolina” so we went to N. Carolina, and found that none of the consequences were good for the environment, local economies, rural residents, the wider economy or for most farmers. We returned to Iowa and said, “Hey, you don’t want what the swine industry did for them.” In the mid 90s, as an academic, I naively thought the best thing we could do was to get good scientific information into the hands of state decision makers. Kendall organized a series of workshops, convened scientists and edited a two volume series on the consequences of industrial swine production. He found funds to print the volumes and send them to every legislator in the state. The process of industrial swine production continued apace. For the citizen’s groups organizing against it, we put together a less technical book, Pigs, Profits and Rural Communities. And the juggernaut rolled on. Why? We wrote a paper about that too (1998). The biggest contributor to the Republican Governor’s campaign was the state’s largest industrial swine producer. The governor had a line item in his budget for the dean of agriculture at Iowa State to use to scientifically prove how beneficial industrial swine production was. So the industry bought a governor, the governor bought Iowa State, and Iowa State proved it was all good. Just like we’d seen in North Carolina. No amount of information can influence that process. It’s a political process and Kendall was correct to see that the only meaningful way to engage it was via political action. An elegant analysis didn’t mean squat. My academic naïvete prevented me from seeing political realities. How can anthropologists, their heads in the clouds of academe, enter the political process? Well, we have to be willing to get political. Weaver’s collection of 20th century Malinowski Award talks is full of calls from Malinowski on for anthropologists to organize to have some effect on public policy. It has never happened. As chair of AAA’s Public Policy Committee, Kendall tried to organize a Policy Institute, an organization that would be like the Brookings Institute, an authoritative voice that reporters could turn to for the scientific take on environmental issues, agricultural questions, immigration, the nature of marriage and family, and other policy matters. Imagine if anthropologists could speak with the authority of the Brookings Institute or CATO or the Heritage Foundation. Imagine anthropologists instead of economists as the go-to people for reporters. That was the idea. AAA allocated money to start such an institute. With that backing, Kendall brought it to SfAA and suggested a joint venture. How would that look? The board wanted details. Kendall came back the next year with a plan. I was on the SfAA Board of Directors and heard my colleagues articulate reason after reason not to participate in such a venture. It might be “too political” as though every other speaker on this podium before me hadn’t enjoined being political. The politics of industrial agriculture might be a big objective for a couple of academic anthropologists to take on. But the politics of SfAA and the AAA? Surely, all of us together can manage that. I tell you now: Do what all of the Malinowski speakers before me have urged—
- be political,
- take a stand,
- work for equality,
- affect change.
- Organize a policy institute.
- Pass a union hotel policy.
Be better, be stronger, be braver than the anthropologists and leaders who came before you. So I’ve said some things that we’re not supposed to say. I’ve said that there is a class system in America—
- a ruling class
- a working class
- and lots of anthropology classes.
I’ve suggested that our organizations don’t live up to our ideals. All of this has probably made some folks uncomfortable. I hope so, because that might just be sufficient to motivate some change. For this group of people dedicated to the uses of anthropology to make a better world, it seems to me the least we can do is to put our own organizations on a path to doing that. For a meeting devoted to destinations, I think that’s a worthy destination. I’m truly honored to receive this award and I’ve enjoyed speaking to you tonight. But now it’s up to you to do the hard part –- live up to the legacy all of the Malinowski speakers leave you. Thank you. References Cited Acheson, James M. 2000 Clearcutting Maine: Implications for the Theory of Common Property Resources. Human Ecology 28(2): 145-169. Carrier, James G. In press. Epilogue. IN Gambling Debt: The Meltdown of the Icelandic Economy. Paul Durrenberger and Gisli Palsson, editors. University Press of Colorado. Durrenberger, E. Paul 2009 The Last Wall to Fall: The Anthropology of Collective Action in the Global System. Journal of Anthropological Research 65(1): Durrenberger, E. Paul and Gisli Palsson In press Gambling Debt: The Meltdown of the Icelandic Economy. University Press of Colorado. Durrenberger, E. Paul and Kendall M. Thu 1997 Signals, Systems, and Environment in Industrial Food Production. Journal of Political ecology. Vol 4:27-39. Ehrenreich, Barbara 1990 Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. New York. Harper. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940 The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1949 The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. London: Oxford: Oxford University Press Ginsberg, Benjamin 2013 Forget MOOCs—Let’s Use MOOA. Minding the Campus: Reforming our Universities. June 13, 2013. http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2013/06/forget_moocslets_use_mooa.html Goldschmidt, Walter 2001 Notes Toward a Theory of Applied Anthropology. Human Organization 60(4):423-429. Malinowski, Bronislaw 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Reprinted by Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, Illinois. McCay, Bonnie and James M. Acheson. 1987 The Question of the Commons: The Culture and Ecology of Communal Resources. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Singer, Merrill 1995 Beyond the Ivory Tower: Critical Praxis in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 9(1): 80–106. Taylor, Betsy 2012 Best Practices in Ethical Planning of Professional Meetings. SfAA News 23(4):26-28. Thu, Kendall M. and E. Paul Durrenberger 1998 Pigs, Profits, and Rural Communities. Albany. State University of New York Press. Watts-Perotti, Jennifer, Mary Ann Sprague, Patricia Wall, and Catherine McCorkindale 2009 Pushing New Frontiers: Examining the Future of Paper and Electronic Documents. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings Volume 2009. Issue 1. August 2009 (Pages 197 – 208) Weaver, Thomas 2002 The Dynamics of Applied Anthropology in the Twentieth Century: The Malinowski Award Papers. Oklahoma City. The Society for Applied Anthropology. Thursday evening Suzan and I went into Iowa City for the Johnson County Heritage Trust’s annual event, Prairie Preview. There we saw folks from government agencies that help prairie restoration and woodland management, firms that have made an industry to do the work the agencies support, and other outdoor enthusiasts such as hunters, birders, and beekeepers. Needless to say, there’s a lot of overlap. Quite a few were familiar because many people have been very generous with their help to us here at Draco Hill. It all reminded me of the reflections I’d written down a while ago and which I’ll share with you now. Foresters, Birders and Prairie People Suzan bought the 80 acres of Draco Hill on the Cedar River in 1997. Twenty-seven acres were deemed arable. You could tell those acres by the perceptible drop to them. That was the amount of soil the farm had lost to agriculture since farming started here in the mid-Nineteenth century. Uncontrolled runoff from heavy rains has scarred the land with stark erosion gullies. Another legacy of conventional agriculture. Just a few years later, Suzan removed some of the arable land along the river from farming and put it in a Conservation Reserve Program that pays rent on the land in return for planting it to trees that filter some of the toxins from the water. Before we moved into the house we’d had built on a bluff overlooking the river in the summer of 2011, we removed the balance of the arable land from cultivation and planted some to prairie and some to trees as part of similar programs. We had to learn how to manage trees and prairie. We walked the land with a state forester, visited neighbors who had planted fields to prairie, and started attending meetings and taking courses on prairie and woodland management. We went to talks and attended walks and learned there is a dedicated corps of prairie restoration enthusiasts. Something bothers me about these well-meaning folks. Being with them, even walking through a prairie is too much like being in church or surrounded by religious people. There’s that kind of awe. They pause, point and engage the challenge of a mental race to see who can first produce the common and Latin names of a plant. They run through the classification key in their minds or aloud for benefit of bystanders. They have the whole Linnaean system internalized, each pigeon hole in the great chain of being of creation. They own the prairie in a way that mere interlopers cannot. I see the prairie like a Van Gough painting—broad undefined brush strokes splashing color and form across the canvas of what had been a cornfield denuded of most life forms to produce raw material for the insatiable maw of American industry. Birders seem to take pleasure in spotting a familiar form and color combination and exclaim in delight as they share their discovery with others. But no one announces Latin names and the object of admiration flits away in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t stand still to be owned or managed, though dedicated birders will note the sighting in their life list. Own and manage. These are things that prairie devotees do for the meticulously square plots of land they have reclaimed from quarries and industrial farming following the archetypical example of Aldo Leopold and his Sand County Almanac, their Bible. Alone, he walks through the morning or evening light of all seasons to record his ecstatic observations of unfolding seasons in the complex relations among plants, insects, birds, animals and weather. To a native American hunter on foot in pre-European times, this was all probably tacit knowledge, so obvious as to require no comment, no exclamation, no deliberate systematization. They were in the system, not observers of it; they were brothers and sisters of the game that fed them and in their hunting and burning of the prairie, they were parts of it like the grazing bison and the burrowing vole. They didn’t speak Latin or study classification keys. But once we detach ourselves and live from the produce of our gardens, farms, and markets, we forfeit the knowledge along with the practice that builds it. No amount of Latin nomenclature can regain it. We can cultivate ecstasy at the sight of a weed and the appreciation of its place in an evolutionary scheme that we try to steer as we attempt to interrupt the patterns of succession and re-introduce prairie without the bison and hunters, prairie with fences and property lines around it, a kind of caricature of a grassland, a thing we can own with our minds by classifying its denizens. A thing we can buy and sell for coin of the realm. A prairie enthusiast wants to tame succession and beat back the invasion of woody plants creeping uphill from the waterways. Girdle, chop and burn. Open the canopy and let the floor flourish. The only economic value is in the seed to sell to other prairie enthusiasts. Another form of ownership. A forester will squint and hold up his thumb and proclaim on the potential value of timber, pulp, and other forest products. The trick is to manage the trees so they grow straight and tall for good timber. This somehow seems more genuine in its frank appreciation of market values, accepting the inevitable and incorporating it. They show little sense of awe except perhaps in the proclamation of the probable cash value of an unusually tall and straight walnut tree. Trees are definitely crops whether for syrup, timber or pulp. Prairie people don’t talk about prairie plants as crops, though they treat them that way. They buy and sell their seed, manage their planting and growth, but rarely harvest anything. Except maybe dirt. That’s what we’re in it for at Draco Hill. Reclaiming the earth one worm at a time. Give the diversity of the prairie fifteen or twenty years and it will restore the soil to something like what it was when European settlers first arrived and started mining it. Its deep roots will absorb the water so that it no longer rushes downhill eroding the earth. From that start, it should be possible to use sustainable agricultural methods to produce food without destroying soil. Otherwise, the only prairie crop is awe. That may be worth something, but you can’t eat it. #################################### Sunday, we went to the monthly meeting of the Earthcare Working Group in Iowa City to watch a TED talk by Charles Eisenstein and to talk about the new Slow Money investment club, Iowa Pollinators. In the process, I mentioned that making money is not part of our business plan and the idea of the karmic economy. I’m attaching here an essay that elaborates a bit on both notions. EPD Notes on the Karmic Economy Paul Durrenberger One person who was visiting our place questioned a decision because there was no way it could pay off. I answered, “Making money isn’t part of our business plan.” That stopped him cold. There’s just no response to that, except a robot voice saying, “That does not compute.” I was discussing this with Paul Trieu when he was working with us on the World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF) program. I said, “Think of it as a karmic economy.” Somehow that did it for him. But I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant. What could a karmic economy be? I’ve heard of socialist economies, capitalist economies, subsistence economies, mercantile economies, and informal economies, but what could a karmic economy be? Economists work with tidy data sets. And a lot of what the human species has done since we walked out of Africa has escaped the detection of data collectors. In the early 1970s anthropologist Keith Hart found that was true of most of what was going on in Africa, so he coined the term “informal economy” to describe black markets, informal trading networks, and transactions that governments define as illicit such as drug deals and prostitution. Much of the economic activity in poor communities in the U.S. is “off the books.” I fix your car and you keep an eye on my kids and my mom feeds your kids when you’re at work and I give your grandmother a ride to the emergency room when she’s ailing. We help each-other out. But when people are better-off, they don’t do that. Much of the work of any society is in what anthropologists call “reproduction,” all of the work of cleaning, cooking, bearing babies, raising children, and keeping households operating so that people are able to go to their formal economy jobs to earn income that the government can tax. But none of that activity gets recorded or into the economists’ data sets, so it remains off the economic radar. It’s what anthropologists call domestic or household economics. They need money, but making profits isn’t part of their plan; getting by is. They keep going when the government can’t fund itself, during times of peace and war, terrorist attacks and industrial strength bombing, and economic expansion and contraction. Domestic economies run on what feminist economist Nancy Folbre calls love, reciprocity and obligation, the elements of family and community. Economists tend to think that wealth comes from money. In these domestic economies where there is no money, it is obvious that any value comes from work. The poorer the community, the larger the sphere of the domestic economy. The ideology of these systems is what anthropologist Dimitra Doukas calls the gospel of work. She coined that term to describe the ideology of America before the corporations took over in the late 19th Century. Since that time there’s been a cultural revolution to make what corporations do seem reasonable, legal, natural and inevitable. In her 2003 book, Worked Over, Doukas documents the process. Family and community are at best vestigial organs where the gospel of wealth reigns. A friend of ours who had lived in Iowa for many years before moving to Maine posted on his facebook page a photo of vast acres of corn and commented on the beauty of the landscape celebrated in the paintings of Grant Wood. When Suzan told me about that I said I didn’t think Grant Wood painted any vast corn fields. They weren’t here when he was. I checked online and found his pictures of fields of straw and hay, but not corn. Those rural and homestead values often celebrated by artists and poets were the first victims of the industrialization of rural Iowa. No, the rural areas weren’t overrun by steel factories and coal mines as happened in the East, but rural Iowa was overrun by the mono-cropping of Corn and Soybeans that define our contemporary landscapes. Rural communities died. We can see the pollution of the coal and steel industries in hindsight now that they’re mostly gone from the American landscape. All industrial processes are inherently poisoning. Including corn and soybeans. We could just pollute ourselves to death with agricultural chemicals. That’s pretty much the end of the story. Unless there are some alternatives around for the survivors to build on. We’re building that by restoring soil with our prairie and woods restoration. That’s why we say that making money isn’t part of our business plan. Our business plan reaches far into the future beyond the collapse So what is a karmic economy? The Buddhist peasants I lived with in Thailand were no theologians. Their sense of karma had much more to do with this-worldly consequences for this-worldly actions. Do good, receive good. And vice versa. That’s the more secular sense of karma I’d like to invoke. It’s the idea of reciprocity, the idea that good things come back to you; the idea that all things are interconnected. If you look at a compost guru’s slide of the soil you’ll see a bazillion fungi, creatures, and plants all living on each other and making the soil healthy for our plants. That’s the sense of connectivity; it’s easy to get mystical here and slide into some idea like Gaia. That’s a nice idea, and I don’t have anything against mysticism. It’s karmic in the sense that we think that the values Nancy Folbre discussed—love, reciprocity, and community can be the basis of an economy; and that among these reciprocity is the key. So that’s what I mean by a karmic economy. It’s based on giving not taking. If people give to each other, no one needs to take. If the economy is based on taking like the corporate economy is, there’s no room for the good feelings that fuel giving. The first step is to take fifteen or twenty years to repair the soil from the years of industrial soil-mining. One worm at a time, as we say at Draco Hill. The next step is to divorce ourselves from the money economy and practice generosity. Paradoxes abound. To buy a farm requires money that only engagement with the larger system or the luck of inheritance can provide. To establish a prairie requires what prairie people euphemistically call a “chemical burn.” Roundup. As well as a tractor and a seed drill and frequent mowing to replace the buffalo because CRP doesn’t allow grazing, even of bison. And that’s based on money and the categories of the industrial cropping system such as Corn Suitability Ratings and rents. To engage in the karmic economy is a luxury that may only be practicable for people with assured income from Social Security or pensions who don’t have to rely on their farms for revenue. So we’re not holding our breath waiting for the great collapse or arming for survival; we don’t see any heroes in the story, just a lot of folks like us who are working to develop a karmic economy to be there after the collapse. It’s not a question of whether, it’s a question of when. Suzan and I visited with a an Iowa City discussion group devoted to Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics. I’d read the book and, as an anthropologist, was disappointed chiefly because he ignored over a hundred years of accumulated ethnographic evidence that would have supported his case. Talking about these matters is well and good, but there’s nothing anyone can do. We’d been reading Woody Tasch’s Slow Money and related works which are action rather than talk oriented and decided to start an investment club based on those principles, and it’s now up and running, see the website here. If you’d be interested in joining us as an investor or if you’re interested in a loan to help with a food-related business in Johnson and surrounding counties of Iowa, please get in touch. So, herewith, the promised critique of Charles Eisenstein’s book: Critique of Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics
- Thesis: current capitalism is not sustainable and must necessarily collapse.
- When that happens, a sacred economy will emerge.
- We can hasten the process by moving economics into line with realities via
- Negative interest money to keep it circulating instead of being hoarded
- Eliminating externalities.
- Restoring the commons—e.g. accumulated knowledge—no intellectual property.
- But these are all matters of government policy, not individual practice so nothing any individual or group can do anything about.
- The writing is mostly in the future tense “will happen” or subjunctive “would happen”—prophecy or philosophy, but
- no practical steps that people can take.
- There really are non-monetized economies and gift economies, but CE seems not to be aware of them. Anthropologists have described them.*
- CE Doesn’t distinguish substantive economy from finance economy a la e.g. Joseph Stiglitz, the working of money vs. the working of provisioning economy.
- In Slow Money, Woody Tausch agrees with first premise, but recognizes the difference between substantive and finance economies and relationships between them;
- And advocates slow money as a response…that is, don’t try to deny or ignore money, but make connections to real substantive local economies via local investments to foster the development of locally interconnected economic systems independent of larger financial structures, independent of the system CE is talking about.
* Best summary is Marshal Sahlins 1973 Stone Age Economics. More recent is Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century (Paul Durrenberger and Suzan Erem, 2012). See also writings of David Graeber anthropologist and occupy wall street organizer including Debt: The first 5000 Years and political scientist, anarchist and farmer James C. Scott including The Moral Economy of the Peasant. This piece is just out in MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Newsletter, The Organic Broadcaster. I will return to broader issues of karmic economy next time with a critique of Charles Eisenstein’s book, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition, available free at this site. See the Versaland website for workshops on farm and homestead design with Ben Faulk and on Keyline design using GPS technology. In the meantime, keyline management 101. Organic Broadcaster Keyline Design 101: Farmers learn water management in field from Mark Shepard By Paul Durrenberger, Draco Hill The crowd watches as the trackhoe excavates a swale and deposits soil downhill to create a berm to guide water in Grant Schultz’s field. Photo by Paul Durrenberger. On a hillside of stubble from recently harvested oats, 40 people crowded around a 1960s Oliver diesel tractor in the heat of the August sun on Grant Schultz’s VersaLand Farm near Iowa City, Iowa. The tractor with tandem moldboard plows was supposed to carve a swale to show us how to put in practice lessons we’d learned that morning from Mark Shepard, author of the book Restoration Agriculture. Mark was here at Grant’s invitation to teach a workshop on the methods he has developed for restoring vitality to played-out farms and income to the people who work them. But, the tandem moldboard plows couldn’t get deep enough into the dry, clay-like soil. After 150 years of commercial farming, the last half of which have been devoted to “conventional” corn/soybean farming with heavy inputs of fertilizers, fuel, and agricultural chemicals, Iowa’s farmland has come to resemble a weed-strewn parking lot when it is hot and dry, and muddy floodwaters when it rains. Grant had brought Mark to the heart of conventional agriculture to explain revolutionary methods of farming. “First take care of the blue. Then the green. Then the black,” is one of Mark’s slogans. He means first manage the water, then the plants, and the inevitable consequence will be the black soil and black ink in the account books, he explained. We were all there to learn about this system of water management which he adapted from the Australian P.A. Yeomans, whose 1950s books described his system for managing water as it flows over landforms. My wife and I were keen to learn how to manage water better on our farm. When Suzan and I first moved to our new house at Draco Hill in eastern Iowa, we put in a system of rain barrels and re-directed downspouts to the barrels to store rainwater. Our five barrels amounted to 275 gallons of storage. The first thunderstorm blew out the whole system and left the truncated downspouts spewing water that we had to deflect from the foundation. Like the driving rain that blasted our rain barrel system, fast-moving sheets of water on the land erode soil and wash it into gullies that eat into bluffs and feed fast-flowing temporary streams in ravines that ultimately run into the Mississippi, giving it its nickname “Big Muddy.” That’s how Iowa’s land has migrated to the mouth of the Mississippi, and how Iowa’s agricultural pollution contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. If we could slow down those sheets of water and channel them to areas of land that need water, both Yeomans and Mark Shepard reasoned, then we could prevent erosion, store the water, and use it to ameliorate the effects of drought, such as the drought Iowa experienced in the summer of 2012. Key to this water-saving system is Yeomans’s concept of the “key point.” That is the point in the landscape where fast-moving water slows down and begins to drop its load of sediment. This is usually where the slope changes from convex to concave. If you spread your index and middle fingers to make a “V,” you see the little web of flesh between them at their base. If you now hold your fingers parallel to the ground, you can see the “key point.” Such features in the landscape become the crux of keyline management. The next step is to find the contour line the key point is on. That is what Yeomans called the “Key Line.” It was “Key” because that line became the reference point for the rest of the system to slow down the sheeting water and direct it to small ponds where it could soak into the earth. I had read Mark’s book on permaculture design with great interest when it came out just before the 2013 MOSES Organic Farming Conference. At the MOSES Conference, I found Mark between workshops and showed him a contour map of Draco Hill. I asked where the key point was. I had been unable to identify this increasingly mysterious point. “It depends,” he answered enigmatically. Another one of Mark’s memorable slogans is: “It’s not a one-answer planet.” Answers to any question depend on many factors. For instance, land ownership boundaries may not follow keyline principles, so a key point may be on someone else’s land. And, that neighbor may be part of the industrial food complex and not want you digging on his or her fields. In that case, you have to locate another reference point for your system. Or, the key point may be very low in the landscape, as it was at Grant’s VersaLand Farm. You could make a pond there, but, since it’s at the lower elevation of the landscape, the water isn’t useful as it cannot flow anywhere. So a more useful point of reference is higher in the landscape. The 40 of us who had signed up for Mark’s workshop had heard these explanations in an air-conditioned meeting room and now we were standing on a hillside on Grant’s farm watching the plow move along a curving row of flags that marked a gutter line or swale with a grade of 1%—dropping from its high point at a rate of one foot of elevation per hundred feet of length, the same as a gutter around a roof. The problem was that the soil was too hard for the plow to penetrate well. It would take multiple runs to carve out the 18-inch deep swale and heap up the berm downhill. So Grant brought up a trackhoe and the operator he’d hired for the afternoon. The operator began to deftly excavate the swale, one bucket at a time, and deposit the excavated soil just downhill to make the berm. While the trackhoe dug, Mark asked Grant about the equipment he’d be using on this field—a tractor with an eight-foot wheel base. “So you drive it down and turn around and come back and that’s sixteen feet right there,” Mark said. “Since we’re going to be using machines, we have to build them into the system. The distance to the next swale has to be multiples of 16 feet, so the tractor can end its run where it started.” Grant thought a moment and said he figured he’d need six passes, so that would make a 48-foot alley between the swales. “Ok, now add a foot on each side so you don’t run into the swales or berms, and you have 50 feet. The next swale has to be 50 feet downhill, just parallel to this one.” Mark had used a laser level on a tripod to find the points on the 1% grade that marked the swale. You could use an optical level like a transit or even something like an A-frame level to find the points at the same elevation, on the same contour line. “But look—there’s this little valley coming in right here,” an observer noted. “If the next swale is exactly 50 feet from this one, it won’t be level anymore.” “Let’s mark it first,” Mark said as he measured out 50 feet of cord and gave an end and flags to two people, asking one to stand in the swale the trackhoe was excavating and the other to align himself at right angles lower down and put a flag in at the indicated 50 feet. “Then we’ll check it with the level. If it’s off, we’ll correct it,” he explained. “A plan can be a problem if you think it’s right. On this planet, you can’t do that. Assume the plan is wrong, and build in feedback so you can make corrections as you go.” The trackhoe had completed a long sinuous swale on a 1% grade across the hillside. Where following the contour would necessitate sharp turns, that is, where little valleys or depressions or rills intersected the swale, the back hoe operator made small “drive through ponds,” wide spots in the swale that were exactly on contour, where water would settle during a heavy rain, and where a tractor could drive across when it was dry. So the swale began to resemble a python that had swallowed several mice—or cats. “So,” Mark recapitulated, “The first step is to look at the contour map and find the key points and alternate key points to build the rest of the system around. You have to walk the land to check for yourself things like erosion features and so on, so you can lay out the swales at a 1% grade. Then do parallel lines, but check them with a level and correct them when necessary. Then you’ll have a system of swales and ponds to interrupt the sheets of water and take them where you want the water.” “It looks like the grade is running uphill,” one of the group said. “That’s an optical illusion. You have to trust your instruments because your eyes can trick you that way,” Mark said. “Trust your instruments. Once you have the swales, ponds, and berms, then you can install the polyculture in the alleys between the swales. Don’t spend money. The quickest way into debt is to start spending money. The quickest way into the black is to avoid that. Set up the system and let it take care of itself. First comes the water, the blue. Then come the plants, the green. And from that comes the soil and your income, the black. Blue, green, black. “I don’t need to tell you about peak oil, or about how this system,” he indicated the neighboring fields of row upon row of corn and soybeans, “is all out of balance and is not sustainable. Now it’s up to you. Grab a shovel. Plant a tree. Get started. We can save this planet.” The 40 of us gathered on that hill under the Iowa sun agreed he had it right and thanked him for helping us understand the mysteries of keyline management and how to manage water on our own places. Paul Durrenberger and his wife, Suzan, live on Draco Hill in Iowa where they are engaged in ecological restoration, permaculture, and organic gardening. See their website at www.dracohill.org. January | February 2014
- Mission: MOSES educates, inspires, and empowers farmers to thrive in a sustainable, organic system of agriculture.
Living the Gift Economy Paul Durrenberger It was late in the summer of 2013 when Grant Schultz from VersaLand farm said he was thinking of selling flowers at the Iowa City Farmer’s Market. I suggested he consider an alternative. Instead of selling them, give them away and see what people returned. He could bypass the money economy entirely. “Barter?” he asked. “No. Barter is when you haggle. This would be a gift. You say, ‘These flowers are a gift.’ The other person may say, ‘So what do you want in return?’ and you can say ‘Whatever you think appropriate.’” He had courage enough to give it a try. Courage? If economists are correct and people act to maximize their own advantage and never think of others, then he would get nothing. But I didn’t think they were correct. I’m an anthropologist and we have been discussing reciprocity for a long time. It’s the idea that if I give you something, you’ll return the gift. This would be a small experiment to test the idea. That evening Grant returned with a to-go box full of brewed coffee, a head of cabbage, some other vegetables, and sixty dollars in cash. Only one person obeyed the economists’ dictum of selfishness and returned nothing for the flowers. And he was going to give them to his wife on their anniversary. Some people who have noticed that our finance based economy is unsustainable have figured out that it must collapse sooner or later. What will follow it? If they haven’t read the works of anthropologists who have lived in non-monetized economies, they don’t know about the natural history of gift economies so they philosophize and speculate. But there is some firm ground to stand on. I’m not going to even try to report on all of that work; there’s a lot of it. But I will just tell a couple of stories from my own experience in Thailand. In the Summer of 1967 I walked from the province town of Maehongson through the valleys to Jasmine Flower Village. Then there were no roads from the capital or bridges across rivers much less electricity or running water. I was there as a novice anthropology student with my professor F.K. Lehman from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana to learn what I could about the language and agriculture of Shan people who live in the lowland valleys. We stayed in a little-used government health station in the village. The houses, built of hand sawn teak planks were on stilts, roofed with shingles made of large leaves. A fence surrounded each house to define its compound that included a separate cooking area for the charcoal fire, a large elevated basket that contained the year’s supply of rice, and an area under the house for some chickens and a water buffalo for plowing the irrigated fields. In the space between fences were lanes that wound among the compounds. In the mornings and evenings people walked through the lanes to or from their irrigated fields close by the village. One morning a man came by our place and mentioned that he had a headache. I gave him some aspirin from a large bottle I had brought with me. That evening, on his way home, he stopped at our house and presented me with a bundle of string beans, explaining that he had more than he needed. That was my introduction to what anthropologists call reciprocity, the idea that people return gifts. I soon learned that the whole social order rested on reciprocity. People needed a lot of help to transplant and harvest rice, so they exchanged labor with other households. This was based on explicit agreements of one day for you and one day for me. But there was a more general kind of reciprocity too, the idea that people pitch in and help when they’re needed and then they can count on other people helping them when they need it. When I asked people how much rice they need to produce for the year, they said, “Enough to eat and enough to offer.” The latter refers to the obligation to help support the Buddhist monks living in the village temple by donating food. Monks are exempt from the rules of reciprocity because they’ve withdrawn from society, but people believe they receive merit in return for offerings to monks, so the gifts are returned by the wheel of karma that eventually repays every kindness with a worldly benefit until, after countless reincarnations, people come to understand the futility of any material benefits and seek the release from suffering that nirvana offers in the escape from the wheel of rebirths. That’s why I wasn’t worried about the one person who returned nothing for Grant’s gift of flowers. The law of karma doesn’t need our help. People did use money to buy things they could not produce, but most of their effort went into producing food for the day or for the year and very little money circulated within the village. At the end of the summer, I returned to the University of Illinois for more graduate studies and then, the next year, I moved into a Lisu village in the hills of Northern Thailand to live for a year to learn what they did when people were sick to make them better. The twenty-four split bamboo thatched houses had earth floors. Each house had a pen for its pigs beside it and a stall for horses behind it. There were no fences or lanes. The rooting pigs kept the bare earth of the village cleared of rubbish and plants because people freed their pigs to forage for their own food and provided them only enough corn for them to return in the evenings. This was possible because they grew their crops of rice, corn and opium poppies in slash and burn fields some distance from the village. Lisu were not Buddhists like Shan and other lowlanders. In the evenings, people returned on foot from their fields to eat supper and sleep. After most had eaten I would often hear the wail of one of the two shamans of the village calling his spirits down to him, or rather, the singing voice of the spirits as they asked the people, through the shaman, their horse, what they had called them for. A crowd of people in the house would then explain to the spirit that this person was sick, a sow had gone to the forest to farrow and no one could find her, or some other problem. The spirit would consult with other spirits who would ride the shaman one by one with their prescriptions. The person had inadvertently trod on the head of the water spirit on the way to her fields and now that spirit was demanding a pig in recompense. The person’s soul had been captured by an offended spirit who required a pig in ransom. The spirit of the hill had taken the sow, but would release it in return for a chicken. The next day people of the ailing person’s household would sacrifice a pig to the relevant spirit asking it to return the person to health. Then they would clean the pig, cook it, and offer it again as meat to the spirit. Meanwhile villagers would collect in the house in anticipation of the feast to come. Every person knew that sooner or later their own household would be offering the pig and feeding the village. It was from these feasts that Lisu gained their reputations as generous and substantial people, able to repay the feasts at which they had eaten. The number of pigs in the pen by the house was a visible sign of the prosperity of the household and its ability to sponsor feasts. Lisu were also involved in the money economy. That’s what their opium poppies were for. They sold the opium from the poppies to traders who then sold it on the international market. That provided each household with some cash income. Only rarely did Thai paper money circulate in this trade. Most exchanges involved Indo-China silver dollars or Indian rupees from the time before they were debased. Lisu used this silver as a way to store value, often putting it into neck rings or bracelets. As several recent writers such as Woody Tasch and Charles Eisenstein have suggested, our economy is composed largely of exchanges of money, something of no intrinsic value. The great fortunes are made in the world of finance, moving money from one place to another. This activity produces nothing. But some economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, distinguish between the finance economy and the substantive economy, the production of things. We can’t describe the economy of the Lisu or Shan that I lived with in financial terms. The circulation of money is only a very small part of the economy. But if we look at the production of things, we can describe the substantive economy in terms of where people put their labor and what they produced with it. Lisu used nearly half of the value of everything they produced in a year (46%) for their basic subsistence, mainly rice. Fully 14% of the total value they produced they used for sponsoring feasts while about twice that went for consumer goods such as clothing.The balance they used to hire nearby Karen villagers to help them harvest opium from the poppies. In the summer of 1976 I returned to the Shan area of Maehongson Province to study their economic system for a longer period. The rice Shan produced for consumption amounted to nearly 60% of the total value they produced (58%) and 3% was for offerings. While gifts play different roles in these two societies, reciprocity is an important dimension of both systems. That people literally ate most of what they produced suggests that there is little room for what we call growth in either economic system. Since I was there, though, both systems have been more or less dragged into the global economy and I’m not sure the results have been to their benefit. On the other hand both Tasch and Eisenstein suggest that growth is the problem for our economy, the cause of its unsustainability and eventual collapse. It’s that suggestion that causes us to think about alternatives and to look again at other societies to see how they manage with a greater emphasis on reciprocity than on individual gain with a greater emphasis on the substantive economy of production of value than on the financial economy of moving money around the planet. With all of the anthropologists who have written about such economies, there’s no need to philosophize or speculate. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________